“ The quiet art of making things in clay”

As a teacher of ceramics in India in a crafts institute I was given a curriculum to follow and teach. Today courses and assignments have a set tone with sometimes predictable outcomes and very often open ended as well.

After looking at numerous books and the structure of the courses taught in India . I looked within my self to ask how did I know what I did in this field, Rather how do I simplify the accumulated information I had to a young person in India.

The idea was not to teach techniques or talk about influences but rather to share the bond and love I have for ceramics.

I eventually broke it down into very simple headings, which are discussed below:

“ Movement, Touch, Feeling , Repetition and Accident “

underfired, porcelain made with many slabs
underfired, porcelain made with many slabs

Clay as a material inspires artistic creation and all cultures have relied on it for imaginative and functional roles. Fired clay objects are resistant to decay, they provide us with information about ancient civilisations.

As a maker of ceramic objects if we are to examine these antiquated artifacts we are not merely trying to understand the lifestyle of that period, but also the secrets of the maker, his or her creative ability and so on.

When one enrolls to study ceramics, there will be many ways through which we can learn this deceptively simple material, there are endless techniques, so many many types of clays, so many approaches different kilns and firing cycles. It’s actually quite difficult to understand it all. Its for this reason that every ceramic artist, unit, factory is a master in only a single area with their preferred glaze, form and technique.

I would like to discuss some ideas here, which are vital to a maker of ceramic objects and are not to do with either technique or imagination.

Movement

Our universe is in constant motion, its visible in the night sky as the stars and moon change positions, it’s in the repeating wave of an ocean and also the blink of an eye.

All creative expression contains this energy ,movement and enthusiasm and manifests it self through specific ways.

If we take artistic examples which use the hand , like the energetic brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work or The steady kolam patterns done on the floor every morning in southern India we can understand somewhat the mind of the maker:

In the language of clay, we take coiling, slabbing, throwing, pinching all the techniques used in shaping things in clay, we see all of them are about specific movements which arise directly from the makers hands.

Coiling requires gentle rolling of the palm on to clay, Coiling relatively a slower process will give a possibility with each coil , While in throwing we need to catch the limitless possibilities in a single rotation of the wheel.

As we look at all the ceramic objects around us old and new, we can attempt to gauge the entire experience of the kind of movement or enthusiasm, which the object carries within.

Touch

Clay is pleasant to touch and work with so the sense of touch and feel become of utmost importance. The sensations involved during the act of creation are those of thrust, pressure, temperature and other tactile sensations The understanding and rapport with the medium is first revealed to the maker through touch.

It’s through touch we can find out the various stages of an object, wet, leather hard and bone dry. Each stage is particular and offers ideas specific to the stage. As we work more and more and gain experience we know what action entails at each stage.

Feeling

All creations are born out of a feeling as well.

One day follows another and the feelings shrouding them range from boredom to excitement. Feelings reflect in every mood and action, if one does something with sloppiness it will be that, if you are naturally clumsy but still attempting noble ideas the work would be clumsily beautiful.

If you wedge your clay umpteen number of times, you pass on your feelings making the clay resonate with vibrations that are yours.

In clay we express ourselves silently, its this quiet feeling inside you that lends itself to working hands.

Its also the reason why today when machine made goods offering a certain kind of perfection still lose out on those goods made by a skilled hand with plenty of feeling.

Repetition

The biggest contribution of the factory is its mass production. This is like a service to humanity for it delivers in no time the enormous range of articles our population requires.

It offers security by its consistent repetition and to the number of people it manages to reach at the same time. The crafts sector in India which is so marginalized today thanks to cheaply made industrial goods once thrives by virtue of its context, mass production and the utilitarian value.

Now in a crafts scenario production is handled by an individual or at the most a couple of individuals who repeat the same shape or vessel day after day and generation after generation.

From West Bengal India
Mansa Jhaad ,West Bengal India

The repetition in work led to the product reach a level which was functionally and formally sound.

Repetition means to come again, it happens again and again in this case with the permission of the person who makes it.

Why would we want a thing to repeat itself ? In everyday context we repeat things which give us happiness .

When a craftsperson would repeat any vessel over and over again , he is making many copies of it, thus making it common and everyday but with repetition by hand is dependent on movements and the fleeting feelings in those moments.

So even though there might be thousands of diyas and khullar and matkas they are actually all different because each time the maker creates the next piece , the wind might have changed, the lip could be more curvilinear than the one previous to it.

Making each and every vessel unique .

But what happens when repetition is monotonous. This too can easily happen when the creator and his creations are out of their context. They are only making things again and again because of blind security in old ideas and an unwillingness to explore new ideas.

Sometimes repetition is like an unwanted past which is just piling up to the present.

How does repeat work fall into the scheme of ceramics ?

Its vital specially to beginners because is’nt it only after endless practice and reworking same forms do we begin to get better at what we do?

But what about the curious fact in ceramics that no matter how much we repeat we often still get into accidents?

Accident

Things fold around us sometimes without any foreboding or warning, it can be good or bad, accidents are an inherent part of life for a ceramicist.

All potters will talk about cracks, warping, unwanted glaze effects, crawling , blistering , pin holing the list goes on and on. Most of us will immediately discard something if the outcome is not as desired but what if we start using these mistakes?

In the process of creation blunders get weeded out, if it’s a truth or an attribute surfacing unexpectedly sometimes its gladly adopted or left to evolve itself.

Accident can also be looked at as a chance or a type of opportunity breaking the rut which repetition sets in for us.

One famous ceramic story about the discovery of reduction copper reds tells us about a firing gone wrong , too much smoke and reducing elements, which made the results disastrous except for a single pot which inspite of the accident turned a beautiful blood red , never seen before in a glaze.

So the happy accident has a huge role to play in the history of the medium.

Seasoned ceramic artists who have gone through the rigour of countless firings and numerous results are the ones who have developed an attitude of nonchalance towards aberrations. They are the ones who are able to use results of varying nature to their advantage.

So if you are embarking on a life with ceramics, no matter what you make the framework of movement , repetition , feelings and specially accidents will always be the core of what you make.

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