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Arts & Crafts I

It should come as no surprise to my two readers that I’m interested in doing things with my hands.

I’ve had to work most of my life just to keep myself in food and shelter. The proportion of time spent on working versus time spent on my own projects—including writing—has been severely tilted towards work. I’ve had to break loose time to do anything else.

That has been changing. I’m reaching the point in life where the proportions are reversing and work is taking the lesser role.

This is good. If it weren’t that Death was waiting at the other end, it would be terrific. But you play the cards you’re dealt.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to make this transition work for me. It’s not enough for me to fritter away my time frivolously. For one thing, see above. For another, an endless vacation fills me with dread. While I’d like to travel, and fish, and enjoy a limited amount of idleness, too much of that would have me biting the walls.

So, I’ve been looking at various things that I might like doing. I like making things—pretty clear from the blog entries. But how about making fifty of them? By this, I mean it’s not enough to make a single thing—a whistle, a knife, a box. That’s fine. But for the investment to have meaning, it can’t be a one-off. If I do all the work to learn how to make a pretty box, it’s not enough to make one box. I want to make enough boxes to make it worthwhile. (There then comes the problem of what to do with fifty boxes. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.)

To figure this out, my wife and I have been taking different classes to see what’s out there. To see what sticks. I figure I’ll be filling these pages with the results as I proceed. Which brings me to today’s topic.

One class we took a couple of years ago was a pottery class: one night to make a cup and a bowl on a wheel. I liked it and that’s where it stayed.

Then, I found a class here in town for ten weeks. That’s long enough to decide how I feel about it.

The picture above is all of the work I did over that class, from the black bowl and glass on the left all the way to Big Boy and the quiche dish on the right. None of them are great. I did not have that expectation.

When I’ve been on writing panels and been asked about learning that craft, I’ve said it takes a hundred or two hundred thousand words to burn down to the essentials. It’s not enough to be able to write one good book. One good book is a fluke. One book isn’t enough to understand what the craft of writing entails.

So it is, I think, with anything. One class, one bowl, one cup, does not expertise make. It takes repetition. It takes time to be able to reproduce success.

To digress a moment, there might be people out there with such an intrinsic understanding of the intricacies of narrative that their first book is a masterpiece. But I don’t think there are that many. We have a tendency here in America to be enchanted by the new: the debut novel of writer XYZ is a masterpiece. Painter/fashion artist/sculptor breaks the mold and does something no one else has ever done. Changes the field forever.

Sure. That happens. I think the people who really change a field are discovered after that change has occurred, not at the time they’re causing it. Those people keep changing the field generation after generation as there is so much in them to discover. Too many times, we hear about someone changing the field only to find, later, that they didn’t change anything at all.

Regardless, what did surprise me with the pottery class was the low barrier of entry to producing something functional.

Look at those pots. They’re ugly. They don’t look similar. The tops wobble. They’re too heavy. But they all hold water. They can be cooked in. We made a quiche the other day on the quiche dish. We can drink water and wine from the glasses. They work.

Contrast this with a painting, a novel, or a piece of blown glass. The effort to make something at all usable is quite large. A failure doesn’t work. Not so here.

Let me be clear. I am not saying pottery is easy art. It is most definitely not. To make a beautiful pot takes the same years of learning, practice, and failure as any other craft. It takes an understanding of materials, chemistry, physics, of a substance in multiple states: room temperature and kiln temperatures. Flame driven kilns cause one set of reactions. Non-combustive kilns cause different reactions. Adding substances to the flame changes the reactions in both.

My pots are not beautiful but they hold water. This ease of functionality surprised me. It’s like discovering a recognizable face in finger painting. Or emotive art in a stick figure.

My wife and I took a glass blowing class. The effort to reach functionality was much, much harder. It took a lot of help from the instructor. The resulting bowls we had were more a tribute to the skill of the teacher than any talent on our part. If I were to pursue glass blowing, I would expect to spend a year or more before I could reliably make a glass or a bowl that could be used by someone.

Not so with pottery. To be certain, the environment was set up to be fairly easy. Kiln work was done by the staff. We had a collection of glazes to work with. Instruction was terrific—step by step by step. But I still think the ease of basic functionality—the functionality that caused it to be pursued thousands of years ago—is enormous. Andy Ward (See here.) has an entire youtube channel that takes people step by step how to find clay, mold it, fire it, paint it, and use it, all at home. He is an artist—his work is just flat out beautiful. That is beyond me but not my point.

Pottery is an ancient art. It may go back as far as 16,000 years ago. (See here.) It requires clay, fire, and hands. I suspect as soon as people figured out how to make usable vessels, there was a will to perfection, i.e., an attempt to go beyond the mere functional to make something aesthetically pleasing. But the very utilitarian nature of ceramics gave people time to perfect it. The utilitarian objects had use. That meant that exceeding the utilitarian could build on something functional.

The pots in the picture run left to right in time. The glass and bowl on the left were the first I made. The two blue glasses were an attempt to make a small wine glass and shot glass. The next four glasses were meant to be the same size—you see how that went. Big Boy, the one with legs, was something I tried when I saw a documentary on pots of the Mayans and Aztecs. The quiche dish is, well, a quiche dish. I like quiche dishes. So, sue me. The grayness of the latter pots resulted from a misunderstanding about glazes.

I did learn a lot. The black bowl can serve two functions. It can hold water or be used as a homicidal instrument. It is heavy. We use it now to soak seeds for planting in the garden. It’s so bottom heavy it doesn’t get tipped over in the dirt. I got better.

But can I make fifty of any one of these?

I don’t know. But I’m intrigued enough to find out. I’m finding myself watching youtube videos of people making pots. Not the fancy kind but just bowls, vases, cups. I’ve been reading about glazes and underglazes. Different kinds of clay.

I’m going to try this again in the fall.


1 thought on “Arts & Crafts I”

  1. Y’know, your pottery output is not terrible for a beginner; I think it’s better than you think it is. The two right-most pieces–the quiche dish and the footed bowl–are pretty nice. Also, you have a good eye for glazing colors. And there’s something deeply satisfying (to me) about physically working to shape stuff; I tend to do it with dough and foodstuffs, but clay works too. Keep it up.

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