Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wood-fired potter's vortex

I'm spending way more time as a lumber jack these days than a potter. My obsession with raw materials and wood has led me to summon mass quantities of trees and clay from the universe. Now it's up to me to do something with it. Be careful what you ask for...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

ideas and stories of tradition: are they worth it and how do we escape them?

In my college clay program we were given a lot of anecdotes and lessons about Asian ceramic traditions.  Some of them, perhaps a lot of them, bordered on legend: the origin of copper red glazes, the strictness of Japanese apprenticeships, clay being dug in pottery villages for use two generations in the future, etc.  These stories loomed large in my psyche and not only set the bar for performance and discipline very high, but also served to discredit a lot of my successes.  I felt as though my own innovations, concepts, and ultimately my pots didn't live up to the myths of the master potter gods that existed centuries ago in an austere heaven of tatami mat tea rooms and austere transcendence.  Now once again, a decade later, I'm grappling with ideas of tradition, acceptance, and artistic validation.

These stories are not true and do not represent true tradition, but they are persistent and have lasting effects that are possibly more damaging than inspiring.  I think they are like religious myths that lead whole populations to fail to recognize their own spiritual capabilities and to imagine that spiritual drama is something that happens in far off places thousands of years in the past.  To mythologize may be chalked up to be a tendency of human nature, but I believe that the quicker we can rid ourselves of these illusions about our past the sooner we may lift ourselves out of creative and spiritual stagnation.  

Besides the far off myths of Asian tradition that were passed down through the academic setting in college,  I come from a town with a rich but somewhat forgotten ceramic history.  My great-great grandfather was, in fact, a jug-maker here on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in the late 1800's.  The beaches north of Fairhope and the local museums are full of old pots, kiln sites, and shards of a time not so long ago when a potter had a place in the community that did not have to be imagined or justified by an artist's will.  Today, a potters role in the community is not so clear cut.  We can buy cheap tableware, storage containers, and even decorative ceramics almost everywhere, so what does that leave for the potter to provide? For me,  the biggest thing a potter provides isn't the pots at all.  The biggest thing a potter can provide is a way to get back in touch with one's connection to the earth and to a working community.  This is done for me through long wood-firings at my kiln.  From my perspective, the work done through the firing process is the validation for the final products, which can be seen as wasteful ornaments in many ways.  However, the pot is persistent, stays around for a few million years, and definitely commands our attention and shapes our perception of tradition. 

I'll probably be sorting all this stuff out for the rest of my life.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

life with an anagama is hard to figure out

 I'm in my mid-thirties.  I had the dream of building an anagama kiln, and after a decade of ups and downs, I have now constructed and fired the beast four times.  I have a couple of shows on the horizon, I've received a lot of community support locally and abroad,  and yet, I am barely making any money from the enterprise.  At the outset of the project and throughout my education as a ceramic artist in college there was never any talk of making a living outside of academia (or even making a living in general). In the world of my small liberal arts school and supportive and intellectual parents, knowledge and education were supreme and I undertook this kiln project to do things that had little to do with the making of the dollar.  I intended to reconnect people with nature through primitive technology, I wanted my work to be used in the homes and lives of people in my community, and I wanted to feel the fulfillment of participating in a tangible and powerful natural  process.  I have accomplished these things and they have incredible value.  But I now find myself needing to adapt to make this enterprise a sustainable economic reality.  I ask very often, "What did I get myself into?"  I see the value in the whole process, I have my mind in every molecule inside my kiln and in each piece of split wood, but at the end of the day I'm left with bunch of brown pots to sell.

How do people make a living and maintain the kind of high standards of integrity that inspire one to undertake being a wood-fire clay worker in the first place?  One immediate answer is: They don't.  There is almost no one that I know that makes a living exclusively from making wood-fired ceramic work without some serious outside support or other income.  I'm sure there are plenty of people that are making wood-fire work and have done it with out the kinds of support that I have had and many others have as well.  One only has to go to a large ceramic conference to see that the majority of academically trained ceramic artists do not have easy opportunities to set up studios, make work, and make a living.  Most ceramic artists, and especially young ceramic artists, are nomadic and shuffle around from residency, to craft school, to post-grad program.  They are all hustling around the world to find facilities to support their work.  Truly, wood-fire pottery (or pottery in general) isn't a money making endeavor and one normally gets into it for reasons other than making a living.  So how does one go on to pay the bills and support a family doing this labor of love?

Lots of ideas come to mind on how to make a living as a ceramic artist, and perhaps I'm really just on a rant of self-doubt, fearful of the future, and ashamed of my naivety in the past.  I'm not sure if I'd be happier doing anything else either.  Maybe I'm just baffled and caught off guard too late in life on the realities of what is valued in our society.  Even among ceramic artists, I hear people claim not to like wood-fire ceramics on aesthetic merit, and my inner zealot becomes enraged at their lack of ideals.  I became involved with wood-fired kilns because wood-firing is the antithesis of the modern technological disconnect in our culture of manufacturing and consuming. Wood-firing is a powerful technological reconnect that quickly changes one's perspective on how humankind has gained ground in this world.  The aesthetic merit of wood-fired is miles more than skin deep.  It's beautiful because it has radical integrity and tells the story of that integrity for those with the slightest inquiry into its process.


I am really baffled by how little people know about the ceramic process.  As modern Americans, many of us know so very little about how things in our life have come to be, and we don't seem to know what to do with the information once we are presented with it either.  Most people are impressed with the wood-fire process once it is explained or especially if they witness or participate in it.  But I often wonder if they see the anagama process in the context of their own lives as consumers and within the context of the marketing of skin deep beauty.