The Potter’s Challenge by Bernard Leach

The Potter's Challenge by Bernard Leach Title Page

The Potter’s Challenge by Bernard Leach Title Page

Just started an awesome book called, The Potter’s Challenge by Bernard Leach published back in 1975.  Only up to page 30 and already completely inspired and fully believe I am on the right path.  What he is saying rings so true for me.  This is the tradition I am drawn to and moved by when it comes to making pots and why and how to make them.

Last night at the SF main library I wanted to bring home a stack of 20 pottery books but had to reduce the pile.  In so doing I would grab a book and flip the pages rapidly while scanning for something magical, a photo of a great pot.  No names could be seen so my mind was free to judge the pot for itself without any association to a maker or the maker’s reputation.  I had no criteria I was looking for, no color in mind or particular shape or type.

What kept happening was amazing and affirming to me.  I flipped through one book that had hundreds of pages of pots that did nothing for me until wow… what was that?  I looked at the pot’s form and surface and color and it touched me deeply as good, true, honest, real, full of life, well made, timeless all in that split second glance.  I found and read the small caption and it said Bernard Leach, Globular Pot, 1927.

With the next book the same thing happened, quickly flipping until something grabbed my attention, but this time it was a plate, Michael Cardew, Bird Dish, 1932.  He was a student of Bernard Leach.  I loved his book The Pioneer Potter.  More on that some other time but I also like pots made by his students like Svend Bayer  and  Mark Hewitt.

The next was a tall bottle with gorgeous colors.  Turns out it was made by Shoji Hamada, bottle, 1929.  Again I saw the pot first and the name later.  A few pages over and I saw another amazing pot, a bowl, 1923, same maker.

Then this beautiful green flash went by as the speeding pages closed too fast.  Wait! back up, what was that?  It’s faceted, it’s stoneware, looks like Celedon. It’s a bowl by Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, 1936.  Also a student of Bernard Leach.

In another book full of not much I flipped until one pot grabbed me. I let out a gasp as if I had found treasure.  I knew right away who made this.  It had to be Warren MacKenzie.  I had seen a YouTube video of Warren MacKenzie throwing a bowl like it but could not have imagined how gorgeous and quiet it could have become after firing. It was a wide footed drop lip bowl with Shino glaze with iron brush work.  He was a student of Bernard Leach.

After flipping through 15 books about pottery without exception, all of the pots I was drawn to were made by potters cut from the same cloth so to speak.  All in the same overall tradition, all different and yet all good form, great surfaces and colors and all with something that touched me in some way.  All pointing back directly to Bernard Leach and his students, as well as Shoji Hamada, and maybe even the meeting of east and west.  These are the kind of teachers I want to learn from and these are the kinds of pots I want to make.

I am very much drawn to wood fired pots as well.  Salt, soda, ash, shino, shells, and the stories told on the pots by the effects of flame are areas I want to explore under the guidance of a master potter.  I love that wood fired pots look different from every angle and each side has it’s own personality and reveal themselves slowly.

To study or apprentice with a master potter who makes pots from their heart in this way, would be a dream come true and a once in a lifetime opportunity.  For now I will learn by practice and repetition.  I trust that my experience flipping through the pages of these books skipping the pots that left me cold and landing on the ones that moved me,  confirmed that I know what I like and what moves me and what does not.  The instinct for what makes a pot good is in me already.  I know it by feel and intuition not by study or by book.  I know it in my heart.  So now from my heart to my hands and into the clay I aim to make quiet powerful pots full of life.

ok. now back to my book to see what else Mr. Bernard Leach has to say.

Please comment if you have something to add to the conversation.

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Emerging Artist

drying clay in the winter sun

drying out clay in the winter sunshine

Emerging artist.  emerging artist?  emergency artist?  emerging from what? from where? What is an emerging artist?  I guess it means becoming known on the scene.  I like this idea of always beginning.  Each pot is a new beginning, each session of kneading is a new beginning, and each washing up.

A beginner is always searching and learning something new by doing it.  Theory can get your mind going but really, doing it is where the learning begins.  There are so many forms I want to make.  It is endless.  I want to make and sell pots that people can buy and use.  I’m more attracted to green than blue, more to red and brown than purple, orange and black to me are better than pastel anything.  I like creamy milky satiny white and yellows.  I like transparent jade greens and deep translucent emeralds more than muted olive green.  I like browns.  I like reds that are warm and irony more than reds with blue.  I want to make pots that look as if they just took a breath of fresh life, and glaze them in such a way that maintains fluidity like water.

Ok so I am emerging.  I am emerging from an old tired career that was suppose to be a means to an end and somehow has become what I do and have done for far too long.  When you do something for so long it gets routine and boring.  It is not the beginner’s experience.  I want very much to start fresh like a spring flower and bloom in the sunshine of newness and learning.  An experience of trying something new every day is invigorating and challenging, encouraging me to resist judgment and frustration with a gentle intention of freedom, forgiveness and fun.  If it is not fun why do it.  Warren Mackenzie says that making pots ought to be fun.  I’m with him.  I want to have fun and enjoy what I do.  It will not be easy and it will be a long road.  The road is long anyway so making pots has just as much of a chance for me than anything else.  More of a chance because I love doing it.  I’ve been there and done that, and there and that don’t appeal to me anymore.  I want here and this instead.  ooh I like!  Been there done that, now I want to be here and do this.

I made a little piece of music the other night on my computer and found myself enjoying the first 20 minutes and then it became something else.  Something I did not enjoy, something that was trying to be something it was not.  It became a searching and sifting through process instead of a creating one.  My process of songwriting used to be free and flowing until I involved a computer and production.  Even when it sounds cool or hip or funky etc. it sounds like everything else.  When I used to just sing to write the song, it was more real and unique and more human and less machine.  I think making pots needs to be this way as well, fast and free.  To spend too much time on a single pot can take all the life out of it.  I want to always improve my throwing skills so I can let it all go and just make pots, like an actor rehearses lines, memorizes blocking, studies the scene and then lets it all go for the performance trusting that the work has been done.  It is like that with making pots.  Learn technique first and then let it go to be free and trust that the time spent on the basics will always be there for me to tap into.

This winter sunshine is a gift. It’s helping to dry out my clay chunks so I can slake them down.  It’s keeping my glazes from freezing and feels good on my face.  I’m filled with gratitude for everything that has led me to this moment.  All the ups and downs are part of the journey and this moment is where I want to be doing this.

Be here do this.