The Solitary Creator

Bernard Leach
Bernard Leach pictured in a corner of his studio. If only the life of a studio potter was really this relaxed!

There is great difficulty in balancing the process of creating art and running a studio. Even before I’ve made a single pot, the demands of planning, setting up the workplace, and managing finances take its toll on the imagination. I’m conscious that working alone has the effect of separating the creative flow from the whole process of making pottery, forcing one to focus on the mundane aspects of business. Of course, I know that you can’t have your cake and eat it; if only it was possible to have complete freedom to make whatever you want and not bother with the practical aspects of managerial control and direction. Perhaps it’s only the very rich and the unemployed who are able to do this!

Trying to balance aspects of the Eastern artistic philosophy and that of the West is incredibly difficult. The asceticism, austerity and spirituality to which I aspire is almost impossible within Western society. Short of finding a cave and living in it as a hermit there is no way of filtering out every tendril of western influence. The only way to proceed is to accept it and make the most of it, using whatever aspect of modern culture you can to help you, while trying to keep the simplicity, economy of style, and of course the spirituality, within one’s art.

Bernard Leach once stated that modern society has ‘increased the tempo of industrial slavery’, and although one may argue that is no longer the case in the twenty-first century, we are still shackled in many senses to the treadmill of institutional monotony, even in within the ‘freedom’ of our smartphone, internet-driven, selfie-obsessed modern world. My hope is that, as a craftsman, I am not ‘obliged to live parasitically or precariously because I have no recognised function’. §

§ See A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach (Faber and Faber 1940, 2011)

Wabi-Sabi

Jim Malone tea bowl
A tea bowl by Jim Malone. I admire the simple, contemplative nature of his work.

As a potter and painter you can’t help but evaluate the work of other artists. It’s second nature that when you see a pot, sculpture or painting, particularly by someone you admire, the mind begins to scrutinise the way in which the article has been made or decorated. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Mentally running through the process of how you would have made it, how you could incorporate such a technique into your own work, and just appreciating the beauty of the thing is always beneficial. What I am trying not to do is automatically dismiss work that I think is poor or don’t like. There should be some reason for my opinion and getting to the bottom of that – in the same way as evaluating stuff that I do like – is as much a part of improving my work as assimilating influences of artists I admire.

I was shopping yesterday and saw some drinking mugs which I quite liked. They were unusual in that they were a little different from the kind of stuff you see in there – Mister Men mugs and floral stuff in pastel glazes. These had been half-dipped with a reactive glaze, something like a chun, on the outside, the lower half covered with a darker matt glaze. The inside was completely covered with the reactive glaze. They were nicely done but I felt the attractive chun effect would be lost when tea or coffee was poured into them. How would I have done them differently? Would I have used the same colours? What glazes would I have used on the inside instead? My partner, Amanda, also pointed out also that the handles were too big for a woman’s fingers. They were too masculine and needed something a little less chunky and more elegant. However, I wasn’t too bothered about criticising and dismissing a factory made pot; no art had gone into the making of this machine-made item and I wasn’t hurting anyone’s feelings by condemning it.

In the run-up to the opening of the studio I’ve been immersing myself in the work of potters that I particularly admire: Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Jim Malone, Sandy Brown et al. Trying to distill what it is I like about all of these artists is difficult. Why do I like these and not others? With most of the aforementioned potters it is their simplicity that attracts and their own embracing of imperfections. The Japanese call this wabi-sabi, which comes from the Bhuddist principle of aesthetics, an appreciation of austerity, modesty, economy and one might even say roughness. The rustic simplicity, freshness and quietness of such work is, for me, something to be aspired to. The anomalies and individualities that occur in the throwing and glazing processes are part and parcel of the beauty and serenity of pottery. One might say even a spirituality; there is definitely something transcendent about the act of throwing a pot that one might describe as approaching that state of mind. This is not to say that wabi-sabi is about being happy with whatever comes off the wheel. I’m not suggesting we accept work that is fundamentally flawed, but in striving towards perfection we should accept the individualties of our creations. This attitude is one of the principles underlying the Japanese concept of mingei or folk art.

Shoji Hamada pot
A pot by Shoji Hamada encapsulating everything that is wabi-sabi.

Shoji Hamada was famously quoted as saying that ‘making pottery should not be like climbing a mountain, it should be more like walking down a hill in a pleasant breeze’. Anyone who has lost themselves in the act of throwing will know what I mean. The stillness and contemplation of the creation of pottery is much like the enjoyment Hamada alludes to.