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)

Pottery Design

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A page from one of my own pottery sketchbooks

 

In chess there’s a saying ‘a bad plan is better than no plan at all’. This is true of pottery too. On working days I don’t expect to sit down at the wheel and expect to produce satisfactory work without some kind of an idea of what I’m aiming at. Even a vague thought like ‘I’m going to throw some bowls’ isn’t enough – I need to have drawings and a visual idea of what I’m trying to produce. This is particularly true when working on surface treatment – patterns, decoration and so on. Work that has been done with an attitude of nonchalance is rarely successful and I would urge anyone who makes pots, or is thinking about it, to make drawings of what they are attempting.

potterypage1
Another page from a sketch book with designs for a mug

 

Even if you don’t think you’re much good with a pencil, it doesn’t matter. No one will see your efforts unless you choose to show them. The point is that any plans or sketches you make are for your reference only. Having a visual cue sharpens the imagination, making it easier to realise what you intend, but these should be working drawings in the strictest sense – a means to an end, not works of art in themselves.

Working to a plan when glazing and decorating is particularly important. Picking up a loaded brush ready to paint a pot but having no idea of the design you intend to put on it is usually a waste of time; by having a design already on paper you at least save that precious commodity. I would encourage anyone, whether you make pots or not, to sketch. Even if you dismiss your efforts as meaningless on unworthy at the time, in months or years in the future you might think differently and the doodles you did can provide you with a wealth of ideas. Motifs derived from sketches of plants, trees, leaves, foliage, bricks, stonework, clouds, water, rocks and animals are limited only by one’s imagination.