Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lessons from a potter's wheel

At a meeting today a potter made a vase and talked through some lessons. He was Dale Forton from Hallmark and had a number of profound points to make:
  • He works with clay which can either be soft and pliable, or hard and unmoving
  • The clay can only be worked when it's surrendered to the potter's skill
  • Clay is a messy thing to work with!
  • Clay can be broken; but at various stages it can also be restored
  • It's either 'soft', 'leather hard' where it holds its shape but can still be worked, or 'hard' when its transformation is complete
  • At some point the clay has to stand firm and be what it's designed to be, serving its purpose at the right time

In making a new project

  • The potter starts with a vision, a plan and a sketch deciding and documenting what the function of the pot will be. The designer has this vision and plan from the beginning
  • 'Wedging' clay is like kneading bread to get out all the imperfections such as air bubbles that might cause the pot to crack in the kiln later. It's an essential, if boring and unexciting, first step
  • Next the lump of clay is centered on the wheel, a process that takes skill and time and without which nothing else can go right
  • The potter then presses thumbs into the center of the clay. If the clay could feel this might be uncomfortable, even painful, but is the start of the transformation into purpose
  • He establishes the bottom of the pot, a firm foundation caused by pressing firmly so as not to crack the piece in the kiln
  • All the time, the master potter is thinking one step ahead, building on each step to reach the next
  • As he pulls the walls of the pot up from the clay base he at last begins to see something of the fulfilment of his plan
  • He employs a lot of tools, whether to shape or to trim, each one employed at the right time to accomplish his purpose. Trimming takes away the excess that's not needed, everything that would take away from the vision
  • 'Handwork' is the name the potter gives to finishing touches, whether a handle or decoration, that is applied when the piece is off the wheel. It's a labor of love that can take very many hours for a complex piece
  • Each stage serves the purpose necessary, we can't skip steps or the full transformation cannot reliably take place
  • The clay cannot change itself: it has to submit to the potter's hand which is in constant contact with it, sometimes with a soft touch, other times with firm pressure
  • The final step before the piece is fired in the heat of the kiln is for the potter to inscribe his name in the piece, taking responsibility or ownership, an acknowledgement that, in the potter's eyes at least, this piece is not only fit for purpose but perfect!