The Future of Pots
I wrote this essay in the Fall of 2003, for the show "21st Century Ceramics in the United States and Canada". It appeared in the exhibition catalog and was excerpted in the December 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly.
Perhaps the greatest thing about “21st Century Ceramics” is that there is still abundant room for handmade utilitarian pots in it. I doubt that many observers could have predicted this a hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century. All the trends were heading in the opposite direction.
In 1903, most of the rural American potteries had yet to die out. But they would, and the signs were already there: concerns for safety and sanitation, a rising middle class with finer tastes, inklings of not only mass-produced pots, but mass tastes and aesthetics as well. From a historical perspective, handmade pots looked doomed.
How to have anticipated the successive waves of change that lead to where we are now? The influence of the Arts & Crafts movement, the revolutions by Voulkos, Arneson and others, the rise of a place for clay in academia and the subsequent pluralism of the last twenty years – none of these followed a predictable path. One could argue that, against that background, utilitarian pots never went away, just faded in and out of prominence; but to me the fact that they’re still here at all is something of a marvel.
When I first heard the title for this exhibition, I couldn't help but think of superconductors and nose cones, hi-tech insulators and robotic mass-casting operations – and this from a potter who uses a treadle wheel! What must the general public think when it comes to that confusing intersection of clay and the next hundred years? And why are those space-age thoughts still my instinctual reaction to the idea of the future?
No one on Star Trek ever drank from a handmade mug. Not that I was watching all that closely for it, but the inherent message was that the future held no room for such quaint artifacts as “crafts”. The only pots I saw in Star Wars were on the grubby, backwards desert planet of Tatooine where, presumably, Luke Skywalker’s family couldn't afford the latest in chrome and plastic tableware. And while it would be silly to expect or allow these film versions of the future to predict the current state of ceramic art, they and countless others certainly informed my childhood expectations. Little did I know, as I started down the path to being a potter, that those subconscious lessons had lingered into adulthood.
When I started making pots in 1990, I had a sense that I was getting in on the tail end of something; that the Millenium, or something like it, would signal an end to this quaintly archaic process of shaping clay by hand. As my interest evolved into commitment (and then to something of an obsession), I feared that a tipping point was coming that would make it all for naught – that this area of artistic inquiry had a lifespan, a shelf-life, and I’d arrived on the scene too late. This was a naive fear, to be sure, and fairly self-indulgent at that, but it held a grain of truth. For example, while traditional wet photography is certainly not dead, the astounding changes brought by the emergence of digital photography over the last few years demonstrate the effects that advancing technology can reap on traditional artistic processes. My fears were not that far misplaced.
But I gradually realized that there would be no Y2K for clay; that, if anything, the new century would be better for ceramic art than the last. I once asked Clary Illian about cycles and trends: her reply was that, for 30 years, each one had been better than the last. I believe that the more time we spend in front of computer monitors and TV screens – the more "virtual" life gets – the greater the interest in tangible, handmade, one of a kind objects will grow.
I find it hard to imagine the status of our field a hundred years ago, before the ceramists of the 20th century became the newest layer of foundation for us to build on. “Standing on the shoulders of giants,” indeed. I envision better pots, better sculpture, better kilns, better glazes, better customers, better galleries, better shows, better schools, better artists. But also more competition, more self-promotion, more technology, more blurring of intent, more highly evolved niches, more splitting of finer and finer hairs.
This future is where I will spend the bulk of my career as a potter. If I make a contribution, it is forthcoming in those hazy times. If my chosen strain of ceramics goes out of fashion, I’ll become retro. If pots should happen to move to the top of the clay family heap for a while, I’ll go along in tow. Whatever comes, it’s going to be mighty interesting.