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Pots for Living

Added: Fri, Nov 10, 2006

By Jane Herold, Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 40, 2000, p. 99-100.

I wish I could say that I researched thoroughly before I decided to build my kiln (a round, down draught beehive with four Bourry boxes). However, the truth is, it was more like marrying the boy next door. It was what I was familiar with, it had worked for me while an apprentice to Michael Cardew at Wenford Bridge, and it produced the kind of pots I wanted to make. I guess that is the essence of traditional thinking, not searching too far and wide for all the options, but using what you are familiar with. When I first set up on my own I used an anagama kiln for the first year or two. It was what I had access to while I saved money to build my own. It did push me to make bigger and bigger pots, and to use less and less glaze. It was good for me to make these big pots, they gave me some recognition, which we all need, but they were not what really interested me, or what I really cared about.

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I lead a domestic life, I care about food. I grew up in a family almost obsessed with eating and dishes. We had about 12 different plate patterns in the house, each considered suitable for some foods, and not others. We had lentil soup plates, spaghetti plates, lustre plates used only for desserts, and so on. My mother took pictures of the set table on holidays before anyone sat down because the table and food were, for her, a work of art. My aesthetic answers are different from my mother's but the notion that food and feeding people are important endures. The great thing about going to work with Michael Cardew was that he didn't find this at all odd, or think I was crazy or fussy, because I cared what I ate from. He thought it normal and healthy, and quite reasonable to travel with your own mug.

I have continued to make pots to eat from. I am looking for a kind of beauty that isn't out to startle anyone or demand contemplation. Beauty that enters people's awareness almost by stealth, that over time and repeated exposure makes the daily texture of life rich and good. I judge pots more physically than visually, they need to be sturdy, comfortable to touch, relaxed in use. They should survive in the sink, in a house full of children. I would hate to think that I was making anyone nervous by owning and using my pots. And I certainly don't want to be challenged by dishes or anything else before breakfast.

Simple utility and a knowledge and respect for materials can lead to astonishing things. Beauty happens because of proportion, energy, generosity, directness. I want nothing forced, affected or self-conscious. I love to comb through slip, but try to respect the form, not violate it. A plate should do for food what a good picture frame does for a painting, enhance it, not compete with it. The food is still the main point. You can't eat the plate. So I judge a plate by how close to the top of the stack it stays on the shelf, a mug by whether I will wash it before I'll take another one to use.

I am not as focused a person as I might like to be. I am capable of forgetting a gas kiln. You know, you are at the grocery store, when you think, "Oh my God - the kiln!" Woodfiring and mixing my own clay keeps me feeling that the clay is valuable. I find I treat the clay better, care about it more, if I make it. I like what happens in the circle of light around a kiln: people need to get together around fire from time to time. But mostly wood firing keeps me engaged in a way a gas kiln never has. Which is how my best pots happen.

Pots succeed for me if they are missed when they are gone - if you have to keep washing them because no other will do. When someone who has bought a mug or a bowl comes back six months later and says they need all new dishes, then I have succeeded in awakening a sensibility in that person. They work when you serve hotdogs and sauerkraut to unexpected visitors and the table looks so good because of the dishes that they sincerely protest you shouldn't have gone to so much trouble. The best of all is when guests demand to do the dishes because it is a sensual experience, and that really happens.

Small daily moments of beauty are the ones that matter the most to me, like a surprising view or a sunset – or a good mug. They enter people's lives when they're half-awake, half-dressed, and most open. So I try to make pots to fill those moments. Michael Cardew said it better than I can: "The beauty of a pot ought to be a natural consequence of its usefulness just as a man's happiness ought to be a natural consequence of his work."

Jane Herold makes pots in Palisades, NY, USA.

Pots for Living, by Jane Herold, Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 40, 2000, p. 99-100.