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Writing

On Stonewalls & Stoneware

Added: Tue, May 26, 2009

By Jane Herold, The Valley Table, Number 41, June-July 2008.

I have a friend who loves the wilderness. Alaska is her favorite place. For Dorothy a stonewall spoils the landscape, it is a sign of man. I on the other hand love rural buildings and landscapes. I love the way New England barns nestle into the earth with their upper stories at ground level. A stonewall makes a field both more interesting and more beautiful to me. It helps me see the contours of the earth.

Many of you have probably heard of the sculpture of Andrew Goldsworthy. For those of you who haven’t, he is an artist who works with elements from the natural world, rocks, sticks, ice, snow, water to make sculptures in “natural” settings. Many of his works are ephemeral, and may last a few days, or even only an hour. He’s made a stonewall not too far from where I live, it serpentines through trees and then it crosses a wide, open field in a very straight line.

I thoroughly enjoy many of Andrew Goldsworthy’s ephemeral sculptures, which make no pretense of being anything but art. But what I want to talk about here is the integrity of work done in the SERVICE of something about why a ‘real’ stone wall, built to keep sheep in one field and out of another, is likely to be so much more beautiful than a Goldsworthy wall. Chances are that a real stonewall is built of rocks cleared from the field it borders. It is also probably built over a long period of time, by a farmer who expects it to serve throughout his or her lifetime, and probably through generations. Chances are it will follow the natural contour of the land. Most of all, it serves a purpose, outside and beyond the purposes of art. The same can be said for a beautifully proportioned barn, a timber framed dwelling, a useful pot or a beautifully mowed field. The beauty that happens when a plow swerves round a lone tree, that wave that ripples out to the edge of the field, or dissolves in it’s center, is usually more beautiful to me than most conscious works of art, where an individual attempts to make a meaningful mark.

People today, who can afford to, go to all kinds of trouble to get barn siding or old timbers to “warm up” their homes. Somehow these restorations still feel chilly to me, too contrived, too planned, and too perfect. A bit like the Goldsworthy stonewall. They haven’t been allowed to evolve naturally as a response to the materials, to swerve the way the plow swerves around that tree. The owners of these dwellings seldom do the actual labor, and frequently live in them for rather short amounts of time. They are almost never made with future generations in mind. It is a very grand and oddly perverse architectural equivalent of what I call “high end fast food,” typified by lattes drunk on the hoof out of styrofoam cups. As my marvelously opinionated teacher and potter friend Michael Cardew said, “You can not make love by proxy.” There is insincerity in these contrived “natural” works that for me, at least, lets off a bad smell.

Artisans today are under a great deal of pressure to do something “original” or “cutting edge.” I make my case today for doing something quiet and rather unremarkable. I suggest we prize “character” and qualities that are humane, in our useful objects, over tricks of concept, design and technique.

You can look at a stonewall and conclude that it was hastily piled together, or built with thoroughness and care. You can notice that the rocks are of a particular type or color, sharp-edged or rounded. You can notice that a hedge builder from another country and an older tradition must have been present; you can see his mark in a herringbone pattern along the top of the wall. If one were truly versed in the language of walls, you could probably identify specific masons from specific regions.

Virginia Wolfe said, “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than what is commonly thought small.” These traits, both human and material, that you can see if you stop long enough to look, are what give an object character and life. They are there in barns, in plowed and planted fields, in stacked woodpiles, in spun wool, in beautiful breads, well tended gardens, in stonewalls, and yes, in pots. When materials that have not been over processed and beaten into uniformity, are shaped by human hands, with adequate time, into objects of use, unless the character of the maker is seriously flawed, beauty is likely to emerge.

The words with which I evaluate pots are the same words I use to describe people. A pot can be generous or mean, relaxed or striving, comfortable, awkward, or any other human thing. It is the spirit of the maker, and of the materials, still visible in the fired clay, that gives each pot its character. Which is why no amount of “design,’ even if it is very good design, will ever be an adequate substitute for the direct works of the human hand.

I’d like to say a little about pottery’s special place in our lives. The fields and barns and walls may all be beautiful, but we see them all at a distance and in passing. And you may not be lucky enough to live near such beautiful, handmade structures at all. Pottery, and by pottery I mean useful dishes, made from clay that is itself still lively, plastic and of some natural color and glazed with materials that have not been refined into total uniformity, these kinds of pots can bring the warmth and beauty of a landscape right onto your kitchen table. It is a fairly rustic sort of beauty, but that is part of its vitality and power. And it is within arms reach! You can pick it up, feel it, hold it, test it’s weight. Pottery may well be the most intimate form of art, as we put a cup to our lips and kiss the fingers of the potter’s hand.

As potters it is our job to make pottery that enhances people’s lives. We are obliged to make pots that are as generous and warm as we can make them. Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Japanese Folk Craft movement, wrote way back in the 1930’s, “…until recently beauty in things was commonplace and it is our responsibility to demand that of the future.” Beauty in things comes about the same way a beautiful stonewall comes about, by using natural materials, and by respecting the dictates of service. Andrew Goldsworthy, speaking of the men he hires to build his walls, says “I bring wallers from England and Scotland whose idea of a wall is work.” I contend that the beauty you can find in his walls, and there is plenty, comes less from Goldsworthy’s conception than from these “wallers’” understanding of their materials and their job. Use makes artisans honest…a well-hewn beam makes a good floor joist, and a beautiful one, though no one may ever see it. A well made pot should quietly go about it’s business of serving and holding food, and of giving you a certain kind of pleasure, even if it is never elevated to a pedestal in a museum. It’s real job, and it’s real beauty, in addition to serving your tea, is to generate caring, to gently nudge you awake, to be an antidote and a balm, against all the deadening sensations we are daily exposed to.

Domestic pottery can sidle up to you the way a dog sits at your feet when you’re reading. You start petting his head without really thinking about it, and something good comes through. You find you feel a little warmer, a little softer or kinder, a little more in sympathy with the world. A good pot can reach past your intellect to your feeling self in the same way. It exerts a humanizing influence. It gives you its company. Like a familiar landscape it welcomes you home. It can even define “home.” Give me a cup of hot tea in my own familiar mug, and an airport bench can be transformed into an all right place to be.

If we as potters can make pots that warm people’s lives, and make them at prices that will both allow us to live and allow normal mortals to have and use and own our pots, we will be contributing something to the intimate landscapes within all of our homes. Something that will last through generations if we’re lucky, and at least through many years, and many cups of tea, shared with family and friends. When you consider purchasing pots, it’s reasonable to ask yourself not if the pot is original, or exciting, but if the pot is something you will always value, and use with pleasure, and that you would sorely miss, like an old friend, if it were gone. Michael Cardew said that if you don’t care what you eat from you probably don’t care what you eat, and if you don’t care what you eat, you probably don’t care who you are. We live in a world that offers all sorts of disposable, expendable and extraneous things. Let us expect beauty in things, and warmth and humanity from the dishes we eat from, day after day, year after year. It is not too much to ask.