Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Potter's Task

fresh turnings on my studio floor

It is a perennial problem for artists of all descriptions that not enough people buy original , handmade work. I've heard many, many discussions about this over the years . Potters take a range of views from "The public just don't "get" handmade pots and that is why I'm not selling more. " which could be best described as sour grapes, through to "Maybe ceramics are just not fashionable enough for people to buy and the industry is dead." Neither of these opinions encompasses the complexity of the world we live in and how artists fit into our communities.

Design blogs and magazines are aspirational, most people do not live in tidy houses where gleaming objects lie in tasteful arrangements on vintage Swedish sideboards. The relationship of humans to objects is complex and encompasses personal history, emotions, memory, habits, practical needs, evolving relationships as well as aesthetics. It is rare to find a home where all the objects are chosen to match each other for purely aesthetic reasons. The contemporary ceramicists greatest challenge is to find a place within a life, to become an integral part of the complexity and rich texture of a home. This involves building relationships. Not just personal relationships with those who want to buy and collect your work but also making work that hooks into a person's sub-conscious. Intelligent intriguing objects that the collector longs to see, objects that comfort and provoke emotion.
decorating a " Mapping" bowl

The fact is that being a potter is a low-paid profession, you don't hear many people in other traditionally low paid professions expressing surprise at the fact that they will never become wealthy while working as a waitress or a gardener. Some potters earn a decent amount of money but the pay-off for being a potter is not financial. I am as vulnerable as anyone to discontented envy when perusing design magazines and seeing all kinds of work BUT NO HANDMADE POTS featured in their glossy pages, but my job is to make objects and connect with friends and strangers through these things. The connection is a haptic language* quiet and almost unheard in the babble of fashion and mass-produced objects that fill the world. Starting from my local community and working in wider and wider ripples through friends of friends, strangers on the Internet, talking about my work and showing it to people who might never see it, and making, and making and making. The tiring, inspiring never-ending push and pull of responding and eliciting response with words and pots is the potter's task. If work is not selling then you haven't either found the people who are able to hear you or, through arrogance and fear you and your pots are not even in the conversation.

Judith Rofe, a great supporter and communicator in the world of ceramics recently made the point that:
"People looking for an aesthetically pleasing object for their sideboard - one that they will purchase from the heart and possibly pay more for than they meant to - may not have the opportunity to see Australian pottery in the places they go to. Outlets are few and far between, exhibitions ephemeral, potters with open doors not necessarily well advertised or signposted."

A potter's task is to signpost and advertise the aesthetic, emotional and practical value of handmade pots. It is a conversation which involves the sometimes boring, sometimes painful but always useful act of listening to others opinions and needs and responding to that with a new pot or a solution, or an discussion.

* "Haptic" refers to sense of touch. It is a very useful word for potters but really quite academic and I've often found it a bit scary. Good word to pull out at your next Scrabble game though!


Anna said...

thank you for a calm voice in this debate that is quite topical amongst ceramic makers at the moment. Nicely put :^)

Ruth Quibell said...

Great post, Shannon.

Mieke van Sambeeck said...

hear,hear, well said!

FetishGhost said...

Fantastically written. I think that this is one of several quite internal conversations that ceramic artists share.
We all have a desire to be significant in some way, it's up to each of us to figure out what exactly that means on a personal level and either strive to fulfill that ambition or shy from the desire.

carter gillies said...

Just found your marvelous blog. Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us! They mirror some of the issues I have been wrestling with recently, and reading what you had to say put things in much clearer focus.

I'm glad that other potting artists are talking about these issues because it often seems that many of us are off on our own trying to figure this stuff out. I wish the 'conversation' were more potters as a community confronting the outside audience than the isolated artist talking to the people who but their work. We so seldom stand together that each of us seems to need to reinvent the wheel every time to get our message out. We just don't have the kind of infrastructure that would allow potters to get more on the same page with each other, and to share our collective wisdom. But folks like you putting your thoughts out there is certainly a step in the right direction!