Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Effortless Custody of Automatism

“….it missed by this much”, he said.  And to emphasize just how tiny and insignificant “this much” was, he thrust out his hand, holding his finger and thumb a scant quarter-inch apart.

Yeah, what of significance could possibly fit between fingers so closely spaced?

More than 100,000 pots.

Knowing the distance between two fingers – and how to set and hold them there –is perhaps the central skill to being a potter.  It’s not a “squeeze”.   It’s a set-and-hold.  And learning the feel of that distance and being capable of holding it -- whether thumbs may touch over a short wall for reference….or the fingers are completely separated and working on either side of a very tall wall that reaches to the elbow and beyond – that’s what a potter needs to learn to make a good, even-walled pot.  It’s what a potter needs to know to make a pot light enough for function, but heavy enough for a lifetime of use and abuse.

When that skill became second nature to me, I found that my mind would venture off from that starting point – that focus on two fingers – to beyond.  What starts with a slam of clay on wheelhead and a whirring motor, a few seconds worth of slip-slap-center ….  fingers assuming their positions in that set-and-hold, soon (and inevitably) leads to my focus slipping right between those fingers along  with the clay…and wandering off.

Some of my most creative moments happen while I’m at my wheel, my fingers set on spinning clay.  With what has become an automatic focus on my fingers, my imagination is freed.  Now not only do I create the pot presently on the wheel….I contemplate the next, and the next.  I imagine new ideas, new pots.  My imagination becomes as malleable as the clay I’m forming.  I write essays and poetry (yes, at some point I have to wipe slip from my hands and type those thoughts out).  I dream my best, most fruitful dreams with my fingers set “this much” apart.

Yeah, what of significance could possibly fit between fingers so closely spaced?

This potter’s life.


  1. That is so beautifully expressed!

    Thanks for writing this. Your words are poetry. The space of a quarter inch indeed!

  2. Beautifully said and very moving!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, you two.

  4. ah, yes indeed and well said.
    there was older potter here who would say, if I had any brains they was in my hands..."

  5. "....if I had any brains they was in my hands..."

    I LOVE that. I am going to be the new old potter who will be saying that. I may have it tattooed in some place that doesn't show.

    1. it is a great saying. At our age just go ahead and have it placed on the lower part of your body since that is where it will end up soon.

  6. Beautiful!

    From Shelley in Jerusalem.

  7. Hi Shelley! (I like the feeling of the blog being international!)

  8. Beautifully put, John!
    Very eloquent writing, and one of the reasons I am glad that you did not abandon your blog.
    Why don't you use "If I had any brains..." in a song?

  9. Hi John - just wanted to let you know that the pottery I purchased from you in Greenville, SC is now with me at my home in Hawaii (Kauai) after arriving via my friend from California. I'm loving it and enjoying using it! I guess I want to say thank you for making things of beauty.
    Mahalo, Karen Young

  10. Ola..

    Gostei muito do seu texto falando do sua criação
    Parabéns pela sua arte e pela sua escrita.

    Eu sou ceramista no Brasil...amo a arte ceramica!

    Um abraço do Brasil!!