Thursday, February 3, 2011

Potter's Act Of Faith


I still get excited at the promise a new batch of clay holds. I think that's a common feeling among potters -- whether we just dug, mixed, or bought a batch. The new ton of clay contains the next month or so's worth of excitement, experiment, pleasure, and adventure. All the pots we've yet to make.


The work begins to take shape. New ideas layered on old ideas. The hum of the wheel. The feel of the clay. The hollow of growing pots and filling spaces.


(music by my new friend, Warren Malone)

I once heard it said that practice is the musician's act of faith. It took a few minutes for that to sink in. When it did, it really stuck with me.

There is almost always a degree of uncertainty in practice. Especially in the early stages. After all, practice is about training your muscles to work in concert with your mind. And between the two, there is lots of room for misunderstanding and mistake. "Did I really understand how this goes?", "Is it really supposed to feel like this (awkward?)?".

But ultimately a musician has to resolve to himself that he does understand where he's headed at least well enough to commit himself to the time and effort for the repetition ahead.

Sure, in the best of worlds that act of faith tends to build upon itself. Each new time stepping out on the limb carries just a little sense of the success of the previous step -- or the lesson learned from the previous misstep. But it's still always an act of faith.

And that's how I see glazing.

The glazes I most favor are those that contain a certain degree of unpredictability in their results. I want at least SOME of the results to be out of my hands and in the hands of the fire, the weather, and the variable kiln atmosphere.

And so I control all I can. I use a hydrometer so that I can control glaze thickness as much as possible. I carefully measure my glazes. I add new batches to old before the old is all gone -- that way I make the change as seamless as possible, and minimize the possibility of things going wrong all at once. I glaze only a few pieces with a new batch ... just to be on the safe side.

But in the end, glazing is still the most gut-wrenching time in this potter's life in clay. The serendipidy of result I wish for in a glaze is the very uncertainty that makes me hesitant to start glazing a whole period of my pottery production, thereby committing it to its final fate.

Eventually, I do it. I commit. In the faith that I've done all I can -- upheld my calculated, practiced, and certain end of the pottery cycle -- I cast my pot's fate to the step beyond that control. I glaze.

And, thankfully, I win more than I lose these days...


  1. I think the failures in glazing is what led me to terra sig, I could only take so much! It seems that me and glazing are not compatible, I like brushing, most glazes want to be dipped and poured, I like successful firings, most glazes I have tried don't want to be successful, it's truly not for the faint of heart, that glazing business!

  2. That is one cool tool for measuring the inside/outside of rims! Where did you get it, she asks bluntly. (Sorry if you've mentioned it on a previous post.) Thanks!

  3. Hey John, This is a beautiful statement of the potter's process. I loved it! And I really enjoyed the bit about practice being the musician's act of faith. I think that captures it exactly. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. I'm so glad you are embracing your blogging with such eloquence and depth. Great stuff!

  4. Tracey, That's one reason I took early to decorating with slip for texture, subtle color, and more incidental line. I find glazing to a surface and overall appearance less frustrating than actually decorating with glaze.

    There's a downside, though. All my pots are committed by the time they are bone dry. In other words, I can't have a shop full of bisque ware waiting in anticipation of what color or design might be selling in a given year or season. If I guess wrong, I have too much of one thing and not enough of another. And when I try to react to that, the reaction time is necessarily as slow as a production cycle. The net result is that I never have the variety on my booth (at an art fair) that I would like.

    Carolanne, That's the caliper I referred to in last January's CM "Studio Visit" as my favorite pottery tool. It's a sliding caliper with a ruler (with 1/8" markers). The caliper sets both the inside and the outside at the same time. It helps me make nearly perfect fitting lids, and it helps me standardize my lids so that I can replace them (i.e. my casserole lid is 8.25" and has been for ten years now. If a lid breaks, I have a better than even chance that I can replace it.

    The only better arrangement I've see for calipers (though I'd still buy one like I've got) for making lids fit as well as mine to AND for standardizing....

    I met a potter who took 1/4" plastic (like many commercial bats are made from) and cut out inside/outside calipers just like mine except that they don't slide, and made a gauge for each of his standard lids. They hung by his wheel marked "Casserole 8"", "Jar 6" etc.

    My caliper is nearly thirty years old and if you look closely*3GhCJqMwPKzMugLPjhR082gh/potterpick.jpg you can see that the cam that used to lock the caliper in place has long since broken, and I now lock it in place with a guitar pick.

    But you can still buy the caliper. It's made by California Pot Tools and is available here...

  5. John, I wanted to thank you again for posting the music videos.You seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of old time music.Maybe you could help me with a couple of tunes. Whenever I sing in public someone will ask me to sing "Way down the Road" and someone else will chime in with "Take That Guitar with You". I have searched and searched but I can't seem to find the lyrics or tabs to either of these numbers. Any Suggestions?

  6. Dennis,

    I'm pretty sure I've heard the same request. It usually comes from the same folks who are constantly requesting "Sounds Of Silence" from me.

  7. Thanks for the info on the calipers John. I so appreciate your willingness to share, whether it's techniques, tool tips, thoughts, or good music (speaking of which - thanks for turning me on to Warren Malone. Good stuff!).

  8. Carter,
    Thanks for all the encouraging words! I appreciate your contribution to the blog.

    You're welcome. No potter is an island. It's one of the things I've loved so much about the profession -- the almost total sharing I've experienced from fellow potters. (and, yes, Warren's got a way with a song!)