Serge and I were buddies. Our interests were largely similar. We were both interested in Oriental mysticism, travel literature, art, architecture, and ceramics.
“The mystical part about making pots is whether you are in a good state when you make them, or anything else. Trying to achieve a good state by throwing pots as a therapeutic undertaking must be difficult. No, the state comes first and everything else follows,” I suggested.
“Sounds rather obvious,” Serge said.
“That’s the trouble, really. We expect our jobs, our hobbies and everything else we do, to give us peace. Of course, we must do our work with our minds, but the mind had better be in abeyance or you have no chance of creating anything worthwhile.”
“But artistic aspirations...?”
“I like basic aesthetics. Slender pots appeal to me more than fat ones. A fairly minimalist approach is evident. A traditional Japanese house delights me. I too, of course, wish to be empty.”
“How about architecture?” he asked.
“It is about form, which by necessity is governed by function. I greatly admire architects and I can feel their dilemma when attempting to combine form and function. The great architects give us spaces that are comfortable for our interior worlds. “
“But empty...?” Serge prodded.
“I suppose I mean the ability, the luck or grace to receive vision. I am convinced that any artistic endeavor begins with an inner vision. A quiet mind is almost a prerequisite. Then comes the work of getting stuff made, which I contend is the job of the mind. I once read that Mozart claimed to have seen music floating before him; he then had the task of getting it all down as sheet music.”
“So you equate throwing pots with a mechanical process,” Serge said.
I explained: “One obviously must learn the mechanics. I spent a year at art school learning how to throw in series. I was fanatical and everyone said I was crazy because I never fired anything. I once worked on a Greek island and was made aware of Greek potters who have little or no artistic ambition. They see working with clay in the same way that a mechanic works on a car. I heard about one potter in Athens whose wheel head never stops turning. Balls of clay are usually weighed to make certain pots and one then places the ball on a stationary wheel head, gets the thing turning, throws the pot, stops the wheel and cuts off the pot to be placed on a board. The man in Athens simply grabs a chunk of clay of about the right weight, whacks it on to a running wheel head, centers and throws the pot and cuts it off and removes it while the wheel head is in motion. He does that all day long, hour after hour.”
“Wasn’t it the Bauhaus people who spoke about a machine for living?”
“Sure,” I said. “But for them function was an aim. The rest was a philosophy of de-cluttering. Décor art also has a function, I hope, because it can get people forgetting themselves, if only momentarily, which I believe is the best way to experience pleasure.”
“What do you mean by forgetting yourself to experience pleasure?”
“It is quite clear – and many doctors and psychologists agree – that the activity of the mind can be repressive. Mental activity is seldom conducive to healing if taken to an extreme. A patient’s first thoughts are naturally the stuff of concern and the need to seek help! If the patient can surrender his or her condition completely to the expertise of the doctor, the doctor’s task is simplified because the patient’s mind does not meddle with the doctor’s work. More important, the mind is placed in abeyance and permits, or releases, the flow of a natural healing process.”
Serge was confused. “But how does creativity come into it?” he asked.
“One could say that any flow of natural energy, meaning not mind-induced, could be pleasurable. But it is not simply a question of absolute faith in a doctor because the mind in this very complex world has often formed what in German is known as an Eigendynamic, a life of its own, which means that the mind could take control of a person’s life and becomes a personal, overriding function. That which should be a person’s servant has then reversed the roles.
“Most people find a feeling of equanimity in a state of passive focus. I once attended a concert featuring Ella Fitzgerald and a jazz trio. The lady was in such fine form that within a few minutes she had captured the attention, the hearts, and the minds, of the entire audience, thus giving them a release from self. The feeling of euphoria was utterly palpable. Any great artist can give this grace to people. To look at a Rembrandt, at least for the first time, can be stunning – meaning, the mind is stunned. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and many more, were capable of offering such grace. I would suggest that truly great artists are themselves in a state of mind abeyance, as mentioned above, when creating their pictures, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture. Great artists ‘receive’ rather than ‘conceive’ their works.
“We are encouraged to be selfless, to simply let go of the thoughts that constantly bug us and turn to what we instinctively know to be true. True art, design, architecture, and hopefully ceramics, can therefore not only be pleasing but also beneficial.”
“Is humankind sick?” he asked.
“Not at all but there does appear to be a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction as we travel down our days. We have little repose. You might say we don’t give ourselves a chance to be truly happy. Was it Krishnamurti who said that there is only one thing between you and God: you. Get out of the way.”
“So you think a mystical approach would be useful?”
“I really do believe that, but, naturally, one would need the time to get quiet. Having a family, a job, earning a living and all the rest is hardly conducive to achieving equanimity from the outset. I can now make ceramics at my leisure but I admire those creative people who are able to achieve great work within the hustle of daily life, especially the young ones.”
“Looking at the pictures, there seems to be an ‘Asian’ approach to your ceramics.”
I said: “The master-potter, Bernard Leach went to Asia to learn about ceramics. He returned to England in 1920 and brought the Japanese master, Shoji Hamada, with him. Hamada and Leach showed us the possibility of selfless pottery making. They constructed and fired a wood-burning kiln, which, opposed to the radiant heat of an electric kiln, brings out the inherent qualities of the clay beneath a glaze. This is achieved by reducing the air intake at a critical point during firing because, obviously, a naked flame requires oxygen to keep burning. Thus the flame starved of oxygen seeks oxygen in the glazes and the clay. The result is buttery textures and some marvelous hues. I have a potter friend, however, who studied with Leach and he said it took years to escape from his influence.”
“But what of selfless pottery?”
“Again, it is the state of having one’s mind in abeyance. Leach maintained that if six potters were to each make a simple tea bowl and one of the potters was in a quiet state the result would be noticeable. In fact, he said that eight out of ten observers would instinctively choose that one bowl.”
“This would seem to imply meditation,” Serge said.
“I have nothing against meditation, but I never did it.”
“So what is your approach?”
“I do nothing really special: just get quiet, relax, begin, and watch what happens. I’m sure many others are happy with the way they operate.”
“Is there a learning process, in all this?”
I told him, “It’s like learning to drive a car, which is initially undertaken as a mental process. Beginners tend to be nervous. Gear changes get snarled, the rear-view mirror is largely forgotten, and so on. The mechanical learning process gradually becomes internalized and a natural flow takes over. Gear changes and all of the other skills become automatic. When this has occurred the mind is set free to concentrate, although focus would be a better word, on what is coming at you on the road.”
“So how did you learn?”
“It may sound far-fetched but one might say that the hands learned what to do. There is a marvelous video on YouTube showing the jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan playing a number (Jumpin’ Jack). Jordan has the ability to play melody and bass simultaneously, somewhat in the way a pianist plays. Deep into his solo one sees Jordan looking down at his hands and there is a smile on his face that seems to say ‘...hey, you guys are really having a good time.’”
“Oh come on, jazz and a quiet mind?”
“Jazz means improvisation engendered by freedom. The freedom from self, conflict, and anything else that hinders creativity.”
“Of course it would be impertinent to speak for other artists but I love the idea of what the Japanese call Shibui. It is a feeling engendered by quiet reticence, something that gives pleasure for reasons beyond explanation. I suppose it means a special rightness about something. Since I am not a Mozart, I do not expect to stun or startle with my work. I am satisfied if a bit of Shibui arises through a combination of shapes and glazes.”
“Talking about shapes...” Serge said.
“As I said before I prefer slender pots; pots that narrow down to a small foot. This gives the pot an appearance of floating – is soaring too presumptuous? My bowls usually have a turned foot. It gives them a lightness that I find pleasing.”
“Have you not been copying the painter Giorgio Morandi with his still-life renderings of ceramic vessels, especially the fluted bottles or those with cut sides?”
“I had never heard of the man before you mentioned him,” I told my friend. “But Morandi does appeal. Thanks for introducing me to his work.”
“The glazes are obviously an enhancement!”
“True but there is a lot of science involved. I fire with an electric kiln because it was given to me as a gift. We are too strapped for cash to buy a preferred gas or wood-burning kiln. My glazes have therefore been things to overcome rather than just use.”
“Build your own kiln!”
“I would love to but for the time being I am where I am at. The electric kiln I use is not particularly large, 60x75x50 centimeters inside, and it does have its eccentricities. All potters have this problem and have adjusted their glaze recipes and firing cycles accordingly. After several test firings, I have been lucky to achieve a good off-white, a really luscious chocolate black, a rather startling blue, a gorgeous dark green thinning to brown on the edges. I also have a nice pale green, which is supposed to be a celadon, but never really came out that way. I am still looking for a classic Chinese tenmoku glaze that fires at 1250°. It is a wonderful black breaking to brown on thin edges.”
“Your glaze application sometimes seems somewhat free-form,” Serge said. “What is behind that?”
“Well, if you have ever tried to draw an arc or a circle you will see the distinct wobble of the line because of an unsure hand. Just swish the pencil around on the paper and the result is likely to be much more graceful. You may not achieve a perfect circle but the result will be more pleasing to the eye. Lord knows how Giotto did a perfect circle in the thirteenth century. Splash glazing is a sort of just do it endeavor. There is no foresight involved, I dribble a glaze on to a pot and...”
“Watch what happens?”
“Right,” I said. “It is again the idea of not really putting one’s mind into a thing. Otherwise I dip my pots into a bucket of glaze in the usual way. Of course, large vessels must have a glaze poured over them, but it is still uncontrolled.”
“The stoneware clay I use has been great help in achieving texture, although it is not very easy to throw. I mix two clays, with and without grog. The clay is speckled with pyrite and it looks good on the unglazed parts of a pot. The pyrite also shows through the glazes, especially in the off-white.”
“There seems to be lifestyle aspect in what you do.”
“I got around to it a bit late but consider myself lucky. We have a nice old house and a small pottery room. The garden is up and running. My marriage seems to be good, although I am definitely not going to ask her opinion about that. How you live, where you live, and what you do are largely a matter of circumstance for most people. An organized human environment is rather required.”
“Do you remember us talking about Francesco Patrizi, the author of many works of philosophy and the arts?”
“That’s right. He was looking for perfection of a sort,” I said.
“Patrizi wrote a book tantalizingly called The Happy Town. The work is Utopian and an attempt to counter Thomas More’s notion of separating church and state. Patrizi proposed the integration of both. He was born into the nobility in Croatia in 1529 and had the time and inclination to consider the improvement of the world around him. La città felice was written in 1551 in Padua and was printed in Venice in 1553, when Patrizi was only 22 years old. His book proposes a topographical situation that is obviously seen as the Croatian town of Cres in its deep, protective bay, and is about achieving an ideal state. We are confronted with a man who wished to create order, but it was order-imposed. His architectural notions encompassed ‘…straight streets to enhance winds in the hot season’ and ‘…streets meandering like a river to divert winds in the winter months.’ There were to be squares and institutional buildings for commerce, but his main thrust was the stuff of social order. Fabrizi proposed two social groups, the nobility, composed of soldiers and the priesthood, and workers and peasants forming a second group. This second group in The Happy Town were not actually meant to be happy but were only to serve and ‘…not to attain a state of bliss.’”
“Ho hum for Fabrizi. Thomas More was really a humanist, someone who cared.”
“Exactly!” Serge said. “Patrizi was an architect who wished to tell people what is good for them. One debatable point about art could be about what it does to people. Should art bring people to quiet reflection – bliss would be an exaggeration in my case – or should it provoke? Personally, getting people all riled up doesn’t make sense to me.”
“So what is the message?”
“Not offending anyone’s sensibilities, which means offering stuff that calms rather than antagonizes.”
“Get quiet, relax, begin.”
“And watch what happens?”
“That’s about it.”