farmpots at eastex.net
Thu Sep 9 01:14:34 UTC 2021
Here's a blast from the past! - an article I wrote for /Ceramics
Monthly/ in 1999.
In reading over it, although I know many would disagree, I stand by my
rather strict definition
of what 'handmade' means when applied to pottery.
In Ceramics, “Handmade” Still Means “Hand” Made
What exactly does it mean, in 1999, to call a piece of pottery
handmade? At first glance, it might seem obvious; it’s either handmade
or it isn’t. Well, in taking a look around craft shows and talking to
potters, I’ve found that the definition of “handmade” mostly depends on who
is doing the talking. Of course any potter you talk to at a craft show
considers their work handmade; what they consider not handmade is any
work that uses more advanced or automated technologies than they use.
This has probably gone on for millennia. The potters in ancient Egypt
were probably pretty hacked off when some guy built the first potter’s
wheel and started turning out pots ten times faster than the
handbuilders. They probably considered these pots “machine made” and
less valuable than their truly handmade pots. Thousands of years later,
the wheel-throwing potters were probably none too happy when some
mechanical wizard figured out a way to make a motor turn his wheel, and
was able to increase production while doing less work. “Not really
handmade,” they probably argued, because a machine was taking over what
the potter used to do. Of course, it wasn’t long before someone else
added an arm and a mold head to the motor-driven wheel, and the
jiggering wheel came into being. The throwers argued, I’m sure, that
their work was far superior because it took more skill to make each
piece without a jigger mold and it was thus “authentically handmade”.
Recently a potter friend came by to visit and showed me one of his mugs.
It had been slip-cast in a mold. The mold was made from a wheel-thrown
cup with a pulled handle, and, I’ll tell you, that mug sure looked
hand-thrown with a pulled handle, right down to the finger wipes that
attached the lower end of the handle. Since I had this “What is
handmade?” question on my mind, I asked him if he considers his mugs
handmade. Well, he does, and he started telling me about all the time
and effort required to cast the mug, clean up the mold lines, glaze and
decorate it, and fire and finish it.
So, are there any absolutes? Is there a line that can’t be crossed if a
piece is still to be called “handmade”? Does process matter? I say “yes”
to these questions. First, let me make it perfectly clear that
“handmade” does not mean “good” and “not handmade” does not mean “bad”.
We’ve all seen examples of horrendous handmade pottery, like those
lop-sided boat anchors that somehow made it past the critique in
Ceramics 101. Likewise, there are many examples of elegantly designed
and beautifully crafted factory-made pottery. In fact, many artistic and
talented people working in ceramics are not even concerned with the
process of pottery making. To them, the ceramic form is just a “canvas”
Unlike most art and craft media, the potter’s hands are the primary
tools used to make pottery. The wood-worker needs a saw and a drill, the
stone sculptor needs a hammer and a chisel, and the metalworker needs a
torch and a file to shape his work. The potter does his shaping with his
hands, and the clay records everything the hands do. This suggests a
logical standard for judging whether or not a pot is “handmade”; namely,
did a hand shape it? Once any kind of mold or template determines the
final shape of the piece, it’s not “hand” made, or “handmade” in the
There are other criteria that are useful for judging a piece of pottery
as handmade or not. One is to question how much skill, or training, was
required to make the piece. Workers in ceramics factories can be trained
in a few days to pour molds or press pottery. On the other hand,
learning to skillfully manipulate plastic clay into desired shapes takes
years of practice. Yes, I know that great skill and experience was
required to make that mold. Well, the mold itself is handmade. Another
useful question is, “What would be involved if the design of the piece
were changed slightly, say made a half inch wider?” For mass produced
pottery this would require a complete retooling, while for a potter
shaping plastic clay by hand it would simply mean that she would start
with a little more clay and remember to make the form a little wider. It
is this quick and easy evolution of form that allows an accomplished
potter to grow and to breathe life into her continuously refined work.
Like so many terms used in business and government, and indicative of
the times, the word “handmade”, as applied to pottery, has been ever
more broadly and inclusively used. This makes the word meaningless at
best, and downright misleading at worst. I say it’s time buck the trend
of the 90’s and narrowly define the word. “Handmade” means shaped with
the hands, period. Jiggered work is not handmade, pressed work is not
handmade, and slip cast work is not handmade, no matter how well
designed and well made. The exception would be in the case where pressed
or cast pieces are twisted, cut apart, or re-assembled, in which case
they are really being used as building components.
So, what about that slip-cast platter that has been so elegantly and
meticulously decorated with hours of hand labor? It’s certainly not mass
produced or the product of a factory assembly line. Well, it can most
definitely be labeled as “limited production”, “individually
hand-finished”, or “hand painted”, but, sorry, it’s still not “handmade”.
david at farmpots.com
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