Culture of Hands (final draft)

Outsiders psych themselves out. Becoming an artist, more specifically a ceramist, is not about natural talent. It is about time and effort. A diligence to become better. No one is born ready to play soccer, just as no one is born to draw or sculpt clay. It’s a practice that leads to perfection with time and failures; the most basic thing individuals need to master this art is a willingness to continue even when he or she does not want to anymore.

Mastery does not come just from watching another perform the task, though it does provide a platform for imitation. The language of a ceramist is “mastered by overt instruction (even less so than languages, and hardly anyone ever masters a language sitting in a classroom setting.) We master by apprenticeship, through social practices and supported interactions and time by people who have already mastered the discourse” (Gee 7). Experience is an essential part of mastery, it is “how people, given the proper support, can ‘make it’ in culturally alien environments” (Delpit 550). Certain hand placements, recognizing how pliable clay will be just from the look of it, even mixing glazes. Talking about such things are completely different from experiencing it. That is why the best mentors will let their apprentice try out all his or her ideas, so that they will see what exactly that will do or why that would be a bad idea. Instead of simply being told yes or no, real experience is gained.

In a room, there are several students. All of them have had prior experience taking an art course, but not all of them have ever experienced building via clay. Some of the students fool around and joke. There are those who do not value the chance that they have been given. In fact, the majority seems not to care. Only one or two of the students take to this art. Of building things, out of clay with their own two hands. For those students, they understand that there is a value to creating, that the life of an artist is something most are too afraid to endure. For the kids who watch on, they see their lack of skill and claim, “I could never do that,” but that is not true. An artist is not just born. They are made. Through time and practice; a skilled artist takes years to create. Like a wine, the longer they have, the better they are. For the ‘naturals’ of the room, it is not that they are predisposed to it. It’s that they already have a foundation somewhere else that lets them mushfake the practice of ceramics. Mushfaking is when people apply other things (skills, information, values, etc.) when the real thing is not available to use (Gee 13). This allows them to create a substitute in abilities to replace the fact that they are newcomers. When it comes to clay, an apprentice who is proficient in kneading dough in the kitchen might have already mastered one area. Wedging clay is similar to kneading dough; for a ceramist, air inside of clay is dangerous. The air that is trapped inside of the clay can cause the piece to break when it is being fired. There are many air bubbles inside of reclaimed clay, which is why potters will take the time to wedge all the air out.

A ceramist’s hands are everything to them. Without steady hands, nothing can be built. The intricate designs are impossible to achieve without delicate motions, but the base of the piece that’s made needs a strong foundation. It needs hands that will not budge from their place. On a wheel to center the piece, the hands must work together to cone a piece up and down. That is why to do this properly, the hands touch one another to give them extra stability. The arms are drawn into the body, held near the core. To center clay on a wheel, one hand presses against the body of the clay, usually at the base of the palm since that is the area that will give the least. The other hand will brace the top with the side of the hand that has the pinkie finger as this is the flattest a ceramist can make their hand; this hand will also typically be holding a wet sponge. As the clay spins, it becomes dry and there is no lubrication between the clay and hand. The result of this friction which makes it impossible to deal with. Using a sponge that has a little water in it allows for the ceramist to slowly add water to the body. The water softens the clay and lets the ceramist more easily manipulate piece. There are other processes one might do to build the clay to the height they want it, both hands embrace the sides of the clay and increase the pressure. That forces the clay to ‘cone’ up. A potter might repeat these two processes a dozen times until they are happy with the starting point of the clay.

Technical skills of an artist are just one part of the process. Another side is that of the morals, of the creativity. How far they are willing to put themselves out there. An artist bares their souls to the public and endure the critics. The best pieces are the ones that have a story, something that goes beyond the surface. And the artist is the one that knows that story best, yet rarely do they share the full extent. After all, no matter what they say, it’s the people who decide what they hear.

If someone were to look at a handcrafted bowl, they could think that making that bowl was easy or they could assume that some skill went into this. They would probably not think deeper than that. They wouldn’t think of the journey that the clay had had itself or the process by which it was made. The clay that I’m most familiar with is clay that is local to me. There is a business that digs the clay right out of the earth before being ran through machines to wedge the air out and then is it bagged. After being processed, it is driven the few miles to the studio. From there on, it is either made into something or tossed in a bucket to be reclaimed. The clay that makes it into a final product is shaped, sculpted, and then dried out. It’s size shrinks back, first when the water is evaporated from it then again when it is fired. The color or the texture that it’s given is another step of the process, but why were those colors chosen? The texture?

An artist bares his or her soul for the art. And then society overlooks it. The complex realms that they put hours, days, weeks into are thought of for a moment and then forgotten. The life of any artist is hard; they suffer in silence, and only after they are gone does society look back at their art to remember the individual. To be an artist is hard, and there is little gain from it. Some people claim that acquisition of this discourse, “the mastery of which, at a particular place and time, brings with it the (potential) acquisition of social ‘goods’ (money, prestige, status, etc.),” yet during an artist’s infancy, they are worse off (Gee 8). The few connections that they do have, it does not bring them status or fame. So why is it that someone would want to be an artist? The only thing that they could possibly get as a newcomer is self-satisfaction. An inner peace with themselves. Being an artist is one of the hardest things to master. It required an infinite pool of creativity. The best thing a budding ceramist can do is to acquire a master in the art.

Masters are not always easy to find; it is even more difficult to find one that is willing to take on a student. For an apprentice to gain the full membership to being a ceramist they need a sponsor that can open the doors for them, but sponsors don’t take pupils under their wings just for the sake of it. Thankfully there is an incentive for a master to take on an apprentice, “they lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association” (Brandt 557). Sponsors gain a peer, someone else who appreciates and understands them. An ally of the same field of which they are a part of. There are other forms of repayment to the master but in the end, that is the most significant piece.

Decades ago, a Japanese potter created a style of pottery called Kintsugi, they would mend broken pieces with gold. It has been reformed slightly since then, now it is a mixture between gold and an epoxy. Before this method was developed, it was originally thought that broken pieces could be fixed but they would be ugly and their value would drop. Once clay has been fired initially, it cannot revert to its pre-bisque form. This makes perfect repairs impossible. And unfortunately, the repairs were ugly. Which is why this style of repair became so popular. It would fix the cracks and while the cracks would still be clearly visible, it was made beautiful. This style demonstrates the idea that the pottery is more beautiful for having been broken. The cracks and mends show a history to the piece. The troubles that it has overcome. A ceramist of this style values what has been broken, almost more so than the pieces that have not faced hardships.

This is not meant to assume that each pot does not have its own story. On the contrary, clay has many secrets hidden in it by the time someone comes along to purchase a piece. Like where the clay originally came from. Or how many times the vase had been started only to be wedged back down or tossed in the reclaim bucket. If it had turned out the way the artist had intended, or if it was as much a surprise to them as it would be to the buyer. The glazes that are homemade tend to be more unstable in their form and decay after time, one firing might be different from the next. There are some steps to a potter’s process that must be taken on faith. A piece shrinks as it dries out and then again when it is fired and becomes bisque ware. There is of course an estimation for how much a piece will shrink and one could take the time to figure it out but a seasoned potter can draw on their previous experience to guestimate. Glazes can be tested before applying it to a piece but there will then be a delay; the final piece may not reflect what the test piece showed. The initial look of glazes cannot be trusted, reds become vivid greens while greys become blue. There are no certainties for clay, it is too fragile. Whether it will survive a firing is a chance; a chance that improves with a potter’s skill, but there are no guarantees. Some parts of the process must be taken on faith.

The basics of pottery are easy to master. Individuals can pick up on the superficial features of mastery with practice but there are subtler aspects that one cannot learn without interaction with masters (Delpit 557). A prominent difference between master and apprentice is their willingness when it comes to store made glazes. A master might claim that it is not true pottery when a premade glaze is used, that the potter slacked off. While an apprentice would find the premade glazes a blessing and appreciate the diversity that it offered them. The glazes bought from a store are more stable and still create a unique look for each piece. Newcomers apply the glaze themselves, so for them, it should count as a full piece. The difference between master and apprentice here are the values and beliefs. The apprentice who chooses a premade glaze has not yet acquired the full identity of a ceramist.

Gaining a foothold in the world of art is possible to anyone that has the connections or the status. That is true for any discourse, connections and status can get an individual in anywhere. Becoming a potter is an expensive endeavor that those without funds or relationships to the art would struggle to find an opening into the world, but those that have a foundation only need to be willing to dedicate themselves to the act completely. This begs the question of whether it is worth the effort to enter such a world. Each person must answer that by their own standards, are they willing to spend the time, money, and effort on something that could end up benefiting themselves? For me, the answer is yes; pottery is an opening to a word that calls for me. The art and creativity are relaxing but also challenging. There is a solace that comes with the hours spent over a wheel, slowly pulling the walls of the clay up and then carving out the perfect form. The immediate frustration when you nick the lip of the pot; the satisfaction of being able to save it anyways. Pottery for me is nothing but opportunity, an endeavor that I would like to continue with for the rest of my life. Outsiders who want to join are scared off by the skill of masters, yet people should not hesitate to put themselves out there. After all, only those who become a member will truly understand the meaning, the value behind being in such a world.