Pottery is Not a Dirty Word

The other day I was looking at my website and suddenly felt insecure about the title of my business. I thought, Kelly Pottery, damn, maybe it should be Kelly Ceramics, then people would take me more seriously. Then I came back down to earth, (the place all this mud comes from) and meditated on the difference between craft and art, or to put it another way, the difference between artisan and artist.

In the 70's and 80's there seemed to be a shift in the ceramics community, especially in the academic realm where it was no longer enough to be a potter. Students were encouraged to make "art pots". This wasn't all bad. There are some incredible ceramic artists who make pots, many of them my good friends. However, the unintended cost of the creation of the "art potter" was to undermine the credibility of the traditional potter. In a way we betrayed ourselves by falling prey to the constraints of the art world. 

As a ceramic student, I was always asked to explain my work in the context of art history and contemporary aesthetics. I was never asked to place my work in the context of craft history. Being young and a bit malleable (no pun intended), I started making pots that fit into that criteria. They became more abstract, less functional and eventually I just started painting and stopped working in clay all together. I liked painting and had some success with it, however the potter in me was put out to pasture.

My heroes in pottery have always been the Mengei potters, Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjirō, Warren MacKenzie, and Leach. As a young potter I didn't understand their common philosophy. Had the ceramics department at my school taught Yanagi's book "The Unknown Craftsman," I might have had a chance of seeing the dignity and humility of being an artisan. It has taken me many years to come back to where I started, with what I hope is a little more wisdom. I'm not an artist, I'm a potter.


"It is my belief that while the high level of culture of any country can be found in its fine arts, it is also vital that we should be able to examine and enjoy the proofs of the culture of the great mass of the people, which we call folk art. The former are made by a few for the few, but the latter, made by the many for many, are a truer test. The quality of the life of the people of that country as a whole can best be judged by the folkcrafts."

The Unknown Craftsman - A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Sōetsu Yanagi, Kodansha International, New York, 1989