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Potters, the values of craftsmen, and living true to self

Sunday, March 6, 2005 at 04:30AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal in Values

How to live true to self is a subject upon which I have been reflecting a lot of late, as I try to shape my business and direct my life. How to spend my time left on this planet doing things that I want to do, without neglecting practical concerns like earning a living and keeping my employees employed. How balance self, family and business; work and leisure; short-term desires and long-term goals; autonomy and teamwork; shyness and curiosity about the limelight; ambition and inertia; personal success and social good; opportunities with abilities and desires. How not to let the days and months and years pass by without paying attention to whom I really want to be, or want to become.

One theme that emerges from this introspection, as well as from observation of others, is that doing what you want to do and doing it well is rewarding in itself. Finding a passion, and positioning yourself so that society can reward you for it, seems to require luck, effort, compromise, strategy, navigation and adjustment, and sometimes, I suspect, reevaluation, retreat and re-launch.

My mother and father, through their chosen life as teachers and parents, and now grandparents, are good models and an inextricable part of this thought process for me.

Another example that I turn to when thinking about these things is the life of the potter. As a kid my siblings and I spent good portions of our summers in a pottery, watching our aunt Phyllis throw, trim, decorate, bisque, and glaze endless planks of pots. We watched her use a kick-wheel and an electric wheel, a slab roller and a pug mill. We watched her load and unload three different styles of kilns over the years. We watched her wedge clay energetically with strong hands, form it into cylinders with a backwards rolling and slapping motion, and then tear it into chunks of size appropriate to the pots she was about to make.

A million times we watched her take her seat, throw the clay on the wheel vigorously, kick or otherwise bring the wheel to speed, and center the clay in a flurry of practiced motions. We watched her rouse the clay, pushing, clawing, and ribbing it; controlling it with her hands and fingers and a sequence of tools until the clay took on the shape she wanted. Then we watched as she slowed the wheel, passed a wire under the bowl or mug or plate or bottle or pitcher, and placed the newly created pot on a plank, joining others in a row.

The notes and tones and rhythms of all the various tasks of her pottery are part of me, and a part of my brother and sister as well. We know the nature and kind of life it conferred, the amount of freedom in time and output, the communities it involved, the requirements that it created to clean the shop, to order the materials, and ultimately to sell the pots. And as a result I think we understand what a life of throwing pots meant to my aunt. We know that she did what she loved. We know that it did not make her rich financially, but in other ways.

Among the sounds of that pottery were the conversations about life choices. We listened to Phyllis talk about how she came to do what she did for a living, about the switch in her twenties from teacher of math to maker of pots. We listened to Phyllis talk about a strong-willed woman named Marguerite Wildenhain, a famous potter, with whom she studied for five summers at a pottery in California called Pond Farm. Because she affected Phyllis so much, I have twice read in the last few years a book by Marguerite about her life called The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Life and Thoughts. Marguerite seems to have had a powerful personality and an uncompromising philosophy about the life of a craftsman that greatly influenced my aunt. When I read Marguerite’s book I have my aunt in mind, with Phyllis’s voice and my experience in her pottery as commentary on what Marguerite wrote.

Marguerite’s metaphor is that she is telling her story as if she were decorating a huge pot, sparely, with those imaginary decorations illuminating an invisible core that was the essence of her life. From the concluding Statement:

It has not been my aim specially to “express myself” beyond the fact that the pot that I was making should come to life through the medium of my hands. Its life, its expression was my aim, and if the pot came to life it would naturally also convey all that I felt while making it: the gratitude to be alive, to be able to see, to feel, to be inspired by the beauty of this earth, also my complete devotion to this beauty in all its manifested splendors, in man and beast, rock and flower, weed and wave, sun, moon, and stars… My only aim was to do it well, as well as I possibly could, undistracted by people, problems and interests not related to my work…My life as a potter has taught me to know the short-lived values of mode and fashion trends, of prizes and “success.” As fleeting as the clouds are publicity, fame, and limelight, but the good pot will endure through the centuries because of its integrity, its sound and pure purpose, its original beauty, and especially because it is the indivisible, incorruptible, and complete expression of a human being.

I did not know Marguerite directly, and I do not know if I would even have liked her, but I am interested in those who lived by their own internal compass, and did well what they loved to do, without regard to fame or fortune. 

One thing for which I am grateful to my aunt Phyllis, who I did know and love, was the presence of her example, and the values expressed by the life that she chose to live as a potter in rural Vermont.

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Reader Comments (2)

You can see a pot made by Phyllis Murray by clicking on the link to her name on this page: http://rvf-artmuseum.csusb.edu/PONDFARM/students.html
March 7, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterEve
Where in rural Vermont did your aunt live? I have relatives that lived in the Willoughly Lake area by Barton, and other relatives that currently live in Georgia, Troy, and Newport Vermont.

I have been working with clay since 2005. I have Marguerites' book, Form and Expression.
November 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline Thompson

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