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Something More Tangible Than Technique, Something More Timeless Than Age

by Dick Lehman

“How many of you, if your lives depended on it, could make and successfully fire a figure the size and complexity of one of these Chinese terra cotta warriors or horses?”, asked Professor Randy Schmidt. Not a single hand went up among this group of Arizona State University graduate students.

“Here we are in the late 20 th century, with perhaps more printed information about ceramics than at any other time in history…more tools…more techniques...more clays…better kilns…more museums. We think we are pretty ‘hot stuff’. Yet not one of us is willing to stake our lives on being able to make works of similar complexity and scale and beauty and power, compared to the work that those ceramic artists of more than 2000 years ago were routinely producing.”

In the years since my ‘visiting artist’ stint at ASU, I’ve held onto Schmidt’s questions and observations. His questions may have been thinly-veiled indictments, and were surely meant to motivate second semester graduate students to “get serious” and to make the best use of the resources that were at their disposal. But his observations about lost skill-sets, and works of long-lasting power and beauty and conviction were what most stayed with me.

Last week I ate out of a “Kitchen Ming” bowl from my small collection. It is a bowl that just begs to be used! The dingy foot belies a ‘decade of decades’ of use. The family name of perhaps the first of its many owners is scratched through the glaze in the center of the bowl right next to the unglazed ring where the foot of the next bowl sat atop this one…..one of many in the stack; one of many stacks, in many kilns, in many firings. Balancing the foot of the bowl on three fingers of my left hand, I gave the rim of the bowl a sharp snap. The bell-clear-ring lasted for four seconds: certainly as clear and true today as it was the day it was unloaded from the firing more than 100 years ago. What a remarkable clay body! In all my years of clay-body tests, I’ve never developed anything comparable to this “common” body. And I’m not sure I’d stake my life on being able to do so. But more importantly, this simple bowl has a convincing ‘resonance-of-utility’ that stands the test of time.

Recently a potter-friend sent me the image of an 1830’s alkaline-glazed jar made by John Lehman: its robust 6-8 gallon capacity and its confident self-disclosing sculptural relief decoration – right above the bold signature on the side of the pot – indicate a casual yet refined competence. And although we share the same last name, and perhaps the same Swiss-German ancestry – and quite possibly even the same DNA strand – I doubt that I could reproduce what “uncle John” created almost 200 years ago. My friend said that the auction estimate is set at somewhere near $70,000. More than its age or rarity is at auction here: Uncle John’s humanity speaks through the sculpting telling us, perhaps, something of his artistic inheritance, his politics, his theology, his imagination and his dreams -- communicating clearly through all these years the things he held most dearly. That, I suspect, is what the bidders are buying.

The Jomon era shard that I nervously fingered last week was made sometime in the 4 th-3 rd-millennium B.C.

The shard is small enough that its role as part of a vessel or sculpture is somewhat obscured. The casual, almost playful, assurance with which the carving marks were made indicate that this was not the first piece this clay artist had made. A clear and purposeful pattern is lined out with alternating swift gouge-strokes, playing against lines that were created by repeatedly pressing a pointed stick into the surface of the clay while skillfully guiding the stick along.

The time and care invested in this clay shard cause me to surmise that it was not simply made for the maker’s own sake. The skill and care imply relationships. The time that it takes to be so purposeful implies a secure and nurturing set of relationships – a society – that produced the ‘economy of leisure’ this design requires.

And whether this small shard was part of a sculptural form whose function was tied to symbols, rituals, beliefs and values; or if it was part of a vessel whose function was directed toward containment or storage or serving; or if it was simply a function of ego-centric personal expression….. I couldn’t guess. All these functions are essential, in that they capture what is simplest and what is most profound about our living. So it does not so much matter to me that I cannot determine what was its exact, explicit function. What matters is that the grace and playfulness and assurance in this shard are still powerful and convincing, more than 5000 years after my ceramic ancestor left his or her finger marks on it. And placing my fingerprints alongside hers – apart from being an almost sacred experience – causes me to wonder: Will my work stand the test of time….not just physically surviving, but communicating clearly as well? Will my work leave clues about beliefs and values…about economy and intentions and relationships?

I suppose all of us who love the ceramic arts have shared similar experiences, encountering works that engender awe and wonder. We are so fortunate to live in a time when we need travel only a few miles to see, first hand, fine examples of 12 th century Persian luster ware, or Pre-Columbian sculpture stretching back to our 7000 B.C. aboriginal soul-mates, or the remarkable Sèvres porcelains……or the too-long-overlooked masterpieces of our Native North Americans. Indeed, in this time of unparalleled access through the Internet, at our slightest whim, examples of all of these – and more – come almost instantly to us in our homes or schools or studios.

But it is not just the sometimes-lost techniques that set the best of these works apart. And it is not simply their age. The most powerful of these works carry within themselves something more tangible than technique, something more timeless than age: like good poetry, they speak the language of the soul, capturing and reflecting both the simplest and the most profound meanings of our living.

Now, personally, I believe that those of us who are ceramic artists in the 21 st century can be forgiven for not knowing how to sculpt those 300 B.C. terra cotta horses. We need not confine ourselves to being the technical sum of all previous ceramic generations. And there is no particular merit in ceramic ventriloquism. We have, after all, our own work to do….we have our own voices. (And if it is important to learn to make terra cotta horses, we can do so.)

But as for continuing, through our work, to speak the language of the soul: to that we have an obligation – for its omission, there can be no excuse.

How then, as 21 st century ceramists, do we speak the “language of the soul”? How do we create works of long-lasting power and beauty and conviction? Will our work reflect both the simplest and the most profound meanings of our living?

Of course these are inquiries that we all, as clay artists, must attempt to address for ourselves. (And the measuring of our success may well be left to those who follow after us.) But I would expect that these more “ultimate” inquiries, would include some reflection upon at least a portion of the following questions:

Did we maintain a connection to our culture(s) without simply reflecting it (them)? Did our work challenge or reinvent culture. Were we informed enough and free enough to appropriate important elements from other cultures? Did our work speak to whatever was the “current” art movement without merely mouthing its precepts? Did we follow our hearts and singular visions even if the resulting work didn’t “fit” into any “movement”? Did our work occupy a thoughtful, reflective, humorous – and perhaps even an irreverent or provocative – space/presence within our world?

Did we work to maintain the openness and sharing that has already characterized (at least portions of) the worldwide ceramics community? And did we respect and learn from the ceramic traditions that, either through abuse or neglect, we may have previously sidelined or ignored? Through our work, did we increase the inclusive nature of the field so that the unnecessary boundaries of gender, ethnicity, class and nationality do not define the field? Did we take a stance of “generativity” toward future generations of ceramic artists, in a manner that would encourage them to surpass us…all the while expecting no less of ourselves?

Did we use the body of our life’s work to address the most important political discourse of the day? Did we use our lives and work to attempt to correct the increasing disparities of wealth and power – or were our works simply products to be consumed by those who already have the most of the above? Were we able to address such “serious” questions without being overwhelmed by them? And did our work maintain space for some “lighter” fare: did our works take advantage of the clay’s potential to address the deep and abiding connections to the common fabric of daily life? Did we make room for the playful and humorous…the trivial and frivolous…the experimental or seemingly pointless? Did we value the media’s potential to “connect” as well as to “correct”?

Did we use our sculpture and tiles, our assemblages and vessels to enhance, enrich and engender the best relationships of caring, trust and nurture? Did we neither overemphasize nor avoid the clay’s potential to focus on ourselves, our self-expression, or our self-realization? Did we acknowledge our indebtedness to all those who have gone before us?

I would imagine that the central challenge for clay artists in the 21 st century will not be primarily technical in nature. The real challenge, I suspect, will be to live up to the tradition of the best ceramic work of the past: making, for OUR time, tangible works which fulfill all the various “functions” that clay work can address… works of long-lasting power and beauty and conviction. In short, to address what is timeless.

On the one hand, “speaking the language of the soul” is intensely personal, quietly elusive and terribly difficult to define. Yet, making work that celebrates and contributes toward justice and playfulness, mystery and openness, newness and beauty can also be deceptively simple….tantalizingly tangible. This essential pursuit contains a winsome but awkward paradox….but the most timeless things always do.

Dick Lehman
Copyright January 2003
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