by Dick Lehman
Byron Temple threw an 8-inch-diameter cylinder with nearly straight,
3-inch sides. He then slid a cut-off wire about 1-inch into opposite
sides of the piece, ¼ inch up from the bottom, just managing to separate
wall and bottom. The two walls were then repositioned by moving them
in toward the center, forming squared-off sides. The resulting rectangular
piece received quick handle pinches on opposite sides of the rim. And,
voila, it was a handled, squared baking dish.
Right in the middle of Temple's demonstration, I decided: "I'm going
to steal that idea." Even after he told the story of a former student
who had copied it, then publicly claimed it as her own, I was still
ready to steal it for myself.
I went straight back to my studio to try it out. But, not surprisingly,
my pots didn't look much like Temple's. Instead of separating the bottom
with a cut-off wire, I used a needle tool to undercut the wall, creating
a "repositioning flap" to seal the inside of the joint after the wall
was moved. And, rather than making a vertical cut when removing the
extra bottom that remained after repositioning, I undercut the pot,
creating a flap of clay to seal the outside of the new joint. Finally,
my squared dishes had arching walls - I had designed several templates
to enable me to cut a fluted dancing wall, almost baroque in its orientation.
During my first ceramics class with Marvin Bartel, I was startled when
he said: "If you are going to take someone else's idea, don't borrow
it. Steal it!" (I learned 15 years later that Bartel had stolen this
very concept from poet Nick Linsey.)
The "startle value" of Bartel's comment was not wasted on me..as evidenced
by the fact that I still remember it. With time, I have come to understand
at least part of what he was attempting to teach. If I may paraphrase
(or steal): Don't just borrow someone else's idea. If it is a borrowed
idea, it still belongs to the owner. It still looks like it is his/her
idea or property. Borrowing, thus defined, is plagiarism. If you are
going to take someone else's idea or be influenced by another's inspiration,
steal it - make it your own. If you take inspiration from another, have
the integrity, courage and courtesy to develop the idea, to invest in
it, to reinvent it, to make it more than it was.
So I stole the idea from Byron Temple. Would anyone confuse my pots
with his? Not likely. Do I owe a debt of gratitude and recognition to
Temple (and Bartel)? Of course!
As you may have guessed, later conversations with Temple revealed that
the idea did not originate with him. While he is not positive, he thinks
it may have been an English potter who passed the idea along to him.
And there are others in the English milieu who have come up with their
own interpretations: John Leach currently uses a similar technique to
create his "kidney pie" dishes; and he acknowledges getting the idea
from Richard Batterham. In fact, both are equally indebted to others
who went before them.
Truly, we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before
us (to steal an idea from photographer Arthur Lazar). Indebted indeed!
If, as some have suggested, there are no new ideas in the ceramics
world - only discoveries of new ways to develop or assemble the old
ideas - then may we all discover much and be indebted more. Of all our
artistic vices, "stealing" is among the least. A more telling character
flaw is the laziness associated with "borrowing." May we all pledge
to borrow less and steal more.
The act that precipitated my "Templetonian theft" was the demonstration.
It was an offering Temple made freely, not under duress (but probably
also not without compensation). He had evidently decided he was willing
to share the information/technique/procedure, or he wouldn't have demonstrated
it. And herein lies the heart of all good thievery - honest, generous,
Another example of such sharing stands out in my mind: I recall my
first visit to the studio of Richard and Marj Peeler, long-time studio
potters and educators in central Indiana. The occasion was a studio
tour (hosted by the Potters Guild of Indiana).
At the time, I was a student and avocational potter. I was, at best,
inexperienced and impressionable. My connection to potters and clay
was largely limited to the college studio and a few magazines. But even
with such a limited exposure, I had a sense that, with respect to other
potters, certain questions were off limits (despite the overall generosity
and openness of most of the ceramics community).
I learned in the course of my brief introduction to clay (maybe you
learned it too) never to ask for a glaze recipe from a potter I didn't
know well. An equally important sub-rule was never to ask for a copper
red recipe from anyone. (Ah, yes, those mythical copper reds!)
It was this peculiar sense of propriety that I took with me to the
Peeler's studio that day. So I was astonished when, just as we entered
the Peeler showroom with a dozen admiring folks, one of the members
of the group blurted out, "Oh, Mr. Peeler! What a beautiful copper red!
Will you share the recipe with us?"
The entire group fell silent in an instant, not because we were all
expecting the recipe, pencils in hand (although it was likely a question
for which we all would have appreciated an answer). Rather, the room
chilled out of a sense of embarrassment, out of anguish for this poor
foolish hobbyist who had blundered into proprietary never-never land.
I think each of us was silently sizing up the scope of this incredible
faux pas, calculating how severe or how properly tactful Peeler's rebuff
would be to this obvious blunder. Onlookers nervously caught one another's
eyes, shaking heads in that minimal jerky way we do when an absolutely
pitiable situation is before us. Peeler and the questioner seemed to
be the only ones oblivious to the tension of the moment.
The silence was broken with a one-word answer: "Sure," Peeler said.
Then he added, "The recipe is in the notebook, under the phone. It is
The silence continued, but now for a different reason. Finally someone
gathered enough courage to ask, with an air of incredulity, "You mean
you'll share the recipe? Why?"
Peeler offered a lengthy but gentle lesson, one that addressed an eminently
teachable moment. In a nutshell, he said: "It's really not what you
know, what recipe you possess, that is important. It is what you do
with what you know. In the case of glaze recipes, it's what kind of
pot you use it on.
"Evaluating the appropriateness of a glaze for a given form is where
the important and differentiating decision-making takes place. For example,
I use copper reds only on porcelain, and only on refined, simple, formal
shapes. And I have developed the same aesthetic for celedons. But this
is my aesthetic. Glazes don't exist by themselves. They exist in the
context of a particular pot, a particular piece or a body of work.
"I can give each of you this recipe and it will work differently for
each of you. A glaze recipe is a little like a recipe for a cake. You
might try someone else's recipe, and it might be a flop.
"We are here to learn from each other. Marj and I will share recipes,
what we do, and how we do it with anyone. There are no secrets, nor
do there need to be. As we share, we will learn from each other, and
we will all benefit."
Impressionable as I was, this lesson is one that has sustained a prominent
position in my memory, and one that has served me well. The confidence
that Richard and Marj Peeler exhibited is a strength upon which we can
all draw: to share with others always has its own rich reward. Moreover,
such sharing and generosity are among the activities of life that ultimately
make us most human.
Should we offer to tell everything we know at the slightest provocation?
Propriety, at the very least, would suggest not. But to realize that
we do indeed stand on the shoulders of all who came before us, and all
who are beside us, should be a lesson in humility. At the same time,
we should be encouraged to continue the tradition of openness, generosity
and inclusiveness that has, in large part, been at the heart of the
ceramics community and that points the way to the future (past copper
red glaze reservations notwithstanding).
This article is reprinted with expressed permission from
the June/July/August 1993 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box
6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org
© Dick Lehman, 1993. All rights reserved.