The Debate about Makers in Contemporary Life

Nancy Button of Fireside Pottery
Becky Button's Studio 1979
Becky Button’s studio 1979

Having been a potter for 40 plus years, I’ve seen a lot of changes in how we craftspeople are perceived, as well as how our work is received by the public.

My observation of the place of craft in contemporary culture began in the late 60s, as I followed my mother to craft shows where she sold her pottery. For the longest time the argument was about craft as art. Check out an old Ceramics Monthly magazine from the 70s, 80s or 90s, and you’ll most likely find a commentary or letter discussing this point. The debate raged as more colleges developed under-grad and graduate programs in ceramics and other craft mediums. Clay artisans began referring to themselves as ceramicists, or ceramic artists. And many were just that, creating fabulous sculptural and conceptual 3-D art.

But there were many more of us who continued to arrive at our studios every morning to produce repetitive functional pottery, as potters have been doing for thousands of years. Where did we land in this debate?

We strove to make pots that brought beauty into people’s homes and daily domestic rituals. We committed ourselves to making a living doing something we loved. For most of us this meant letting go of a financially secure life. It also meant paying closer attention to what our customers wanted and what they could afford than many of our more art identified friends in ceramics.

Pots in progress at Nancy Button’s Fireside Pottery in 2014
Pots in progress at Nancy Button’s Fireside Pottery in 2014

The craft-as-art debate continues to rumble, though craft based mediums (such as wood and clay) have gradually found their place in the world of “fine” art, and are more readily recognized as such today. As teacher and potter Pete Pinnell says in his commentary for an exhibition of cups, what defined art as separate from craft throughout time was its non-utilitarian nature. One did not TOUCH art, much less bring it to our lips! I’ve included the clip below for you.

And as for we artist/producers? The recent flood of eager, ambitious young producers has changed the landscape again. In the past few years the word “maker” has found its way into our conversations and our psyches. Making has again acquired cultural dignity in contemporary life.

So now those of us who continue to show up every morning to make beautiful functional ware are enjoying a more favored position in our cultural landscape, and it’s a good feeling. But when you get right down to it, we’re still doing what we’ve been doing all along; showing up day after day and doing the work that presents itself.

I would love to hear your comments below. If you’d like to hear more about my thoughts and see what’s going on in the studio sign up for my newsletter by clicking here. The Maine Pottery Tour is coming next month on May 2nd & 3rd, you can the Facebook page by clicking here. We will be taking part as well and would love to see you at the studio!

Maine Pottery Tour 2015

Four handmade porcelain mugs

It has been exciting to see the many posts on the Maine Pottery Tour’s Facebook page as this weekend’s tour approaches. I like the feeling of a communal effort across the state that social media allows us to experience. I’m accustomed to feeling fairly solitary in my work efforts, but now I can see that while I am swinging into gear for a busy season, so are dozens of other potters across the state. They are making the pieces, loading up their kilns, and experiencing the pleasure (and yes, sometimes disappointment) that accompanies a kiln opening. I’ve just opened my second kiln of stoneware this morning, and am for the most part pleased with the results.

Maine Pottery Tour postcard 2015

More than 40 pottery studios across the state will be open for the MAINE POTTERY TOUR on May 2nd and 3rd including 8 nearby studios in Knox and Waldo Counties: Siem Van der Ven of Van der Ven Studio in Lincolnville, the community clay studio Hope Clay in Hope, Patricia Hubbard of Hilltop Pottery in Thomaston, Ariela Kuh and Meghan Flynn in Lincolnville, Betsy Levine of Prescott Hill Pottery in Liberty, Barbara Walch of Barbara Walch Pottery in Thorndike, Austin Smith in Camden and of course myself at Fireside Pottery in Warren. Hours are Saturday, May 2nd 10-5, and Sunday, May 3rd 11-4. Be sure to look for the signs.

Tear drop shape vases in progress
Tear drop shape vases in progress
Handmade brown and green porcelain vase
Fresh from the kiln

The participating potters are welcoming visitors to their studios to see their process, as well as view, finished pieces. All are happy to talk about how they create, decorate, and fire their work. Get an inside glimpse into the lives of these potters, tour their studios, peek into kilns, and know that your purchase is supporting your local creative economy.

The tour is expanding each year and is always adding new potters. There are as many different styles as there are destinations, with tour legs in southern, central and mid-coast Maine, For maps and more information on these different areas, visit the Maine Pottery Tour Website or find them on Facebook at Maine Pottery Tour.

I would love to hear your comments below. If you’d like to hear more about my thoughts and see what’s going on in the studio sign up for my newsletter by clicking here. We hope to see you at the studio this weekend!

Thinking Like A Mushroom

A basket full of mushrooms

People sometimes ask how I came up with an idea for a shape and design. It’s a good question, and one I often ask myself.

Oyster mushrooms in the wild

I have been engaged in new design work recently. When I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking about a new vase I’ve been working on and imagining some of those elements translated into a teapot or a pitcher. Or I’m pondering how to use a live edge in a piece. Or perhaps I’m thinking of how little is needed to give the viewer/user the impression of a bird in a piece. I oftentimes find myself staring into space at the studio, alert and listening, but to what?

At times when I’m not as engaged in these types of questions, my mind is more prone to wandering into unpleasant territory. I might wake up wondering whether I’ll have enough pots made in time to fill an order, or whether our tomato plants will get the late blight this year. Then there are global questions like how we can attain world peace. I’d much rather be thinking about pots…

Oyster mushrooms in the wild
Oyster mushrooms in the wild

So what is the power of creative pursuit? When I’m designing I am actively problem solving, and thinking about detail in a way that allows other concerns to drop away.

A Harvest of Black Trumpets

This is what mushroom hunting is about for me as well. My senses are sharpened as I search the wild landscape for clues that will lead to a harvest. For the moment all other concerns disappear. The veil between myself and my surroundings becomes thinner. As crazy as it sounds, I begin to breathe, to think like a mushroom.

Years ago I was going through a difficult break up. With my heart sore and open, I took to the woods. That summer there was a wild abundance of a particular edible mushroom called a black trumpet. I found them scattered about my land in places I’d never seen them before, and I was relentless in my pursuit of them. This effort kept my mind focused as I rode an emotional roller coaster. As a friend of mine said at the time “it keeps your mind out of unorganized territory.”

So back to those design questions. How delicious to focus on the shape of a bowl’s foot, or whether a thrown piece wants a swell in it’s contour and whether that swell should ride low or high. It’s the gift of the creative impulse, to bring our attention into single pointed focus on simple things.

What kinds of things work for you to bring you into that creative, quiet place? Please share in the comments, and if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you can do so by clicking here.  And remember we’d love to see you at the studio anytime!