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!