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Contemporary Functional Pottery: A Discussion of Handmade Pottery by 11 Working Potters Available for Download

Tina Gebhart's Lobed teapot, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, porcelain, salt fired to cone 10.

Tina Gebhart's Lobed teapot, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, porcelain, salt fired to cone 10.

As we all know, there are a lot of people who use pottery, but there is a relatively small group of those who use handmade pottery. These are the folks who really understand the value of the handmade object in their everyday lives. As it happens, the most dedicated of those people are often potters themselves.

It’s hard to explain the value of the handmade to those who just don’t “get it,” which can really bum me out sometimes. But when I have a “geez, why do I bother?” moment, the best remedy seems to be to get back into the studio and check in with other makers like myself.

Of course, if you don’t have a community of ceramic artists handy to check in with, you can always check in on Ceramic Arts Daily. And if you enjoy hearing the perspectives of other makers, you’ll really enjoy our latest free gift Contemporary Functional Pottery: A Discussion of Handmade Pottery by 11 Working Potters. Below is an excerpt from it in which Tina Gebhart talks teapots. Enjoy! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Professionally, I make teapots because they embrace the complexity
of parts coming together as a whole. This form comes with more design
parameters than most traditional forms, and each decision in the
process shapes the way the following decisions will be made. In some
ways, they are like choose-your-own-adventure books – simply (or
complicatedly) life.

Personally, I am interested in the teapot form because it
exemplifies taking time. Each morning, I drink a full pot of tea, and
do so in slow time. This may be the only slow time of that day, and I
take it first, not last, in preparation for the business that will
almost inevitably occur. I like a brisk pace overall (my students
comment that I even walk fast), but it cannot be relished without the
contrast of slow. This is my special time with myself and my husband,
talking and drinking tea.

The minimum qualities for the teapot format are: appropriate
containment, hand-handle position, spout pourability, lid sit, knob
grip (the pure utility issues); integration of the parts into a
cohesive visual whole (the visual issues); excellent assembly
(construction issues). There are just too many attachments and form
joins that can become a distraction if construction is not sound. As
are most parameters, these are simply a starting point, the
fundamentals without which one cannot effectively approach this next
arena of “making special.”

This article was excerpted from Contemporary Functional Pottery: A Discussion of Handmade Pottery by 11 Working Potters, which is free to Ceramic Arts Daily subscribers.

I can imagine a teapot that was utility-effective and visually
cohesive, yet bored me to tears and I would never ever want to use. The
pot must be compelling on some level, either by visual content (in a
Modernist sense), emotional-material content (in an Expressionist
sense), narrative content (in, well, a narrative sense), and cognitive
content (in a Postmodern sense). Work that focuses on one of these
categories still benefits greatly from the presence of at least some
amount of the others. The visual may be the initial powerhouse,
otherwise the viewer may never access the other intended content
layers; yet it also requires some amount of the others or the viewer
may never linger. If the layers are never uncovered, do they actually
exist? Entice. Deliver. Allow space for rumination.

There is not a perfect handle, or spout, or any part. All things
depend on each other for their success. The spout has to be right for
that body. The knob for all things that have come before it. The great
handle from one form can fail miserably if placed on another pot. The
decisions have to be made in some kind of sequence, and that sequence
can exaggerate or obliterate pre-existing strengths. The handle may
adjust a slight mismatch of body to spout, or exaggerate it into
serious visual problems.

The pot isn’t fully alive when at rest, yet it must also be enjoyed
when it is still. It’s like sleep, which is good, but in doses between
other activities. It does disappoint me when my pots are not used for
their generally intended function, but if a user prefers something
other than tea from the teapot, I would not complain. At least they are
pouring something from it. Just please don’t put flowers in it – my
skin may crawl off.

I consider the ceremony and ritual of others before and after making
or designing (drawing), never during. That would actually interfere
with my own ritual in making.

When I make, I am fully with that pot, that group of pots. Nothing
else exists. I am connected in a quiet intensity to my hands, and my
hands to those forms. Part of my mind is not allowed to wake until I
step back. Then I am in a different gear, one of brisk analysis of the
parts, the balance, tension of a line, flow of a curve. There I decide
a conscious, basic course of action, of reframing or redirecting, and
then I jump back in and make simultaneous, half-conscious,
micro-decisions to make it do what it needs to do.

I think of marketing strategies as design strategies. In this case,
it may not be simply “Build it and they will come” but “Build it and
then go find them.” If the work is good, get it where it needs to be to
be seen by the people who will buy it.

I believe that good sales mechanics can probably sell just about
anything, even if it is low quality. In my heart of hearts, I cannot
imagine getting up in the morning with the intent to make something
half well. Make it well, or consider not bothering with it at all. A
quality product is worth the extra effort in making and in buying, and
it can sell itself to a degree.

I have a Prada backpack that is a hand-me-down. I would have never
bought one of these, but now I know why people do. It isn’t just the
name. This thing has been through the wringer; I lug thirty pounds
around in it, flinging it over my shoulder by one strap, and not a
single seam is starting to come apart even after years of abuse. It
will last longer than ten cheap backpacks and be less expensive in the
end. It does its job and does it well.

For professional studio making; if it’s not good, don’t keep making
it. Change something, anything that might improve things. The world
does not need another poorly-made, low-quality, throw-it-away thing.
Investing in quality is cheaper in the long run, and investing in our
personal existence (or that of our customers and collectors) is worth
every penny and every hour. And figure out how to make it well while
making it briskly, or you may break the bank.

For learning-focused making, we have to go through a few tons of
pots (a likely equivalent to the 10,000 practice hours of a skilled
activity which are necessary to be a virtuoso) to get to the good ones,
so accept making lots of bad pots. Every tenth one may be somewhat
good, or even every fifth one. Eventually, nearly every pot coming out
of our hands may be at least good, even great, or maybe even quite
excellent. Don’t loose sight of this, ever, or you may never get there.

I propose that function isn’t; function does. It is defined by its
action, instead of its being. The functional pot invokes action on our
parts, both as makers and users, and acts in its own right. By being
engaged, we and it continue to more fully exist. We do, therefore we
are. It does, therefore it is. It earns its existence by serving us,
giving us time, showing us time, and making that time more noticed,
more special, more true.

In a world of fast, instantaneous change of state and engagement—in
cell phone/Facebook/Google/microwave land—time is existence, and
celebrating time reminds us that we are.

To learn more about Tina Gebhart and see more images of her work, visit www.tinagebhart.com


This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly. Subscribe today!