A Dark Side to Ceramics

Jane Perryman photo

A well-worn book on my shelves is Jane Perryman’s masterpiece Traditional Pottery of India published twelve years ago. She begins by telling us that India has a million potters, more than any other nation, and then goes on to describe their work in great detail, region by region. Her photos are exquisite. I am entranced with the enormous clay horses, the mud stoves, the wonderful thrown vessels, the polished black pots, the intricately decorated mud walls —all of it. Highly skilled potters have passed their methods of making down for generations. Today, there is competition from cheap, lightweight plastic and metal, and one wonders how much longer there will be a demand for handmade pots. I hope for a long time.

Perryman makes it clear that the potter’s life is not an easy one. The work is physically demanding and it does not bring in much money. Because of their smoky kilns, potters are relegated to the outskirts of towns and looked down upon. Still, what they produce are objects of great beauty. Here in the US, the pieces would be the pride of any gallery.

I was struck, then, by Sonia Faliero’s piece in the New York Times last Sunday, For India’s Children, Philanthropy Isn’t Enough. She tells the story of Meena Devi, a ten-year old girl who is head of her household. Her mother starved to death three years ago, and with her, Devi’s youngest sibling. Her father had died some years before, plunging the family in to dire circumstances. Today, the only adult in Devi’s life is an aunt who is herself besieged with poverty with four kids of her own to feed. Devi cooks and cleans for a brother who is a year older. Her aunt sent another brother, who is fourteen to a distant brick factory to work.

The whole story is heart breaking. When one of Faleiro’s readers offered to send money to support the children, the aunt refused. Worse, Meena will likely end up being trafficked. And that brick factory turns out to be a very bad place, heavily dependent on child labor. One boy told UNICEF, “I usually carry 10 bricks each weighing around four kgs (8.8 pounds) and cover a distance of about 200 meters…I do 15 to 20 such rounds every day. ” And though it is illegal, there are brick factories in India that rely on bonded laborers; slaves, whose every move is controlled by the factory owners, with reports of beatings and horrid, windowless living conditions.

“The low-caste residents of Meena’s village,” Faleiro writes, “work the land of their upper-caste neighbors, who pay them in grain. To earn cash, entire families find supplemental work in on of the state’s many brick kilns, but they don’t make enough to feed themselves.”

Both UNICEF and the Indian government are taking steps to help the children who work long hot hours day after day carrying bricks and brick molds, to regain a bit of their childhood, and most important an education. But I wonder if there is something the ceramic community can do?  Fired clay bricks are exquisitely useful and wonderfully attractive to behold. How terrible that they would be produced on the backs of children.

A Psychoanalyst Looks at Craftspeople

Photo by Joseph Szalay

“Paradise is lost; art making is search and rescue.”

Are we crazy to make bowls and cups and platters by hand when large corporate factories can produce them more quickly and cheaply? Is it insanity to spend years mastering a craft when other career options require less training and pay more?

In An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way, psychoanalyst Janna Malmud Smith (Bernard Malmud’s daughter) does not offer the answers to these questions per se, but she does delve deeply into the minds and working processes of artists and craftspeople. “Because the point of arrival is enigmatic,” she tells us, “elusive, receding, because it waivers like a heat mirage upon the road, always before us only briefly with us, devoting oneself to mastering a practice unexpectedly leads through a time warp where past, present and future commingle. I find the contradictory notion comforting. Contemporary life is all excerpts, fragments, reversals and interruptions; it offends and delights us with its astounding, noisy discontinuity, but the work of mastery is very much as it was when artists thousands of years ago carved Cycladic figures, or cast Benin gold.” (Emphasis mine).

Smith examines the role of shame as impetus in the creative life of artists, and looks at solitude: what it is exactly and how in this era of social media it differs from the past. Is the making of art an attempt at immortality she wonders. As she probes, she uses her own writer’s processes as a lens and relates stories from artists she has known or studied, and anecdotes from her clients. She excavates myths and poetry for clues.

She continues on to such topics as Identity, Ruthlessness (really? us?), Going Public and ends with what she calls Coda. “Often,” she writes, “I suspect, the artist’s awakening follows an arc: from passionate pleasure, to identification with those who have created it, and a wish to become a creator.” She see an emptiness in those who have not found their way to an all engrossing pursuit.

Reading An Absorbing Errand, there is no misunderstanding that it is the work of one who spends her days peering into the human psyche. “Art,” she writes, “…enhances self-display: a flower garden, or anything beautiful we create, is a kind of peacock’s tail.”

Socrates proclaimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Smith concurs and thoughtfully proceeds to examine the mental and emotional states of practicing artists today and, more interesting for her, those who aspire to make art but find themselves blocked. I imagine readers, upon finishing the book, seeking out discussions and arguments with their fellow artists and perhaps Smith herself if she were available. I know I would love to talk about her ideas with other potters.

Meanwhile, to the first point, I for one am at least just a little bit insane. But that’s okay, isn’t it?

Romantic Countryside

Sometimes you need a daydreaming kind of book, something escapist to take you to a romanticized place where the garden never looks weedy and there’s always fresh baked bread on the table. Jasper Conran’s Country is just such a book. Every page has at least one of Andrew Montgomery’s wistful photos of rural England. Just flipping through and looking at these photos is enough to transport you. The text feels like an extra bonus.

There are hollyhocks by cottage doors, cows in the meadows, rushing streams, fishermen’s ancient shacks, glorious roses, shabby chic interiors and a baby lamb in a kitchen. This is not a book about ceramics but you can’t have a book about the English countryside without pottery.

We see a two page spread of an auricula theatre with three dozen lovely English flower pots each planted with a single auricula. Conran writes, “I was intrigued by an auricula threatre. Auriculas were the height of fashion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they first began to arrive in Britain from Continental Europe and enthusiasts, often in stately homes, used these tiered ‘theatres’ to display their prized plants to their friends.”

There are flowerpots in the gardens. There are rustic tile floors. I especially liked the large cream and brown slip-trailed oval dish set off by itself on a dark wooden table but wondered at the painting of two shoes on a pillow that hung on the wall behind it. Fine export porcelain from China, blue and white and polychrome, graces the grander rooms.

Four pages are devoted to Tim Hurn the Dorset potter who works in a pretty brick dairy shed that he converted to a studio. Hurn must like the photo in the book of him stacking his anagama because he has it on his homepage. I like it too, and the photo of his unfired bowls and jugs ready for the flame. And I wish my workshop were as pretty as his, with a vegetable patch in front, and fields and hills all around. That is exactly the reason to peruse a book like this, to fantasize and imagine.