The Beauty of Craft

Richard Batterham Jar

The Beauty of Craft: A Resurgence Anthology, a collection of essays edited by Sandy Brown and Maya Kumar Mitchell, examines the place of craft in today’s world from many perspectives. “Some time in the middle of the fifteenth century, painters, sculptors and architects, among them Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Masaccio, began to question their status and demand equality with the poets. They began to disassociate themselves from the workers of the manual crafts,” John Lane writes in the opening section. “…In due course they were to be accepted as full members of Humanist society, and in the process to establish a hitherto inconceivable concept and realm: the idea of Art as a self-validating, self-referential domain…In consequence, this was the turning point that marked the end of the anonymous craft traditions and the beginning of the Artist as hero, the Artist with his or her unique vision, the Artist as genius – the Artist with clean hands.”  Alas, and some of us would say unfortunately, Artists were now seen as superior to (mere) makers.

Prior to this separation of craft and art, people had been making things of beauty for millennia. Potters, weavers, house builders, carpet makers made objects that were an integral part of daily life, that functioned well yet were also a pleasure to behold. The incised lines on a bowl, the carved beads on a wooden door, the vibrant colors of a blanket were not necessary for functionality but gave both the users and the makers aesthetic pleasure.

Today, the need for handmade objects for daily living is deeply diminished from da Vinci’s era. “Practically every artifact a person uses today, can easily be made from oil-derived plastic, in a large factory, by machine-minders whose chief quality is their ability to survive lives of intense boredom,” John Seymour writes in his essay. In her thoughtful entry Contemporary Concerns: What is the place of craft in a full world? Tanya Harrod writes, “Today more of us are consumers than producers,”

The book is divided into six major sections: World of Craft, Ways of Living, Culture of Community, Caring for Nature, Enduring Skills, and Seekers of Meaning.  Within each of the sections are essays by various authors. Happily, seven of the essays in the book are specifically about pottery, plus two more look at cob (doesn’t everyone working with clay dream of building with cob one day?), and potters slip into a several other chapters. Edmund de Waal discusses the benefits of an urban studio. Geraldine Norman enthuses about the earthenware that Clive Bowen makes in his rural North Devon shop. David Whiting brings us Richard Batterham, whom he calls “both the most faithful and least imitative of the Leachean potters.”

The Beauty of Craft is a project of Resurgence, a magazine The Guardian calls “The spiritual and artistic flagship of the green movement.” The book is not easy to summarize. It contains differing viewpoints. I found it soothing and celebratory.

John Britt on Glazes

You might be tempted to read through the glaze recipes in John Britt’s new book, The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes: Glazing & Firing at Cones 4 – 7, and skip the text. Don’t do it. You might think that because you fire at higher or lower temperatures, the book would be of no use to you. Big mistake. The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes is packed with information and belongs on every potter’s bookshelf.

“Iron oxide, “ Britt tells us, “makes up about 7 percent of the top layer of the earth’s crust, and it’s the most common coloring oxide in ceramics. In fact, iron is everywhere on our planet. Technically speaking, all glazes contain some iron.”  Elsewhere in the text he points out, “There are four major forms of iron oxide. These are red iron oxide, magnetic iron, black iron oxide, and yellow iron oxide.” He then goes on to explain the differences between them and how they react in the fire.

Writing of feldspar he tells us that “most feldspars melt at cone 9, the lowest melting feldspar is nepheline syenite, which melts at cone 6.” Each paragrapah is packed with nuggets like these.

Britt also gives an overview of each type of glaze along with its history. In the section on Temmoku he tells us, “During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Japanese visited a monastery in a Chinese mountain called Tianmu Shan (Mount Eye of Heaven), where they collected some Jai (oil spot temmoku) tea bowls. The Japanese were inspired to imitate their look. They referred to their highly prized bowls as Tianmu or Temmoku (sometimes spelled Tenmoku.” Later he tells us “Tea dust is a low alumina temmoku glaze that contains magnesium oxide, which is responsible for the yellow-green pyroxene crystals that are of typical of this type.”

Added to this wealth of glaze and materials information, are charts, photos, advice on mixing and applying, and the recipes themselves. Stunning.

Britt devotes an entire chapter to making his argument for firing at cone 6, citing savings in time and money and the reduction of one’s carbon footprint. “For functional ware,” he writes, “cone 6 stoneware is an excellent choice because it’s very durable and vitrified…so it can withstand repeated trips into the dishwasher and microwave. Also, glazes can be made that are stable and don’t leach harmful chemicals.” He goes on to share his ideas on how best to move from cone 10 down to cone 6.

The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes is a must for every potter’s reference library. Thank you John Britt for your extensive research and in depth understanding and your ability to explain what you have learned so clearly.