Ordinarily, one writes a memoir after reaching middle or old age, but Florian Gadsby, the author of By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship is young. Almost 900,000 fans follow his daily posts on Instagram. He has 1.45 million subscribers on YouTube. He is widely renowned for his crisp, thinly potted tableware. That is enough to get a publisher’s attention, but it is not what makes the book interesting or sets it apart. What By My Hands does, is give us a deep look at a potter’s – Gadsby’s – education.
Gadsby’s serious ceramics education began at the Waldorf Steiner school in Kings Langley. He makes it clear that he is not a disciple of Rudolf Steiner or adherent of anthroposophy, but says he likely would not have become a potter had it not been for the school. M.C. Richards, the influential potter/philosopher, was interested in Steiner’s thinking, especially his thoughts on agriculture. Guy Wolff attended High Mowing, a Waldorf secondary school based on Steiner’s thinking. where he too became a potter. There is a thread here.
Gadsby shares with us what he is learning, his questions and observations, his various mishaps. He is writing for his customers as much or more than for other potters, so he explains processes as he goes.
Next, he attends The Design and Crafts Council of Ireland’s Ceramic Skills and Design Training Course, in the Irish village of Thomastown. This is a rigorous two-year program. “The course was focused entirely on teaching practical skills,” he writes, “and taught potters to a very high level, providing them with kilns galore, a glaze laboratory and as much throwing tuition as you could dream of.” There is no room for slacking, and in fact, students who cannot keep up are sent home. He learns to throw multiple identical pots to specified shapes, to make glazes, and, ultimately, to fire kilns.
Afterwards he apprentices with Lisa Hammond at Maze Hill in London. In this section of the book, we get an intimate look at this great potter and the inner workings of her studio. We see her soda kilns and how she fires them. She is an exacting task master with high expectations of her apprentices, yet she is also generous with her knowledge and support. Her gift to Gadsby after his three years with her, is a six-month apprenticeship with Ken Matsuzaki in Japan.
Gadsby spends most of his time in Moshiko with Doi, Matsuzaki’s apprentice who was seven years into a ten-year apprenticeship. They begin their days raking leaves in the cold morning hours. Gadsby learns to use a kick wheel, grinds pots, wedges clay, and observes. The days are long. At the end of his apprenticeship, he, happily using an electric wheel, makes and fires two kiln loads of work for an exhibition. One is filled with Oribe glaze, the other shino. And then, exhausted but elated, he returns to London to begin work on pots of his own in a studio of his own.
If Gadsby’s goal in writing this book was to impress his customers with how much goes into the education of a potter, how hard he worked to acquire his skills, it succeeds. I think it also succeeds as a deeply personal look at the potter’s craft. And, best of all, it offers wonderful and intimate portraits of two very different – and legendary – potters, Lisa Hammond and Ken Matsuzaki.
By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship, Ten Speed Press 978-1-9848-6358-4