Red clay, teapots and the philosophy of handles
I’ve set myself a bit of a challenge - to publish a post on our journal more often. Nothing fancy, just a whistle-stop tour of what we’ve been making, reading and thinking about each week. So here goes…
It has been very much a week of production at Pottery West HQ, with a couple of large orders to fulfil and a new member of staff, Carla Murdoch, who will be freelancing with us for a couple of days a week. She’s a complete god-send as our business is certainly growing - plus she’s completely introduced us to the fact that 90s hip-hop plus breaks for spicy chai = productivity - who knew! Whilst all this has been happening I’ve managed to sneak in a glaze test experiment, which will go through the kiln next week - the recipe includes wood ash and red clay, both of which I have gathered and processed from Silkstone - the village I grew up in and where my parents still live. If you’re interested in the clay, see here. I have read that many local clays, when mixed in glazes, need to be a really fine particle size to work well (I’m sorry, I don’t know the exact scientific details of why), so I did spend about 5 hours grinding dried clay in a pestle and mortar (hip hop and spicy chai sure did help). The clay is so full of iron, it is such a beautiful ochre / rust colour. The ash comes from willow trees mainly, and I have washed it a couple of times to remove the salts. I’m so excited to see how it turns out.
Over the weekend it was all about making teapots. It is a slow and methodical metamorphosis from mud to teapot. Teapots are amongst some of the more precise forms that we make, because, what a responsibility it is to be making a teapot that will not only pour and hold tea well, but may well become a central player to another’s morning routine, a listener in on conversations, plots and ideas! We both have a bit of a love for making our teapots, most of the time it is a collaborative task with Matt throwing the forms and me assisting to attach the spouts and handles, working silently as we go or sometimes accompanied with mundane chatter about what we might cook for tea or musings over funny things our little boy has been doing. These crafted teapots are infused with our everyday chattering and carry the marks of our hands, if you look carefully you can perhaps see differences between any two teapots we make, perhaps the spout seems a fraction longer, because although we are precise, this part is done by eye and hands alone.
I was also lucky enough this week to attend a talk by Chinese metalwork master Li Fuming, founder of Li Xiaobai Studio. Xiaobai craft the most intricate and impressive teapots and kettles from silver, gold and copper - I was completely mesmerised by not only the pieces themselves but the local culture and scenery of the Yunnan Province in which Xiaobai Studio is based. Also, their most expensive kettle is made from solid gold and retails at approximately £35k - that gave me a little food for thought! He also made some crazy beautiful pieces for Jackie Chan.
The philosophy of handles.
I have been thinking about this brilliant essay, by German sociologist, Georg Simmel - ‘The Handle’, written in 1911.
According to Simmel, the vessel (with handle) is, “unlike a painting or statue, not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose—if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life.” The ‘handle’ as a concept may perhaps seem like a rather dry subject, but in fact it has prompted much philosophical discussion (of which I don’t seem to understand much I’m afraid (Wittgenstein anyone?)).
Speaking practically though, handles can be tricky to get right and I don’t just mean in terms of making. The size, shape, curve, way they are attached to the main body of the pot - all these details need to be considered carefully and it can take a few attempts at making a new handled design to get it right. Think of it - the handle will be the primary interaction between the person and the pot, it needs to be really great!
So many people have specific ideas of what a good handle feels like to them, it’s a highly individual matter in my experience. Luckily Matt and I tend to agree so far. And so many potters I talk to hate making handles, they find them time consuming and a little bit annoying. I understand that too.
But I think a handle on a vessel can bring a warmth and humanity which I really cherish. I think one of the reasons is that a handle, if made in the way we make them, by pulling the clay, shaping and attaching, is completely devoid of the machine as a tool - not even the wheel.
Using only the hands to make a handle.