Notebook, 1993-


[From: Paulus Berenshohn. Finding One's Way with Clay, with photographs by True Kelly, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1987.

Finding One's Way with Clay - Excerpts

"Finding one's way with clay is a technical question: in what way, i.e., method, do I want to work? It is also a question of style: how do I want this piece to look? And it is a spiritual question as well: how do I relate, connect to what is unknowable or as yet unknown in myself and in the materials I work with? Yet fundamentally it is an observation: that the clay is the material, the companion, the faithful John, the teacher, the child, the sparring partner, the beloved with which I'm finding my way through and into my life."

The sculptor Giacometti was commissioned by the French Government to design a coin in commemoration of the artist Henri Matisse. He spent five full days in Matisse's bedroom sketching and sketching the old artist. Drawing after drawing displeased Giacometti and finally he shouted in despair. "Oh Master, I cannot draw" and Matisse replied, "None of us can."

"Not techniques, but equipment for the journey."

"I am trying to learn how, when leading a workshop, to speak from the artist in me to the artist in each one of the people present. I do not mean by this anything to do with good artist or bad, better artist or best. I find such distinctions meaningless and unhelpful. My experience is demonstrating that there is an artistic voice in each one of us that is not helped by any comparisons except with our own deepening growth. In each of us there is our pinch pot, as there is our dance, our poem and our song. What it looks or sounds like is less important than the artistic journey we take to discover it. I toast and greet the artist in you from the artist in me."

From the PREFACE
. . . . although I go off from time to time to work alone on my pots, I seem to return again and again to sharing the experiences of forming with others; to teaching and learning . . . .

. . . . It was forming clay pots by the pinch method, making use of the beautiful and varied colors of clay and speaking a little about how I work, that were foremost in my mind and hands. So this book began to take shape. Hopefully I will feel drawn to go on to one or two other small books: about coiling; about working with slabs; about strengthening the muscle of the imagination, using our fantasy and dreams as source; about a form of journal-keeping I've been developing with my classes that attempts to bring more of ourselves into the act of forming; and about our bodies, their rhythm, their strengths and weaknesses and health, and the part they play in concert with the clay bodies of our work . . . . Not offered as a demonstration of the way; shared as a confession of a way, a way not yet fully shaped by any means, a way of "becoming," of "forming."

From the section on PREPARING
I start at the beginning with a ball of clay about the size of a small orange.

I like the clay to be slightly on the wet side . . . . the clay and its consistency is of importance to me . . . . unless it is extremely plastic and relatively grog-free, in which case a stiffer consistency will work well. Different clay bodies have different characteristics for pinching. Some bodies will pinch till they almost disappear in thinness, others will insist upon thicker walls. In most cases, fresh-made clays tend to crack on the edges and on the outside of the walls (this can be very beautiful if you choose to go along and leave the cracks).


From the Section on STORING:
When I can afford to do so, I store away some of this clay in an unheated room in my barn. After two years of freezing and defrosting, this clay becomes what I like to call "vintage" clay. It seems to throw and pinch with a vigor all its own--a true collaborator. I find taking this time in the preparation of my clay deeply satisfying. It is, however, not necessary.

From the Section on STARTING TO WORK:
After I wedge the clay I try not to begin working immediately but rather to let the activity of wedging quiet in me for at least a few moments before making the initial opening in the ball of clay. When I feel together and with the clay, so to speak, I then start opening the solid sphere.

From the Section on BASIC PRINCIPLE:
If you take a small ball of clay with about the diameter of a quarter, and press-pinch hard into its center, chances are that the edges will crack. If, however, you rotate the ball and press firmly but gently in small pinches all over its surface while offering counter-pressure with the fingers of the other hand on its edge, you will more likely be able to pinch this ball thin without its cracking.

In pinching, as in throwing on the wheel, the clay needs our support. A firm and tender touch: a pressing out by one hand or fingers, not into a void, but into the supportive, giving, and even resisting capacities of the other hand or fingers.

From the section on FIRST STEPS
. . . . Perhaps it is because of this very difficulty in gaining precision on the wheel that we often seek what seems to us the greater freedom of expression possible in working without the wheel. Yet I have noticed that, in most cases, working with this particular sense of freedom in hand building often leads to predictable ends: frustration at not being able to make the materials do what we want them to do; a sameness from piece to piece due to the lack of technical skill and exploration that can extend the range of possibility; and pieces that often attempt too much and result in a piece containing enough form, texture, content and glaze to enrich a host of pieces. It is because of this that I urge my students (even those with vast previous experience) to start at the beginning, if they can, and lead them through a few extremely simple and clear exercises designed to show how to control and at the same time work along with the clay--pinching open and closed forms, large and small forms, clean and textured forms, thick and thin, symmetrical and asymmetrical--so that our freedom is equipped with power and range for expression.

At the same time, and this is central to the whole point of this book, these exercises do not come out of a purely technical concern. They are concerned, acutely, with the growing relationship of the potter to his clay; with bringing more and more personality, imagination and inspiration into play; and with tapping sources deep within the experience of the potter to inform the forms he makes.

In the deepest sense this is what I believe technique is--the ability to breathe the spirit of our lives into what we make . . . . I takes hard conscious and unconscious work for most of us to connect these facts with what we make, to find our pot as we also seek our dance and our song.

And so I am concerned here with the questions of "How do we work?" "How do we exercise?" so that our bodies and the clay bodies come together strengthened and more articulate. The freedom I seek is not one that lets me do what I want to do but rather a freedom that equips me to be able to do what I need to do.

Try to witness what you make without declaring it good or bad, ugly or beautiful.

Such declarations seem like very heavy burdens for such young work to bear.

In a very real sense, in this work, failure, if there is such a thing, can be viewed as a privilege.

To make something successfully on the first try leaves you, in some cases, with little but a souvenir,

Whereas getting lost may afford you the opportunity to stop, reexamine and begin again and again with renewed insight and perhaps even personally developed solutions to move you on with strength.

These are first steps, and like those of a young child they may be uncoordinated, uncertain, and you may fall down, but they may also be enlivened by discoveries of your own and a sense of joy in a new ability opening up.

From the section on PINCHING
. . . . It seemed a good idea to pinch first, because it offered me the most direct contact with the clay that I knew. By pinching you could see and experience the texture of the clay, feel the clay as it thinned with the pressure of your fingers and be witness to the clay's moisture drying with its exposure to air and the blotting action of your fingers. With all these good thoughts, I was still unable to find my own way into pinching or to illuminate the act for my students. I would show them photographs of early Japanese pinched raku teabowls and pass around a delicate leaflike pinched bowl made by my teacher, Mary Caroline Richards. To handle this pot was like taking hold of her hand--it helped.

. . . . In my desire to encourage pinching by my students I began, more and more, to return to attempting making bowls in this way. It was, finally, a literary image that quickened my interest and brought this way of making pots alive for me personally, and in turn, for my students as my ardor became apparent. In one of his books, Jean Genet, the French playwright and novelist, speaks of his desire to roam the countryside with a "begging bowl"; a bowl, as I read it, in which to receive what he needed for the nourishment of his life, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Reading this I had an immediate response, a recognition of this image's importance to my own life, my own need.

I set about . . . . potter's wheel . . . . coiling and by slab, but it was not until I had pinched them out of one ball of clay each that I began to feel connected in what I was doing and what I was feeling: All of a sudden I had a need to pinch and found that pinching began to open the door into a totally new experience of clay, one based firmly in where I was in my own experience of myself.

I pinched thin, hollow, simple shells, giving them the time they seemed to require to take their form.

After experimentation, I glazed them quietly with smooth skins on the inside, allowing the clay to stand clean on the outside.

...I progressed, as my skill increased and my feelings and needs necessitated, to related sets of "beloved bowls," large individual story pots, avocado planters, plates, bowls, pinched globes, etc.

Because I found, in most cases, that glaze was too heavy and rich an addition to the outer surface of these bowls, I moved intuitively to a concern about the color of the clay itself and soon began using two or more clay bodies wedged together to enhance the earth-connected mood.

My excitement about the flexibility this gave me sent me further into an exploration of the various additives I could use to alter the color of my clays. I discovered a whole palette of color was possible in the clay itself and began firing my pots at temperatures varying from cone 012 to cone 9 in oxidation atmospheres, as well as cone 10 in "reduction fire."

I used these clays wedged together, inlaid or appliqued to the forms, to add color and texture and design; symbols of connection, signs of source.

Just having this color to use from the very beginning of the forming of a pot has brought a new aliveness and a new dimension to the work.

. . . . The more I pinched, however, the slower I seemed to move; my breath deepened and my very posture as I worked seemed to become less tense. I discovered soon that pinching offered me an alternative to my usual rhythm of work and an enrichment of it. My pinched pots asked to be formed slowly, quietly and with deep attention.

New respect and interest has grown in me for the touch and the color of clay, for its perishability and its strength.

I am taking more care in my selection and making of clay bodies: allowing them their own time to age. This lesson, that time is needed for both clay and potter to ripen, is a nourishing and supportive one.

"And it may be that certain forms of play are an escape hatch for us from technology; a therapeutic hope... a little more methexis mixed into our mimesis. That is, participation . . . . as well as imitation. Not just Warhol's participation, of course, but ours. If we all of us had movie cameras and tape recorders and silk-screens; if we designed our own furniture, shaped our own glassware, wove our own tapestries, set our own type, we might knit up the raveled sleeve of self. The rush of esthetic theories upon us, while we lie numb under the machines, has divided us from our experience, has stylized our responses. We do not understand, but attitudinize. Craftsmanship, the self-shaping of privacy, the health-giving labor, could be our way out." - John Leonard, The New York Times Magazine, November 10, 1968.

[Paulus Berenshohn. Finding One's Way with Clay, with photographs by True Kelly, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1987.]



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