Hands on the wheel

A couple of weeks ago, I got some hands-on experience of the potter’s wheel (or Wheel Throwing, to use the technical term). I’ve played around with modelling clay before, but this was probably my first attempt at ceramics, and certainly the first experience of wheel throwing. The result (so far) can be seen in the photo below…

The class was a 2.5 hour introductory workshop, conducted by Little Woods Studio in Collingwood (via WeTeachMe), and I highly recommend it. I don’t think I was any good, but that’s not the point. The only pot I managed to make (shown above) is actually quite small, and wouldn’t have happened without a lot of direct assistance from the instructor, who was incredibly patient.

Learning the physical technique of throwing, fixing and initially shaping the clay on the wheel is a skill in itself that needs more than a couple of hours to achieve a consistent level of proficiency.

Then there are the many variables to consider – the quality of the clay and whether it has been prepared sufficiently; the amount of water to use, and how much arm and hand pressure to apply; the stability and responsiveness of the wheel; the height of wheel and stool; and probably the weather (barometric pressure). Then there is knowing when and how quickly to start bringing up the sides of the pot, what thickness of base to settle on, and what wheel speed to achieve – too often, I ended up collapsing the walls just as was beginning to shape the rim; or I applied too much bracing support from my arms so that my hands ripped the clay off the wheel again. (Is this where the phrase, ‘to throw a wobbly’, comes from?)

And this is all before the two-stage process of firing and glazing, when anything might happen to cause the pot to crack or crumble. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, I’ll be able to pick up the finished item, a souvenir of my first (and probably only) pottery class.

If nothing else, I now have a huge respect for potters, and a greater appreciation for the fruits of their labours.

Next week: Kentridge – Modern Polymath

Craft vs Creativity

In a recent blog on Auckland, I mentioned seeing some Maori artifacts or Taonga during a gallery tour. The curator had mentioned that these objects raise questions of whether they are art, or craft. Does the distinction matter? Not necessarily, but I think it’s important to understand the difference between craft (largely skills-based) and art (largely aesthetically-driven). Often these concepts overlap, and are sometimes misconstrued, which in turn influences how we attach value, appreciation, importance and significance to particular objects.

Anton Gerner, A Cabinet With No Front Or Back 2019, Fiddleback Blackwood, Celery Top Pine. (Image sourced from Craft Victoria)

What often gets viewed as “pure” art is more a result of design, technique and skill – attributes which are more usually associated with craft (or “applied” art). Indeed, it is noticeable how viewers seem to appreciate “effort” over “creativity”. A great number of exhibitions I see in contemporary art galleries are more about illustration, decoration and process – and it’s as if the time taken to create the work or the complexity of the object is more important than the actual aesthetic outcome.

On the other hand, a lot of work that is assigned to the category of “craft” is capable of sitting alongside sculptures and 3-D work in an art gallery. Equally, a lot of work (especially in the fields of ceramics, textiles and jewellery) has neither the aesthetic form to be considered as art, nor the functional form to be regarded as craft.

For me, craft involves considered decisions about the choice of material, the design and production process, plus the intended function (even if the latter is only for decorative purposes). Whereas art is usually undertaken for the purpose of arriving at an intended creative outcome, with the choice of materials etc., often being secondary to the final aesthetic result.

Both art and craft can be seen in cultural, social and even political terms. They are also informed by context and narrative. But successful art should convey more creativity than applied craft or technique. And craft is often diminished if it fails to conveys some practical element of function – what’s the point of a beautiful jug if it cannot pour water?

Two recent exhibitions underline how the distinction between “art” and “craft” is often blurred: the Victorian Craft Awards, and MasterMakers at RMIT Gallery. In the Craft Victoria display, most of the pieces had no real practical purpose (other than decoration); yet, in terms of achieving an aesthetic goal, it felt like this was subservient to the materials and the process. While in the RMIT exhibition, there was an emphasis on the materials, plus an acknowledgement that even very technical processes can also result in objects that offer aesthetic pleasure – where form and function truly combine, and are inherently equal in the work. (The Anton Gerner furniture at Craft Victoria also manages to achieve that combination.)

We still don’t really know why the first cave paintings were made – were they an early form of graffiti? do they tell a story or capture events for posterity? were they the result of experimenting with pigments or dyeing techniques? or were they the result of some existential desire to give rise to a form of human expression? or simply to have something nice to look at? But we know we can appreciate them for their aesthetic level as well as their technique – in addition to their historical significance.

Next week: Notes from Phuket