on Lyric Functionalism
Tell ‘em that they’d better come on right now
Tell ‘em ‘bout the function at the junction.
—“Function at the Junction,” Eddie Holland/Shorty Long
Garth Clark’s essay is a welcome invitation to think more deeply about who we functional potters are and where we’re going. His idea that we are like classical musicians replaying an archaic repertoire based on Leach’s canon of Sung and Yi Dynasty favorites, marooned off the ship of contemporary culture, is provocative. We can agree with Clark that derivative pots—and not just Leach ones—are bad, that the market for our work needs development, that connoisseurship should be fostered, and that functional potters need to identify themselves more clearly. But this classical musical metaphor fails to ring (so to speak) true. For while comparing our pottery making to music making is a rich way into thinking about our work, the classical analogy only works if you believe that there really still are classical Leachians out there, and that the field is dominated by the impulse to reproduce his—or any other—historical canon . Instead, I see a body of functional pottery that synthesizes Leach’s passionate insights into the compelling power of the pots he loved and reflects some of the ethical hopes he felt could be expressed in making and using hand-made pottery. I would call this contemporary synthesis lyrical functionalism, strongly rooted in ceramic histories—including, but broader, than Leach’s canon—and personal, quirky, playful, and compelling. “Lyric,” because like lyric poetry this work celebrates the intimate voice of the individual maker as embodied in a familiar ancient form. As Edward Hirsch writes, “the lyric…[is] an intimate communique, a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. It delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy between strangers” . Like lyric poems, these pots bring to their beholders the unique melody and message of the living mind of the potter. They offer an alternative to the unexamined prosaic objects that surround us and invite the opportunity to create domestic worlds rich with meaning and integrity. Today’s studio potters are not Bernard’s orphans, wearing out their bow strings replaying dead classical scores, but rather, artists nourished on the great panoply of ceramic history and ideas, building on traditional structures championed by Leach, but taking them in new directions: more poet singer-songwriters or jazz innovators than second fiddlers.
There is a Cervantian sense to Clark’s fixation on “classical” potters; a tilting at pugmills, if you will. When I survey the landscape of functional potters, I have trouble finding Bernard’s orphans at all, much less obscurantist hegemons holding back progress. (My hunch is that actually finding a Leachian today might be as hard as finding an unreconstructed Freudian or Marxist.) Leach’s direct influence has waned, partly by attrition: the passing of time, and generations, and changes in society and technology, and by recent scholarship on Leach that has toppled the statue and has begun to restore him as the complex human being he was . The contradictions of a privileged, educated artist holding up a canon of peasant-ware has been explored, as has the charge of sentimentality and appropriation, of Orientalism, and the shortfalls in his own work, especially set next to Hamada’s. Most of us are now beyond the point where the regarding of Leach—“father of studio pottery,” true or false prophet, and all the Oedipal revisions that this invites—is a site of anxious attention. Where Clark sees Leach as the living barrier to our own aspirations to originality—I think of him as historical. A founding contributor to a functional movement: he was one of the earliest studio potters, a craftsman who saw himself as an artist. He made his own clay, and generally threw, glazed, and fired his own pots. His advocacy of the aesthetic principles of old Asian and English pots connected to his broader imagining of an ethical and engaged relationship of human beings to natural materials and creative work. His legacy remains an important, if slightly settled, wall in the foundation of functional pottery—a necessary and still serviceable part of the old house’s footing. As we renovate and expand our dwelling, the old house with all its quirks and character is incorporated into an architecture appropriate to the needs of our own time and vision.
Leach offered the English-speaking world his revelation of “Oriental” and medieval English pots, inviting us to discover their tactility, subtle texture, complex simplicity, spontaneity, and appropriateness, so different from the soulless whiteware commonly in use. His well-known 1927 quip that “after 100 years, the trade offers us crockery which is cheap, standardized, thin, white, hard, and waterproof—good qualities all—but the shapes are wretched, the colours, sharp and harsh, the decoration banal, and the quality absent” endures as a withering critique . He challenged his contemporaries to make pots that lived up to another standard, and he struggled to achieve this himself throughout his life, and to find a place for the fruits of that effort in the marketplace. Leach’s writing, his poetic, analytic insights, in particular, still offer opportunities to deepen our own gaze. His burning enthusiasm for beauty of the pots he loved, under-recognized at the time in the West, and the way he was able to write about them still gives us tools to look at and understand not just his canon (which was at least by 1951, when the Potter’s Portfolio was published, much broader than Sung Yi and Old English), but all pots that come before our eyes and into our hands. The passion and engagement of his descriptions of pots indeed have the ring of poems:
The over-all decoration of the Tz’u Chou bottle may be open to criticism, in that the eye is carried down to the foot or up to the shoulder by the strong brushwork, leaving the vigorously free sgraffito [sic] writing and combed background in the central area somewhat abandoned. The contrast of treatment may lack unity, but it is all done with such a potter’s zest and power as to defeat niggard criticism .
The complexity of his gaze is remarkable. The pot succeeds by flouting expectation. Leach’s interpretation opens up the uncanny mystery of an individual potter’s singular vision—in short, the lyrical.
To explore contemporary pottery—both as Leach’s legacy and as something else entirely, let’s similarly consider a pot by Michael Simon, whose work is emblematic of the best of lyrical functionalism.
The tall vase stands on our windowsill. The slightly flaring cylinder is thrown and paddled into a triangle. The tall foot, almost a pedestal, has been cut both on the wheel and freehand and flares dramatically outward. The division between the foot and body is emphasized by the application of a kaolin slip that cuts a slightly slanting line across the top the foot. The texture shifts subtly between the cut foot, where the trimming knife has exposed the coarse particulate of the body and the salt-glazing has left a soft sheen, and the slipped surface of the section above, which is smoother, more mottled and matte. The upper panels are dramatically divided by even more matte black images of stylized horses whose necks crane toward the lip. Empty, the stretching necks stand in for flowers; in use, flowers rise from the vase, as if riding horseback. The horse image tessellates around the vase, with each leg becoming the leg of its neighbor. The abstract drama of the geometric divisions of the panels, their Escheresque circular infinity, and the unusually poetic treatment of the animal—when does a real horse ever look so far skyward?—is a lyric tour de force, the concretized, condensed embodiment of the artist’s passionate consciousness. This pot is centuries and continents away from Sung or the replication of any historic canon.
Simon’s use of that canon is elastic and deep. One might trace Leach’s influence in this vase—as a matter of placing the pot historically, but not because it is anything derivative. It has the quality of materials and manipulation that characterize Leach’s beloved Oriental and medieval pots: the patinated variation of the salt-firing , changing textures in the handling, the casual precision, the sense of spontaneity. The piece is green-glazed, with occasional splashes of the liner on the outside, and the uneven line of the glaze at the lip recalls the casual poured glaze line at the foot of Asian teabowls. The horses echo Leach’s use of personal iconography and draftsmanship (his tree of life, pilgrim, or wellhead, mimetic of the pot’s function).
There are many other lyrical functionalists. A few of many working with imagery in the manner of Simon’s vase are Ron Meyers, Matt Metz, Sam Taylor, and Ayumi Horie. A list of those working in a similar way with pattern—though many are equally comfortable with both modes—might include Michael Kline, Linda Sikora, Mark Hewitt, Julia Galloway, Jane Schellenbarger, and many, many others. (Even Clary Illian, arguably a Leachian, makes deeply personal, lyrical pots that draw on but don’t reproduce a canon.) All artists whose clear individual voices ring with the unique, unmistakable identity of a single note of John Coltrane or the first word in a phrase sung by Bob Dylan. Within the evoked sense of the ancient, we feel the unmistakable presence of a contemporary individual. Tradition is a launch-pad from which these potters spring into new places.
Another part of the tradition Leach has left functional pottery is an ethical critique of both the limitations of industrial products and demoralized social relations that flow from their manufacture. Leach’s point of view was informed by the 19th-century critique of the applied arts movement that, in the face of a demoralized industrial workplace, proposed placing individual human beings at the center of the making of useful things. William Morris articulated a vision of an ethical society and workplace that placed dignity (even if romanticized), truth in materials, and pleasure at the center of making useful objects. This call was taken up by both European avant-garde applied arts movements and the craft movement .
In our current fractured, corporatized, globalized, virtualized world, functional craft continues to propose a vision that attempts to re-inject an authentic “heart, hand, and mind” into how we work, and therefore into what we offer to consumers. While retailers like Target and Crate & Barrel have raised the design bar since Leach’s day, what is offered still feels bereft of a sense of materiality, despite museum bonafides or distressed patinas. Even where the design is inspired—“the swan-like forms [are] on display in museums worldwide” —the materials still look dead on arrival. Convenience and durability trump liveliness, naturalness, and surface variation. Where these qualities exist at all, they look faked. However good such mass-produced pots might be, they are not lyric: They lack any sense of an individual maker expressing a unique, nuanced relationship to the natural world and a specific time and place in it. (While the designer’s insight may be present, in the mechanical reproduction of an exiting pattern, here, in fact, we have something much closer to Clark’s idea of the re-playing of an existing score.)
But a gathering density of makers and consumers are exploring artisanal models of economic activity, insisting on a transparency in the conditions of production that expresses the passion and tradition and place of the individual producer. As in Morris’s and Leach’s time, this impulse is both aesthetic and ethical, and may be seen as part of the growing response to our government’s imperial stance, its militarism, and collaboration with corporations that exploit unseen workers in far-off places to produce cheap goods and extract natural resources for our unsustainable consumption . The false abundance of choices that the corporate behemoth offers (by which we are lured to define ourselves), belies the sameness of much of what we see in our culture. Coke/Pepsi, Chevy/Ford, Republicans/Democrats, Crate & Barrel/IKEA. A chain is a chain is a chain. But no matter how often the chains buy out the upstarts (Does Coke own Honest Tea?), or attempt to portray themselves as rebels—(When did Che Guevara’s image become so marketable?) the impulse toward something else remains strong. Hence the salience of movements both aesthetic and political: anti-globalization, Slow Food and artisanal specialty products, vernacular architecture, community-supported agriculture with its heirloom vegetables and sustainable practices, independent film and music. All these can be said to aligned with the lyrical, in the sense that they seek to connect individual makers, their products, and their consumers in a conversation relevant to our mutual earthly existence as human beings. The profit motive moves from primary status to one that co-exists with humanistic concerns. Our functional movement belongs alongside these dissenting visions. Regardless of how authentic we judge these trends to be, they can be our allies in a market that will only continue to grow.
To compete in this artisanal market (and be paid a living wage) our pots have to function every bit as well as industrial ware, though it might not be possible to compete with its durability and convenience. (But then, that local butter goes bad more quickly than the pasteurized product.) Still, “handmade” is not a sufficient condition for virtue. (I have experienced more than once while giving workshops reaching for a studio mug at break time and, sadly, choosing a factory-made one because handle and lip were simply more comfortable.) If we are to be successful in the artisanal market with the signed goat cheese and the couched sourdough, our spouts have to pour, our lids fit—and quite a bit more.
While the artisanal market is a national phenomenon, regional markets for pots in this country vary widely. Making functional pots in North Carolina, where a New York Times article referred to potters as having superstar status elsewhere relegated to basketball players,  is quite different from doing so in Minnesota, or California, or Massachusetts. The cultural traditions of different regions vary and offer their own challenges and opportunities. (As a guest potter on the St. Croix River Tour in Minnesota, I was amazed that when church let out on Sunday, customers showed up in large numbers—which would never happen in Massachusetts.) The enduring traditions—real and invented—of kiln openings in the Carolinas, provide specific opportunities for local potters. We work within the cultural context of where we live, and engage to move that context forward.
Still, it must be said: We face a different challenge in today’s economy than Leach did. Then, his project of making pots for the “common man” had its own difficulties and contradictions, but now any “common” middle is shrinking at an alarming rate. In the last two decades the pay ratio between top executives and the lowest paid workers in US corporations has from 40 to 1 to over 475 to 1 today (and this doesn’t even take assets into account) . Minimum wage workers can barely afford groceries and rent, much less a handmade mug . As off-shore goods become mysteriously cheap (proudly made by prisoners of conscience?), any thought of competing with mass-produced pots in any congruent price scale is pure fantasy. Chances are, those who heroically make even relativelyinexpensive dishes by hand one by one, will eventually, like the fabled John Henry, have to lay down their clay and die. We can try, like Issac Button, to “throw a ton of clay into pots in a day,” but we shouldn’t forget that his Soil Hill pottery had a dozen workmen in its heyday.
Also, the inflated real estate market of the last decade has made the purchase of property on which to put a kiln, studio, and home much more difficult. And the crisis of health care and insurance is putting the squeeze on everyone. The choice to live outside a full-time corporate structure—with no secure health insurance or retirement—has become all the more risky. These constraints become even tighter for those of us who decide to have families. These very real problems will not be solved by the marketing strategies of potters, no matter how ingenious, but by long-term engagement by all citizens. Still, in our field, we have to ask: If young people can’t imagine a life in clay outside the academy—not that a life within the academy is easy either, given the paucity of jobs—how can a functional clay movement thrive beyond a fantasy for the trust-funded? No functional pottery movement, no art, can thrive without the energy and renewal of younger generations.
Functional pottery is a particular site of uncanny power: dishes will always mediate between essential nourishing matter—food and drink—and our bodies, and thus pottery-making will always be one of our most intimate arts. We bring the cup that we cradle in our hand to our lips. In hands, cupboards, on tables and windowsills, pots function at the junction of use and beauty, adding to the symbolic potential of the physical and cultural spaces in which the activities of nourishment, storage, and display take place. How we eat together is one of the most potent expressions of who we are in the world; at the table, families and communities come to life. Intimate domestic space is particularly open to the lyric heartbeat of contemporary pots. Which is not to say they do not function in other places. Functionalists today do not seem reticent about putting their pots in the abstract space of the gallery, and recently, more venues seem to be showing this work. Just as clay is itself perhaps the ultimate shape-shifter, going from dust to slurry to stone in becoming a pot, so too are pots themselves great site-shifters, equally “at home” in domestic and public spaces . As Hirsch says of lyric poems, they are “as ancient as recorded literature, ...will last as long as human beings take pleasure in playing with words, in combining the sounds of words in unexpected and illuminating ways, in using words to convey deep feeling and perhaps something deeper than feeling. The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature of being itself” . We can say the same of these functional pots.
- Some might argue, as well, that classical musicians are not mere interpreters; that the music produced in the Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries is not analogous to the pottery made across time and space, from 10th-century China to 17th-century England; that the straitjacket of genre is of little interest in the postmodern world and to any artist, ever; that the juggernaut of the misplaced “classical” metaphor then inevitably resuscitates the unfortunate term “neo-classical,” further pushing functional pottery away from any place in the rest of the art world, where “neo-classical” refers to a particular 19th-century academic movement in the visual arts that evoked Greek and Roman themes: Is this where we want to go?
- Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem, Harcourt (1999) 288.
- Edmund de Waal, Bernard Leach, London, Tate, and “Alternative Perspectives on Bernard Leach,” in Studio Potter 27.1, 2.
- Bernard Leach. Potter’s Outlook. Sussex: Handworkers’ Pamphlets, St. Dominic’s Press, 1928. 27–28.
- Bernard Leach. The Potter’s Challenge. New York: Dutton, 1975. 86.
- Probably the most important Leachian influence that remains is the interest in atmospheric firing. The kind of surfaces and clays of the Asian and medieval pots that Leach admired—their materiality and variation and texture—remain an area of intense exploration that has mostly been approached from the firebox. Perhaps we are beginning to see it taken on now from the clay-pit, stream bed, and hammer and ball mill as interest in local and personal materials emerges.
- See Paul Greenhalgh in William Morris, Linda Parry ed., New York: Abrams, 1996, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of the Modern Movement: From William Morris to Walter Gropius, London, Faber and Faber, 1936.
- This quote, from a recent Crate & Barrel ad for their new line of dishwasher-safe earthenware, a “pale ivory version of Eva Zeisel’s legendary 1950s design.”
- See John Perkins, Confessions of a Economc Hitman, San Framcisco: Berret-Koehler, 2004.
- “In North Carloina, the Superstars are Potters”, Stephen Kinzer, New York Times (10 April 2001).
- Tony Judt. “Europe v. America.” New York Review of Books. LII:2 (10 February 2005). 37.
- Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickled and Dimed.Henry Holt, 2002.
- “Linda Sikora: Beneath the Surface.” Studio Potter 32:2 (June 2004). 13.
- 15 Hirsch 288.