The Sweet Spot - Works of Contemplation, Desire and Fulfilment

Sunday, 15 November 2015 8:12 pm

“In making beautiful objects for use I am attempting to transcend the banality of everyday life as it may sometimes be experienced. I want the objects that I use to be interesting and engaging, well balanced and tactile in the hand. I enjoy my morning coffee in the French style in these quirky bowls that are influenced by my studies in both France and Japan.

I love to handle my bowls, rotating them in my hands, considering them, searching the surface for insight or inspiration. I try to ascertain their best aspect and the best position from which to drink. Every form has its sweet spot, this seems to change with each use, depending on variables such as my mood and the light. I have my favourite bowls, but these too vary with the time of day and their intended use. A bowl that is best for morning latte rarely seems at all right for green tea at lunch.

I choose a range of clays and stones for the body of the bowl, and other rocks and natural ashes for the glazes so that I can create just the right conditions for that sweet spot to occur, such that they develop the ‘right’ feeling. Every piece should be given the chance to be a jewel.

I pack and fire my kiln in such a way as to encourage interesting interactions with the flame and the natural ash that is deposited during the wood firing.

For me, the creation of these bowls has been a richly layered experience of desire, inspiration, challenge, angst, contemplation, anticipation and eventually a glimpse of fulfilment.”

Steve Harrison


In 2013 I bought one of the bowls from this exhibition, I paid some $750 for a small blue glazed, woodfired tea bowl.  As I sit cradling that bowl in my hand, sipping my morning coffee from it, much like Stephen did above, in the French way, I’m deep in thought. Why does this bowl give me so much pleasure to drink out of, to caress in my hands as I hold it, to feel its warmth and raise it to my lips to sip from? What does it feed in me that makes me value it 100 times more than any porcelain bowl bought for $7.50 from Kmart?

This is a complex question, one that has no simple answer. I can only try to explain by exploring both the aesthetics and function that pottery and potters bring into life when making utilitarian objects and I can’t do that without talking a little about the evolutionary background of mankind’s journey with clay.  So let’s start at the beginning.

Early in evolutionary time mankind would eat and drink using just their hands. That simple act of drinking fresh water from a running stream by dipping cupped hands in and drawing the water to the mouth gives us a hint to the evolution of the bowl. As historical time progresses it doesn’t take much imagination to visualise humans progressing towards shells and gourds as drinking and eating vessels. The bowl is so entwined in man’s evolutionary progress that it is hard to unbundle our feeling towards bowls without taking that interweaving into account. In the West it is only in recent history that the bowl has been surpassed by the plate, even then, when feeding our young in their formative years, we start with the bowl. The relationship between the bowl and the food that allows us to grow our is very deeply ingrained into our subconscious. Bowls and food are synonymous with life, the bowl gives us our growth, and our vitality, it sustains us both physically and emotionally.

When potters first discovered the magical qualities of clay, its ability to hold shapes and marks and to be transformed permanently by the use of fire, they moulded in their handset form bowls.  They made bowls to eat from, bowls to cook in, bowls to store food in and bowls to pour liquid into other bowls. The development of form and function continued, but always entwined into mankind’s psyche. As much as the bowl was essential to mankind’s basic need for food, the bowl maker, potter also became an integral part of society’s cultural evolution. Before the industrial revolution, in every culture, every village would have its potters. In the beginning pot making was women’s work with men only becoming involved to add ceremonial or ritual decoration and content. Men only take over the making when there is an economic imperative, money or trade and mechanisation happens, though they still maintain control over the application of spiritual intent. When the utilitarian bowl transforms into a ritual bowl it transcends the domestic and moves into the spiritual world and becomes much more than it’s signifier.

For the potter bowl making is a very satisfying process, it does not matter if it is made simply from a lump of clay pinched out in two hands or thrown on a potter’s wheel, there is an intimacy between the material and the maker that transcends anything a machine could do. When you make bowls and sell or trade them to their new owners, bowls move into the lives of their owners both consciously and unconsciously. Bowls inhabit the primal space between the objective and the subjective, as the bowl functions both at a utilitarian level and at the same time an ascetic level, they reach into each person’s emotional and spiritual life.

The bowl held this position in the world in anthropological time well up until the industrial revolution when the bowl began to lose its place in the world. At one level, for those who acquired wealth during this period, there was the acquisition of highly decorated and expensive work, first imported and later made in Royal factories. These Ceramics as status symbols changed the meaning of the bowl and it had became a small part of a wide range of crockery, Porcelain and Bone China. These bowls and their retinue were meant to imply more about the person’s status than their inner life, the subconscious relationship between man and the bowl was broken. Even for those who were less wealthy there trickled down an aspiration towards this seemingly more “stylish” ware and with the advent of bigger and bigger and cheaper and cheaper production factories here also the inner connection to the bowl was lost.

As we moved into the 20th century, Fine Art had already consciously began to keep a distance from the events and processes of life, for artists to do so would for them to be risk being seen as producing craft, at that time considered to be the most lowly and despise class of objects and creation. Artists wanted to talk about life but did not want to be a part of it. Ceramic artists, those who chose not to make functional objects during this period, were considered to have transcended function and by implication produced work of superior quality to that of craft, “real art”. This viewpoint fails to understand that utility can provide the potential for a very powerful vehicle for both expression and communication. For example if you examine the Japanese Tea Ceremony you will see that it is much more than a slow and inefficient way to have a hot drink of tea. So activities that seem as mundane as making and serving tea can become the basis for a beautiful the  sophisticated art form, one that has influenced Japanese culture for some 600 years.

While content and composition are important aspects of a potter’s work we probably approach them in a slightly different manner to other artists. Like every other  artist, potters enjoy working with composition and content, we are concerned with form, texture, colour, pattern, balance, and all the other compositional elements and principles of art. Scale is important with pottery like any other work, whereas works of art are usually viewed at a variety of distances and angles in order to gain an understanding of their meaning, the bowl comes into its own in the intimate space.  When going to a gallery to look for a pot, we get up close, we stoop over it, we bend low to look at its profile and we pick it up, we turn it in our hands, we feel its weight, its surface, its form, in essence we sense it rather than just look at it. It is usually at that moment, wether we know it or not, that the bowl is touching our psyche. So much of what happens with buying pots in this way is bound up in the content of a pot, the conversation it has with our subconscious. Making pottery is visual and intellectual but most of all it is tactile. Potters make the very real assumption that every pot they make are going to be touched.

This brings to me to my last point, potters love process and materiality, we have a fascination with clay and the earth it comes from, its geology, and the process we used to form it. We develop a relationship and sensibility with the making and firing process. Potters today recognise that the bowl is part of the continuity of the long history of pottery making in this world and that they are working within a geological timeline.

When I use a bowl I''m aware of that 10.000 timeline, of potters who with the simplest of tools and techniques worked with the materials at hand to bring life into form and then to cast it onto fire with hope that it would survive and emerge full of life. I’m reminded of how they dug clay from the ground; how they made it into a malleable material ready for processing into pots; how they sourced from the environment around them the necessary materials to make glazes; how they collected wood to fire their kilns. I visualise potters working long into the night throwing on wheels and others patiently standing by a kiln waiting for the opportune moment to throw in another log to progress the firing. I imagine those magic moments when the door of the kiln is opened to show that all that mud had metamorphosed into shimmering jewels.

Pottery is at home everywhere and even more so in the home. It is intimately connected to life and inherently domestic. Most of all, pottery has a scale and utilitarian reference that sits comfortably within a domestic environment, it communicate with the viewer/user within in an intimate setting and, through its tactility, connects at a more innate level than most other contemporary art. You can go to homes, museums, palaces, boardrooms and gardens and find pottery which, regardless of its status or style, is derived from the tradition of functional pot making and has its roots in those early primitive pots made in a potter’s two hands.

This brings me back to the beginning, those lovely words Steve Harrison used on his invitation to his 2013 exhibition, the one I attended on a cold August evening, spent a whole night stooping, bending, lifting and feeling the 50 or so bowls he exhibited in that show. They were not cheap, neither should they have been, if mastery of anything needs 10,000 hours of practice, then what I was looking at was mastery 10 time over; nearly 50 years of craftsmanship was evident in each and every bowl. Steve’s practice has a discipline to it that I know I will never achieve but it is something I admire. I could have chosen anyone of those bowls and been satisfied, but the one that spoke to my subconscious was light blue with evidence of lots of wood ash settling on the glaze during the firing, flashing the bare clay at the foot ring. I could see marks on the surface left by the flames as they travelled though the kiln from the firebox, over the bowl, to the flues and out the chimney. The bowl had been fired resting on its side on three sea shells which had left distinctive scars in the pot’s side. The luscious blue iridescent glaze had flowed down all sides of the pot to double its thickness on the side which had been on the bottom. The round form of the rim exhibited evidence of pyro-plasticity, becoming ovoid instead of round. The surface smooth as satin and it the form sat so comfortably in my hand, as I tentatively brought it to my lips, that I knew I would pay much more to own it.

As I sit here now sipping my milky coffee a hold an object of my desire and a connection with my awakened primal subconscious. My sweet spot.