Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thrift Store Pots

I arrived in Helena with Gail and the boys. If I remember correctly Benny was an infant. I was supposed to be on a quick run to the Rock Hand Hardware Store but guiltily I stopped at a thrift store on the way. I did a quick run through the hardware area. I never buy clothes, well, hardly ever. I walked down one of the isles with pots and turned them over to see if any were made with clay bodies (compositions) from before the 70’s. One ugly little cup with a funky dead form, coil handle, poorly turned footring and bubbled glaze, that was rubbed down with a brick to break the bubbles, was old stoneware. It did not have the typical APGreen brand fireclay look. It was ugly so I set it down.

By the time I got to the end of the isle I was thinking again of the ugly pot. “Whose signature was that?” I went back and turned it over again. Clearly it was signed, “Voulkos” (right).
Peter Voulkos is one of the best known clayers of the 20th century. He made delightful functional pots until he began making abstract sculpture. He began studying pottery at Montana State University in Bozeman under Francis Senska and was a resident artist at the Archie Bray Brickyard. After Berard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi lectured and demonstrated at the Bray (not sure of this it could have been before) the resident artists at the Bray were asked to make “Bray Standard Ware” (I need a source for this). One of the items was a small cup with a little coil handle just like this one. Voulkos, I think, resented having to make these, but made them. In defiance, (again conjecture) he signed his cups.

(Yanagi, Leach, Rudy Autio, Voulkos, Hamada, at the Bray Pottery)

Cup in hand, poker-faced, I paid my 25 cents and left with my cup.

A few months later at the same store I bought a cup by Rosie Wynkoop (left) who had been one of my students in the community classes at the Bray.  It cost a dollar. I think she made it while she was one of my students.

In graduate school one of the off syllabus things we learned was that garage sale and thrift store shopping was a competitive sport. The price tags were left on the pots. One friend was so well known at one thrift store that she received phone calls on the store phone.

On occassion, I invite my students over to my house to view pots. One time while talking about these two drinking vessels a student asked, “Wouldn’t Rosie be upset to find out that her work only cost a dollar?” I answered, “No! She is getting four times the price of Voulkos!”


The box. There is always a box. We say that some people can think outside of the box. We say this  because their thinking is outside of our own box. We make these boxes ourselves and dutifully place or just find ourselves inside them. Much of our personal box is determined by the frame-set we grow up in; the boundaries defined by parents, teachers, children, environment, and cultural identity.

We, the big we, humans, have a box that we all live within, the box is bounded by our earth, and the box of our common mental structure, maybe astronauts and the insane can escape in some measure. Physics boxes us. We understand momentum, mass and acceleration as we move our limbs. Because of our box instantaneous acceleration of arms or legs is hard to comprehend. Light stopping as it travels is hard to comprehend. Our senses box us with their limits. Even trying to visualize, to internalize non-visible forms of radiation, infrared ultraviolet, radio waves, these visualizations lie outside our box.

Artists are supposed to be able to think “beyond the boundaries”. They are supposed to be able to develop new ways of thinking, new relationships. They should be able to create “the new”. Yet even artists create seemingly arbitrary boundaries to their thoughts and work. This dogma defines us as we define it. We box ourselves.There is no absolute help for it.

Fortunately artists, people in general, humankind are not  homogenous, and different cultures and groups and individuals place different boundaries on our thinking. By comparing where these boundaries are we might be able to discern where as a species we limit ourselves. It is these intercultural differences, specifically in American/ Thai art or more generally even culture , that I am trying to ascertain, to get a handle on, to try and grasp. My hope is that by understanding these differences a little more light can be shed on the larger boundaries of thought, the boundaries of expression and the boundaries on art  that we needlessly impose on ourselves.
Some of us play with box shifting. Until recently I called it phase shifting. The word box puts me in a more open frame of mind.
These shifts seem easiest when they are applied to organizational schemes. The best example I have is the typical structure of art schools around groups of tools and techniques; media specific structure.
We tend to structure our courses around media and tools:
•    Drawing classes,
•    Painting Classes,
•    Printmaking Classes,
•    Ceramics classes.
We could instead organize around content types:
Formalism, and minimalism etc. .

Or perhaps we could take the sculptor’s approach:
Subtractive processes,
and use whatever materials to teach these things.

We could also have a freshman art class, a sophomore class, junior and senior and rotate media people in and out or just use individual instructors. There really is no end to the variations on these box shifts.

It is only recently that I realized it, but nearly the entire body of my work has been the investigation of these shifts with a fixed center of clay.
What is function? This started with oddly functional objects, as mundane as soy sauce droppers and as far afield as ceramic counterweights and insulators.
What is a pot? What is the art object, is it the pot, the message, the effect on the viewer or the viewer’s perception and understanding of the artist? When a clayer paints a pot, is it a pot? Is their relationship to clay more important than the paint?

The question I seem to be asking has been getting more general. What is clay? Is it just the stuff, the material. Is the real primary object the “finished product” or is it the thoughts and feelings we have about it, how the cup affects our lives and hearts, minds and relationships?

My work at the Archie Bray several years ago, “Manifestation: Bray” and its predecessor “Manifesto” make the case that “we” are not just “makers”. Certainly many of us make ceramic objects; sculpture and pots. But many of “us” are also historians, critiques, and just our buying public. It is a mistake to view “us” without at least a query of our boundaries. Since this is about people, it becomes a question of “us and them”. “Them” are those that don’t see, appreciate, breath clay. To us they are as Muggles, “Them!” said Stan Shunpike contemptuously. “Don’ listen properly, do they? Dpn’ look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don.” (Rowling, 1999)

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban. (1st ed. ed., p. 36). New York: Scholastic Press.