Pottery Art or Science

Seth Godin: One difference between Art and Science.

“If you cannot replicate the work and get the same outcome, then it’s not science. If you can replicate the work and get the same outcome, it’s not art.”

Is pottery Art or Science?

No two pieces of pottery are exactly alike:

          I am a functional potter and that means I make pottery intended for use.  I am also a production potter, which means that I make several pieces of the same item: bowls or mugs or luminaria (candle holders) etc.  When I throw these pieces, I throw several at the same time.  It can be 40 mugs or 20 bowls depending on the need or the size of the item.  Despite my attempt to make the same shape and the muscle memory that I have developed after having made the same piece numerous times, each piece is slightly different.

The difference between potters and painters:

          I have often said that the difference between potters and painters is something like this.

If a painter had to do the same thing that a potter does to get his finished product, the painter would have to do several things before he even began painting.  Potters often mix and pug their clay.  Some potters still dig their clay.  From that clay, they either throw or hand build the form and then glaze the piece. Most potters, especially potters that fire to higher temperatures, mix their own glazes.  After that, the glaze is applied and then placed in the kiln and fired. The potter will not know that the work has made it through the fire until he opens the kiln. 

          If a painter had to go through the same process to get a finished painting, it would look like this.  The painter would have to cord the cotton, spin the yarn, and weave the canvas.  He would then have to grind the pigments and mix with oils to get his paints ready to use.  Once that process is complete, the painter could begin to paint the painting.  Painters at one time did make their paints, but I doubt they ever wove the canvas.  It should go without saying that they never put their painting in the fire except to destroy the painting.

          For the potter, everything affects the outcome.  The type of clay used affects the color of the glaze and how you place your hands on the clay as you shape it on the wheel.  The potter’s wheels speed and the softness or firmness of the clay can affect the finished piece.  A firmer piece of clay can be made thinner than a piece made from softer clay, but only if the pot is made quickly.  A piece made slowly will absorb water and become weaker, unable to hold the shape as readily as one made quickly.

Every kiln affects the finished piece of pottery differently:

          Glazes fired in the kiln at my previous studio came out quite different than those same glazes in the kiln I currently use.  Some of the highly sought glazes from my last kiln, do not not work in my current kiln.  Recently, I made some small changes to my firing schedule, and now I am getting different results.  Small changes in the minerals in the clay body or glazes can also affect the finished product’s color; the potter will not know until the kiln opening.

Art or Science:

Is pottery art or science?  It is a little of both.  It takes science to formulate a glaze to fit a clay body and melt at a specific temperature.  No two handmade pieces are exactly alike, but they are similar.  When I make a set of dishes, I see the plates, bowls and serving pieces in the set like a piece of music in which the music is a variation on a theme.  There is both harmony and diversity brought to life in the tension between art and science.

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