[A personal dialogue, accompanied by a visual introduction to contemporary ceramic artists.]
From tea bowls to vases to dinnerware.
The perfection of porcelain, and
The domesticity of terra cotta.
This is the public understanding of ceramics.
Functional pottery, red bricks and pipes.
Function, not fine.
Ceramic art is mired in tradition.
Liberal spaces such as universities know ceramics as versatile,
As valued, as vital to the formation of the arts.
But critiques and degrees do not alter the canon.
Art history remembers ceramics as
Antiquities and mid-century experimentation,
As the great Peter Voulkos and as Picasso’s hobby,
As a side note of Judy Chicago’s career -
The Dinner Party had dinnerware,
Not expertly manipulated clay.
Domestic, traditional, craft and low,
Feminine pottery, masculine abstraction.
History speaks of porcelain as the high of the low,
A white deity among the red-tainted others.
It’s in the name, low fire earthenware.
Low fire meaning accessible without
A team of workers and a train-car kiln.
Low fire meaning affordable,
A beginners clay that loses value,
The clay of the past, of the earth,
That reinforces the antiquity of the medium.
People question why: Why ceramics?
Why not wood, or metal? Why not plastic?
Without understanding the process,
They ask why you chose clay,
Over the unspoken realness of the finer arts.
I’m tired of this question.
Why not ceramics?
What other medium can you build
With your fingerprints embedded in the surface?
What other medium makes you pray to a kiln god or
Frantically research the science of clay and glass
And in the perfection of your efforts
Reminds you that you are human,
That the clay has the memory
For a kiln to manifest in cracks and flaws?
What other medium slips between your fingers
But crystallizes overnight in the white heat of a kiln
To be nearly eternal in existence?
Even the novice’s cup,
Rough, wobbly, and ill-formed,
Lasts alongside greek vessels
And the turquoise of Egyptian faience.
Paintings fade, wood rots, metal rusts,
But ceramics existed and will exist
Far past my time, and yours.
So why, when I say ceramics,
Do they only remember pottery?
For fragility, look at ephemeral works,
Unfired clay presented in a gallery
That crumbles at deinstallation.
Trimmings and flowers and structures,
Speaking of decay in art and architecture,
Decay of the pristine and the pure.
For domesticity, look at the figurative,
Representation turned political,
Because if all you see in a clay surface
Is tradition and feminine, then
Let us use your instinct against you.
Explorations of culture, identity,
Relationships, and emotions,
Tie into a medium where your body heat
Flows into the form as you build.
Our hand is our pen, the clay is our voice.
For versatility, look at abstraction,
Glaze is uncontrollable, and it runs like water, like blood,
Science and art meet, as digital programs influence
The structure of the piece, or the surface.
Science is not excluded from art.
The masters of ceramic materials are akin to chemists,
But we’re a craft medium, right?
For understanding, look at vessels.
They know how the art world feels,
They know that to be accepted as art, they have to innovate.
They know that their functional works sell for a third
Of what their sculptures require, even though the time and commitment is the same.
The public sees press-molded dinnerware,
Bright porcelain with gold or blue details.
They expect the price of a cup to parallel cheap ware.
The artists calls themselves a potter to help sales,
To identify with the community, even if the word potter
Sours on the tongue of the high,
And lowers the value of their work?
So why ceramics?
Why not ceramics?
What stops the public from understanding ceramics,
Except the canon of art history omitting our contributions?
What stops art students from trying out clay,
Even though they know nothing about it,
Except pottery and dirt?
What stops the fine arts from accepting ceramics,
Accept the devaluation of our “craft”
Because it is called our craft?
We are formed by what we know.
And I am lucky to be at a school that encourages diversity,
In practice and reality, and I’m nurtured by my peers.
Rachel Ballard, exploring femininity and expectations,
Has reclaimed terra cotta and plant life
While performing caricatures on film,
Accepting and rejecting the unrequested structures.
Michelle Laxalt, organizing rituals and mythos,
Transfers ceramic expectations to textiles,
To soap mouths and amorphous bodies,
In the repetition and acceptance of identity.
Ty Nicholson, reliving the stupidities of war,
Using the form of versatile clay
To re enact in plastic the cheap decay of the waiting,
Of the inaction in a warzone,
Where plastic heroes are drunk and fallible.
Christina West, more than my professor,
My confidant when I considered writing as a career,
Who softly speaks of gender and the past
Without resorting to sexualization of the feminine and the masculine
in a meaningless dichotomy.
And myself, bucking tradition
And fighting to use vessels as a form,
Without losing to the discussion
Of femininity and domesticity,
Fragmenting discarded art to speak of the insistence of tradition.
It does not die, they will not let it.
Using photography to distance ceramics from ceramics itself,
To make others see the beauty in the small moments,
Beauty within failures that redeem the effort,
And transcends recognition of the physical clay.
I am more than the tradition of my medium,
And ceramics is more than your expectations.
A few artists of hundreds, of thousands,
That is what I give you today.
I could teach you about glaze science,
About the history of the kiln,
About artists of the past, who led the way for our existence.
But, I’d rather teach you about the present,
So you can understand why we pause when you reply,
“Oh, like pottery” when we say ceramics,
So you can understand why I am annoyed
that my studio degree contains two mentions
Of ceramics in half a dozen art history courses.
So you can understand how I worry about current generations
Of students entering colleges who don’t see their practices
Validated in the canon of the textbooks,
Who question their work simply because a writer didn’t think
To include ceramics alongside paintings.
So you can finally understand why I flinch when you ask,
As if I need to justify my career, even though I lack canon,
I lack recognition, I lack acceptance,
Just like my medium.
So, when you ask, “Why ceramics?”
Are you asking about my practice?
Or are are you asking me to justify centuries of a medium?