Deep Thoughts on Craft, Art, and the Meaning of Functional Pottery

I make dishes. It’s what I want to do, and what I’m good at. I make dishes for people to put food in and eat from. But I make good dishes. I am a craftswoman.

I have always loved the word craft for its original meaning– using a high level of skill and care to make something with your hands which is both beautiful and useful to the world, and doing it with the seriousness required to earn a living. Nowadays the word craft had come to mean something a person does in her spare time, a hobby rather than a profession. The word artisan has taken over for creative professions, and that’s fine, but I much prefer craftsman.

Because art is art, and craft is craft– in my mind at least. Art is high and complex and often needs explaining. An artist works for the art itself, driven by a need to express a deep, inner meaning. The “end consumer,” the person who will buy the art and hang it in their home, must be largely irrelevant for the artistic process to function.

Craft on the other hand exists on a more earthly level. Although the making of a good craft is complex, the experience of it is simple; it is made to be used, in plain old every day life, and no one needs to explain how to enjoy it. A craftsman works for the people who will use the craft, driven by their need for well-made, useful, beautiful things. Satisfying the consumer is paramount.

And most importantly to me, whereas you look at art, and don’t touch it, a craft is something you hold in your hands.

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When we moved from Alaska to Eugene, I knew I would have to to re-name my pottery business (previously called Copper River Mud Works). I labored so hard over a name. I thought it up, down, and sideways. I have many deep thoughts about the meaning and importance of handmade pottery, and I wanted to fit them all somehow into the name.

I most wanted a name that conveyed what I think of as tactile aesthetics, forms that “feel good” in our hands for reasons we can’t explain and don’t even usually notice, but are strongly affected by nonetheless. The beauty we experience through touching and using well-designed handcrafts engages and unifies both body and spirit, a quality so necessary in our fragmented modern world.

Pottery is ultimately earthy and carries the weight and permanence of rock itself, and yet it is formed by human hands in an ephemeral moment of incredible fluidity. Your hands wrap around your mug of tea just as my hands wrapped around the wet clay as I shaped that satisfying curve. A potters thoughtful design and skill is inherent to the beauty of the finished pot.

And then of course there is the act of eating itself, so common a thing it borders the mundane. A beautiful dish inspires you to slow down, be here in this moment, and notice how beautiful the food itself is, after all. How beautiful is the abundance of the Earth that feeds us. How precious that moment is in your day when you sit down with your dish of food and take part in that oldest of rituals.

I believe much of the appeal of pottery is how it connects us to all of these things– the physical world, the spiritual world, beauty, sustenance, earth, humanity, permanence, change. How it reveals to us the interconnectedness of all those things.

I loved edgey one word names like “Satisfy” and “Form” that intimated this whole dynamic, nuanced set of ideas in an understated and sophisticated way. I tried really hard to make one of those work, in my mind and on paper. I was especially taken with “Form” which has multiple, layered meanings and feels right when to my mouth when I say it. But something kept making my hesitate. I just couldn’t get past the feeling that those names are too avant garde for my pottery. They are more art than craft. You have to stop for a moment and think about the word Form, it requires intellectual engagement.

Then at some point I showed my “Form” logo to my kids and got total blank stares. That sealed it for me I think. The realization that, although for an artist it might be perfectly appropriate to choose a name that a 10 year old doesn’t understand, that is just not what I want for my pottery. I want it to feel approachable. I want everyone to feel welcome. I want everyone to know what the name on my sign means, without needing an explanation.

Dish Craft says what it is. There’s a hell of a lot more to it, obviously, but anyone can understand the words and their relationship to handmade pottery.

Which reflects perfectly what I love about functional pottery. After all my nuance and deep thoughts, a mug is nevertheless simple and straightforward. There’s a richness to it, but it’s not complicated. It’s a mug. It fits nicely in your hand. It has pretty colors. It holds something you like to drink. Although I believe most pottery lovers experience all those dynamic connections most never think about them at all. And you don’t need to. That’s the crafters job.

That’s my job.

And I am delighted to do it.