by Connie Gulick
When I mention that I "do pottery," the
comment I often receive is something like, "Oh, my Aunt Louise does
My smile grows tight over
gritted teeth, and I maintain a superior, somewhat aloof, silence.
Anyone who thinks pottery and ceramics are the same thing wouldn't
understand. I don't even want to get into a discussion with
such a person. Nor do I want to try to explain my sudden stab
of superior feelings.
True, the material in what we call
"ceramics" comes from clay. It is also true that pottery clay
heated to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time may be
called "ceramic" clay. But notice that in this case, there is
no "s" on ceramic. The word is an adjective, as in "ceramic
tile." "Ceramics" with an "s" is completely different from the
no "s" "ceramic."
Ceramics, like Aunt Louise's mushroom cups
and matching mushroom-decorated cookie jar, were born in a factory
and formed of clay particles dissolved in water. This muddy
substance, called "slip," is poured into a plaster of Paris mold.
I'm sure some artist created the cups and cookie jar from which the
mold was made, but somewhere along the line, the figure was
modified, simplified, and made generic; the mushrooms now have fewer
fine lines, so that eventually the pieces will not be difficult for
people to paint.
The mold is a separable block of plaster of
Paris, which has a cup-shaped space inside. The slip is poured
through a hole at the top and as it slides down the inside walls of
the mold, it coats the sides in a thick layer of whitish clay.
Once the slip has dried and hardened, the two sides of the mold
block are pulled away from the cup. What remains is called "greenware."
Although cast in white clay, the cup has a greenish tint because of
the moisture that still remains in the clay. The same mold is
filled again and again, and the cups are multiplied so that there
are millions of the same little cups with mushrooms on them and
matching mushroom-decorated cookie jars lining ceramics stores all
over the US.
This is where Aunt Louise comes in.
She bought her mushroom cups as greenware from a ceramics store.
She lightly sanded the cups to smooth the seams left from the mold,
and then fired them slowly at a very low temperature -- about 1500
degrees Fahrenheit -- we are not talking kitchen heat here. At
this point, the cups turned white. Some people buy the pieces
already cleaned up and dried, but not Aunt Louise. She's a
Then Aunt Louise painted the cups. The
painting is where her creativity kicks in. She just goes wild
with the wide variety of low-fire paints and glazes available to
her. That's why you can find brown mushrooms on a green
background, yellow and orange mushrooms on a white background, or
purple-speckled mushrooms on a harvest gold background.
Unfortunately, except for color, those mushrooms are all the same.
Pottery, on the other hand, is much more
complicated, requiring the potter's involvement and creativity in
all the steps. This means more risk. There is more
chance that something could go wrong. In ceramics, pretty much
all that can go wrong is the piece breaks or the color choices
The potter's choices, however, can make or
-- pardon the pun -- break a piece. What can a potter choose
from? Let's start with the clay itself.
You have choices of color: all
different shades of yellow, red, and white clay. You may also
choose from any of those shades laced with little flakes of mica,
which sparkle like glitter after the clay is fired.
You also may
choose from a variety of firing abilities. For example, some clays
should be fired at a mid-level range, cones 5 and 6, and others
should be fired at a higher range, cones 9 and 10. You need higher
firing clays if you want to make something harder and more resistant
to moisture and breakage, such as porcelain. (Bet you didn't know
your toilet is made of clay!) Low-firing clays give you more
choices in paints, which are more abundant for the lower firing
range. Paints also tend to retain their colors better at a lower
firing range. The mid-firing clays make great stoneware, heavy and
hard, but breakable. And the lowest firing clays are good for clay
flower pots, porous and quite fragile.
the differences in their firing abilities are determined by the
amount and type of sand mixed in with the clay. (And you thought it
was just clay, didn't you?) Sand gives the clay its ability to
stick together as it dries, so that once it's dry, you don't end up
with big cracks that resemble a dry riverbed. The other, non-clay,
material, however, doesn't have to be sand. Some potters use a kind
of volcanic ash, for example.
choice you have to make is how wet and elastic the clay may be when
you work with it. If you want to "throw" pots, bowls, and plates on
a potter's wheel, you need clay that is like thick mud -- thick
enough to hold its form when lumped together, yet thin enough to
manipulate easily. However for handbuilding, you need a dryer clay,
much the consistency of bread dough. This kind is dry enough to
hold its shape and not stick to your hands and tools, at least not
much. Finally, slip is the wettest of clay that we mentioned
before. Many potters make their own slip so that they can control
the ratio of clay to water. They grind dry clay into fine powder
and mix it with water until the clay particles are suspended.
Ortiz of Cochiti uses slip in the way his mother and grandmother
taught him. He starts with a red clay and forms by hand one of his
famous figurines, often a sitting bear. Then when the figure has
dried for several days and he has sanded it smooth, Virgil pours a
white slip over the bear and slides it into a warm oven. When the
slip has dried, Virgil pours another layer. Each time, the figure
gets a little fatter and a little whiter. The Ortiz family may
repeat this process ten times on one figure. Then Virgil paints
red, black, and white over the figure and finally fires it in a hot
outdoor kiln (Ortiz). I've tried to do this, and I can tell you it
is difficult. If the slip is too wet, it becomes absorbed almost
immediately into the base clay, causing the figure to expand in
places, distort and crack. If too dry, the slip globs on and
doesn't cover the figure evenly.
These are examples of what can
go wrong. All this in just creating the figure. In
contrast, the ceramics painter has chosen her figure off the shelf.
Attempting to form select shapes from clay is taking a great risk.
The clay has a mind of its own (ask any potter) and cannot be
dictated to. A final figure turns out formed through a marriage of
the artist's fancy and the clay's own ideas. It may be ugly; it may
not "work." That's the risk. Through that piece is some expression
of self, and by making such a piece, you open yourself up to someone
else's ridicule. On the other hand, if the piece comes out "right,"
the reward is much greater than for a ceramic pieces coming out
"right." The clay itself seems to affirm your worth.
to be little risk of a form coming out wrong in ceramics. It's
already done for you, and it is not yours, but someone else's
expression, and one reduced to political correctness.
fine and good, you may say, but where's the risk in functional
pottery? It's true some shapes may be dictated by their function.
For example, cups need to be generally cup-shaped to hold liquid;
plates should be fairly flat. Yet even within those limitations,
the possibilities for self-expression are infinite. Who says a
plate, or a cup for that matter, has to be round? You, the artist,
may choose the size. You may alter the angle, the slope, the
ridges; you might even vary its symmetry. Several Pueblo women make
pots with steps cut into the rim so that one side of the rim is
higher than the other side. You might create a repetitive texture
as background, such as the "corrugated" pottery of the Shituva
family of Acoma (Trimble 78). You can decorate the functional
pieces by carving designs in the clay or by adding shapes on the
outside. I like to put lizards on the handles of my cups. Lizards
are known as guardians of water; where better to put them?
Even if a potter chooses to make simple classic forms -- a
cylindrical cup or a round plate -- there's risk. In a way,
the risk is even greater. Flaws and lack of symmetry are more
obvious in classic forms. How amazing it is, therefore, that
Pueblo potters can make perfectly round, perfectly even pots with
perfect slopes, all without the benefit of a wheel but rather by
I really don't want to put down Aunt Louise. What she's doing is good. At least, I'm sure it's fun for her. But there's no way you can equate what Aunt Louise does with what the Pueblo potters do. For that matter, just try matching one of the worst potters around (me) with one of the best ceramists. I think you'll see that because of the risk, doing pottery is much more creative and rewarding than doing ceramics.
Ortiz, Virgil. Personal Interview. December 1992.
Trimble, Stephen. Talking with the Clay. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. 1987.