The Unknown Craftsman

I recently read a short article in the last issue of Ceramics Quarterly from an Auckland Potter raising some interesting questions about the nature and definition of domesticware. Suzy Dünser’s discussion revolved around a much-heralded exhibition at Masterworks Gallery in Ponsonby, Auckland.

Called ‘The Last Supper’, it had the ambitious aim of establishing a new 21st century ‘ethos’ for contemporary domesticware. Masterworks considered that in most other areas of the arts a 21st century approach could be seen but in handcrafted domesticware it was not. The organiser wrote “I know I don’t drink out of the same type of cup my grandmother did. But what will my grandchildren be drinking out of?”

Masterworks exhibition carried a prize, the winner was Julie Collis’s ‘Crumpled Paper Bowls’. This gives an indication of where the gallery thinks domesticware should be headed. If that is the case, then I think they have got it all wrong, and I think they got it wrong right from the start. We do drink out of the same sort of cup that our grandparents did. Even though it may look a bit different, it still has to do exactly the same job.

Julie Collis "Crumpled Paper Bowls"

Julie Collis “Crumpled Paper Bowls”

In many ways our domestic needs have actually stayed the same. Even if the type of cup is different we do still drink out of a cup, and we do still eat off a plate. We still need to wash stack and store those plates or bowls, and we still need something to eat our weetbix (or porridge) out of. Perhaps more importantly, the kids need to eat out of something as well. Julie’s bowls would not last five minutes in most households that I know.

Humankind’s eating, drinking and cooking needs have actually remained pretty constant over time place and culture. I like the fact that I could eat off the same sort of plate that someone ate off in ancient Egypt, 17th century China or Victorian England. Our use of these domestic objects links us with both our ancestors and our descendants. The need for objects that fulfil simple utilitarian functions with grace and efficiency is one of the common features of all human experience.

An important aspect of craftwork is that it is made by hand. The original craft revival of the beginning of last century was a response to the dehumanising anonymity imposed on domestic life by the products of the industrial revolution. Craftwork was seen as an antidote to this commercial production and as a celebration of, and a way of maintaining, human skill.

Recently industrial standardisation and mass production has been superseded by digital precision and computerised production. It is now possible to manufacture goods that don’t even need the supervision of the machine operator. Our need to have some reminders of our common individuality, fallibility and connection with the rest of humanity is probably greater than ever.

The domesticware from the Masterworks exhibition is characterised by an ideology that values ‘digital’ precision and avoids any imprint from the hand or process of the maker. It emphasises appreciation by the eye rather than the tactile or sensuous. Its ‘virtue’ seems to lie in its rejection of any obvious manual skills. Instead it seems to value the imitation of the industrial and computerised values that the craft movement was designed to provide some relief from.

In presenting themselves as designed clones of the industrial / digital era these ‘21st Century’ pots avoid any presentation of the human values of casualness, ease, informality and familiarity that are a productive and characteristic part of the intimacy of domestic living. Like the corsets of previous times they represent a distaste for the body through their fragility, preciousness (and expense), and the difficulties that will accompany their use. A contrast is provided by a bowl that was recently given to me by a friend.

Japanese serving bowl

Japanese serving bowl

This 31 cm diameter Japanese bowl was probably made around the early 20th century. It is an example of simple hand thrown and turned production ware. Its transparent celadon glaze is crazed and shows marks indicating that other similar bowls were stacked on top for its firing. It is very strongly built with white clay, has been carelessly turned (a lump of clay is smeared into the foot), and has a beautifully simple curve between the base and rim.

The foot of the bowl.

The foot of the bowl.

The shape of this bowl is the natural product of the clay, its consistency, and the action of rapid and practiced work on the wheel. Any ‘intention’ about its design is confined to its end use and the necessities of efficient stacking and production. The foot, rim and irregular glazing all display an unfussy approach to its manufacture. It was almost certainly intended for the same range of uses that it performs so beautifully in my house over a hundred years later.

This bowl has been made for use. Julie Collis’s bowl has been made to say “Look at me”.

More images can be seen on the gallery’s website: http://www.masterworksgallery.co.nz/exhibitions/past/this-is-not-the-last-supper/

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