Embracing imperfections

October 16, 2014 § 6 Comments

This week I stumbled across an article that extolled the virtues of wobbly pots. The author was promoting a range of bowls and plates from an ‘executive’-style interiors shop that cited the wobbly imperfections as their USP. I had to chuckle. When I first left home, I kitted out my kitchen with cast-offs from home and wobbly bowls, only in those days we called them rejects. Isn’t it remarkable how a little marketing speak elevates a reject to an object of desire!

Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that wobbliness or imperfections are anything to be ashamed of, or avoided even. In fact, as a maker and aspiring craftsman I celebrate wobbles and flaws and no more so than with my own bowls.

Markers of progress

In the spring I finally indulged a longstanding interest and signed up for pottery classes. From the word go I was hooked. The first lessons were frustrating yet addictive as I learnt to handle and then control the clay. For weeks my pots and bowls were minute as I shed three quarters of the grey lump I had started with and wonky where my centering had gone awry. Despite such imperfections, many were still perfectly serviceable and now hold salt, pins, paperclips…

Hand-thrown bowls

Tiny & oddly shaped but perfectly usable

As the lessons progressed, I grasped how to manage the clay and centrifugal forces with my hands, breath and core, and my pots have started to improve. They are gradually growing a larger, thinner, more shapely and decidedly less wonky. I’m still a long way off throwing a ‘perfect‘ pot but when I examine the bowls and vases to decide which ones to fire and keep, I get to know their wobbles. The flaws teach me what to focus on next: where I need to apply more pressure; where less; where I can be more decisive with the rib; or more confident when turning…

And with such scrutiny comes a certain attachment, not just for the lesson the imperfections teach me but because the flaws are fewer than the weeks before. They signpost not only where I’m going but how far my skill and technique have come.

Hand-thrown bowl

Not flawless but a well-thrown bowl

Accepting the alchemy

Pottery, like any craft, involves honing technique, developing muscle memory and an eye and building an instinct through experience. However, it also teaches us that for all our skill and know-how, other elements might have the last word. Even when I produce a well-thrown and elegantly turned bowl and dip it in tried and tested glazes, once the pot goes back into the kiln, I have no control over the chemistry.

Two pots dipped in my current favourite colour combination of reactive grey and Greenwich green can come out looking completely different. Sometimes variations are down to me, due to the thickness of my pots or the layers of glaze, but the imperfect colour match can also be due to where the pot was positioned in the kiln or what other pots it was fired with. I’ve had to learn to accept that the chemical composition of glazes on an adjacent pot can influence mine and vice versa. At times it’s frustrating but often it feels like alchemy, producing an unexpected but wondrously beautiful result.

And anyway, are colour mutations due to a chemical reaction imperfections or are they an integral part of the craft?

Hand-thrown bowls

Glazing: part chemistry, part alchemy

Artefacts of joy

Mastering a craft, whether it’s potting, carving, spinning, ironmongery…, is a process of learning and practice, frustration and breakthroughs. Of developing technique, getting a feel for the material and its quirks, of endless practice, of coaxing an object out of the medium whilst recognising that not all elements can be controlled. However, for many practicing a craft is also a source of joy, relaxation, satisfaction, pride… so even an imperfect handmade object can be an artefact of the maker’s joy. They certainly are for this maker!

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§ 6 Responses to Embracing imperfections

  • KerryCan says:

    Very interesting musings! I think about this topic a lot–is imperfection a positive or negative in the world of handmade, what’s the difference between imperfection born of carelessness and that born of inexperienced striving, etc.? It’s good to read another person’s take on the subject!

    • Yes, and then there are the ‘imperfections’ where you break the rules you’ve mastered to good effect… I get the impression that in this age of mechanised bland uniformity many people equate beauty to uniformity and equate tool marks or evidence of the process as flaws…

      PS – I love that you include playing a fiddle tune as making on your About page. I do too. Unfortunately in this age of entertainment on tap, many seem to have forgotten the art and joy of making their own entertainment.

  • jackiemania says:

    Imperfection = human. Which means I love imperfection. There are plenty of soulless “perfect” machine made things out in the world… They are not very interesting to me. That being said – I also love skill, and your words about honing a skill resonate. In this age of instant gratification I fear people are unwilling to practice. I feel that everything I make is in some way practice — there is always more to learn in all of the best things 🙂

    • Not only are people unwilling to practice, they fail to see that practice can be a satisfying process. Actually, yoga practitioners probably still grasp that principle but it has not permeated down to hand-making…

  • jackiemania says:

    …and I forgot to add in my just woke up daze — your ceramics are gorgeous!

    • You’re very sweet. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made since May. And I really enjoy making functional bowls/pots. It is wonderfully satisfying to know that with a little effort and practice we’re all capable of a whole lot more than the powers-that-be would have us believe and that it is not necessary to rely on commoditised goods for all our needs.

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