Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Independent Labels

I am not a potter.
This was the most I could say for a long time.

I could not say what I was.

The statement housed a lack of confidence and a disconnection from my true self. When uttered aloud, the statement always sounded defensive, although defense was not my conscious intent. Maybe it was the use of a negative particle keeping the true intentions of my words at bey. Popular trends and rigorous methodologies have never come naturally to me, and I don’t really have much interest in them or time to cultivate them. So naturally, it would seem, my disposition is not that of a potter.

The only time I have peeked into the part of my soul which might identify with a potter’s was when I learned to make paper. In my mind I can recall the meditative peace welling within me as I couched sheet after sheet after sheet after sheet of vibrant pulp. The only other time I can consciously recall such peace settling on my mind comes from a distant memory of snorkeling. Silence, water, color. Writing it out like this I can see there is a connection between the two experiences. My point is that the heart of the potter, it seems, may not be totally foreign to me.

The sense of accomplishment from being able to make the plastic stuff grow into a form upon command of my hand was sincere. I have a manic love of and desire for multiples. Honestly, I find overproduction and bounty a pleasing sight. There is magic in the magnitude of multiples enabling a clear perspective, wherein everything else in the world, tangible and ‘un’ shrinks right down to a perfect and manageable size. Like a farmer must feel after harvesting a crop, looking out over a sea of bowls, cups, plates, dishes, etc. is an experience of self-gratification. But...

Day in. Day out. Admirable as the effort may be, it is too static an endeavor for my sensibilities.

Still, I have somehow managed to immerse myself in a world hyper-focused on one material. I have done so because of my own history with it, however low-brow those origins might be considered. My grandmother ran a slip-casting studio in a small town. She had about five kilns and countless molds. We used Duncan glazes and I can recall digging the crystal chunks out of the bottle to enhance the random speckled patterns that would become my bedroom lamp for the next two decades. My sister and I spent hours scraping seams off greenware and sanding the surface before bisque. (ahh, again as I write this brings the memory of the aforementioned meditative peace: scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape) The time spent in my grandmother’s clay studio was such a happy time.

But the whole affair went dormant in my mind. For years I forgot about it. When I decided to focus my studies on clay in college, a shop like hers was, and still is in some circles, the lowest denominator in our field. Thankfully that veil of shame is lifting as we move ever forward and open up permission and accessibility to all schools of the past. More importantly, as I mature in my creative life, I find the episodes from a small town pottery shop awakened in my mind, and as I flip through the memories recalling the peace and joy, I care less and less about feeling deficient as a production potter or the world of chemical romance so prevalent in contemporary ceramics.

Still. Back to the original point. I am not a potter.

In the first years of my immersion in contemporary ceramics, housed safely in academia thanks to the GI Bill my grandmother’s generation fought for, the people I met were always so balanced and delightful, and, yes--come on you can say it with me--EARTHY. This was the honeymoon phase to be sure and it lasted a long while. Actually, the mystique is still there a bit. So much so, that I desperately wanted to be a part of that club. They had so much cameradarie and presented a model of honest work paying dividends in tangible, utilitarian products. The lifestyle was an anchor and a metaphor for life. I wanted to be a potter, but only in an inclusive, come-on-let-me-be-a-part-of-your-group, theoretical way.

(Pause for a geeky non-sequitur: After seeing Star Wars, I wanted to unlock the power of my mind and gain the ability to levitate objects. I did not want to learn about the technology behind light sabers.)

Potters are tangible.

Certainly, there are intangible philosophies supporting their intentions, but so much of the productions potters world is bound in the tangible. They are alchemists first. Only some cross over into mystic status. And still, when I say, “I am not a potter,” I mean, or I meant, I am not worthy of the status. I have not earned the title. I do admire the production potter tradition. I also admire Dick Proenneke who built his own home in Alaska from hand-built tools at the age of 51, but it does not mean I want to busy myself with a similar endeavor. My life thus far has led me to know I have the mettle to make the journey to visit Mr. Proenneke and that, if I had to, I could be self-sufficient. My sister and I joke about how our family is built for disaster, meaning we are the stable ballast in a storm, and even if our assessment is as true as we think it is, it doesn’t mean that we want to hike for five days in snow to chop down and skin a tree, processing it into usable lumber for our home. Nor would we want to repeat the process the number of times required to realize a cabin.

The problem with this sort of thinking, “I am not a potter,” is that it did not name my strengths. It did not allow me to believe in what I did bring to the proverbial table. Always, there is this struggle between classes. Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” addresses this struggle. It is tricky to co-exist with another group, to grossly minimize the thesis. I don’t want to call production potters my oppressors, that goes way beyond the pale. I was oppressing myself.

The model illustrated by Freire is one where the oppressed are stood upon only until they are educated and then they are renewed and reinvigorated in their desire to take part in decisions which define their world. The hazard is that once empowered the prior “oppressed” can sometimes become the oppressor. It is crucial, Freire asserts, to embed the burden of continued education and shared empowerment on everyone. As one moves up, so to do the rest, if the burden is accepted. This is how we avoid the “culture of silence” wherein we would accept having a status quo thrust upon us.

There are countless pathetic anecdotes I could regale you with about being shut out of conversations with potters because I am just not interested in firing schedules, the nuances of chemistry, the hours and hours of labor required to pull a single bowl from a wood kiln. Here is what I know now thanks to inclusive mentors who broke open doors of technical language for me, language that is used sometimes only to make the speaker feel superior. I can and do understand, albeit at a rudimentary level, the science behind ceramics. I would understand it better through repeated practice, but I am more interested in the human condition than the condition of the flame.

I had to take myself out of the position of oppression, because I was the only one putting me there. In turn, I have to recognize that some of the alchemists and potters in the field are feeling just as excluded when talk turns to intangible subject matter. I have a responsibility to not be snide and condescending when a colleague shuts down a thought process because it intimidates them. It is so easy to go on the defensive and say, “Your lack of imagination will not impact my perspiration and progress.” A statement that could be easily delivered with defensive venom. Better such sentiments are spoken between friends who are reassuring themselves that their path is right for them right now.

I began this entry by saying what I wasn’t and admitting such a tactic got in the way of saying what I was. My personal, and surprisingly recent, revelation is that I am an artist. I have an affinity for, but am not limited to craft materials, from clay to macaroni. I have a personal mandate to empower people to find their creative voice and to see just how many people we can fit around the table. There is always room for more.