Defining A Potter - Craftsman Or Artist? – Zenful Pottery

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Defining A Potter - Craftsman Or Artist?


You only get one chance at a first impression, and when your livelihood depends on it, it's essential to get it right. Potters have a lot of flexibility when it comes to defining themselves, but that flexibility comes at a price, since as you start to establish yourself, you tend to become boxed in. Our minds need to categorize things, it's a natural consequence of how our brains evolved, but choosing the right label for an individual potter is a tricky task. Some of us are artists in our own right, they make beautiful work to be displayed on a wall, but others, not so much. So, what word should we use?

Labeling - A Convenience of Mind

Generally, I dislike labels; the moment you assign a label, it suddenly becomes something. This happens every time we encounter something new, often without us realizing it. Our brains go into a frenzy: what is this thing?!

If I can compare it to something I already know, the job is easy. For example, I see a new object on my table, and my brain perks up, it needs to understand what the new stimulus is. It looks like a small banana. My brain pulls up everything it knows about bananas, and I can now say its a fruit, it's sweet, etc. I've categorized it, now I can move on. It's convenient to box it in to what I already know.

Most of the time this approach works, but what happens if there was something special about this banana? Unless I actively examine it or am further interested in it, and most of the time I won't, I might miss out on learning that new tidbit of information. It's unlikely to be life changing, but it's still preventing me to fully understand what that banana is. And in this case, the banana is actually a plantain. Similar, but not the same thing, and I may have missed out on discovering that. And that's just a plantain. When our minds transfer that behavior to other things, other people, we risk missing out on a lot of information.

With that in mind, when asked what label I fit into, it makes me a little nervous, because I can't tell how their minds define those labels. Do they see artists as snobby or sophisticated? Is a craftsman respectable or unneeded in today's world? I can't tell, and I don't know if they are going to spend the time to learn something new about those labels. 

Craftsman - A Maker For The People  

An artist typically makes for a smaller group of people, for galleries, museums and collectors, whereas a craftsman makes for the common man, the everyday home. Anyone can appreciate art, but often, you have to go out of your way to view it. A craft, on the other hand, is commonplace. Art is beautiful, and there are artistic elements in our work, but art tends to be observed. I see a painting on a wall, and it's lovely, but it decorates my life, it doesn't partake in it. A functional potter creates pieces that enhance our lives. I don't want to make a beautiful cup, I want to make a cup that is so easy to use it feels like a natural extension of your arm, and that is what makes it beautiful.

In some sense, the more artistic the piece, the more the artist's personality is in the piece. While that serves its place, a functional potter strives to make their work useful, to be accessible to a wide audience, and as a consequence, their personality in the work should be subtle. If I put too much of my personality into a cup, it serves less utility to others, since they can't complement the cup with their personality, their lifestyle. So, a successful studio potter toes the line between too much and not enough, creating work that has hints of the maker without distracting from the user.

With that in mind, at Zenful Pottery, we fall on the craftsman side of the spectrum. Perhaps the best label for us are artisans, but I think even that word puts too much emphasis on art. Instead of focusing on the word, we aim to focus on the work, for the work tends to speak for itself. As Shakespeare wisely put it: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."



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