Phil Elson offers some thoughts on tea and early memories
I am writing about teapots. I make many more bowls than I do teapots, however there is something about teapots; something that evokes early memories, the very earliest memories. Mothers and teapots, they seemed to go together. Mothers, and friends around for cups of tea; and that shape – that round teapot shape – always there, always about the place. I remember it; remember its roundness – white with blue drawings and a stain from the tip of the spout down to the base. It is in my sea of memories; permanently, it seems. And now I make teapots; not white with blue drawings, and, hopefully, devoid of brown stains. This is what pots can do for us; take us to places that otherwise may be inaccessible – places that remind us of the roundness of life.
Teapot and Three Yunomis, 2007, porcelain, celadon glaze; photo: artist
I remember delivering some work, some years ago, to an establishment in Melbourne that sold my work. The sales assistant greeted me with the question: “Whachyagotthistimefrusphil?” I thought she was humouring me, but she wasn’t. “Bowls and teapots,” I replied. She seemed unimpressed, and it would be an exaggeration to say the life went from her eyes, but her response suggested a near-death experience of some sort had taken place within her. I laugh when I think of that occasion, but the essence of her question has remained with me. Indeed, what have I got? Well I can make pots, and, more specifically, bowls and teapots.
Every Friday morning seven people come to my studio in Castlemaine located in the goldfields area of central Victoria. For nearly three years I have been offering a class in throwing for three hours per week. The ever-present questions for me are now not only what have I got, but what do I have to offer? How can I share this roundness?
I love to make teapots that are full of curves and roundness, and it is on this matter of roundness that I would like to quote a letter from Mr Curly to his friend Vasco, as penned by Michael Leunig1. Mr Curly says:
What seems to be vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundedness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully – happiness itself being of a rounded shape … it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and dare I say – it is a good life.
About three years ago I became aware of an increasing unease about what I was doing in my practice. But, it was what I was NOT doing that seemed most troubling. I felt I was not making a sufficient contribution. The following lines are much quoted ones, but the opening words of Dante from the Divine Comedy2 come closest to my feelings at that time.
In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in the dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost
For a time I considered other work/life options, none of which included continuing to make pots. However, around that time a friend said to me: “… the greatest contribution you can make is to be as close to yourself as you can possibly be.”
Those words changed everything for me. I returned to the studio, sat at my wheel and started making again.
What has all this to do then with teapots? Well everything actually. It did seem for a while that the way had been lost or at the very least obscured. However, now as a potter I so enjoy a renewed sense of contribution and it springs forth in a variety of ways. I look at my students who arrive at the studio on Friday mornings. Each of them comes from their own life, with their own concerns – children, relationships, work – the list seemingly endless.
I observe in each of them as they sit at the wheel with clay in their hands, a wonderful presence. In that moment nothing else really matters. Their thread, their connection, is with that clay. We all have had those moments. We allow ourselves to be still, to be lost, to be in our own skin. Perhaps that is why we do what we do.
In their book Potters, Their Arts and Crafts3 Sparkes and Gandy write:
To carry art into the things of common life is not given to all. It is, however, the privilege of the potter to do this; he is fortunate in being able to ennoble the useful into the beautiful; and many a piece of homely ware produced originally with no idea but that of serviceableness, is now treasured for its simple beauty.
So how do we be with this responsibility of ennobling the useful into the beautiful? Do we accept the responsibility that we can create items that are generally recognised as being beautiful? Clay is an art medium like any other and can be used to make art that is threatening, confronting, stimulating. Or it can simply be beautiful. It is entirely sufficient that it be so.
In her poem The Swan4, poet Mary Oliver writes:
…Said Mrs Blake of the poet:
I miss my husband’s company
He is so often in paradise.
Of course! The path to heaven
Doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
With which you perceive this world,
So, can a teapot be such a gesture … or a symphony or a painting or the caring attentiveness of a nurse or a teacher? I think so. These gestures can be present in every pot.
In The Potters Challenge5, Bernard Leach writes: “… the shape and pattern (of a pot) must, I believe, conform to inner principles of growth which can be felt even if they cannot be easily fathomed by intellectual analysis. Every movement hangs like frozen music in delicate but precise tension.”
He goes on to say that the endeavour of a potter “… is determined in one respect by use, but in other ways by a never ending search for perfection of form … (and) … between straight and curve … are hidden all the potter’s experience of beauty. Under his hands the clay responds to emotion and thought from a long past, to his own intuition of the lovely and the true, accurately recording the stages of his own inward development. The pot is the man: his virtues and his vices are shown therein – no disguise is possible.”
In the accompanying images I have shown teapots made over a period of about 14 years. In my early training I was fortunate to be with teachers who could make teapots. I watched many teapots being made whilst a student in the studios of Victor Greenaway and Richard Brooks.
I am at a point in my life where, quite unashamedly, I can say that to make pots is an act of devotion.
No disguise is possible. This is the life in which I find myself.
(From top left) 1. Opening out 1 kg Walkers Imperial Porcelain 2. Final centreing of porcelain before pulling up 3. Establishing thickness and strength in gallery 4. Developing roundness and high shoulder in the form 5. Trimming base with bamboo stick 6. Placing throwing stick inside form 7. Use of throwing stick to further widen shoulder of the teapot 8. Lifting off 9. Commencing throwing off the hump for making of lid 10. Pulling out sides and forming rim of the lid 11. Smoothing rim of lid prior to cutting off 12. Use of single toggle string to cut off from clay hump 13. Lifting away thrown lid 14. Establishing sides for spout 15. Pulling up height in spout 16. Use of rigid wire to enable throwing of narrower spout 17. Using wooden shaping tool to smooth exterior of spout 18. Trimming underside of spout to separate away from hump 19. Lifting spout away Photographer: Kirsty Sutherland
1 Michael Leunig, The Curly Pyjama Letters, Viking 2001
2 Dante, The Divine Comedy, Penguin 1971
3 JCL Sparkes and W Gandy, Potters Their Arts and Crafts, Partridge and Co.
4 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies, Beacon Press 2003
5 Bernard Leach, The Potters Challenge, Souvenir Press 1975