Book Review: Pots as Art

Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans by Amber Creswell Bell (Thames + Hudson, $40) 

Clay 9780500500729First published in Australia, this round-up of more than fifty studio potters, most of whom are women, is heavy on work produced down under, by native Australians and immigrants. That gives the book added value for Americans, for it includes pottery that we may never get to see and handle, by artists whose output is too limited to achieve wordwide distribution. The author has curated popular exhibitions in her native Sydney, and she has eclectic tastes, embracing diverse approaches to clay, from zen minimalism to pop exuberance, utilitarian and fanciful. Everyone will find pieces they covet and others that will make them flip the page with a shudder.

Each potter is given two or three spreads and most are photographed in their studios. Throughout, there’s a strong emphasis on craft and tactility, of molding the clay with your hands and accepting the element of chance. In a ceramics studio, the variations of material, shape, firing temperature, and glaze are infinite. The beauty often resides in the irregularities and subtle changes from one pot to the next. In Japan, even the most prized tea bowls have a tiny flaw, to emphasize that their origin is human, not divine. I once saw an exhibition at the Mito Museum of Shigaraki bowls, produced over several centuries and revered by their owners. As the last bus back to the train station was leaving I spotted a perfect specimen in the museum store, newly made in the traditional way, with scorch marks and tiny flecks of feldspar studding the rough surface. It was irresistible, I bought it on impulse, and it has become a treasured possession.

Many of these artisans are creating highly collectible work, and for anyone who would like to immerse himself in this ancient, but constantly renewed art form, Clay will provide an ideal introduction.—Michael Webb


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