Thoughts on the Hand

This week I've been thinking about hands, fingers and the sense of touch.

-Every ceramic artist comes to a crossroads in their studio where they must ask themselves, "How much evidence of the hand do I want in my work? How much do I want a sense of touch to be part of the finished object?" Mold makers often forge a path that emphasizes clean untouched surfaces that are reminiscent of shaped metal and stone. Uniformity is the goal and the quest for "clean" is undertaken as an aesthetic focus. Throwers on the other hand turn the other direction emphasizing variation and irregularity in their surfaces. "Fresh" becomes the focus as the potter quests for the perfect gestural line or bulge. Although I use molds on occasion I definitely fall into the thrower category. I can't get enough of the fleshy quality that freshly manipulated clay has on the wheel. I push it, pull it and bend it as I touch it from all angles. My finger marks are evident at every stage from the forming to the decoration.

-The hand is intimately tied to our brain because of the importance touch plays in our interactions with the world around us. "In fact, the hand is a privileged part of the body. It is represented by about 15% of both the sensory and the motor cortex of the brain, although the hand occupies a far smaller proportion of the total surface area of the body. Recognition by touch is also represented within the parietal association cortex. Thus the hand appears to eat up a substantial proportion of our sensory and computational powers."
Bruce Metcalf The Hand: at the Heart of Craft

-"The finger has hundreds of sensors per square centimeter" says Mark Goldstein, a sensory psychophysicist who cofounded MommaCare a company devoted to training nurses and physicians in the art of the clinical exam. " There is nothing in science or technology that has even come close to the sensitivity of the human finger with respect to the range of the stimuli it can pick up. It's a brilliant instrument. But we simply don't trust out tactile sense as much as our visual sense."
Malcolm Gladwell- The Picture Problem from What the Dog Saw

-I ran across the above passage from psychophysicist Mark Goldstein last week and immediately thought of this iconic Johnny Cash image. It has graced tshirts, stickers and ads as a sign of the rebellious spirit that has often gone hand-in-hand with the life of a musician. In the image Cash was about to play one of his infamous prison concerts at San Quentin State Prison when photographer Jim Marshal turned to him and said "John, let’s do a shot for the warden". Cash responded with a gesture and an image was born that helped cement Cash's reputation as country music's bad boy.


  1. Thanks for posting this Ben!

    I've been telling students that their most valuable tool is their hands, especially their fingers, and that it makes sense to educate their hands as much as possible by touching the clay directly. I've got nothing against tools. Use them when you need to. But if its something you can do with your own hands, every bit of experience you give them will pay off down the road.

    This seems especially important for beginners and novice potters. Sometimes it seems that beginners are given the idea that certain tools are necessary when they are merely one way to do something. By putting a tool in their hands I sometimes worry that they are replacing the education and training of their hands with learning a technique. And nothing against techniques! But it also seems that our sensitivity and sophistication is better served by a foundation of able hands that have gained a certain amount of independent intelligence rather than an intelligence that is tied to an accretion of separate techniques.

    Its a difference between the kind of ability to figure things out with native problem solving intelligence and having one specific technique that will solve this one problem. And another technique for another problem, and another for yet another.... Its the difference between having the keys to open specific doors only and keys that will unlock potentially any door.

    If its a trade off, does it matter which way we end up going? Are students blunting the intelligence of their fingers when they pick up a tool they could have worked without, or is this different use of their hands (to hold tools) its own kind of intelligence of equal or more importance? Obviously man is a tool using animal for good reasons, but are our hands our best tools, and are we sometimes guilty of underserving their education?

    I could be wrong.... What do you think?

    1. Hello Carter,
      I like where you are going with that thought. I do think beginner students are dependent on tools in a negative way. When I teach workshops I am amazed at the plethora of tools the students bring to work for a few days in the studio. They often (and I did too) get sucked into buying every trendy tool that has been on sale at their local clay supplier.

      A great assignment would be to have the students make their favorite pot. Then take all their tools away and get them to make it again. I bet their instincts would say "oh no I can't make that pot without (insert tool)!" They of course can make anything with their hands so they would have to adapt and in the process learn why the tools are important.

      My main concern is that students learn how to use the tools they have. Each tool has a specific function that it is best suited for. There is such a thing as a multi-use tool (i.e Pin tool, rib, etc.) but many times one tool is better than another at giving you an outcome. Students often use their tools in non productive ways and don't realize it. For instance cutting a hole with a pin tool is ok but an exacto is sharper (giving you a clean line) and a hole punch is built for that purpose (giving you uniformly round holes). If you can teach a student how to really appreciate and use a simple tool they will learn how to estimate what tools are good for.

      In this case we are mostly talking about the physical manipulation of a tool in the clay itself but this goes for more abstract tools. I've seen people become too dependent on electronic tools or even conceptual platforms. The real issue is how to use a tool to its best ability without those abilities becoming unconscious boundaries or hangups. Early on I was told to stop using the wheel because it was a crutch. I shunned the idea at the time but later took the advice. The time I spent handbuilding was really positive and I went back to the wheel with fresh eyes. The experience I had was all about letting go of the perceived boundaries of what a pot made on a wheel should look like. It was important to physically refrain from using the tool so that I could intellectual move onto a new idea.

      As always great to hear from you. Thanks for reading the blog.

    2. So true!

      Yeah, the question I always ask students is "Why?" For whatever they are doing I want them to have good reasons for doing it. If the answer is just "That's the way I learned" or "My teacher told me" I ask them to look deeper and see if they are (first) making a pragmatic difference, and (second) if they are achieving this result in the best way possible. So much effort is wasted on superstitious habits that some students might be better off clapping their hands three times and sacrificing chickens every time they sit down at the wheel.

      I like that idea about testing students' ability to make the same pot without tools. As you say, some tools are necessary to specific problem solving, but often they are not. I just had one student have a minor melt down in class when I suggested something similar. Fortunately I was able to salvage her state of mind by demonstrating how what she was doing was not as integral to the results as she had assumed. Phew!

      Sometimes they won't believe it unless you show it to them. Its as if students sometimes can't even imagine doing things differently. As if there's only one right way, and they already have it. And this seems like a potential problem to me....

      That's a great point about viewing our defaults as if they were crutches. Can we learn to walk without them? And what does this tell us?

      Good stuff as always Ben! Keep the posts coming. It seems there are only a handful of us still trying to write substantive posts. You always raise the bar. Keep up the good work!

  2. I had a bit of a conversation with myself recently about the tolerance for imperfection I have in my own work. But it's not imperfection its the slight of hand, after all your a person and not a machine and thats something to remember!

  3. Funny I should run into this post after having commented on your more recent one about the slip nuggies being evidence of process, or the hand. I know for the most part you're talking here about overtly intentional "handling" but I feel confident that the nuggies, while unintentional, aren't entirely unwelcome. They're like little birthmarks, and as a maker myself, I feel that if they're not unsightly or distracting, they're endearing. Preaching to choir, I suspect.