Louis Vuitton, Hero Worship, and that old question "Do my pots look like anyone else's?"

My understanding of the fashion world is right up there with my grasp of biochemistry. My clothes may, or may not, match on any given day. I'm not making a indie fashion statement with my mismatches. They seem to occur unbeknownst to me. Most of my nice clothes were gifts from loving girlfriends who took pity on my constant state of pottery-induced unawareness.

Living abroad has brought me into contact with high fashion in a new way. My upper-class expat students often bring their expensive handbags to class with them. Twice since I have been here professional models have come to our studio for photo shoots for magazines. One of my students is a strikingly beautiful model of mixed-Asian decent. She recently showed me an ad campaign with her decked out in some European designers' clothes.(Have I mentioned that I love this job?) I had no idea that real people could participate in this world of luxury. I assumed you must be famous to own something that had a luxury brand logo on it.

Being around all this makes me think about how this language of fashion has evolved. I think it happens like this. Fashions start as an avante garde statement from a designer for a niche market. Word of mouth carries the designs to the edges of the niche market where the mainstream catches on. The designs blow up there fore "selling out". Then if they have actual design merit they outlast the next two or three trends that have followed the same pattern of mainstreaming. They might then become classic and enter the design lexicon. This means they are fair game for copying by other designers.

I have seen this whole cycle happen in pottery. When I was a post bacc at UF in 2004, Matt Long was the technician. He was work shopping all over the US and made the cover of Ceramics Monthly with an article by Glen Brown.(click here for a great video and reference to that article.) Since then I have seen "his" pots being made by other artists including myself. I made versions of his pots the following summer when I was at a residency in Connecticut. I even had a few M. Long cover pots show up in China for a invitation show we are putting on about liquor bottles. The ideas/techniques in Matt's pots are seductive. The fresh porcelain slip and raw soda flashes are a cone 10 potter's wet dream. That style is now a part of the American ceramic lexicon much like Louis Vuitton is part of the worlds fashion lexicon.

I sometimes hear potters complaining about copying within the ceramics world. Some people get really bent out of shape when the subject comes up. I understand the complaints from a economic standpoint. If someone copies your product you will sell less of it. I don't however understand it from a ceramics history standpoint. Most pots that I see have some connection to the past. In fact I think our strength as a medium is our living connection to the past. There seems to be an accepted time frame in which pots from the past are OK to copy without causing a fuss. By flipping through Ceramics Monthly issues I would say styles from the early to mid 1900's are OK to copy, pots from any Chinese dynasty are OK to copy, and somehow all slip cast pots are OK to copy. I'm not sure who draws this chronological threshold but it seems to exist in our collective imagination.

One of the questions that I ask myself regularly is "Do my pots look like anyone else's?" The answer is yes. Its not a conscious decision but they do look a lot like people that I admire. I see the seeds of a Julia Galloway pitcher in my own, as well as Michael Kline's brushwork in my patterns. If I had to come up with an equation for visual influences in my work right now it would be 1 part American Quilting + 1 part Church stained glass window colors (or Katherine Finnerty colors) + 1 part Julia Galloway proportions + 1 part Kristen Kieffer attention to detail + 1 part Turkish Iznik/ Iranian Isfahan line work (or Michael Kline brush work). For philosophical influences it would be 1 part American Mingei (Ruggles and Rankin) + 1 part Matt Long ideas about community + 1 part Linda Arbuckle ideas about design.

Even know I am probably losing all my cool points for saying it - these people are my pottery heroes. I don't think I am degrading their work by referencing their ideas with my pots. I think we all love the same aspects of ceramics and therefore we come to the same conclusions about what to make. I remember asking Will Ruggles once if an artist was one his students. He laughed and said "no... we know each other but we just think the same thoughts about pots." It wasn't competitive for him at all. Their was no conceptual territory to guard. It was an issue of shared preferences. Ruggles is one of the most open individuals and teachers that I have worked with.

I have blogged about this subject before but I bring it up again because I am rethinking it. I'm teaching my students to copy as a means of educating them on the possibilities of clay. I also think about this a lot because there are so many fake products in China. The streets are filled with fake DVDs, ipods and designer clothes. Originality is a very loose term when it comes to making money. One person has a good idea and everyone copies it until their is no demand for it.

If anyone reads this and has any thoughts on appropriation/copying send them my way. Id like to know what other potters think about this.

(The pictures above are of the four story tall Louis Vuitton facade that rests at Nanjing Xi Lu. I was biking through that area one day when I was stopped dead in my tracks by this mammoth replica of a suitcase. I love the large LV pattern and the fake postcards plastered on the side. For a little Louis Vuitton history head on over to Wikipedia by clicking here.)

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