Turning Point: The moment your (ceramic) life changes

Every potter has moments where the course of their studio life changes abruptly. A well timed critique, hours of solitary studio exploration, or flipping the pages of ceramic magazines can lead to major shifts in an artist's world view. Although I have experienced positive changes from all of these the most drastic turns have come from direct interaction with historical pots. There is no greater feeling than being left speechless by a work of art.

One of my turning points was viewing the show Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation at the Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. (Click here for a great Flash site documenting the show. The gallery houses the Asian art collection for the Smithsonian.) During my visit I was in the grip of a major ceramic infatuation with Japanese aesthetics. I like many potters had read Susan Peterson's book on Shoji Hamada. I was caught in the romance of the humble potter. I was convinced that the Mingei movement would be the foundation of my ceramic life. Even though Soetsu Yanagi's words rang a bell deep inside me, the pots that my Mingei inspired friends made never looked like mine. Critiquing my pots with theirs was like showing up to a playoff game realizing you are wearing the opposing teams jersey. While the spirit of Mingei remains influential I have come to understand that my more-is-more aesthetic doesn't fit into a philosophy of making simple humble objects.

The body of work that I was engaged in at the time directly referenced quilt patterns (see the pot above). I was moving away from the less-is-more aesthetic by doing my best to decorate every square inch of the pots surface. In all honesty I have never been a less-is-more person. Excess is in my blood. More food, more soccer, more baseball cards, more peanut butter, more pots, more music, more, more, more. I tried for years to simplify. I thought maybe if I could stop decorating just a bit earlier I would make the "right" pots. I'm not sure how I settled on what the "right" pots were but I knew I wasn't making them.

As I walked through the Freer that day in 2005 I had a major breakthrough. Those Islamic pots showed me that excess is a tool, not a deficiency that should be worked against. Great power can be gleamed from overwhelming the senses with repetition, scale change, and detail. Reading more about Islamic art I have learned that these tools are used to speak metaphorically about the role of Allah in daily life. Infinite dense pattern is representational of an omnipresent God. I find this to be theologically interesting but also an accurate description of the experience I had when I first saw the Samanid bowl below. I spotted it out of the corner of my eye and even in my periphery it pulled me in. I stood in front of the display with my face pressed to the glass like a kid peeking in a toy store window. In hind sight my interest in this type of pot comes from a desire to figure out patterns. Layered patterns are puzzles that engage my brain in a pleasurable way. (I often find myself stopped on the street smiling at the brick pattern on the sidewalk. Life in a big city is a numbers game where the chaos will arrange itself if you are willing to spend the time looking.)

When I look at the pattern on this bowl I count the larger elements first. Five central floral elements created by black on white negative space. I look at their contours, their similarities, and their differences. I dive into the fine bits letting them soak into my vision. The red and black quatrefoil patterns on the exterior band fill the negative space between the script in an unexpected but interesting way. I can't read the text but I appreciate the line quality and gesture that it conveys. The last touch is the alternating red and black semicircles that border the rim. The pattern repeats but deviates in one spot. This subtle switch makes me go all the way around the pot to see if it happens again.

This bowl represents one of my turning points. Seeing that show was the first step down a path that I am still walking in my studio today. This post is the first in a series where guest bloggers will talk about the turning points in their own work. I've been asking friends to write on the subject and I look forward to posting them in the future.

10th century Iran Samanid period. Earthenware with painted under glaze
H: 11.2 W: 39.3 D: 39.3 cm

"This deep bowl exemplifies the high technical quality and compositional sophistication achieved in 10th-century ceramics from northeastern Iran. Its central decoration consists of an abstract tree with five branches ending in palmettes and revolving around a small rosette. The dominant counter-clockwise movement of the stems is subtlely reversed by a branch to the trunk's left— a shift that ingeniously draws attention to the ovoid mark at the beginning of the Arabic inscription below. This inscription is bordered at the rim by a band of red and black scallops and on the walls by a series of irregular panels following the contours of the letters. It translates as follows: "It is said that he is content with his own opinion runs into danger. Blessing to the owner."


  1. Really inspiring post! I've felt for some time I'm on the brink of one of these turning points. This feeling is so distinct. While I haven't experienced the pivotal moment yet, I sense it is near. It is so interesting to read about your experience, and I am now finding greater comfort in the process. I am realy looking forward to reading the future posts in this series! Thank you for a great post!

  2. Amazing post Ben! Thanks so much for sharing this part of your journey.

  3. Thanks guys. Looking at our turning points shows how we arrive at our practices and beliefs. This awareness highlights how far we have come in our development. It can also shed light on where we want to go next.

  4. Great post Ben. I'm still looking at my turning point from saltglazed stoneware made with that Mingei thought behind it to the work I am doing now, low fire earthenware that seems to be getting more decorated as time passes! Look forward to your next post on this subject.