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clay sculpture : vessel reference(long)

updated sun 15 jul 01


Stephani Stephenson on fri 13 jul 01

I am one of those who has made sculpture relating to the vessel form and
gone beyond the vessel form as well. Yet I still return to it.

First ,I must tell you I SOMETIMES feel that clay 'sculptors' are
bastard children, having parents in both pottery and sculpture. Neither
parent particularly wants to legitimize them.( Look at Sculpture
magazines .you will see nary a work in clay.) So we squirm into both
households uninvited and attempt to nest there. So whether you like it
or not, we are here, carving and modeling a path that is sometimes
indecisive, convoluted, ridiculous, fulfilling , experimental,
traditional, and occasionally brilliant and beautiful to behold.

A failed pot does not a sculpture make. And a failed potter does not a
sculptor make. (Though wondrously failed pots may lead to inspirations
about future sculptures) Sculpture, using any medium ,is as rigorous a
discipline as any.

Some points in response to your questions about why some sculptors do
not have the 'courage' to move beyond the vessel form.

MANY sculptors go beyond the vessel form, only they use clay in the
modeling process only. Bronzes and finished sculptures of many kinds are
first worked in clay. Often this is plastiline clay but often as not it
is water-based clay . To a potter that may not count as 'working with
clay', but I assure you clay has a beauty and workability that has been
appreciated by sculptors for centuries. And , if you do not believe
me, watch a sculptor at work. Better yet. Ask the clay! It is being
worked! So do not discount the legions of sculptors who do work with
clay in this way and who do go beyond the vessel.

Secondly, there are limitations in the medium. Every clay sculptor who
pushes these limits (Long linear extensions, questions of thickness ,
fragility: and engineering a piece when you get to a certain size or
scale) sooner or later questions whether clay is in fact the best medium
or whether it is time to switch mediums to acheive what their 'courage'
requires of them!

By the way, there IS a fine tradition in vessel oriented sculpture. One
of many that comes to mind is the Moche sculpture/pots of ancient
Peru. So why fault someone who wants to work from this tradition or
inspiration? It is a tradition as rich and honrable as that of
wheelthrown pottery.

Many pottery/ceramics students turn to working with clay, calling
themselves sculptors, using a combination of hand building and throwing
techniques. They are not, however, trained as sculptors but are trained
or educated in clay programs and will have experience or exposure to
vessel oriented pottery techniques . It is REASONABLE that many of
them will combine hand building, sculpting and vessel making techniques
and draw on the vocabulary of pottery for inspiration. A potter has a
repertoire of techniques and methods and favored forms, why not a hand
builder or a sculptor? For many of us there is no artificial wall
separating these endeavors? Thinking one must exclusively throw pots or
choose sculpture and eliminate the vessel, creates artificial and
needless boundaries in a field rich with possibility.

So, many who enter into sculpture with clay are actually hand builders
who have not been trained as sculptors and those who are trained as
sculptors may not be well versed in the techniques of firing and
glazing . This brings up the TRUE bastard child: the sculptor who
works in clay and either has only rudimentary knowledge of glazing and
firing or who CHOOSES to bisque fire only and use cold finishes. These
artists may find they are kicked out of both the Sculpture AND the
Ceramics camps. The Sculptors will put them down for even DARING to use
clay as a final medium (yes clay is looked down on, seen as an
intermediary material), and the Potters will put them down for DARING to
use paint or epoxy pigments on the clay...
I often wonder why we disown fellow artists based on the materials and
techniques they use. Evaluate the work yes, but keep an open mind , for
here may reside the work of heroes as well as cowards, as well as
everyday folk!

SCULPTURE: obstacles to overcome include:
Sculpture IS not as familiar to a wide audience in today's U.S .anyway.
Everyone has a wall to hang a painting, everyone has a set of dishes and
knows what to do with a bowl. Most people are unsure of sculpture. In
the yard, on a table, too big for a table, OH DEAR!
Large scale or complex sculpture has a very long lead time: it takes a
LONG time to make and it is difficult to finance studio overhead, to
allow for the needed time to complete a project . Galleries are wary of
sculpture. It is often heavy, cumbersome and takes a long time to sell.
There is a joke among some Gallery owners that 'Sculpture is what you
bump into as you are backing up to get a better look at the painting' .
Public art has its own variables.
Sculpture has somewhat greater acceptance if it is introduced as part of
something recognizable: In a fountain, a church, an architectural
And yes , if it can hang on a wall or remind one of a pot or a
figurine, it may more likely end up being purchased. These are all
issues the sculptor encounters. It can be tough way to make a living .
Even Rodin supported himself as a common plasterer by day and sculpted
by night for many years.
(Understand I am a dinosaur talking. Modern sculpture, if there is such
a thing, has fractured into so many subcategories, it is impossible to
define, it is no longer about stone and wood and clay and metal. It has
moved beyond performance and environment even and is likely now the
movement of light and color on a computer screen, with enhanced 3D
capability of course! Then of course there are wildlife sculptors and
western sculptors ,and on and on....)

The vessel is NOT the sole property of pottery in general and wheel
throwers in particular. RE: Handbuilt clay vessels, baskets, glass ,
hammered and cast metal. Not to mention nature's contributions to the
form: birds nests, wasps nests, shells, gourds, ponds and lakes and
canyons and caves

The vessel is RICH with imagery and symbolism. A vessel is an area of
containment, it is a shape with an interior contour and an exterior
contour. In the language of visual communication and mythic, emotional
and psychological reference it is a womb, a canyon, a heart, a gourd, a
pot, a begging bowl, a chalice, a font, a cornucopia, an burial urn, a
place of safety, the sacred, drowning, a prison, an egg, a place of
emergence, a place of secrecy, of safety, of plenty. Culturally and
historically we have reference to woman as vessel, an individual as a
vessel for infusion of spirit or the words from a deity, and so on.
The body itself, sack of water and fluxes that it is, is a damn vessel!
This is manna for a sculptor!

Whether you work from a visual (the lines, form and volume of a vessel
) or intuitive (emotion, symbolism, meaning, evocative nature of vessel)
perspective, the vessel can be used as a taking off point for a
sculpture .
If those things sound like shallow embellishment then you miss my
point. A belief that essential human, attributes, perceptions,
conditions, truths, can be visually communicated through their medium
is essential to many sculptors, (though I will never say to ALL
sculptors, because the intent of modern sculptors is as varied as
humankind and cannot be generalized).
The attempts of Michaelangelo, Rodin and many who will never be known
are based on this.

The emotions, awareness, symbolism as well as visual elements such as
form, line movement, balance, are there for the artist to manipulate,
like notes or chords in music. These elements can be misused or used to
great success. Many artists slather it on like too much sweet icky icing
on a cake. "Look, I am a symbol, I must mean something! " "Look I am a
symbol on a vessel, I must REALLY mean something." " Look I use symbols,
I am an artist". The viewer general knows exactly when the emperor has
no clothes and bad art will stand there as naked as the emperor, whether
it is on the cover of a magazine or in a museum or in your backyard.

Relying on the vessel form may or may not be a crutch. it may or may not
be kitsch or trendy. It may or not be a true inspiration, deepening or
singing the beauty of the vessel or of the forms that flow from the
vessel .

Let me ask you this: Would you call the work of Jun Kaneko vessels or
sculpture? Would you say that his work does not have the courage to move
beyond the vessel? I certainly would not make that claim for it is the
claim that sounds uncourageous here, not the work.

For those who are potters, you find fulfillment in the making of your
pots. This is fine and good. There is everything you need in that
process. You need nothing more. Many who attempt different work
understand the beauty of the pot and the pot making process. They
understand the beauty and the also the symbolism of each step of the
process. It is no wonder that some continue that reference in their

Yet it is also true that the first baby steps in that direction, from
pottery to sculpture , may be clumsy, and may never really succeed.
Often the potters/artist themselves are not clear in their minds. What
am I looking for, a pot or a sculpture? Successful marriage between the
two is no accident , and I believe it comes about only when the
individual is well versed in BOTH pottery and sculpture.

So I do not disagree with you entirely Matt, as I think the words "HAVE
COURAGE" are apt, and words which I flagellate myself with constantly to
no avail as all good bastard sculptors do :) (please note my tendency to
mix melodrama with both truth and humor here)

In fact, Potters may and do ask themselves the same question you pose
for the sculptors. Are you stuck in throwing a certain kind of form? Is
it for reasons of security, or insecurity? Do you not also have courage
to move on and grow in your endeavors? So it is with us all!

Stephani Stephenson

Matt MacIntire on sat 14 jul 01

Stephani, I really enjoyed your post. I am glad you took the time to share
your thoughts. I did find your post alternately wise and funny. That is a
powerful combination. You expressed many valid insights into this issue
which I had not considered before. And you even managed to do it in a way
that was not confrontational.

Much of your own sculpture seems quite powerful to me. I see in your work
an excellent example of how sculptures can reference pottery forms, but go
well beyond that mere reference. [e.g. Canyon Pot and Canyon Form] Your
work is about pottery forms in one sense, yet it appears to me that you have
gone far beyond the inspiration the vessel has provided. The vessel form is
no mere crutch for you. You manage to use that reference as a springboard
from which to launch into a whole new arena. Your vessels suggest a realm
that seems to have a literary quality, with perhaps a flavor of some ritual
object. Your pieces seem to refer to much more than pottery forms.

I was glad you seemed to understand what I meant by courage. I did NOT mean
that anyone who makes a sculpture about a teapot is a coward or a fool.
What I meant instead was that I admire those who go beyond that mere
inspiration. I admire those who have the integrity to find their own
oeuvre, as you have done.

You make several excellent points about the vessel as a formal element.
Vessels ARE full of rich imagery and symbolism. It does seem reasonable to
expect someone who has gone through training in clay would be inspired by
vessel forms. I certainly agree that there is inspiration in the clay
surface too. Anyone who has seen a Rodin will admit that the nature of the
clay is evident. His work in clay SURELY transcends using clay as a medium,
yet he allowed the nature of the material to remain plainly evident.

I feel that I have little to argue with you about. Your position on this
issue seems enlightened. Though your thoughts are clearer and more complete
than my own, I suspect that our views are not that different.

What I most object to is careless or boring work. If a sculpture has the
function of communicating some personal vision or feeling or idea, then
there seems to be a lot of vessel inspired sculpture that is dysfunctional.
(apologies to Lee, for borrowing that thought) A poorly made mug is
(almost) as much an affront to me as a dull sculpture.

In the galleries near my home there seems to be much trade in uninspired
sculpture that references pottery forms. [However I am surprised that other
sculpture is almost totally absent...?] These vessels forms seem to command
rather high prices for work that has little character or wit. I find that
irritating and unfair.

My reaction is probably sour grapes. The world isn't fair, and my ranting
won't make it so. Better to get on with making good work, as has been
wisely suggested.

I like to think of myself as having an open mind, but with high standards.
It is good to do a bit of sparring every once in a while to check and see if
I am still honest. Your comments brought my own view more towards a middle
ground of common sense. Though I shall still try to maintain my high

Stephani, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.


Helen Bates on sat 14 jul 01

People of Clayart,

It is posts by those who think about their work that keep me reading
on in Clayart. There were others this week whose writing I was happy
to read, but Stephani Stephenson's lucid post is especially fine.
Thank you Stephani.


Helen Bates