I know how to throw. I can capably produce shapes and forms. But I hand build pots because handbuilding feels right to me. Is there a reason that’s so? Why does handbuilding allow me to create work more satisfying than I’ve produced in any other medium? What makes us handbuilders tick?
Clay workers and artists who wheel-throw their wares have my admiration. But the thought process, and physicality of throwing seem to have a steep learning curve. They don’t feel intuitive. When I watch my favorite mentor, Tom Vician, throw pots, I’m impressed by the Zen-like way he drifts off into his work. He centers the clay, but he also centers himself. His whole facial expression changes and quiets.
Tom and other throwers learn, over time, to let go of their mental controls and allow their hands and instincts to take over. It’s muscle memory. After years, that process of throwing on the wheel becomes one with the thrower.
However, the pottery wheel can be frustrating. For me, and other potters of a certain age, throwing takes a toll on bones and muscles. Neck. Back. Shoulders. All ache after a serious session.
Some students just can’t learn to center. Teachers like Tim See are extremely good at articulating and demonstrating how to master the arts of centering and opening. Still, there are no guarantees. Throwers encounter lots of pitfalls.
- There’s a fine balance between using too much water and not enough water.
- The wheel speed can easily become too fast or too slow. I’ve never seen a form go flying off a handbuilder’s table, but I sure have seen one spin off a wheel and onto the floor.
- You can’t stop in mid project and attend to something else. The velocity of forming the clay requires that you commit to a single session.
- And when you finally throw a completed forms, danger lurks in the trimming. Have you ever trimmed right through the bottom of a pot?
I know. The majority of potters are into wheel throwing and will never turn their backs. But for those of us who don’t get along with fast paced production, here’s insight into why we hand build.
Primordial Tools Connect Us to Our Roots
When we hand build pots, we use the first tools we ever had. The most controllable tools. Our hands. You can hand build an array of beautiful and useful pots with nothing but your hands, some mud, and a fire. Working with your hands gives a direct connection to your brain, providing good exercise for those brain cells. You can’t lose your tools or leave them in a reclaiming tub.
The feel of clay is soothing. Your hands—touching, smoothing, shaping the clay, can tell when a form needs rest. You can feel when the clay is exactly right for moving forward. You’re totally aware of how thick or thin your form is.
No tool is less expensive than hands.
Louise Gelderblom, ceramicist in Cape Town, South Africa, sees it like this
“I only coil, because when I coil it feels like I am busy drawing in three dimensions. The shape of the piece and the surface markings on it create a rhythm, a percussion beat that I think of as a wordless tactile language…. It is my mission to forge and maintain a space for the unique and the hand made, and to maintain the integrity of and respect for the traditional art worker, in an increasingly commoditised world.”
Yep. Our world is digitized and commoditised. Everything happens at a fast pace. We try to produce everything faster and in larger quantities. Pottery wheels were developed for that exact reason. Speed. More production. I’m not saying that’s bad thing. It’s just not my thing.
We Hand Build Pots to Sooth the Soul
I was listening to a podcast last night called, Tales of a Red Clay Rambler . The guest was Sandi Pierantozzi, a handbuilder from Philadelphia. Sandi operates a studio and school known as Neighborhood Pottery. She spoke of her connection to handbuilding, noting that she even makes her slabs with a rolling pin, not a slab builder. She enjoys using her hands to get a strong connection to tradition.
Sandi said that on the wheel, at least in the early stages, almost anyone can develop basic shapes and make them look pretty good. But later, it’s time consuming to change a complicate shapes, bend it, add to it, or alter a form.
Using your hands, you can do anything with clay. Take it up in size or remove some and shrink the concept. Create a smooth as silk surface, or one so highly textured that it begs to be touched and examined. Make and attach cantilevered features. You can even remove an entire section and recreate it if it doesn’t please you.
The handbuilding process has an alluring rhythm, too. Wedge the clay. You use your strength and your body’s flexibility to push, turn, and shift a mass of rough clay. It becomes smooth and silky, buttery. Pliable.
With a wooden mallet that feels natural and familiar in your hand, you flatten the mass, pounding. It feels akin to drumming, an ancient exercise that humans have relied on on to express their feelings since the beginning of history. The work connects you to your cave ancestors. No, really, feel it.
Now roll the pounded mass into a slab. You control its thickness. You control size and shape. Watch as the clay thins, responding to your direction. It moves out from the pressure you exert. Those platelets are lining up and creating a strong, plastic, satin-sheened surface. Let that slab set up when you finish, and you can do anything with it.
So Many Choices When We Hand Build Pots
I think with pleasure about the freedom and flexibility I have at my work table. Slabs are satisfying and infinitely adaptable. You can work with soft, stiff, or leather hard slabs, and the process is completely different for each.
With clay coils, you can make almost anything you can conceive of. Allow a surface to show the coils or compress and smooth the clay until no one would guess the form wasn’t thrown. Flatten the coils and weave a surface. Hand build pots on an armature to see how big you can go! Wad up newspaper, form it into a compressed head, slather on blobs of clay. Smooth the clay and carve a bust of anyone or no one.
Don’t stop there. Grab a ball of soft clay, close your eyes and make a pinch pot. Feel the shape grow in your hands. Lose yourself in the primitive action that must, somehow, involve genetic memory. Pinch pots come in all sizes, from small chawans for tea to large conglomerate forms made with multiple pinch pots.
You can use molds— both slump and drape. You might sculpt or model forms and figures. Every day brings a new idea and every idea can culminate with a thing of beauty that is a joy forever.
Some of us love tools. Hands are good, but you can fill your studio with handmade tools, found object tools, or purchased tools. Tools to sculpt, carve, smooth, cut, bend, shape, or add texture. Mats, rollers, knives, shape cutters, decals. transfers, wires…
Handbuilding is an art form limited only by your imagination and your familiarity with the properties of clay. It’s an expression that the most basic beginner can utilize, and the most advanced artist can exploit.
If you are happy creating art from your imagination, clay is perfect for personal expression. We can hand build pots without knowing anything
about why it works. But if you dote on technology and have a need to know why things happen, you can immerse yourself in clay tech, glaze chemistry, and the physics of clay.
Hear me. There’s nothing wrong with wheel throwing. I delight in the loveliness of well-thrown pots. But handbuilding’s popularity is growing fast. And for me the quiet contemplation and manipulation of earthy material is so satisfying. The deeply personal connection to materials and techniques that were born at the dawn of mankind make me peaceful. Knowing I created an object that pleases me, out of nothing but mud and my hands, is pretty mystical. I hand build pots because handbuilding is exactly the right process to suit my personality.