Thoughts on making

Edmund de Waal porcelain
Edmund de Waal porcelain

A slight change of tack, today, looking at porcelain and metal working rather than textiles.  This is occasioned by an article I read in the Financial Times at the weekend, which was the text of an essay by Edmund de Waal, the ceramicist, broadcast on Radio 3 on 15 March.  The article was called ‘With these hands’, and the talk was in Radio 3’s series on influential books.  De Waal takes Primo Levi’s book, The Wrench and describes what it meant to him in terms of his own art practice.

It contains a really good explanation and definition of embodied knowing, which is a hot topic in social sciences at the moment.  He describes the physicality of making pots, and the way that that knowledge is held within the body, but is impossible to describe or codify:

Centring the clay, bringing this small ball into perfect receptivity for throwing, involved a ripple of different movements from hand to wrist, an inclination in the head and neck, a slight tautening in the shoulders.  It was a sort of learning I could not articulate.

de Waal, E. (2011) ‘With these hands’, Financial Times Life and Arts, 13-14 March, 1-2: 1.

He describes the experience of reflecting on something that you have created and the surprises it can bring,  as ‘the epiphany where you see what you have made is different from what you had conceived.’  Very often artists experience this as disappointment or failure, Turner’s famous gap between what was in his imagination and what he was able to put on the canvas and the sense of frustration that can bring, but de Waal sees it in a much more positive light.  It is an epiphany, which suggests new beginnings, possibly the receiving of a gift, certainly a happy apparition.  I have often experienced this.  I very seldom know what I am trying to do, and sometimes what I produce is rubbish and gets put into a bag of bits which are often cut up and recycled into subsequent projects.  On other occasions, I am delighted with what I’ve made, a happy accident occurs and it is much better than I could have hoped for.  I go where the spirit takes me and am often delighted to see the result.

De Waal goes on to describe looking for a writer who can give an account of what it is to make.  He tries Ruskin and Morris, but without much satisfaction:

I was searching for a description of Homo faber, the maker of things.  I wanted a story of making told without the penumbra of romanticising how hard it is, without nostalgia. (p.1)

Again, this is striking.  De Waal doesn’t want the hard graft of wrenching work from the innermost depths of being narrative, or the ‘wasn’t it all wonderful before the industrial revolution spoiled everything?’ story.  He wants a much more positive version of what it is to be a maker.  Thus, the hero of the book he chooses to discuss, Faussone, is a rigger of cranes, ‘someone who has a complex, adult relationship with materials..’  I am sure anyone who is a maker recognises this.  As you get into your craft you do develop an adult relationship of respect, and occasionally ambivalence with your materials.  You certainly get to know them and love them despite their individual quirks!  Furthermore, a craftsman like Faussone develops a bodily response in his work which tells him about his materials, and this resonates with de Waal:

This made sense of how deeply connected the hand and the head really are.  It articulated for me the way I would throw a dozen porcelain pots and look at them, affectionately perhaps, but also with a dispassionate eye, and plan the next dozen.  It understood how I know when dipping a pot into a bucket of glaze or listening to the sound of the flames when firing my kiln that there is something out of balance. (p.1)

Again, I recognise the phenomenon that even when you are creating one thing you are already moving onto the next, a real feeling of creative restlessness.  And I also like the way that he evokes the felt element of knowing, the embodied knowledge that means that just picking up a pot can tell you about the integrity of its structure without any kind of test.  It combines the cognitive with the sensory and the bodily.

I also like this quotation:

Levi was right: that it is through the hands that you learn the properties of the ‘grey of steel beams and plates, the actual heroes of his stories’.  But that these materials needed a lifetime of thinking around.  They are a start for conversation. (p. 2)

I like the idea that we have a conversational relationship with our materials; I think it is another way of thinking about the ‘what if?’ element of creativity.  The material will tell you what will happen if you slash, burn, melt, overpaint, reverse or whatever process you choose.  And this is a lifetime’s conversation as you get to know the properties of those materials.  The conversation never stops.

Finally, drawing on Levi, de Waal gives a list of the pleasures of making which we can all identify with:

  • being able to test yourself
  • not depending on others in the work
  • reflecting yourself in your work
  • the pleasure of seeing your creature/creation grow
  • the fact that it will possibly outlive you
  • it might be useful to someone else
  • ‘Maybe another man wouldn’t have brought it off.’

I think anyone who has ever created anything will have something in common with at least one thing on that list.

Edmund de Waal V&A installation
Edmund de Waal V&A installation, inspired in part by Primo Levi's The Wrench
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