Why I Make Pots


I like big pots. Probably for the same reason I worked on whales. They are impressive. Small pots make small statements, big pots make big statements. At this point, I should explain that to me, a pot is anything made out of clay.

My subjects are mostly natural objects because they are what I know. I am a biologist and an engineer. I start with photographs and when I can, by watching the thing I’m making, as it moves. Then I draft it in two dimensions on paper in the size I want it to be, and finally convert the two dimensions into three, as clay. The scale of the things I make is usually about 25 to 40 inches in one direction. Practically, this is because the kiln is 37 inches on the diagonal, and 42 inches tall.

As an engineer, I am interested in the structure of the objects. Sometimes I don’t follow nature slavishly because I am interested in the purity of a curve, or the way the pot will stand. Gravity is one of the things engineers worry about, and I love to fight it. The literary characters I admire most are Don Quixote, and Ahab. Both were crazy, and determined. Both dreamed, and both ultimately lost. But they kept at it. I love to push gravity, knowing that I will always lose, but I still work at it. That’s partly why I jump on skates, too. For a brief moment, I can fly. I crash a lot. My behind is often a bit sore, and always cold. I can say ‘my behind is cold’ in Japanese.

I’ve made a lot of fish. I like them because they have such varied shapes and lifestyles. They often present construction challenges. When I don’t know how to keep the thing I’m working on from falling down or apart, I have the problem with me all the time. I dream about it. One of the neat things about fish and other sea animals is that most people don’t know anything about them. It gives me the opportunity to show them how exciting the world is. When I talk about my fish, I can teach a bit about evolution, and a bit about ecology, and a bit about respect and love for our world. I can show a really funny shaped animal, and talk about its relationship to other, more familiar fish, evolutionarily. I can show an unusual marine animal, and talk about its lifestyle, and where and how it lives. And I can show an animal that has become extinct, and talk about really ancient history, or about the sadness that I feel because people made the animal extinct. In some ways, this is my most important message, because if I can make everyone feel that in extinction we lose something really beautiful, interesting and important, perhaps we can prevent other extinctions.

I have to admit though, that a lot of what I do is just for fun, or I made it as a joke, or a pun. My bottle people are just funny to look at. I suppose they are caricatures. A lot of the pieces I made, I made in response to one of my favorite people of all time, my clay instructor, Bruce George. He is one of my real heroes. He told me once that he didn’t see me in the same rebellious light that I saw myself in, and I explained that the reason that he never saw that aspect of me was that he opened the doors for me so fast that I hardly had time to run through them. Each semester, Bruce would assign a final exam that all of his classes, beginning and advanced were required to complete. In the advanced classes, we always felt honor bound to do the final, even though none of us cared about grades or credit in the class. I was honor bound to do the final, but I also felt that it was my duty to ‘screw it up’, either through a total, intentional misinterpretation of the assignment, or by turning the assignment into a pun. It came to be a game we played, with Bruce trying harder and harder to come up with an assignment that I would want to do, so I would take it seriously, or to make it so close to what I do naturally that I couldn’t mess it up. These assignments taxed all my creativity, and some of my best work happened because I was playing the game.

One of the things that frustrated my major professor, Steve Wainwright, the most when I was studying biomechanics with him, was that I never repeated anything. He said that he saw me doing something, enjoying doing it, and then not doing it anymore. This is a problem in science that I didn’t overcome. It was probably because I always felt I was time limited, and had to get to the goal in a hurry. I mention this, because in my mind, science and art are the same thing, requiring the same kind of intellectual rigor and approach. Thus, it has been interesting to me to see that now, when I feel less need to reach a goal, I am making series of things, and learning from the repetition. So Steve, I get it now. As I get a lot of the other things you taught me about science, art, and living. I really was paying attention.