Pottery, poetry, therapy

Pottery is an extraordinarily enduring and widespread cultural achievement, and the durability of baked clay means that it survives in archaeological contexts all over the world.  I am fascinated by how far pottery reaches into our societies and how as a craft it intersects with our lives.

Magdalene Odundo and Ladi Kwali

Many origin stories have the first humans formed from clay, just as they return to it; so it is for Enkidu in the epic of Gilgamesh.  God is a potter and humanity his clay throughout the Bible.[1]  Long before these texts, the very first fired earth artefacts seem to have been not containers but sculptural images; this “Venus figurine” from Dolní Věstonice (31–27,000 years BP) in Czechoslovakia has the fingerprint of a child, who touched it before it was fired.[2]

Pottery often accompanied our ancestors to their next life.  From the miniature houses of iron age Italian burials early in the first millennium BC to the extravagance of the terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China around 200 BC to the Moche portrait vessels from Peru in the first millennium AD , objects from everyday use to those specifically made for the purpose were interred with the dead.

Moche Portrait head, British Museum

This historical connectedness of pottery, the long skeins of tradition, its symbiosis with humans, and its durability, have been celebrated recently in exhibitions of the work of the brilliant ceramicists and makers, Magdalene Odundo and Theaster Gates.[3]  Both show a curated sample of historical pottery along with their own work.  The Whitechapel Gallery brought them together in conversation late last year.[4]  Gates said in the conversation that ‘clay is a kind of evidence that we exist,’ and Odundo spoke of the universality and humanity of clay.

Magdalene Odundo
Theaster Gates

The craftsmanship involved, the necessary repetitiveness is inspiring.  Richard Sennett wrote “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” In his work on the craftsman he notes how widespread and how necessary this practice is; it is an embodied practice, it is work, and as Odundo noted, it is a form of performance, not unlike dance.[5]

The materiality of ceramic art, the deep knowing as Gates put it, is so much part of the craft that it acquires a profound metaphorical weight.  I have written before of the traditions of breaking and mending, of the way the imperfection of broken pottery and the visible labour of repair, for instance in the Japanese art of kintsugi, can stand for the reparation of broken lives.  But pottery is also profoundly social.  The word comes from drinking, it is about the act of commensality.  The study of pottery is so often the study of whole societies, whether that be as archaeologists build up their understanding from this most enduring of materials, or as historians trace its production and consumption.  In his life of Josiah Wedgewood, Tristram Hunt can trace from the potteries of Stoke whole revolutions of taste and economy, networks of slavery and enlightenment, geographies of local change and global connectivity, the embrace of classical imagery on innovative new materials.

Pottery then is a craft which we have lived with and which contains narratives of our lives and our times.  But it is of course not the only craft to do so.

The early creation stories which included those refences to clay were poems and there is a more than casual relationship for me between pottery and poetry.  A poem, from the Greek, is a thing that is made.  It is crafted.  In Homer there are comparisons with weaving and textiles, a skill that has fascinating interconnections with pottery.  It is also a craft. 

The relationship between pottery and poetry was beautifully described by M. C. Richards, a potter and teacher, who worked at Black Mountain College.  Her book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person, is a fascinating account of her highly distinctive and spiritual approach to education and personal growth.  She was also inspired by and a friend of the great dancer Merce Cunningham, and John Cage the musician, and of course Charles Olson the poet.[6]

Centering begins with an act of creation on the potter’s wheel:

M C Richards

‘Centering: that act which precedes all others on the potter’s wheel.  The bringing of the clay into a spinning unwobbling pivot, which will then be free to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts.  It is like a handclasp between two living hands, receiving the greeting at the very moment that they give it.  It is this speech between the hand and the clay that makes me think of dialogue.  And it is a language far more interesting than the spoken vocabulary which tries to describe it, for it is spoken not by the tongue and lips but by the whole body, by the whole person, speaking and listening.’

Richards brings together quite magically materiality, touch, sight, hearing, dance, dialogue, all towards a spirit of openness – ‘to be open to what we hear, to be open in what we say…’  The goal of a centred life is both inward-looking and outward-facing; ‘Toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice. It is this fusing of the opposites that Centering enables.’

Richards also wrote, ‘Poetry is probably the most plastic of all materials.  Like the surface of water on which shadows play…’  Through Odundo I have come to know a little of the pottery of Ladi Kwali, the great Nigerian potter, and the play of light and image across the surface of her pots for me speaks back to this passage. 

Ladi Kwali

Pottery and poetry for Richards then stand in a similar relationship to the rhythm of life: ‘Centering the clay on the potter’s wheel and then using it all to make whatever shape one makes; hearing the poem in the exactitude of its words and syllables and lines and in the economy of its total fusion, these are the same story.  To bring universe into personal wholeness, to breathe in, to drink deep, to receive, to understand, to yield, to read life.  AND to spend wholeness in act, to breathe out, to mean, to say to write, to create life. It is the rhythm of our metabolism…’

Richards writes from a specific set of experiences and a highly individual philosophy, but she captures somehow not only the relationship between pottery and poetry, but also in this notion of inward centering to meet the world an expression of the essence of the social work of craft and its history.  Odundo and Gates, in very different ways are deeply political artists; both insist on narrative through their craft, both talk about healing, which takes me to the therapeutics of craft.

Pottery, poetry, dance all feature in the contemporary lexicon of therapy, and the cultural reflection in popular television programmes.  This is serious play; in various ways and at various levels of seriousness this is a recentering towards self and society.  Whether in physical or mental healing, in restoring physical strength and co-ordination or mental well-being and stability, therapy is our way of restoring our dialogue with ourselves and others.  It is no accident that these are crafts which are deeply embedded in our history at the level of locality and species.  Biologically, historically and geographically, these are part of our fractured and damaged but still continuous wholeness and humanity.

Recently, it has been reported that the local authority in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of the Potteries, the centre of our national ceramic production from the eighteenth century, is faced with a dilemma between funding social care or keeping on museum curators in some of the pottery museums and has launched a consultation.  I think the consternation created is partly related to an awareness of this metaphorical value and valence of the ceramic tradition. 

I know nothing of the unenviable choices the council has to face, or its wider plans, and the outcome is still unclear, but the fact that there is a recurrent dilemma between social care and historical memory and curation of social space, which I would describe as care of society, is troubling.

We know that we are in desperate need of healing and care.  We speak currently of long COVID; I have started to think of deep COVID, the way this experience has reached so far into our social and personal lives.  The pandemic is in the very marrow of our collective being now, through the generation that is marked by isolation, loneliness, physical and mental trauma, and the divisions which have been revealed so starkly in terms of health and economic inequality.  Just when we need to muster our every effort as a society to face the consequences of our changing climate and unsettled world, we are deeply wounded and scarred, and will be for years to come.

We are in need of that centering which looks inward to our own wellbeing and out to the care of our society – ‘toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice’ as Richards put it.  That centering is inseparable from the care for our past and our place; it is the only way to counter the effects of these deep wounds and threats.

Social care and care for society cannot find themselves as mutually exclusive options.  We need both.  We need the inside and the outside – that, fundamentally, is what pottery is about – it is a form that contains space and defines space around it.  As Odundo says, it is in this sense a form of architecture.[7]

Two and a half thousand years ago, one of the greatest philosophers, Socrates, worried at what it meant to be truly alive as an individual and what it meant to live well in society.  He saw politics as a craft, and we might think again of Sennett’s dialogue between concrete practices and thinking, the rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.  And he spent much of his life talking to craftspeople in the Kerameikos, the Athenian potters’ quarter.

We need to learn a craft of therapeutic politics.  We cannot find our centre unless we do, and that demands that we find a way to sustain ourselves and our societies, our current life and the traditions we draw on to rebuild a future in our damaged lives and times. 

We need to spend time with the potters and poets.


[1] As an example, the beautiful verse “But now, O Lord, thou art our father, we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thy hand” (Isaiah 64:8).

[2] Králík, M., Novotný, V., & Oliva, M. (2002). Fingerprint on the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. Anthropologie (1962-), 40(2), 107–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26292601

[3] https://fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/visit-us/exhibitions/magdalene-odundo-in-cambridge; https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/theaster-gates-a-clay-sermon/; https://www.vam.ac.uk/event/GgXZ8EDk/theaster-gates-slight-intervention.

[4] https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/events/big-ideas-theaster-gates/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5p6H7dEyfF4&t=540s6] Richards

[5] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Allen Lane 2008

[6] M. C. Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, Wesleyan University Press, 1989. On Richards at Black Mountain College, see the centenary celebration https://www.blackmountaincollege.org/mcrichards/. On dance more generally see the resources at https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/centre-for-dance-research/. On Wedgwood, see Tristram Hunt, The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgewood, Allen Lane, 2021.

[7] In a similar way, Sennett’s trilogy of books, The Craftsman (2008), Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (2013) and Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City (2019) moves from craft to the rituals of co-existence to the architecture of an ethical city – from craft to rituals such as commensality to care for society.

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