I love telling my students about going to an instructor's home for pizza at the end of a class session one time. The class was on ceramic history and was comprised of both potters and non-potters. It was very easy to tell the potters from the non-potters because, when the instructor passed around plates, which were all hand thrown, the first thing the potters did was flip the plate over to look at the foot. I think the non-potters looked on with bewilderment.
It's these details that are dictated both by conscientious development of a style and the physical shape of our bodies that make a piece truly unique to an artist, but, just as it takes a while for a child's personality to truly develop, it also takes a while for a potter to develop forms that speak their name via these fingerprint details that make the potter's forms unique.
It seems like all beginner pots are pretty much the same. Squat. Wide. Clunky. Yet, just like babies, they all show a hint of the uniqueness that they will develop as the potter improves his or her skills.
Next comes the toddle stage of potting. A student figures that, since they can throw 1.5 to 2 pounds they should try throwing something larger, like four pounds. The potter doesn't yet have the skill to bring all of the clay up from the bottom of these pots, resulting in a very bottom heavy piece that is prone to blowing up in the kiln, just as a toddler is prone to tumbling into things as he or she learns how to walk. And, just like the toddler, the potter is proud as punch with their first "large pieces." It's always great to see the enthusiasm of potters at this stage and the tenacity that they show in developing their skills.
Next, potters begin working on refining skills, often times working to recreate the demo pieces of their instructors to the best of their ability. To carry on the child analogy, this is kind of the elementary school development stage. The potter is beginning to become more developed, but still relies heavily on outside influences. I think this stage can be frustrating for the instructor as he or she begins to see a lot of "mini me" pots coming out of the kiln, but it's important to remember that, while these pots aren't terribly creative, the student is learning important throwing skills and techniques that will help him or her to eventually be able to begin innovating and creating their own pots.
Once the potter feels comfortable enough with the basic forms and has made and seen enough pottery, he or she will start to focus on developing those "fingerprints" that are so important to having their own unique style. This stage could be likened to the teen and early adult stage of development. The student is taking all of the bits and pieces that were absorbed during the early stage of their career, internalizing them, and then bringing them out into his or her work to begin creating a unique and personal style. Sometimes this development happens in the crucible of school and sometimes it happens slowly over time as the potter makes more and more pots as a semi-professional semi-hobbiest potter. Either way, it's really wonderful to see someone take the medium of clay and turn it into a true means of self expression, which is why we are making pots in the first place!
But, of course, the best part of being an artist is that we are constantly evolving and changing both as people and as artists, and this is reflected in our work. This is absolutely critical to keep our work fresh and new and it is also critical to our well being as a person. Our mature pots bear our unique fingerprints of who we are as artists, but also retain a bit of the fingerprints, or influence, of our early instructors and experiences as a potter, which is really pretty cool, if you think about it.
What about you? What are some of the things that make your work unique to you? Do you see the marks of your pottery instructors, too? In what way?