© 2022

Becoming An Artist: Ceramics And The Earth



My plunge into ceramics was driven by a hunch and a primal need I didn’t yet recognize. I was not particularly connected to the history, the ancient origins, nor the deliberate craft unique to ceramics. Rather, I needed to have my hands in clay to connect with simple acts and routines. I needed to forget my worries with something utterly inconsequential, something entirely outside of my then comfort zone. It was a very personal need for an escape which has led me back in time.

My exploration of the basics of life, with ceramics and food as entry points, is an effort to examine how we have strayed so far from our roots and what can be gained by returning to them. Through this journey I have been able to look at my Sardinian and Filipino family and have learned that I am not, in fact, far from my origins. With each step I’m moving closer.

When I found clay I was working in the regenerative farming space. More specifically, I was working for a small-scale humane slaughter house. The paradox of this situation was clear to me from the beginning. Can there be humanity in the deliberate killing of animals? I knew there was humanity in animal husbandry; I was raised with animals and can vouch for the love and care many farmers commit to. Therefore, there could be humanity in the transition from animal to nourishment. I was proud to be part of the solution.

The interpersonal strains of working in the meatpacking industry, regenerative and sustainable though it might be, were significant. Quintessential machismo and a lack of professionalism made it a space I did not want to be in for very long. Those challenges were in addition to the juggling of three young children and all the trappings of middle age. I was worn out. I yearned for something outside myself, outside of anything that I currently knew. I needed a good old-fashioned hobby. I also needed, unbeknownst to myself, to get even closer to the earth than I was.

I found a nearby community art studio and signed up for a 10-week evening class. In the weeks prior, I found myself giddy like a kid going off to kindergarten. Who would I meet?! What might I learn?! In those early days, I’d come home from farm/non-profit work, be a parent for a few hours, and then rush out in my old jeans and muddy farm boots. I was ready for a new mess, ready to learn something new. While the leaving and hustling around felt crazy, walking into the studio itself inspired a sense of calm and expansion I hadn’t known before.

What started out as 3 hours a week to get my mind off a troubled job soon became a deep yearning. I’d sneak in extra daytime hours at the studio, head over after kids were tucked in bed, or stop en route to a work event to see if pots were dry enough to trim or add a handle to. My connection to the earth through farming transferred to a connection directly to the earth itself through clay.

We use ancient materials to make simple vessels in modern times. Pottery was made as early as 10,0000 BC., and my discovery felt like the most new and original revelation! For centuries human needs have been steadfast: healthy food and vessels in which to store and consume said food. By regularly meeting sustenance requirements humanity was able to move towards the creative needs of our souls. In this way ceramics became a canvas for design and self-expression and continues to remind us of our ancient creativity. Glazes were discovered accidentally soon thereafter, around 8000 BC. Art and design, driven by a desire to put our unique stamp on something functional for the personal satisfaction of expression, are nearly as old as humanity itself.

Over thousands of years, there has been a symbiotic relationship between the food we eat, and what we eat it in. People haul tall jugs for holding and pouring liquids on backs, heads, and in carriages. These jugs need a nice spout out of which to pour and not spill lest the previously mentioned work go to waste. They need a wide belly, perhaps low down for a lower center of gravity to reduce tipping. We need wide bowls for soups to simultaneously contain food and allow for cooling. Flat plates which were first used in the 1700s have small rims to both carry large amounts of solids such as meats- “local” and “regenerative” need not have been mentioned. Stack-ability for storage has been important since the dawn of time.

In embracing ceramics I found focus on the minutiae of our daily routines so liberating.  I can spend a whole evening trying to perfect the belly of a coffee mug? Really? Is it truly a legitimate way for a grown woman to spend her time- trying to perfect a handle? If that’s the case then I’d create a mug that better represents my heart, a unique stamp on this world expressed through our morning ritual. I pursued a strong and unified handle, graceful lines, a solid base.

Humans are innovators; we naturally find new ways to do things and ways to improve on what we’re already doing. We strive to build a better cup, a more pleasing teapot. To put a spin on an everyday mug, to give it a voice and an energy that will be imbued into the user.

Potters often want to invent, experiment, and see what we can do with the earth’s existing creations. Can we make new colors and new patterns? Left to our own volition and without the pressure of sales, rarely are we making the exact same mug twice. Almost never are we replicating over and over and over without subtle tweaks and improvements, the glaze a touch darker, a bit lower on the pot. Even hand-made mass-produced pottery has subtle differences if you look closely. Perhaps a slightly rounder belly, a stronger lip, the handle a bit taller. Maybe a touch of cream glaze at the top over the blue to ensure there’s a bit of flow and interest.

I learned that glazes are made of ancient minerals and that it is incredibly difficult to achieve certain colors and looks. Wollastonite, bentonite, Feldspar, Alumina. They come from the ground, volcanic ash, and minerals as old as time. My hands were mixing fruits of the earth, mined far away. For me this re-acquaintance with minerals calls back to some distant ancestor who worked with their hands, outdoors, pit-firing their stoneware. Raw materials are not a part of our lives for many of us these days. This was a desire not fully formed rather a deep yearning for the earth. I have found intense satisfaction in the combining of elements and in the creation of something both useful and beautiful. I have come to love the mixing, understanding of properties, and combining to achieve an original color or crystallization.

Some of these materials are local–found on hills and in valleys not far from our homes. Some are not, rather they are mined in other countries or hemispheres. These materials allow us to create unique visual patterns on each piece and allow each bring its own particular characteristics. From flowing streams of color to a solid beautiful vessel. We combine them in very specific ratios, coat our bisqued pots in the milky substance, and let the color come alive in a 2250 degree Fahrenheit kiln. We take the infinite soil on which we live and turn it into functional pieces of art for daily usage. Can we find a way to use these materials in a new way, leave our own mark on this world? Can we harness the physical world in a new and enchanting way?

Ceramics, for me, is a meditation. It’s zeroing in on the ball of clay at hand, forming it into the vision in my mind’s eye. I didn’t know I needed creativity and connection to the earth, but as an action-oriented person, someone who can get things done and often a pace that surprises others, the action of ceramics and the use of my hands to calm the mind is just what I didn’t know I always needed.

When I began ceramics, my mother-in-law Norma told stories of her youth molding clay while growing up in the Philippines. We were cooking in my Boston kitchen during one of her visits and she casually mentioned this experience. There’s nothing like kitchen work to get people chatting–busy hands indeed beget conversation.

Norma lived in the small city of Sorsogon during the 1950s, but would travel to a village to see family members who had remained there; urban migration is not a recent trend. She would tell me of grabbing balls of clay, maybe from the earth itself, rounding it and sinking a finger in to make the initial hole. Then slowly, she would pinch around the ball in even measure around the whole piece to form a uniform pot. She told me about the patience it took to make it smooth, to make what we today call pinch-pots. They molded the clay and fired them over an actual fire in a shallow pit in the ground, covering them with straw. After they solidified a while, they’d cool down and then use them for cooking, eating, or serving other functional pieces. They were pit-firing in a functional, tangible, and very simple way.

When she told me this story, I was shocked. Wait, you pit-fired ceramics as a young girl, and in the 20 years I’ve known you this is the first I’m hearing of it? More questions spilled out of me, eager to learn as much as possible.

“What temperature did you fire to?”  

“How did (whoever was tending the fire) know when the pots were ready?”

“Were the pots touching the flames, or set on a grate on top?”

“Did the pots fully vitrify?”

“Did you decorate them at all? If so, with what materials?”

She didn’t have answers to most of my prodding- she was trying to convey the events, the feeling and joy of participating as a young girl. She was relating to the joy I had recently discovered. I’ll likely never know the details, and that’s not the point anyway.

In finding ceramics I realize I need to continuously look back and try to recapture the romance of the old way of doing things. During the harsh years in meat processing, I realized I needed to return to the poetry and romance of daily life and of farming. I come from a long line of sheep farmers and I spent summers of my youth in a small Italian town with grandparents tending to the basics of life. We made cheese, pasta, picked fresh figs, and held baby lamb. My urban adult life became removed from the soil until I sunk my hands into a ball of clay in my late 30s and crashed back into the magic of the earth.

Gena Mavuli is a writer, potter, and small business owner in Boston, MA.  She has written work published in Mamalode and the compilation book Quarter Passed.


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