Monday, March 18, 2013

Thinking bowls

"In the higher stages of skill, there is a constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective." The Craftsman by Richard Sennett (p.50)

I am reading The Craftsman at the moment and loving every minute of it. Sennett often discusses the tacit knowledge of a craftsperson and the inherent difficulty in accessing this knowledge. It is hard to put into words the thoughts, both conscious and sub conscious, that run through my mind during the process of making and I agree wholeheartedly that knowledge and ability is best acquired through the act of doing and repeating.

As a teacher, however, I think it is important to impart all that I know to the best of my ability. Within the course structure I have developed for a (very) short course in ceramics, I find passing on information can be fairly ad hoc, or on a 'need to know' basis, as different students have different rates of learning and comprehension. Detailed conversations about specifics arise, and are most effective, only when students are attempting the task themselves or are naturally inquisitive about a certain problem.

I have been ruminating on my own tacit knowledge and the other day decided to jot down some of my mental meanderings as I threw some bowls. I was surprised by all that transpired despite realising I was only scratching the surface. To illustrate Sennet's point I thought I'd share my notes here, on my much neglected blog...  


When I begin a new form I play around with different amounts of clay. I weigh a few balls and take notes. As I have made many a bowl before I have a vague idea of the size of bowl I will gain from a certain amount of clay. This all depends on the type of clay being used - there is shrinkage to consider (10-15% after drying and firing) and the desired thickness of the walls. If the bowl is to have a foot it will need more clay in the base.

As I sit down to throw I think about the height and width ratio and the line of the curve. The point at which the wall comes to rest, the rim, is like a full stop at the end of a sentence, I don't want it to finish before my thought is complete but I don't want to warble on either. It has to be just right. Again I measure and take notes.

My work is quite minimal in form so I aim for a consistent curved line with no hiccoughs, interruptions or unnecessary changes of direction. I want a smooth surface that is comfortable to run a spoon over.

I am also conscious of the requirements of future stages. There needs to be enough clay at the base of the wall to support the form as I take it off the wheel and a slight taper up to the rim to give it structural soundness. I know the walls may lift slightly in the drying process so I make the width slightly greater than what I want the final result to be and I like to round and soften the rim so that it takes glaze well and doesn't become a rough edge. Turning the foot will alter the outside shape and in certain areas the form can't be too thin or it will collapse in the glaze firing.

Sub consciously, as I throw, I ponder the function of the piece. How it will be held and used directs my choices of size, balance, weight and feel. The "vibe of the thing." I also consider how it will be finished. Will I make marks on it that will affect the appearance of the form? How will I glaze it? Does the form listen to the glazes requirements - it's pooling potential or density?

I repeat and repeat and repeat. I might make ten or so and take them through to completion - turned, dried, decorated, fired, glazed and fired again. I assess the results, consult my notes and try again. Each series will resolve issues and the bowl will evolve, becoming something other than what I had initially imagined in response to the materials needs and because I have learnt more along the way. The piece becomes 'informed'... as I do.

Reading back I realise how obsessive this must seem, but when Richard Sennett writes lines such as...

 " the craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged" (p.20)
"people can feel fully and think deeply what they are doing once they do it well" (p.20)

then I start to feel a whole lot better about what it is I do.


Andrew said...

Lovely post Sophie.

Nina Roberts said...

Really loved reading this. I'm an ambitious beginner on the wheel and it's quite inspiring to hear about your process. I long to be able to achieve the presence and control in the making process that you talk about here. said...

This is a late reply to your post, but I've only just found your blog. What you have to say about bowls is interesting and doesn't sound obsessive to me. I think a person could spend years exploring the bowl. There's always something further to think about and tweak (and I'm only just getting started in my own explorations).

I would have loved to hear more from you about which areas can't be too thin for fear of warping in the glaze firing because I love to throw as finely as my limited skills allow, but my bowls are often warped when I get them out of the kiln.