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When Pottery Bolsters the Spirit

A visit with Bede Clarke, Professor of Art

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: art ceramics pottery teaching inspiration

“Ceramics is a very demanding discipline,” explains Bede Clarke, MU Professor of Art. Even after 35 years in the field, he says, “it still takes a lot out of me to do good work.” Clarke’s creative activity focuses on two areas. One involves the use of color and drawing and painting on clay with abstract and figurative imagery, and the other is wheel-thrown pottery fired in a wood kiln to achieve glaze effects.

Since 1992, Clarke has also been teaching ceramics in the Art Department at MU—from beginning to graduate-level courses. Beginning ceramics classes are design-oriented, he explains, “geared toward instilling good design principles and decision-making in students.”

In fact, understanding the creative process is really at the heart of all ceramics classes at MU, as well as encouraging active learning styles. Before even sitting behind the potter’s wheel, Clarke’s students do background research into ceramic history—“20,000 years of human beings making things out of clay”—a learning process that may involve a trip to the Museum of Art and Archeology as well as to Ellis Library. “They are encouraged to see that they are working in a larger context, “ he explains, “not to just repeat what has been done, but to be influenced by it.” Only after doing this contextual research do the students begin to design their own pieces.

Once the class moves into the realm of design, says Clarke, things really start to get interesting. It is exactly this aspect of the creative process, which involves critical thinking and decision-making skills, that most excites him about teaching and making ceramics.

Clarke advises his students, for example, that despite careful planning their designs might need to change, because the process is fluid and flexible: “We’re constantly evaluating, critiquing, asking what’s working, what’s not working, where the piece really needs to go. It culminates in trying to come up with an articulate, unified piece that speaks to this history, that also speaks to the unique and individual goals that they set for themselves.”

At this point, Clarke moves to a stool behind the potter’s wheel, in this case an old-fashioned kick wheel. “It’s a pretty tall order,” he admits, but students seem to enjoy the work. What’s more, he loves being involved in that hands-on experience. “It’s a challenging process, it’s a frustrating process,” he cautions. “Pots can break; they can fall apart; often you don’t meet your own goals and vision.” This frustration is a normal part of the creative process. “In my own work in ceramics over 35 years, I’ve come up short of my goals more often than I’ve met them," he cautions. "But I’ve never started with the idea in mind to do something mediocre or okay. I always start with the idea of doing something wonderful.”

With that, Clarke picks up a hunk of clay and sets it on the wheel, explaining that the clay has to be soft and must be centered on the wheel, or it will “jump all over the place.” The special way clay “behaves” is what originally drew Clarke to ceramics: “I remember the first time I saw the clay moving like this. There’s no other naturally occurring material that has that quality of plasticity. Soft enough to be moved by one’s hands yet able to retain its shape, it’s a very unique material.” This is why potters tend to think of the clay as a living substance. As he puts it, “you see this quality of the clay and maybe understand why people fall in love with this material, as I did. It is not a dead material at all; it’s really alive for us.”

Responding to Clarke’s experienced hands, the round clay mound has begun to form an opening for the inside of the pot. “It’s kind of funny,” he remarks, that the water molecules are what hold the microscopic clay particles together. “The attraction of those molecules allows the clay particles to slide on one another but still stay together.”

As Clarke demonstrates “raising the walls,” the pot begins to take shape. Other kinds of considerations now come into play, for example what sort of shape to give the pot. Using a tool called a “rib,” he works on smoothing and shaping and getting the line of the pot right, a process that requires steady hands and a good eye for form. “For the potter, this stage is probably the real poetry,” says Clarke. “If you are off by a sixteenth of an inch, the form is not going to be as good [and] the pot is going to be hurt. So I tend to take quite a bit of time at this stage, trying to get the shape of the pot right.”

As the potter’s wheel slows to a stop, he observes that “at some point there comes a time to finish a pot.” While the clay is still wet, the potter faces other decisions about such details as handles, trim, and texture. Clarke takes a moment to consider the pot he has just finished throwing for this demonstration. He decides that while its shape “isn’t bad,” it is too plain and could use a layer of surface. It usually takes students about twelve weeks of concentrated work to get these basics; “it’s a skill, but it’s more,” he notes. When he asks students how they feel when they're really “getting it,” they report that they feel connected to the clay: “they say they’ve got a connection, a dialogue, a rapport. That’s really more to the point.”

Some say it takes a decade to learn these lessons, some say it takes longer. “I’ve been doing it for 35 years,” Clarke humbly reports, “and I still sometimes feel that I’m all thumbs.” While apprenticing with Karl Christiansen years ago, the master potter instilled in Clarke the idea that one never really arrives as an artist. “You’ll never get to the point where you do everything correctly and there is no more to learn, no more to grow.” Learning to make pots requires nothing short of a lifetime. “There is always more you don’t know,” he adds. “There is always, hopefully, better work to come.”