The Language of Art – Transcript

The world is full of different languages. And each language has a variety of sub-languages specific to specialized occupations, such as medicine, law, plumbing. We also speak a language within our family and we even keep our personal language at hand to interpret the world and express who we are to ourselves. In this episode of The Craft Project I want to talk about the language of Art.

Now, I’ve tried to learn how to speak foreign languages at various times in my life; German, the Romance languages and could only got so far before I lose interest. The grammar, which I’ve always liked the least is easy compared to the vocabulary. So many words. Worst though is context and idiom. Idioms are like the “pet” names we use that are freighted with personal meaning and emotion – the kind of words that require a pamphlet full of personal history to define.

Why do we need all these different languages? Well, if you look at people who practice medicine or law, the first answer that comes to mind is precision. These and other occupations require precision in order to successfully perform and accomplish tasks efficiently and consistently. It’s ironic to think that jargon actually supports clarity, and having recently crawled my way through an insurance policy I have doubts about jargon making things clearer. The words appear familiar, but their context is not.

It’s apparent, to me, that in order to become fluent (fluent makes me think of fluid which makes me think of swimming underwater), in order to become fluent in a language you need to be immersed in it, –understand the context, idiosyncrasies and variations. A swimmer doesn’t get better by swimming a lot unless she uses her time to understand the nature of the element and the ongoing relationship she builds with it. Temperature, currents, etc, these are context of the language of swimming.

A year ago I took a clay sculpture class and I was surprised just how unfamiliar I was with the medium. I recognized that outside of creating pots I didn’t know what to do with clay. My problem was how to use clay to present abstract ideas. And what is abstract anyway? The latin root means withdrawn from the world, or transcendent, theoretical and non concrete. Are we talking about ideas? I’m groping in the dark here.

In regard to clay, pottery is the language I’m familiar with, but in this sculpture class we had to use different words in order to talk about our own and other people’s abstract, non naturalistic objects. So here are two terms already that stand before the threshold of my understanding. I can define them, but there is a world of context that is beyond my experience. The same thing with forms versus formalism. People were using these words to describe their ideas or their work or what they didn’t like about their work as if they were describing topographical features of a map that they keep in their heads.

As I said, I understood the words in a general sense, as someone who recognizes an often repeated word in a phrasebook, but this understanding, just as with a tourist, was surface level only.

I realized that I needed deeper exposure to these concepts and ways of thinking so that I could bridge the gap between the world of making I already knew and the new one before me. That was the ultimate lesson I took from the class. It wasn’t in the syllabus, but the best lessons never are.

With a job and a family I didn’t have time to take more classes, so I decided to create my own learning program through reading, but I had no idea where to start. I asked a few art teachers to recommend books, but their reading suggestions, while interesting, were too specific, it was like getting directions that began halfway between here and there. It assumed too much of my foundational understanding of art, craft and design.

Without any idea of what to start with, I went to a library and picked up some books that looked interesting and these are the first three books that I chose.

Electric Kilns by Richard Zakin, published 1994

Functional Pottery by Robin Hopper, 1986

Chinese Ceramics by W.B.R. Neave-Hill 1975

The fact that these three books are focused on ceramics is no accident, I chose to begin my investigation of art through familiar territory so that I might find common ground between what I already know and what is new and unfamiliar.

The first book I want to talk about is Electric Kilns, by Richard Zakin. He is an expert in the field of oxidation firing in electric kilns. Oxidation is the process of firing that retains the optimal color of glazes by allowing oxygen to move freely in the kiln. The alternative is reduction firing, which is common in wood and gas fired kilns. Though reduction can be replicated in electric kilns, doing so can damage it, requiring frequent and otherwise unnecessary repair.

Reduction of glazes in the kiln is desirable for a couple reasons. It affects the glazes by creating subtle variation in colors and texture and brilliant effects impossible to replicate in an oxygen rich atmosphere. It can also cause certain glazes to become runny and glossy at a particular temperature whereas in oxidation at the same temperature they would be thicker and matte.

While I’ve never fired a wood kiln, I believe reduction was popular during the 60’s and 70’s in gas kilns because it emulated somewhat the look of a wood fired kiln, which was the standard method of firing kilns for millennia. Gas kilns became popular because they were less difficult to fire and the temperature was easier to control. In a reduction firing you also got this cool effect called “pulling the iron”.

All clay has some amount of iron in it, except for porcelain. White stoneware, if reduced, will create tiny black dots of varying sizes on the surface of the glaze produced by the iron in the clay coming to the surface, mixing with the glaze and creating unique color, patterns and texture effects. This extraction is achieved through starving the atmosphere in the kiln of oxygen by blocking all the openings in the kiln so that the fire, desperate to survive, forces the oxygen out of the clay, bringing the iron along with it.

As I said, reduction was the common method of firing in the 60’s and 70’s. While you could manage the process, you couldn’t control the results, there were so many variables. That was part of the attraction, like trying to tame a wild animal. During my junior/senior years in college I managed the school’s kilns and the uncertainty of the results of reducing the kiln was an adrenalin rush. Magical is an appropriate description.

We had a few electric kilns of course, but they were used primarily for the bisque firing, the first firing where the dried, raw clay was heated so that all the chemical water was removed making it easier to handle and glaze. Reduction took place during second firing, the glaze firing. For the most part, the electric kiln was essentially a backup kiln so that the gas kiln would be free for the glaze firing. Very few people were using the electric kiln for glazes, except for some very low fire glazes like lusters and china paints.

What began to change moving into the 80’s was an interest in using a wider palette of colors that were attainable through lower temperatures and the elimination of the reduction process. This was, without a doubt, a generational divide between potters. Reduction firing was a link to the earliest days of pottery going back thousands of years. Performing this process was a point of pride, a chauvinistic kind of exclusivism that, it was felt, separated the adults from the children.

The change came out of the west coast art scene. These clay artists not only used lavish bright shiny colors that would never be available through wood or gas firing but also a different attitude about ceramic forms and function.

The West Coast movement went by a variety of names, such as “Funk”, “Fetish Finish” and “Abstract Expressionism Sculpture”. And this was important part, sculpture was emphasized over function to the extent of eliminating function altogether. This revolutionary idea freed up the artist to use color and design on the surface of the clay as if it was a painter’s canvas.

There were also practical considerations for the growing interest in electric oxidation firing. In his book, Zakin talks about the continuing growth in an interest in ceramics among people who lived where gas and wood kilns couldn’t be used. Often enough wood could be hard to find in places and a raging fire wasn’t desirable in an apartment building, while electricity was available anywhere, city, country or suburb. Ultimately cost was the issue. I don’t know the difference in dollars, but the difference between firing at cone 10 1305 Cº / 2381 Fº versus cone 6 1222 Cº / 2232 Fº was substantial.

A cone by the way is a long, skinny triangular piece of clay material that melts when it reaches the desired temperature. It is an additional and alternate way of measuring temperature in the kiln, as opposed to a pyrometer, which is a kiln thermometer.

So electric kilns were convenient to use, safer, faster, portable, didn’t smoke up the house, were consistently reliable (relative to the alternatives) and you got all these beautiful colors. Eventually more people began to experiment with lower temperature clays and glazes and not only saved time, but found through experimentation that even more brilliant colors were possible, including some colors previously unattainable such as true reds and yellows. What artist wouldn’t want to have the entire color spectrum to work with.

I should point out that there are basically three types of clay used in pottery and they’re identified by the temperature range they’re fired at. First there was earthenware, which is typically red clay, though you can make white clay that fires at the same low temperature, which is cone 04, 1060 Cº and 1940 Fº. Earthenware is the clay used throughout the world since the earliest days of cavemen to the early 20th century. In the 17 & 1800’s large pottery factories in England and elsewhere in Europe worked to purify stoneware clays (cone 6-10) so they would fire to vitrification and remain white. The desire for white clay was tremendous in Europe for centuries because of the market in porcelain from China. China had been using porcelain for thousands of years because the country possesses the largest quantities of pure white kaolin clay in the world. There are little or no impurities to discolor porcelain clay and at Cone 10 and up it doesn’t merely vitrify (which means completely fused), but it also achieves a pearly glass-like translucency.

What was interesting about this shift to lower temperatures was the benefits to earthenware and porcelain clay that left stoneware out in the cold.

Did I mention that stoneware clay was THE clay body used by studio potters throughout the 20th century?

Not only were there more colors available in earthenware and porcelain, but at cone 6, porcelain allowed potters to retain the clay’s durability while at a lower cost with the addition of brilliant colors unavailable at cone 10. I myself experimented with cone 6 porcelain in the 70’s and though it’s a difficult clay to throw, the colors were stunning.

Much of the technical information was familiar to me already, though I don’t discount his description of the firing process and the multitude of clay and glaze recipes. Electric Kilns isn’t just about the history of ceramics at the time it was written, it’s mostly glaze and clay recipes, firing and glazing techniques and examples of work by other potters firing at this lower range of temperatures. I also sensed a little defensiveness in the writing that demonstrates how radical an idea this was at the time

This was just what I was looking for. The valuable lesson was this pivotal turning point in firing that changed the direction ceramics. The idea of forgoing functionality in clay was already part of the landscape by the late 60’s, however with the addition of faster, more consistent firing techniques and a full palette of colors, sculpture in clay really took off. Ultimately this developed into a cultural divide within clay between functional craftsman/potters and non-functional clay artists that continues into the present.

And that brings up the point of my intentions for this series of podcasts. My goal is to find books that serve my curiosity and interest in the relationship between art, design and craft and to understand what they are.

Is there an overlap between them? I think so! Is there a hierarchy? It appears to be the case. Why is that? I don’t know, but I want to find out.

So as I review each book I’ll try to give you an overview of it’s contents, but mostly I’ll talk about what I felt was most important to me and my understanding of this creative dynamic between these three fields. My hope is it will answer some questions and pose some questions as well. If at any time you feel I have slighted a book or given it short shrift on some aspect, let me know in a comment or email. I’d be happy to publish it and even get into a conversation about it.

But wait, there’s more!

The next book I picked up was

Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose: Robin Hopper

By the way, I’m not buying these books, I’m getting them for free through my library. I would encourage you to do the same. Better yet, find out if your library allows for interlibrary loans. In Massachusetts they have multiple library zones and local libraries can borrow books from other zones within the state for free. Some states also have a statewide book sharing system that includes books from Universities and Colleges offering books which the average local library would consider too narrow of an audience to purchase for. You should check it out.

Let me also add that the three books I’ve selected for review in this episode were all picked up at the same time at the same library. Frankly I didn’t know where to start in my search for understanding art etc. so I chose from a fairly narrow range of books on the library shelf with the hope that each would not only offer some insight, but suggest further reading options.

This book by Robin Hopper is essentially an introductory How-to for pottery. How to throw clay, building by hand, how to decorate, how to glaze, how to fire a kiln, all the processes involved in working with clay. Most of that was irrelevant to me because one, I already know this, I’ve done it and two, I’m not doing it now, so there’s no need for a refresher. To give Hopper credit, he is very thorough on these subjects and the bulk of the book consists of this kind of information. Of more interest to me was a brief history he provided, starting from prehistoric pottery in China, Korea and Japan, Africa and South America, then focusing on more recent history in Europe and the Middle East.

There was however very little information about the creative aspect of making pots. Prehistoric pottery and other crafts such as glass, fibre and woodworking were performed to create functional objects and although nowadays function is no longer essential to work in these media, it is still an intrinsic part of their history and identity.

I had long held the idea that Art was a creative act that encompassed craft, design and art with a small A. But I wasn’t getting any information about Art in these books and I begin to wonder if I’m mistaken.

At the very end of the book Robin Hopper takes on the issue of further growth and development as a craftsman artist. He encouraged the reader to learn more about the history of pottery. Ideas, ways of thinking, forms of communication and methods of storytelling are all rooted in history. He said reading and understanding history informs the creative work the artist is making today.

A simple idea certainly, but it had a powerful impact on my thinking. Reading history is hard work. Up to now I was skimming through books looking for isolated nuggets of information, but like panning for gold I was getting pieces, not the whole piece. I realized I needed to take more time and go deeper into the histories of art, of foreign countries and vaguely recalled periods of time. I had to kick the idea that I was reading for entertainment and get serious about my research.

If I were to consider an area of art history about which I know the least, China is at the top of the list. I’ve done almost no reading about Chinese art, not even pottery, though pottery from China is like a beacon on a hill when it comes to the landscape of ceramics. Chinese pottery was the obsession of Kings and Popes for more than 500 years in Europe. China has an unbroken tradition of ceramic production spanning thousands of years and China’s history is an amazingly complicated affair. To top it off, all the names are in a foreign language, how unfair is that?

The real problem though, is that there’s so much of it. Keeping track of the different periods, places where it was produced, cultural significance of each period, it’s daunting.

Still, knowing all this I decided to jump in.

Chinese Ceramics by W.B.R. Neave-Hill 1975

Chinese history is quite amazing. On the one hand it’s as mercurial as European history or any other recorded history, but the remarkable thing is how the cultural identity of China has been retained despite millennia of political and religious upheavals.

I’ve included a link in the blog show notes to a Wikipedia page with a timeline of Chinese History


For over five thousand years there have been scads of wars and intrigues that have molded the national and ethnic character of China and yet a continuity of culture and national identity has been retained without a break. Each dynasty or epoch has taken cultural features from the previous and in both subtle and unmistakable ways evolved, changing yet remaining essentially the same.

Another surprising thing about the art of China is how it’s perception of beauty and art stands in contrast to Western European culture. Caligraphy is at the center of art, not painting. Pottery and ceramic sculpture is also a part of the cultural spotlight so much so that certain colors of glaze and forms of pottery had been so valuable they were the exclusive possession of the wealthiest and most powerful few.

In this book there is a lengthy review of the long history of China and the author takes the time to review the distinguishing characteristics of each period with an emphasis on the last 500 years and within that, a focus on what he considers the best of Chinese pottery, the Sung period. I was particularly interested in the period of time where the export of pottery to the Middle East and Europe was in high gear. I was quite surprised to see the how the obsession with Chinese porcelain was viewed from the Chinese perspective.

I read the whole book and it was work. It’s very dry and the focus seems to lean toward the side of collectors. There’s a lot interest on the part of the author to identify the date and location of the various potteries during each different period of history. He also makes an effort to describe the colors and while there are many images, there are very few color plates. Considering it was printed in 1975 that’s not surprising.

It’s not my intention to review or even highlight five thousand years of history in this show, though I can imagine a scholar would find a detailed knowledge of this country’s history absolutely necessary to determine the subtle differences between the changing reigns. Right now, for me, it’s enough to know that it happened.

I know I’ll continue to explore the art of this part of the world, but I think this book has taught me that I need to get a handle on recent history and discover what art means in my own backyard, that is Western Culture.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that Chinese, Korean and Japanese forms are foundational to the repertoire of the modern potter in the United States. Their presence is pervasive in our culture even if we’re not aware of it. One thing I’m certain of is that if you don’t know the cultural details of where you live, you’re walking around blind.

Do I recommend this book for you to read? No, unless, like myself, it was all you could find. Except for a few passing comments, there is nothing in it about the nature of Chinese aesthetics. I think a book published in the past 15 years or so would have more information on that topic.


So let me see if I can wrap this up.

In this episode of the The Craft Project you’ve heard me review three books that I chose to help myself understand art. More to the point, I’m looking for signs on how to proceed. I’m open to anything you got.

In the Electric Kilns book I discovered the world of clay had changed significantly since I was in school and it explained a number of things about the current state of the craft that I was either confused by or unaware of.

Through Robin Hopper’s Functional Pottery I realized I wasn’t looking for technical information, instead I was looking for more information about the nature of design, art and craft and how they interact. Most importantly I recognized that history was a key to understanding why things are the way they are and furthering this understanding should become a recurring focus in my search.

Finally, the Chinese Ceramics book demonstrated that just any old book on the history of a craft or art wasn’t sufficient. I needed to be more particular about how a book approaches history, a particular period in time, the particular art movement it covers and insights about the impact on the culture and artistic movements that followed. Most importantly, I think, an informed critical view on the intent of artists and how well the work expresses that intention would be useful.

What is art criticism anyway? I mean what does it offer, how does it work, who can you trust. While all these books are providing information, thoughtful commentary has been sorely missing. I guess the last thing I learned then, was that I have no set of tools for evaluating art. I need to learn the language of art that critics use to unwrap the meaning of art. I guess that’s what I’ll look for next.

One last thing.

Check out the show notes at for links to information about the subjects and books I talk about. In addition to this episode, you’ll find interviews and blog posts as well and a place where you could leave a comment. If you’re already on the website you can subscribe to the podcast by looking for the Craft Project on iTunes. If it’s not there already, I hope to put up a link soon.

Thanks for listening; I’ll talk to you later,