Sensuality and sustainability, Can they co-exist?

Paper presented at International Ceramics Symposium. Ceramic Arts and Design for a Sustainable Society. Gothenburg, Sweden. 2011

I’m not sure that I have the answers here, but I believe that a symposium such as this is a think tank where many ideas can be tested, thoughts shared and for those of us in education an opportunity to discuss issues that both threaten and reflect what we do.

As I write this paper ready for publication a month before this symposium begins, I am sitting in Sydney where the temperature today is 42o Celsius, there is a cyclone off the coast of Australia and there have been catastrophic floods. So my thoughts are with the sustainability of the planet.

But the purpose of this paper and the symposium is to not address climate change but to address how we as artists can contribute to a society that is more aware now than ever before about the effects of human activity on this planet.


I would like to divide this paper into different lines of thought about how we as artists create work that speaks of past, present and future. It is through the connections that we as a society have to clay objects that we can learn much about our past.

In exploring the title of this symposium, making work for a sustainable culture, I wanted to reflect on what sustainable means to me

Quite simply; to endure.

Is it the ability of the material to endure?

Is it the ability of the product to endure?

Is it the ability of the maker to endure?

Is it the ability of ceramics courses to endure?


Clay objects that have been excavated over the years are significant and enduring symbols of many great civilisations. This is confirmation that objects made from clay last long after the civilisations that created them have disappeared. What is truly amazing about using clay is the ability for the object to endure.


In art schools all over the world we learn about Greek painting because the only examples are the paintings that are left on clay pots. A shard of clay can tell archaeologists much about the culture from which it came. We are in awe of the Terracotta Warriors in China and gasp with shock that Ai Wei Wei would allow an ancient Han Dynasty vase to smash.

Why? It’s just a pot.

Of course it is because we place some value on work of that stature; museums and collectors protect works of art that have gained this level of value.

These pieces endure.

I believe that we place value on them because we are constantly reminded of how creative humans can be. The public are truly amazed at the sheer power and scale of the Terracotta Warriors in China. We question how a culture could have made so much work, and that it lay undiscovered for so long, not protected in a museum, but never the less protected by the mounds of earth that kept it hidden for centuries. But the Chinese have always been masters of ceramics. After all China is not called China for nothing. I have visited China and witnessed how ceramics is mass-produced there at low cost because there is a large domestic and international market, the materials are abundant and the labour is cheap.


Jack Troy wrote in 2010 that for those of us who work in clay, the real work means literally changing the planet a handful at a time. 1

So are we the culprits who are using up the raw materials? I would argue that we are not, we are the small fry here. Of course how each of us leads our own life in this consumer driven society and how we can offset our lifestyle by being carbon neutral is to be applauded and has been and will be discussed by others.


As a practitioner I am seduced by the tactile quality that clay offers. This is the sensuality that I refer to. The workshop outline that I presented for this symposium is about TOUCH, and the tactile and sensual way that clay yields to our fingermarks. In calling my workshop TOUCH, I wanted to explore with the young participants the ability to just work with clay, head, heart and hands. I was unsure if TOUCH was a cool enough title, was it a bit too simple for a symposium of this calibre. So I put the word TOUCH into my google search and the first listing was the Apple iPod touch. This shouldn’t have surprised me: I am an iMac, iPhone, iPod Touch user. The next generation are growing up in a digital touch era. My son, who works for Apple states that this next generation will probably not know what a mouse was. The touch era has truly arrived. However, the responses from touch are much different. When discussing this with a colleague her response was that the computer touch offers limited response. Maybe not limited, but certainly different. A visual response, but with clay it is a textural and much more sensual response.


Felicity Fenner, a curator at the University of New South Wales states:

Artists and designers are traditionally at the vanguard of shifting perceptions of the world, even affecting change in society. Today, much of the world’s best art and design practice seeks to address the disconnection from nature that has underscored modern Western Society’s rampant consumption of the planet’s resources.’ 2


Ceramics and the handmade should be at the front line of this. In my workshop outline I talk about the excitement that I get when I think about the fingerprint that leaves its impression in the fired clay forever. I watch visitors to my kitchen marvel at hand made cups and teapots that I use when I create a morning tea or serve up food. I recognise envy from them that I use such beautiful objects in my daily life. I am constantly amazed that I have to sell the idea that we can all do this; it is a though I have some magic entrée to a world of creativity that they don’t understand..


This is the challenge for designers of our tableware. Especially for objects that we as consumers use daily, a cup, a mug, a bowl; all these objects are handled, and in the case of the cup are offered to our lips on a daily basis. Producers of fine tableware such as Takeshi Yasuda, Matthew Blakely and Sandi Lockwood have created exquisite objects, and ones that I use every day. My children have requested Sandi Lockwood cups and I know they value these objects that I have given them.

As artists who use this material we must not neglect to talk about the touch and response of the material. My first connection with the processes to make objects was at a pottery in Victoria Australia. I watched transfixed as a row of throwers guided the clay under their expert fingers. I was hooked. From that moment on I knew that I wanted to work with clay. That was 38 years ago, and way back then I had no idea that I would be standing here talking at a symposium and being profiled as a keynote speaker.


It is my studio practice that I will talk about. Function and purpose are the springboards in my studio practice. Peter Dormer writes,

‘Function is the subject matter not the purpose; the purpose is art.’ 


I explore the role of subject matter in the making of art works. My work examines the structure of pots, and the exploration of function. My studio practice is located in an area that includes both pottery and sculpture. It is no longer just the work of utility, which meets the demands of society, but a reassessment of the meaning of purpose, challenging philosophy of function. Throughout the last century the possibilities of working in clay have expanded to include objects that are finding their way out of the kitchen and into living rooms, boardrooms and public spaces. The range of influences in the contemporary world has meant that positioning work as either pottery or sculpture is a narrow view. My work explores an area between pottery and sculpture.


Drawing on function as my subject matter gives me a freedom to explore and develop work that has its roots in many cultures and traditions while at the same time allowing my work to exist within a framework that has a domestic allegiance. I enjoy the exploration of form, the decisions about surface, rims, handles and spouts. The work that I have developed and included here is located within a line of tradition, a line that is never straight, which digresses and blurs and is forever expanding. The exploration of the vessel is common to many artist potters but the making process, the manual dexterity and the challenge of technique and dialogue with material and form result in a unique personal statement.


Eduardo Paolozzi, another UK artist, states: “a thousand tiny hand movements a day to create a work of art.” 4


This sentence sort of explains a day in my studio! The power of recall here has been so strong as this sentence has remained with me since I first heard it in 1989. Hand movements are the means of access to creating. The activity of the hands combined with many thoughts and ideas are an exciting link between the craft of making a good piece of work and the ideas behind work which is more complex in execution.


Paolozzi was conscious of new technical developments in the mid twentieth century when he produced work that explored new technologies. Like Paolozzi, contemporary ceramists have also adopted and are conscious of new technical developments. Contemporary technology, in particular computer programs, can design our work, or fire our kilns while we do other things, but ultimately it is the work that is important, the strength of ideas and the impact that they have. The sign of the human hand and its thousand movements a day creates the spontaneity that happens when one is working directly with the material.


Peter Dormer wrote

‘we want something that is overtly different: we want to see the artist’s hand, spirit, and individuality. Technology brings life’s comforts, but we look to the artist to provide human drama – hence the dominance, in one form or another, of ‘expressionism.’ 5


My interpretation of tradition in ceramics involves exploration of the role of pots handed down by practice and by continual usage and certainly by experience from one generation to the next. It is this exploration of the role of pots in this society and in my life that I am presenting. I am interested in where I sit within an ongoing family context or tradition, referring to the past and future.


My mother kept alive a sense of family through the history of her family and the tradition of her Scottish heritage, and inspired me in 1990 to further explore my family history. I was living in Scotland and so gained access to many official documents while investigating my family history and found the journey through two centuries to be truly compelling. This research had an enormous influence on my work. The markings that have been left on standing stones, graveyard headstones and as scars on the landscape are important reminders of a society that was part of my history. I recognise that there is a link here to some sort of genetic or cultural memory.


This broader cultural identity is difficult to define; it exists for me as part of my history and experience. It is a combination of both Scottish and Australian identity and it results in work that I hope connects the two cultures in a way that is individual. Exploring my identity ignites curiosity. Making the link to how this is developed through a body of ceramic work is challenging. The role of ceramic work particularly in this industrialised society constantly undergoes change, as society’s needs change. The maker of ceramic work is left with expansive opportunities to reassess the purpose and status of work.


William Morris when speaking about the Arts and Crafts Movement in 1882 said

‘if our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not works of art, they are either wretched makeshifts, or what is worse, degrading shams of better things’.  6


Perhaps this idea of Morris is not so far removed from my thinking today as I search for where I am positioned within the Arts and Crafts Movement at the beginning of the 21st Century. Like Angus Suttie before me, I am interested in vessels that are a reaction against the “factory produced ware”7 available though large department stores. Production ware takes care of our necessities, so I make work that offers opportunities to experience through heightened visual and sensual engagement, notions of pleasure and spirit. I hope that the familiarity of my forms will encourage the viewer to consider how to live with a variety of pots, not just those for the kitchen but for the public, ritual and corporate places where pots are demanding to be seen.


My view of contemporary and historical ceramics is quite broad as it should be to anyone in education. In the 1980’s there was a large swing to industrial processes within educational institutions. Course administrators saw this as the way to go forward and justify the costs of education, they became training courses for artists to be able to design and produce for industry. I believe this is where we lost our way both in education and with the public. This translated throughout the 90’s and into the 21st Century with a drop in sales for ceramic artists and a drop in enrolments in courses. I believe that the spirit of the hand-crafted object was thrown out. The designers of interiors of homes and boardrooms decided that out taste should be white and sleek, a minimal aesthetic was pushed upon us, and with the burgeoning graphic design industry, we were relegated to rows of white bottles on a single shelf as the contemporary interior design icon. The lumpy brown pot with the makers grubby finger marks all over it and big globs of ash and melted feldspar was rejected, not held up with any esteem, and certainly the knowledge and skill required to even fire a kiln or understand the alchemy of firing was not acknowledged or supported. Its no wonder that many clay artists turned to sculpture.


I read in an article by Garth Clark where someone once asked what is the difference between pottery and sculpture and the answer was about $5,000. In the 2nd decade of the 21st century I would say that is a conservative answer. Many potters who were brilliant at making the handmade domestic object turned to making sculpture and many dismally failed. Just because its hand made and not functional does not always make it good art, so with sales down and direction seemingly confused, many makers disappeared, as did their once beautiful and luscious domestic production.


The ‘style’ makers who turned once thriving craft galleries into design galleries reduced the public’s opportunity to see the magic and spirit of much handcrafted work. I think we have some creative problems here and we need creative people to solve them. There will always be cheap imports and now much of the ceramics industry has moved to Asia where the cost of mass production is low. As an educator, I recognise that part of my role is to sell the value of objects that have a place in our daily lives, not just in the cabinet for best use only.


I love working in my studio, it is my sanctuary, where else could I work with such freedom. I will often put on a movie in the background and immerse myself in my work. There are two sentences in the Hollywood film “The American President” which have stayed in my memory. The presidential aid says to the President (played by Michael Douglas) when referring to the public:  They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” The president replies: “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.” 8


As artists we need to make sure that our public, and our collectors know the difference. In an art school where education begins, I have witnessed a serious assault on ceramics courses at college and university level. I believe that many administrators are poorly informed and only see ceramics courses as a way to train graduates for an industry. The demise of the ceramics industry in the western world means that our courses are not seen as relevant to a job.  This results in administrators reaching the wrong conclusions and making poor decisions. At the National Art School in Sydney, Ceramics is part of the Fine Arts Degree, this is something that has worked to our advantage. The course attracts much interest from all disciplines with many undergraduates returning to ceramics as they explore clay in their own projects.  I am lucky to have potential painters, sculptors, printmakers and photographers as they come through the ceramics studio at least once in their foundation year. They wont all become artists who develop a ceramics practice but they all have the potential to be collectors, whether it is a special one off piece or objects for daily use. However, they are not the public. This is where we need to expand the knowledge of our practice, and show the real value of both art and the hand made as a sustainable choice.


I also believe that we humans are hoovering up the earth’s resources with our mad grab as consumers. If we, the ceramics artists and designers, can lead the way by creating work that entices the population to see each object as an item with value, even a simple coffee mug can be so special that it needs to be treated with care and may be passed down through the generations. Now that is real sustainability.


David Jones, a potter and writer in UK writes:

‘I maintain that if it were not for the denigration of ceramics as a low status activity and the demise of the ceramics industry then it would be a flourishing discipline that would be overwhelmed with applicants.’ 9


Possibly, well certainly in the 1970’s in Australia, courses in ceramics were flourishing, we all thought that we were entering an era when we would all have much more leisure time, and working closely with the earth was a idea that many of my fellow students aspired to. The public did respond to the handmade and to the lifestyle from which it came. But things began to change in the 1980’s and by the 1990’s we were being seduced by the clean lines of production.


In my own teaching practice I am much more attracted to the Bauhaus approach. Although the Bauhaus only really existed for a short while it had a tremendous effect on the arts community and is lauded today.

Walter Gropius the founding figure of the Bauhaus stated

“Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”


So to conclude, making work for a sustainable society is what we do. I would argue that we use the most sustainable of all materials. We don’t need technology to make clay, it is there just waiting. Once made and fired, it can last forever. It is durable and can be wiped clean for centuries. The main problem is society. If our government planners, our architects and engineers, our designers and builders could create buildings that endure such at the Sydney Opera House, then the bricks and tiles that were created from our natural resources would be valued for generations to come. If we could just stop and ponder the teachings of both William Morris and Walter Gropius then we might have a chance to create works that demand an integral part of the stuff of life.

I would also argue that wood firers are probably the using the most sustainable of all fuel, a renewable fuel source. Most studio potters are clean and green, making a product that does endure. Sustainability is not just about the 21st century, the survival of clay objects is testament to clay’s ability to endure. Perhaps it is not just sustainability of the material and processes that is being discussed here, but the ability of the product to sustain. Globalisation gives us mass production, but it is humans who have attention to detail and create an individual uniqueness.


Henry Glassie wrote in his book The Potters Art: Material and Culture:

“It is good to be a potter. At work the potter manages the transformation of nature, building culture while fulfilling self, serving society and patching the world together with pieces of clay that connect the past with the present, the useful with the beautiful, the material with the spiritual. The one who can do all that has done enough. The potter has won the right to confidence.” 11




  • Jack Troy. (2010) Muse and Curmudgeon. Ceramics: Art and Perception. No 82. page.68
  • Felicity Fenner. (2010) Art as a Catalyst of Change. Artlink Vol 30 No 4. p.28
  • Peter Dormer. (1994) The Art of the Maker. Thames and Hudson, London. Page 7
  • FIVE THEMES AND VARIATIONS OF THE WORK OF EDUARDO PAOLOZZI. 1988:   (video recording.) Produced by Channel 4 London, 55 minutes.
  • Peter Dormer. (1994) The Art of the Maker. Thames and Hudson, London p 87
  • Garth Clark, (1995) The Potter’s Art. Phaidon Press, London. Page 104
  • Angus Suttie. (1994) The Potter’s Art. Phaidon Press, London .page 5
  • The American President. 1995. (movie) Universal Pictures. 114 minutes
  • David Jones: (2010) Intersecting Disciplines Ceramics: Art and Perception.: No 81 page 75
  • Walter Gropius (1883-1969)  Daily Icon. –  accessed 25-1-2011
  • Henry Glassie. (1999) The Potters Art, Material and Culture. Philadelphia and Indiana Press, Bloomington. page 116



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Sensuality and Sustainability: a co-existence? | Merran Esson
June 22, 2013
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