Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Potter

Jeremiah's visit to the potter's house is a favorite scripture passage of artists, and not just clay artists. This is one of the few times when the visual arts play a major role in a scripture passage. This story, recorded in Jeremiah 18:1-11, is the reading from Hebrew scripture on Proper 18C/Ordinary 23C. The point of the visit is to give a (literally) hands on demonstration of how the nation of Israel - the clay - is in the hand of and ultimately at the mercy of the potter (God).

Jeremiah's point is broad and talks generically about the relationship between potter and clay, artist and material. In the text there seem to be two extremes: a perfect pot or one that was ruined, destroyed and remade. The potter makes the decision about the acceptability of the pot's form, and the potter decides when the pot is no longer acceptable and must be destroyed.

It matters who the potter is.
Left: George E. Ohr. Vase. c. 1900. NY: Cooper-Hewitt Museum. https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/51685221/
Right: George E. Ohr. Vase. Late 1890s - Early 1900s. Biloxi, MS: Ohr-O'Keeffe Museum. http://georgeohr.org/
Though Jeremiah's potter demands perfection, I don't know that perfection is required by our God. I would suggest that Jeremiah's God...our God...may share an aesthetic point of view with George Ohr...though the moustache style probably isn't shared. Ohr was a native and resident of Biloxi, Mississippi, and when he stopped making pottery at the age of 52, in 1909, he claimed he had not sold a pot in 25 years.
George E. Ohr. Pitcher. 1893-1906. NY: Cooper-Hewitt Museum. https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18618529/
Ohr's personality set him apart from the general population, and his art set him apart from the art world. His critics said that his work lacked proportion, grace and dignity. He threw pots and vessels with wafer-thin clay walls that he then twisted, pushed, pulled, pinched and crumpled. The crumpling was not in preparation for re-forming the clay into a "perfect" pot, it was to create a unique form. "No two forms alike," the potter bragged. He also claimed that he brooded over each pot "with the same tenderness a mortal child awakens in its parents."

Many consider Ohr to be America's first art potter. Perhaps it was because of his skill at the wheel in throwing such delicate vessels. Perhaps it was due to his skill at manipulating such thin clay. Maybe it was his unique forms and glazes. Some claim that it is the clay Ohr used, much of which he dug himself from the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa River, that enabled him to create his unique pieces. Whatever it was, Ohr saw beauty in the crumpled, the folded, the imperfect. In his eyes those forms became "art" where others saw only oddness and irregularity and difference. That sounds like grace to me.

The clay matters. The potter matters. Because the potter determines what forms are acceptable and what forms will be reshaped. Do you know your potter?

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