Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010

Articles & Reviews

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Rory MacDonald, University of Regina
(transcribed from the presentation given at the College Arts Association conference February 2009, Los Angeles. Some images are omitted from the original presentation.) 

Contents | Home


by Mary Drach McInnes

The Convergence of Parallel Tangents

by Timothy John Berg

Time, Place, and Perception

by Lawrence A. Bush


by Rory MacDonald


by Michael Jones McKean

Interdisciplinary Mind, Deft Hand

by Annabeth Rosen

To Eat, To Die, To Play

by Linda Sikora


by Linda Sormin


The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Michael Tooby

Modern British Potters and their Studios

by Douglas Phillips

A Guide to Collecting Studio Pottery

by Juliet Armstrong

Ceramics Film Festival

by Leah McLaughlin

Getting it Right

by Alan Wallwork

NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

This paper aims to explore working models for collaboration in contemporary ceramics by exploring opportunities presented by ceramic residencies and their impact on contemporary modes of production. I am interested in how to understand collaboration as a means to provide a model for flexible ceramic studio research and how ceramic education might adapt to these opportunities. Collaboration in the examples that I will explore refers as much to the development of the residencies themselves to the way ceramic artists make work under these conditions. The use of the term ‘collaboration’ in the residency environment is a marker for renewal or a means of transitioning between production methods or ideological systems. The difficulty in understanding the collaborative model within recent ceramic history stems, in large part, from a changing system of values in the use of the term itself. The benefit of identifying a working definition for collaboration in ceramics would in some respects enable us to better examine 20th and 21st century approaches to ceramics production and research. How is collaboration different from a division of labor? How do we understand the motivations of contemporary makers intent on using the term as a critical approach to making and community and what questions does this pose for ceramic studio education?

Throughout the large part of my education, both undergraduate and graduate, the need to position one’s work within a historical lineage or to explain one’s work through historical models always seemed somewhat abstract to me. What was rarely clearly articulated, was the need for contemporary makers to develop a context for one’s work. This context may of course involve many aspects of the history of ceramics but it need not rely on that history to justify its existence. A contemporary context may or may not even include an understanding of the medium itself. Context may be thought of then simply as a set of questions and the manner in which those questions are presented to an audience through the ceramic work. In explaining contemporary objects entirely through a sampling of history, the focus rests on the ability to sample techniques, such as glaze surfaces or patterns. The educational environment within the studio mimics this sampling by having the most number of ceramic technologies available in one studio. What this approach distorts is a relationship or understanding of the environments under which the historical works are made. Suddenly, it becomes more important to explain ones decision to work in a particular method with abstracted and often inaccurate historical designations. In a studio under these conditions one might hear someone talking of working in celadon as some generic body of work and not a more complex history of many types of related glazes. The point I would like to make here is simply that many ceramic studios operate under a sampling approach to ceramics technology and history. Context then may be considered an expression of choice within a ceramic studio without many of the limitations of temperature or materials or technology, which dictated the limits of so much of the history of ceramic production.

The context of labor is crucial to an understanding of collaboration in ceramics. How can we consider the labor of the past and the value of labor in the production of ceramic objects in a contemporary context? I would extend this question to not only an analysis of production, but to the actual gestures in work itself, the marks of making. Throughout history we can cite many examples where the number of people involved in the production of a single ceramic object has usually involved many individuals. Not until the modern studio movement has the transition to describing the work of the individual been the focus largely tied potentially to the teaching of ceramics in art schools. It always struck me as strange to compare the production of the contemporary individual to the production of a group. In many respects this could lead us in so many directions. But at the root of the term collaboration implies the work or product of a group over the work of the individual. The key, of course, is to establish the roles of individuals within the group and how the group functions as a collaborative. This might be understood as making distinctions between pre-industrial and industrial methods of production where the division of labor dictates methods of production. In this case as well I would like to extend the making of the ceramic object beyond simply the construction or finishing to the refinement of materials and all other aspects of labor and technology.

My interest and research in the topic of collaborations is in large part based on my thinking around methods of production for myself as an individual maker and more broadly in the development of pedagogy in ceramics education. Much of the focus of my education came at another kind of turning point within ceramic studio programs as a whole. These programs--once largely training grounds for studio ceramic production--began to transition to programs as exploration of ceramics as research and even more broadly as grounds for critical thinking. This may be understood as a move from studio ceramics as a method of self-reliance and a career working in a studio to a more self-determining program of study where the focus shifts to an ability to solve problems within a given material or as a conceptual exercise.

The former was essentially following the model of ceramics programs set up to teach and prepare students for production studios. Most of these models in the U. S. and Canada were based on European studio pottery movements. These models, for there were many variations, focused energy on the development of studio fundamentals for the individual. Glaze and clay chemistry, production techniques were developed to enable a single individual to operate a production studio with knowledge and skill of all areas of production. The descriptions of groups of makers in this system were largely based in guild and collective models. They developed means of working together to share studio costs, develop means of exhibition and sale. Collaboration in these systems was not generally considered at the level of production. The notion then of the collaborative might have described the space of production - gallery, studio, or live work buildings - but rarely of a single object or the direct relationship between makers in a process of production. The development of programs based on ceramics as a field of research in visual arts have the potential to be freely engaged in collaborative models exploring ever more interdisciplinary directions largely since the focus has shifted away from solely training in a production method. How would an educational studio function given the possibilities presented by collaborative approaches?

There are very few ceramic texts either critical or historical until recently, in which I have encountered the use the of term ‘collaboration’. The fact that the panel here at CAA exists at all should be an indication that there may be a shift in place within ceramics education and more broadly within ceramic research both in practice and theory. What new questions are presented by the adoption of the term ‘collaboration’ may be a good starting point? How does the term question the role of the individual maker and of labor within the studio? How does collaboration challenge the context of choice and our reading of ceramics history? What changes to education would exist if we moved away from a focus on the individual? Does collaboration in ceramics provide us with a new vantage point from which to explore ceramic process and production?

In the absence of the term itself used in common historical references, looking to historical models of production and process may yet provide some groundwork or starting points for an understanding of the interest in the term today. In many respects this has been my approach in trying to understand the value of ceramics as a field of research in contemporary culture. In thinking about collaboration my starting point has been the rise of the ceramic residency, which often brings together many makers in one location and often under new studio conditions for a relatively limited period of time. All of these conditions are I believe important for understanding the impact of the residency on ceramics education. I will first start briefly with an example from an important center for ceramic production in Valla Uris France. I had the opportunity to work at a residency called A.I.R.-Vallauris run by Dale Dorosh some years ago and during the time of the residency and my research into the area; so many fundamental questions of my own studio practice were developed. The clay deposits of the region have supported for the largest part of the historical production utilitarian wares until about the 1930s and 40s. This clay, which was perfectly suited to many kinds of flameware, created large quantities of cooking ware for French cuisine. Since the decline of this industry, the area has seen some very interesting transitions from the collapse of semi-industrial scale production to small-scale production. Many of the transitions have been stylistic as the area attempted to create new production lines. But it is in the last major transitional period that I am most interested in exploring the development of the term collaboration. The most easily accessible of these models are those collaborations between many of the leading members of European modernism (Miró, Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Matisse) and the ateliers in the region. The relationship between these artists and ateliers has recently been described as collaborations. In many respects it is difficult to assess if the term itself is an attempt to reevaluate the production between the artists and ateliers during this period or was a term used at the time. There is a democratization intended by the use of the term in this context, which opens the door to evaluate the work not as the singular work of an artist but as a more complex undertaking. One of the collaborations took place between Picasso and the atelier of Madoura, between 1946 up to the death of the artist in 1973. Since then Madoura has been functioning as a museum to the collaboration with the artist. The important point for me in this example is how the term has been used to distinguish the roles played by individuals in the making of the work and possibly better describe the relationship between makers in the studio and the question of hierarchies of production. How do we transition between the values of production based on individuals in ceramics education to placing value on the work of a group?

How is it possible to address new models for collaboration in ceramics as production networks and or research networks? In a recent trip to Jingdezhen China, I had access to a residency program in the Experimental Sculpture Factory. The residency is situated in the middle of what is known as the ‘sculpture factory’, a collection of dozens of small-scale autonomous studios producing a huge range of objects. While it is impossible to go into depth describing the complex relationships of these studios, we may visualize them as a factory system with an intensely focused division of labour and skill, but without an identifiably fixed framework. In following the production of any one object there is a collaborative approach, which is nothing less than amazing and has changed my limits of understanding for a model of collaboration. Studios rely on each other entirely to produce a single object but at the same time they are producing hundreds of different objects. Loosely, the studios represent the divisions in the process of creating a work almost exclusively from clay production - glaze production, mold making and firing. Collaboration in this system represents a pathway of problem solving and production as objects move between studios, which further the need to collaborate. At once the individual and the group are described as inseparable. It is possible, given the scale of the ‘factory’, to visualize it not as a production line (literally a linear division in the process of production) but as a flexible network of production. Under this system the term ‘collaboration’ can be defined as the flexibility of the production system as a whole and by extension the flexibility of the roles of individuals. This system may be seen as constantly in renewal or in transition. An analysis of the high quality of the finished object is a testament of the effectiveness of the communication within the collaboration. Communication is the key element that enables ideas to become reality in this system. Objects or projects move through the system with vastly different goals from unique objects to larger scale production in a seamless flow. I do not wish to in any way over simplify what is an incredibly complex system and with so many possible directions of analysis I will say that in large part the success of these systems is their ability to transition in both goals and technical production constantly. The system requires a large number of highly skilled individuals, although not all are specialists. Some individuals in the system bridge what would usually be breaks in the production; for example, someone might work as a claymaker and in the firing stage as well.

Finally, I would like to tern to the notion of the ceramic studio as a fixed site of production. In all of my previous examples I was required to physically move my ‘studio’ to participate in these residencies. Afterwards, I quickly became aware that I no longer had a fixed studio and most of my work since that moment of realization has been focused on what that situation really means. The important point for me is that my visits to these centers might in fact describe a kind of challenge to how to think about ceramics education. The movement and participation of artists in international residencies is a reality of contemporary ceramics research. Many of the most technical works are done under these conditions many do not rely on a technical understanding of ceramics in order to participate in them. What is required of students of ceramics in order to participate in these sites or opportunities? An understanding of collaboration might be an important starting point. How could this be reflected in ceramics education? One possibility is the addition of research proposals. I spend hours reviewing research proposals and require students to write grant proposals and residency applications as part of a studio education. This writing and organization of ideas is about communication of the many roles ceramics plays in contemporary research and more broadly the function of the products of that research. They are rarely technical statements and usually describe the imagined impact of the residency on their studio work. Part of the understanding of these opportunities established by centers of historical ceramics or within industry is that many have created new sites of collaboration and community building through production. Many of the best statements produced by students explore what community means to their participation in a residency.

I am finally left with many more questions than answers as I move to explore how collaborative models might be reflected in ceramics education. How do we transition and take advantage of these sites of community in a fluid way given the example of the ‘sculpture factory’ in China? Are there ways to collaborate in ceramics without a fixed location and what impact does this have for the research of materials or skills? How might contemporary art and craft pedagogy move to address the changing access to these global ceramic centres and what impact does the movement of makers have on local centers? What skills and language are required to negotiate these collaborative environments? Ultimately, what roles do models of research collaboration play in exploring these issues? How does collaboration examine the division of labor and more broadly the value of labor and how would this question of labor enable ceramics a critical space for dialogue within interdisciplinary research? What if any are the limits of the ‘studio’ models we have been using in ceramics education and does this shift to a use of the term collaboration present us with an opportunity to examine the work and objects of the studio movement in a new ways?

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Collaborations • Issue 12

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