Terry Gess is a potter, storyteller, and former resident artist at Penland School of Crafts. He is currently the Chair of Professional Crafts-Clay Program at Haywood Community College
You can reach Terry at firstname.lastname@example.org
Take, Make, or Break
There’s a story told about a Cherokee woman who wore her thick black hair in a long woven braid halfway down her back. Her young husband told her often and with pride about how he loved her beautiful hair, how it represented for him so much about their heritage and her beauty. One day he came home and found the braid, a scissors and a small note on the rocking chair that he always sat in, close to the wood stove. “You love my hair so much, I thought I’d see how much you loved me.”
On the shelf in our kitchen there’s a small slip-cast porcelain cup. I visited a potter who lives alongside a small, wooded lake in the north of Finland and she gave it to me. She made it straight sided, clean & cool in the Scandinavian design aesthetic that is so admired and celebrated. It’s been in our kitchen cup collection for years.
This cup is glazed a hard, shiny green, as pedestrian as Cone 6 can get. It’s an example of how challenging glazing can be, with thickness, application, temperature, and atmosphere all conspiring beyond our fingers to take, make, or break a pot. For me, glazing is the hardest part of making good pottery.
What I really admire in this cup is the handle. This Finnish potter has fashioned it from a thin, lean piece of branch, a young, smooth wood with very fine specks or dots in a subtle pattern all across the bark. The cut off ends reveal a dense, yellow sapling wood, like beech, or ash. She has subtly turned the branch into a handle through some kind of hidden plug. The handle seems to float as if by circumstance alongside the cup, like an odd juxtaposition of two friends that don’t seem quite matched to each other. There’s nothing particularly special in the form or glaze — in fact I don’t think that I’ve ever even drunk from this cup — but the handle keeps it in our kitchen, an object of repeated interest, a memento of a trip to Finland, a connection with another sensibility, an approach to form that is beyond my own.
Then one morning it broke. A plate was moved and in the moment of liftoff the plate caught the lip of the little cup and sent it over the edge, down to the floor. The crash was spectacular for something so modest and thin-walled — a shattered, splintered explosion as if some pent up rage was contained in that cup, or perhaps some complex spring-loaded contraption. Amidst the slivers and shards, there laid that handle, still attached to the bit of clay lapel that bridged it to the cup. Almost as if to say, “Maybe you like this handle more than you liked this cup.”