Leap Then Look Active Archive Digital Residency
OUR FINGERS ARE OUR TOOLS
“Our fingers are our tools” was an instruction Josef Albers gave to students before inviting them to explore simple materials like straw, corrugated cardboard, and newspaper. You might imagine that working with clay would be the perfect expression of the importance of manual manipulation to the learning and art-making process, but Anni and Josef Albers were not fans of ceramics – the malleability of clay for them lacked the restrictions that allowed students to make meaningful discoveries. In fact, it was not until their departure in 1949 that ceramics began to be used and taught at Black Mountain College, allowing one of its major legacies to begin. For poet and ceramicist MC Richards, who taught at BMC for many years, the experience of working with clay on the wheel is a metaphor for artistic discovery and holistic learning. Something which encompasses the whole of the individual and all of their experiences and possibilities, bringing them into the orbit of creation.
“Centering: that act which precedes all others on the potter’s wheel. The bringing of the clay into a spinning, unwobbling pivot, which will then be free to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts. It is like a handclasp between two living hands, receiving the greeting at the very moment that they give it.”
THE POT SHOP
There was a natural, earthy, and utilitarian style of ceramics at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s, one which Karen Karnes continued throughout her career and Peter Voulkos developed into a distinct sculptural practice. MC Richards went on to explore ideas of touch and simplicity of form and created works of naive beauty and an accessible hand-made quality. Her hands are very much in evidence in the construction and manipulation of the clay and which strongly relate to her life-long practice as a teacher.
“It seems to me, it is not the ear that hears, it is not the physical organ that performs that act of inner receptivity. It is the total person who hears. Sometimes the skin seems to be the best listener, as it prickles and thrills… how it bursts into inner pictures as it listens and then responds […] Another picture from which I draw inspiration: Robert Turner, sitting at the potter’s wheel in our shop at Black Mountain College, giving a demonstration. He was centering the clay, and then he was opening it and pulling up the walls of the cylinder. He was not looking at the clay. He had his ear to it. He was listening. ‘It is breathing,’ he said; and then he filled it with air.”
MC RICHARDS WONDER
Mary Caroline Richards came to Black Mountain College in the 1940s to teach English and poetry. She also translated plays including Erik Satie’s The Ruse of the Medusa, memorably performed at the 1948 summer institute. However, it was with the building of the BMC pot shop that her life-long connection with ceramics began. She took classes with potters Robert Turner, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, and Peter Voulkos, moving with Karnes, Weinrib, and others to New York to found the Gate Hill Cooperative in 1954, which continued many of the ideas and principles developed at BMC. She brought to the craft her skills as a poet and teacher and saw in the simple act of centering clay on the potter’s wheel an analogy for her approach to teaching, creation, and living.
TOUCH AND EXPERIENCE THE CLAY
Excerpt from: “Creativity: Clay, Color, and Word — an M.C. Richards’ Workshop” (Richard Kane)
The process of artistic discovery can often be seen as a relationship between the hand and the eye, working together to manipulate materials and assess the results. The making process is then something of a back and forth between the hand and the mind, in response to the characteristics of the materials. One of the goals of our research is to create situations for surprise and to make new discoveries. How can we find ways of holding back our interpretive faculties and allowing the creative process between hand and material to unfold?
We set up this experiment one day during the residency, blindfolding ourselves and working together on a large lump of clay, without any predetermined idea of what we would make. Working blind-folded, there is initial awkwardness, uncertainty, but as the process develops you get lost in the details of your careful pinching and smoothing of the clay. The end result, when we took off the blindfolds, was a genuine surprise. It is also the record of a particular cooperative process.
Next to our video is an excerpt from a class run by MC Richards and makes clear her deep affinity with the material of clay and belief that it is by touch and physical manipulation that the student of ceramics gains knowledge and understanding through direct experience.
Image credits: Leap Then Look, BMCM+AC permanent collection, Forrest L. Merrill Collection, Everson Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Peter Voulkos Rocking Pot, 1956; MC Richards Untitled Bowl, 1990s, Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center; Karen Karnes, Double Vase, 1951, Everson Museum of Art; Robert Turner Covered Casserole, 1952, Philadelphia Museum of Art; MC Richards, The Forest, Estate of MC Richards.