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Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose, By Robin Hopper

Reviewed by Leslie Laurent of Grass Valley, CA and Charles Moore of Sacramento, CA

As with many potters who came to pottery after education and careers in other fields, our knowledge of the ceramic arts has been spotty: an occasional class here, a workshop there, a quantity of reading and sharing with friends. But we have lacked the full curriculum offered by a good college program in ceramics. Robin Hopper’s book serves to fill some important gaps in our “casual” ceramics education.

Functional Pottery is easy and enjoyable to read. The book consists of a collection of essays arranged in four major parts: a review of historical pottery forms, design principles, considerations in making functional pottery, and a review of 16 functional potters and their work. This book is nearly a complete education in the production of functional pottery, authored by a potter with more than 40 years of experience.

In some ways, however, Hopper’s book is different from other clay-related books. It is not a dictionary, where all references to a term are found in one place. If you use the index to search a topic like, for example, “handles,” you will see references to the following pages: 36, 148-51, 184, 160, 118-25, 72, 77, 71, and 104—covering such sub-topics as “attachment of,” “braided,” “considerations,” “positioning of,” “tools for,” “wrist anatomy,” etc. The re-occurrence of terms in different parts of the book is because Hopper considers many topics (e.g., handles) from different points of view.

Let’s note that the book’s sub-title reads “Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose.” The concepts of “form” and “aesthetic” are most often lacking in the casual class or workshop, which usually focuses on “how to.” Second, Hopper’s “Pots of Purpose” indicates a focus upon the utilitarian in pottery creation. So how do form and aesthetic relate to purpose? Here lies one of the great strengths of Hopper’s work. Pots-for-use must reflect forms that people can actually use and appreciate. A couple of small examples will illustrate the distinctions that Hopper makes: “Decisions in shape and size of feet demand aesthetic, structural, and practical consideration. Small feet reflect elegant, delicate, and refined forms, more suited to contemplation and display, whereas large bottoms and large feet suggest stolidity, stability, and an ability to deal with the stresses and strains of family living” (p. 134). When discussing the lip of drinking vessels, Hopper notes that the user’s lips are sensitive to the shape and thickness of the vessel’s lip; lip to lip is the most intimate of relationships.

Hopper triangulates the relationships of form, function, and aesthetics to provide a way to conceptualize potting as both art and craft.

In Part One: “Made to be Used,” Hopper takes us through a history of worldwide pottery making, clearly illustrated with photographs and drawings. He focuses upon the different functions of pots, their methods of creation, forms, and details. At many points, Hopper makes clear the connections between forms. For example, on pp. 33-4, he shows three basic forms: the ovoid, the cylinder, and the bowl, with line drawings that clearly illustrate their similarities and variations and their development from the “primal pot” to later versions.

Part Two: “Form, Proportion, Relationships: The Measure of All Things”—here Hopper presents the aesthetics of pottery forms that many authors neglect. Hopper notes that viewers almost universally choose a particular form with a height-width ratio. His own pitcher on the cover of the first edition illustrates that principle: the top portion is approximately one-third the height of the pitcher, and the top and bottom are approximately the same width.

“Proportion and Ratio” (pp. 94-f) is one of the most interesting sections. Hopper explores universal (or near universal) responses to proportions in form. The most common ratio divides forms into two unequal parts: “If you compare the ratio of the short to the long sides of the rectangle [for example], you will find it to be the…ratio found between the top of a standing person’s head and their navel, and from the navel to the ground.” In simpler terms, the most pleasing forms are divided into approximately 1/3 in the top portion and 2/3 in the bottom portion.

Hopper’s concept of triangulation comes together in an important comment on “balance”: “For most studio potters, a balance…vacillates between life and work, to the point that they become totally integrated with each other. It is different for each person. The striking of some kind of balance is crucial to the stability and growth of the individual, as it forms the foundation that allows for personal exploration in whichever direction seems valid to that person….We are individuals searching for meaning and growth in existence. When we can achieve a balance the world is wide open for further exploration” (p. 117). Making utilitarian pottery inevitably involves compromise to fulfill the needs required of a given object.

In Part Three, which deals with analysis and considerations in making functional pottery, Hopper takes on the details of making pots for use. Take, for example, Hopper’s discussion on handles for pots (e.g., on pitchers): “One often sees handles that fly out from the pot, exaggerated in size, and unrelated to the form or its function. For lifting and pouring hot liquid, for instance, all the space that is actually needed between the knuckles of the user and body of the pot is in fact a maximum of a quarter of an inch….A large flowing handle generally gives a sense of insecurity when pouring liquids….” (p. 148) We might note, here again, that the handle of Hopper’s own pitchers reflect his recommended lack of exaggeration.

Part Three is so filled with topics that we have chosen to pick a single section to illustrate Hopper’s careful attention to detail and his clear talent as a teacher. On pp.152-3, he presents a small section called “Weights and Measures,” in which he lists the amounts of clay for many different functional pieces. He even distinguishes between the 6 oz. mug, which uses 10 oz. of clay, and the 8 oz. mug, which uses 14 oz. of clay. This is, of course, a trivial example of the content of the chapter; Hopper deals with bottoms, feet, top terminations, rims, lids, spouts, handles, and other topics from a very practical point of view—always presenting alternative types and modes of production.

This third part is the core of the book. It contains nine chapters that cover all the details of planning and executing a variety of forms. As if you did not have enough questions, there is even a chapter (Chapter 16) entirely comprised of questions relating to the “form and intent” (p. 183) of the pot.

In Part Four, Portfolio: Ways of Working, Hopper presents a sampling of 16 potters at their work. With each potter, Hopper presents a brief biography, a discussion of studio work, and many samples of their work. The work is exciting and inspiring.

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Hopper does not fear to pose difficult questions; nor does he shy away from answers, even where he knows those answers may conflict with those of other ceramists. In his “Conclusion” (pp. 241-f), he asks, “What are standards? Do we need them?” He says “the contemporary clayworker finds himself [or herself] in a position of enormous difficulty in this age, often lacking the roots of a tradition, and yet bombarded by a morass of influences. It is an awesome task to understand our choice of variables, let alone make appropriate decisions on what to say or make, and how to say or make it” (241). How then does the individual clayworker develop a sense of aesthetics? Hopper recommends reading and provides an extensive bibliography.

“Second,” he says, “aim to develop a high degree of self-criticism and objective analysis. Third, avoid the pitfall of pretentiousness, and learn something of humility. Finally, remember that a potter’s best friend is his hammer…. Working within the discipline of the ultimate human art form [claywork], the potter should be engaged in endless search, following a line of thought from work to work, with growth from one to the next” (p. 243).

Every potter faces the question of making art or making money; this is especially the plight of the potter who specializes in utilitarian ware. How does one maintain a sense of artistic integrity while meeting the needs of the market? Hopper uses “balance” as the answer:

“Making utilitarian pottery inevitably involves compromise to fulfill the needs required of a given object. The balance comes from the question, ‘What is most important to the maker—self-satisfaction or satisfying needs?’…From my experience, the nature of the functional potter is usually such that he or she wishes to produce objects that give pleasure to the user through their use, things designed with people in mind, and made with love, conviction, honesty, and integrity. If one can do this, whatever one’s personal aesthetic likes may be, one will probably produce objects that not only reflect their maker, but through their honesty, receive notice and bring pleasure to others” (p. 117).

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