Heart Like a Wheel

What Is Hollywood Telling Us About Working With Clay?

As published in Studio Potter, July 2012

Being associated with that special combination of luscious imagery, romance, and personal turmoil makes artists and designers juicy subjects for movies. Such recent examples as Pollock and Frida aim for seriousness and verisimilitude, but without having known these artists, we can only guess how much these portrayals ring true. My personal favorite movie-subject artist will always be a fictional one: Catherine O’Hara’s postmodern harridan, Delia Dietz, in Tim Burton’s 1988 masterpiece Beetlejuice. This may seem a surprising confession coming from a decorative-arts nerd, but instead of seeking artful portrayals of historical ceramists, à la the Delftware painter (Griet’s father) in Girl With a Pearl Earring, I’m much more interested in how craft practice is staged in mainstream popular culture. Craft and design had me at hello, and I spend so much of my time interacting with people who are on the same wavelength that I often wonder how the rest of the world sees us. Hollywood is probably not the best gauge of this, but Hollywood’s widespread influence can’t be denied. Most people have had the experience of seeing some aspect of their identity - portrayed on screen, whether it be their region, culture, profession, school, or personal style, and thought, “not even close.” Professional artists and designers who work in clay are not likely to feel much resonance with the ways that movies and sitcoms portray the world of ceramics. This is because most of the time, ceramic practice is deployed as a plot device that signifies personal flakiness, economic irrelevance, a creative “phase” that puzzles onlookers, or straight-up hippie-dom. I have never seen a ceramic artist or designer portrayed on screen frantically assembling a tenure packet, or preparing work to ship to a gallery, or spending hours updating her CV, or traveling to a residency program in China. Potters, according to Hollywood, are actually just regular people taking a break from reality while their families try hard not to show their growing concern.

Anyone who has spent time in a ceramics studio since 1990 has witnessed a performance of “Unchained Melody” accompanied by a re-creation of Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s romantic wheel-throwing scene in the movie Ghost. This movie has launched thousands of couples into pottery classes that probably turned out to be both much less sensual and much more challenging than they had expected. Like movies that prominently feature exquisitely appetizing food, Ghost used clay (with way too much water, it must be said) to underscore the physicality, earthiness, and messiness of love. Ghost probably comes closest of any film or television series to portraying a “professional” potter on screen, yet the implication is that Demi Moore’s character, Molly, “can” make pots full time only because her husband works on Wall Street. That slip-covered love scene tends to get all the attention, but what I find much more interesting is how ceramics is portrayed as a career in Ghost, or more specifically, as the lack of one, and how this point of view has developed a currency all its own in recent decades.

Kevin Snipes, Unchanged Melody. 2012. Porcelain, glaze, underglaze, oxide wash, mid-range electric. 7 x 3.5 x 3 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Kevin Snipes, Unchanged Melody. 2012. Porcelain, glaze, underglaze, oxide wash, mid-range electric. 7 x 3.5 x 3 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Ghost has spawned countless parodies, including portrayals of ceramists by cartoon characters (Family Guy) and puppies (Hollywood Tails), but the best by far is a 2010 episode of the NBC comedy Community. Called “Beginner Pottery,” this episode captures the exquisite torture of a continuing education class gone awry. “Beginner Pottery” features a priceless scene in which the quietly angry, batik-clad instructor of the ceramics class lectures his students that his only rule is “no Ghosting,” which means that any hint of the Righteous Brothers or of a student coming up behind another while they’re sitting at the wheel is strictly forbidden. The drama of the episode revolves around the main character, a disgraced lawyer named Jeff who needs an academic credential to get his career back on track, coming to terms with the fact that he’s not especially gifted at most things he tries (including ceramics).

During the course of the class, Jeff finds himself taunted by a local doctor who takes the class simply to unwind from his stressful medical practice. In one scene, the doctor throws large vases effortlessly as beautiful women look on adoringly. Here, ceramics represents irrelevance played for laughs. Like ballroom dancing, beauty pageants, dog shows, and golf, ceramics is presented as an endeavor that elicits intense, cringe-worthy emotion from its irony-free participants. As Jeff pulls an all-nighter researching ceramics (but not practicing it), the humor lies in the life-and-death focus of these overly invested players on a mere hobby.

“Pottery Will Get You Nowhere,” an evocatively titled episode of The Wonder Years from 1993, focuses on tension between Jack and Norma, the parents of the adolescent protagonist Kevin. The show is set in the late 1960s. Norma, from roughly the same generation as Betty Friedan, experiences a modest creative awakening when she signs up for a pottery class at her local community college. She is proud of her creations, and her counter-culture teenage daughter, Karen, thinks they’re creative and bold. Norma’s husband, Jack, is irked by her new focus on ceramics and by her sly introduction of her pottery into circulation among the family’s regular tableware repertoire. She even replaces his favorite coffee mug with an unwieldy green and yellow creation that he clearly dislikes. Norma’s dalliance with ceramics is meant to demonstrate that her character needs a creative outlet and that her husband resents her restlessness. As in Community, ceramics is a lighthearted activity that allows the personal drama (whether funny or serious) to take center stage.

So deeply ingrained is the use of clay as a therapeutic tool that it appears to be alive and well in the twenty-fourth century. Two episodes of Star Trek series feature characters using clay as a tool to express humanist values to an artificial (or partially artificial) life form. “Masks,” a 1994 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, opens in a children’s classroom, where Data, the thoughtful and deadpan android, is carefully detailing a clay sculpture of an Enterprise view screen, complete with text that he fashions with a pin tool. Set designer Michael Okuda’s classic rounded rectangles are instantly recognizable in the android's creation. Counselor Troi wants Data to explore his imagination and challenges him to sculpt “music” by trying to think of the images that music elicits in people’s minds, then giving those images a form. Data responds by rapidly sculpting a treble clef in bas relief.

A similarly deadpan exchange unfolds between Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine in “Raven,” an episode of Star Trek: Voyager from 1997. The captain has invited Seven to visit her holodeck program, set in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, where she is at work on an earthenware bust of a man. A former Borg drone with a limited capacity for metaphor and irony, Seven half-heartedly attempts to sculpt the clay while complaining that no “useful task” is being accomplished. Janeway counters that sculpting helps fire the imagination, driving human progress and helping us to think up novel solutions and ideas. In both cases, we find not-quite-human characters, puzzled by the uselessness of working in clay, being encouraged to think creatively about what it can really accomplish. Clearly this is not the task at hand but rather some larger task of sparking creativity so that the amateur ceramists can better perform their real jobs.

The belief that craft practice belongs to the world of hobbies and recreation has clear roots in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the United States was rapidly industrializing and when newly rationed “leisure time” presented an unprecedented social challenge. What were people to do with all this free time? The original do-it-yourself movement promoted such wholesome activities as carpentry, needlepoint, model-making, paint-by-numbers, and for the really industrious, pottery, with a potters’ wheel installed in the basement. All of these activities create a kind of gestural representation of real work and have the patina of practicality: often the end result is some useful or attractive object. Handicrafts were also praised as palatable alternatives to vice and sloth, especially for young people living in large cities. John Dewey’s groundbreaking educational philosophies, particularly experiential education, emphasized the benefits of process over the quality of the finished product in craft instruction, and thus Dewey's ideas contributed to the popularity of crafts in schools, community centers, and summer camps. All of this conspired to cast craft practice in a curious light: what was once existentially defined by skill was now pleasurable and worth doing for its own sake, and the quality of the result, once the sine qua non of making an object, was now relatively unimportant. The widespread love of the fun, no-consequences side of craft has both supported and plagued it ever since. Ceramics has gained financially from its popularity as a hobby, but it has lost credibility among those who find the taint of amateurism too indelible to ignore.

There’s only one country on earth that would, or could, produce a feature film whose protagonist is a professional potter. Popular culture and craft guru Garth Johnson introduced me to the Japanese movie Ugetsu, a ghost story from 1953 that centers on the supernatural exploits of a rural potter living in sixteenth century Japan. Ceramics occupies a role in this film that another sort of old-fashioned profession like farming could credibly occupy in an American movie. Ceramics is not played for laughs or meant to indicate that the character is artsy or flaky or experiencing a midlife crisis; he’s just a rural, pre-industrial man who makes and sells pots.

I would love to see a new crop of movie or television characters who, in the spirit of Ugetsu, work in clay for real: designers, professors, entrepreneurs, style icons. Creative fields make for great TV – food, art, fashion, and interior design are all fair game – and ceramics really deserves better than to always be a supporting character. In fact, small craft businesses are full of ingenuity, success stories in a troubled economy, strangerthan-fiction characters, and irresistible eye candy. Imagine a bio-pic about Gertrud and Otto Natzler, full of romance, espadrilles, volcanic glazes, and Neutra houses. Or an addictive HBO series based on the life of Beatrice Wood. Or the story of Heath ceramics, founded by a visionary woman potter and designer, and revived by two inspired entrepreneurs with great taste and great personal style.

Put on a clean apron: we’re ready for our close-up.

View the original article in Studio Potter→