Unadorned is my way of thinking about the quality of unglazed mature clay. I always appreciated my pinched objects in the raw as well as in the round. I glazed them out of tradition. Yet, I was always formulating glazes that accentuated what I was covering. My inspiration is wide and varied and I'll begin with being inspired by the sculptor, Halima Cassell whose works in clay are all unglazed and she has fully explored the beauty in the surface of unglazed clay. I was also heartened by the song "Cleva," by Erykah Badu, wherein she sings, "this is how I look without makeup… Said that I'm alright with me." She pushes back against tradition in order to appreciate her own true self. I have not wanted to glaze my work for some time and it’s funny how the universe can line up on one’s behalf as a clay body, a moment and an opportunity presented itself so I could move in this direction. The stoneware clay with the toasty, coral textured surface is where I began to release the process.
What does it mean to say I am “nurturing a black [clay] aesthetic?” For this has been my thinking in more recent times precipitated by a couple people “observing” a few pieces and saying, “they’re not black.” I thought, well neither am I, though I am. I recall one of my daughters grappling with comprehending her mixed heritage constructed American legacy saying, ``I'm not black, I'm brown." This is an aesthetic question and, I wondered, is how we come to understand and value the blackness in objects similar to how we have done so with people? Shakespeare's sonnet 127 has been part of this conversation:
In the old age, black was not counted fair,
Or, if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
One can be transformed and transported into the idea by hearing Steevie Wonder sing:
Black Orchid, Black Orchid
Why did they criticize
When they knew your love could cast its spell and
Consecrate their eyes?
Think of the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, the silhouettes of Kara Walker and a number of Christina Cordova figures and their questioning of and celebration of ideas of blackness and beauty. So, this has long been an unavoidable conversation and self-examination for many artists and in ceramics beauty has too often been defined over and against porcelain. The late author and scholar, bell hooks never underestimates the aesthetics involved in race and class relations. It seems to me that blackness as a social construction and beauty are equally in the ideology of the beholder.
Yet, I don't want to lose sight of the making and meditative quality of this process and how present one has to be to grow a 12" pinched form out of one block of clay. My workshops often become so quiet as participants focus and become present to the material’s qualities and stages. Without fail it seems there is always a communitas that comes into a group of people being present. And so, I continue to think about Nature, as John Ruskin wrote, "nature makes no aesthetic mistakes." I considered transitions in organic forms and how we often come into contact with nature and its seemingly unstructured positioning. We use such terms as invasive and wild, euphemisms for not oppressed by human hands. And so, with all of the environmental issues in ceramics I should “come to a close” with a quote from Wendell Berry:
“There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places. My belief is that the world and our life in it are conditional gifts.”
It may be that I have attributed to my work, more work than it can actually accomplish, at least for now.
– Paul S. Briggs, June 2022