Art as utility

Today a potter-friend posted some pictures of some pottery that he had fired in a campfire while he was on holidays. My first thought was how great the pieces looked and how they conveyed a message of ancient wonders. In his comment he noted that he was only able to use a wax finish rather than the usual glaze to preserve the random carbon patterns left behind by the campfire. He said, and I quote, “Unfortunately, I can’t put a clear glaze over the finish as that would destroy the carbon patterns, so I have used a shiny wax to finish them, and they are decorative only”. The sentence was preceded with the word “unfortunately” so it worried me that he felt that his work was only worthy if it had some utility as a vase or something else “useful”.  The pieces were fantastic in their own right; organic and just screaming of “ancient discoveries”.  I posted back asking if he felt they were of lesser value being “decorative only”. He assured me he was concerned more with longevity rather than utility when referring to the finish so I was satisfied that he hadn’t fallen from grace as an artist.   

"Diabolo" by Pascal Oudet

 This brings to light something about what woodturning has evolved into in the last 50 or so years. Although we still turn salad bowls and stair ballisters, things turned on the lathe have become art and many woodturners have taken on the veil of artist rather than solely craftsman. The public as a general rule accepts what we do simply as a craft and nothing more, therefore view our work as being of a utilitarian nature.  At various guild demonstrations and at an art festival that I attended last summer I have had many discussions with “the great unwashed” about turnings that they feel have no particular use. For example, a lay person typically seeing a hollowform that appears vase-like feels it has been made to hold flowers. They are astonished that water cannot be put in the “vase”. During the art festival I had this discussion with a lady admiring one of my hollowforms. Just as I thought I was getting through to her, she allowed  that perhaps the piece would be suitable for dried flowers. In frustration, my response to her was “Well, if you think you can improve it by doing that, then be my guest”.  That stopped her in her tracks, finally realizing the point I had been trying to make in our discussion. I had noted earlier that all the paintings at the festival would never be considered suitable for serving trays just because they were flat and had a rim. She didn’t catch it then, but now understood the significance of that comment. Perhaps if she had noticed that each of my pieces had a title, she may have better understood what she was looking at.   

Clearly, Pascal Oudet’s “Diabolo” can’t even hold light, let alone water. Sometimes the only thing that a vessel needs to hold is your attention. In my case, that’s all they are intended to do. Even though woodturnings may have been attractive, their primary purpose for centuries has been of a utilitarian nature. Therefore, at this point in time we should expect people to think  only that woodturnings are craft items meant for utilitarian purposes. We need to turn it around. I think as woodturners it should be our mission to help people understand one of two things: either that not every woodturning has to be utilitarian or – my take – that pleasing the eye and stirring the soul are also utilitarian functions. It’s akin to helping people understanding that paintings aren’t expected to double as serving trays just because they are flat.   

As always, I encourage your comments and questions, so please refer to the tag line at the bottom of the article to post a comment.

About Ed Pretty

I am a professional woodturner, specializing in gallery work, commercial work, teaching and demonstrating. I have been turning since 1958, so... a long time. I use this site to present my work to the public at large and to let people know that I am available for teaching private lessons in woodturning. Wood turning is one of my passions (the other is motorcycle touring). It is my desire to pass on everything that I have learned over the years to others so that the craft of woodturning will grow.
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