Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What the Heck Is a Pinch Pot, and My Personal Relationship With Them

When I applied to the University of Michigan’s School of Art, this little pot single-handedly got me in. The dean, a sometime-potter himself, held it up and said I was accepted based solely on its merit.

I feel like I ought to start out explaining the pinch pot. You probably think pinch pots are nothing more than a lumpy bumpy little blob of clay with a thumb-shaped hole in the middle. And you would be right on some level. But alas, for me pinch pots have been so much more.

I first started working in clay as a high school student, many many years ago. Thanks to a wonderful teacher, John Hartom (who I’m pretty sure is going to come up a lot in this blog) I was hooked almost immediately. I’ve always had a difficult time with the intellectual nature of “high art,” like paintings. Not other people’s paintings, which I love, but my own. They somehow always felt like clutter to me. The fact that I could make something useful out of clay, like a teacup, felt more far more worthwhile and accessible.

The funny thing is, I don’t make functional ceramics. I’ve never become proficient at throwing on the wheel, for instance. And most of my work of late is figurative sculptures. But somehow, just knowing that this clay material that I work with each day could be a cereal bowl, well, it does my spirit good. But I digress.

Way back in high school, I discovered a
book called “Finding One’s Way With Clay” by Paulus Berenson. The entire book is about pinch pots and I highly recommend it. These were the most exquisite, most energized, most wonderful pinch pots I had ever seen. In fact, when I re-read the book just recently in preparation for this little endeavor of mine, I discovered that so much of my core beliefs and feelings about clay came from Paulus Berenson. I’ve held these thoughts in my brain for so long, I thought they were my own ideas. Only to realize they were inspired by (i.e. ripped off from) this thin little volume.

Breathless, I took this book into my high school ceramics class and insisted that we try one of Paulus Berenson’s pinch pot exercises. The exercise was basically a very meditative process of making a pinch pot with your eyes closed. The teacher read the step-by-step directions out loud and the class followed along with our eyes closed. Years later, Hartom still jokes about what a bunch of bull he thought it would be – how he went along just to humor me and never thought it would really work. But there it was. A roomful of unruly 17 year olds kids, many who signed up for ceramics for the easy “A,” ended up making a roomful of beautiful pinch pots as if our hands knew more than our brains about creating art; As if it was just a matter of closing your eyes and finding a quiet moment.

Well. This was not to be the only pinch pot in my life.

That fall, I went to
NCECA as a high school student, which now that I think about it was a pretty remarkable thing for a high school student. (Thanks Hartom!) At the expo, I wandered around and collected baggie after baggie of free samples of clay. That summer, I began making pinch pots…lots and lots of pinch pots. They really don’t take very long. I didn’t have a kiln, so I’d line these bone-dry fragile little things up on the fireplace mantle, around the dining room table, over on the bookshelves. My father joked that they were taking over the house. Oh yes, on some level, he was right. They were taking over: My hands, my heart, my soul.

Peace out. Pinch on!


  1. Incredible! There are so many things the mind innately knows how to do. Only later in life do we "learn" to block and impede those things with rules and restrictions. You can use our fireplace anytime!