A City Potter: The Clapping African Women Potters

Beautiful Butterflies

With their clothes as brightly colored as butterfly wings, their hands appear to flutter over the clay with a touch at once light and firm, gentle and commanding molding the clay into a pot to be used by their communities. Stomping the clay with their feet to knead it their whole bodies are committed to the task. For these African Women Potters making pots is a community affair as they plant themselves in the heart of communal activity with children attached or scurrying around and animals screeching in the background. After years of making pots their natural artistry emerges. There is no self-conscious attempt to create art. What Soetsu Yanagi, author the "The Unknown Craftsman", says about Korean potters can easily be said about these amazing women, "The making of those pots is very free-but not consciously free-full to the brim with natural good taste...They make what they make without any pretension" (p. 122-123).


I read this amazing story written by a man-I can't remember his name or where I read it-who visited some African Women Potters in various parts of the continent. It has been a story that has made a great impact on my life because I am so far from this innocence most times, and certainly when it comes to the pots I have made. The essence of the story is this. Mortified and heartsick at his clumsiness, which had resulted in the shattering of a gorgeous ceramic pot made by one of them, the man was immediately jolted by the clapping of the African Women Potters, by their joy and exuberance. Thinking their reaction must be to something he missed, he soon realized that the celebration was due to the breaking of the pot. From the potters' point of view it was a time for gratitude for it gave one of them the opportunity to make another pot.


Innocence Lost

"Catastrophe" #1

As I was ready to take a picture for my website of a treasured vase I stupidly knocked it over and it fell off my set-up onto the floor. Pieces of the rim started flying across the room. (There was even a rug!) Cradling it in my hand, my stomach feeling as if it had just been kicked, I went crying to my dearest friend in the next room. The world was over!

"Catastrophe" #2

On my shelf at La Mano, the pottery studio where I rent space, I placed a newly thrown bowl-one I was particularly proud of-to dry enough so it could be fired in the kiln. The bowl was surrounded by glazes stacked on top of one another...and they came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho smashing the side of the bowl. Frantically I tried to remold the crushed side much as I had seen the African Women Potters do with their hands as they dexterously add coils of clay to the tops of their pots to make them bigger. Going around in my mind were the words, "If only I shared their joy; their detachment!" Yet I continued as heartsick as the man who shattered the pot in Africa over my own clumsiness that had destroyed what had become in my mind the most magnificent bowl ever thrown.

Catastrophe #3

I was selling my ceramics at a craft fair, pots beautifully balanced on crates, etc. when I reached over the table and another of my favorite vases came crashing down onto the pots below chipping the rim of the vase. Again I yearned for the rejoicing of the African Women Potters and again I failed to be anything but crushed...until I devised in my head a way to build the side back up and re-fire it in the kiln making it "whole".

Still Searching

I relay my 3 potting "catastrophes"to you because I was deeply disturbed. Where had my childlike innocence gone, that pure joy of taking a situation that I think is dire and re-framing it the way those amazing Women Potters had done? There is something so fundamentally wrong about the perfection I sought and mourned when I felt I lost it. Where was my inner version of Kintsugi, the ancient technique in Japan where ceramic bowls are repaired with a resin leaving the repair clearly visible making the bowl even more cherished than it was before...the beauty of imperfection and irregularity, a beauty I so admire with its idiosyncratic overtones. Was I practicing my own version of Kintsugi by remolding and rebuilding my broken pottery pieces? Certainly I had made their journeys more interesting, their histories more storied. But it was my initial reaction of attachment that clouded it all and disturbed me so, the utter devastation I felt. The African Women Potters were so detached from their pot that they could be overjoyed when it broke enabling them to create another one thus embodying the spirit of the truly living whereas I clung to the idea of perfection and permanence and it was agony!

20 Minutes of Pure Clarity

It was the radiance of a dying woman in a photo, the vibrance still in her smile, that brought me 20 minutes of total clarity about attachment and detachment, permanence and impermanence. In spite of her deteriorating physically her spirit was so astoundingly intact and present that at that moment I became totally convinced for the first time in my life the we never actually die. Our essence continues, or we return home to the Universe, (which is not to say Heaven), or...

Death makes angels of us all                                                                                                   
              & gives us wings
where we had shoulders
        smooth as raven's

Jim Morrison An American Prayer in "the American Night" p.10

And for 20 minutes my clinging to control, to perfection, to attachment, to permanence vanished. I was privy to the detachment of the African Women Potters. I felt so close to them during that time because I felt as if I understood what they seemed so naturally to understand-the freedom that comes with the belief that, "we never really lose anything if we don't cling." I have often pondered how they got to that place, or if there was ever a journey to being with. Were they just always there? I needed a photo of a dying woman to have momentary clarity. According to Christopher Roy in his documentary "African Pottery Forming and Firing" there is no word for "art" in Africa, no separation then between the women themselves and what they create. Is that the reason? Is it their more holistic relationship to the earth and the pots they created from it and making them in the center of their daily communal activities? What if my creative life and my life flow into each other, influence each other, become inseparable? Will I evolve into this state of detachment on a more consistent basis a state that was the cause of so much joy and exuberance for these women, a state that they seemed to have reached so seamlessly? I'd like to think that my 20 minutes of pure clarity, of ecstasy even, was not an aberration in my life, that I will get close to what these inspirational women have taught me. At the very least I can take these words to heart:

Not seeking, not expecting
She is present, and can welcome all things.
Stephen Mitchell
tao te ching A New English Version
Chapter 15
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