When we were in Chicago last week one of the highlights was a day at the Chicago Art Institute. There were 3 pots from Egypt that were paradigm changing for me. I know much more about the Asian Ceramic world than I do the Mediterranean Ceramic world. This is a factor in the shift. But not the biggest factor.
These pots are from upper class graves, made around 3500 BCE.
I look at them and see 5000+ year old beginnings of Terra Sigilatta, Sgraffito, and spiral patterns. 2500-3000 years later these technologies had moved from pottery community to pottery community around the Mediterranean Sea through changes in language and culture to become the Black and Red pots of Greece with their perfect slip coverings, masterfully incised story drawings (sgraffito). And the spiral patterns… The Egyptians didn’t have pottery wheels at this time. The first wheels arise in Egypt about 1000 years later. They did have other spinning things, so there was some spinner thing — a banding wheel — to place the pot on in varying angles to make the spirals. The museum description card says that spirals were very common decorative motifs in Northern Africa at this time.
Spirals. Waves Diamonds. These and another patterns are common on all continents. They are the natural expressions of early humans on caves, rocks, clothes, ritual objects and on ceramics as it arises. They shapes and patterns arise from something within us. This couldn’t have migrated around the planet in those ancient times by travelers.
The common element of it all, is us. Humans.
I look at the pots and see that the intelligence that created these is no different that mine. The sense of beauty. The sense of form. The harmony and balance. The immense attention to detail. The skill involved in this level of work. No different than mine.
These were people just like us. Doing something they loved in small workshops. The potters would have been the most skilled as they were making for the elite, and maybe lower royalty. And they would have been working at the edges of known technology. Experimenting. Testing. Blowing up or melting some pieces. Creating an expanding sphere of what they know, understand and can reproduce. Excitedly opening their kiln. Occasionally removing a piece in wonder as all the elements come together!
When I stood there in the Chicago Art Institute and looked at these pots I was that 5000 year old potter.
If you remove all the culture, the language, the explanations about the universe, the earth, humans, existence; remove all the What, Where, When, Why, How questions you’re left with the Who question.
The Who is not removable. The Who that stands and looks at your ceramic world is no different from the Who that looks 5000 years ago at that ancient Egyptian ceramic world.
The Who is primarily curious. Looking for patterns to create understanding. Discovering how things work. Learning how to repeat a series of actions to create predictable results. Noticing what doesn’t work and being curious again. Finding and following a sensorial experience of beauty, balance, harmony.
You too are that 5000 year old Egyptian potter. And the 8000 year old Japanese Jomon potter. And the 2800 year old Greek potter. And the 15,000 year old Lascaux Cave painter.
All that is different between us and these ancient artists is the stories we carry around that the group(s) we “belong” too agree are valid. The mental content has evolved and changed. The Who, which is not the content, is the same.
Next time you’re in your studio. See if you can see what you’re up to through the eyes of your 5000 years old potters’ Who. Then stand in that Who to work at the edges of your knowledge, skill and technology. It’s where curiosity is required.
Wyn Matthews, VCPG President
50+ year potter