reading list

Couverture du livre la sagesse du potier

La sagesse du potier by Jean Girel, published by L’œil neuf, 2004.

This gem is at the top of my list, and it's really a shame that it has never been translated into English.

There are loads of books on the technical aspects of working with clay: how-to manuals and beginners' books that give you plenty of (ridiculous) do-at-home projects, or on the other end of the scale, works on advanced technicalities impenetrable to all but confirmed professionals.

This short book is in a league all its own. Jean Girel is a well-known French potter, who was bestowed the rare title of "Maître d'Art" in 2000. Thought-provoking: how he solved a glaze problem by observing droplets of water on water-lily leaves. Adventurous: what would happen if you opened the gas kiln at the height of the firing and examined the pots? (He did). Absolutely marvelous!

D'Argile et de feu by Océane Madelaine, published by Editions des Buscalts, 2015. No English translation.

I was curious as to how this professional ceramist-- whose pots have a dreamkike and poetic quality-- would turn out as a novelist. In contrast to "The Cat Who Saw Red" where pottery is reduced to a simple backdrop for a light mystery (see review below), the tone in "D'Argile et du feu" is undeniably authentic. This is a work of fiction, with parallel stories about two womean living at different eras for whom working with clay is of vital importance. But beyond the family secrets and love affairs which keep the story moving, the core of this text is its autobiographical resonance. Rarely have I read such an inspiring description of what it means to be a ceramist, written from the interior of a mystical quest to reunite with the forces of Nature in the hopes of bringing renewed meaning to Life. Here it is clear that clay has the power to shape and forge the person working with it, and the beauty of the last pages is powerful.

Sources of Inspiration by Carolyn Genders, published by A&C Black, London, 2002.

Where does inspiration come from? Wouldn't we all like to know! Carolyn Genders points out various potential stimuli- landscapes, architecture, plants, shadows and reflections, industrial objects- from which she extrapolates different forms and motifs for her work. Since she is a ceramist, her notebook is a particularly precious reference for us. Attractive photos are the starting point from which Genders traces how colors and textures are filtered through her eyes and sensitivity to their ceramic interpretation.

Couverture du livre Passagère du silence

Passagère du Silence by Fabienne Verdier, published by Albin Michel, 2003. No English translation.

In the 1980's, the author decides to go to China to learn the Art of Calligraphy. She has a difficult time finding a Master because during these years of the Cultural Revolution, the Ancient Arts have been banished from the scene. Fabienne Verdier does eventually meet a brilliant Master and the second part of the book relates to her apprenticeship with this man who teaches her the most important lessons: how to observe, how to react to what she is seeing, how to give meaning to her Art. Reading this document will make you want to transform the way you start your day: taking time to observe and interact with your surroundings, giving an importance to the details of daily routine as a way of paving the way for the art to come. 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002.

To English speakers, Julia Cameron will need no introduction. But a few words just in case... A screenplay writer herself, Julia Cameron initially developed her method to help friends get over their writer's block.

Her techniques are valuable for all artists, and also for people in general who'd like to put more creativity into their lives. Two basic tools and several motivating exercises will lead you to realize that working on your art means working on yourself.

The Potter's Directory of Shape & Form by Neal French. Published by A & C Black, London, 1998.

Plenty of aficionados dream of buying their own wheel so they can throw to their heart's content. Yes: but throw what? Novice throwers discover that it's easy enough to throw a few simple, cute pots but are very soon at a loss as to how to make progress. That's why it's always a good idea to aim for a specific pot. If you're feeling bored and frustrated-- whether on your own wheel at home or stuck in a class with no sense of direction-- this book can be an invaluable stimulation. Open to that page of bowls : throw the very round one, then the low, open one; what about trying that outward bend in that rim? Once you can render each separate bowl easily, respecting its proportions in the photo, start doing series of each bowl: same measurements, same curve each time. To be a skilled potter, you need a keen eye and precise hands: practising with this book will help get you there.

The Hare with Amber Eyes : A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal, published by Vintage Books, 2011.

Well-known British ceramist Edmund de Waal, current descendant to hold the family collection of netsuke (Japanese figurines), traces how these objects follow the destiny of a powerful Jewish family- its lost opulence and forced migrations across several decades of the Twentieth century. Most interesting to me in this prize-winning biography is the author's particular sensitivity to objects: his way of caressing and respecting them, recognizing the stories embedded in them. And then placing all this in the context of his own work as ceramist, where he must fully invest himself in the creation of objects, yet let them leave his universe to meet up with other destinies.

Zen and the Art of Pottery by Kenneth Beittel, published by Weatherhill, 1989 and 2000.

I include this book on my list as something of a quaint curiosity. Beittel is the umpteenth potter to fall in love with Japan : its philosophy, aesthetics and ensuing pots. This account is modeled after Leach's famous opus, the trouble being that Leach's book was published in 1940, and this one a half-century later! And in our day and age where Design (with a capital "D") rules, it's quite unsettling to witness his wholehearted embracement of a lifestyle which continues to fuel the myth of Potter as Hippy. Isn't there a middle of the road somewhere?

The Cat Who Saw Red by Lilian Jackson Braun, published by Jove Books, NY, 1986.

One of the numerous titles in The Cat Who... series in which the reporter Jim Qwilleran solves mysteries with the help of his Siamese cats Koko and Yum-Yum. This is light fare, a bit too cute and bland for my tastes. But in this novel, the plot revolves around a secluded boarding house established in an old art center. Amongst the eccentric set of boarders, Qwill becomes interested in a couple who are potters, portrayed as delightfully shifty and suspicious! They announce their cat "Raku" (terrifyingly cute name!) has strayed, but very soon afterwards create a bright red "Living Glaze". Then a scream pierces the night, and the woman potter disappears. The husband claims she screamed because "she got her hair caught in the wheel" (major danger!) and has gone on a jaunt to Florida. But he is now producing pieces with the bright red glaze. Authentic ceramists will realize very quickly where all this is headed : the legend that a bright red glaze can only be produced from a spattering of blood in the kiln. You'll be disappointed by the flimsy descriptions of the potter's trade-- a mere nod to accurately setting the stage-- but, well, it isn't often that potters are protagonists, especially in the juicy role of villains.