Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Right Tools Make the Job Easy

I learned to ski in the late ‘60s on rented wooden skis with cable bindings and square-toed lace-up boots. The first skis I owned were metal and longer than my arm’s reach above me; my boots were still lace-ups, and I skied for years with that system. Eventually I rented new, short skis and step-in boots--and discovered that miraculously I could parallel beautifully and go down difficult slopes with ease. Wow! The lesson I learned that day? THE RIGHT TOOLS MAKE THE JOB EASY.

But a second, hidden lesson also lay behind my newfound ease in skiing: IF THE JOB CHANGES, THE OLD TOOLS MAY NOT STILL BE THE RIGHT TOOLS. In powder snow on ungroomed trails, long skis buoy you up by virtue of having more surface area--better than short skis. But short skis make it a heck of a lot easier navigating modern, mogul-ridden, well-packed, steep slopes. As packing more people onto a smaller skiing surface area became ever more profitable for ski resorts, skiing changed (surprise!) from traversing or “cross-country” to downhill; and the tools changed to manage the new job better. Skis got shorter.

The potter’s wheel is an ancient tool; and though there are many variants in many lands the basic kickwheel hasn’t changed much. However, the “job” of pottery has changed significantly, so--is the old tool still the right tool for the new job? Today, if you want a utility mug or bowl or cheap dinner set you can go to a superstore and get mass-produced stuff, for pocket change. No studio potter can compete with that! Like the local cobbler, blacksmith, and tailor, the potter who once made containers for the local villagers is obsolete. The rise of the electric potter’s wheel reflects an attempt to “stay viable” in the craft. Is an electric wheel the right wheel for the job now?

That depends on what the new job of potters is. Since making a living selling the neighbors their dinner sets is gone, potters have turned in one of two directions. On one hand, they gear up to make vast quantities of pots--”production pottery”--which they sell at low piece-rates, often to others who resell their wares (since these potters are so busy throwing and firing, they have no time to run their own storefronts, too). Some potters do well becoming part of this mass-production drive, staying ahead of Wal-Mart by adding some little signature “extra” that costs little time to throw in, and gives them brand recognition.

On the other hand some potters knock at the tightly-closed doors of the art world. They create fewer pieces--because more of their time is spent selling themselves and their work in the ferocious arena of art galleries--but often, these pieces are more outrageous, less functional, more dependent on the “look” of glazes, more dependent on fashion (“Sorry, but I can’t sell brown pots anymore; bring me mauve ones this year and we’ll talk”) than traditional pots. These potters worry about their portfolios and resumes; they fight endlessly to get their work shown in glossy magazines and in the “best” galleries.

Now, you may detect that I dislike both of these alternatives. I do, and I’ll explain what’s happened to me in another chapter. As for the electric wheel being better than a kickwheel for the potter of the new age, consider: the electric wheel allows the potter to make more pots in less time; it saves his energy kicking, so (theoretically) he can spend longer hours sitting at the wheel making more pots. In addition, the electric wheel also allows one to make larger pots more easily--and for the art world, the larger the better (rich people have huge houses, and a six-foot pot in the foyer is just right). So far, both directions of the new age of pottery are well-served by the new tool.

But electric wheels are costly. I made my first kickwheel with $75--for lumber, a maple cheeseboard wheel head, a steel wheel shaft, and Volkswagen wheel bearings to spin the plywood flywheel and the wheel head. At the time, an electric wheel cost more than $300--cash I didn’t have.

Instead of removing each piece from a wooden wheel head after it’s thrown--a process requiring delicate touch--an electric wheel sports a metal wheel head. This head doesn’t warp over time, but is murder on the fingernails and the sides of your hands--so it requires a flat wooden or plaster disc called a “bat” to be anchored to the metal head; the pot is thrown on the bat instead, and then the whole bat-with-pot is removed to dry. Less requirement for finesse in removing the piece. More room needed in the potter’s studio for the bats to sit side by side while drying, and for storing them between uses. More money required to buy the bats in the first place. More money must be charged the customer, to cover costs of the larger studio and the “necessary” equipment.

Pueblo Indians reading this must be laughing their heads off by now. They use no wheel, no fancy glaze, no fancy kilns. Their work is slow, patient, and lovely. Almost as nice as the museum pieces of their forefathers...

Electric wheels make a constant annoying hum. The studio must have electricity to run them. These wheels force you to sit, unmoving, in one position for hours (kickwheels force you to exercise, breathe, and to sit back occasionally to take a good look at your work). Dave Stewart said he could spend more time sitting on a kickwheel, enjoying his work, than he ever could on an electric wheel. He felt “machine-ized” by the electric wheel, and they made his back ache and his ass fall asleep. He liked the "flow" of work on a kickwheel. And I agree with him very much.

If you want to compete with the mass-production pottery industry, then by all means an electric wheel is the way to go; but expect dehumanization by your tool as well as by your goal. If you want to compete in the “art” world by throwing huge vessels, an electric wheel will require less strength in your legs and possibly less throwing time on your part. It’s a firm “maybe.” If you work in a noisy environment, you won’t appreciate a kickwheel anyway.

But if you want to hear the birds, think about what you’re doing as you’re doing it, oxygenate your lungs while you work, and feel the satisfaction of tiredness at the end of a working day, then a kickwheel is for you.

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