The Glow of Life | Mike Dodd


I was sufficiently moved to make the radical change from the worthy study of medicine to the making of pots.

I’ve always had an interest in words: where they come from, how they are used and so on. So, back in the ‘80s, whilst driving into Carlisle to start my days teaching at the Art College, I was thinking about how to inspire, excite, or enthuse a particularly unresponsive bunch of students. I knew that the word inspiration originally derived from breathing, literally ‘to draw in breath’. All of us, I’m sure, can recall moments when, on seeing a range of mountains for the first time or a stunning sunset or a birth (or a pot even), we, involuntarily, drew in breath. We inspired: we were inspired. While I was mulling this over, I drove past a municipal building designed in the ‘60s, now used as part of the local council offices – an ugly, ill-conceived piece of architecture. I became aware that my chest visibly subsided as I passed. I had expired – not in the usual sense of the word – my breath had been expelled. Why was there not a word in the English language that expressed this opposite of inspiration, since clearly the body had understood?(There is the word ‘expiration’, but which relates more often to dying, or coming to an end). Expiration, that which devitalises, that which literally depresses, that which subtly, imperceptibly, and insidiously deflates the spirit. Particularly in urban environments, we are surrounded by much that is ugly, much that is neutral, much that is expirational. Where in a modern shopping centre is there much to be found that can rouse or enrich?

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Where then do we look for uplifting experiences –nourishment for the heart and mind? In Nature, certainly, and in the Arts: theatre, music, painting, architecture, pottery, sculpture, literature, and so on. Given that each one of us is open to some of these arts, the communication we receive, at least at first, tends to be felt in the gut, bypassing the intellect. It is real, it is felt, it is experienced. The heart is engaged, not the mind. I am moved, I feel. Later, maybe, the intellect describes or explains.

In the introduction to my book An Autobiography of Sorts, I wrote, ‘I want qualities which pierce deep into feeling and evoke a sense of interconnectedness and love telling the same story in many different ways. Pots are not just functional or non-functional. That’s too simplistic. For me, at any rate, their function is firstly to enrich, to keep alive a sense of beauty, to touch feeling as a counter or balance to reason. Secondly, as probably the most tactile of all the crafts, not to be usable would deny the intimacy necessary for ‘presence’ to emerge in everyday use.’ And if not use, then at the very least close acquaintance.

The problem for education is how does it awaken, enthuse, get through to and sensitise when the overwhelming bias is towards the factual and the descriptive? It is heavily weighted to that which can be measured, marked, and recorded. In our insistence on measurement, are we not missing the ‘spiritual’ aspects of our being? I use the word spiritual not in its religious sense, not barnacled with moral considerations, but more in the sense of our natural spirit, our love of someone or something, our enthusiasm for, our excitement in A, B, or C.

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The word education derives from the Latin ‘educare’: literally to lead or draw out, as with nurturing a seed from the ground. Notwithstanding the need to teach language, mathematics, and culture, the prime aim was to discover that which was already within each individual to find. Modern education is more akin to inducation – to cram in, to coerce, to inculcate, not for the betterment of a consciousness, not for the purposes of nurturing a young mind to be kind, to be sensitive, to question and to think, but for the acquisition of a job. Gradually quantifications are taking the place of qualifications. And the consequences? Perhaps it is no wonder that there is progressive disconnection from the real world of how to relate, how to respond, and how to feel in ways which would seed a healthier society.

Of course we know that none of this elusive, right-brained, educationally side-lined, intuitive ‘feeling’ stuff is recordable, measurable, or rationally verifiable. Why? Because it’s us in relationship. It’s us being profoundly communicated to through many forms of art, through Nature and through people.

In relation to pots, Michael Cardew in Pioneer Pottery expressed this beautifully. ‘When a potter not only knows his job but delights in it, when technique and inspiration become identified, the glow of life will begin to appear in his pots. Nobody can say in rational terms exactly what this glowing consists of, or how the inanimate can be capable of transmitting life from the maker to the user, but it is a fact of common experience.’ As a young man, I was fortunate to be open to this ‘glow of life’ in the work of Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, Richard Batterham, and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie. I was sufficiently moved to make the radical change from the worthy study of medicine to the making of pots. A passion had been awakened that could not be ignored. It became my life’s work.

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My understanding of the creative process became clearer when I began to think about how we learn. Is there a distinction between intellectual understanding and looking? The former we have already touched on: that is, it is knowledge that is factual, measurable and recordable. An additive and cumulative process which is retrievable through time. It has a focus; it is goal-orientated.

Learning through looking, however, turns out to be the complete opposite. We all do it, but it is much less obvious and it is not taught (except perhaps in some forms of meditation) and I’ve never come across any literature that describes it.

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I’m on the potter’s wheel – I’m throwing a bowl. It’s a new form and I’m uncertain how to finish the rim. So I watch, I look. I keep making small changes and I wait for the moment when something inside says ‘stop, that’s close’. So, I stop: it’s the best I can do in that moment. The process is not additive, it’s subtractive. Not this, not that. It is goal-orientated in the wider sense of wanting to communicate the love of what one does to others, but in the actual process of looking the mind is unfocused and relaxed because it doesn’t know where it is going – it doesn’t know the way until that inner voice says ‘stop, that’s close’. The choice that arises is in the immediacy of now, not time-based, not measurable. In that looking, aliveness takes over and, to the extent that one can step aside, it chooses that which is most alive, echoing Thomas Merton when he said that ‘to the extent that we get out of the way, do we know truth’, or Cézanne, who exclaimed one day whilst painting outside ‘I wish I wasn’t here’, or Shoji Hamada, who wished ‘to lose his tail’, a peculiarly Japanese way of saying the same thing. It is this aliveness, encapsulated in form, that communicates to the onlooker. Form is all we know. And it is through form that we can pass onto one another something of that immense, mysterious, immeasurable, and complex vitality of which we are ourselves an expression – Life.

Mike Dodd