Art Enables us to Find Ourselves


Art enables us to find ourselves and to lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton

When E.M. Forster wrote the prescient words ‘only connect’ in the early years of the 20th century, he foresaw the ways in which a technological revolution would happen at the expense of a deeper human connection. Modern communi-cation has never been greater, while personal isolation has never been more acute. The irony is that the more personal technology we have, the less inclined we are to actually talk to one another. There is in fact a disconnect, disconnected to a large degree from our physical world, a world we continue to abuse and too often take for granted. Going down in the train to Somerset to see Mike Dodd a few weeks back I noticed how few people were looking out of the window at the changing landscape (parched an arid yellow by the long hot summer), not even in discussion with each other. Most were absorbed by their iPads and smart phones, seemingly trapped in their own cyber space. More and more we see the world second-hand, filtered for us by Silicon Valley. Never has access to information been so easy, never have we been so separated from more direct and individual sensory experience.

mike dodd little jars Art Enables us to Find Ourselves

Thus it seems to me that the work of the potter has become more vital and relevant than ever. The acts of making and using are part of that conversation with each other and with the world which means we can link with it at a deeper level, one that involves so much. Thinking about the continuous revelation of the materials being sourced from our planet, of the way the pot evolves on the wheel, each time something different and fresh rising, of how that pot can make the everyday special (‘ordinary but with the possibility of joy’ as the late Gwyn Hanssen Pigott memorably put it). Daily acts of using can actually deepen experience. For Mike Dodd this exploration also focuses on the possibilities presented by his clays, slips and glazes, and seeing how they can offer up unexpected interactions each time. This process is nothing short of miraculous. As Mike says, rather modestly, of himself, ‘Everything is about form. All I am doing is working with glazes and trying to get the best out of them, to find something new. You experiment. Some things work. Some don’t’. On the subject of form he goes on to say:

Form is all we know, whether it is the form of pots, of words, of music, of composition (in art) or of course in all life forms. If, in the creative fields, the form is ‘good’, it can correspond to our deepest vitality and we can experience beauty or enrichment in some way if we are sensitive to that type of form. If the form is ‘bad’ we can experience ‘expiration’ rather than ‘inspiration’, so it’s the opposite of being enriched.

mike dodd jars 2 Art Enables us to Find Ourselves

It is also about that sense of connection with something wider, the chemistry and physics and geology of pottery, as well as art and aesthetics. His modesty is genuine. He sees the potter as a catalyst, an enabler. Natural processes do the rest. Mike makes you realise that you can only ever really scratch the surface with ceramics, quoting the dictum that a craftsman knows what he is doing, but an artist doesn’t, bringing to mind too the Hamada principle that you have to master and then un-master your practice, as much an unconscious as conscious happening. The art of pottery is much more about intuition, a broader exploration. It is there in both the discipline and release of form and surface, the discipline of your craft in combination with the freedom and search of your art. What W.H. Auden wrote about good poetry is equally relevant to good pottery:

The trouble today with so-many would-be artists is that they see – quite correctly, that many of the greatest works are so extraordinarily free and easy… and they think they can start off writing like that.
But that sort of grace is the end point of a long process, first of learning technique (every technique is a convention and therefore dangerous) – and then un-learning. It is much easier to learn than un-learn; and most of us will never get further than learning. But there is no other route to Greatness, even if we get stuck halfway.

mike dodd jug 3 Art Enables us to Find Ourselves

And for Mike Dodd it is also about how you can augment and enrich a ceramic lineage, how you contribute to the continuing vitality of something bigger and lasting. Mike points to another poet’s words, that of T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), recently introduced to him by a collector friend (and which echoes many of the sentiments Mike expressed in his formative article of 1974, ‘In Defence of Tradition’). Eliot points to the timeless qualities of creative shared inheritance, and goes on:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism…
…The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

mike dodd jars 2 Art Enables us to Find Ourselves

Mike (who is actually 75 this year, rather difficult to believe given his general demeanour and continually fresh outlook) has his own family lineage now, with his son Ben quickly establishing himself as a very interesting potter in his own right, continuing the ethos of his father’s work, but already with his own distinct voice and way of doing things. Mike showed me a very nice yunomi Ben had made, with the slip quickly brushed through upwards, not down, a variation Mike thought had worked well.

mike dodd jar 1 Art Enables us to Find Ourselves

I have always found Mike Dodd to be one of the most self-questioning of potters. There is a strong context for his work in his sense of environmental concern (though he would be the last person to stress this; it is implicit in what he does, not explicit), the Earth about which he is endlessly curious is also of course his source material, quite literally. This gives him an awareness and sense of responsibility, and what Mike’s work continues to convey is a sense of the wealth of the Earth’s minerals, of the raw components of his clays and glazes, the various ashes, the testing and re-testing of substances found on estuaries, of material on riverbeds which may have been washed down and refined from higher ground, from the hills and mountains. He is strong on shapes. Look at his continually fine baluster jugs and cut-sided teapots, his jars and bottles, often with faceted or fluted elaboration. But Mike remains for me primarily a glaze potter, who uses them in combination with generous slips to strengthen form, and as the best expression of what our geology can provide. There is always a sense of unity, a sort of balancing act of different elements; the extent to which overlying glazes cover the neck of a bottle, how they pool and thicken on ridges, the manner in which they trickle down or ‘bleed’ into one another. Then there is the movement and direction of combing, engraving or finger decoration across a surface, the way resist brushwork motifs enliven a piece. He often likes to add texture with impressing or brushing over, and he marks abstractly with trails of slip too, but it is the nuanced colour and varied surface of glaze, often breaking from matt to lustrous, which gives the work a particular frisson. Every strong pot becomes an event or a series of events, each object offering infinite variations and subtleties we can discover and enjoy over many years.

mike dodd potter portrait Art Enables us to Find Ourselves

Mike Dodd is good as a miniaturist too: for example his yunomi, his tiny cups (still called ‘stanleys’, after his grandson) and crisply engraved boxes condense so much of his art. Also very typical is the way slips thicken up surfaces so clay and glaze combine into something of particular opulence. His pots contradict the idea that to work in what is often called the Leach tradition implies a certain austerity of character, of purpose or style. Mike is one of the most open-handed of people and his pots can be as sensuous as any you are likely to find. They celebrate and reanimate his natural materials, and they can help us to re-engage with our world, both in the touching and in the seeing. We find ourselves again.

David Whiting A.I.C.A., F.R.S.A. is an art critic, writer and curator. He has written and edited numerous publications and exhibition catalogues, and his criticism has been translated into the French, German, Spanish, Danish and Greek languages. Books include ‘Modern British Potters and their Studios’ (2009), ‘Gordon Baldwin; Objects for a Landscape’ (2012), and ‘Robert Dawson; A Most Uncommon Man’ (2018). Whiting has been external examiner to several ceramics courses, both the BA and MA courses at Cardiff Metropoliton University and the Ceramics Diploma at the City Lit, London, and was a portfolio review panel member to Buckinghamshire New University. He is a trustee of the Anthony Shaw Collection at York Art Gallery. He is on the advisory editorial board of the Interpreting Ceramics electronic journal, and contributes to the Guardian, as well as many specialist art magazines in the UK and abroad. He is a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Redaktion Allegemeines Kunstlerlexicon, Leipzig. Whiting has organised and curated art exhibitions and co-organised symposia in both visual and literary disciplines, at venues including the Crafts Council, the London Institute Gallery, Goldmark Gallery, Galerie Besson, the Ken Stradling Collection in Bristol, Birmingham City University and the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in partnership with Wadham College. He is co-literary executor to the estate of C.Day-Lewis, former Poet Laureate, and Jill Balcon. A tutor in History of Art for many years, both in London and Oxford, Whiting is a member of the Association Internationale de Critiques d’Art, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is an honorary life member of the Leach Museum, St Ives. Whiting has broadcast on TV, has acted as an Arts Council and regular exhibition selector and given lectures at venues including the Sainsbury Centre, Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Holburne Museum, Bath, Yorkshire Museum, York, Cheltenham Art Gallery, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Further details in Who’s Who in Art ( Morven Press ).