I’ve grown up surrounded by my mom’s pottery. There is an infinite number of mugs in my cupboard to choose from for my morning cup of tea and a stack of slightly warped plates to match my avocado toast to. The other morning, I chose a terra cotta and soft orange plate, with a swirling pattern in the middle, and my favorite white and blue mug, which has Dr. Seuss-like, hand-painted trees on its sides.
My mom began making pottery when I was in kindergarten, after she enrolled me in classes and became interested herself. While I lacked the patience to continue throwing — a clay term, meaning to make pottery on a wheel — it became my mom’s primary hobby. Our house quickly filled with handmade mugs, plates, bowles, jars, tea pots, plant pots and many more ceramic vessels.
A few weeks ago, however, I decided to throw again, for the first time in a year. I made a mug and a small cup: The cup is dainty, about the size of my hand, with a delicate rim and a fashionable foot. The mug is more weighted, with a thick bottom and sturdy, though slightly off-center, walls. Its handle is comfortable, but not as pretty as I would like. But considering that I pulled three handles and accidentally let them dry out before I could attach them, it was my best effort.
Yesterday, I glazed the mug, dipping it in Blue Rutile and painting a running glaze on the lip called Textured Starburst. The petite cup I decided to decorate, dipping it in Majolica — an opaque white — and painting on leaves using Grass Green. I couldn’t wait to take my newborn pottery back to Berkeley with me to drink home-brewed espresso in the mornings and recline back to a hearty mug of green tea in the evenings.
Growing up with beautiful, handmade pottery has greatly influenced how I think about the objects around me. My wall decorations are a collage of vintage postcards, art gallery cards, a poster from the 2020 SF EarthGang concert and my own artwork. When I look at the walls of my room, I feel a connection to the space I inhabit. Similarly, almost all of the objects I use to eat and drink remind me of my mother’s creativity, or my own.
I stopped one day to think about the things I own. From blankets to shoes to face wash, I seem to take so much about these objects for granted. They are disposable to me, and all of the time and labor that went into making them rarely enters my mind. But when I drink water from my favorite yellow cup, with its wonky walls and spiral carvings, I feel grounded, knowing that my mom had to throw the mug, fire it, glaze it and fire it again before I could hold it in my hands. That knowledge inspires creativity within me, while also making me thankful for the creativity of those around me.
So much of what we use and consume has been mass-produced. We have no idea who made them, how much time it took or the creative process behind their creation. That is the nature of mass production: It lacks creativity in order to maximize efficiency.
I am a highly sensitive person, so the objects I surround myself with are constantly, subconsciously influencing me. If I fill my space with dull, mass-produced objects, I feel uninspired and disconnected. But if I fill my world with beautiful, handmade pieces of art, I feel creative and connected — because the art we allow into our lives is constantly communicating with us, reminding us of all the beautiful artists out there and inspiring new avenues of expression within us.
At the same time, the costs associated with making one’s own pottery are high. Access to a wheel, clay, tools, a kiln, and glaze makes it an expensive hobby, and buying handmade art is expensive for that very reason.
Art is a privilege, but it shouldn’t be. Economically, it is far more feasible to buy cheap, mass-produced objects. And many of the things I use are mass-produced: my bookshelf, my Tevas, my fairy lights, my kettle and so on. It’s unrealistic — or at the very least, challenging — to only buy handmade, vintage or thrifted items. But even a small collection helps, and having a source of creativity that I can reinvest in my space is deeply inspiring.
I once read that whatever we tell ourselves, we believe. It’s the same concept with creativity: By using my mom’s handmade pottery, hanging my paintings and buying from thrift stores and small businesses, I manifest inspiration within myself, and I establish a connection to the world around me.
Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].