Clay and Dough

From a loaf of bread to a loaf of clay

The most important aspect, in relation to the expression of any craft, is the attitude with which it is practiced. This is, and definitely has been, the common element in my personal experience in the crafts of both bread and ceramic-making.


Certain strict attitudes toward the process, materials, tools, and the spirit of place, (the bakery), were instilled during my time as an apprentice. These were imposed with a strong sense of discipline, and one that was enforced by an authority based on knowledge, and later earned with practice and trust. This was allowed to turn or develop slowly into ‘self-discipline’.


I carried the disciplines from one craft into the other without any difficulty because the manipulation--forming and baking dough and clay are very similar--and based on the same premise, which is learning the basics first then followed by the development of those skills to the point where they became a personal expression. Skills are first learned when entering the craft through a school, an apprenticeship, or a workshop situation.


In my case there was a specialised school combined with practical learning experience. Yes, an old-fashioned apprenticeship. Every move I made and skill I learned was carefully monitored and appraised until the particular authority deemed it good enough. This careful process of learning and acquiring skills encouraged the steady development of a professional approach towards the materials, tools, and working space. With the successful development of these skills and attitudes, came more responsibility, which meant more ownership.


Within the confines of their material restrictions, the crafts of bread and ceramic making must have plenty of room for personal expression. The development of a personal expression of any craft can only come about once the basic skill structure is in place. Not only in place, but preferably transcended. Transcending a skill means to know it to such an extent that it does not place any restrictions upon the practitioner. The maker has become liberated from the limitations of emerging skills, and is now free to make the choices of what to do with them. When this transcendence of the basic and necessary skills occurs, it is a natural development for the maker to make the process his very own--to make it an expression of his own particular spirit; to place a personal stamp on it; to find one’s language in it, and express it.

When the authorities deemed that I had an acceptable grasp of the basic skills, a three year period of working in three different bakeries followed, and this gave me the experience of working under the supervision of three masters of the craft, and learn about their particular specialties. After satisfactorily completing this time, I was ready to start my own bakery, create my own specialities, and be my own man.


Freedom, as expressed in the baking and ceramic process, in itself and like all freedom, is shapeless and without form and as such does not work. However, through practice, self- discipline and responsibility we are able to give this ‘freedom’ a shape, our own shape, and thus make it work for us. Within the boundaries of the material, we will feel free in our chosen field. It is interesting to note here that the creative process cannot be restricted by any material.


I started my ‘Making’ life by learning the craft of bread-making and from there moved into the craft of ceramic-making. In the first, the end product was a loaf of bread, in the second the process started with a loaf--a loaf of clay.


There are, of course, some differences between the crafts of bread and ceramic-making, one of which is the way society views and accepts the finished work.


My reason for moving from one craft to the other had to do with ‘freedom of expression’. At the time, the craft of bread-making was more restrictive than that of ceramic-making. To a large extent this was a result of the expectation of the public, who wanted the same fresh loaf of bread each and every day. The repetitive nature of this kind of work, combined with the unnaturally early hours involved became oppressive. For me there existed an element of drudgery: a spirit killer.


I realise that the process of both bread and ceramic-making have the same creative potential. However, at the time I practiced bread-making, the food consciousness of Australia had not moved much beyond ‘the-white-loaf’ expression. At this time, also, my creative spirit, developed and nurtured within the rich tradition and variety of European bread-making, became more and more frustrated because it was unable to express itself fully.


The practice of ceramics, on the other hand, offered a much larger space for the expression of my creativity. I felt I owed it to myself to move into a field where I could be as creative as possible. I believe that the more one allows the creative spirit to manifest, the more one is partaking in life. Life expressed creatively. Life creating itself. Being a-life.

The practice of each and every craft has the potential to be special. It also has the potential to be magic. Over the years of practice, I have wondered how that quality is achieved. What is the formula?


Taking things for granted is one of the enemies of the creative spirit and the development of ‘specialness’. In most cases we take our fresh daily loaf of bread for granted. By the repetitive nature of this purchase, we have been lulled into the belief that this is a normal expectation. We have forgotten that it is a privilege. That it is special. Thus, as soon as ‘For Granted’ arrives, the concepts of ‘Special’ and ‘Magic’ disappear. That ‘special loaf’ becomes ‘just a loaf’.


Unfortunately there is, in our culture, far more room for the expression of specialness in the field of ceramics then that of bread-making. Probably because ceramic-making isn’t related to our daily expectations and therefore much more space is allowed for experimentation and expression. A much larger play space is available. I love that space.


Another big difference is that ceramics are placed on a plinth which bestows it with ‘attention’, which is the magic ingredient for specialness. Yet, after working in both occupations, I see just as much beauty in a loaf of bread.


Imagine, a loaf of bread on a plinth!


Although artistic expression is possible in both disciplines, it seems easier in one than the other. We can choose the one that suits our particular spirit. My engagement with bread- making was chosen by my elders, my environment, and social circumstance. My engagement with ceramic making came about because I exercised my freedom of choice and a strong need to be creative.


To learn more about Petrus Spronk, please visit his blog, www.petrusspronk.blogspot.com.  Or read Poet of Clay here on handeyemagazine.com.

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