Ithaca, N.Y. — You know those craft stores? Those sparsely decorated spaces in malls where people take their kids to play with Elmer’s Glue and construction paper?
The Potter’s Room is nothing like that.
Located in the Colonial Building downtown and with a storefront on the Commons, Tomas Black’s studio/gallery/classroom represents a vision for what a particular craft — ceramics — can mean for a community.
“The major idea is to make ceramics accessible,” Black said.
The front of the store is the hook — a small retail space where Black shows off his handmade mugs, plates and sculptures — works sure to win the admiration of aspiring ceramicists.
And then, back past the cash register, is where Black teaches anyone of any age or ability how to make beautiful and durable ceramics, just like the ones displayed in the store’s entryway.
In a recent interview with The Voice, Black emphasized that the value of ceramics is as much about the process as it is about the product. By shaping clay on a wheel (“throwing it,” in ceramics jargon) and firing one’s creations in a kiln, students learn about physics and chemistry (“centrifugal force” and “ion bonding”) as well as about their own creativity.
Black’s hope is that the pride in one’s creative abilities which comes with making ceramics will bleed over into other parts of his students’ lives, relieving stress and improving their general quality of life.
“I want to give people a place to be creative and thoughtful,” Black said, “so that they can go out into the world be creative and thoughtful in their jobs or at school or wherever they go.”
Raised on ceramics
Because he suffered from severe dyslexia growing up, Black was always unable to perform well in school. He would spend long hours after school and during school breaks in phonics courses, trying to correct what he describes as a “misfiring of synapses in his brain.”
Then, one summer when he was 10, Black’s mom sent him to a ceramics class as a reward for attending a phonics camp. As soon as he sat down at a wheel, Black was impressing his teachers.
“I just got it.” Black said. “And that was the first time that I was – in an ‘academic setting,’ so to speak – receiving praise for my abilities.”
When he was 11, Black became an apprentice for Frank Edge, a master production potter based in Leverett, Mass. During the week, Black would spend his after-school hours doing Edge’s “crappy chores” — cleaning, organizing, etc. — and on the weekend he would receive a two-hour lesson in Japanese-style wheel throwing.
“I spent close to four years making shot glass sized forms,” Black said. “Ceramics is a repetition-based practice, so the idea was that by making small objects I could make 10 times as many.”
By the end of high school Black was spending four periods a day in the ceramics studio at his high school (Amherst High in Amherst, MA), and was teaching two of those periods. After high school, Black earned his MFA in ceramics from Alfred University, and then moved back home to start his own studio. Before long, though, Black decided to migrate to Ithaca.
Black said that although the retail market for high end ceramics is not great in Ithaca, the city’s residents do seem to recognize the value of art.
‘Not considered fine art’
Black said much of the difficulty of maintaining a ceramics business has to do with how ceramics is viewed by the populous.
“Ceramics is thought of a craft – it’s not considered fine art,” Black said. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that in the modern world ceramics has been thought of in utilitarian terms. Everyone always wants to know, ‘what’s its function?’”
This attitude towards ceramics, combined with the super-abundance of functional mugs, bowls and plates, sold in places like Target and Walmart, makes high-end handmade ceramics a tough sell.
“People are so familiarized with the commercial stuff that they come in and look at my stuff and think it’s outrageous that I’m selling a mug for 25 dollars. And I say, ‘you’re right. I should be selling it for 50.’”
“People don’t realize that every mug I make requires about an hour and a half of hands-on time.”
Although consumers and businesses often like the idea of buying handmade goods from a local craftsman, their standards of quality and value have been critically shaped by their exposure to commercial ceramics. When they come to Black, they can’t help but impose these standards on him and his products.
“A business will come in and they’ll want to buy a hundred mugs and they’ll want them all to be identical. And I’m like, ‘these are handmade ceramics. They’re not all going to be identical.’
“It becomes a volume based game.”
After years of producing product at commercial scale, Black says he started to devalue his own time and skill.
“What was happening was that I’d get a big order in – say a hundred mugs – and then I’d say ‘alright, now I’m going to sit down and throw a hundred identical mugs. And then I’m going to make two hundred badges (one for each side). And then I’m going to make 100 handles.’ And then a week later it’s like, ‘I hated that.’”
Now, Black said he’s trying to transition himself towards the “art” side of the ceramics spectrum. In order to make this transition Black will have to navigate a unusual market – a market in which there is no clear delineation between “professional” and “amateur” craftsman, where there is no bright line between what is fine and what is merely useful.
“With painting, it’s pretty straightforward. You can paint a really beautiful painting or you can paint a house. Ceramics is tricky because it’s so multifaceted.”
But, Black said he doesn’t see why ceramics can’t, in the 21st Century, be rebranded as art.
“For a while it will mean catering to – I don’t want to say ‘one per centers’ – but yeah, people who have expendable cash.”
It will also mean establishing certain professional standards – certain ways of distinguishing between products which are professionally made and those that aren’t.
“I think by creating certain standards (professionally made ceramics should be microwave, dishwasher, and oven safe, for example) you’ll shrink the pool of people who are considered ‘professional,’ and that will end up creating a higher demand for ceramics in academic settings as well as in the average home.”
But, Black said, establishing professional standards doesn’t have to take away from what is so great about ceramics: its inherent accessibility.
“There’s no middle ground in the arts any more. It’s like you’re either good at it, or you’re terrible. And if you’re terrible you shouldn’t do it and if you’re good at it that’s all you should do. I think ceramics is a good way to build back the middle ground.”