Summer Issue 2021
Of Water & Stone: A Feminist Approach to Pottery and Community-Building
By Laura Beth Fox-Ezell
If you ask most folks what they think of when a potters’ wheel is mentioned, they’ll recall the iconic scene from the movie Ghost. What’s interesting about this cultural representation is that it highlights a woman who is a professional potter and utilizes a wheel as the main tool in her craft. Traditionally, the art of wheel-thrown pottery has been a male-dominated trade; however, in recent years, these boundaries have been challenged and expanded. Since the late 2010s, I have witnessed the surge of women’s representation in pottery across social media platforms, most notably Instagram. Contemporary potters such as audballofclay, huskmilkpottery, or potterywitch may be familiar to some readers.
What freedom there is in knowing that everyone matters, and there is room for everyone to succeed. - Michelle Howell
When I first began my informal pottery education, I realized the connections between gender and pottery run deep. Perhaps predictably, women have not always been behind the wheel when creating pottery. In his research on pottery in ancient Northern Mesopotamia, Neubauer Graduate Fellow Akiva Sanders posits that men alone were allowed the title of “potter” and dominated the art of wheel-throwing. In contrast, women were either steered-towards or mentored-in “hand-building.” Hand-built pottery is crafted by rolling out slabs of clay and arranging the pieces into a final form. One example of hand-building is “coiling,” which involves rolling long ropes of clay and assembling them in a circular motion to construct a vessel.
Relatedly, folklorist Ruth Bunzel’s documentation of southwestern Native American pottery making in the 1920s reveals that Pueblo women largely favored hand-building and hand-painting techniques that were passed down generationally. Indigenous potters displayed a strong matriarchal tradition of instruction and mentorship. The “storyteller” figures created by Helen Cordero, a potter from Cochití Pueblo in New Mexico, are a prime example of this tradition. Cordero’s personal spin on the classic “Singing Mother” motif centered the gaze on her grandfather, a well-known storyteller, surrounded by small children. Cordero’s figurines became so popular that she began teaching family members how to create storytellers of their own.
When the feminist art movement swept the United States in the 1970s, more women took up wheel throwing and used their craft to defy gender norms beyond the potter’s wheel. In her thesis “Women, Art, and Community: A Proposal for a Non-Profit Pottery Program in Appalachia” (2008), scholar Lahla Deakins explains that ceramic artists like Betty Woodman used “conventional functional forms such as pitchers and vases to make unconventional artistic statements and sculptural forms” (65). This work was meant to capture the tension of domestic life: women making the plates rather than the dinner.
Examples like these exist throughout pottery’s history—of women carving out their own space to express their particular vision of ceramic arts and leading the way for others to follow. At the center of this history is a sense of community. For centuries, potters have learned from one another, shared their successes and failures, and trained new generations of artists.
Everything I need is already within me. I have everything I need. - Dr. Lacretia Dye
I decided I wanted to learn how to throw pottery during a middle school art class for homeschoolers in the early 2000s. The class was held in the cafeteria of a Baptist church in Kentucky and was my first experience working with clay that wasn’t bright orange or pink Sculpey Air-Dry from Hobby Lobby. I was drawn immediately to the texture of the clay. The slow process of gradually molding the clay into my desired shape had a soothing effect on my adolescent brain. We were tasked with sculpting a head, and I remember becoming obsessive over the hair lines, eyes, and nose of my piece. For half an hour, I worried about nothing except the project in front of me. The next week we moved on to acrylic paints, and I quickly forgot how much I thought I loved art.
I wouldn’t touch clay again until I was a 22 year-old graduate student working full-time at the public library. I spent too many hours working with my brain and with people. I needed an opportunity to simply work with my hands. I believe this desire for solitude and self-expression is a common thread that intertwines potters throughout the ages. Potters crave a meditative state that working with clay can satisfy. I remembered the joy of my middle school experience and enrolled in a community education pottery class to pursue this craft once more. The class was held at The Pots Place, a studio in downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky. My instructor, Cutivetti Dye, provided lessons to several community members of all ages. His goal for us was to create something of which we were proud and to listen to our own creative intuition. His mentorship and guidance helped me understand the importance of paying attention to what brought me joy in my craft.
When students first begin to study pottery, they are frequently taught how to hand-build with clay before spending time on the potters’ wheel. During the early stages of my pottery journey, I spent weeks hand building vases, trays, mugs, and cups before I was allowed to touch the potters’ wheel. I had so much built-up anticipation for this experience that I was an emotional wreck when I discovered how difficult it was to throw clay. Centering clay on a wheel requires so much upper arm strength and muscle memory that I just didn’t have yet. It also requires hours of practice to master, which was a daunting realization for a busy grad student!
It wasn’t until my partner, Benjamin Fox-Ezell, a fine woodworker in his own right, surprised me with my own wheel for my birthday that I truly felt like I could spend the necessary time required to master this craft. The “mud room” in our home quickly lived up to its name as the space transformed into a make-shift pottery studio. Benjamin’s woodworking skills were put to good use building shelves that lined the walls of the room to hold my ceramic pieces in their various stages of life. During my first year throwing pottery at home, I spent endless hours getting to know my body and how it worked best with the wheel. This process was a practice in trial, error, patience, and, ultimately, muscle memory. I sought mentorship from potters in my community and read books on how to throw clay until I felt confident and steady with producing my own work. Since then, I feel like I’ve moved into a creative rhythm that works in tandem with my day job. I set aside hours during the week to focus on pottery and produce a small batch of work every other month or so. I enjoy working at a slower pace to preserve my love and creativity for throwing.
You deserve the love you so freely give to others. - Jenna Settle
Working in pottery has since connected me to new friends, mentors, and allies. For example, the women at Mid South Ceramic Supply in Nashville, Tennessee have single handedly talked me through pottery crises, glazing and firing techniques, sourcing ceramic supplies, and equipment repairs. Potters in my local community such as Cutivetti Dye (The Pots Place), Mitchell and Natalie Rickman (Rickman Pottery), Stacie Barton (Black Rabbit Pottery), Kate Harris (Kate Makes Pots), Zys West (Zys West Art), and Ryan Smith (True Fables Pottery), Kathy Woodword, Ali Townsend, and Dr. Erika Brady have helped me every step of the way by allowing me to fire pots in their kilns, trading tried and true techniques, or by simply encouraging and celebrating my work. When Warren County Public Library built their Idea Lab makerspace and provided patrons with access to pottery wheels, clay, glaze, and kiln firings, it became an intimate local hub for potters to create and learn from one another. The longstanding tradition of community support and guidance within the world of pottery still remains.
Through my work, I’ve been inspired to instigate slow, cultural change by presenting women’s bodies and words through utilitarian ceramic vessels. I am interested in exploring how the celebration of women’s voices in wheel-thrown pottery and ceramic arts can inspire and benefit others. So often, women’s bodies are viewed as objects. In turn, I find it ironic that we then create our own vessels out of Mother Earth’s clay. The process of firing each piece so it hardens to stone is symbolic of the strength and power women inherently possess.
In 2019, I was awarded an Artist Enrichment Grant by the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW) to create the “Kentucky Women of Water and Stone” project. KFW is an organization that supports positive social change through feminist art. I was inspired to develop this project and pursue funding after witnessing Leslie Nichols’ “In Her Words” exhibit at the Downing Museum. The exhibit featured portraits of women created by using stamps of their own words. The combination of women’s voices and art made a powerful impression, and I began to incorporate the use of stamps on my pieces as well. My hope is that I can continue my mission of raising the voices of women who are actively working to create safer and more just communities. The words on these vessels are sourced from interviews with local leaders, both seen and unseen, in my immediate community.
Self love is a symptom of social justice; what tree can bear fruit in a forest on fire? - Amelia Gramling
Since creating this body of work, I have continued to design utilitarian-feminist pottery. My intention is to raise awareness and support organizations that engage in boots-on-the-ground social justice work in the Commonwealth. I love constructing pottery that can be used or seen daily in order to encourage moments of silence, peace, or contemplation. So far, my designs have benefited Hope Harbor, KY Health Justice Network, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Louisville Community Bail Fund.
I hope that by sharing my story I can encourage and inspire readers to explore their own unique voices in whatever ways that serve them best. Women’s representation in the realm of pottery has taught me that opportunities for a wider range of voices leads to more innovation, inclusion, and growth. It has been empowering to watch potters of all gender identities navigate their craft, proudly display their work, uplift each other, and learn from one another. I’m excited to see what future potters throw next.
Bunzel, Ruth L. 1972. The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Deakins, Lahla K. 2008. Women, Art, and Community: A Proposal for a Non-Profit Pottery Program in Appalachia. Thesis. East Tennessee State University.
Sanders, Akiva. 2014. Fingerprints and the Organization of the Ceramic Industry Over Time at Tell Leilan Gender and the State in Northern Mesopotamia during the Early and Middle Bronze Age. Thesis. University of Pennsylvania.
Laura Beth Fox-Ezell is a potter who specializes in wheel-thrown, utilitarian, and feminist ceramics. She resides in Auburn, Kentucky with her partner, Benjamin, her two dogs, Pippa and Willie, and cat, Shakti. You can find more of her work at www.ofwoodandclay.square.site or @ofwoodandclay on Facebook and Instagram.