Material Limitations

potters wheel

He centers the clay with a Thwack! Now the gritty hum of a potter’s wheel Sends a sheen of slick mud orbiting.

My brother has spent sixteen years Getting to know this foreign terrain, Learning the language to make signs With subtleties of palm, wrist, and thumbs.

He sponges water across the face, Leaning his body forward, bearing up Indigenous architectures in limber clay. Pulling vessels from mire, Carving breath along the materials, Pulsing fluency into earth.

He co-operates within its given Cosmos: diction’s  imprint blesses, ‘Let there be listening ‘ discovering What forms can be uncovered— He takes hold to unfold and free What dust never imagined it could be.

My brother Sam is a ceramic artist. For nearly four years now, we’ve been housemates and have spent countless hours discussing what it means to make a living as full-time artists. The two car garage has never had a car in it since Sam has lived in this house; upon moving here, he immediately converted it into his pottery and sculpture studio. Some kind of wonder comes over me when I watch Sam slap a mopey lump of gray clay onto his wheel, press it down with his body weight, and slowly raise the material up until it is transformed into a beautiful vessel.

That wonder is missing entirely when I try to do the same thing. The mopey lump just ends up a slimy, floppy version of itself in my inexperienced hands. Sam has spent nearly twenty years in conversation with his materials. He knows all the peculiar properties of his clay. However, there was a time when Sam did not know how to cooperate with it, and his sculptures would collapse under poor construction, or the pottery would turn out so heavy and cumbersome it was only good for being smushed  back into the bag to try again another day.

At this point , Sam’s knowledge of what clay can and can’t do has absorbed deep into his soul. I’ve seen him craft beauty and joy from clay that I could not have imagined possible.  As a craftsman gaining mastery in his medium, Sam can detect potential where I see none. Not only that, but because Sam knows the properties of his materials so well, he can chart a path that cooperates with the limitations of those materials to actually achieve that potential, whether it’s a coffee mug or a sculpture of a dragon cheerfully reading a book to a child.

Sam knows not to leave the bag of clay open on a summer day, because the clay will dry out and be unusable. If relationships are anything like sculptures, meant to communicate beautiful artistic intention, then I can’t just lie to my friends. That would destroy trust. The clay would dry out; the friendship dry up. When I read the Ten Commandments in this light, they become the wisdom of a Great Craftsman to his art students. This is how people work—if you steal from your friend, the vessel of friendship you’re both attempting to shape on the potter’s wheel will collapse as trust is lost between you. If you commit adultery, the beautiful delicate sculpture of marriage you’ve both worked so hard to craft will be slammed against the concrete floor. Why would you expect anything other than its destruction?

If God is a great artist, and his commands are actually communicating the nature of the materials, then learning those properties will open up a wide world of creativity among people, enabling us to work together wisely, beautifully. Jazz helps me think about this. Jazz works because there is a structural undergirding so stable that it allows for expansive improvisation. Jazz musicians are some of the most deeply aware of the complex rules of music and the peculiar limitations of their medium, so it may seem like a paradox that they are famous for their sense of the vast creative possibilities those limiting structures provide. Structure begets elaboration.

Another fascinating quality that master artists bring alongside improvisation is resourcefulness, especially with regard to failure. Herbie Hancock, a jazz keyboardist, tells a story about a time he was in Miles Davis’ band. Herbie played a chord that was miserably wrong. Miles, without missing a beat, found a way to salvage the discord and incorporate it for the good of the overall composition. Herbie’s chord really was a deviation from the tune, but Miles was so well acquainted with the properties of music, that he instantly knew how to redeem that wayward chord so that the tune still arrived at the musical destination he had in mind as the band leader.

Now is this creative process I’m describing suggesting a form of messiah complex? Is the artist some kind of spiritual super-hero? No, when I get to that place in my head, it’s usually because I’m coping poorly, since human pride is only masked insecurity.  Sam’s sculptures and my songs are not going to save anyone’s eternal soul; only the work of Jesus can do that. Still I can’t help but ask, is the life of the Trinity (including the Cross) the Tune, and we are the invited to riff on it?

God has invited us to play our part in His work in this world. We’ve seen the Master carry the Cross that saves, now we carry our crosses, which point back to Jesus. This is a responsive, creative, and personal process. But however deeply personal it may be, it’s no less a deeply integrated work. Personas may exist outside of community, but persons die there.

So, when I talk about co-operating with given materials, I mean we listen and discover, like my brother Sam has spent twenty years doing with clay. If “thus saith the Lord” means anything, it means God has opened his mouth and the prophets heard from someone outside of themselves. So we listen together.  We grow in wisdom as good craftsmen in relationship with others who are working at their craft. Sometimes I am the clay you shape, sometimes you are the clay I shape, always we are being shaped ultimately by God. We submit to one another and finally to Him in love, for He has loved us first. He has incorporated us into his Corpus, his Body, which is where we creatively and responsibly cultivate our gifts together.

At the heart of reality is a loving collaboration amongst the members of the Trinity, and as God’s image bearers, now reincorporated through the Gospel, we have been called up into the dance of new creation. This is jazz, y’all. This planet is a spinning potter’s wheel. This cosmos is the writer’s desk. The Great Craftsman is co-operating with the materials, breathing life into clay. We are in the band, so to speak, and we are learning our instruments and picking up on the tune, gaining fluency. We are invited to trust the structure of these gifted limitations and responsively cooperate, learning the material, in order to create the most elaborate and expansive multi-media piece of art ever to exist. The only performance hall large enough to properly showcase that final expression will be the ever-expanding universe itself upon the endless stage of eternity.

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