Rolled Rims or Pottery Semiotics 101

By Robert | 6th May 2021


When throwing bowls, I mostly `roll’ my rims. I like the way folding the top back on itself, inside to outside, finishes the top of a pot. I enjoy the little bit of fiddle on the third or fourth pull after the ball of clay has been centred and the well sunk and opened up. To me, that fat, round rim looks solid, somehow inviting you to pick the pot up. To say `I intend to be used.’

I was thinking about this when looking for outlets for my work. In the process I’ve discovered a whole new field of semiotics that would have made those fancy French philosophers of the 1980s go all gooey with delight. It’s the study of rims on bowls.

It seems, places that identify as galleries like to have a few large bowls scattered around. They’re usually trumpet forms – narrow bases, wide openings – with thin rims. The great God of such things was, of course, she-who can-do-no-wrong, Lucie Rie.

Great potter though she was, Rie never made a pot you would want to use in the kitchen or put in a washing up machine. Hers were works of art. They were pots so beautiful I doubt there has ever been a potter who didn’t want to make bowls like Lucie’s at some point. But you will look for a rolled rim in vain. Not in Rie’s work and, try as I might, I can’t find any at the fancier end of the art-shop market.

Unless they happen to be selling pots by the late great Michael Casson that is. He used them on his work in the 1970s and 80s and he taught the technique when he kicked off his first throwing lesson when I was at Harrow College of Art and Technology in the early 70s. He had only just given up his role as head of the pottery department and the course was still about making functional ware. As a fat, rolled rim makes it possible to take steaming casseroles out of an AGA with oven gloves on it’s no surprise that such things are part of the stock in trade of Harrow alumni. Although, in all honesty, a Michael Cass bowl was unlikely to see much action in the oven or kitchen sink. His pots were often too big and I suspect that his prices were too high. Nonetheless, that was the aesthetic.


So, there you have it. A rim is not just a way of resolving the place where the exterior and interior meet. Or the random finish. That rim says something important about how its pot is to be used. Is it a working pot or a purely decorative piece? In other words, is it art or craft? Which, I suppose, bring in things like class and status but as I’m happy to be a potter I don’t think I’ll go there. Although it might be something to think about next time we all get locked down….

On Making Flowerpots

By Robert | 9th April 2021
Terracotta flowerpots – made with pleasure.

Lockdown was ending, spring was springing and the wall out of the kitchen window was looking grim. The Garden design Committee (AKA my wife and I) decided it needed some pots with herbs and flowers hung on it to bring a little extra visual pleasure into our lives.
So, I dug out a bag of smooth terracotta I’d bought from Ceramatech, up in Tottenham (N. London), hauled it to The Kiln Rooms in Peckham Rye (S. London) and got to work.
It was old fashioned fun.
That bag of terracotta had been around for some time and clay just gets better and better with age, so it was a potter’s dream to use. Also, those pots were for a garden, our garden. It’s an informal space and as such invites pots that reflect that informality. That meant that I could throw with a speed and a looseness I seldom allow myself. Those flowerpots have fat rolled rims at the tops and a little extra heft. They’re flowerpots not coffee cups. They need to be robust. So, one or two fewer pulls than usual and the occasional throwing ring doesn’t hurt. Though I say it myself I liked them.
Which is as it should be. If you don’t like your own work why should anyone else give it space or time. And for me that was what it was all about. Yes, I like what I do, and I like making pots but when I sat down at the wheel the other day I remembered something important. That one of the reasons I became a potter was because I enjoyed the simple act of throwing.
Looking at those pots now, hanging on the wall in two rows, it seems to me that they’re pretty good. But then, they were made with, and for, pleasure and I can’t help feeling that that’s a good genesis for anything. Make with pleasure and it will feel and look good. It really is a simple as that.

4. Being Positive

By Robert | 19th December 2020

(I wrote this as one of four essays back in 2015. Some of the data will have changed but my sentiments remain just as crochety. And, of course, I’ve largely stopped working as a freelance journalist and gone back to making pots, which may or may not be meaningful – who knows.)

I’ve said some hard things now and then about some of the attitudes to dyslexia perpetrated by well meaning and decent people. So, just for once, I’ll be positive.

Firstly, in the course of my educational career I met some truly wonderful people. Looking back on it I don’t think any of them were trained in any significant way, certainly not as far as dyslexia was concerned. But then, 50 and more years ago although the term `dyslexia’ was known and the condition was being addressed there wasn’t much knowledge or training available. The result was that the thing that distinguished those teachers was their ability to recognise my struggles and respond to my individual needs. Bless them all.

Secondly, there is now really good information out there. (Even if some of it comes with a dose of patronising twoddle. For which please see other postings.) The British Dyslexia Association (www.bdadyslexia.org.uk) is worth its weight in gold. Also, I recently came across `Dyslexia FAQ – What it is and what to do to help‎’ (www.speld-sa.org.au). It was clear, simple to navigate and spoke sense. I’m sure everyone will find their own sites and places for help. If they work for you they’re good, no matter what anyone else says.

Thirdly, God bless computers. Without that first PC, bought for me by my partner, I doubt I would ever have got a degree and a masters. There were no spell checkers back then (like many dyslexics before me I relied on the good will of my partner) but it enabled me to write muddled text and then organise it using cut and paste techniques. From there I was able to move into my career as a freelance journalist. I could never work as a staffer due to my rubbish subbing skills, but I could freelancer, which I did for 18 years.

Lastly, five years after writing the above I can honestly say that all those years of working from home are finally paying off. When all the office workers were finding it tough to be sent home during lockdown I was in my element. And so I suspect were many of my fraternity. Which has to be some kind of silver lining.

3. Reading a Dyslexia List

By Robert | 19th December 2020

(I wrote this as one of four essays back in 2015. Some of the data will have changed but my sentiments remain just as crochety. And, of course, I’ve largely stopped working as a freelance journalist and gone back to making pots, which may or may not be meaningful – who knows.)

Visit http://www.dyslexia.com/famous.htm and you will find: Famous People with the Gift of Dyslexia. It’s an impressive list. It makes the point that there are lots of dyslexics out there, some of them very successful. But, as about 10% of the population is dyslexic that is as it should be. Also, that so far as these people are concerned it’s not a shameful secret. (That said, quite a few of them are dead and wouldn’t have been familiar with the word anyway.) However, while this list neglects to mention the 40% of the population in prison (not famous enough) and Adolph Hitler (who wants him on their list?) what makes it more interesting than other lists of its kind is that it places the famous dyslexics in their job categories, so it’s possible to get a sense of where they congregate.

As dyslexia influences the way the world is perceived and is supposed to make dyslexics predisposed towards careers in art and design you might expect to find artists topping this list. Wrong – only 15 names! Yes, they have both Leonards and Picasso on their side, but the art team shares third place with the scientist. It is the Writers and journalists, with 27 names, who come first followed by Actors, with 20 names.
At the time of writing (28th October 2015) the numbers look like this:
Writers and Journalists 27
Actors 20
Artists and designers 15
Scientists 15
Entrepreneurs 14
Athletes 10
Politicians 08
Musicians and vocalists 06
Law 03
Physicians & Surgeons 02
War Heroes 01

It made me think. For a start, I refuse to believe that that great army of dyslexics, 10% of the population going back to the birth of time, can only muster one war hero. What seems more likely is that dyslexics channel themselves into jobs where they won’t have to be challenged by their weaknesses on a daily basis. Traditionally, armies had lots of jobs that didn’t involve writing so perhaps dyslexia just wasn’t noteworthy. (It’s only a guess but without evidence what else can you do?) That may change, friends tell me that even in the army literacy is increasingly important.

Going on up the list you have 2 medics and 3 lawyers, jobs that are heavy on the traditional weaknesses of accurate reading and writing (don’t worry I’m getting to the writers) and also have stringent entry requirements. They tend to demand the kind of consistently good exam grades that many find difficult to achieve as well as good memories and information retrieval skills. So no surprises there.

What is more surprising to me is that the musicians and vocalists can only muster six names, especially as there are so many actors and some of them will also be vocalist. There will be issues with reading music as there will be with losing your place on the page and possibly with instructions. I can’t help wondering where dyslexic musicians are to be found in greater numbers. Is it amongst the jazzers with their greater emphasis on improvisation or amongst the classical players with their more rigid codes of playing behaviour? Someone out there must have researched it.

Moving on through the politicians (who knows what it takes to become one?) and the athletes and you get to what seems at first glance to be a collection of people engaged in creative activities, be they making paintings or new business opportunities. Look again. I would argue that these people are all happy to work alone, in their own ways. Even the actors can do much of the initial hard work of learning lines in the privacy of their homes. Look at it like that and it becomes no surprise that writers and journalists (I suspect they’re freelance journalists) top the list. It’s a job ideally suited to all who like to work in private without their muddles and mistakes being made in public. Artists and designers are here clumped together, which is a pity. As I understand them, they are different activities, as are the jobs of novelist and staff journalist. (I.e. novelists can work in the privacy of their homes staff journalists work in busy offices.) For my purposes here, designers are creating things with a utilitarian purpose and therefore engage directly with communities of users and markets (or hope to) whereas artists are making things with a purely aesthetic or intellectual function.

Looking at this list it’s striking that the more a worker is able to work on his or her own the more dyslexics seem to thrive. Certainly, actors have to work in public, but my contention is that they do the difficult dyslexic bit in private. As (to make a popular generalisation) dyslexics are often articulate and have good people skills of various kinds once you get beyond the initial rote learning part of the job it would seem to be a very logical career choice. As for those scientists and entrepreneurs, well they can work in small teams of like-minded people which is, I suppose, the next best thing.

Looking at this list it occurs to me that dyslexia may be a gift if you are able to work on your own terms and in your own way, be you a writer or an artist. On the other hand, if it’s a career in medicine or law you want you could be forgiven for thinking that the gift you were given was a poison chalice. But us dyslexics knew that back in Year 1.

2. Want to be a Genius?

By Robert | 18th December 2020

(I wrote this as one of four essays back in 2015. Some of the data will have changed but my sentiments remain just as crochety. And, of course, I’ve largely stopped working as a freelance journalist and gone back to making pots, which may or may not be meaningful – who knows.)

`While dyslexia has historically been considered a disadvantage, it’s widely believed that many creative ‘geniuses’, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, might today be classified as dyslexic. Twenty-first century artists and designers who are also dyslexic include filmmaker Steve McQueen, architect Richard Rogers and Turner-nominated performance artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.’ (This quote originally came from
http://www.rca.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/rebalancing-dyslexia-and-creativity-rca/ although at the last try this page could not be reached.)

Oh, for goodness sake! Historically dyslexia has been considered a disadvantage because it was, and continues to be, a disadvantage. From the first day you walk into school it continues to be a disadvantage for the rest of your life and, while the above is an impressive list, the truth of the matter is that not all dyslexics are high achievers. For those that are not the constant harping on about the cultural wonder kids is only one more pressure, or so it seems to me. How depressing to be dyslexic and not to excel in the art room or anywhere very much. After all, even dyslexics are allowed to be average. Also, I believe that well-meant statements like the one above can actually be damaging to the long term outcomes of many lives. For while the RCA can speak for its own there is a real danger that some outside the institution may think that their ideas can be applied to a wider context. Or worse still that art is the way out, a way to beat dyslexia.

If you are one of the lucky few who finish up as a post graduate art student at a top art college, you just might find employment. But you will be up against the students who are not dyslexic and the grim reality may be that they will be more efficient at filling in grant and job application forms, self-assessment tax forms and if a teaching job is required endless lesson plans, schemes of work group profiles and all the rest of that stuff.

The genuinely talented, of course, stand a better chance than the others and it is those others that concern me. How many dyslexics find their way into school art rooms where making images offers sanctuary from the tyranny of text. Face it, most are not a Leonardo, Picasso, Steve McQueen, Richard Rogers or Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. Nonetheless, if they can be moved on to an art collage the school can register success, can pretend to have done a good job.

It’s tough being dyslexic. It’s tough being an artist, particularly for those that won’t appear on lists. What you can be forgiven for asking for is a world in which people, particularly in education, don’t behave as if dyslexia were a free ticket to special powers instead of providing appropriate teaching, particularly in the early years because in the 21st century artists, like everyone else need that stuff. As for me, I’m just a writer, but please, please, don’t tell me that I think like a genius. I don’t. I think like ordinary old Me. Do I want to be a genius? Not really. I certainly never wanted to be lumbered with dyslexia. It’s never been an advantage to me and I don’t like being told that it is.

1. Dyslexia – Always a Dys-Advantage

By Robert | 18th December 2020

(I wrote this as one of four essays back in 2015. Some of the data will have changed but my sentiments remain just as crochety. And, of course, I’ve largely stopped working as a freelance journalist and gone back to making pots, which may or may not be meaningful – who knows?)

To the question `What are you?’ I can answer any number of things: father, husband, writer, teacher, potter, or even sixty-five year old (age recently updated), straight, middleclass white guy. Somehow, none of them nail it. I know in my head that it’s unreasonable to expect a single word to sum up a whole existence as if we should all be able to belt out `I am …….’ (blank to be filled in as required) with all the passion of a sixties pop diva but, in my heart, I want a tag. I want that magic word that will explain and excuse me to friends and casual acquaintances and there is only one word that will do and it’s not a word I like. It’s dyslexic. (If you already know about dyslexia you can safely skip the next paragraph)

Dyslexia: it comes from Latin. The `dys’ means diseased or faulty while the `lexia’ bit refers to words. From which you can infer that dyslexics have a diseased relationship with words, in particular written words. That’s not far wrong but as with all such things it is not quite that simple. Certainly, issues with reading and spelling are the most obvious signs of difference and as these are the main concern of early years education problems in these areas will inevitably lead to setbacks and – almost as certain as night follows day – a sense of failure, difference and self esteem issues. But dyslexia is not a fancy synonym for bad spelling. Google the word or pick up a book in your library and you will learn that dyslexics think differently that their neural networks are not wired the same way as the rest of the population. What this means in practice is that while most people’s brains appear to interpret the world in a linear way, dyslexics do it holistically, making them good at reading pictures but not words organised in straight lines on a page. This apparent lack of order creates certain kinds of memory issues, mostly connected with short term memory and the storage and retrieval of information but the upside is that they can, on occasions, think very quickly and creatively, bring together unlikely things to create new solutions. As a result of which dyslexics have a reputation for creativity in disciplines ranging from art to science and writing.

Between 5% and 10% of the general population are defined as dyslexic but, according to their own figures, that number rises to 29% of the students at the Royal College of Art. Go to prison and that number rises again to over 40%. Being dyslexic is what has brought me to the place I am now. It is what determined my educational path and the jobs I did and with it has come a whole van load of baggage – little parcels of chips and resentments – just waiting to be unpacked. It’s what has determined how I and many like me deal with a life that seems to have dealt us a dud hand at the outset.
Oops! There it is. That ever-present sense of whinge, of being hard done by when in reality lots of people have had a far worse time of it. No one has poisoned my water supplies, threatened to behead me for my beliefs or forced me to flee across a hostile sea to dubious sanctuary in an alien land. I can move my limbs without mechanical aid. I am not tormented by voices and I am not dependent on drugs – prescription or otherwise. My complaint is simply that it could have been different. It should, can and must be different for others. If you doubt it look to those numbers of dyslexics in prisons and ask yourself what it says about the failure of education to give learners of all ages the tools that enabled them to engage with society in meaningful and legal ways.

When I was at school most of my teachers had never heard of dyslexia. Those that had mostly thought it was a poncey word for being rubbish at reading and spelling. Now it seems that most know about it even though there are still those who doubt that it is real. Just as there are those who doubt that planet Earth is warming. Some teachers even know that there is stuff about neural networks and a few about short-term memory issues and poor organisation. Along with this half knowledge has come an acceptance of dyslexia as a mental disability which entitles those diagnosed with it to extra support. Whether sufferers choose to tick the appropriate box on forms is, of course, a matter of choice (mostly, I don’t) but at the very least it is public acknowledgement that there is an issue out there to be dealt with. But – and there is always a but – with the growth of this understanding has come a piece of insidious nonsense that is summed up by pointing out that Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were dyslexic. This is then followed by a list of successful and famous people who either are or are not deemed to have been dyslexic.

The purpose of such lists is to demonstrate that dyslexia need not be a disadvantage. Indeed, back in 1994 the author Ronald D Davis titled his seminal book The Gift of Dyslexia because of what he sees as the creative advantages. To me this is as senseless as suggesting that blindness is an advantage because it encourages the development of aural perception. Oh, please! It is always an advantage to have a full set of senses and other things being equal it will always be an advantage NOT to be dyslexic. If you doubt it watch the short animation Gifted by Emily Mantel and enjoy. I did. I loved it. www.youtube.com/watch?v=biq5hEgeCLs


Pots are Poems Written in Clay

By Robert | 3rd June 2020

‘Pots are poems written in clay.’ It sounds like a slogan for potters wanting to claim their place as movers and shakers in the temple of high culture. Either that or a nifty way of claiming £10 from Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner column. Anyway, I have to admit to liking it as a form of words. Also, I’m wondering if thinking of pots as poems might be interesting.

It seems to me that poetry and pottery are both, in their separate ways, craft skills (and poets are part of the fraternity of artist-craftsmen.) There is something about picking up a well made pot. It just feels good. Never mind all the technicalities, your hands tell you that this is a pleasure to have and to hold and to use for whatever purpose it was intended for. Your hands tell you that the hands of the potter took pleasure in the making of the object you are holding and that that pleasure is now gifted to you.

It seems to me that in some way that is not so very different from poetry. That said, I have to admit that I know more about the making of pots than I do the making of poems. Nonetheless, I read poetry. I do know about the pleasures of picking one up, reading it, turning it over in my mind, using it and discovering some kind of connection with the artist-craftsperson who made it.

So, are pots poems written in clay? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way it sounds catchy, so I think I’ll trot it out as a slogan next time I need one. x

Dance with a Teapot Today

By Robert | 10th May 2020
Love Rules Tea.

Ok. Today, you are going to learn a new dance. For that, some people think you need music. It’s not true. Being aware of where you are in space and time, of the reach of your outstretched arm, and the weight of your hand as it moves through space, they’re all just as much dance as any cha-cha champion’s fancy footwork.

Your partners today will be a teapot, a milk jug and cups (hopefully, all old friends). But before we start, first you must make a pot of good tea and fill the jug with milk. All good? Then we begin.

  1. Pick up the teapot by its handle and pour tea into the first cup. As you do so, feel its weight, its balance, how it tells you how far it wants to be from that cup, (you knew that before you started because of the shape of the spout, didn’t you?) how fast it pours, what it wants you to do.
  • Then move to the next. You will discover things about rhythm and time – 1, 2, 3, 4 and, stop move to the next, 1, 2, 3, 4 and, stop. See? You and your teapot are moving together. That’s good. Very good. You’re dancing that dance that only you and your teapot can do.
  • Next, change partners. Milk jug now. Smaller, lighter, different times, different rhythms, different pleasures on offer.
  • Nearly done. Pick up the cup or mug. Notice how you hold it. How many fingers grasp the handle (if there is one)? Feel its balance. Enjoy the arc of your arm and the weight of the cup in your hand as it comes to your mouth. Feel it on your lips. Taste the contents with your tongue. Then, changed weight, changed balance, down and … rest.
  • That’s the tea dance, my friends. Don’t forget: every pot will teach you a different dance, different moves, and rhythms. So just go and make a pot of tea and start dancing with your teapot today. Because what every pot really wants is to be held by you. It wants to teach you its own special dance.

Welcome to the 21st Century

By Robert | 29th April 2020

Historians like to tell us that the 19th century came to an end with the First World War. 1914 or 18, you take your pick but either way it’s not 1900. Similarly, the 18th century ended at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In which case, when did the 20th century end? If it wasn’t as we turned the calendar page on the year 2000 – Y2K in the jargon of the day – when was it?

Answer: It was the coming of coronavirus (C19). We’re witnessing it now. This time last year I would have said that it was Brexit but in truth that was just a national event. For better or worse. For richer for poorer. For reasons good and bad, it was ultimately just the UK divorcing itself from the EU. There were – still are – repercussions rippling out across Europe and beyond, but it hasn’t changed the way people live in Blighty, still less the psychology of ordinary folks in France or Romania.

Not so C19. Sure, no bullets have been fired or treaties signed but there has been a declaration of war, so to speak and there have been dead. So far, in this period of lockdown the UK alone has seen one third of the total civilian deaths in the whole of the 5 years of WW2. Most worrying of all each and every one of us has been learning to treat others – both family and strangers – as a potential deadly enemy. It’s not `Careless words cost lives’ but a careless meeting could kill. We live in fear. 

When it’s all over will we go back to wherever we were before? No. We won’t. Because we’ve been changed. We know something about the fragility of our seemingly invincible lives. We also know much more about using IT for staying in touch as we know about improved air quality and how if we communicate better, we can defeat global threats. Who knows? Perhaps one day we will defeat global warming in the same way. Meanwhile, this, it seems to me, is the moment the historians will look back on in years to come and say that was the moment things changed. There was 1815. Then there was 1918. Mark my word, 2020 is going to matter in much the same way and for much the same reasons. Now all we have to do is survive.

Meeting out on the WWW

By Robert | 11th April 2020

One of my favourite theories is that one reason many of the artists and makers I know become a little eccentric is that they spend too much time working with only their insecurities for company. It’s not good for them and it certainly isn’t good for me. So, when I discovered the Kiln Rooms, I blessed them. They were full of friendly and supportive people. Perhaps, if I was to be a born-again potter after a thirty year lay off, there would be hope for me. Then the C word (coronavirus). We were all sent home. The Kiln Rooms closed. At one time it wouldn’t have bothered me but I’d rediscovered the making habit and I didn’t want to give it up.

Then yesterday evening I met up with a bunch of my Kiln Room mates, curtesy of Skype. It was great. All struggling to make something meaningful without access to a kiln or glazes. All, I’m guessing, having to find a place where we can make a mess or resort to some other material.    

It was so good to meeting friends out on the great WWW, to see them still doing their thing with the magic mud or abandoning it in favor of cardboard or straws and tangerine peal. So creative and just so good to be around makers again. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to hang on in there and keep making. Now I can’t wait till next time to see what everyone is up to.   

Blog Archive

Rolled Rims or Pottery Semiotics 101

By Robert | 6th May 2021

On Making Flowerpots

By Robert | 9th April 2021

4. Being Positive

By Robert | 19th December 2020

3. Reading a Dyslexia List

By Robert | 19th December 2020

2. Want to be a Genius?

By Robert | 18th December 2020

1. Dyslexia – Always a Dys-Advantage

By Robert | 18th December 2020

Pots are Poems Written in Clay

By Robert | 3rd June 2020

Dance with a Teapot Today

By Robert | 10th May 2020

Welcome to the 21st Century

By Robert | 29th April 2020

Meeting out on the WWW

By Robert | 11th April 2020

Sawdust firing

By Robert | 8th April 2020

Sad Days

By Robert | 21st March 2020

Talking pots

By Robert | 19th March 2020