Faith Once Delivered: Jesse Ancona's Articles: The Potter and the Clay
Faith Once Delivered
Keith Hunt's Studies Jesse's Articles

The Potter and the Clay:

(With a little bit of "Pearl of Great Price" thrown in for good measure!)

      Images given to us about God working with us are harsh ones: they are of the fiery furnace, purifying metal, or the potter with the clay.

      I want to tell you a story, here, about a real potter. I have a plate at home (it looks like a shallow bowl, but the potter who made it calls it a plate): it seems unprepossessing and brown and ordinary. I knew nothing about ceramics when I saw it, but it spoke to me, and I knew I had to have it. It was $75, the cheapest thing there. I liked one other piece, something clever in pink and purple, prettier than the brown one, and for awhile I struggled with it, but it was just a surface attractiveness, and I decided to stick with the one I couldnít get out of my head.

      I was a University student at the time, and the $75 was a horrendously huge cost: my semesterís tuition was only $250! How could I ever get that plate? Yet, I wanted it. I wanted it so much, I was distracted. The art show lasted a few weeks, and I didnít know where I was going to get the money: my student loan money was parcelled out to last the whole year, and anything over would mean running out before the end of the school year.

      One day, I fell asleep on the bus. I woke up just in time to see my stop go by, and I frantically pulled on the bell, but my stop was just before a large underpass, a lot of highway, and quite a bit of distance went by before the bus stopped. Dazed, I got off, wondering how I was ever going to find my way home. All I knew was that I had to go north and then east, but how far each way, I didnít know. It was winter; I was cold. I determined to walk north for awhile, then walk east. I walked north quite a ways, then stopped on a street corner.

      I stopped for a long time, debating whether to cross the street to the north, and then go east, or to cross the street east where I was. I debated this within myself for a few minutes, unable to make up my mind. It seemed very important at the time, though I didnít know why. Finally, it seemed right to cross the street north, and then go east. When I crossed the street east, in the snowbank, I saw a Greyhound bus ticket. I took it home with me, thinking nothing of it, and put it on my fridge. It was still good, and I thought the person who lost it could still use it, but I couldnít afford to advertise in regular papers. I advertised in the campus paper, and had a few calls, but all of them had the destinations wrong. So, I kept it, frustrated at this distraction, when I had school, and classes, and was still wondering where I was going to get the money from to buy that plate.

      One day, a friend of mine came over, and saw the ticket, and asked about it. I told him I hadnít been able to find the owner. "Well, ya little strawberry, why donít you cash it in?" I looked at him. "You can do that?" He said I could. I took it off the fridge, and the ticket was for exactly $75.

      So, thatís how I bought the plate. It was my Pearl of Great Price, though the price had to be provided for me. Even then, I faced another obstacle: when I cashed in the ticket, and went to the gallery to buy it, the gallery manager said he didnít know if any of the works were for sale, and Iíd need to get permission from the artist to buy it. I was embarrassed, because he was one of my art instructors, and I was afraid heíd think I was buying it to suck up or something. I was tempted to forget the whole thing, but I didnít, so I found out where he was. He wasnít at the university campus, since he also taught at the art college, and he was there that day. It took quite awhile to track him down, but I finally found him in the basement.

      So I told him what the guy in the gallery had said, and after heíd finished ranting and raving about what idiots they were, of course they were for sale, thatís why they had prices on them. He seemed suspicious of me: why was I buying this plate? I said it just attracted me, and I liked other things, but I always came back to that one. Something about it I couldnít describe. He asked me what I knew about ceramics, and I said, nothing, that it had never even occurred to me to consider ceramics an art form until I saw that plate.

      Then he began to tell me about the plate. It was his favorite piece in the show, and it was his favorite kind of ware: it was Bizen ware. In Bizen, Japan, the clay is so black with minerals, you donít even need to glaze it: in the firing, the minerals rise up from the clay and cover the clay with a self-glaze. Since they are fired in wood kilns, ash often falls on the pots, and creates streaky parts in the glaze. He used all this, and also threw in a bit of salt, since salt-glazing was peculiarly English, and he was English, so it married the Japanese and English traditions.

      He said a plate like this would be fired, and glazed, and refired, and reglazed, over and over againÖan article I read about him said sometimes heíd glaze a piece 15-20 times. He told me heíd destroyed 45 plates in the process of trying to make this one: if he didnít like where it was going, heíd smash it.

      This piece cracked in the firing, and the Japanese tradition is that this is a natural effect of the fire, and desirable, and to be enhanced, so he put a gold-looking material in the crack to emphasize it: he called it "plastic steel," and when he looked at the back, he said he thought it needed something, so heíd even signed the back of it, which he never did, since he said he felt all his pieces were signed all over with his hands.

      So, I asked him, almost afraid heíd change his mind, why, if it were so special, it was the cheapest thing in the show. "I price my own things for the local market. In another town, it would be higher, because those people appreciate my work; here, people donít like these plain, brown things." I mentioned the pink and purple one, and he said, "I make those things because theyíre fun, and people here like that stuff: itís pretty, and they eat it up."

      I went to the gallery, and paid for it. I kept going to the show to admire it, because I couldnít take it home until the show was over, and I noticed the pink and purple thing had a sold sticker, too. Three or four years later, I met a guy named Mark through a friend, and when he came to my apartment, he spied the plate from across the room and said, "No! That isnít a plate by --?" and went up to it, admiringly. "Itís signed on the back," I said, and he said, "Oh, but he never signs his work," and he turned it over, and went green with envy. Turns out, he was the one who bought the pink and purple one. They were the only two pieces in the show that sold.

      Mark and I became best friends, and hung out together for about five years or so. For years, he tried to buy the plate from me, and one time, when I was so desperately broke I was nearly insane, I went to a show of that potterís and saw his ordinary slab plates were starting at $1000; I offered it to my friend, he talked me down to $750, then changed his mind, and decided he really didnít want it, after all. I was relieved! Of course, I never tried again, since there is no market for these things in this city, and it is one of those few things with such sentimental value, I didnít want the heartbreak of trying the hawk it for a few bucks, and having it rejected.

      Even though we were very close, one day said to me and to the friend I met him through, whom heíd known since junior high, that he wasnít going to be our friend anymore, since neither of us could further his career, so he didnít have time for us. I look back on the plate he chose, and I should have seen the shallowness, but I was in my twenties, and too easily impressed with flash, even though it didnít speak to me as much as substance.

      But, back to the potter: he was (and probably still is) the only Canadian potter recognized as a Master Potter in Japan, which is a big deal, and I noticed, when Adrienne Clarkson expanded the Governor Generalís Awards to include the arts, he was awarded it in its very first year.

      So, a world-class potter takes infinite pains over one piece, destroying 45 other plates to get thereÖand God is referred to as a potter.

      Man was made out of clay, because clay is infinitely plastic. Unlike marble, which has its own character, clay can be like anything. One potter, Marilyn Levine, does realistic depictions of leather objects in clay. Until you touch one, youíre sure itís leather.

      So, we are clay in the potterís hands. It should terrify us and thrill us. And every time we go through the fire, we are either beautified, or we are discarded. No wonder Paul said, "it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God," and "knowing the terror of the Lord we persuade men." I think the terror has to come first. Then, afterwards, the spirit takes away our fear. But, without the fear, without judgement, we skip right ahead to grace, without knowing or understanding how great grace is. But it is a grace that says, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that works within you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

      Somehow, we have a part in this re-creation of ourselves, but if we are faithful, and endure, God will make sure we come through the flames. Our works may be stubble, but we will endure. The next thing to do, though, is to try to make sure that some of our works, themselves, will also endure. And I struggle with that. I donít even understand what that means. Iím still dealing with what heís trying to make of me, to do with me, and Iím confused as to what works of mine could possibly endure the fiery furnace.

©2001, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.

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