From Lagom #8

Jono Smart: Reshaped

Potter Jono Smart  traded in his successful career in the fast-paced world of advertising for the tactile experience of working with clay in his Glasgow studio. He credits the craft for more than just a career change, enabling him to recover from long-term depression. Here, he shares what he has learned from his experience as a potter — lessons that can easily be applied to any other profession, and even to other experiences in life.

Words Jono Smart

Photographs Christina Riley

Pottery is magic. I can’t think of another word for it. All of the elements can be explained: the centrifugal force that keeps the clay on the wheel, how during the firing at 348 degrees the chemically bonded water leaves the pot and it is irreversibly changed, how a glaze matures and makes the pot impervious to water. All of these things are known and are not magic, merely process. The magic is in a handmade pot. You can sense the person who made it, and feel the idea long after it has left the potter’s studio. There’s a kind of residue of human touch that’s left in all the marks and imperfections. These hold the magic.

I haven’t always been a potter. When I moved to London in my early twenties, I worked in advertising and then garden design. I got to travel, eat at amazing restaurants, and live in a city full of life and excitement.

And then I got ill. Really quite ill. I spent two years in bed with depression and undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Fitful restarts, desperate attempts to get going again — nothing seemed to work. After years of what felt like success, I felt like a failure.

I’m not sure I would have recovered if I hadn’t discovered pottery. Craft lends itself to metaphor. You take a raw material — be it wood, clay or stone — and you turn it into something. It takes time, care, and skill. As I learned pottery, I felt like I was slowly remaking myself — changing, going through fire, and coming out the other side as something else. It’s hard not to see yourself reflected back by the process.

As I learned pottery, I felt like I was slowly remaking myself — changing, going through fire, and coming out the other side as something else. It’s hard not to see yourself reflected back by the process.

Making good pots is a mixture of remembering and forgetting. You’ve got to learn as much as you can, practise your techniques, have as much skill and knowledge as possible, and then go into the studio and try to forget it all — otherwise the temptation is to try and show off everything you know within one pot, and you end up with something over-thought and contrived. You’ve got to get out of your own head and let the beauty of clay, glaze, and form do its own thing. There are moments in my studio when I can no longer feel the passage of time. It doesn’t happen often, but perhaps two or three times a month, I’ll hit a rhythm in my making, and a whole morning will pass in a moment. That isn’t an exaggeration. I’ll sit at the wheel with 70 or 80 balls of clay weighed out, press play on my music, and the next moment, there’ll be 80 cups sitting next to me. It can be a rather disorienting experience.

When I was learning pottery, I learned alongside a number of other people. We all noticed this sensation. There’s a Hungarian psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term ‘flow’ for this sensation. I’d never experienced it before pottery — complete absorption and concentration on a task that you’re competent at. It’s become the central reason I work. Everything else falls away, my mind rests, and the results are not important — just the moment and the process at hand.

I never learned to play a musical instrument. I haven’t spent any time learning to paint or draw properly. I never really got into running or cycling. Learning to make pots is the first time I did anything where I began at the very beginning and incrementally got better day by day, pot by pot.

Not only have I learned how to make pots, I’ve learned how to learn. The patience that it’s taken to allow myself to be rubbish at something and to appreciate the gradual, sometimes painstakingly slow improvement, is a completely new feeling. And I think it’s a healthy way to live.

If you’re going to survive as a potter, you have to learn to deal with failure. No matter how experienced you are, pots will break. You can throw a hundred good pots in a row and the hundred and first will collapse on you. Small mistakes in making only get revealed in the final firing. Glazes will run, handles will snap, pots will be dropped — failure is a constant.

And I think this is a good thing, too. If you spend enough time making pots, a kind of acceptance is forced upon you. You learn that not everything is under your control. You can’t be perfect. Mistakes aren’t disasters. This acceptance seeps into other parts of your life: you become calmer, more empathetic, forgiving.

My days are all very similar to one another. I enjoy the routine and discipline of a pottery studio. A pot can’t be paused halfway through. Once you throw a pot, a clock starts ticking and you only have so much time to finish it — otherwise, it dries out. This is easy enough with one pot, but when you have hundreds going through the studio, all at different stages, it takes a fair amount of discipline to keep on top of things.

I think that to make good work, you have to admit how little you’re adding to it — that you’re synthesising so much else. The more you can get out of the way of it, the better and clearer the work will be.

The studio has begun to feel like an extension of my mind. I know where every piece is, what the temperature is, and how long I’ve got to finish all the work. Occasionally, there have been gaps between projects where there are no pots in process in the studio, and I feel a real unease.

The more I’ve worked, the more I’ve made, and the more I’ve examined my own creativity and come to a realisation. It’s that I’m basically adding very little. All of the ideas, the research, the hours, the practice, and the making counts for very little when you compare it to what really matters.

And by that, I mean this: I didn’t create symmetry or texture or rhythm or greys or any of the culture, nature, and history that go into my work. I didn’t discover firing clay; I didn’t create the nostalgia you may feel when you hold a cup; I didn’t create the light and shadow that makes my pots look good. I’m a tiny funnel at the end of all of this. I’m never going to make a piece of work as impressive or important as a tree or a flower or the sunlight.

I think that to make good work, you have to admit how little you’re adding to it — that you’re synthesising so much else. The more you can get out of the way of it, the better and clearer the work will be.

And all of this is good news. It’s freeing to understand how unimportant my work is and will ever be. It gives me the freedom to explore. And that’s my goal for the rest of my time: to explore as freely as I can let myself.


Lagom #8 cover

Jono’s piece first appeared in the print edition of Lagom #8. Check out the full issue for more inspiring essays, interviews, and features on numerous other creatives following their passions.

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