“Beauty is the vocation of the world.”*** And the world is full of clay. Could it be that beauty is the vocation of clay?
You likely already know that clay is derived from weathering of other rocks. But did you know that one third of the sedimentary rock in the world is derived from clay? Rocks being re-made into rocks through clay. Or that if you spread all the clay that exists evenly, it would create a layer at least a mile thick over the surface of the whole Earth? Think of that! (Yet that would account for only about one tenth of one percent of the earth’s volume.)
Just one gram of this clay powder (that’s about half a thimble- full) can have a total surface area larger than a football field. “A (single) particle of clay (dropped into four inches of water )will take 860 years” to settle to the bottom!
If you took a pinch of that gram of clay and placed it under an electron microscope you would see, depending on the kind of clay, an amazing array of crystal formations: wild labyrinthan lava tubes, piles of hexagonal bars, “millions of parchment sheets each, curled slightly at the edge…fireworks…the corona of the sun during an eclipse…dense growths of watercress…a cupboard full of plates…a bowl full of needles…the capillaries of the lungs…the wall of a stomach, the intricate folds of the womb.”
Alone, these clay crystals are both remarkable and beautiful. Should we be surprised that Beauty is the vocation of clay?
“Physicist Erwin Schrodinger speculated (on what I would call Beauty, with an upper case ‘B’) that the fundamental building blocks of life would require an ‘aperiodic crystal’ — that is, an ordered and repeated structure that left room for a whole variety of actualizations…supple and dynamic to engage and accommodate the constantly shifting behaviors of metabolism, growth, and reproduction.” Later discoveries rather confirmed his hypothesis: “DNA fulfills these conditions…but so does clay.”
“There are only two things in the universe that require liquid water for their existence: organic life and clay.”
And those who speculate on the origins of life through both science and myth are quick to connect organic life and clay: “The seeds of organic life, attracted to the patterns of a clay matrix, might well have found there the structure that makes all of us possible, and the means to maintain and reproduce it.”
“Richly patterned clays might have served at templates for biosynthesis, that is, for the beginning of organic life.”
“…it is easy to believe that the protected interior of such a crystal might have been the site where organic polymers of the sort that would form nucleic and amino acids were born.”
“…seaborn clays on ancient Earth, deriving their energy by feeding on CO2, nitrogen, and light, might produce the building blocks of organic life.”
The Genesis 6 story speaks of the sons of God coming down to earth to begot children on the daughters of men. “Perhaps this Genesis story can symbolize the rise of life as we experience it, from the joining of organic and inorganic realms. Wouldn’t it be strange if, in the history of the living, clay performed the function of angels?”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that some clay crystals resemble wombs. Is it a surprise to us that “adam”, the name for the first man in the Christian creation myth, is the Hebrew word for clay? This word, this substance is now remarkably connected to physicists, chemists, biologists, theologians and philosphers who, two millenia hence, are still trying to unravel life’s origins and meaning….to unravel Beauty.
But beauty is also in the making. As potters, we know this in our hearts. We make beauty. We make objects that approach life’s fragile moments to offer beauty and order to them. We attempt to be “sufficiently supple and dynamic (and responsive in order) to engage and accommodate the shifting behaviors”, needs and growth of those who use our works.
William Bryant Logan, in speaking of how “alive” clay is, says that “If we admit that clay is alive, we must say that it is both more ancient, more widespread in the universe, more durable and more powerful than we are. Yet it is also less supple and less about to make abrupt transformations.”
Perhaps on a macro level, this is where we potters fit in. We are supple — or at least we can be. Celebrating our own visual literacy, while being responsive to those who use our works, we use clay to make beauty that points to Beauty….that participates in Beauty.
Like contentment, hope, pleasure, faith, joy, love and inspiration…….Beauty cannot fully be quantified. It remains a mystery — but one in which we have the luxuriant choice of participating.
*** All quotes and much of the technical information about clay are taken, with thanks, from William Bryant Logan’s poetic, playful, and almost prayer-like book, DIRT The exstatic Skin of the Earth.
Dick Lehman is a studio potter in Elkhart, Indiana. You can see more of his writing and his pottery at www.dicklehman.com
Also see Dick’s Etsy store at dicklehman.etsy.com
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