In Fall 2020, the Communities of Calling Initiative gathered leaders from the 13 participating congregations for the virtual Treasure in Clay Jars retreat. The retreat lifted up the metaphor of the potter as a tool for discernment and featured the words of Richard Bresnahan, Artist-in-Residence at The Saint John’s Pottery. In a series of videos, he spoke with Jessie Bazan from the Collegeville Institute about the creative process.
The following interview, about why The Saint John’s Pottery harvests local clay, has been edited for length and clarity. To watch all the videos in this series, please visit our YouTube page.
America has been formed by the industrial revolution. That’s our history. We have, through genocide, harmed indigenous people who had a more holistic relationship to the earth. That relationship to the earth did not transfer to white settlers.
When I was in my 20s, as a young potter, I went to Japan. Traveling to Japan, which had a deep pre-industrial history, influenced me and my particular relationship to materials like clay. The world wars interrupted the industrial revolution in some areas. There are still beautiful remnants of indigenous systems that have been going for two to three hundred years. Everything was still intact, from handmade paper, to the way they process their foods, to the way they worked with natural materials.
I had the opportunity to be an apprentice. I went out with an elder, with wheelbarrows and shovels, to a rice paddy field to hand dig clay for the first time. It was a totally new experience. Before we began shoveling, Matsumoto-San told us to stop and take a moment. He incorporated spiritual talismans; he took a reed and put that in the side of a clay bank. He performed a small ritual, throwing some rice grains and sake, and asked permission from the earth to extract clay to make human beings whole.
He asked permission from the earth to extract clay to make human beings whole.
That was a very powerful moment for me as a young person. I learned how the Japanese potters translated the taste of clay into their soul and identify as artists. It was the opposite of industrial production, where people believed it was God’s will to harvest from the earth at will. The earth was a dead resource and was made just for human beings to extract, not giving anything back.
Here was a totally different spiritual perspective. There was a symbiotic kind of eco-mutualism of relationship to all the materials and everyday living. For example, the rice straw was woven into straw mats and straw sandals and then the rice hulls would burn very slowly to make ashes, which were used to make the glazes. You got really good quality ashes that had an interrelationship with the creative system. You were not expected to go off to school to become creative. Every pattern of the live system had an interlocking form for human expression. That was also something that I had not experienced before.
The reason for digging local clay at The Saint John’s Pottery was to build on this ecological environmental framework. I made the decision that I would never buy any materials as best I was able. We still depend on some of the industrial materials, like kiln shelves and wadding clay.
The reason for digging local clay at The Saint John’s Pottery was to build on this ecological environmental framework.
When Father Michael Blecker asked me to come to Saint John’s as an artist-in-residence, he realized that there was a direct connection between my work and Benedictine life. When he was a novice in the monastery, he saw remnants of their agrarian life and how that agrarian life was slowly being cast aside to take on the educational mission of university. He understood that it was going to be impossible to go back. But, he wanted to remind the community that there are patterns of indigenous systems that can be incorporated into an educational and creative environment.
Today at The Saint John’s Pottery, we harvest from a clay deposit that is 144 million years old. That’s a number that’s impossible to get your mind around. I try to explain that the plasticity of a 144 million year old clay deposit was shaped and formed by pressure. It was pushed up by the glaciers in order to be ready for a human being to touch. As a potter, having access to that clay for shaping and firing and making is like a little laser light of time, just one fraction or 1/25th of a second of time, in its total lifecycle.
When a human interacts with the material, it changes it forever. It’s no longer clay. If you’re going to take something from the earth and change it forever, that’s a serious responsibility. The clay speaks to you in different ways. The clay finds space for others. The particular form and shape becomes a pattern for living in a ritualistic way. There’s a certain functionality of each piece of pottery that is important to communicate.
If you’re going to take something from the earth and change it forever, that’s a serious responsibility.
In the Rule of Saint Benedict, it says that you should treat your everyday tools as instruments of the altar. I translate that as saying every tool or material that you use, if it has been shaped by a human hand and cared for, is a sacred object. It becomes a sacred path, a sacred form, when treated that way. That keeps those forms from going into garage sales or to be tossed out into a landfill, unlike many of our industrial products. We don’t know the type of tremendous work that other people on other sides of the planet are doing in abhorrent conditions to make things for us. The clay is very carefully cared for, very carefully aged. It’s incredibly important material for the life of the potter and for the life of human beings.
Industrialization makes money for a narrow group of human beings that figured how to extract things from the earth and get them into the hands of other people quickly. Makers of earthen materials in the pre-industrial revolution never thought that way. They tried to imbue a spiritual quality to what they were making so it could be generationally handed down. They were looking at generational transformation.
I can’t think of buying clay. I don’t know how you could do it. And we don’t sell the clay here. We give the clay away to other artists.
Every tool or material that you use, if it has been shaped by a human hand and cared for, is a sacred object.
Every day I change something. The material is not static at all. In order to be able to be a potter, you have to be present and you have to create a pattern of presence on a daily basis. You cannot just go to the studio, you have to create as if your life depended upon it. And that’s true whether you are stacking the firewood or digging the clay or burning the ashes. Your presence is critical. If you’re not, you’re going to not feel like you’ve done your complete work.