Possibilities in Clay (1975)

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Institution: Indiana University
Collection: IUL Moving Image Archive

Running time: 24m 51s
Year: 1975
Source film: 16mm; color; sound
Director: Phil Terman
Audio: Don Scales
Photography: Phil Stockton
Production: Indiana University Audio-Visual Center

There are many functional items you simply cannot produce using clay as your primary material. Skateboards, functional gyroscopes, and domestic cats are all well beyond the jurisdiction of the ceramist. In fact, there are far more things that are not clay-based than are. That said, the art and practice of ceramics — hardening material into form by firing it at extremely high temperatures — is thousands of years old and the medium of clay transcends culture, geography, and era. The 1975 short documentary Possibilities in Clay, produced by the Indiana University Audio-Visual Center, examines various expressions of the material through four portrayals of five different ceramics artists, each with his or her own philosophical approach to the craft of clay.

The first segment focuses on Tom and Virginia (“Ginny”) Marsh, a married couple in southern Indiana who both sell pottery out of their home and work as ceramics teachers. Their utilitarian approach is manifested in traditional pots and pitchers that incorporate aesthetics found in nature. In the next segment, city-dweller Kathy Salchow treats her creations as unique objects with designs from her imagination (in this particular case, the adornment of a lion’s face). John Goodheart, an instructor at Indiana University, uses clay slabs to make ambitious artistic statements. And last, describing himself as more of a “mechanical artist” motivated by his own curiosity, Karl Martz changes up the chemical compounds in glazes to see what combinations work best on different forms and surfaces, like some sort of ceramics mad scientist.

Aside from the beginning of the film, which provides some baseline information about ceramics, and the requisite biographical introductions for the subjects, there’s very little voice-of-God narration. Instead, the filmmakers use voice-overs from each artist while showing them playing pinball and performing yard work. Just kidding — the film shows them creating different kinds of ceramics. There are a plenty of close-up shots of pottery wheels spinning, hands forming clay into shape, and various implements cutting and scraping away superfluous material. The editing is rhythmic, and the visual focus on the manual processes of the art takes on an almost hypnotic property; I found myself engaged in a weirdly soothing way.

It should be said that ceramics, on its own, doesn’t stand out as the most lively of documentary subjects. The artistic process is slow and meticulous with a number of steps, so the filmmakers deserve credit for striking a balance between informative and visually interesting. (That said, one of the most infamous and parodied scenes in modern film involved a pottery wheel, so perhaps I’m underrating the charm of the visual elements). According to the item’s citation on the IUL Moving Image Archive website, the film was a finalist in the 1978 Birmingham International Educational Film Festival.


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