You’re Better With Better Tools, Maybe.

I just spent a small fortune on some clay carving tools. They are stainless steel, nicely shaped, and noticeably weighty, so maybe their price per pound compared to garden variety aluminum/wood tools is the same, or even cheaper. I don’t know. I don’t care.

Sexy-Expensive-Designer tools are a relatively new thing in the clay world – new as in this millennium, really –  because clay is such a primal activity and often just as easily managed with your hands and maybe a stick and a shell. I have a couple of older books devoted to the ancient practice of making your own brushes and tools. I’ve done this.  I think as a group, clay folks are pretty opportunistic and will have fun making a tool out of pert near any ol’ thang.

OK,  now I’m getting silly. Yet I do mean to contrast the down and often dirty home-grown self-sufficiencies of much ceramic work – especially functional pottery –  with an ever-growing arena of High Artistry featuring the precious piece – now considered sculptural – on a well-lit pedestal in a hushed gallery. Could this paradigm-shift extend to the tools as well?

As usual, I sit somewhere in between and am not above cutting an expired plastic card into a shape I need to texture my clay. Yet  I am equally amenable to paying $30 for four sassy-orange, very nicely engineered and name-branded cutting tools.

And why is that? To my mind, tactility rules, not aesthetics. How does it feel? Does the extra heft improve my performance? Do the insanely precise loop shapes cause me to take more care when I make a cut? Do I clean these tools more often because I respect not only their excellence but their cost? Maybe that’s all true, and yet…

Am I buying mystique? What or who is the maker/seller Xiem?  I know it’s a clay center/gallery in Pasadena where a few years back I was rejected for a show by the mythic Paulus Berensohn. I figure he gazed upon the slides – yes, slides! – of my pathetically unevolved work for a few seconds, and then sent the loveliest personally hand-written rejection email an artist is ever likely to receive. Other than that, Xiem has a certain panache and stretches like a heirloom sunflower towards a stylistic sensibility I’m not quite sure I fully share,  having one foot as I do on the opposite bank of that crik,  being a homemade tool-maker and all.

Am I buying Xiem’s tools because I’m a sorry-ass toady wannabe?  Nope. At least I’m sure of that! I bought these tools because they felt right in my hands.  I hoisted their remarkable heft, noticed the eight cutting shapes and their sharp beveled ribbon edges and knew I held excellence. Excellence I could extend into my work. These babies are just gonna HUG the road!

I have a lot of tools, but like my first Cabrillo SummerArts instructor, Una Mjurka, I return to the ones that do their jobs simply and well. Una had reduced her tools to mainly an all-purpose wooden stick and a favorite brush. She’s good like that. I’m almost there. It’s a practice, sort of a ceramics studio version of the Zero Waste Home. I have my personal stick and brush, and I know purpose and supreme function wherever I encounter it. Why bother with gizmos?

So the Better Tools Search comes with a caveat: what’s better for you? What do you need to make? What will facilitate that?  What do you need to jettison? Will this new tool facilitate your crafting more than any tool you already possess? How will you justify the cost,  of either your time spent making it, or your cash spent buying it? I can both recommend and un-recommend these Orange Beauties. Depends on what you want. But if you ever get to test-drive one, do it!

~Liz Crain, a ceramic artist who  – up til now –  swore her Amaco T-9 Sgraffito Tool was the supreme instrument.

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