Are potters and ceramists down-to-earth?

My Great-Aunt Della Kelley at a Kelley Ranch near Avon Montana. Source: Kelley Schott

Potters and ceramists are… Of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is ‘down-to-earth.’ It is a cliché, yes, but is it true? Think about the people you’ve known that you met or know because of clay…. Classmates, friends, colleagues. Can we honestly say they are down-to-earth? What does this idiom mean, anyway, aside from our long-held assumptions? I drummed up a couple of sources,,, and an English language site for ESL students:

Me and my brother Dave at the remains of the Kelley Ranch in Lower Orchard Homes, Missoula, Montana.

“1. Realistic; sensible. 2 a. Not pretentious or affected; straightforward. 2 b. Not overly ornate; simple in style.”

“Definition: Not arrogant; simple and practical. Explanation: Used when talking about people who appear to be very natural and kind.”

“Means: to be balanced and reasonable; Use: to refer to people’s characters; Circumstances: It is often a compliment used when you talk about someone you know; Note: Often used with ‘very’. Can be used as an adjective – She’s a very down to earth person.” English Idioms

My brother, Steve, and I on April, my Aunt Susie's horse. Taken in 1961 at my grandma's in Missoula, Montana.

Well, judging by these definitions and descriptions, someone  down-to-earth is practical and unaffected. Do potters and ceramists have these characteristics? When I think about the people I know who are involved with ceramics, I recognize that some are wonderfully flamboyant. Broad gestures, much verbal expressiveness, joie de vivre, even theatricality, but not affectation or pretense. Likewise, I don’t think most people would describe me as someone

Standing my ground. Me, on right, with my Grandma, Aunt Susie, and doe at the National Bison Range, Montana

who puts on airs. It’s in the eye of the beholder, though, isn’t it? When I think of farmers and ranchers, I can’t imagine a group that is literally more down-to-earth. By the very nature of their cyclical lifestyles, they must be innately practical or learn to be. After all, cows and goats need milking, eggs must be gathered, and crops need tending and harvesting. Rural folk don’t have the conveniences of the city, either: mass transit, cultural diversions, or umpteen choices. (However, the Internet, online shopping, and streaming movies has changed that!) Still, they are often the salt of the earth, in addition to being down-to-earth. I see connections between them and potters and ceramists. Mud, dirt, clay. Working the soil to grow something, wedging clay to create something. Animal husbandry requires earth (unless you’re a poor battery hen).

Me at Great-Grandpa Steck's 90th birthday celebration in Clinton, Montana

A close connection to the soil and its power to ground, to keep one tied to the earth and not in the etheric realms. We glaze with ground minerals…rocks. We make glazes with various things of the earth. Painters work with minerals, too, ground up and made into paint, but the raw, earth element is more removed. (Of course, one can paint and sculpt or pot both; they are not mutually exclusive.) So, I guess I’ve talked myself into it. Yes, potters and ceramists are a down-to-earth lot. Whether one’s personality is that way is debatable, but it seems likely that some characteristics of down-to-earthedness may be found among us as a group or sub-group. In 1949, Aldo Leopold wrote, in A Sand County Almanac, “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” That same circuit of energy moves from our hands to the soil and back when we work with clay.


About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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