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At the potter’s wheel: a comparative cognitive ethnography of creative gesture and improvisation in pottery making
At the potter’s wheel: a comparative cognitive ethnography of creative gesture and improvisation in pottery making
Wednesday 29 January, 2014
Contribution by Dr. Lambros Malafouris. Keble Research Fellow in Creativity and ASC Creativity Research Cluster member.
Take a look at Figure 1, it shows an expert potter throwing a vase on the wheel. Now think about the orchestration of action throughout the different stages of this creative process. What is it that guides the dextrous positioning of the potter’s hands and decides upon the precise amount of forward or downward pressure necessary for growing the form of a vase out of a lump of clay? How do the potter’s fingers come to know, or discover, the precise force, place and time of the appropriate grip? What sort of projections, relations, and representations (mental or physical) are needed for the enaction of this creative performance by which an amorphous mass of clay is being transformed into a new ‘object’? The phenomenological tradition in philosophy and cognitive science offers a good starting point for approaching some of these questions but is lacking the necessary analytical units and ecological validity that could enable us to study the unfolding of human creativity in action.
Figure 1. Expert potter throwing a vase on a wheel.The aim of my research project is precisely to provide, by way of cognitive ethnography, a comparative exploration of the temporal stratigraphy of creative action focusing on the practice of pottery-making. To this end ethnographic fieldwork was conducted last summer based on three ceramic workshops at the island of Zakynthos, Greece (Figures 2 and 3). The study allowed for an in-depth descriptive characterization of the cognitive ecology of creativity in pottery-making. So far (note that further fieldwork is planned for summer 2012) I have mainly concentrated on the different ways creativity is allowed to shape practice. I have also looked at how different potters think creatively with materials and techniques. This has given me the opportunity to investigate a number of different theoretical conjectures about the emergence and locus of human creative agency.

Figures 2 and 3. Ethnographic fieldwork at ceramic workshops in the island of Zakynthos, Greece.One important finding which became clear during fieldwork and through data analysis is that long entrenched ideas and models of creativity as an intracranial mental process fail to account for what is being observed in real life settings of mediated action. My ethnographic study has repeatedly demonstrated that creativity centrally involves a compositionally plastic image of the potter skillfully engaging the clay to produce a new object. This also means that the constituents of the creative process are not to be found before or outside the shaping of the pot, they are instead located in the movement of forming it. Based on these findings I am currently working on a new theoretical model of distributed creativity which assigns primacy to the transformative processes of material engagement as against the isolated individual.
Dr. Lambros Malafouris
Keble Research Fellow in Creativity
This article was first published on ASC Newsletter TT 2012 (July, 2012)