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Ceramics by Rebekah Tanner

Lantern at the Large Coiled Pot with Moon Faces at the OCC Student Exhibit, April 2013

Ceramics are objects that remind me of those creation stories in which the first humans are formed from a bit of earth. Bread reminds me of this story, as well. Some dry, powdery stuff gets mixed with a bit of liquid and is sculpted into a form. With bread, yeast is added to help it rise. In the story about us humans, it is the breath of the Creator which is added, and thus, we are given life. But ceramics seem not to have any ingredient like that -- unless, perhaps, it is the breath, the life -- the creative energy of the potter.

This idea has fascinated me for decades. So much so that long years ago I wrote a Master's Thesis with this notion at its core, about Japanese Tea Ceremony Ceramics. There is a belief that these wares are "alive" in the hands of the Tea Master, and her guests, and should they somehow become damaged, they can be healed, and returned to usefulness in the hands of a skilled conservator. To do this, precious metals suspended in a lacquer medium are used to make the repair, to fill the crack or chip. And by employing this method, the conservator makes the damage visible, highlighting it with materials far more costly and rare than the original earth from which the ceramic was made. The damage then, becomes another episode in the life-span of the piece, part of its own unique lived experience.

To write that paper I looked at hundreds of pieces of Japanese ceramics, only a limited number of which had needed conservation in this manner. But these were not the first ceramics I examined. I had been looking at ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Japan Society, other exhibition spaces in the New York City area, and even in museums and galleries in Japan when I had visited there nearly a decade before I selected my thesis topic. Even as a toddler I had a little Chinese doll with a lovely ceramic head. I have probably been looking at ceramics for as long as I can remember, but it was not until the autumn of 2009 that I began making ceramics on a regular basis. Sure, I had made that spoon holder cast in a mold that I gave to my Mom when I was in grade school and a small flute when I went away to camp, but in 2009 I began my formal study of the art of the potter.

At first I studied with Eva Zook at the Arts and Crafts Center at Burnet Park, run by the local Department of Parks and Recreation. There, because we had no potter's wheel, I learned about coil and slab building, but at a point, Eva thought I should go further, and encouraged me to attend our local Community College, the same place she had begun her studies. So after inquiring and applying, in January of 2011 I entered the degree program which I completed just a few weeks ago. There, I studied with Andrew Schuster and with his guidance, learned to throw pots on the wheel, how to made slips and glazes, did more slab building, and sculpted clay, but came to the conclusion that my favorite way of crafting pottery was by the most ancient of techniques: through the use of coils.

During these past 3 years, and in order to achieve my degree, I studied other forms of art -- some I enjoyed, others, not so much. And, each spring some of my work has been included in the Annual Student Art Exhibition. But ceramics is an art that is slow gain mastery of, and it was not until what was to be my final opportunity to exhibit as a student that I finally had a piece of pottery I felt was worthy of exhibition, a large coiled pot with moon faces that had been fired in our outdoor wood-burning kiln. Not long after that show closed a different kind of exhibition was announced, one which would feature works by college employees that had been completed on their own time. In as much as I had worked as a peer-to-peer student tutor since my arrival on campus, my work qualified for inclusion and along with some of my bead-craft, I entered a slab built lantern I had made while still studying with Eva. So far, these are the only times my ceramics have been on public display.

I still consider myself an amateur potter. However, I have come to consider myself a potter: an artist, not just someone who is making pots. My style is generally simple, somewhat naïve. In fact, one of my fellow students called it "tribal" which made me smile, because, as a person of Native American descent, I suppose everything I do is in some way "tribal." I think what he meant was "primitive," a word which might carry negative connotations for some, but I accept that definition with some pride. I celebrate the fact that my wares have an unsophisticated air about them. I would never strive to be a production potter, turning out dozens upon dozens of all-alike pieces for commercial use. Each piece I have made speaks to something I hold dear or believe in, and each teaches me more about this art form I have only recently taken up, but which links me to my colleagues and fellow potters across the globe and across the generations. With more time and more practice I will improve my craftsmanship, but I hope never to lose my naiveté, that special beauty that comes from creative spontaneity and youthful spirit.

I have been especially inspired by the ceramic artists of Japan as well as my own Native Ancestors, the Huron-Wendat. Those Ancestors were masters of the coil pot with symmetrical design and decorations.* While I do not strive to exactly replicate either of these types of wares, I do hope that through their inspiration, and my own hours of practice, I will someday rank as a professional in this ancient art whose product is both fragile and enduring.

* See p. 196 in A Population History of the Huron-Petun. A.D. 500 - 1650, by Gary Warrick: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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This page posted: 11 January 2014
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Special thanks to Ali McDonald of St. Johnsville, NY for the foxgull logo design, which was a birthday gift in 2002.