Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I'm approaching the confluence of a few deadlines, and so posting will be erratic until next Thursday.

That said, I've finished my art analysis project, or as Marly called it, my Pot-Paper.

For those who really, really want to read it, please click on the new little three-dash symbols below, right above the "posted by" info. My apologies for the MLA style formatting, and my imperfect translation of such into blog style.

And for those who want to see another picture, no worries, one will be coming soon!

An Opening, Centered: Art Analysis of a Pot by Alice Cling

“What is culture? [It is] the development of attention,” wrote Simone Weil (Bell 117). By concentrating our attention, our surrounding culture acts much like a reverse prism, focusing our otherwise multifaceted experience of time into a bright but narrow light. How does time shed a metaphoric light on beauty? When a person from one culture finds creations from another’s culture beautiful, what happens to the viewer’s experience of time? This art analysis explores the possibilities for understanding created by a focus on one facet of beauty—hózhó, an essential part of Diné (Navajo) culture (Reichard 195-96)—through attention paid to one object, a pot made by contemporary Diné potter Alice Cling, in the context of our course focus, time.

First, I would like to address the initial challenge posed by this analysis, the challenge of selecting a subject. I limited my scope to contemporary ceramics because of the “timely” paradox that this medium embodies—ancient skills made new in living hands, work that despite its fragility will likely carry meaning far past our civilization’s end and further into the future than other, newer art and technologies (Kuzmin 364-69). Using that most contemporary of tools, Google, I searched for images that were resonant with the topic and my sensibilities and found an artist whose work I had never seen before. Featured in the Purdue University website, “Women Artists of the American West” (Peterson), the pottery of Alice Cling was new to me. When I saw the pot in Figure 1, its beauty stopped me; my search for an object of attention ended, and my search for understanding began.

Fig. 1. Pot by Alice Cling. Photograph by Sally Martinez. From Susan Peterson, Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations. 1997. 07 Oct. 2007 .

In order to understand this object in relation to our course focus, time, and to better understand what moved me about the object, I found it necessary to delve into the language of beauty and into Diné culture. Crispin Sartwell’s marvelous little book, Six Names of Beauty (Sartwell), explores the variety of meaning carried by six different terms from six different cultures—Beauty, Yapha, Sundara, To Kalon, Wabi-Sabi, and Hózhó. In his chapter on the concept of hózhó, Sartwell contrasts and connects Western European ideas of beauty with those of the Diné culture. He writes:

In my view, [the Navajo] integration of values and activities is simply an expression of the universal fact that human beings are connected to environments and to each other: it makes explicit an integrated system no one can evade. That is, hózhó is a Navajo concept, but a cross-cultural truth. The arts of “the West” are as much a reflection of our culture and as much a utilization of environmental materials as anybody’s, and they change the world as much or more as well. Hózhó has many things to teach, but it teaches first that beauty is one thing: everything. (Sartwell 136)

As with the other names of beauty, Sartwell’s point of view and his desire for understanding becomes the clay he shapes into a bridge between cultures, in this case extending the concept of hózhó beyond its Diné center.

According to Sartwell, “Beauty is the string of connection between a finite creature and a time-bound world” (Sartwell 109). His time-infused connection illuminates some of the difference between beauty and hózhó. Hózhó can be approximately defined as wholeness, balance, health, robustness, and beauty (Reichard 195-96). Hózhó is not time-bound; the etymological root of “beauty” contains allusions to both desire and loss by implying a connection to a specific person (D. Harper), whereas the root of “hózhó” conveys an ongoing, cycling, and universal present time:

...when one says nizhoni he means ‘it (something specific) is nice, pretty, good’, whereas hozohni means that everything in the environment is nice, beautiful, and good. As a verbal prefix, ho refers to (1) the general as opposed to the specific; (2) the whole as opposed to the part; (3) the abstract as opposed to the concrete; (4) the indefinite as opposed to the definite; and (5) the infinite as opposed to the finite (Witherspoon, 1974:53-54). (Witherspoon 24)

I find it interesting that the phoneme ho, which transforms the content of this Diné word from the particular to the expansive, is an outbound puff of breath, one of the most basic of biological metronomes as well as the out-breath of song at the heart of Diné creation stories (Navajo Cosmogony and Worldview).

Alice Cling’s pot reminds me of the expansive quality of the phoneme ho by exemplifying hózhó explicitly and implicitly in the following ways. In Diné tradition, the process of making an object reflects the state of hózhó of its creator, and that state is conveyed to the viewer or user of the object (Witherspoon 151), so my experience of feeling stilled and centered by the pot’s simple beauty validates its being hózhó. There are physical qualities of hózhó in the pot that support my experience as well; the dark blush of smoke and soot from the firing, called fireclouds (Alan Jim) by Diné potters; the slightly asymmetrical shape of the pot, as if it were alive and shifting under the potter’s hands and our gaze; the narrow foot (base) evoking the pointed feet of ancestral utilitarian pottery (Hibben 200); and the active, curved form bearing echoes of Bik'eh Hózhó (Witherspoon, Peterson, and Lang 10). Attention given to this pot is rewarded in a way that honors both viewer and creator, bringing them together and further confirming it is hózhó.

How does all this inform our understanding of time? Although hózhó may be a concept with less meaning tied to concepts of past and future than the ongoing present, the implicit attributes of the pot extend hózhó into deep time. This pot connects at least three generations of Diné women—Alice Cling, working a new approach to what had been a utilitarian tradition; her mother, Rose Williams (Indian Pottery History), and her aunt, Grace Barlow; and her children (Twin Rocks Trading Post). Through this pot and others like it, Ms. Cling provides for the future of her family, both by sharing the craft and by creating a wider audience of buyers. The clay dug out from her family’s land was likely formed 500,000+ years in the past, providing a more-than-metaphoric ground upon which the present-day Diné draw creative energy from their ancestors’ lands, the Diné’tah (Karlstrom). The wood gathered for the smoky kiln-fire had its own timeline embedded in rings as round as the pot; and the pine sap sealant, applied by hand and burnished, connects the pot’s surface, the skin through which it connects to the viewer’s present moment, to the craft tradition of an ancestral time.

This deep time resonance, and the corresponding inner stillness, is missing for me in other contemporary ceramists’ work. In my experience with works by well-known artists like Bob Arneson (Robert Arneson’s Eggheads) or Katsumata Chieko (J. Mirviss), there is something lacking. Close attention paid to their work did not alter my perception of time’s passage. In contrast, the experience I had when I first saw Alice Cling’s pot recalled my perception of time during meditative practice. The surrounding air stilled. Time slowed, blurred, and seemed to stop. Works such as Arneson’s visual puns, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Beckett’s jars in Play, and even this analysis, show us that a pot can overflow with language and meaning. Ms. Cling’s creation emptied me of chatter. Alice Cling’s pot is an opening, centered; the work’s beauty shed a quiet light on time.

Through focused attention over time that echoes the cycling present of hózhó, I found that simply looking closely at this pot changed my experience of time’s flow. By being open to different kinds of beauty, I found beauty does not always contain a foreshadowing of its own end, but sometimes reflects a cycle of recreation and renewal. In some cases, in some cultures, if the work is beautiful, it is because the creator and the act of creation are beautiful, whole, centered, and harmonious; and because the universe itself is beautiful, hózhó.

Works Cited
ArtsWork - The Philosophy of Navajo Pottery Making. 2002. ArtsWork. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Bell, Richard H. Simone Weil : The Way of Justice As Compassion. Ebook ed. Lanham, MD: Lanham Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. 6 Oct. 2007 .
Danisch, Jim. 2006 "Wave" Installation by Jim Danisch. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Hibben, Frank C. "The Pottery of the Gallina Complex." American Antiquity 14 (1949): 194-202.
Indian Pottery History. 2007. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Karlstrom, Eric T. "Late Quaternary Landscape History and Geoarchaeology of Two Drainages on Black Mesa, Northeastern Arizona, USA ." Geoarchaeology 20.1 (2004): 1-28. 12 Oct. 2007 <>.
Katsumata Cheiko Biography. Joan B. Mirviss. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Kuzmin, Yaroslav V. "Chronology of the Earliest Pottery in East Asia: Progress and Pitfalls." Antiquity 80.308 (2006): 362-71.
Navajo Cosmogony and Worldview. 2003. Mesa Community College Anthropology. 16 Oct. 2007 .
Online Etymology Dictionary. 2007. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Peterson, Susan. Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations. 1997. 07 Oct. 2007 .
Reichard, Gladys A. "Language and Cultural Pattern." American Anthropologist 52.2 (1950): 195-96.
Robert Arneson's Eggheads. UC Davis. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Sartwell, Crispin. Six Names of Beauty. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Twin Rocks Trading Post. Navajo Pottery. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Witherspoon, Gary. Language and Art in the Navajo Universe. Ann Arbor, MI: The U of Michigan P, 1977.
Witherspoon, Gary, Glen Peterson, and Peter Lang. Dynamic Symmetry and Holistic Asymmetry in Navajo and Western Art and Cosmology. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1995.


am said...

"Ms. Cling’s creation emptied me of chatter. Alice Cling’s pot is an opening, centered; the work’s beauty shed a quiet light on time."

Glad I took the time to read your paper. Thanks for posting it.

Pedro said...

I read it.
You perfectly explain a touching sensation I always feel when looking at old very used tools and utensils that I love.
I have a great collection of simple, cheap, used and beautifull old tools of very different uses, places and times. I always think of the experience and thought and time and of course materials needed to get to those beautiful precise forms.
You will have a good mark!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting it, Lori.

I had a thought about where you might find a parallel in the dominant culture. If you look at some of the Seagrove potters of North Carolina, and in particular at the various members of the Owens clan--Ben Owens and Ben Owens III being notable figures--you'll find people who think of their work as going back locally for hundreds of years (and before that, I suppose, across the sea.)

chris miller said...

Ah - timelessness -- why desire anything else?

You got me looking at the Robert Arnesons -- which I just think are ugly -- and the Katsumata Chiekos - which have a certain beauty -- but I still feel time passing.

What about photography ? attractive - yes -- exciting -- yes -- clever -- yes -- eye catching -- yes -- but timeless ? Maybe -- never ?