The Value of the Apprenticeship | Clary Illian | Episode 223

Clary Illian | Episode 223

Clary Illian YunomiClary Illian is a true treasure for the clay community around the world. Her book, A Potter’s Workbook, has been played an important role in the development of potters’ skill and understanding of clay and making. An award winning documentay, A Year in the Life, focused on her work and principles. PBS also featured her work in Craft in America. Having studied as an apprentice in Bernard Leach’s St. Ives Studio, Clary eventually made her way back to the United States and set up a studio in Ely, Iowa. For over half a century Clay has worked in earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain with the idea of making pottery for ordinary people at affordable prices.


NOTE: All photographs, except Clary’s profile picture, are taken from this site:

Clary Illian Bowl


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Clary Illian Serving Vessel

Having been a potter for so many decades, how do you stay inspired?

I don’t know if inspiration is the word. I think that it is process- little tiny process steps that lead me by the nose through the work and through the engagement. Recently I made some bowls and I did some decorations. The decorations I did were things I’ve done before and I was looking for way to recombine some patterns and images. And it just wasn’t hitting it at all, and I just felt crumby at the end of the day. Then the next day I found a way to take those same decorative elements and I put them together in a way that was more successful, and I felt good about myself. So that’s the way it works in my pottery. I do a little drawing or I look at a book or I see an image… and I find a way to that… and it keeps me hooked in for X number of days and then I have to look for a new little element. So far it’s worked.

Clary Illian Plate

How do you get past self-doubt?

I just ask myself Who ever told you that you have to be so first rate? Then I say, Do your job. Just be faithful to your craft. That’s all.

Clary Illian Pitcher

How do you stay motivated to keep making?

I must say, it really helps that people buy them and use them. I don’t know how long I’d last if sales just dried up completely. And I use pots in my own life, just every other potter I have cabinets full of pots. I guess that I just believe that it brings pleasure and meaning to life to have these handmade objects in life and use them every day. That seems to be enough for me.

Clary Illian Pitcher 2

How do you market your work now?

I am still kind of going on momentum now and I must say that it’s been slowing down. I mentioned earlier (in the podcast) about earlier parts in a potter’s career when they are really pushing and trying to figure this all out. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent any real effort trying to maintain or develop my market, and I am kind of feeling it. You do go out of people’s minds. I guess I am not hurting enough around this issue to do anything about it at this point.

Clary Illian Cup

Name an artist you’d be honored to be compared to.

I kind of think of myself as a journeyman, and I have a lot of company there. And I sure hope that occasionally I make good pots, but I don’t know if I locate that desire for quality in the example of another person. There is a terrific documentary of Woody Allen. I think a lot of people don’t understand about Woody Allen why there is this mix of indifferent work and terrific work. But he’s not necessarily aiming at the terrific work, he’s aiming at making a movie every year. He forgives himself when it isn’t good- he’s swept up in the process. That’s why I can’t answer that question because it’s just a journey.

Clary Illian Cup 3

What kind of advice would you give to the young potter just starting out?

Keeping in mind that I am talking about potters that want to make lots of pots for daily use, my advice would be, don’t abandon that idea. There are ways to do it; it is a worthy idea that you can make pots for daily use, that are simple, and direct, and they have value.

Clary Illian Cup 2


The Potter’s Workbook by Clary Illian

Ceramics by Philip Rawson


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  • Clary is an American treasure. Thanks for the interview. Very inspiring and enlightening.