Rise of the Clay Jock

Like the slow-food celebrity chef, fitness coach, or makeup guru, pottery has become yet another flavor of instantly consumable content.

The video opens on a seated man straddling a mud-splattered basin. The camera is centered just below his navel. He wears a faded blue apron around his waist, met by a loose grey shirt that reveals taupe muscles. A small dark-blue gage enlarges his left earlobe. His head is shaved bald under a faded blue baseball cap. A round beige object fills the center of the frame, obscuring most of his torso.

With both hands he sets a huge lump of latte-colored clay on a flat metal plate in the center of the basin. The plate begins to spin. He slaps the lump into a pinecone shape. He squeezes water on top, making it glisten. It becomes smooth and tall between his hands. He compresses the clay into a wide cake. Both thumbs dip into the center. With one hand, he pulls out a thick ring. The ring grows into a cylinder. He plunges his entire left arm into the opening as a thick tube extends from the base of the wheel. The tube bulges outwards while he smooths the exterior with a wooden rib tool. He delicately narrows the neck at the top. The clip ends and immediately starts over before a minute has passed.

This is a composite @tortus Instagram video. The account appears to document the life and work of ceramicist Eric Landon. But Tortus is less a man than a brand through which the attention economy ventriloquizes.

Eric, along with his twin Justin, founded Tortus Copenhagen in 2012. Formerly an economics major from the Midwest, Eric moved to Denmark to study ceramics at the turn of the century. In 2015 he won the Danish Design Award for Craftsman of the Year. Since then, his body, studio, and work have been featured in numerous design and lifestyle magazines. More recently, Eric has begun touring the world, filming his workshop demos and posting beautiful photos of his leisure activities. During this period, the @tortus account has appreciated to nearly 800,000 followers, with a viewership reaching into the millions, making Tortus a cultural phenomena well beyond those who have ever touched a lump of clay.

Tortus is celebrated for harmonizing the slow art of pottery with the age of social media. But its legacy, more than its material output, will be its style of Instagram video, which if it did not create, it certainly has taken to new heights. The brand’s skillful fusion of social and ceramic mediums demonstrate just how little resistance clay puts up when pressed into the familiar shape of a commercialized lifestyle.

Tortus / Instagram

The first thing one notices about Tortus is Eric’s body. Viewers often conflate his clay and flesh. Granted, the walls between art and sublimated sensuality are always thin — especially so for the wet physicality of clay. But Tortus stretches these walls to the point of collapse. The massive cylinders that Eric conjures upwards by careful strokes from his splayed thighs make a Freudian take too easy.

Pursuing this line further leads to the truism that sex sells. But not much has been illuminated. Eric’s viewers consciously enjoy the explicit content. And on these grounds there is nothing objectionable about his work. Millennials are having less sex than their parents or grandparents, so we may as well find substitute satisfactions from muscly men and their vessels.

Tortus / Instagram

The trouble begins if one takes Tortus seriously. Clay is a medium rich in complication. It can contain both beauty and ugliness, fragility and durability, use and uselessness, high art and kitsch-craft. The best contemporary potters exploit these fault lines.

Eric is undeniably skilled. His forms are sensual, simple, even elegant. They draw on a long history of Danish craft. But there is no such tension in his pots. The edges have been rounded off. The glazes are neutral grays and pastels. The colors and feeling are akin to the Life is Good products displayed in airports. Even his spirit animal is a streamlined, race-ready version of the cantankerous, plodding tortoise.

More than his pots or body, his lifestyle is what attracts. Eric travels to nice places, takes surfboard selfies and the type of pleasing, generic photos of landscapes found in tourism brochures. He appears to live a version of the four-hour workweek. Tortus implies that, with a bit of skill, practice, and an active Instagram account, we too could live a globe-trotting life of leisure. Like any number of TV shows such as Chefs Table that emphasize the craftsman ideal, Tortus presents a highly exceptional case as an image of what we can aspire to in a world that does not support it. Instead of the daily resignation and despair felt by most people at their jobs, the brand presents a world in which you can “Do what you love, and never work a day in your life.”

Look beyond the pots and photos to the videos, however, and the contradictions become clear. The activity of ceramics has recently been promoted for its anxiety-reducing tendencies. And many say that watching Tortus provides relief. But there are hints of violence in the cuts and artifacts ignored when focusing on the foreground. Between each step Eric’s body and arms appear to convulse spasmodically. In a sense, these fits are an involuntary cost of harmony with the demands of Instagram’s sixty-second limit. But the flailing also serves a function. Before the viewer can zone out completely, they are whipped back to attention. This results in a form that is simultaneously soothing and stimulating. They excite, they agitate, even as they calm. This is the combination that makes them “mesmerizing” or “hypnotizing” (two of the most frequent comments). In contrast, a nine-minute YouTube video of Eric, at normal speed is far less entertaining.

Tortus / Instagram

The appetite for destruction can be seen even more clearly in a new typical video form, shot in real-time in which he destroys a thrown vessel, usually by popping it, sometimes by blowing into it. In contrast to the conjuring videos, which average between 250,000 and 500,000, the popping ones often get millions of views.

Eric claims that he “shows how it’s done.” Sometimes he disclaims that it takes years to master. But the videos themselves say otherwise. They hyperbolize the craftsman’s knack for making something difficult look easy. Technical details like what exactly his hands are doing, and how much water he applies and when, are impossible to assess.

Tortus positions Eric as the mature master who will educate his coterie of adoring young pupils in the secret ways of ars ceramica. Each clip is a self-promotional boast under the guise of life-coach education. This is a wonderful technique for selling classes and pots.

If, however, the goal is to produce creative, self-possessed individuals, these clips are counterproductive. Demonstrations can be useful. But mostly, people learn ceramics by doing, and doing for more than a single day or weeklong workshop. Good teachers foreground their students. They ask: “What do you want to do? Let me help you make the things you want to make.” Demos separate followers from the master, keeping each in their place.

Most of Tortus’s viewers do not have the skill or strength to make the same forms. But its cinematic style is easier to imitate. And many imitators have risen up — if only for one sixty-second sitting. The standard social-media archetype fuses with the recent popularity of ceramics to produce a new character: the Clay Jock.

The Clay Jock can be any gender. They need not erect gigantic towers to demonstrate their potency. What they must do is promote their practice, in which deep craft is transformed into consumable lifestyle.

The lesson of jockery is this: First, make sure you are conventionally good looking. Then, start making films that feature your body prominently. Post videos that tease, under the guise of a how-to guide, in a way that is impossible for your audience to follow, leaving them not quite satisfied, and keeps them coming back for more.

Once you’ve gotten a hang of the basics, try posting a photo of yourself and a more popular potter. Spice things up with off-duty photos of you traveling the world. Instagram followers will follow. Any knowledge about how to throw pots is merely a byproduct of the real lesson being taught, which is how to become a Clay Jock — a scheme with the same ground rules as any celebrity market.

It is possible to jockey without deploying many of the usual tactics. Florian Gadsby (whose Instagram fame surged after posing with Tortus), is an example of one who resists Instagram’s speedup with a few clear, real-time videos, long explanatory posts, and far less emphasis on his body than his beautiful, functional ware. But in a crowded playing field, this is also a clever means to differentiate one’s personal brand. Even established potters are now getting into the game, for jockeying has become a requirement for making it.

Escaping jockery is not a matter of fewer sped-up Instagram videos, or more static images of work, or ten-minute YouTube videos. The latter are certainly more educational. But the difference is one of degree, not kind. At issue, rather, is an economy which has little time and few resources to foster creative development for most.

In a world out of our control, in which we are pressured to monetize every facet of our lives, we turn to the Big Ones who seem to have figured out how to make it work. In exchange for our attention, we hope they will teach us how to attain a version of the Good Life. But no matter how hard we try to mold ourselves in their image, it will not change the fact that such a life is currently possible only for a few. This trend is the same for every self-professed expert instructor, whether it be yoga or web design, in which the skill of self-promotion is confused for the thing itself.

If the Clay Jock teaches us anything, it’s that ceramics offers no refuge from capitalist pressures. Like the slow-food celebrity chef, fitness coach, or makeup guru, pottery becomes yet another flavor of instantly consumable content. What we need instead are practices and objects that pinpoint the dissonance of our world and enliven us to the possibility of reshaping it. The clay studio can be a place to incubate such visions. To do so we must look to other models for inspiration.