The Creative Accident: Visionary Ceramicist Edith Heath on Serendipity, the Antidote to Obsolescence, and the Five Pillars of Timelessness
On aligning the things we make with basic human values for an enduring world.
By Maria Popova
“No one is fated or doomed to love anyone,” the philosopher-poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “the accidents happen.”
What is true of interpersonal love is also true of our labors of love — creative accidents are a mighty instrument of art, often steering entire trajectories of expression and endeavor in directions we could not have willed.
That is what the visionary ceramicist Edith Heath (May 24, 1911–December 27, 2005) explores in a previously unpublished lecture titled “The Creative Accident.”
Heath discovered art while studying to become a schoolteacher, then fell in love with the particular creative potential of clay. Largely self-taught, she spent WWII foraging materials from defunct clay pits closed during the war — brick clay from the Bay Area, talc from Southern California, fire clays from the Sierra Nevada foothills. In the final years of the war, she learned ceramic chemistry from an émigré physicist, then went on to revolutionize pottery with her alchemical approach to clay and glaze, becoming ceramicist and chemist, designer and inventor, idealist and entrepreneur, using the principles of science to place everyday beauty within reach of the working class. She lived nearly a century as an unstoppable creative force, touching millions of lives with her work that endures as the iconic Heath Ceramics.
At the heart of Heath’s creative practice was the element of fire, reminding her always of a time when “the Earth was a red-hot molten mass of chemicals and minerals,” primordial and uncontrollable. Seeing in fire a parallel of the creative force itself, Heath argues that at the center of art lies a kind of “acceptance of the accidental” that is counter to the basic human instinct for controlling chaos. The artist then emerges as a kind of shaman of the accidental, dancing between its acceptance and its control.
Perhaps the artist has been trying to do both — accept the accident through finding meaning in it. And in finding meaning in it, it is no longer accidental and disquieting, but rather presents a state of equilibrium. This equilibrium manifests in the controlled accident of a work of art may be symbolic of all the controlled accidents that non-artists accept every day.
In sentiments epochs ahead of her time, Heath holds capitalism accountable for its tacit acceptance of practices that foment economic inequality and environmental collapse. While on the other edge of the landmass Rachel Carson was insisting that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Heath writes:
We accept the accidents of economics that necessitates (designing for obsolescence in order to maintain high employment and high standard of living). We accept the accident of over-production of food stuff in this country — setting a ceiling on what can be grown — while millions of people go hungry in other countries. We accept the accident that more natural resources are wasted in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world and proceed to waste them with no guilty conscience… We accept the accident that some people are born with dark skin, or are born to wealth of poverty, with high or low IQs.
By “accident,” of course, she means outcomes beyond the reach of our individual control — functions of a confluence of chance and choice on behalf of forces far larger than us, operating on time scales far beyond our individual lifetimes. She observes:
We can safely refer to these happenstances as accidents, for certainly no one would say they were “planned”. Certainly an error in judgment in diplomacy is not intentional. Planned obsolescence is intentional but it is nevertheless a negative solution to the unpredictability of economic forces. The farmer did not know he would be growing too much food. Our forefathers did not know this land would be filled with natural resources. Since nature bestowed them upon us, why shouldn’t we exploit them? Race, color, creed, intelligence and national pride too are accidents of heritage over which the individual had no control.
Heath was far ahead of her time in her understanding of cultural dynamics and civilizational urgencies. Observing that, historically, creative breakthroughs have come far more frequently from individuals than from groups, she presages that a great impending calamity — atomic destruction in her day, climate catastrophe in ours — has the power of fomenting extraordinary collective creativity:
Because we are teetering on the probability of the most terrible accident in history… it may force more individuals to become creative as a group. In other words, terrible accidents motivate group actions toward creative solution. Potential accident is not a good motivating force, just as capital punishment does not deter crime. Real accidents, however, do in time motivate a group.
An epoch before the term “sustainability” came to bear its ecological connotations, and long before the world awoke to the hazard of climate change, Heath — whose working ethos was to “use the Earth to save the Earth” — adds:
Design for obsolescence as well as depletion of natural resources are real accidents of history that do exist today, which are beginning to compel creative people to design for more basic human values than superficial “styling.” The designer sees in these two accidents of economy a new potential for genuine development in… our whole way of life around the world.
With the depletion of natural resources, we will begin to make and build things to last. Since they must last longer, they must… take on a timeless quality.
This timeless quality, she argues, must be cultivated in all creative works — “whether a painting, a house, a piece of music, a car, or a piece of pottery.” With an eye to her own field, she offers five pillars of timelessness that a maker must follow:
TRUTH — to materials, method, use. Materials not faked to look like something else. Respect material and let it state its unique esthetic… Method of production should not simulate or be imitative of another process — respect the handmade — respect the machine-made — each has its own beauty.
USE — does it function well? Does it please the senses as well as the mind?
SENSE OF EVOLUTION — does it reflect a concept of evolution? In other words, does it give one a sense of well-being because it has evolved through man’s search for new understanding of materials, processes, and a good way of life?
SPIRIT — does it make you feel snobbish or superior or does it excite and exalt you to the point where you want to share the experience with others? In other words, does it ignoble or demean or does it bring dignity and pleasure to you and your fellow-man?
PERSPECTIVE — does it recognize relevance, relationship? Does it exist harmoniously in relationship to other things? Is it too dominant, too weak, too trite, or does it function genuinely, lively, appropriately?
Couple “The Creative Accident” with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing,” then revisit the poetic physicist Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.
Special thanks to Sarah C. Rich at Heath Ceramics and Jennifer Volland at the UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives for granting me access to Edith Heath’s unpublished manuscripts.
Published February 11, 2023