Symmetry is soooo overrated

Heh, heh….. :)

Most potters own a wheel that is round and goes in a circle. No wonder pots keep coming off these wheels round and symmetrical! Thankfully I know someone who knows someone who has a brother that can make square wheels. Triangular ones too! And just look at what comes off these dissymmetrical potter’s wheels!

Extremely flat rectangular vases with my new handles.

Extremely flat rectangular vases with my new handles.

Square and triangular pitcher/pouring vessels.

Square and triangular pitcher/pouring vessels.

Square cruets with round necks and side handles. Getting my square wheel to make round shapes was almost impossible!

Square cruets with round necks and side handles. Getting my square wheel to make round shapes was almost impossible!

Couldn't resist taking these images before the slip went on. I so love the way that clay looks when it is fresh off a wheel. Especially fresh off a square wheel, I might add ;)

Couldn’t resist taking these images before the slip went on. I so love the way that clay looks when it is fresh off a wheel. Especially fresh off a square wheel, I might add ;)

Ooh là là!

Ooh là là!


Thankfully the new handles work with these shapes. Glad I remembered to try them before they all had my old variations!

Thankfully the new handles work with these shapes. Glad I remembered to try them before they all had my old variations!

Symmetry is sooo overrated!

Symmetry is sooo overrated!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!




Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, Pottery | 2 Comments

Plain and Simple

I had a really fascinating discussion with one of my students the other day, and one of the things that eventually came up was how ‘simple’ is not the same thing as ‘plain’. He had been talking to his wife about the direction of his pots and she brought up the distinction that some of his forms were so avant-garde that the Average Joe wouldn’t know what to make of them. She was suggesting the point that there is a reason for simplicity. If you want people to feel comfortable drinking from one of your mugs you should perhaps aim at something that says ‘mug’ to them. If you are aiming at ‘high art’ or some more sculptural entity you may not even care whether people drink from your vessels.

The difference for the potter is one of intention, and it plays out in the details of form. But the interesting thing is that on the receiving end it is also a psychological and cultural manifestation. An extremely ‘arty’ mug is not necessarily an object for mainstream ordinary activity. And why is that? Perhaps you will only be talking to the minority who get what you are doing. That seems worth remembering. A ‘mug’ is a socially defined object that has a place in cultural practice. In other words, a functional drinking vessel is something that people know how to use, and this has to coordinate with understanding the shape in just such a way. Some potters choose to flirt with a mug form that does not actually invite use. Does that make sense?

So the question for potters is “Why make mugs?” and “Who do you intend these objects for?” and you can see that the two ideas are related. The nature of simple pots is therefor an issue that often concerns potters: The more outlandish and complex our forms the less we will potentially be speaking to a broad grassroots audience. For some audiences it pays to lower the bar a bit. That’s what his wife was getting at. But what does ‘simple’ actually mean? Shouldn’t that be obvious?

(Get your diving gear on and prepare for bizarre deep sea wonders and alien landscapes as I go off the deep end once again!)

The point I followed up with is that ‘simple’ is perhaps not as simple as it sounds. For instance, its not an objective quality that all people would agree on. One person’s finding things simple is another person’s bafflement at complexity and obscurity. That sounds complicated…… It turns out that ‘simple’ is only simple when its understood to be simple. Gee, that helps a lot! ;)

Let me approach this from a slightly different tangent. The transition between simple and complex is also hard to spot. We see it more clearly in the extremes, but so much of life happens somewhere in the middle where things are less obviously contestable or are more easily taken for granted. To be honest, we don’t think about it much. Our comfort zone doesn’t usually raise many red flags, but neither does it challenge us to look deeper. And that makes pinning down the ordinary idea of ‘simple’ anything but simple.

Determining simplicity usually has less to do with the details themselves and more with how we understand them. Like I said above, simplicity is often a measure of our ‘getting it’. We pin the labels where they make sense. Simplicity and complexity are what the mind sees rather than objective facts about the objective world. When we see simple things we are seeing the world as simple.

(We descend deeper and deeper, the glow of top-side fading as the murk closes in about us. The tour guide clicks on the beam of his high powered lantern and things start to take shape in the distance, darting forms among vast encrusted otherworldly sculptures……)

Anyone remember the duck/rabbit thought experiment?

Depending on how you are looking at what you are looking at it will either be a duck or a rabbit or both, but not simultaneously. What this tells us is not some mysterious quality of our mental states but what direction we are prepared to go in how we describe the image, for instance. Seeing it as one thing or the other means we are placing our actions within the context of a particular setting where we know what to do. We have nade sense of some psrt of the world and by that we mean that it connects up with these other ideas and things we can do.

Depending on how you are looking at what you are looking at it will either be a duck or a rabbit or both, but not ordinarily at the same time. What this tells us is not some mysterious quality of our mental states but what direction (under normal circumstances) we are prepared to go. Its a direction in how we describe the image, for instance. Seeing it as one thing or the other means we are placing our possible actions within the context of a particular setting. We are confirming that we know what to do. We have made sense of some part of the world, and by that we mean that it now connects up with these other ideas and things we can do. “The ears go over here, the eye just so, and the mouth like that.” Seeing the image as a duck/rabbit simply means we have a place for this kind of thing in some specific activity. What we call it is part of a web of activities, of which the language game forms a part.

Calling things ducks rather than rabbits, complex rather than simple, just means that we are prepared to talk about these features in this particular way and we have darn good reasons for doing so. There is often a cultural context that makes this seem ‘right’. But, whatever the good reasons we had it may turn out there are also at least potentially convincing reasons to look at things differently. That’s what makes the duck/rabbit image so provocative.

How does this relate to a discussion of simplicity and complexity? Well, calling things one or the other often involves the same sort of determination. No one is denying that it makes sense to call certain things simple and others complex, merely that there are pragmatic consequences of doing so. We are (for instance) engaged in a particular method of describing things, and it makes sense to keep that it mind.

Quick, which is more simple, a pile of a million grains of sand or a group of five grains of sand and two metal ball-bearings?

You can say it both ways and have justification. The justifications are not what we have a problem with, but the multiplicity of possible correct points of view. The divergence of opinions is what confuses us, perhaps. The concept seems to point in more than one direction at the same time.

Its like you are looking at a flower, and someone comes along and tells you that you haven’t really seen it unless you are looking through a high powered microscope. Or that old parable about different unsighted people groping an elephant and imagining what it is based on just the trunk (a snake), a leg (a tree), a tusk (a spear), an ear (a fan), or the tail (a rope) etc……


This all seems important because we tend to judge things relative to how interesting we find them, and the art world has had a thing or two to say about simplicity. Maybe not always simplicity per se, but plainness. The art world is far from objective, and its advocates often have very well defined agendas. Looking at the same object will get different responses in the sense that some may prefer ducks to rabbits, others rabbits to ducks. We tend to interpret the world according to the things we find most important. And ‘simplicity’ is on the out. Does that surprise anyone?

Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.” Donald Barthelme

In the world of Great Art the ‘simple’ is often disqualified as the easy road. Its less deserving of our respect because it wasn’t ‘earned’ to the same extent. Notice the connection in Barthelme’s words between simplicity and the ‘already speakable and already spoken’……… This has serious consequences for potters.

As a potter I am aware of the discrimination much of the art world heaps on pottery. Pottery is the black sheep in part because of its more mainstream aspirations. The more we want ordinary people to use our pots the less thrilled the art world seems to be. The $500 (and therefor unusable) teabowl is ‘better art’ just because of its exclusivity, its lack of ordinariness. The price alone helps to make it extraordinary, and whole institutions are built up to protect and encourage this valuation. Scarcity and value go hand in hand. And this can be seen as a reflection of the relative simplicity demonstrated. What less ordinary thing can there be than the “as-yet unspeakable”, than the exemplary work of art?

‘Simple’ pots are not held in great esteem, but ‘snazzy’ more sculptural ones are, perhaps, shown at least a little respect. Simple is too… simple. The dust of all too many centuries has settled on these pots. Ordinary pottery is hidebound with tradition and, therefor, irredeemably plain. Most pots are simply ‘old-fashioned’ and in need of a thorough dusting if not an ardent sweep out the back door. Or, at least that seems to be the perspective from a certain lofty height.

The reputable art industry wants something more from its artists. They want them to try ‘harder’, be more challenging, offer the viewer a bit ‘more‘. As Barthelme says, “the as-yet unspoken”…… Just what are the rules for the as yet unspoken?

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.”

Potters and the high stakes art world are like Alice and the March Hare. Its easy to talk past one another when the common ground is shaky. How can you have ‘more’ when you don’t have any to start? How can you not (at least potentially) have ‘more’ when you don’t have any to start? The disagreement shows two different ways of observing the world. And if we look closely at our daily lives there are many instances where this bifurcation seems present between us and others: We use the same words, point to the same objects, but we don’t mean the same things by them. The different webs of our activities stretch out from them in incompatible directions.

In the same sense that we find ‘simple’ controversial the idea of the ‘plain’ is even more inflammatory. There are times when we want things to be plain. Yes. Clarity seems to warrant plainness rather than exciting complexity. That’s what my student’s wife was speaking to. We need to have that at times.

But not always. Where’s the fun in plain, boring, and dull? They are rarely the stuff dreams are made of. They are never the spice in life. Almost always when we call something “plain” we are casting aspersions. We almost always mean it in a derogatory sense. The difference between ‘plain’ and ‘simple’ is that plain things have already been whooped on. They are defeated. Plain is in the doghouse almost wherever you meet it. ‘Simple’ may not always be great, but the stigma against it is possibly less severe.

Pots aren’t just simple objects to the folks who don’t appreciate them, they are “plain old pottery”. Nothing special. End of story. And when the world has been defined in those negative terms what hope do potters have of reaching that audience? That’s a question many of us seem to ask. Our plainness stifles us.

Is it any wonder that there is this tension between keeping it simple and accessible and jazzing things up and making them interesting? As simple an object as a mug may be, it seems to inevitably point us at a certain schizophrenia. But that’s the plurality of the world talking to us. Our work is accessible in relation to how simple it is and yet not merely plain. How can we not be tormented by this seeming contradiction?

And yet, some potters are not confused. Or don’t care. They know what they want their pots to be and the audience can take it or leave it. The ideas of simple and complex, plain and exciting, are irrelevant to them because their work is focused on their own internal objectives. Their pots are situated in the world almost by accident, as curiosities rather than commodities…… They don’t need to be accessible because they are not aiming for a potential conversation and the common ground that facilitates this. They are pure expression rather than negotiation.

That’s a lot to consider…. What kind of artist are you? Do you care? The more this question matters to you the more these issues might be things you need to grapple with.

(The balast tanks blow and you begin the awkward ascent to the surface. You can come up for air now! Phew! The diving excursion is over, until the next time. Pop the gasket on your pressurized helmet, breathe deeply of the fresh air and take in the radiant sunlight. When you can, go back and meditate on the complexity of subsurface life. The CGPB Underwater Adventure Tour is ready to disembark.)

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

Look mom, no hands!

At least, I am hoping that I can still make pots on the wheel without needing my hands too involved…..

I’m guessing that it was just a bit of cosmic irony that a bare few minutes earlier last night I had been teaching my students that there are no rules, that there is no one way you have to do things to make pots on a wheel. I had just shown one student that you don’t have to start out with the clay centered but can open your hole on an uncentered lump and then extrude the clay under your fingers to a centered shape. I also made the preposterous suggestion that you can still do this to walls that get uneven during the thinning process until the walls have become either too flared or too thin. It ain’t over ’til its over! How’s that for overturning some cherished student teacher dogma? ;)

I had also just shown a student that the cup she was about to put a handle on still had too much clay left in the bottom sides and that (if it is still wet enough) you can put the cup back on the wheel, get it centered, and then rethrow that bottom portion to make the walls more acceptably thin and even. Crazy, right? But whoever said that a pot taken off the wheel couldn’t be thrown again (unless it was on a bat) had one too many rules, obviously.

If I see a rule I want to test it and find whether what it is telling me is necessary or whether its just convention and our traditions that make it seem important. Maybe I was just begging for the Universe to call my bluff. Maybe I was asking to be challenged to put my money where my mouth was…..

So I finish telling my students all these ‘rule’ bending/mind blowing revelations and then trundle back home where a sink full of dishes await. I must have been primed for the bushwhack or too ready for sleep at barely 10 o’clock, because my sophisticated art capable hands suddenly turned off the nous, the practical intelligence dissolved, and I got all inexplicably fumble fingered. There was this bit of soap on my hands, you see, I reached for the next pot to wash, and then suddenly the Universe explodes into chaos. BAM! The pot I was holding squeezes from my finger tips, shoots out into space as I lunge after it, and then there is a sharp pain, shattered pottery, and a whole mess of blood…… My left thumb and my right #4 finger were the main casualties, along with, unfortunately, my go-to smoothie mug made by Ron Philbeck.

Tragedy strikes. There were fragments flying through the air and blood just started seeping and then dripping and then gushing until the sink was just one big red mess.....

Tragedy strikes. There were fragments flying through the air and blood just started seeping and then dripping and then gushing until the sink was just one big red mess…..

My fingers are hurt bad enough that I sincerely doubt I will be making pots anytime soon (unless I can learn to throw without use of those fingers. Curses!). But you never know. The Universe is obviously challenging me. I’m on a roll right now in the studio, and it would be a shame to interrupt that. But that’s just when you know to expect the worst, right? (The Universe, if it had a sense of humor, would be laughing by now….)

I might give it another day to find out, but I have a track record of improvising myself through injuries in the studio. I had been able to do class demonstrations the day after severely hyper-extending my right thumb (and its still not correctly healed a year on) so maybe even yesterday’s tragedy can still turn into a makeshift studio practice.

The real pisser is that this mug of Ron’s has now bit the dust……

I liked it for so many reasons, but one of the truly great things I got from owning it was what it taught me about handles. I had been making thinner and thinner handles year after year, and then suddenly there was this unapologetic stout handle with a generous backfill on the bottom connection I had to account for. It fit my hand so well that I started to doubt the value of thin. And I really liked the way it looked.

All of a sudden I saw my own trend in tiny handles in a new unflattering light, and I didn’t feel so good about what I was seeing. Ron’s mug gave me the incentive to look at handles differently and to start experimenting in a new direction. I can’t even contemplate my thin and tiny handles anymore without cringing.

And I have my many smoothies with Ron’s mug to thank for that! I can’t imagine where my pots would be if I hadn’t made that connection with this mug. I owe so much to what it taught me. It will have an honored place somewhere in my studio. Or a decent burial at sea……

Why does the phrase “Look mom, no hands!” always seem to end in disaster?


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Idea, execution, object

What is ‘art’? And who are ‘artists’? We know it when we see them. Sometimes. But how far does that get us? Let’s look!

“People get really focused on the noun, like ‘Oh, I’m an artist’ or ‘I’m a writer’ and then they don’t actually think about making art, or writing. Right? The verbs of it. I mean the verb is what you have to fall in love with, the process of the work and not just the product. And I think its so important in creative work just to figure out what your verb is and to figure out a way to have that verb in your life everyday. And then if you turn into a noun, that’s great, but what’s important is to keep doing the verb.” Austin Kleon

Labels are important. They are shortcuts to making sense of the world. They are useful for that, but we can also get carried away. We perform the mental sleight of hand and the signified is traded out for the signifier. Presto-Whamo! Now you are An Artist. Congratulations! The words have made it real. So often saying helps make it so, especially if the words are in the right mouths. Institutional and authoritative mouths. The hard part is already done. Having the right label is like pinning a medal on our chest or hanging a blue ribbon from our neck. Its validation and certification. Cha-ching!

That act of prestidigitation was itself sometimes more convincing than any actual ‘art’ work that might have been done along the way. We flaunt our dossier of gallery representation, sip our half-caf lattes at curbside cafés while reading Foucault and Derrida, wear disheveled rumpled vintage clothing, thumbing our noses at mainstream society and, if we are unlucky, our parents…..

Hipster artist living the Boho dream

Hipster artist living the Boho dream

We dress the part. And dressing also helps make it so. We can spend at least some of our precious creative efforts living up to the visual expectation of the label rather than doing our work and letting the chips fall where they may…… By mistaking the trophy for the race we flirt with parody. What would Sisyphus say?

The idea of the stereotype isn’t that its necessarily true or necessarily false. Rather, a stereotype lets us know when we have been bamboozled. The fact that there is an acknowledged stereotype means we understand the sorcery behind our words. If we buy into the stereotypes it only means….. what?

We can jump to conclusions. We can hang the label in the wrong places. We can mistake one noun for a series of other possible nouns and a few choice verbs. Everything else is too often window dressing, but the label we are fixated on seems to hold the key to the real underlying reality. We accept it as the really real. Only, our language has deceived us. As Wittgenstein repeatedly pointed out, “a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it”. We are obsessed with the power of nouns to pick out objects. We are tempted to think every noun has to mean something substantial. That and only that.

We make the same confusion with the word ‘art’, for instance. The vague and loose ways in which we ordinarily use the term ‘art’ seem to often (mostly, always?) get substituted out for the art that is the object of the ‘official’ version. As if it has to mean this and only this. How could it not be this? How could it be something different? Something less substantial? Our material minds take over. We are prejudiced in favor of nouns, and when we can pick them out we are often encouraged to look no further. The noun works, lets use it. Cha-ching! Look who just got paid!

But there isn’t just art in the end product, there is also art in what we do. There is also art in how we do it. The verb of ‘art’ is under-appreciated. Kleon is right about that. It has to occasionally be more than the object, right? At least at times? “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. Its you and the muse who are necessary. The art won’t happen without you and not often without the muse. The art only happens when you are working. The art is you working. Its performative. Get your verb out and let it run wild. Art all day. Art like it matters.

Art doesn’t just show up in the hands of artists. It doesn’t spontaneously erupt from what they do. Sometimes the object itself is incidental. Or, even if the object is momentous sometimes the important thing is how we got there. There was art in how we got there. The doing of it. The art was in the performance which gave rise to the object. The art was something we did. The art extended out of us in a natural creative act. Our hands moved and something new was born. The art was a part of us rather than the materials we used. We own the art in the same way we own our feelings and our moods. The object may be sold, it can be shed from us like clipped fingernails, but no one can ever take the art out of us. Its ours to give. It lives inside us. Its how we express ourselves in the world. Its something we exercise where and when we wish.

Or not. In some not so distant future we will all have our own personal 3D printers that we can download the specs of any object to and reproduce every possible three-dimensional item. Even if its only speculative science fiction right now, the idea is that the original object itself is nothing special. Objects are a dime a dozen, and are not ranked differently in the material plane. Anything can be reproduced when broken down into its physical attributes. Art is just one of many possible things in the world. We can get our own new art with just a series of input values run through a program, cranked through a material synthesizer and Presto-Whamo! another art object inhabits the world. And artists ‘showing up’ is less important for the creative act than a drone simply flicking the switch to let the machine take over. What happened to the art? What happened to art as something special, something unique? In the level playing field of this possible future I’m afraid I’d be out of a job……

Homo Economicus thinks this picture of the future makes every bit of sense: The world as commodity. What is the value in ‘making’ if we can’t trade on something that personal and ephemeral? The things that get traded out in marketplace transactions are the things that we can count, so we are back to products rather than process. Process is simply how things get to market, means to ends. Forget the artist, get me that future where the ‘art object’ is manufactured as efficiently and timely as possible. Why wait for artists to ‘show up’, for their muses to ‘show up’, or for the trial and error of free form exploration? Human creative process is messy and profligate. You will want your art and you will want it now. Life is a vending machine, not a lump of clay. If you want something arty you will be able to get it off the racks, take the mechanized shortcut through the messy creative solipsisms and nervous breakdowns of actual organic artists, head straight to the checkout and have your art waiting for you. The future looks bright for the art connoisseur!

As different as this future might be its something that artists can at least relate to on one level: We fallible fleshy idea processors mostly have to play this object oriented game to make our living. The object can be bought and sold. Right now we have the advantage. The art buying public needs us as manufacturers. But when Voulkos and Picasso can be dialed up from the memory banks of your personal 3D replicator the actual verb of art may have been driven off a cliff and to the further margins.

Someday we may even rely on computer programs for our new poetry and innovative art ideas. What is so strange about programs generating ideas? Artificial intelligence aims at creating the full flavor of human nuance, and this surely has to mean our eccentric creativity as well. Are ideas so special that only humans can have them? Hmmm…….

For instance, art can also be taken as an idea. Forget the object, forget even how it got there, its sometimes only the idea that counts. An author pours her heart out and gets published. She gets paid not for the pencil scrawlings, not for the number of pages compiled, but for the ideas that are represented there. The plot is embedded in the words, the characters exhibited by the scenes, but it is those things put together in just this way that make the difference. The individual printings and editions come and go, but it is the idea that she contributed, ‘the work’ itself. The idea is what gets trademarked and copyrighted. Material things appear in the world; books, automobiles, and toaster ovens. They are appearances. But the idea that stands behind them is more fully real (according to some Platonists). You can destroy a copy of a book, but the idea of that book is something different. You crash your 1974 Corvette, but the idea of Corvettes lives on. So maybe art is better thought of as the idea behind the object. Maybe?

Take the latest twist at the etsy crafts marketplace. Handmade is now something that includes the design you sent to China to have mass produced in factories.

“Etsy’s updated guidelines state that all Etsy users are eligible to use outside help, whether that be a clothing designer who outsources her sewing to a garment factory or a visual artist using Zazzle to print his work. The only stricture is that creative authorship has to rest with the seller.”   Liz Stinson

The art, then, can really also be a design property. Rude Platonism is on to something important. Forget the object, forget how it gets there, its the idea behind its construction that contains the art. The artist doesn’t just make objects, doesn’t really have to make anything at all. The art is in the idea for things, a mental property, and the artist is the conduit that makes these wheels turn. The artist is the software designer. The artist is the software. The hardware, the actual object, and how it gets put together are not something the artist has to dirty their hands with. Art is the selection of what ideas will be manifest.

Duchamp helped move us in this direction with the idea of Readymades. The object is merely a vehicle of the artists curatorial discretion. Its not even the idea behind the making of the object that is important. Its original purpose is irrelevant. Its the idea of the object in this context we need to consider.

Term applied from 1915 to a commonplace prefabricated object isolated from its functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection. Unlike most types of Objet Trouvé, of which it can be considered a sub-category, it is generally a product of modern mass production, and it tends to be presented on its own without mediation. In its strictest sense it is applied exclusively to works produced by Marcel Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the clothing industry while living in New York, and especially to works dating from 1913 to 1921. Duchamp envisaged the ready-made as the product of an aesthetically provocative act, one that denied the importance of taste and which questioned the meaning of art itself. According to Duchamp, the artist’s choice of a ready-made should be governed not by the beauty of the object but by his indifference towards it; to these ends it could be selected by chance methods, for example by a predetermined weight or at a predetermined time.”   Lewis Kachur

And there you have it. Are our knees wobbling and our heads spinning?

What was the point of all this discussion? I’m certainly not saying art has to mean one thing rather than the other, and I’m not jumping to the conclusion that it therefor means nothing at all. Really I’m just seeing where looking at art takes us, where it lives in our lives, and the broader contexts that give it meaning. If its a messy affair, then so be it. Imagining that it has to be something simple only makes us look simple. I get tired of the linguistic and cultural surgeons who would rather amputate and sterilize what we mean by art than respect the jumbled diversity and confusing plurality of what human beings actually do with it. Always ask yourself the question “Who does it serve?” to take one meaning above the others. What ‘disease’ are they treating? Whose mouth are they feeding? And may illumination find you.

There, I’ve said my peace.

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

Critique your failures

“The other night during the juror’s comments at the Biennial Show of the Hamilton Potters Guild juror Angelo Di Petta said there is nothing worse that someone’s indifference to your work. It is better to make work that someone loves or that they hate. At least they have some kind of feeling for your work. I had a Professor once that said “Say something brilliant and they will remember you as the person who said something brilliant! Say something stupid and they will remember you as the person who said something stupid. But if you say nothing at all who will remember you?” Making work without feeling is indifference to the material. Living with indifference is a non- state of mind. With the passing of so many clay legends this past year I am reminded that life is precious and that we should live it with passion not with indifference.”  Tony Clennell

A student I worked with a few months ago has become really serious about moving forward with pottery in his life. He has found a passion, and he wants to explore it. As someone who cares about helping people do these kinds of creative things I could not be more pleased. It is part of my conscious mission to encourage this sort of interest wherever and whenever I can.

The community center I teach at doesn’t provide the best opportunity for giving feedback to the students. Getting students to LOOK at what they are doing is a far cry from getting them to make things. Training their eyes to what details make what difference in the pots is a slow and cautious chivying to the water. The wild horses don’t always see what you are showing them and will bolt at sudden noises and unfamiliar scents. They will look at the water and see nothing special. They won’t always understand that you get to drink from this reservoir.

But some students ARE interested in broadening their horizons, exploring their options, and you just hope that you are there at the right time with the right words and examples to help them get what they need. The one student who emailed me the other day has a fresh batch of pots that were fired in one of the local wood kilns and he is interested in some feedback. In other words, he’s at the point where he actually wants to look at the pots and figure out what it is possible to learn from them. He is interested in learning to see more of the information that is portrayed in the pots he made. He is ready to care about the difference that is possible. Its no longer simple acceptance that anything which survives the kiln is good, and it is not indifference to making ‘bad’ or ‘good’ work.

This is an important step for many students. It seems, however, that the usual temptation is to look at only the pots that came out nice. I suggested that he bring not just the pots he likes, but also the ones he doesn’t. If you are just learning from the success stories you are only getting half of the picture. Its actually an example of the survivorship bias, and by only examining the winners we may draw the wrong conclusions. Here’s why:

Think of it like this: Every artist is trying to find a way to express themselves and to communicate, so in at least one respect what we are doing is like learning a new language. The interesting thing is that we are also making up that language as we go, so there are no guide books, dictionaries, and grammar texts unless we want to speak someone else’s language. We can trace the exact route that others have followed if that is our intention. But that only teaches us what other people have had to say.

Which is not to say that we can’t learn from other people, its just that we often have our own agenda that may not be covered by someone else’s expressions. Our goals and motivations are no one’s but our own, in the end. We simply recognize that some languages share similar origins and reflect many of the same values in the world. Different languages can overlap in important and interesting ways. (Having grown up speaking Dutch for a few years, when I had to take German in my American high school I realized just how easy it was to confuse what you do in one language with what you do in the other. If there were speakers of a Dutch/German creole in my class I would have been fine, but my pidgin attempts rarely impressed my teacher.)

Discovering the kind of art we wish to express means coming to grips with what it is possible to express. What things do we want to express? Figuring that out is part of what we have to learn, but we also need to uncover those things that will not be a part of our language. We need to learn not just what it makes sense to do but what it makes no sense to do. We need to find the things that we would rather not give permission to. Things become visible not just from the light shining on them but from the shadows that are created. Anything that means anything is a context. We discover ‘good’ not in isolation but because it stands out from ‘bad’. To have a this it often means we also have a not that. We draw the circle not just to define what stands inside but to exclude what stands apart…..

These are some new jumbo cruets that I made yesterday. The spouts are radically different from the ‘elephant trunks’ I usually put on my pouring vessels. These resemble the Michael Simonesque teapot spouts that are ribbed flat on the underside.

(L)The handle is a bit too large and the spout maybe a bit too fleshy where it joins the body and sticks out more horizontal than it should. (M) The spout is a bit longer than I like and the 'shoulder' is a bit flaccid. (R) This came pretty close, but the spout aims too high and is too near the body.

(L)The handle is a bit too large and the spout maybe a bit too fleshy where it joins the body and sticks out more horizontal than it should. (M) The spout is a bit longer than I like and the ‘shoulder’ is a bit flaccid. (R) This came pretty close, but the spout aims too high and is too near the body.

(L) The spout is just a hair too long and the handle is pathetically too small. (R) Seems pretty close.

(L) The spout is just a hair too long and the handle is pathetically too small. (R) Seems pretty close.


Lesson here, if some things are not good enough on their own, occasionally they add up to something greater than the sum when put together. Sometimes you have to sacrifice one detail to let others flourish. Its the idea of breaking eggs to make an omelet. Sometimes the flaws are simply the ingredient necessary to rise above the mundane…..

In isolation they look mostly alright to me, but seeing the group helps define what things work and why. It shows how things could be better because there is a contrast that illuminates the differences. The more I can generate subtle variations and pay attention to how they play out the more information I am building into my decision making. That seems like an important point. You have to be willing to fail. And the moment you think you have it all figured out is the place you stop growing and have decided that surprises no longer interest you.

If we only learn what specific things should be expressed we might stop after a few statements have been mastered. We might take those examples and run with them. We might forever be stuck repeating “See spot run”, or “Jack and Jill went up a hill”. The more important realization is that the things we like are only some of the things it is possible to express. We have permission to express them, but it is not necessary to only do so. What we like are the details that we find it important to communicate. There can be qualitatively equivalent subtle variations and differently complementary alternatives. The things we don’t like are the details that we seek to avoid.

What we learn in picking up and inventing this new language is that there is a shape to what we are doing. Its a shape that we are continually uncovering. Some edges are clear, others are less defined. We are given a code, but its often much more effective as proscription than prescription.

Its like we have found parts of the buried tablet describing the new Commandments. “Thou shalt not…” means never do that. “Honor thy….” means do that when it is appropriate, not always or only do that. If we confuse permission and conditional responsibility with obligation we can mistakenly shut down all our other options. The details I like are merely some of the words I get to use to express specific things, but there are many possible words that can express many other possible things. We need to learn as many of them as we can until we are comfortable making the statements we feel we need to make. We need to continue at least until we can communicate to the people we want to reach. You learn that you like Italian food. That doesn’t mean you only eat Italian food or that it is the only thing you can possibly like. You learn that you hate eggplant and Brussels sprouts, so you know exactly what you are NOT going to be eating. Does that make sense?

Our failures stand out as the things where our language breaks down, where we make statements we regret, where we communicate poorly or things we wish we hadn’t, or where we simply fail to make sense. Our failures are a sort of doggerel that doesn’t properly belong to the language we are trying to speak. They are the incorrect tenses of verbs, indecipherable nouns, incoherent grammar, disjointed construction, dead ends and whatever wrong turns that send you farther away from your intended destinations. And you have to look at these when they come up. You have to understand them and figure out what went bad, why they went wrong, and in what ways they failed. You have to know your history of failure or get stuck making the same mistakes and wrong turns over and over. And until you learn this lesson you will wonder why your fingers hurt every time you put them close to a flame…… Failure instructs us in ways that success never can.

You can’t go through life without making mistakes, but the best way forward isn’t to only do the things you know will work. You can’t simply cling to success. That only ends up with you treading in a circle and repeating yourself. You have to keep yourself open to the new discoveries, which means that you will continue to make mistakes. You will test boundaries as you discover them. You will also invent new points of view for which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t yet exist. You will continue to redraw the map and color in areas as they unfold to your exploration. But that still leaves the many things that remain hidden, the things that are yet also permissible and the huge majority of things that have yet to be known.

Learning a language isn’t a recipe for only saying certain things in a certain way, its a process for interrogating the world, for asking questions, and for uncovering answers. Its a method for coming up with things that have never been expressed before. So its important to have as many tools in your tool belt as you can reasonably fit.

You can specialize, of course. You can be The Master of Declarative Statements. But you can also set your one preferred language aside and learn to speak something different, with different rules and different values. We can be bilingual and multilingual if we are inclined. Even our failures, the places we wouldn’t normally go, can have a possible context in which they might make sense. It turns out I like raw Brussels sprouts. I like Baba ghanoush.

Which only means it is important to remember that the things we are learning are the framework of one possible language only. And its okay to be committed to that as long as we understand it could have been different and still can if we wish it. The shape of the world we see is only as it appears from this one point of view. Stand outside of that and you may discover even stranger things than you had imagined were possible.

Protect your failures. Don’t ignore them. Nurture them in this one specific way: Respect that what you did was a mistake, and because it is important not to repeat it you will give it its due. You will avoid it in the future. You will learn to critique your failures. And this means you will come to live inside them. You will inhabit your mistakes until you know why it is important not to go there again. And you will do this because you are better than that. You are not indifferent. And you are not lulled by the siren song of easy victories. You are an explorer who navigates the rocky shoals and braves the tempestuous seas. A challenge is almost never a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, just a warning. It means something because it has consequences. And that is what we learn from, good and bad. If you avoid all challenges you have simply learned to play it safe.

All for now!

Happy potting!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Teaching | 1 Comment

Susan Cain on how to overcome the fear of putting yourself out there

Coincidence abounds! I find it endlessly fascinating that some of the topics I am thinking about get manifested in sources that couldn’t possibly have read what I posted, emailed, or cogitated through. Maybe that in itself is a lesson in how small the world really is and how alike we are in so many ways. Maybe its one more tentative step to proving how much we really share and that we are not as alone as we might occasionally be tempted to think……

I awoke this morning to find a message responding to the post I had recently written on how shy I naturally am but still advocating for the benefits of putting oneself out there and getting in touch with people who have interesting things to say or whom you respect and resonate with. I believe in these things quite strongly these days, so I wrote back and offered what encouragement I could. A few minutes later I was checking my blog roll and up popped a post from the fabulous Susan Cain on precisely this issue. What a coincidence! No wonder people sometimes feel the Universe conspires…..

Here’s some of what Susan had to say, follow the link to the rest of her post:

How to Overcome the Fear of ‘Putting Yourself Out There’


Image credit:

Image credit:

In honor of Arianna Huffington’s marvelous book THRIVE, I want to write about a very specific aspect of well-being: freedom from fear of sharing one’s ideas.

In researching my book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I met a scientist performing groundbreaking work on social anxiety disorder. A charming, articulate man, he confided that his interest in the field came from his own struggles with shyness. But he asked me not to use his name in my book. “Not everyone is as comfortable as you are exposing their true feelings,” he said.

To which I could only say “ha.”

I am not a natural self-discloser at all. It took me thirty years to realize my childhood dream of becoming a writer, partly because I was afraid to write about personal things — yet these were the subjects I was drawn to.

Eventually my drive to write grew stronger than my fear, and I’ve never looked back. I still envy friends who write about topics like science or politics. They can show up at dinner parties without everyone announcing: “Here comes the introvert!”

But you get used to it. And really, it’s a small price to pay for the freedom to say what you think.

I tell you all this because I hear often from people who burst with ideas but decline to share them, because they dislike the spotlight. Maybe you fear others judging you and your work. Or you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or of success.

So many fears, so many ideas worth sharing. What to do? Here are eight ideas to help you power through these disabling emotions.

1. Know that you’re in good company. People have always had to put themselves out there. We tend to think that in the good old days, no one had to self-promote the way we do today. True; but if they wanted to share, or lead, or create, they had to go public with their thoughts, too. And this has always been scary. Darwin waited THIRTY-FOUR years to publish his idea that humans evolved from monkeys. Scholars call this “Darwin’s Delay,” and many believe it was due to his fear of how others would judge his heretical theory.

2. When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion. Blogging and tweeting, if practiced properly, feel more like a creative project than an exercise in self-disclosure, even though of course they are both. They also don’t require the in-person social multi-tasking that many people find so exhausting.


7. Strengthen your backbone, and therefore your confidence, in small steps. Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of question – it can be how to organize the dishwasher.

The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it. Then, produce more consequential ideas from this same place. You’ll still have doubts, of course -Does it make sense? Will people agree? That’s normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.

8. If you need a role model of fearless idea generation and sharing, you really need look no further than Arianna Huffington and her Third Metric mission. She’s not worried about resistance, criticism, or taking on a mission that could, theoretically, fail.

Or maybe she is worried, but she does it nonetheless. And that, really sums it up: be afraid, but do it anyway.


Artists are so often (not always, of course!) people who find the quiet time of creative introspection fulfilling and sustaining. Its often something artists do because what happens in the moments of intimate expression of our imaginative life simply matter so much to us. We are most at home in the busywork of making new things real. We’d rather create than almost anything else. And the time spent alone in the studio is where we often feel happiest. At least, it is part of the happiness we have found, and we still have enjoyable and fulfilling lives outside what we do on our own mixing paints, staring at keyboards, strumming the strings of an instrument, pushing clay around….

Art simply appeals to the more introverted of us because its an opportunity specifically designed to explore our inner workings. We feel things deeply, and we plunge into those icy waters until we learn to swim and even breathe underwater. Unlike the keg parties and mosh pits of the gregarious lives we sometimes lead outside our studios, the private time working on our art is a space that VALUES the quiet interior life.

So my experience has been that many if not most artists at least sympathize with the difficulties of shyness and introversion. The skills we have to offer don’t always seem to be appreciated as much in the public domain. And that is often why art becomes so attractive to so many of us: Art is a means of expressing the things we care about on our own terms and in our own way. It declares “Take me as I am.” Its not always an attempt to ‘fit in’ or to talk the loudest over the blaring music. Its not always an attempt to stand out or preen in the spotlight. Often our art is something quite a bit more humble than those things, a bit more personal, and sometimes mostly significant to ourselves.

Which doesn’t mean its not worth sharing! We make our art for whatever reason, and sometimes it is important to get it out in the world so that other people see what you are thinking and recognize the fundamental humanity you have to offer. Being known in this way is, perhaps, a deep need for every person. Its just a bigger leap of faith for introverts and shy people. Just remember that you are not alone. You are not the only one feeling these things.

And for the extroverts out there reading this, I may not be speaking about you but I am still speaking to you. This is how around 40-60% of the people you know feel. These are the things some of your friends and family have to deal with. Understand the issues and learn to empathize with what they are going through. The world can be so much more kind than it is. Don’t you think?

All for now!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!




Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 7 Comments

Tricky business and other tricks of the trade, pt. 4

So this is part four of the wrap up from my conversations with Ben Carter. Its not specifically a topic that we discussed, but its an extension of where the previous ideas were heading. I wish I could have talked about this stuff with him in person, but I don’t think I had that clear an idea of just what we were discussing at the time…..

Sequoia Miller has been investigating some of these same issues, and the current issue of Studio Potter has an essay of his devoted to these inquiries. Sequoia wonders:

“What changes have we experienced in the field of studio pottery in the last fifteen years? How do we situate the dynamic and varied practice of making pots in a ‘post-studio’ and ‘post-disciplinary’ moment that seems to call for a different approach?


How do we respond as studio potters? Who knows. Build alternative institutions? Make more spectacular work? Not care? Maybe the Occupy movement and other radical or anarchic strategies offer alternatives worth exploring. Maybe media theorist Alexander Galloway’s notion that a ‘society of control’ has replaced the society of spectacle opens new ways of thinking and making…..”

The idea that intrigues me most is that of building new institutions and repositioning control. In the last essay I suggested how important it can be to put yourself out there to see who you can connect to. This should mean something practical for us. If we are stuck only figuring things out on our own I’m not so sure we will always get very far. Its sometimes a choice we make, to go it alone and do it all by ourselves. Self sufficiency has its appeal, don’t get me wrong. Being the authority over our own situation is often welcome compared to ceding some of the control to middlemen in gatekeeping institutions. Its just not the only option we have, and maybe there are some hidden advantages to moving forward as a group of fellow artists, at least in part or when we want to.

Fortunately this clay community is brimming with entirely generous souls and amazingly bright personalities. Some real sharp thinkers too! You’ve got a question, someone out there will have an answer. There are kindred spirits all around us, but we might never know it until we start making the overtures to let them know who we are. We end up stronger as individuals just knowing we are not alone, that somewhere at some time some other person has faced similar situations and has the hard earned experience to prove it. We can learn from their mistakes and from their triumphs. We don’t have to figure it out all on our own.

But where does that leave us? A loose community of overlapping shared interests and unconnected individual pursuits? Each of us still forging ahead on our own and in our own peculiar directions? Are we a community of facebook-thread talkers only, or do we actually DO stuff together? As a group? Can we create new ‘institutions’ from our own sense of community whose control is in our own hands?

Another potter I have become friends with is the great potter/blogger John Bauman. We have chewed the cud and shared many a virtual beer over the past several years. Last week on facebook there was a discussion concerning issues of the virtual pottery community in preparation for a panel talk at the NCECA conference. I had raised some issues about the changing role of gatekeepers in this new unfolding environment and eventually the conversation led John to respond in this way:

We need to create our own networks based upon our own stories, brands, and shared values. One of the reasons art fairs worked SO well for so long is that we artists shared the gravitas offered us by our fellow artists — not just the “gatekeeper” juries. In other words, the advantage offered me by an art fair was that I could present my work to an un- or undereducated crowd….but they could see me set up next to a painter, or a jeweler, or a glass blower, and by virtue of THEIR excellence, I might be similarly judged. If the jury considered me in the league of those my fellow artists, I was able to trade on their gravitas.

And though we don’t have the immediate physical presence such an art fair scenario affords us, we DO have the ability to make connections and linkage with other artists online through social network. In a way, we create our own network of peer gatekeepers who advance our brand every time they share our images, our poems, our thoughts. We CAN share in each others gravitas….if we are humble enough. If we can allow ourselves to see a world wherein we can praise another without the perception that in that praise, we diminish ourselves. Seems simple, huh?

Ben Carter has certainly done more than his share of bringing potters together, as well as connecting them to their past. He’s a good example of the new kind of gatekeeper. As he creates his niche, he will bring along people he finds useful and interesting. That’s how it’s going to be for all of us from now on. Find a useful group to hitch your barge to….and be willing to do your share of toting that barge yourself.

Which is such an excellent point!

In today’s art community its not simply individual artists and their institutional leash holding gatekeepers but the wealth and variety of fellow artists who share our values and interests and who help keep things afloat. It only makes sense for us to reach out and become connected to fellow travelers as we attempt to navigate this brave new world. Hitch your barge to the things you like and the people you admire! Offer them something in return. Help them tote their own barges when they need a hand. Reach out to your fellow potters, especially the ones who have the same sorts of interests that you have. Reach out to anyone you admire. We may live spread out all over the world, but we can come together online and form a new intentional sort of community. Having each other’s back is that necessary link that will forge a strong chain and benefit every potter who gives of themselves. When pottery wins we all win. Each potter on their own may never pass the narrowing channels, muddy banks, and sharp turns that artists have to face today. But with a few or more helping hands we can quite possibly operate those barges to our mutual benefit.

As example of what I am talking about witness the potters at Objective Clay:

“Objective Clay was born out of the most recent Utilitarian Clay Symposium at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. The presenters, of which I was one, had a chance to talk about their shared experiences selling and showing work and the idea of banding together to try engaging an audience through online and social media quickly came about. The broad range and high quality of work as well as the intellectual curiosity and rigor of its members gives Objective Clay a strong place to being speaking in its own way about contemporary ceramics…. There is no reason why we cannot be canny and shrewd in regards to redefining the importance of art and craft for future generations. Most would say that the economy is something that happens to us or at us, depending on where you are in your career and life. We should make the attempt to help swing the odds in our favor as an entity focused on educating the public and supporting artists.” Brian Jones, Objective Clay inaugural blog post ‘Carving out a future

In the impending post-institutional scenario that the arts seem faced with and the fading relevance of external gatekeepers it is incumbent on artists to take the reins up in their own hands. By banding together we can sometimes create islands that stand out in the chaotic seas, places where we can shelter from the storm and find sustenance. The academic landmasses are looking more and more like an Atlantis submerged. Gatekeeping galleries are more like increasingly isolated and crumbling monasteries with fewer graying patrons and less career influence day by day. They are not the career factors they once were.

Artists today seeking to forge ahead can’t just hope that aligning themselves with the bastions of the ‘good old days’ will keep them afloat for very long into the future. The new tricks of our trade, the tricky business we have to navigate, seems much more up to us now. And to sink or to swim we need to figure out what things can be counted on in our horizon. We may occasionally need to become like ants surmounting a chasm. We may need to join together and manifest a communal bridge into the future. Together. In bands and roving packs.

ants bridging the chasm

We already are like that. We ARE that. We are used to sharing things and lending a hand. Potters are some of the most generous people I know. The trick will be working on projects of mutual benefit rather than simply pitching in on each other’s projects.

The future we face has too many crumbling and unsteady institutional bridges. The gaps they are spanning are ever widening, and the foundations they were built on are shifting sands. It is not always possible to get where we think we need to go following the old maps. The terrain itself is changing. And its certainly not so easy to navigate when we are all on our own. The institutional cartography that gave us our picture of where we were headed is itself disintegrating. And the question becomes how much effort we put into salvaging the ideals of the old system and how much we put into building something new.

New landmasses are forming. MFA degrees may not lead to academic jobs much anymore, but there are other ways for potters to make a living besides selling work and teaching at the U. Pot making is taught less and less in academic ceramics departments, but aspiring students can apprentice with working potters and get their start in community centers and in their basements. Every potter with a video recorder and a youtube account becomes a potential teacher (for better or worse). Brick and mortar galleries that cater to the ceramics community are closing their doors with alarming frequency, but farmers markets are flourishing and coffee shops and restaurants are becoming increasingly interested in local handmade ceramic work. The career landscape is simply not what it was when many of us veteran potters first started……. What do these changes mean for our collective future?

It has to be said that the virtual opportunity that Brian expressed in his statements about the Objective Clay group is something that already has a history with local groups of potters banding together for physical sales and potters from all over joining forces in self curated events hosted in studios with invited guest artists. Some of the notable examples are the Thrown Together Potters in the Charlotte NC area, the Cousins in Clay event hosted across alternating studios in the NC area, the Sixteen Hands Studio Tour in Virginia, the Hilltown Six Pottery Tour in Western Massachusetts, the St Croix Valley Pottery Tour in Minnesota, Art of the Pot Tour in Austin Texas, and I’m sure plenty more. The idea is that these potters are joining forces to create events and storefronts that replace the need for external gatekeepers. As John Bauman said in that facebook thread, we gain credibility by our association, and participating in these events creates visibility that is curated by the artists themselves. In the words of Scott Cooper, we have to “earn back the 50% commission”. When no institutional middleman gets their pound of flesh its now the artists’ own gatekeeping responsibility….. And maybe that also involves some hard work.

But maybe also we sort of know what some of that work will look like. Many of us have our own internet presence, our own websites, our own blogs, our own facebook pottery pages, our own etsy storefronts, etc. These are things we already do to promote ourselves away from the spotlight of institutional representation and validation. But just by ourselves we are only ever one of many (as evidenced by the herd of artists all clamoring for attention on etsy). The virtual world is an amazing opportunity to self promote, but how much more effective does that become when there are more than one artist being actively represented and showcased? Small intentional groups are very different from the egalitarian free for all of places like etsy.

So, do you already know fellow potters that share your values, that you are already friends with? If you are not simply all on your own, who is part of your community? Are there local potters you believe in who believe in you? Internet buddies? Who is going to look out for you? Who is going to stick up for you and protect you from the ravages of an otherwise anonymous and uncaring world?

We are, that’s who. Your fellow potters. Maybe not me personally being there for you, maybe not you being there for me, but someone out there will have my back, and someone out there will have your back too. If you put in the work to make connections and to get to know these people, that is. If you have their back too.

So, who is in your community? Who helps you span those chasms? Who helps you tote your barge? Who do YOU help? What community are you a part of, and what things do you share? What draws you together?

That’s something to think about, at least :)

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery | 3 Comments