Repost: The aerobic exaggeration of ‘Carpe Diem’

I can’t help but think of the film Dead Poets Society when I hear the phrase ‘Carpe Diem’, a film that examines the conditions of life and ends in suicide. Robin Williams helped stick seizing the day cleanly in my psyche. “Seize the day!” was also the last line in another of his immortal movies, Hook, this time delivered by a different actor (playing ‘Tootles’). Many of his films can even be looked at as either directly or indirectly touching on this theme. The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting…. The message often seems to be that of not bending to circumstance but carving out a life of integrity and opportunity….. Make the best of your world. Seize the day…..

And there is something about Williams’ on screen persona and his celebrity interaction that (at least publicly) embodied the exuberance of ‘seizing the day’. He liked to make people laugh, and the effort and energy he expended in that cause is simply astonishing. And yet, amidst all the outward frivolity and extroversion there clearly was more going on. And maybe that means that despite the good intentions of ‘seizing the day’ its not enough. Maybe a complex divided soul requires more than testosterone filled ‘seizing’, even of the day’s most bountiful treasures. Maybe there’s more to life than seizing. Maybe there are treasures that can’t be seized…… Perhaps some of life’s greatest treasures are not meant to be ‘possessed’ or are too fragile to be held in clumsy hands…….. And maybe some of life’s greatest gifts are not what you receive but what you yourself have to share……

Here are some thoughts I can share on this other way of looking at it:

(This was written and first posted about a year and a half ago. Hope it makes some sense…..)

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The aerobic exaggeration of ‘carpe diem’

 

carpediem“Seize the day!”

It sounds like a motto we can all probably relate to. Its an exhortation to kinetic activity. It describes a standard for our behavior. Its a personal moral imperative. And it makes sense, to a certain extent. It tells us: “Don’t squander the day. Don’t let it pass you by. Don’t look back with regret and wish you’d done it differently…. Opportunity knocks! Don’t let it slip through your fingers.

But a thing looks different at first glance and in drawing out its implications and further consequences. Instructions to ‘seize’ anything can also seem a bit too possessive, a bit too ‘graspy’. If we put our moral virtue in the activity of ‘seizing’ one has to wonder how far the slippery slope will carry us….

Seizing the day is such a self propelled activity that so thoroughly stands or falls on its rewards that we can easily imagine that the more we are seizing the better we are doing it. Its an aggressive attitude (What would the difference have been if we were told to ‘cradle the day’?). There is nothing passive about seizing. Its a struggle, not merely to hold on, but to capture and to confiscate. There is no room for surrender. For might have beens. For taking a back seat. For just witnessing. Seize it now. Seize it cleanly. And don’t look back. Seize it or be damned….

And rather than simply receiving the day that is offered us we must actively TAKE it. And not just any old way. We must take what we want when we want it. Its ours to take, after all…

Seize the day! Make it ours! The walls are undefended! Storm the castle and put its livestock to the sword. Accept no prisoners. Scatter their ashes to the wind. Suck the marrow from their bones….. Seizing the day is a belief that victims are a part of the natural order. And that might makes right. The power to seize things. Its Darwinian selection. The quickest to act claims the spoils. Snooze you lose. The early bird gets the worm…. Its never seize your own junk, but seize the assets from someone else. Its never seize up thine own beating heart, but pillage where ye may….

We bought the ticket when we entered this world, and rather than sitting in the comfy chairs with the rest of the sheep in the audience its time to get up on stage. We are in this thing called ‘life’ and its time we discovered that it is a full contact event, not a spectator sport…. Its not for the faint of heart. Take your chances or get off the can. Don’t waste your turn. The meek will inherit only the dust of our passing…..

Seizing the day is a kinetic extravagance. A carnival of opportunity. Where do we wish it to take us? Everything depends on our own powers of motion. We are at the center of the universe and we need to see how it can serve us. ‘The world is our oyster’. As much of it as we can get our fingers on. We need to seize it before it passes us by.

And an aerobic and acquisitive call to arms is the method of Pirates not Saints. At its roots ‘carpe diem’ betrays a profound and self-centered anarchy of the soul…. To seize the day is not simply to embrace life. Its not a call to nurture it. Its not a plea to shelter the weak and feed the hungry. The harder you seize it the more you crush it. And the fragile flowers turn to paste. Everything within our grasping reach gets throttled into servitude. If I can reach it its mine. And the dreams of others are strangled by its greedy fingers….

Everyday is your Birthday. And all the presents are for you to claim.
Every night is your prom. And the music is being played just for you.
Pick the golden fruit.
Pluck the brass ring.
Don’t let others stand between you and the prize.
Trample anyone who gets in your way.
Squeeze all the juices out.
Lick the bowl clean.
Never give up.
Winner takes all.
King of the heap.
You are either on top or you are not.
Nowhere else but first place matters.
There are only winners and losers.
Make hay while the sun is shinning.
Get all you can while the getting’s good.
“Do what thou wilt” is the whole of the law.
Life is a frontier riot, and it waits for no one.
The only question is who will clean out the shelves first.
Who will seize the day first?
So fill your pockets with booty.
Fill your life with plunder.
Seize the day. Everyday.

YIKES!!!!!!

Maybe it makes sense to do a bit less ‘seizing’…..

Rather than storming the castle we can in good conscience also sometimes surrender it. Rather than only taking from life we can still maintain our dignity and also sometimes give up the things of value. Its not always about how much we can add to our own hoard. Its not always about what life owes us. We can also receive with humility rather than entitlement. The world is not set out only as tribute to our powers of grasping. Its not always a matter of imperial conquest and piracy….. ‘Seizing the day’ sounds so much like the self absorbed morality of petty children and sufferers of mid-life crises…..

The opposite of seizing the day might be a recognition of the ecology of our lives. That we are a part, not the center. That we are also there to serve, not only to be served. That rather than seizing for ourselves we can make things possible for others. We can sacrifice and surrender our own ambitions. Instead of ‘me first’ it can and often should be ‘we first’…… Any good parent or true friend knows these values.

And rather than only something kinetic and aerobic, life can also be contemplative and compassionate. Rather than a Dionysian cavorting through the mansions of the gods it can be a humble acceptance of our own extraordinary ordinariness. Looking inward rather than outward. Meditation rather than manipulation. Acquiescence rather than acquisitiveness….. What are the treasures of our own soul? Rather than simply seizing more, perhaps we can turn to a better understanding of what we already have. Perhaps our success needs to be measured less by the capacity of our bank vault and more by the capacity of our soul….

Seizing and pillaging leaves only smoking ruins behind and the tears and curses of those who got in our way. We must learn to also be builders rather than destroyers, planters rather than harvesters. If the art of living is simply what we can get away with, then how much does this extend to what we can give away? If its only about my own hands grasping how much does this extend to what I can claim for others? Rather than taking advantage of situations and other people we must give advantage to them and construct situations for them. If its only about living the present as though it were our last day on earth how much do we build for the future and for our children’s children’s children? If we are so occupied with seizing the day do we have time to stop and consider others? Our sense of community? What we leave behind? What we decline? What we leave for others to have and to hold…..?

Perhaps before we get too carried away with the exuberance of seizing the day we should also learn to contemplate the day. Study it. Marvel at the role we play, not just for our own good, but for the good of others. Contemplate our own great good fortune. How we are only here through the compassion and sacrifice of others. Our parents. Our friends…. And not be so obsessed with wringing as much as we can, and more than we already have.

Seizing, it turns out, is often a poisoned fruit. What we win by this grasping agenda may be here today, but gone tomorrow….. Slicing the pie only to our own advantage is not likely to win us any favors or future consideration. Our own progress only at the cost of trampling others will hardly endear us to them. Squeezing blood from stones is not a long term strategy. Planting only the charred husks of corpses will not feed us in the end….

So perhaps it makes sense to broaden our view, and seize tomorrow as well. Seize it as payment to the others in our lives. For their roles in the ecology of our lives. For their own lives’ sake. Seize it because its our responsibility to care for, in trust to those who come after. Nurture it for the benefit of all. Seize it with the delicate sensitivity of an artist’s hands. Not crushing, but sheltering from the storm. Breathing life by owning to the obligation we have to its sustenance and prosperity. Tiptoe around the day. Enjoy the day! And by doing so, learn to surrender to it at the same time….. Slow down. Accept the day. Know peace….

What goes around comes around….

Are we closer to Saints or to Pirates?

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Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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

Art and Exhibition

Do you exhibit your art? Are you an ‘art’ exhibition-ist? Are you, in fact, an exhibitionist? Does exhibition live comfortably in your psyche, in your soul? Is putting yourself out there for public consumption nothing awkward, nothing against your normal persona, and possibly even something you enjoy? Do you like strutting your stuff and scrambling for your 15 minutes of fame? Is living in the limelight exactly where you need to be?

When you put it like that it becomes an interesting question.

We live in a world where extroversion is taken as the norm. Introverts are often seen as people with a problem. They like keeping to themselves more than is healthy and don’t fully embrace La Dolce Vita. They need to be ‘fixed’, as if something is broken inside them. An affliction. Introverts are often happiest when they are by themselves or with small groups of friends, their family, or partner. Crazy, right! Its not that they can’t be sociable on occasion, act casual in the midst of a social storm, but that doing so is not always agreeable to them or in their own best interest…… Surely we must save them from themselves?

So we have this default in our society that often misunderstands the introvert as somehow deficient, as somehow abnormal, as somehow anti-social. And the parallel to how society understands artists can quite easily be drawn. We expect artists to be exhibitionists. We think that if you are not putting your work out there with the abandon of extroversion you are somehow doing it wrong. Starving artists are almost a type of sociopath. They just don’t understand that lurking in the shadows makes them dangerous. They don’t understand that wearing the occasional lampshade at parties is proof that you belong to society……

If your ‘Exhibition Record’ doesn’t include things like “Danced partially naked at the Normal Bar in front of 150 strangers, February 12th, 1994″, “Got sloppy drunk and proposed marriage to five marginal acquaintances, June 23rd, 2007″, or “Sang the entire Oklahoma song list in the subway train on the way to work, November 3rd, 2012″ somehow the word is that you are missing the point. Don’t let the highlight of your ‘Exhibition Record’ be tame things like “Smiled at a complete stranger as we crossed paths, September 27th, 1972″. Right? More is better. Ostentatious extroversion trumps milquetoast introversion the way the world plays out.

We tend to think that the ‘normal’ way of being an artist is that we get up on the commercial stage and flog our wares. We expect an artist to be this almost flamboyant purveyor of their own creativity. The good ones are always the eccentric ones. ‘Selling it’ means getting out there and putting on a show for the customers. The work doesn’t speak for itself (quite often), so we have to spin the stories, weave the yarns, and tell the tall tales to get our creative progeny successfully to market.

But don’t ask an introvert to do that naturally (or often well). Its a model built on extroversion and exhibitionism…… The values of the marketplace are the qualities of extroverts. That seems important to acknowledge.

Astonishingly, perhaps, not every artist is a natural extrovert. Being a professional artist simply means that for some of us there are competing values in our lives. And our occasional native introversion may be called on to bear the burden of sacrifice. You can’t sell work unless you put it out there, and there may be nothing more contradictory to staunch introverts than doing so. This seems worth pointing out. It seems worth thinking about.

Not that every artist is an introvert at heart, or that even the introverts among us are all as threatened by the seeming need for ‘professional extroversion’. I’m just pointing out that the environment of the selling arts is not based on or even nurturing to the psychological make-up of many folks who are artists. If we haven’t looked at the situation from this perspective we are likely missing something that is important.

Society operates on all sorts of defaults, and our expectations and understanding are often ruled by how these divisions are constituted. Maybe we need to investigate a bit deeper.

Take for instance the prejudice we seem to have concerning our inhibitions. To be inhibited means “unable to act in a relaxed and natural way because of self-consciousness or mental restraint.” Its a restraint of something that is assumed to be our natural state. Being “self-conscious” is somehow the wrong state of affairs. And inhibition is therefor something that is looked at as being unnatural. We expect ourselves to be fully free in exhibiting ourselves. Unselfconscious. Do you see where I’m going?

There is some confusion in our language about the ins and outs of our world, interior and exterior. ‘In-‘ and ‘ex-‘ divide the world, and as with other divisions we often seem to attach values to the way things fall out. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are qualities assigned to things according to how we feel the world is supposed to be. And in a world dominated by the values of extroversion is it any wonder that the ‘in-‘ values take such a beating……? Does that make it ‘right’?

Here’s another way of looking at inhibition. In a sense inhibition aligns itself with the values of introverts. Being self conscious is the natural work of introverts. Its not an unnatural condition and its not the defeat of more objectively valued exhibition. Being self conscious is one of the things that everyday ordinary people justifiably do.

Of course I’m not suggesting that some inhibitions are not bad for even the least exhibitionistic of us. But then some forms of exhibition are not that great either. If there is a flaw in extreme exhibitionists you might say that they are not self-conscious enough. You simply cant judge a quality on the extremes only (and if that last statement isn’t sufficiently meta, I’ll have to try harder….). ‘Inhibition’ shouldn’t be a dirty word.

Inhibition means keeping it close, not getting carried away with things that are not integral. It means choosing the values that are specifically internal. It points to a direction that is inward. It places priority on the inherent qualities of our personality and experience. It means a focus on the realm on insight and imagination. ‘Inhibition’ has gotten as bad a rap as ‘introversion’ if not worse. It might be better if we thought of ‘integrity’ when we refer to ‘inhibition’.

And if we look at it this way is it any wonder so many natural introverts are drawn to making art? Don’t we often see art as being something intimate to the maker? Isn’t an activity that asks us to sit in often quiet solitary contemplation and investigation as the basis of practice a natural sanctuary for those with introverted inclinations? Isn’t an artist’s studio a refuge from the hurly burly of the outside world?

For instance, in today’s world we see art functioning as a way of discovering who we are as individuals. These are values that introverts seem especially inclined towards. We look inside and see how that manifests in the conditions of our world. We bring forth ideas and imagination to discover our own place in the world. We discover our path. And its because so many of us are drawn to the contemplative side of introversion that art is such a haven for our creativity. We discover who we are by uncovering the language of the things that move us. What things matter? How do I see the world?

But art wasn’t always like that. And people throughout history didn’t always face such existential confusion about their role in the world and their purpose. Creative expression wasn’t always something we do to figure out who we are, to write our own destiny. This seems as much an accident of history and culture as any other.

Take this brief history of Western art and craft.

(Thanks to Carole Epp for sharing this!)

The point being that until Michaelangelo made creativity a function of individual genius (exceptionality) and celebrity things were operating on a much less extroverted basis. Tradition ruled ‘art’ production, and the individual craftsman was more dedicated to expressing part of that culture. They expressed themselves as part of that culture. Artisans were the keepers of value, preservationists rather than gymnastic exponents of novelty. Expression was something internal to a culture. An impression of that culture, one might even say. Expression was defined by its internalism. Identity was also much more focused on belonging to the group than in standing apart from it. The individual as representing that culture rather than something uniquely risen up from it.

Times change. Only as creative expression took on the character of the unique and exceptional did art seem to break away from its substantial grounding in tradition. And looking at art as requiring this ample extroversion only pays deference to an historical cultural accident and not some objective necessity. The door to extroversion was thrust widely open as soon as we made celebrity part of the equation. And that seems worth thinking about……

Signature style, brand, selling the sizzle, reputation, celebrity… all these things have extrinsic value written boldly across them. And if the current world, the status quo, seems to value these things more is that a lesson we all need to respect and obey? Are there equally worthy requirements of intrinsic motivation that escape this set of values? And are they less precious, in and of themselves?

I sure hope not! But maybe we need to do a better job of figuring this out. Maybe we need to look at the problem a bit closer than we (perhaps) often do. Something to think about at least………

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | Leave a comment

“Some days you are the puppet, and some days you are the hand”

I wish I had thought of that myself, but credit goes to ‘The Clay Professor’, Steve Hansen, for at least first sharing it on the internet if not coming up with it himself.

And it seems right, doesn’t it? Some days we are self directed, pulling our own strings, and other days we are at the mercy of some alien puppeteer or outside influence/circumstance. Some days we are the definitive origin of our ideas and behavior, and other days we are reactive. Some days we are marching to our own beat, and others we are obviously being spoon fed, acting out the roles, mouthing the mantas, snugly stereotyped. Some days we are the doers, and others we get done upon…….

This was a topic we discussed a bit in my class this last week. I think it has application throughout our lives, but as creative beings it seems especially suggestive. For artists the question is often how to put ourselves in the right position to foster and capitalize on our inborn creativity. We don’t always know where out best ideas come from, its not always like plucking ripe fruit from the tree. Sometimes its like sticking a shovel into the mud and hoping we come up with more than dirt……

How is this related? How is artistic creativity often a question of victim and protagonist? It seems we are at least occasionally a mix of the two, the hand and the puppet. The truth seems that usually the hand can’t fully express itself without the puppet to put things in context, to dress up the potential in recognized ways, but also that the puppet obviously just lies there lifeless when no hand inhabits the framework to pull its strings….. We might even say that wanting to play the puppet can be a sort of intention. These things are not necessarily as separate as might appear at first.

A guest lecturer in one of my grad courses explained it this way: Any time you prepare to sit down and be creative it makes sense to ‘prime the will’. In other words, artists position themselves to be more successfully creative by arranging the conditions such that the muse is more welcome, more at home when it gets there, and more able to thrive in the practice of creative work. Whatever the powers of your own originality it makes sense to be in the best position possible to take advantage of them.

Once upon a time it seemed that if I was having a bad day there was no reason I should sit down and attempt to be creative. The baggage I carried to my studio would overwhelm my process and defeat any possibility of fruitful exploration. My will had been obstructed at square one. I was more dependent on these circumstances than responsible for my own success. A classic victim. But eventually I discovered that even with defeatist baggage in tow simply being creative sometimes had the power to transform my day. Just getting involved in the process allowed for a transformation that I might not have achieved in any other way. That seems like an interesting observation…….

Here’s something related: Warm-up exercises. Say you were going to run a marathon. You woke up one day, after years of sitting on your couch and eating fried food, and you decided that running a marathon would be a good idea. Obviously the couch time and poor diet won’t be doing you any favors, but its also true that even in the best of circumstances you don’t just decide one day to run a marathon and step out the door to do it. You need preparation. You need practice. You need to construct the conditions that will lead to your eventual accomplishment.

And its this longer view that comes in handy. Say you are a novice potter and you want to throw a large bowl. Well, you can try straight off, but it might make more sense to ease your way into the process. You might work your way up to big by starting in a range you are more comfortable with. Challenge yourself but not risk implosion. Trying to do too much too fast only sabotages our goals and harms our sometimes fragile confidence. It can deflate rather than bolster our will. Make intermediate shapes and sizes as a way of establishing and nurturing your confidence. Lay a foundation of accomplishment before you tackle the higher priority projects. Set expectations on the back burner and work on putting yourself in an optimal working condition. Work on conditioning. It only counts as opportunity if you are in a position to take advantage. Stack those odds in your favor. Prime your will.

So, preparation and setting the right conditions are obviously important for the practice of lesser experienced artists, but what about established professionals? Can we give up on these insights once we have mastered our medium? Perhaps we are more naturally in control then, but why would you knowingly operate at less than your optimal capacity? Why would you accept obstacles in your path when you already know the procedure for painlessly removing them?

Famously, well known successful artists have resorted to all sorts of extremes in personal will priming. We do what it takes to bait the hook for our muse and get the creative process kicked into gear. Occasionally this verges on the superstitious. Take, for instance, Truman Capote. He “wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.”

Or this anecdote about Friedrich Schiller:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”

 

What do you do that sets the table for your creativity? How do you prime your will?

Is ambient background music necessary? The radio? NPR? Podcasts? Or an absence of music? Does sound distract or contaminate what you are trying to do? Do you surround yourself with images? Make the studio a haven of resources from other artist’s ideas? Or are other people’s creativity dangerous influences that might adversely change what we are trying to do? Is a clean studio necessary? A knolled studio? Or is it important that order reign in its absence? Do we need to start working at specific times of day? Do the crossword puzzles first? Do we need to get to work only on a full stomach? Does an empty stomach and a sense of desperation get the creative juices flowing? Is coffee a creative stimulant? Whiskey? (Somehow a cold beer and grad school often seemed to go hand in hand for me) Do we warm up before first sitting down? Are the first few lumps of clay exercises designed to get us in the groove? Do we practice brushwork on paper before we commit to painting on pots?

There are so many potential ways we can take better control over our process. What do you do to make your time in the studio more productive? What things are in your control that you have identified as promoting your chances of creative accomplishment?

I’d love to hear what folks have to say, so don’t be shy about sharing :)

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination | 25 Comments

Art’s ambition

Its the year 2139, ten years into the war with an alien insect race, and human resistance has faltered. There are just a handful of safe zones that have not been overrun.

Johnson straps into the harness of the one technology that has made survival even a glimmer of possibility. The tech doctors check the connections and monitor his output levels. The readout starts scrolling on the monitors. For seven years at least Johnson has given his best each and every shift. The Intention Translator has turned all his nastiest intentions into reality, and this alone has kept the ravening hoard from the gates. Otherwise, Old Chicago can kiss its a-s goodbye.

Dr Evangeline smiles down at him as the ‘nasties’ start flowing into existence just beyond the far perimeter, engaging with the advance elements of mechanized insect units. Johnson’s twelve hour shift has begun.

…………

A warning light flashes briefly on Evangeline’s screen. She checks Johnson’s vitals. Nothing out of place. But as she leans over him she hears an unexpected sound. Johnson’s stomach is rumbling.

Warning claxons blare overhead as the stream of ‘nasties’ doing battle with the alien invaders is suddenly replaced with first a giant Big Mac, then a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and next a Krystal burger.

“My God!” screams Evangeline, “He’s thinking about food! If he can’t keep his mind on nasty intentions we are doomed!” Pandemonium breaks loose as the entire defense complex prepares for an immediate emergency evacuation.

Then, from the corner of her eye, Evangeline notices something different on the huge screens displaying the conflict: The aliens have stopped their advance. They are all eating the burgers. As the red warning lights strobe in the chaos Evangeline turns and sees a thing she had almost forgotten was possible, even as part of her deepest dreams: The aliens are retreating!

Within the week all aliens have taken to their ships and departed the solar system. He’s done it! Johnson has won the war!

Heh, heh…..

So the previous post explored an idea that what makes art ‘art’ is a specific sort of intention, maybe just the intention for something to be ‘art’. Perhaps things like that get said for good reasons, based on what one has thought about the power of intentions and the idea of art. It sure seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Except that if you look at the nature of intentions more closely you can see that they are generally superfluous. They fly all over the map, and they often have very little to do with results. They don’t always have staying power. Other people get different things from what we intended. Sometimes they are necessary, yes, but not always.

The difficulty is that intentions are part of conscious behavior, and the link between what we are thinking in the moment and what actually happens is often a bit tenuous. Never mind that what you are intending and what the rest of the world sees is not always on the same page. You might say that intentions are only really alive in the mind of the person intending. The situation for art is generally more complex than the influence of simple intentions.

Results are complicated by a number of things. For instance, we change our intentions, we have bizarrely unrealistic intentions, and there are a host of unintended consequences to almost all of even our most important actions. Never mind that we are subject to influences that are beyond our conscious control or even awareness. Many of the better things we do happen on auto pilot (in other words, without our consciously intending them). Intention is similar to our ability to pay attention: We have a limited capacity, and deal with competing demands to focus in the ‘right’ place. It wavers from one thing to the next. It can be undone by the next intention in line…….

I could talk about intentions all day. In fact, I practically did. Then I changed my mind and erased eleven whole paragraphs of rambling. The intention that started this post was to talk about art’s ambition. If that intention got compromised along the way, perhaps the ambition for it survived. And that seems like an interesting point. A good illustration of the difficulty we are faced with too……

‘Ambition’ seems like a related word. What about that? How are ambitions different from intentions?

Well, I think it is safe to say that many fine artists have the ambition to be ‘fine artists’. Whereas intention is in the conscious moment, and thereby subject to radical and instantaneous change, ambition is a slow burner that can be present beneath the surface when we are doing other things. We say that we intend to eat a cone of chocolate ice cream after dinner, but when we get to the shop and see they have 52 flavors plus daily specials we change our intentions and get one scoop of the coconut and one of the blueberry cheesecake. Intentions are like that. They flicker in our mind’s eye as we are drawn first one way and then another.

We can intend to eat a skyscraper. Briefly, perhaps, and maybe because something got us all riled up about it. There is no accounting for what we can intend given the right frame of mind. In a calm moment we can think better of it. Or we can get distracted and now intend to yell at the stranger who splashed mud on us as he drove through the puddle next to where we were standing.

But what if I had the ambition to eat that skyscraper? What would that mean? Well, I might wait long enough for the city to tear it down and then go to the site and grab some rubble and fine dust to sprinkle on my breakfast cereal. I could walk in the building each day and strip some of the wallpaper to chew on. Or I could go the easy route and start with the freestanding things like pencil erasers and potted plants.

Ambitions are less in the moment and more a sign of commitment, no matter how bizarrely we direct those ambitions.

Ambitions differ from intentions in that they are not necessarily conscious and that the duration they have is not measured by how well we are paying attention to them. The ambition to be a fine artist may, for instance, involve going to school, graduating with good enough grades and a decent portfolio that they will admit you to grad school, finishing grad school without having gone insane, and then parlaying the connections you made to introductions into the professional field, and, of course, bedding in with the art market and developing a brand that makes the work acceptable to the relevant gatekeepers. That’s one way of doing it, for sure. A very well trod and clearly delineated path for ambition to take us. We see the ends we want and the means are presented to us in prepackaged form. “How appealing!” some might say.

The interesting thing is that none of that need apply. That’s not the only way to become ‘an artist’. Its not necessary to drink the cool aid to make decent art. We don’t need institutional sanctioning for what we are doing creatively to be seen as or in fact to be art. And more importantly, we don’t have to ‘play the game’ at all. One sort of ambition about art will definitely take the acolytes through the system and smooth the rough edges, manicure all their habits and skills into officially sanctioned ‘art’. That’s what the institution does so well: It gives you ‘Art’.

But the odd thing is that art seems to also happen outside the official corridors. The ambition for art doesn’t always aim at the ‘art game’ that seems to define some professionalized ideas about it. Amazing photographers have been discovered with troves of previously unseen work. Poets have kept their poems hidden in drawers and random boxes in closets. Novelists have written obsessively for their own benefit and never shown their work to people beyond close family. Painters have been consumed by painting and yet never sold enough (or cared to sell enough) to keep them from starving……..

The point being that the ambition for art is sometimes less about the infrastructure of the arts game, its rules and its police, and occasionally more about the work itself, that the person is trying their best to do their best, is exploring the fruits of their unique imagination and perspective on the world, and that they are driven by the need to see where all this expression is going.

It doesn’t necessarily ‘make one an artist’ that we can sell a piece or two. The ideal of a professional can’t be what hangs us up. What makes us artists is that we care enough about our practice that it simply needs to get done. The ambition to be an artist isn’t always the ambition to be a ‘professional’ who makes their livelihood doing it. Its not just the ambition to get hung in a gallery, entombed on a pedestal. Its not simply the ambition to look up the official definition of ‘art’ and do that. Sure, that’s one great way to do it. That specific ambition can be rightly honored. But it isn’t necessary.

Nor is it the only way of doing things. Art happens all around us. It doesn’t need the sanctioning of gatekeepers. The ambition for art is more about who we are and what we want to leave behind for the world. Its the ambition to change the world by expressing ourselves. Artists express themselves creatively. This is the ambition behind what we do. It pours out from the hidden corners of our being. And we don’t need people to listen, necessarily. At the very least the small corner of the world we inhabit has changed. If we are doing the best we can, then we ourselves have changed.

Something I always try to tell my students is that the pottery projects they are working on are all very interesting, but the real project they have is to mold themselves into better creators: The real project they are working on is themselves.

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Pollock

Does that sound like something we can get behind? Forget the destiny of individual art objects: What is more important is what happens to us. That, my friends, seems to be the real ambition for art: Discover who we are as thinking creating beings. Discover it through learning better how to express ourselves. If we do that right, how can we not end up with art?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 7 Comments

Intention is for Amateurs

What if Chuck Close had said this (just one word’s difference):

Intention is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

…………………. Intention is for amateurs. That actually works in this quote, doesn’t it? All the many reasons why Chuck thought ‘inspiration’ was creatively inadequate are just as powerful in dismissing the importance of ‘intention’. You don’t need it to make work. You just get on with your business. You let the work take care of itself. You discover your directions just by showing up and taking those first few steps. You don’t need an intention to land on some specific place to get there or anywhere else. The specific intention is unnecessary. The doing is the important thing, not the intending. Chuck wasn’t disowning every manifestation of inspiration. He was just saying that you don’t need it. The same seems to go for intention.

And yet I keep hearing from artists that intention is supposed to make the difference. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make a difference, just as I would never say that inspiration is to be universally scoffed at. But does it make THE difference…..?

For instance, what I keep hearing is that we intend fine art in some way differently than we intend non-fine art. As in, “the intentions behind this painting are obviously different than the intentions behind this piece of pottery.” The case that is so often being made is that this fundamental difference in intentions is in essence what discriminates pottery and other non-fine art from the truly fine art. And maybe if you look at a painting on the wall of a museum and a mug in someone’s sink you’d have to say that the painter never intended his painting to hold beverages and need an occasional scrubbing. And you might say that the potter never intended his mug to have a gilt frame and be hung on some austere wall with a spotlight on it. When you look at it that way it seems so very obvious…..

But intention doesn’t really answer anything about the object itself. We don’t categorically intend different objects in different ways. Intention is a slippery customer. We can intend bloody well anything we can imagine. Intention is not limited to the way things stand. Its not limited to reality as we perceive it. In fact, an artist’s intention is almost always to take the world and make it different. To intend the world as something other than it currently is. Not just to reproduce it in the same form, but to take raw materials and give it a new form. To paint what has never been painted before, to sculpt where no artist has sculpted before. If intention is all it takes, then why not mugs-in-museums?

Duchamp showed that this is not so inconceivable when he put his ‘fountain’ on a pedestal. If we can intend a urinal-as-art surely we can make the jump to other unconventional objects?

The point being that we are often merely bewitched by our conventions. We can’t see the world as easily without them, so it is difficult to imagine things like pots on pedestals. But that isn’t the fault of pottery. There are pots on pedestals already. Rather, one urinal seems to weigh more in the minds of some folks than the entire output of working potters. We don’t believe their intentions could remotely connect up with the lofty intentions of an artist like Duchamp, or even run of the mill ‘conventional’ artists using traditional media. Its as if there exists a fundamental intentional non-sequitur between a thing that quite possibly has utilitarian function and what belongs in museums. Its as if what belongs (potentially) in a dish drain could never be intended to belong in a museum. When you look at the world in a certain way we can’t even bridge that gap in intentions. Its as if we are being told that it is psychologically impossible to intend both ‘function’ and ‘art’ at once. It seems inconceivable…….

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But as I’ve already said, intentions are slippery customers. They slide out from under us and we sometimes find that where we are now standing has nothing to do with what we intended.

Enter the world of serendipity. Which, if you think about it, has almost always been an important weapon in the artist’s arsenal. Take Pablo Picasso’s word on it, for example:

“I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”

So bugger all intention. If what Picasso suggests is generally true, then artists’ intentions between different work almost never can be the same. One artist over the course of his or her lifetime will have an enormous variety of intentions. None of which seemed to matter in the end, really.

Intention is often what holds us back. We can get bogged down in intending uninteresting things. Repeating ourselves. We can let what we already know be the final word on our destination. We can get too comfortable with the ‘brilliant’ ideas that occupy our minds and not venture into the unfamiliar territory to see what else is out there. Or, as Chuck Close puts it, its the idea that “things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt.” Intention really is for amateurs.

Just ask any person with substance abuse issues who has tried to quit. The intention to quit and quitting are not the same thing. Intention is for amateurs. If you put your faith in intention alone it will get you nowhere. There will be moments when your intention slips and you want to take just a sip. For old times’ sake. F-ck that! You sometimes need to do certian things regardless of what your intentions are. Ignore your intentions. It might be better to intend it in some cases, but you can’t build your house just on intentions. A gentle breeze can blow most intentions from their perch. “Oh I meant to feed your pets when you were gone, but something always came up. Oops! Sorry!”

So keep your intentions. Nurture them if you must. Just don’t tell me that intending something ‘as art’ is what makes it different from ‘non-art’. And I intend to rule the world one day! Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Is it any wonder there is a suspicion that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes much of the time? The intention that what we’ve got going on is somehow ‘special’ doesn’t make it special. Not when your junk is dangling in the street and the sun is baking that uncovered non-crown-wearing cabeza that you proffer to the world as a testament to your glory. Cover that sh-t up! We don’t necessarily want to look at your ‘intentions’. Intentions are for amateurs……

I’m not saying all intention is irrelevant. Just don’t hang your hat on it……… The road to Hell is paved with Good intentions, after all. Having the right intention doesn’t mean that you aren’t still making a mess of things. The world and its intentions simply don’t always add up in that congenial a way.

Well, that’s one side of the story, at least. Of course I intended this in the nicest way possible  :) . I hope everyone enjoyed reading it!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

Go ahead, intend beauty. Repeat after me: “Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

;)

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 12 Comments

The moral decay of art through a soccer lens

In the Holy book it is written: “Thus it was and thus it shall ever be….”

You can always understand why people want to preserve the things that matter to them. Its not unreasonable to want stability and a continuation of values. Change can be upsetting. It often represents a threat to what you consider important. Its a challenge to what you think matters. In the world of the conservative mind its almost always either/or and hardly ever both at once. Purity at the cost of isolation. Separate but ‘equal’ (wink wink). Its the attitude that builds walls to keep out the undesirables. It faces forwards by looking back. It leans into the future by embracing the past. But real change is coming. And some minds are incapable of dealing with it…..

Take, for instance, that spark of conservative wit, Ann Coulter. In a recent opinion piece she vents something she’s been holding back for literally ten whole years. She’s kept it inside for that long but has finally had enough. She’s watched the growing fascination of her fellow Americans with this foreign ‘soccer’ clap trap and she’s fed up. Here’s what she has to say:

“If more “Americans” are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.

I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”

Well, that about sums it up, right? Unless, of course, you remember that ‘soccer’ was supposedly invented in jolly olde England in the mid 19th century, perhaps a bit after Coulter’s stalwart kilt wearing forebear himself made that fateful trip to these distant shores as an unwashed and hapless immigrant, though certainly before the many noble grandfathers she speaks of. But don’t let facts get in the way of opinions. She, like many others, feels strongly about the perceived threat to her American ideals and won’t let simple truth stand in the way of something so important.

It doesn’t matter that the fathers and mothers of these venerable grandfathers were probably kicking balls on the decks of ships as they made their tortured journey to the Land of Freedom and Dignity For All. Except that immigration now isn’t exactly what it once was. Freedom these days is for those as have it and dignity stops well short of those as have not. A handy convenience of the conservative mind: Keep things nice and tidy. Preserve the status quo (as long as it favors ‘us’). Keep the rabble out. Close the gates in their faces…….

And the deliciously ignored irony is that the Glorious Heritage so obtusely offered up as worth conserving actually makes immigrants of us all. How delightful! But how understandable too…..

‘Cultural purity’ is an ideal that prioritizes the rights and privileges of the haves more often than it endorses (or even endures) the equality of the have nots. If it ever does. That’s its single priority, when you get down to brass tacks: Keep the right people in charge. And it takes on institutional urgency as those in power are inevitably reluctant to relinquish their grip on control. Certain accepted values get pushed to the forefront with the conviction of celestial authority and others are indiscriminately discriminated against. And as Coulter points out, in the system of values that puts itself as the only ‘right way’ of doing things, any slippage to unsanctioned priorities is a sure sign of moral decay.

So what does this have to do with art? Our actions reflect the belief that these are the things worth saving. Sometimes this means that competing values in art come under scrutiny, and if some things don’t ‘measure up, well that’s surely also evidence of moral decay. Save what’s worth saving. Burn all the rest…..

Queue the film The Monument Men. The historically accurate plot points to just how motivated both the Nazis and the Allies were in preserving ‘high culture’. I’m sure most of us are aware of the savage theft of art from occupied territories and the looting and confiscations from an entire generation of holocaust and war victims.

“At the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, surrounding European governments began to recognize a cultural threat and scrambled to safeguard their national collections. Almost all modern art of the early to mid-twentieth century was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime and banned; most notoriously, the Nazis put on a degenerate art exhibition in Munich in 1937 to showcase the art they found so offensively “un-German.” Any degenerate art seized by the Nazis was either sold at auction or destroyed. The next course of action for Hitler’s government was to identify all major works of art existing in Europe that were deemed to be of German origin, and move progressively to capture them so that they might be restored to their rightful homeland. They were also after classical masterpieces for Hitler’s fantasy museum in Linz, Austria, which was to be home to what he deemed the world’s finest art. Interestingly, a large part of the artworks looted from museum and larger private collections were taken under the premise of “protecting” them; the Nazis wanted to bring these timeless works under the wing of their self-proclaimed “superior” culture.” Kate Haveles from her essay ‘The greatest heist of all time’

General Eisenhower inspects stolen art in Merkerse salt mine, 1945. Courtesy of National Archives.

General Eisenhower inspects stolen art in Merkerse salt mine, 1945. Courtesy of National Archives.

The Nazis pretended to know a thing or two about cultural purity. The ideals of preserving a specific value in culture are a form of certainty. Its a certainty which divides the world between good and bad, extraordinary and common. It also plays out along the lines of power and resources, ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The entitled almost always label the things falling outside its criteria as ‘degenerate’, ‘immoral’, ‘shallow’, ‘impure’, ‘heathen’, ‘poor’, and a host of other derogatory labels that are easy to imagine. A culturally conservative mindset will always classify its own values as superior to what it doesn’t understand or appreciate. Museums, where these relics are often housed, become mausoleums of cultural purity, artifacts of ‘The Best mankind has to offer’.

And there is nothing wrong with these high watermarks of culture themselves. The traditional cannons of art have an important historical role that continues to this day. They can act as signposts for a society. In some cases its not merely hold over, but a vibrant continuing tradition. Its not always dead relics the public makes pilgrimages to see, but often also thriving unfolding practices. Opera may have little in common with Hip Hop today, but that’s not a slight on either. Graffiti may have little in common with Renaissance painting but that isn’t stopping enlightened and progressive museums from giving it a proper place in their show schedules. The democratization of art and culture has lent itself to the idea of the niche rather than a cultural good that stands for all.

Howard the Duck, Lee Quiõnes, 1988. Courtesy MCNY.

Howard the Duck, Lee Quiõnes, 1988. Courtesy MCNY.

No, there is nothing wrong with the specific values that conservatism in art promotes. In a multicultural pluralistic world there should be room for most everything. Only, the bigotry that denies importance to values that are in conflict seems both unnecessary and suspiciously self interested. Rather than the harmony of upstairs and downstairs working to common ends we get champions of one at the expense of the other. The feeling that it has to be either/or and not both is the problem. There is nothing humble about advocating superiority, and there is nothing remotely empathetic. Denying other people’s values is an affront as well as a form of psychic violence.

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.” Simon Critchley from ‘The dangers of certainty

That’s something to chew on, at least……

And if you aren’t watching the World Cup you are missing something really special! I’ve been glued to the TV and computer seemingly for days and have only missed a few games. And, believe it or not, one of my great great great great….. grandfathers was even on the the Mayflower, to hear the family history told. Put that in your pipe, Ann Coulter, and smoke it.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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

The World Cup and your art

My friend Scott Cooper linked me to an article the other day that touched off another of our far ranging discussions. I sometimes think I should just scrap the blog posts you get and simply post the conversations that Scott and I have.

So anyway, Scott saw this article in the BBC about the psychology of world class athletes and how it relates to everyday activities. Link here. The article makes this case:

Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don’t have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it’s also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn’t mean that you’re mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.

So footballer’s immense skills aren’t that different from many everyday things we do like walking, talking or driving a car. We’ve practiced these things so much we don’t have to think about how we’re doing them. We may even not pay much attention to what we’re doing, or have much of a memory for them (ever reached the end of a journey and realised you don’t recall a single thing about the trip?), but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t or couldn’t. In fact, because we have practiced these skills we can deploy them at the same time as other things (walking and chewing gum, talking while tying our shoe laces, etc). This doesn’t diminish their mystery, but it does align it with the central mystery of psychology – how we learn to do anything.

The point being that while these skills and aptitudes may vary in degree, they are similar in kind. What makes things work for athletes is not so different from what makes things work in other facets of our lives. Art and sport, in fact seem fundamentally connected in some of these aspects. For instance, I always try to get my students to understand that what they do as artists at a potter’s wheel is not so different from what they may be doing playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, or even performing dance. There is an obvious connection in motor skills, sensitivity and physical intelligence. Potters need to hone their body knowledge and develop sophistication with their hands: Positioning, anticipation, responding to subtle cues, technique, and problem solving are things that both artists and athletes know intimately.

And what about the role of ‘luck’ and risk? Part of my response to Scott went like this:

“The Dutch will need to get very lucky to win this tournament, but so far no one else is playing better than them consistently. They don’t always look good, but seem to be clinical when it counts most.

And maybe that holds true for us as artists? That its better to be lucky when its needed than simply ‘good enough’? Remember that survivorship bias article that suggests we need to put ourselves in the position where there is enough random chance that the odds of something good happening are multiplied?

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“Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.”

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The teams in the tournament that are predictable seem to face the greatest odds, because they can be countered by appropriate measures taken. In a game where you sometimes only need to score once to win you can sometimes take the outrageous chances, and when they pay off that’s all you need. Its sometimes worth failing outrageously if it occasionally puts you in a position to exceed predictability.

Its hard for me to say what kind of soccer my art would translate into. I have reasonable technique, not great but generally more than adequate. My imagination is decent but not as fearless as I’d like it to be. My execution could definitely be better. I’m not as invested on the outcomes enough to qualify as world class. I’m still essentially making sketches, so for that aspect of my ‘game’ I’d say I was still probably out playing pick-up on the local field. But I would say that my eye is pretty good. And I’m not a plodder with my nose to the grindstone. I’m trying to look up as I’ve got the ball at my feet. I don’t mind changing directions in mid-stride, of attempting the daring and possibly foolish for the breakthrough chance at glory.

To add more weight to this idea of taking risks here’s a commencement speech Daniel Pink just gave this year:

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And an excerpt of what he said:

“Sometimes you have to write to figure it out…

This advice wasn’t just savvy guidance for how to write — it might be the wisest advice I know for how to live… The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except may it’s not…

The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.

Now those are words we can all live by, not just as artists and athletes.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 4 Comments