Pottery can be serious and fun

Posts will be few and far between for the next several weeks, as I’m gearing up for the second most important pottery sale of this calendar year. I have been amazed at how much time I spend on ideas for posts, and if I’m not careful I can overextend myself on computer time quite easily. So I’m trying to cut back. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts for posts swirling in the background. It has been a test of my willpower that I don’t just dump some of these on the blog every other day or so. I probably have a dozen or so drafts that could be made presentable with a tweak or two, and countless other launching points under consideration. All I’m saying is just don’t expect too much from me over the next few weeks….

That being said, there are a few topics that have occupied my thoughts enough that if I don’t release at least a few words the pressure will undoubtedly start distracting me. The one I chose for today is something touched on by Tracey Broome in her excellent blog, and in the comments to her post. Namely, should we always be serious when we are in the studio? The reason this hits home for me in particular is that sometimes (quite frequently…) I feel like a fraud as a potter. I love making pots, and I wouldn’t want my life to be anything different, but I only make a marginal living from it. My pots are decent, but as a group they are kind of scattered about stylistically, thematically, and in how they get glazed. They lack a bit of the coherence that is often demanded as an entry point into the establishment world of galleries and shows. But this is less of a concern to me because the shyness I labor under makes any serious self promotion a difficult task. I would rather make what I want to make, hope I figure it out more consistently in the future, and get by being a tad poor in the meantime than sell out by making specifically for the market or sell myself by dusting off my megaphone and singing my own sweet praises. I’m no P.T. Barnum that hawks his wares zealously. I’m just grateful that enough of the local folks enjoy what I’m making to support me as they do.

So undoubtedly this makes me naive or a bit idealistic, and I often am plagued by self doubts. But does this mean that I’m not a serious potter? Sometimes it feels that way. Because I sell so few pots (compared to many of you other ‘full time’ potters) and for such inexpensive prices (relatively) I can easily make more pots than I can sell. And looking at boxes and boxes, shelves and shelves crammed with unsold pots eventually becomes a disincentive to making new work. It can be quite depressing in fact. Why add more pots that will take years to sell off when you already have enough to last out the year and more? So I struggle with that.

I guess one of my problems is that when I switched from firing in a wood kiln to firing in my electric kiln I had to spend time figuring out a whole new glaze process. And if truth be told, I am a stubbornly slow learner. I have to make the same mistake over and over sometimes before it will sink in. And on top of that, I also find that I change my mind about things and get bored relatively easily. Last year’s fascinating new glaze is usually dreadful to behold in the light of today’s interests. So sometimes it feels like I am sabotaging myself. I can’t just stick with something that I know sells because I have already lost interest and moved on. And while this is certainly no recipe for comfort and stability, it is undoubtedly being true to myself in some important way. I am not forcing myself to do things for reasons that are no longer true about me. I am really listening to myself and my desires. And above all I am trying to have fun with what I make. I want to enjoy what I’m doing, and if this means I need to change it up, then that’s what I’ll do. I want to consider each new piece as an attempt at playing with the medium and my own expectations.

So the question remains: can I get away with this attitude and still consider myself a ‘serious potter’? Am I more of a dilettante or a hobbyist when you get down to it? I think we Americans sometimes look at work and the idea of being serious through the lens of our Puritan forbears: Suffering being good for the soul and all that, idle hands being the devil’s playground, and all the temptations of pleasure we used to burn people at the stake for… But this isn’t the way it has to be, is it? The Puritans of our past don’t have a monopoly on the wisdom of how people should live their lives, do they? But it is true that sometimes we feel guilty if we are having ‘too much fun’. Is that right?

I think the issue comes down to a confusion between seriousness as a demeanor and seriousness as a a level of commitment. The truth is that these two uses of the same word have no necessary connection between them. You can be serious about having fun, and you can have fun with being serious. There is no contradiction there. Being serious as commitment just shows the things you care about and tells how important they are to you. Seriousness of commitment doesn’t tell you what things you should care about, just that you do and how deeply you do. A serious demeanor just means that we don’t get to smile and laugh while we are being so committed. It means we can’t take having fun, just playing around as an important/ serious activity. But I think everyone would agree that the important way to be serious is less about whether we can smile or not, but whether we care enough to be committed to what we are doing. Some of us enjoy smiling and having fun in the studio, and some of us do not. And there is nothing wrong with either way, as long as it suits us.

So in the end it comes down to the personality we favor when we are being serious in the studio (in the committed sense). And this brings me to the generalized categories of how artists approach their work, and how this either leaves room for the serious demeanor or not. And although its not strictly the same thing, these differences often break according to how much our intellect and our expectations influence what we are doing. Roughly, some of us are architects and some of us are gardeners*, some of us are stage actors and some of us are screen actors**, some of us are plotters and some of us are (flying by the seat of our) pantsers***. The difference is in how we approach the details of what we are doing. Some of us have specific details that are the building blocks of what we do and some of us approach details more organically. Some of us have routines that are specific hard and fast rules and some of us play it more by ear, experiment as we go and improvise. Some of us like to have everything plotted out well in advance, as if we were going from a template, and some of us like to just see what happens and take it as it comes. So, for some of us there will be room for the occasional smile and laugh, and for some there will be the need to crease the forehead and furrow the brow. And the truth is that every human attempt at creative expression faces this same question, no matter the medium. Improvisation is only an indication of demeanor (what we care about) not of commitment (how deeply we care about it).

So there is no one right demeanor for all artists. Each of us will have to figure out what works for ourselves. Do we like meticulous rule following with every pot coming out exactly the same or every detail under the microscope as we are putting it there? Do we like experimenting and seeing what happens next? You can be committed to either one just as seriously. Looking at the end product is not always a measure of the seriousness of intent that went into the work. You can’t say that Ron Meyers is less serious about his commitment to making pots than a person whose precision tightness churns out meticulous exactitude. You can’t say he isn’t one of the hardest working potters or that he doesn’t strive to make the best pots he possibly can. There is just more than one way of doing this, and Ron has a demeanor of casual acceptance. You could say that he is not trying to over think what he is doing****.

Zygote posted this great video on his blog wherein a Japanese master, Tsujimura Shiro,  tells us “really I just try to leave my head away from the wheel. I try not to think too much and just play”. And I’m not sure you can make 200 teabowls a day and not be serious….

* I know I’ve seen this description around before, but I was reminded of it recently in a post by Joe Abercrombie, one of my favorite fantasy authors. In this post he says “They say that authors can be roughly split into architects and gardeners (or at least arranged upon a continuum between those two poles), that is to say those who plan everything in fine detail and then closely follow the plan, and those who work much more organically, starting with a notion, or a scene, or a character, and then seeing where it leads them.”

** By this I mean that some of us are committed to doing a performance where one thing necessarily follows the other and that some of us are trying to do each thing as fresh as possible, to be in the moment, to know our lines but not to be stuck repeating them in only one way.

*** These are terms the great writing blogger Chuck Wendig uses. See his post here. Briefly, he describes it like this: “Many excellent writers are pantsers. (If you aren’t familiar with the definition — a “pantser” writes without doing outlines or other prep-work, while a “plotter” tends to outline and perform other preliminary planning efforts before diving into the book. Good? Golden.) Stephen King reportedly writes without an outline. Great writers and great minds tend to have no problem just springing forth like a whipped gazelle and tearing ass across the open meadow without fear, without concern, without a plan in sight.
For them, I say, well done.”

**** And Tracey shared this other great quote by the deep thinker Jack Troy: “The intellect is an inadequate translator of the power sometimes radiating from articulate clay objects that beckon to us in their own visual tactile language.” The point being that sometimes we like to smuggle in intellectual justification for what we are doing and why we are doing it, when the truth is really “this is what I like to do, and this is how I like doing it.” What else really needs to be said?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to Pottery can be serious and fun

  1. Tracey says:

    Really great post Carter, well said! I probably should have chosen a different word than serious in the post you are referring to. I’m not sure I really conveyed what I was trying to say all that well by using that word. Whitney Smith had sparked an idea in her blog, sort of beating herself up for working so diligently, but I strive to work diligently like that, I don’t yet, but it’s a goal, perhaps that is the word I should have used. I was surprised to read what she wrote about being that way, when I think what she is doing is pretty great. But one comment left on my blog by Dennis nails it, be serious about your work without taking yourself too seriously. I totally feel like a fraud as a potter, but I don’t feel like a fraud as an artist so I have started referring to myself as a clay artist. There is no way I can put myself in the same league as some of the great great potters out there, how pretentious that would be, but I am an artist, with some skills, and they get better and better. I too get bored so easily, move on to the next thing, have boxes of trials and errors, but it’s a process I love and it’s a group of people that I love. Your blog has raised a lot of questions in my mind and I have tried sorting these thoughts out on my own blog. Putting it out there brings opinions from others and it helps with the sorting. Sometimes what I thought I believed isn’t what I believed at all when I read some of the comments people leave. Usually Hollis Engley will call me out on something and make me look at something a different way, that’s what I love about this blog thing. I particularly like the phrase you used, “casual acceptance”. I am going to write that down and put in on the wall in my studio along with my daughter’s latest advice to transcend the bullshit! As you can see from my recent post, I have had quite a week! I wonder if those sitting in little office cubes have days like these, and really none of this is all that important, but these thoughts come and we write to get them out there, so there must be some reason for it. Certainly not solving any great world issue and there are so many with way more important things to deal with, but still our thoughts come, we can’t help them, so we might as well embrace everyone for who they are and what they think, celebrate the variety and hope that we learn and grow along the way. In a few months I will go back and read what I have recently written about and say WTF was I talking about :)

    • Hah! I’m so with you on that last one! Sometimes its like someone else was living in my brain and I have no idea where any of that older stuff came from. The price of evolving I suppose….

      I like how you distinguish between the artist part and the potter part of you. It seems like being a potter is something about a certain profession (that quite often I am totally clueless about) but that artists are what people are when they are in touch with their creative spirit. Kids are natural artists, but as adults we tend to lose touch with that side of ourselves and trade it in for the job description du jour. “Potter”. I’d much rather be a failed potter and a successful artist than a successful potter and a failed artist. I wonder what that means? Mostly I’m sure it means that I will always be poor….

      I love how you describe your relationship to your blog and how you end your comment: “we might as well embrace everyone for who they are and what they think, celebrate the variety and hope that we learn and grow along the way.” That was well said indeed! Its OK to disagree with each other because truth never wears only one face. Learning to see how other people see things is the the project for an open mind and for the humility to see ourselves as one of many rather than the center of the universe. And people like Hollis are such a gift to us for sharing of their experience and wisdom. But so are YOU Tracey! Keep up the good work, and keep challenging yourself and your readers. The discussions we have been having lately are really interesting and I know I have learned a lot. Thanks for being a part of this!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Hey Carter,

    You nailed this one so well that I can’t think of much to say in response. I particularly appreciate how you made the semantic distinction between the two uses of the word “serious”, and I agree that not making them can lead to some “serious” miscommunication.

    Related to the difference between work and play, a friend of mine — who happens to be one of the most productive, engaged people I’ve ever met — once used the term “hard fun” to describe a project. I take this to mean things that are difficult, with challenging goals and obstacles to success, but also intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable along the way. Seems like a good definition of what we do: Pottery — It’s Hard Fun.

    • Thanks Scott!

      And I love that phrase: Hard fun! I knew I should have run this by you first. I struggled with the title to this post and ended up rather lamely. If I had only known about “hard fun” I would have chosen that, hands down. Good description of what it means, too!

  3. Seriously guys? Seriously, I came back to comment, but completely lost my train of thought with your last comments. Do I dare have fun with that? In all seriousness, of course!

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    Sure, as long as it’s hard fun.

    Seriously.

  5. I apologize sincerely for my last comment, and blame my lack of decorum on my twisted mind, and three days spent with a two and four year old. So my perspective (before it was so rudely interrupted) on serious fun comes from the effort to engage two young minds and bodies: meet their needs physically, emotionally, developmentally, intellectually, while taking care of my own. I don’t do this well. Of course I love my grandbabies, but they are not my life. My most intense need to engage in clay play is seriously hampered when I have them for this extended amount of time.

    What I’ve come to discover is not only that they each require an inordinate amount of time, energy, and attention, but that they are so completely different. The constant shifting of gears and effort is exhausting. And I wonder if I can make a correlation between this and the reference you made, Carter, to having to switch gears between wood firing and electric. Which leads me to wonder if that’s why some potters can find ‘success’ and stay there—is that just easier? I can’t say it’s more fun or more serious, I can’t even really identify with it . . . but I wonder, as you do, if this is a destination worth mapping? Can I ever get there? Do I really want to?

    I love that when I am in the studio, I can find the flow of (seemingly) effortless creativity, but I believe a lot of people are fooled by this. I admit that I want to fool myself. Then I walk out the kitchen door across the driveway, and into the studio, and see the shelves of pots that need to be loaded, bisqued, and glaze fired, and I remember that even while I love to load a kiln, glaze bisqueware, and crack open a fresh fired glaze load, there is a lot of work involved basking in the glow of the flow.

    Oh we haven’t even gotten to the process of pricing, marketing, schlepping, groveling before a customer, working and wandering toward self sufficient sales. Accounting? Ordering materials? Maintaining inventory? That we even consider this surely speaks to our seriousness. Doesn’t it?

    I agree completely with Scott, that you’ve said well what needs to be said, but have also to add how greatly I hope you continue to wrangle with these ideas and your work (serious as it may or may not be) as a potter. I’ve never been one to ‘suffer’ for my art—but I do believe my success as an artist (thanks Tracey, for saying it for all of us who don’t ‘fit the mold!’) is in direct proportion to the amount of challenges and obstacles I overcome (nod to Scott) to germinate the seminal idea within me into a physical manifestation of that initial inspiration.

    So here’s to stubborn and slow learners. Here’s to making ‘mistakes’ (though I don’t believe in these), and getting bored easily, relative or not, and the power of a changing mind. Here’s to a new paradigm, one where we expand our creative energy to capacity and beyond, in delightful exploration of what’s within us, relative to and made manifest in our medium of choice.

    I’m determined to be an eternal optimist in this, or maybe I really was just born a Pollyanna. Maybe it’s just enlightened selfishness, but I can’t help but hold to the certaintude that my path, however goatlike it may be, is the one for me. I can’t do it any other way, not because I’m incapable, too serious, too goofy, but because this way is the way for me. The payoff may be only that, that I was true to the spark within me, but my experience so far has proved otherwise. I believe will continue, so I put my effort into that faith, but even if it doesn’t I’m not sure I have a choice. I didn’t really choose clay, it chose me—and I’m seriously, funnily, glad it did.

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