The loneliness of the long distance potter (part 1)

This is not a post about sadness. Far from it. This post is for ALL you sensitive folk out there. You know, artistic and/or introverted types, introspectives and observers. This is for the folk who care deeply about what they are doing and may just need to pursue it away from the spotlight, away from the scrutiny of neighbors, and away from the mayhem of keg parties. This post is for all the quiet people who are routinely trampled underfoot in the enthusiasm of ‘normal’ people climbing to the center stage. Its a post about the occasional human need for physical aloneness. And so, this is for all the wallflowers and the blazing stars of the infrared human spectrum…..

So if you’ve been reading my sometimes insipid occasionally mind blowing blog excursions for long you will know that I’m quite interested in the challenges facing Art and artists in our society. I read almost as many arts advocacy blogs as I do pottery blogs. Often its quite illuminating and sometimes its chilling and depressing all at the same time. But at least some folks are trying to make a difference. So here’s to the cheerleaders out there who are waving their pom poms and warbling out the school songs of “Why Art Matters”! Maybe it will be enough to make a difference.

But maybe there’s also a different tack to take. Maybe there’s an argument that quiet people can make….

In one recent advocacy blog post there was a perspective that touched one of my special nerves. It aimed at something that is perhaps at the core of society’s misunderstanding of artists. You can read that post here. The claim it made is that because artists frequently spend so much time tucked away in the solitude of their studios they are too often seen only as mysterious neighbors and not properly understood as real live community members. Not that they are loud mouthed freaks and therefore misunderstood, but that they are quiet. And perhaps there is a kernel of truth in that…..

As studies have shown, what distinguishes world class experts from talented amateurs (and other stripes of dilettantes) is how thoroughly they have engaged in “deliberate practice”. For an artist this almost always means solitary work that addresses that person’s challenges and interests specifically. You don’t get to the imagination easily by cavorting drunkenly around a keg or jabbering away at social cocktail parties. It often takes concentration and focus, and that usually means also very little distraction. Even classical musicians benefit more from the time spent in solitary practice than in chamber group collaborations. In other words, most artists we can think of are often best served by doing what they do off on their own, out of the limelight, and away from the distractions of nosy neighbors.

And all this time alone is sometimes just what it takes. They may look like anti-social hermits, but solitude is sometimes exactly what is required to do what they are called to do. They are not being sad necessarily, its just that they are on a mission. Situational or physical aloneness is NOT the same thing as emotional loneliness.

Here’s the world’s most famous patent clerk and notorious introvert (who knows a thing or two about creativity and solitary introspection) to tell you about it:

“My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a lone traveler and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.”

And so what I would like to suggest is that this depiction of artists as outsiders or “mystical unicorn-like beings” possibly also has a deeper source than merely the social distance. And addressing the ‘problem’ by insisting that artists ‘make nice’ with their neighbors is a discredit to who many artists are deep down inside. And it also disrespects what they are trying to do.

It seems that for society an artist’s ‘unusualness’ is a problem and they now need to prove their humanity by being understood in terms that the crowd can grasp. The author of that post suggests that our way out of being misunderstood is that we artists try to be more like the ‘normal’ Joes and Janes of the world. Its as if artists were somehow socially deformed. In other words, it seems that Artists themselves are essentially to blame for their failure to be understood.

Its as if artists and wallflowers need to be fixed. Its a perception that there is something ‘wrong’ with us. And as with most stigmas, the ones dishing it out only have a vague understanding of how awfully myopic, parochial, or biased their stances are. Perhaps this perspective is simply conflating emotional sadness with physical solitude? Perhaps its only confusing people who DO need help with people who are fine just doing what they are doing?

The author suggests that we clear up the mystery by meeting the public on its own transparent terms, artists admitting culpability and taking their deserved lumps. Its as if we are at a frat party and artists need to pass some social initiation by doing beer bongs and tipping cows. Its like asking us to show our papers to prove we belong here. “Prove you don’t need to be fixed by wearing this lampshade and telling jokes to a crowd of strangers”….

Does this seem right? Aren’t artists doing something profoundly important as it is? Don’t they only make these contributions to society by so thoroughly engaging in solitary introspection? Is there some better way of investigating the interior life of the mind and imagination? Do we really need to prove our citizenship in this public way? And my big question: Isn’t solitary art making something that normal people do?

The simple truth is that as important as it is for experts in any field to hone their craft in isolation, folks that are naturally drawn to extended periods of solitude are also more likely to be the ones who choose this direction as a career path. Right? Perhaps certain folks are artists because the studio life is an appealing alternative to the stimulation saturated gregariousness of an extrovert dominated society. Not every ‘normal’ person is a boisterous cock-sure exhibitionist. Quiet isn’t just necessary for making some art, its sometimes welcome. If you are an artists you may also (but not necessarily) be an introvert. Between 33 and 50% of the general population are introverts, it seems. Yet they are perpetually cast as outsiders…..

And so I wonder just how many artists fit that introvert oriented personality type. Perhaps disproportionately high numbers compared to the general fallout. Is it any wonder most artists would be offended by being told to strip down naked in front of their neighbors to prove that they are not some alien being? Oh. We’re only being told to glad-hand, smile beamingly, and schmooze confidently?….

But can we honestly expect such behaviour from folks who are simply not made up on the extrovert model? Some artists, sure, but not all. And maybe not most. Is it even fair to make this demand? If naturally extroverted artists, squeaky wheeled attention grabbers, and smooth talking mountebanks are the ones who most often pack the limelight, just who are those quiet folks sitting in the corners, toiling anonymously, or struggling with notoriety? These are society’s supposed strangers, but don’t they also seem to be familiar? Don’t we know some of them in more personal terms?

If you are an artist, just think of how much you sometimes prefer the quiet of the studio to the hubbub of a crowded circus-like room. Mostly? Sometimes? Occasionally? Rarely? But almost surely not never. I’ve even known artists who leave their own gallery openings after just a few minutes (True story, many times over!). They flee. Doesn’t this say something important? And because artists sometimes avoid the spotlight, even when its in their own honor, there often is no one else to defend them from public misunderstanding and disapproval. Are Artists and introverts really misanthropic pariahs? Don’t we have husbands and wives, partners and friends? Don’t we have parents and sometimes children? And aren’t others just like us? Are we not legion?

So it seems like a darn big question….

(This post was encouraged by the awesome work that Susan Cain has done to publicize the issues facing introverts in our society. Follow her blog and read her new book “Quiet” if these issues reflect on your situation or that of someone you may know. She’s waaaay smarter than me, and she’s done the research to back it up.)

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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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19 Responses to The loneliness of the long distance potter (part 1)

  1. Brandon Phillips says:

    Good post Carter, my brain’s too fried to offer more than that. Though I’m wondering how it is that you EVER get pots made.

    • Hah!

      Great Question Brandon! The trick is to not sell very many. That way I always have an oversupply!

      Seriously though, at this point I am sitting on a cache of pots that need homes, and the sales I have lined up will only put a dent in that. Of course I’m making new stuff all the time, but its sporadic and not every day. By the time my first major sale rolls around I’ll be hard pressed to store all the extras.

      But that’s okay at this point. I’m poor, but not exactly starving. And being the introvert that I am, I just have a difficult time getting out there and selling myself. (And of course it slows things down to be a non-car-driver) If I can build my sales slowly, then things may shake out to having more incentive to stay longer hours in the studio. I’d like that! It just gets discouraging looking at too many pots on the shelves that need homes and can’t find them……

  2. FutureRelicsGallery says:

    This is so true. I love my friends and family and I enjoy being with them because I get to spend so much time alone doing the things I love to do, which is creating my pots.
    It seems like so many people come home, say “hi” to the family then they all sit down and watch TV together and they feel like that is community. It may be for them but not for me. But it may be that they are “vegging in front of the TV (or computer or other electronic device)” because they are really longing for that alone time that we get as artists.

  3. FutureRelicsGallery says:

    This is right on. I love being with my friends and family because I do get to spend so much time alone doing what I love to do. It seems so many people come home from work, say “hi” to the family then they all go and sit and watch TV and call that community. Maybe the need to “veg in front of the TV (or other electronic device)” is actually their way of getting that alone time that we artists get as a result of our profession.

    • I think this is exactly right in a lot of cases. Kids coming home from school, parents home from work, may just be worn out from not just the physical and emotional demands of the day, but from an overload of human exposure. If we accept that there are in fact 33-50% of people in this country who have introvert tendencies then it just seems obvious that the whirl of a social day can sometimes be overwhelming. So its no wonder that many folks take a breather when they get the chance. And unfortunately this often means that one’s family are the refuge from socializing. In a sense that’s GOOD, because family should always be a safe haven, but a bit unfortunate at the same time in that the people we care about the most sometimes get the least of our attentions.

      If you get the chance I highly recommend picking up that book of Susan’s. Not only is it written in a sensible and easy to understand format, but it has some genuine insight and hard scientific data to ground the discussion. And the anecdotes are just fabulous and easy to relate to.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  4. juana says:

    i mentioned this beautiful little film last time we talked. i really love how it relates the slow and quiet rhythm of a potter’s work to the need of “paying honest attention”.
    http://vimeo.com/39375145

    although we might not need to move to frozen islands, solitude seems to be a necessary condition for this kind of wholehearted creativity.

    • Indeed it does! Thanks for reminding me about that video! When she says “I don’t belong in a city” I thought of just how lucky she is to have that choice, and have a viable way out. Just how many introverts are living in crowded cities and being slowly ground down and burned out by an overexposure to stimulus? In cities its not just human interaction that is forced on us but all the side effects of civilization: Loud machines, the blur of traffic, the too many choices of the supermarket. In a city we are constantly being bombarded with information. Unless we can find refuge in a park, or holed up in some building like a library, an office, or one’s studio or home.

      It seems that society has done a disservice to introverts in not making more space for their needs. Maybe we can’t avoid all the complications of modernity, but we can at least try to be conscious of providing accessible oasises and havens for the quiet folk to find their peace. It seems something worth working toward.

  5. Joseph says:

    I went to a Jim Malone Exhibition, and I only vaguely saw him there. Looking at him you wouldn’t have thought he was even the potter that had made the work, he certainly wasn’t in the room with it when I was there.

    After my tour of potters in the south West of the UK and the various other events I have attended, it is only the young that seem to talk pots and make a big fuss about what they made. This was even more obvious in University where rather than letter the work speak for itself some of the people in my graduating class had two sides of A4 to explain their work.

    Sometimes the artist has to be in quiet solitude otherwise they could overshadow the quiet simplicity of their work.

    • That is so true!

      And I think that this is only one of the problems with the establishment domination of our field. As you point out, in academia they are training folks blather on inanely about their work, as if only some intellectual dialog could capture what its about. Jack Troy refered to this presumption a few years ago in a CM article as “understanding pots above the shoulders”.

      It almost seems more important to be able to talk about the work than that the work be any good. If you can SELL IT, then it seems that’s all you sometimes need to do. And how this fits into an extrovert world view should be obvious. If words are often only superficial and shallow descriptions of how art is physically and emotionally engaged, then it seems that for an introvert understanding what is needed is not more distracting words but the solitude and depth of personal interaction. Its sometimes as if our society has so little understanding of art that it would be just as happy to cut up the Mona Lisa for coasters at a keg party, or use it to play frisbee…..

      And the fallout is that the gallery system that today’s artists are aiming at tends to also function around what can be sold rather than what the work itself is. And that’s why reputation seems to matter almost more than anything else. A reputation is a certification that galleries can take to the bank. A reputation not only sells itself, but is a convincing argument in the game of getting collectors to buy work. And a reputation is obviously not the work itself, but what someone says about it. So once again we have the extroverted surface effects domineering their way through the more contemplative and introspective parts of an artists life.

      If this is wrong, then it seems that artists should make some effort to lift the heel of the establishment from the back of our necks. Unfortunately, the problem with orthodoxies is that it is a game all too easy to play. An establishment doesn’t mean what’s right, only what it is normal to do. The Art Game perpetuates itself by sucking in more and more artists to play by its rules. Even the folks who see it for what it is end up playing because this aristocracy has almost all the cards. We often feel its better to get the scraps and leavings from the high table than to struggle outside the castle walls to make ends meet. In the dog eat dog world, at least a Master who only occassionally kicks us is better than being on our own and scrounging in the wilds…. Ah the patronage of the arts……

  6. linda says:

    Carter – thanks for coming by and both leaving a comment and leading me here. This is a great post. As an introvert often mistaken for an extrovert; I completely relate. The thing I find that helps me is knowing when I need to have socialisation. I’m so good at solitude, it’s when I have a bit too much that I get a little off balance and it doesn’t always help my creativity and concentration. I value both sides of the equation, both informing the other. As ever in life, it’s a balancing act. Each introvert needs to find their tolerance and balance point. And a massive thank you to Juana – what a quiet and pretty video of Ann’s work/space/environment. I really enjoyed it.

    Happy to have found this blog and following. Look forward to more posts to come….

    • No problem! I’ve been enjoying your blog for some time now…..

      Yeah, there is no such thing as a “pure” introvert. Jung (who invented the term) thought as much, excepting the folk who were truly socially incapable (in other words, people that can only be dealt with in hospitals…..).

      But that doesn’t mean that all extrovert hoops are things we can jump through, nor that we need to be asked to. Just because some of us can find a balance closer to the extrovert reality doesn’t mean that the many of us WHO CAN’T are in some way deficient. And pretending that this balancing act is not weighted against us is a dishonor to the normal people who get crushed by its inequity. Doesn’t it seem like something worth addressing? Doesn’t it seem like a thing worth contesting, when the Lindas and Carters out there with less equilibrium may actually fail the test of balance that society presents us with?

      At least, it seems like an important question…..

      Thanks for tuning in! See you around the aether!

  7. Pingback: The loneliness of the long distance potter (part 2) | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  8. Yeah I agree with your post! Quite often I just get tired out being around other people and just want some ‘alone time’ in the studio and I usually feel happier and more engaged because of it. My time in the studio is pretty much the only time I spend alone, I’ve never really been that much of a people person!

    • Thanks for adding your voice here!

      The studio is such an important sanctuary for me as well. And it seems so much more than just a selfish pursuit of solitude (not that there would be anything wrong with that. My other efforts at solitude include things like reading books and enjoying the outdoors, and I’d like to see someone call those things negative!). Studio time is socially positive if you believe that art makes the world a better more beautiful place. So artists contributing to this are performing a public service in a real way. If art didn’t matter we couldn’t say this. BUT IT DOES! And so we should be unafraid to stand up for this contribution. And if we can make this difference in the world, what’s next?

      Thanks again for the comment!

  9. Scott Cooper says:

    I really liked Susan Cain’s TED Talk about her book: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

    Many of the points she makes there seemed _very_ familiar.

    • Yeah! I couldn’t help but be influenced by her talks, her blog, and finally her book! But I think you are right that a lot of this stuff DOES seem familiar. Its not such half baked nonsense once you think about it. Most of us really do relate to introverts, either by being one or by knowing a multitude of them in our lives. So the trick is to turn that familiarity into new behavior patterns. We can know that smoking is bad for us, but it can be hard to change…..

      So the question is, just what will be required of us?

  10. Writing as an extrovert, NEVER to be mistaken for an introvert, I quite love being alone in the studio. In the end, for me, we have to feel our way along and what we do/make should be pleasing or at least self expressive. The double duty for me is that the “IT” should be well designed, AND be functional. If the “IT” has enough ju-ju, then it is art. If not, one still has a cup or teapot.

    So much of what I’ve had to do in other areas has to do with metaphor that mere cup shapes, or, pitcher, or teapot metaphors don’t work for me.

    Well, truthfully, I’m not always alone, the cat often sleeps on the plastic, non-absorbent easy chair.

    Thanks for your posts, they often get me going.

    • That’s an important point: Even extroverts know the importance of solitary practice and introspection. How else would there be extrovert masters in any field?

      It is often pointed out by psychologists that there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert outside of mental institutions (if they are lucky….). And there are also huge numbers of folks that qualify as ‘ambiverts’ who can function alternately as either one given the right circumstances. It sometimes comes down to how much socializing an introvert can take before needing to recharge the batteries, or how much solitude an extrovert can handle before they need to find some company they can relax in. Its not a simple issue by any means….

      I like how you made the point that what we do as creatives is expression but also sometimes communication. I’m about to unload a new post on this very issue after I get the grind of my weekend sale out of the way. The language of pottery is talking specifically to the folks who get function, who get hand made, and who possibly also get the art behind some of these forms. The metaphors of the spoken word are an entirely different language you are aiming at an entirely different/specific audience. When we are trying to express ourselves we sometimes need more than one language to do it in. And sometimes we have many more things to express than can be told in just one language. Sure keeps life interesting!

      Thanks for chiming in Tom!

  11. Pingback: The blog year that was | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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