The four seasons of pottery education

At some point in my distant seeming past I realized that if I never ‘made it’ as a selling artist but could continue to teach clay to others I would still be artistically satisfied. I care about sharing my passion for creativity in clay enough that watching other people’s imagination blossom helps sustain my own practice. Thankfully I have been blessed with some wonderful students.

So you might say that I enjoy teaching.

But not all the time equally. Sometimes its a mixed bag. Sometimes I have an off night, or a student presents an awkward challenge to my methods. Sometimes my own stubbornness gets in the way of meeting the special needs of special students. Sometimes I have an agenda that is out of place.

Last night was a bit of that mixed bag. One of my all time favorite students was there to help me indulge my Philosophical bent, and we explored many of the whys and the wherefores of this pottery thingey. We talked a lot about various issues. This student’s own commitment to understanding clay is one of the joys that reaffirms my commitment to teaching.

Sometimes the hard work it takes to improve requires that exercises lead to no finished results, or that pots are ‘ruined’ as a way of finding out what the limits are. Sometimes its necessary to sacrifice this one lump of clay so that all future lumps stand that much greater a chance of success. Unless you push the boundaries, or if you are overly tentative, you may never stray from a remedial comfort zone. And if you are focused on the long term, on laying a strong foundation for growth, you also have to sometimes accept delayed gratification. You sometimes have to see the forest for the trees. You sometimes have to remember that the seed you plant now will be ready to harvest only in some season far off in the future….

But not every student in a community arts center is there to learn, and I have to remind myself that sometimes an easy or superficial answer is all that is needed. And sometimes its more appropriate. There are things a student can do just to have fun, and there are things that a student can do just to learn. These are not always the same things. A foundation for future growth is not the same thing as how to have had the most fun possible this one time with this one piece of clay. A student can be focused exclusively on the short term results or sometimes on the long term evolution. Learning about clay can be as brief and temporary as a day in the life, or as committed and enduring as the continual rotation of the seasons…..

So I’ve thought a bit about this difference, and the evolution of my own understanding of clay. And after much contemplation I’ve made a stab at identifying the different types of things that committed students can focus on. As best I can figure, there seem to be four distinct areas of interest. These four different ‘seasons’ of pottery education can be summed up as follows:

(1)  Training our hands. Getting our hands to act intelligently and with the sophistication and dexterity of practiced assurance. Learning to be sensitive and adaptive. Finding the comfort zone. Confidence. Intuition. Physical intelligence. Letting our hands do the thinking. Body knowledge.

(2)  Refining our practice. Promoting good habits and eliminating wasted motions. Fine tuning procedures. Strategizing. Problem solving. Understanding the role of techniques in addressing specific issues. Setting the table for results. Having a plan.

(3)  Training our eyes. Learning to identify what details count in what ways. Assessing subtlety and nuance. Figuring out how to make statements with the clay and with decoration. Understanding the visual impact of details, and how parts of the pot matter. Learning how to judge. Understanding what you like and don’t like. Discriminating good pots from bad. Developing an aesthetic sensibility. Visual sensitivity.

(4)  Training our imagination. Learning how to explore. Encouraging the habits of thought that are curious and open minded. Testing ideas and experimenting. Learning how to predict new results. Using serendipity to its best advantage. Never settling with the easy way out or the status quo. Keeping an eye on fresh possibilities. Valuing potential over the actual. Breaking old rules and making new ones. Spontaneity.

These are four broad tools that we can focus on, and each one can be developed somewhat independently with different exercises. We train our hands one way. We train our strategies another way. We train our eyes yet a different way. And we train our imagination still yet a whole other way.

Comments? Does any of that make sense? Did I leave important things out? Did I separate things that belong together? Too simple? Too complex? Wrong framework? Why do I bother? Why don’t I care more?

How do YOU understand the learning process?

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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The four seasons of pottery education

  1. Ashley says:

    I think you pretty much nailed it on the head …
    “Sometimes the hard work it takes to improve requires that exercises lead to no finished results, or that pots are ‘ruined’ as a way of finding out what the limits are”

    I have been teaching at a privately owned studio for about 3 or 4 years now, but I began at this studio as a student about 11 years ago. In my time there, I have probably seen the full spectrum of commitment levels. On one end, there are those students that have a limited time window and only want to come for the 4 weeks and then there are those that, like me, have been attending for a decade or more. There are also those people that assume that pottery can’t be that difficult and that by the end of their 4 week session they will have mastered all things pottery and will walk out with a full dinnerware set that is on par with the one they saw in a gallery. The other end of the continuum is where you find the rare student that has a love more for the process than the end product. They read everything they can get their hands on, take other courses, attend workshops, etc. These are generally the ones that are also not afraid to make mistakes and try something that might fail the first few times.
    The one question that I inevitably get asked, but that still boggles my mind is “What would YOU do with this?” Usually this is in reference to the little bowl or cylinder that they just threw, but because they either have no imagination, or more likely, have a fear of failure, they don’t go any further and instead ask me what I would do if I were them. But that’s just it, I’m not them. They need to be the ones to touch the clay to be able to figure out what it does and does not want to do. Watching me do it for them is not going to help them very much. I know that they really don’t want the truth, because to be honest, that little pot is probably at least 1” thick on one side and wafer thin on the other and should probably go into the reclaim pile. I would also probably slice and dice it to analyze wall thickness and to gauge how well it was or was not thrown. In reality, they are also seeking validation. So I do not crush their ego and I do what I can to illustrate what more could be done to torture their clay.
    I try to reinforce that the goal should not always be about the quality of the work (at least in the beginning), but instead, it is more about the volume of clay they move through their hands. The more you throw, the better you get (even if they have nothing to physically show for it at the end of the day). They can cat lick one pot to death and not get any better at throwing, but in that same span of time they would probably be better off throwing 10 pots in quick succession. Most likely, the 10th pot will be better than the first and probably way better than the one they painstakingly tortured submission.

    The more you throw, the better your muscle memory.
    The more you throw the more economical and refined you become with your motions.
    The more you throw, the more critical your eye becomes.
    The more you throw, the less fearful you are of failure and by extension, the more unrestrained and imaginative.

    • Nicely said!

      I’ve always been a proponent of working quickly so that you get more actual experience by making more things. What I tell my students is:

      “The quicker you work, the more you make.
      The more you make, the more experience you get.
      The more experience you get, the more you improve.
      The more you improve, the better your pots will be.
      The better your pots are, the more you will like them.”

      In the end nothing is gained by being fearful or tentative. The pot that was pushed too far at least gained you the benefits of that experience. Hopefully something was learned, if only what NOT to do. But without pushing the limits you never find out what those limits are. You remain trapped inside how little you think you know. And at that point you know virtually nothing. Nothing useful, at least. Being ruled by fear is being ruined by fear. It is the opposite of creativity.

      Great response! Thanks for contributing!

  2. linda says:

    Hey Carter – great post. well, all of your posts are gems, this one is no exception. What is great about them is they are also long conversations over beers, days and weeks, not always possible in this format. I think that list is spot on, but I’d also say it could intimidate a remedial potter, or at best, require a little more explanation, discussion, instruction. Without the time and experience simply making, some of the nuance of those points may not be understood. I think the hardest thing to convey, the hardest thing to explain is the part of process that is so individual the artist/student can only see and develop and explain themselves. Of course, there are best practices but the thing, the ‘things’ that make work identifiable are the thousand tiny things, the hundreds of hours, the unidentified actions often that inform the process. I realise you mean this as an overview in an effort to teach…

    So, thanks – it is a great list and I find it very helpful.. a tangible, legible list of focus points.

    The only other thing I find curious and engaging is the feeling of the ideal. I do think that list is invaluable to read, reread and aspire to and then to practice finding and identifying the weak points in your process and turn them into assets. A great teacher knows this and a great student does too.

    have you heard about the 10,000 hour theory of excellence?

    • Yeah, the dangers of intimidation can wriggle in as soon as the point becomes anything other than just having a good time. Which is why its always important to take the long view. Any expectations should be deferred. Any agenda you’ve got should be approached in increments. Its like you are training for a marathon, and some students expect that they need to be able to run it the first day out the door. There are intermediate steps. Stretching exercises and the build up of shorter runs. First you need to focus on increasing your comfort level, and then you can shift focus to other concerns. Trying to master it all at once can drive the whole project into the ditch.

      So my best advice is to think long term, and keep the immediate goals simple. I would even say that for beginner/intermediate potters learning new shapes or forms that it makes sense to learn how to get the shape before you try getting it as thin as you’d like. Learn your comfort with the shape before you worry about how thin it really needs to be. If you know the difference, then you can divide what you are working on into different demands. Every piece of clay doesn’t have to be perfectly thrown/thinned out. Know what you are working on and sacrifice other ideals to gain the experience and comfort level with the issues you are focusing on. And if the result is unacceptable there is no rule that says you have to keep each lump of clay you work on. If you don’t want to keep what you’ve made, at least your hands have learned something new. The success is not always in the pot itself, but in the hands that can now do more things more confidently. Over time you can safely push yourself to get it ‘more right’ the more confident you get….

      Another bit of advice I subscribe to is that you shouldn’t aim for perfection. Seek to improve, but if you think you know what the ideal or perfect pot would look like then you are setting yourself up. At worst you are giving yourself unrealistic expectations, but even at best you are deciding there is an end to the journey, and that the destination is more important than the journey itself. That might be alright for some folks, but especially if you only have a few years of experience under your belt it can be as if you are deciding its time to stop growing, that your evolution is at an end. That just sounds stifling to me. It spells the end of creativity. And, once you made that perfect pot could you ever settle for anything less or anything different? In good conscience? Wouldn’t you have to keep making that same perfection if it was in your grasp? Could you ever purposely do anything different? And not be selling out? Or selling yourself short? And if you simply couldn’t get it perfect every time, would you be forevermore frustrated by failing to live up to that lofty standard? The idea of ‘perfection’ just seems to get us in trouble at every turn. So why bother?

      The 10,000 hour rule, as I understand it, was really only meant to distinguish between the career success of truly gifted people. I’ve heard some folks take it to be an argument that talent is less important than hard work, but I don’t think that was the intention. I’m not so sure its a rule for more ordinary folk, and I’m not so sure it explains the difference between folks who DO have talent and folks who do not. Its not that hard work will cure all shortcomings, but that between people who are equally talented the more work is done the more it pays off. All you need to do to find where this rule doesn’t apply is to look at the classroom where some kid is so much more advanced than the others that she can do the work in her sleep. She doesn’t have to work at it because she isn’t being challenged. Its when all other things are equal that the hard work makes the difference. According to that study you already have to be a genius talent for the 10,000 hours to help you rise to the professional heights. Do less than the 10,000 hours and you may be no better off than the hard working ‘normal’ guy…..

      So I have a hard time trying to relate it to the experiences of casual community arts students. These folks will never be professional artists (with rare exceptions) because they mostly already have full lives with families to support and careers already mapped out. But the idea of experience is universally relevant. Any kind of training or expertise requires a minimum of dedication, a minimum of time put in to learn the basics. And still, some folks seem to be naturals. Some folks can center the clay on their first attempt. For some folks its easy and for others its impossible. Sometimes its emotionally difficult and sometimes its physically challenging. As an instructor it makes sense to pay attention to all those abilities and all those obstacles that a student brings to the table. 10,000 hours just sounds too simple. Real learning happens on an individual level with real important differences that make each student unique. Which I guess you were sort of also saying there at the end….

      Thanks for the comment!

      Happy potting!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Hey CG,

        I think your interpretation of the 10,000 Hour Rule differs from Malcolm Gladwell’s treatment of it in his book Outliers. Not that his is the only valid take-away from the original research, but he makes an elaborate case to support the idea that ” talent is less important than hard work”.

        Not sure if you remember this one, but here’s the post I wrote after reading Outliers: http://www.stearthpottery.com/this-week-at-st-earth/2009.php#0308

        A key quote from Gladwell: “The striking thing about [the] study is that [it] couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder, or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

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