Cinderella artists

Not sure if that conveys the right idea, but I wanted to reflect how we sometimes compartmentalize different aspects of our lives and how we often wait for ‘pumpkin time’ to transform us back to our natural state….. Anyhoo, something popped up on facebook the other day and this is how I responded:

I am always amazed at anyone who can continue to be creative in a world that pays poorly for it as a source of income and which often fails to nurture creative activity and expression as an intrinsic value. Mothers are especially heroic in this regard, from what I’ve seen of the struggles my friends have endured. But just as you don’t stop being a mother when the kids are asleep, you don’t stop being an artist in the down time between opportunity in the studio. If you can’t make it happen every week, that’s okay. If its sometimes months between visits to your creative expression, that’s simply the way it turned out. And if its sometimes years before you can manage to create with energy and enthusiasm, well, what is the sense in being hard on yourself for not creating?

I would say its more a problem that we feel guilty when other things take priority. You should never be ashamed of the effort required to be a good mother, or anything else important in your life. You don’t suddenly stop being an artist because for a time you are focused in some other direction. The myth is that creative work is all done outside our bodies, and that the important part is expressing it outwardly. Sometimes art needs to gestate in that quiet place in our minds. Like a seed hatching, when the time comes for it to sprout into the world, let that be its time to be expressed. There is nothing wrong with the seed itself, even if it never grows up to be a tree. There is a time for collecting seeds, for storing them, for sowing them, for nurturing the sprouts, and for harvesting the crops. Your art happens as much inside yourself as it does in the world outside.

In other words, we don’t need a fairy godmother to turn our pumpkins into chariots. Or maybe that’s exactly what we need ( :) )


Here is some of the follow up conversation that happened in the comments to my post:

Friend: “It is interesting to see the way that time passing without ones hands making ends up affecting the evolution of one’s work. We certainly don’t pick up where we left off. Rusty skills quickly return and the work has moved forward whether or not we were able to produce the things we generated in our minds during our down time. All of the looking and thinking that happens when we cannot be making has value. The challenge I have felt as a mom and I am sure others feel is not only in getting time for studio practices, but in just getting mental space to allow for creative thought. Bit by bit by bit – there is progress if and when we allow it to be important. -thanks Carter.”

Me: “Nicely said Caryn! That mental space is the really important part of being an artist, but like you said, we can’t help but be influenced by whatever we are doing. The art we one day express will only have been possible because of the things we did and saw even while our hands were not busy…… Which reinforces a point I often like to make which is that the real project we are working on as artists is our own self transformation. The stuff we put out in the world is just the side effects of that. :)

Friend: “So true. I always think that artistic creations have a gestation period. Sometimes sharing these ideas with others too soon can cause a miscarriage, sometimes the idea never gets to term. Sometimes the gestation period is longer than normal and the delivery is difficult and needs assistance from others. Even then it is not always welcomed into the world as one imagined it would be. Interesting when put alongside your stance. I think they go well together actually. While I was bringing up my son I felt that all my creativity was going into being with him. Getting that right just seemed to be the right thing for that moment. Many artists are only free to put a lot of time and effort into their work when they are older. It also gives one time to hopefully ‘say’ something of relevance as one now has some expense of the harsh reality of life. I think there are very few young but really accomplished artist. Most emerge in their latter years.”

Friend: “Well said Cathy! The gestation period is something I uncovered in my own work back when I was in school. It always seemed I evolved more after taking time away from art than from nose to the grindstone pursuit. Its as if I needed the time off to get the proper distance to actually make sense of what I was doing and get the chance to actually learn from it. It seemed that if I was obsessively making, then I was limited by what I was doing. The time off allowed me to put the doing in a different context and to see beyond to the possibilities. The only thing I’d differ on is shortchanging young artists. I think creativity matters whether you are in preschool or facing retirement. I will applaud it in all its manifestations. Its true that there is more material to work with, more understanding of the world and its media the longer you’ve been around and the more you’ve done, but I’m not prepared to make a judgment about who gets to do better art as a result. If you look at musicians you find that their first album is sometimes the best they will ever do. Lots of reasons for that, but it also makes the case that you don’t necessarily do better work later on. Still, I’d like to think that I will keep improving! :) It seems like I am, but then I may not have put out that first album yet either ;) I suppose as long as I am enjoying what I’m doing and as long as I feel it is making a difference it will be alright in my twilight years. I may not have to end on a high note as long as I end with my passion and curiosity intact. That’s how it seems from here, at least…… Thanks for your wisdom and for your generosity in sharing it!”

Friend: “Carter Gillies,contrary, i am amazed at those that cant be creative. those only looking for compensation and negating their creativity. such a frail existence, shallow.”

Me: “That amazes me too, but not in an inspiring sort of way! As I see it, in the one case the odds are stacked against making art externally, and it either defeats us or we transcend against all odds. Its often improbable that we survive the test. On the other hand, the human mind is born to be intrinsically curious and to be creative, and when we fail that we fail ourselves. In this case the odds were firmly stacked on our side and we blew it. We got lazy or were duped into thinking these things were unimportant. We let our imagination atrophy by taking our eyes off the ball. We had it all in our hands but we let it slip through our fingers. You are right, that failure is an amazing disappointment, its just that sometimes despite our best efforts external circumstances can get the better of us, and the defeat is not as much unexpected as predictable……. There was a recent discussion in arts advocacy circles about the impact of low socioeconomic conditions on involvement with the arts, and it just seems that too many factors make life with art improbable for folks in these situations. And that is a real crime, that their creativity can be defeated before they’ve had a real chance to exercise it. Its as if deeper creativity was taken off the table when social mobility was handicapped through poverty and minimal education……”

Perhaps the Cinderella theme was appropriate after all….. Poverty and other degrading factors tend to keep folks in their place, and it sometimes requires an extraordinary feat to find social mobility even possible. If Cinderella is an artist, she is whether wearing glass slippers or not. But if access to art is like an invitation to the ball, Cinderella artists have the odds stacked against them…….

Things to think about, at least!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity | 3 Comments

Golden Ratio in Art, or Bogus Bias in Brains?

There’s a pattern there, see? Bogus, Bias, Brain = B, B, B. The Universe has order. We can all sleep at night! Yay! (That’s a joke, of course)

Actually, I just read this fascinating article that debunks The Golden Ratio as a vital/essential principle of design, and rather than spewing my own long winded take down of the nonsense I’ll let that author do it for you. The article is here, but these are some of the introductory highlights:

“The idea that the golden ratio has any relationship to aesthetics at all comes primarily from two people, one of whom was misquoted, and the other of whom was just making shit up.

The first guy was Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar who wrote a book called De Divina Proportione back in 1509, which was named after the golden ratio. Weirdly, in his book, Pacioli didn’t argue for a golden ratio-based theory of aesthetics as it should be applied to art, architecture, and design: he instead espoused the Vitruvian system of rational proportions, after the first-century Roman architect, Vitruvius. The golden ratio view was misattributed to Pacioli in 1799, according to Mario Livio, the guy who literally wrote the book on the golden ratio. But Pacioli was close friends with Leonardo da Vinci, whose works enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity in the 19th century. Since Da Vinci illustrated De Divina Proportione, it was soon being said that Da Vinci himself used the golden ratio as the secret math behind his exquisitely beautiful paintings.

One guy who believed this was Adolf Zeising. “He’s the guy you really want to burn at the stake for the reputation of the golden ratio,” Devlin laughs. Zeising was a German psychologist who argued that the golden ratio was a universal law that described “beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art… which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical.”

But it didn’t matter if it was made up or not. Zeising’s theories became extremely popular, “the 19th-century equivalent of the Mozart Effect,” according to Devlin, referring to the belief that listening to classical music improves your intelligence. And it never really went away. In the 20th century, the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier based his Modulor system of anthropometric proportions on the golden ratio. Dalí painted his masterpiece The Sacrament of the Last Supper on a canvas shaped like a golden rectangle. Meanwhile, art historians started combing back through the great designs of history, trying to retroactively apply the golden ratio to Stonehenge, Rembrandt, the Chatres Cathedral, and Seurat. The link between the golden ratio and beauty has been a canard of the world of art, architecture, and design ever since.”

Read the article for more speculative, scientific, and psychological examinations of this topic. Its a good read.

And maybe you don’t need much convincing. I just remember hearing one potter explain why he attaches his handles in the place he does as reflecting the ‘Golden Ratio’, as if that was somehow important. I had to restrain myself from bursting out laughing, but most dogma seems preposterous to me, even on the surface.

Thankfully in my own work I give myself the freedom to make each of my mugs different and attach handles whatever way I feel works for that individual pot at the time I am attaching them. No appeal to universal harmonics or celestial geometry. And if I ever end up making my pots a single dogmatic way because of some idealized abstract notion, or because some authority told me that’s the way its done, please shoot me. I can handle some self delusion, (plenty, I suppose) but I draw the line there.

Peace all!

Happy potting!


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

Lift a finger in support of artists



Cash gives his response to the request “John, lets do a shot for the warden” at a 1969 concert in San Quentin state prison. The image later was used in a full page billboard ad in 1998 as a response to country radio’s refusal to give air time to his new recordings, saying “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”


There were no results on a google search for either “Lift a finger to support artists” or “Lift a finger in support of artists”. There was one search result for “Lift a finger for art” and two for “Lift a finger for artists”… and that just seems so telling, doesn’t it?

You may have heard that an entire first year MFA class left school last week at the University of Southern California, and that all but one of the graduating class boycotted the ceremony (read more here). You may have also heard that a new record price was set for an art object sold at auction, Picasso’s Women of Algiers selling for $179 million, which happens to be more than the entire annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. (read more here)…. Thats one painting. A single purchase. A lot of money. None of it seen by an actual artist………

All in all it seems terrible times for support given to living, breathing, and aspiring artists….. If more people would only lift even a single finger to support artists, perhaps things would be different.

Until then, artists have been known to lift a finger as the situation calls for it. An entire University class opting out was a strong message, and the art world and academia have been reverberating with it as we continue to measure the fallout. Its all too rare that artists stand up for themselves against institutional pressures. The game seems unfairly rigged, and the artists themselves are left fighting for the scraps….. The wardens want to get their jolly perks. The bureaucrats are counting their beans. The gatekeepers are measuring your work’s resale value for when your coffin has finally been planted and they get to make some real money…..

While the significant power seems mostly out of our art creating hands we do have one card to play that is especially suited to artists: We can express ourselves. We can lift our own voices, our fingers, if no one else will. We can say, “Here’s one for the warden. Thanks for your support!”


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 3 Comments

Why craftsmanship is like grammar

So, I’ve been droning on and on and on and on about quality and objectivity, and its almost hard for me to add to that pile of barely digestible gristle. But I’m gonna do it anyway! :) Get your fork and knife out and put your dentures back in! There might just be some nutrition in there somewhere if you chew hard enough!

Anyway… last week a series of conversations on facebook took turns at praising and dismissing craftsmanship in art. Mostly good stuff and keen observations. One person made the connection that material manifestations of craftsmanship in art are similar in kind to craftsmanship in the expression of ideas in language. After all, art is but one means of expressing ideas, and as such can be viewed as a sort of language in its own right. As far as art and all creativity is expressive, as far as it strives to communicate, art seems to rely on principles similar to conventional spoken language to do this.

For instance, you want to get an idea across, and the audience is familiar with how, say, ideas in Impressionist painting, are conveyed. To do so well, to succeed in getting the ideas across there is a minimum of craftsmanship required to make the case. The rules in Impressionist painting are not necessarily the same as for other types of painting, but once you understand how meaning is made Impressionistically, how it is conveyed, then you can make sense of very many things painted that way. Just as in verbal communication, if you know what verbs and nouns are, know how to put them together with other parts of speech, can order things in such a way that the right meaning is manifest, then your craftsmanship has done its job. To do so poorly, where meaning is obscure or poorly reflects its intention, well, that is another question.

We have no trouble when its done right. Meaning strikes us as obvious when its clear. When we see what the meaning is, when we’ve harvested all there is and made proper sense of it, then there is what seems like a consensus of meaning. The conventions of grammar have made communication possible such that everyone who understands them is relatively on the same page. And this happens so often in our native tongue that it seems a model for the things themselves, the things we are talking about, that objective reality is truly revealed in the agreement of so many minds. When language becomes second nature to us we have very little reason to doubt this agreement and conformity with the world. It seems all so very matter of fact. This is how language works (when it works).

But when things go wrong it becomes a question of precisely which part has broken down. Its hard to say that the objective reality behind statements has suddenly shifted, so the blame often switches to the communication itself. If the art seems poorly made, if it fails to convey any reasonable meaning to us, well, it can seem like the inarticulate fumblings of small children who have yet to learn proper grammatical construction. Sometimes if we can tease out meaning, we say its despite the poor grammatical structure. And art that speaks nonsense seems exactly the sort of mangled expression that most children are responsible for as they are learning the ropes.

Except its not. Art that doesn’t make sense to us isn’t always guilty of poorly expressed ideas as much as they are expressing things we either can’t get our heads around or in ways that we are incapable of coming to grips with. From our own expectations of ‘correct’ grammar, that is. We would prefer to blame the failure of communication on the insufficiency of the conveyance than the inadequacy of its reception. We lose the trail of tedious drawn out sentences, and big words blow right over us. Slang is sometimes a move in the game we have not adequately mastered. Colloquialisms and awkward dialect catch us off guard. Outside our native comfort zone where communication happens as naturally as… second nature, we are suddenly in unfamiliar waters and our tiny rowboat seems threatened by mysterious heaving seas. Oh yeah, and weird metaphors can derail our little red wagon.

Which can seem a bit more clear if we make the comparison with being dropped in a foreign country. If we do not speak the same language it can seem as if the natives are all making crazy nonsense with their noisily flapping gums. How can you comprehend the incomprehensible? They utter a baffling string of almost indiscernible gobbledygook. Its a weltering torrent of complete gibberish. Blathering balderdash. Gibbering jabber. Fudged flummery. Waffling palaver. Scrambled mumbo jumbo. Bamboozling fiddle-faddle…… It just seems like non-sense.

Except its not. In a foreign country we have not simply landed among the insane. They may not make sense to us, but quite clearly they make sense to each other. We are not lost among the savages as much as we are unprepared for their cultural sensibilities. And this often goes well beyond the language itself to the world that is imbued with its nuance.

And if you turn the circle fully back to art, perhaps you can see that our own incomprehension is not automatically a sign that the artist has gotten something wrong. That arrogance is poorly placed. The manifest destiny of our own point of view on things is a bill of goods not everyone wants to pay for.

The question is, if craftsmanship is like grammar, if sense is only possible with craftsmanship, what are we missing when art seems to us uncraftsmanlike? If it makes sense to whoever made it, what is the language they are speaking and what is the grammar they are using? If we are talking about more than the awkward fumblings of beginners, those who know not what they do, where do we find the sense in seemingly senseless expressions? How do we learn to make meaning rather than simply saying that it has failed to meet the standards of our own ways of meaning? How else but to learn to meet it on its own terms.

Cut to scene:

The American family of tourists has just crash landed in the tiny village in the Malawian countryside, wearing festive Hawaiian shirts, and comfy sandals with bright white socks. With cameras and video recorders strung around the parents necks and children chasing each other around and throwing things at each other, they loudly discuss where they will get their next Big Macs from while the petulant teenager ignores the commotion and bewildered stares of the yokels, barely looks up from her diligent texting and the insulation of blaring top 40 music in her ear buds. The Father shouts at everyone and no one, “Anybody around here spreken sie English?”

Bert and Edna Spleenblock from Galveston TX admire the native curiosities and the authentic performance the idol worshiping savages are putting on. "Hey Bert! What's that big cauldron they are putting over the fire? Those look like short carrots they are dicing, but they sure are tough to cut! I smell an authentic native stew! Do you think they will invite us for dinner?"

Bert and Edna Spleenblock from Galveston TX admire the native curiosities and the ‘authentic’ performance the idol worshiping savages are putting on. “Hey Bert! Check out that big cauldron they are putting over the fire. Its big enough to take a bath in! Those look like short carrots they are dicing, but the local vegetables sure are pasty pink and tough to cut! I smell an authentic native stew! Do you think they will invite us for dinner? Now where did the children wander off to? I can hear them screaming. Bill, at least……”

Lots to chew on, I know! Hopefully there is at least a bit of nutritious food for thought among the bones, the gristle, and the undercooked half baked and poorly seasoned waffling (it sounded like waffles… and now I’m hungry again).

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

BREAKING NEWS: Scientists confirm Objective Quality in Art

That’s a joke, of course.

But imagine if it were serious. What would it look like? What would a detached and impartial scientific determination of artistic quality look like? A group of white lab coat wearing technicians studying a monitor to see the response from their instruments? A long probe pointed at the artwork, gathering the facts, and scientists huddled safely behind the protective screen? Digital calipers and micrometers calibrating the exact dimensions while tiny samples are harvested for a full spectrum chemical analysis and laser strobes measure the surface opacity and light refraction? An iPhone app you can walk into any museum and scan the collection with? Surveillance microphones monitoring incoming ambient sound for its decisive aesthetic character? Satellite optical arrays scanning, measuring, and calculating ranges of quality as artists hold their work up to the heavens for inspection? Well dressed robots with comprehensive data banks in the seats at theatre openings and concerts?

Technology and imagination just seem to be so well suited for one another (From one direction, at least)……. Its not impossible to imagine that even the most important advance in Artificial Intelligence will be to have the Art itself made by the objective calculations of a machine……

art probe P-1000

One wonders if it would take something like the precision and impartiality of a machine to navigate safely to an art objective stance, like scanners at security check points and goal line technology in soccer, radar guns in baseball and the Hawkeye tennis line-calling system…. The problem with subjectivity is that its too human. Whatever it does right, it gets basic things wrong and for so many reasons. Human perception alone is notoriously inadequate, much less for its use as a basis of judgment (I sit here writing this wearing glasses without which I could barely see what I’m doing….). And when we get to judgment, calling ‘strikes and balls’, no wonder the human ‘umpire’ gets vilified so often for ‘missing the call’ or for having the ‘zone’ in the wrong place. Humans looking at art always seem to miss the correct calls, and inevitably to others they have arbitrary or random seeming zones.

Maybe we do need something more definitive, more authoritative, to identify and rate the quality in art? What we really seem to need are the impartial observations of technologically facilitated and disinterested scientists:

Crack scientists from the Institute For Artistic Quality Quantification

Crack scientists from the Institute for Objective Artistic Quality Quantification and Control

Still, though human technicians and designers could calibrate to specific parameters the question remains whether science and technology would judge works as art, or simply as measures of certain agreed upon criteria. In other words, who decides what is being measured, and who decides what things count as more quality and less? Who decides if its relevant as art in the first place? For every sanctified museum there are a thousand Salon des Refusés. Museums themselves can’t always agree what is art and often proudly display the contradicting ideals within their own walls. The truth is that no matter how good the technology, the qualitative criteria itself is universally provided by the infinitely fallible, inconsistent, and biased opinions of the humans behind the scenes. We’ve only succeeded in moving the bias one rung deeper, and it might still be impossible to remove the human factor without in some way negating the humans themselves.

For instance, and in keeping with the science fiction angle, for an uninvested, disinterested, and therefor potentially unbiased judgment we might one day appeal to aliens passing through our solar system. Every human authority would have a chauvinistic pan in the fire, so to speak, and could be disqualified on the basis of simply being human, having human tastes, and culture. Replacing the conditionality of human bias is the necessary and only chance for objectivity, and it might very well take an alien culture to see past the human contingency and myopia to find anything resembling objective quality in art. Petty human chauvinisms and proselytizing always seem to speak louder than any grand universal objectivity……

Fantastical ‘What if?’s aside, the problem is that for a thing to be judged as art it needs to be understood as art. Art isn’t simply a natural category like, say, Geology or Physics. What counts as a Physical or Geological property is far less ambiguous than what counts as ‘art’ (and for some art ambiguity is precisely what is being aimed at). You need to also know the difference between ‘good’ art and ‘bad’ art, which simply means that you have to prefer some things and ignore others. You can’t like everything equally, and if you don’t already like it you won’t be inclined to weigh it favorably. That’s simply the weight of human psychology talking. And as discussed before, sometimes you have to dislike certain things in order to appreciate others, as perversely contrarian as that may seem. For instance, the structure of Baroque Classical Music and the discordant riffs of Improvisational Jazz are a poor marriage at best, and if you value one you may be incapable of seeing the merits of the other. To do so successfully might require an aesthetic schizophrenia.

Which is an interesting point as far as objectivity goes. Objectivity claims that there is a level playing field from which all details can be judged in an unbiased and systematic way. Objectivity gathers incontrovertible ‘facts’. But what happens when promoting one quality interferes with our ability to properly asses others? What happens when my appreciation for one form of art, the standards peculiar to it, is not only a contrast to some other form of art but actively contradicts it? What’s good in one counts as bad in another? What happens if there is simply no higher vantage point that sees both sets of qualities as equal and can without prejudice compare between them? Isn’t that necessarily the claim that objectivity brings to the table? And isn’t it simply unreasonable where art is concerned?

For instance, to measure the aesthetic worth of representational painting you have one set of standards, you are playing by these specific rules. But to measure the worth of expressionist or impressionist painting those representational standards not only need to be revised but perhaps thrown out entirely. If you are a potter making tight pots quality looks like one thing, and if you are throwing loose it looks like something very different. If you are working at putting value into the surface quality it will be judged one way, and if you are laboring to execute the best possible form it will be judged another. You may need to sacrifice one to get the other. One might distract from the other. And so on and so forth…..

The idea being that quality in art is connected to human intentions and embedded in culture. You can’t simply get the human out of the equation because its only the actions of humans that puts it there. There is no universally objective standpoint for assessing quality in art because art is only done under the extreme pressures of a human perspective and bias. It only counts as art because humans have put it on pedestals and hung it in galleries and watched it on stages. And if Duchamp can put readymade bicycle wheels and urinals there, if John Cage can sit quietly and let the ambient sound penetrate an audience, then art can quite obviously be seen more as a feature of human permission and proclivities than a necessary natural category.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Art starts with humans caring about some peculiarity of the state of things. Art fractures the world according to the things that we care about. Art generally makes the world more specific, not less. The quality of art typically depends on its peculiarity and particularity, not its universality. Art demonstrates the creative capacity of ALL imaginative beings, not a single creator or authoritative genesis of quality. Objectivity simply seems like a poor fit for the diversity and heterogeneity of artistic practice and objectives. Different artists simply care about different things, and that makes art itself a fragile human capacity rather than an enduring universal first cause or underlying objective measuring stick…..

The folks looking for some outside authority to establish objective qualities in art often seem to have an investment in promoting one version of standards over others (their own well earned and culturally harvested, of course). And since it seems quite obvious that their own opinions are valid (and they are), the question is “How can they not at the same time also be universal? Just like the truths of science?” The fear being that if what I believe in is no more ‘right’ than what other folks believe it all ends up as subjectively relative, and in that case it seems necessary that simply anything goes (shudder)….

Some folks are just uncomfortable with the smallness of a human perspective, and the idea of objectivity at least seems to provide an escape. Entire Cathedrals and sanctified institutions have been erected on the basis of our very human need for higher authority. Is it any wonder that people who care a lot about art are tempted to look for objectivity there as well? Don’t we want our cherished opinions to at least sometimes be true? There is sometimes more comfort in knowing that we are ignorant/wrong as long as someone is still objectively right…… (That’s why we have gatekeepers and priests, after all)

The problem is that art is not susceptible to scientific disinterest in the same way that the force of gravity is or the mineral composition of rocks. At least, any attempt to pin down precise qualities in one direction of art by definition contradicts the notion of qualities in other directions of art. In so far as art is an attempt to find and create meaning in the universe, its not simply a reporting of facts. At its very heart art is itself an interpretation. What, exactly, does that tell us?

The Laws of Nature coexist in celestial harmony (or at least pretend not to tread on each other’s earthbound feet), but the truth is that art is purposely breaking its own sacred rules all the time, implacably overturning unimpeachable standards, and tirelessly moving beyond hallowed traditions. It seems that as soon as you have narrowed the focus enough to properly asses one simple thing you either are faced with a new generation of evolving standards or you simply have to block out everything else.

The rules of Physics and Geology were written at the moment of the Big Bang. If there was a God (and by this I mean the sort of God who stands outside of time, not the capricious worldly gods of some cultures) her hand would be visible there, in the immutable Laws of Nature, and for all time. Looking back and looking forward its the same. The rules of art, however, started when the first human thought creatively and will end somewhere very different by the time the last human has expressed herself imaginatively….. The Laws of Art are being continuously rewritten. You can look backwards through its evolution and make sense, but there is no possible way to objectively predict the future course. The ideas of future quality have themselves not yet been written. So,

Objectivity means finding the one right vantage point to see the most clearly by. In art assessing quality means setting up your instruments first in one place and then jumping around repeatedly to cover all the relevant bases and as new ideas are born into the world. There is no Big Bang in art, simply an evolution from amoebic single celled organisms living in the primordial ooze and algal photosynthesizers floating aimlessly, to multi celled beings swimming purposefully in the salty soup, to legged creatures hungrily crawling on the shores with plants and fungus sprouting, to winged beasts and bugs vigorously flying overhead, to self reflective and emotional characters laughing, and loving, and telling stories, and experiencing existential crises…..

(Consider for a moment how far circumstances have strayed from pure physical laws once consciousness has been introduced, how that changes things. Consider for a moment how unnecessary ANY cultural manifestation is. Different cultures tell us it could have been different, it has been different, and it will be different again, evermore. Objectivity handles necessity, the facts, if it handles anything, but how does it come to grips with Freedom?)

The branches of art’s evolution are as fragmented and distinct from one another as can be, especially the further we travel in time. Each new stage writes its own rules, and each focus tells its own story. Fins are good for swimming but not for walking. Or flying. If you want to tell the story of mammals you can’t simply pretend there are not also invertebrates with their own independent reasons for being. The universal or objective things about art are not found in its diverse qualities, its many branches and flowerings, but in the connection it has to human endeavor and imagination. To being human. But we care mostly about the fragments, we care about the differences. The qualities of art are what makes them unique. In the end art is a celebration of the possibility for difference, and the subjectivity of a human experience……..


“You can’t think a story — you can’t think, “I shall do a story to improve mankind.” It’s nonsense! All the great stories, all the really worthwhile plays, are emotional experiences. If you have to ask yourself whether you love a girl, or whether you love a boy, forget it — you don’t! A story is the same way — you either feel a story and need to write it, or you’d better not write it.” Ray Bradbury

When you get right down to it, art is about the most human thing you can do. And that’s, perhaps, why we all seem to do it a bit differently……

Things to think about, at least……

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 5 Comments

Bird of Prey, Stooping, Child of Mountain, Nesting

Like a Thunderbolt from the Heavens, plummeting faster than the speed of sound, a spear of force driving into the play, piercing its soft center, the hands of the predator plunge from dizzying heights in one fell swoop to stab at the mound of clay spinning on the wheel head.

The problem is, its not a skill most beginners can intuitively master. The veteran clay wrangler can do so many things that are beyond the reach of beginners. I’ve seen experienced potters centering and then making pots with their feet. I’ve seen professional teachers center balls of clay on two separate wheels simultaneously and one handed. I’ve seen exhibition potters make pots blindfolded. I’ve seen them throw without water. I’ve seen them use only tools to touch the clay but never their hands. I’ve seen them use only their chin and nose to center and their teeth and lips to pull up the walls. I’ve seen them throw from across the room using long poles with various tips that do the work of conventional tools. I’ve seen one potter breathe on a lump of raw clay and transform it into a wood fired masterpiece….. (okay, maybe not the last few, but you get my point)

Beginners often need all the help they can get. And when we (teachers) show them various techniques there will always be the difference between what we with our experienced and already skillful hands can do and what they with their inexperienced and relatively insensitive hands are capable of. To teach them simply what we can do is like showing a beginning math student the finer points of calculus. Its like taking a first year medical student and turning her loose in surgery. Its like putting your four year old in the driver seat. The question is always, “Are they ready to do what you can do?” If all the training it took you to get where you are as an instructor mattered at all, then its importance is not just what you understand better than beginners, but that you recognize the stages of development it took to get there. Learning is not like the flue or food poisoning that can be contracted from simple exposure. Teaching isn’t some occult transformation as the hidden secrets are suddenly revealed. Rather, its hard work, and beginning students need a platform from which to grow.

So when I caught a beginning student last week with her elbows up, arms fully extended, leaning back, with index fingers pointed roughly at the center of a mound of clay on her wheel I had to put the brakes on her predatory advances. She looked like an eagle dropping down on some oblivious rabbit, ready to strike the target and rip its center out. The problem was, she was unsteady, she had no bracing or support, and her hands were weaving dangerously as they plummeted earthward. The ‘rabbit’ looked like it had every chance of escaping and living to see another day. The gentlest breeze would have brought it to safety. Which did very little for her plans to make a pot……

Wings folded, talons extended, the raptor lands on its victim and breaks its back, splitting the soft carcass to reveal the hidden core

Wings folded, talons extended, the raptor lands on its victim and breaks its back, splitting the soft carcass to reveal the hidden core

My advice was that rather than approaching the task as a predatory raptor swooping in on its prey, to instead seek as much contact and stability as possible. If the clay is centered, then use that as a source of equilibrium. Rather than dropping down with only a visual guide to aim with, use the centeredness of the clay itself as a basis for guiding the opening procedure. Tuck the arms in, wherever they fit, to make the extremities more grounded. Burrow into the center rather than pierce it in a percussive blow. In other words, rather than a bird of prey stooping, make like a child of the mountains hollowing out a nest. Belong to the clay. Its not an adversary to be broken and devoured but a nurturing habitat to make ones’ self at home in. In the end, that seems much more intuitive and accessible to beginners. Or so it has seemed in my experience.

Clinging tightly to its resting place the child of the mountain burrows deeper, finding its new nesting place in the comfort and security of the solidly familiar landscape

Clinging tightly to its resting place the child of the mountain burrows deeper, finding its new nest in the comfort and security of the solidly familiar landscape

But then again, I know folks who push their kids into the deep end first thing. ‘Sink or swim’ sometimes does yield positive results, so I won’t claim hammering the clay doesn’t occasionally pay off. The world can be a hard place, and if I had to walk 20 miles in deep snow drifts in the middle of summer to get to school each day as a child, then so to can my students (perhaps). :) Tough love has its place, for sure. But maybe instead I will drive them to school and let them off in front of their classrooms. Maybe I will give them what they can use rather than simply what I myself can do (or had to do when I was a beginner). I could show them how to center with their feet. Anyone really think I should?

All for now!

Make beauty real!

Happy potting!


Posted in Art, Ceramics, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 1 Comment

The Black Pearls of pottery

“When black pearls were first introduced to the market, nobody wanted them. But then the famous jeweler Harry Winston placed black pearls in his display windows alongside his rubies, sapphires and diamonds. He set the price of black pearls high, and they have been very valuable ever since. An important lesson from this story is that people tend to make relative judgments and to use only objects that are easy to compare as the standard for appraisal (like those rubies, sapphires and diamonds).

This implies that when you’re examining future purchases, you should ensure that you don’t just compare the object of your desire to similar objects but to other, very different things that you might also want. As you expand your scope of comparison, you should be able to make more reasonable decisions.”  Dan Ariely

Or, a bowl is not a bowl is not a bowl. A cup is not a cup is not a cup….. Its just silly to lump them all together just because they do the same things functionally or look similar in shape. The Jack of Diamonds is not the same thing in every card game played. ‘The same card’ in different games is not the same card. A bowl is not simply a bowl like all other bowls. There is a difference in intention, what its aiming at, who its aiming at, the role it plays, the function it fulfills, its value in the game, where it fits into a person’s life, who can afford it, who can appreciate it, and so many others details of its existence, and so on and so forth.

That was essentially the point I was making last post, and I think its a point worth repeating. We tend not to rate the differences between similar looking objects, things perhaps broadly related by ‘form’ or ‘use’. Or, more subtly, we see them as too related (both as ‘pearls’) and then use our other standards and values to discriminate on that basis. No one in a White Pearl world wants black pearls unless they are shown that black pearls are not a lesser version of pearls.

black pearls

This has consequence for how we look at everything from beginner pots to anything we might be tempted to call out as a ‘bad‘ pot. Essentially, when we do this we are guilty of imposing one set of standards (our own) on objects that might never have known they were playing by those rules. Its like going into a coffee shop, and because they don’t serve scones you call it “a poor coffee shop”.

Did they know they were supposed to have scones? Whatever else like that they ‘got wrong’, does it matter what they were actually trying to do, and how well they got that part ‘right’? In other words, what sense is there to call a coffee shop without scones a lesser version or a ‘poor’ coffee shop? And yet we do this with pottery that fails to live up to our preferences all the time.

And unfortunately those preferences can be as rigorously assembled as having been charmed by evenness, flattered by consistency, romanced by symmetry, lulled by balance, and all other persuasions to ideals that come to make sense to most professionals. The more you have been ‘educated’, sometimes it seems the more you have been indoctrinated into a world view, complete with mythologies, superstitions, and systems of value already intact.

In the end, our preferences alway say as much about us as they do the world beyond. What we see and how we see it is a comment on our own insight, whatever else it is. Black Pearls surround us everywhere, just waiting to be seen in the right light by forgiving eyes. You can’t see them for what they are until you forgive them for not being what we expected, what we wanted, the White Pearls in our lives…..

I’ll end with how I ended the last post, because some things are worth repeating:

The key, as I see it, is not to be such fascists about our preferences, calling work we disagree with ‘bad’ or having ‘made mistakes’. Its more like we are playing different games from one another, and even though all bowls may look bowlishly alike, the truth is they are not all aiming at the same things, even as far as specific function goes, much less aesthetically or craftsmanly. A person playing Go Fish isn’t doing it wrong by not declaring trump or what the wild cards are. Just because beginning potters look like they are playing a remedial game we should not expect that they are playing the wrong game or an inferior one.

(The magician slows down so you can see all the movement, the trumpet springing from his nose and what the other hand is actually doing)

What they are doing only LOOKS like the game that professionals play. But how naive would we have to be to expect that beginners necessarily have the same standards as professionals? Just because you are playing cards doesn’t mean you are playing bridge. And not playing bridge doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong….. People starting out on the wheel are only potentially standing at one end of a spectrum where, at the other end, folks who have investigated and evolved and poured themselves into the medium reside. They are not beginners in the sense that they are lesser versions of professionals, merely that professionals start here to get there.

The interesting thing is that the same person can play Bridge AND play Go Fish. Right? What would have to be the case for a professional to throw pots like a beginner? Would they have to give up their hard earned skill? Or would they simply not have to care about the sacred standards and lofty virtues they somehow swallowed on the way to becoming professional? Now THAT is an interesting question!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

And if you haven’t read the previous post, please give it a look. Thanks!!


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