What art and taxes have in common

Having just filed my taxes (with the help of an accountant friend) it occurs to me that there are many things in this world that are so opaque as to leave me feeling as if I must be a moron. Sometimes in looking at other people’s art that same impassible gulf makes it seem they have to be speaking another language or that they certainly don’t agree with anything I might find of value. Art and taxes, here to make you feel like you stepped off the boat wet behind the ears, with spinach caught in your teeth, and wearing only your underwear…..

Here are four thinkers who explain it a bit better than I can:

“We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.


We all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren’t predictable, that we aren’t so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don’t like to feel that we’re blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don’t like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.


We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us — or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.


The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.


Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it.

But here’s the thing: What does your brain like? What gets the “yes” vote? It likes the stuff it already recognizes. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it.


Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random — there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.


Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more — even as the landscape shrinks.


We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?” Margaret Heffernan

chop 9b

“I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog-dumb. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak. Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.

We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.


Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer. The true painting, in its stubborn independence, cannot do this, except coincidentally. Its reality is imaginative not mundane.

When the thick curtain of protection is taken away; protection of prejudice, protection of authority, protection of trivia, even the most familiar of paintings can begin to work its power. There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa.

But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about the painting but the painting has discovered a lot about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.


There are no Commandments in art and no easy axioms for art appreciation. “Do I like this?” is the question anyone should ask themselves at the moment of confrontation with the picture. But if “yes,” why “yes”? and if “no,” why “no”? The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the “yes” or “no” has nothing at all to do with the picture in its own right.

“I don’t understand this poem”
“I never listen to classical music”
“I don’t like this picture”
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant.


When you say “This work has nothing to do with me.” When you say “This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/élitist etc.,” you might be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you might be wrong because the work falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting. This denial of imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world. Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the “I” that we are.” Jeanette Winterson

chop 8b

“As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment, but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people’s minds… Beethoven’s musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The music is grasped by intellectual powers which some people possess to such a degree that they can grasp, and retain in their memory, an entire symphony on one hearing or one reading of the score; while others are so weakly endowed that they cannot get it at all, no matter how often and how attentively they listen to it. For the former, the symphony is as real as it was for the composer; for the latter, there is no symphony: there is nothing but a succession of more or less agreeable but altogether meaningless noises. The former’s mind is adequate to the symphony; the latter’s mind is inadequate, and thus incapable of recognizing the existence of the symphony.


For every one of us only those facts and phenomena “exist” for which we posses adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people’s imaginations.


People say: “Let the facts speak for themselves”; they forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. In truth, it is extremely difficult.


When the level of the knower is not adequate to the level (or grade of significance) of the object of knowledge, the result is not factual error but something much more serious: an inadequate and impoverished view of reality.


The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith. The facts themselves which he observes do not carry labels indicating the appropriate level at which they ought to be considered. Nor does the choice of an inadequate level lead the intelligence into factual error or logical contradiction. All levels of significance up to the adequate level — i.e., up to the level of meaning … — are equally factual, equally logical, equally objective, but not equally real.

It is by an act of faith that I choose the level of my investigation; hence the saying “Credo ut intelligam” — I have faith as to be able to understand. If I lack faith, and consequently choose an inadequate level of significance for my investigation, no degree of “objectivity” will save me from missing the point of the whole operation, and I rob myself of the very possibility of understanding.


The observer depends not only on the adequateness of his own higher qualities, perhaps “developed” through learning or training; he depends also on the adequateness of his “faith” or, to put it more conventionally, of his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions. In this respect he tends to be very much a child of his time and of the civilization in which he has spent his formative years; for the human mind, generally speaking, does not just think: it thinks with ideas, most of which it simply adopts and takes over from its surrounding society.


There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinized directly except the thought by which we scrutinize. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness, is needed: that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself — almost impossible but not quite. In fact, that is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity.”  E.F. Schumacher

chop 1b

And then there’s this:

“Why do we love nonsense? Why do we love Lewis Carroll with his “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe, all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”? Why is it that all those old English songs are full of “Fal-de-riddle-eye-do” and “Hey-nonny-nonny” and all those babbling choruses? Why is it that when we get “hep” with jazz we just go “Boody-boody-boop-de-boo” and so on, and enjoy ourselves swinging with it? It is this participation in the essential glorious nonsense that is at the heart of the world, not necessarily going anywhere. It seems that only in moments of unusual insight and illumination that we get the point of this, and find that the true meaning of life is no meaning, that its purpose is no purpose, and that its sense is non-sense. Still, we want to use the word “significant.” Is this significant nonsense? Is this a kind of nonsense that is not just chaos, that is not just blathering balderdash, but rather has in it rhythm, fascinating complexity, and a kind of artistry? It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we come to the profoundest meaning.” Alan Watts

It is times like the tax season that I am reminded of Sisyphus rolling his boulder up and down that hill. And if Camus suggests we should imagine him happy, perhaps its because he is aware of his blind spots, is not taken in by his adequacies, and has applied himself to every credible nuance of learning to roll that boulder. He speaks the language of boulders. How profound. How absurd. How wonderful! How terrifying!…. We are, after all, talking about what it means to be human. And if we choose to be a part of the drama, let it be, as Watts says, a significant part. “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

The potter as midwife

Perhaps the most famous named piece of pottery, the Kizaemon teabowl

Perhaps the most famous named piece of pottery, the Kizaemon teabowl

The Kizaemon teabowl

The Kizaemon teabowl

It may be hard (if not impossible) to get back to unselfconscious pot making, unless you are still a child in the world, but the lesson has to be not simply how it was made but what unpretentious and uncontrived beauty still looks like. Contemporary makers of pots may have evolved in societies where making is now a highly self conscious act, but as audience members we are still exploring subtle truths and possibilities that don’t conform to our accumulated expectations. When I first saw this pot I had no idea why it was fascinating. At that point I had been educated to look at modern pots of famous artists or historical pots from ancient Greece or Rome or indigenous cultures in the New World. It took me a while to appreciate that everything I might have called a flaw in this bowl was a study in the serendipitous awakening of beauty. This pot and a few like it have changed how I look at pots and how I look at the larger world beyond. It helped me see that artists are important not simply for what they put into the work purposefully but for what they allow to happen. Sometimes its as much about the permission given as the planning. Beauty doesn’t wait for you to put it there. Sometimes you have to discover it as it gets born. An artist is sometimes more a midwife than an architect.

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Those luscious lips

Hey all!

I’ve been making mugs to start my push toward the sales in June. I need plenty more mugs than I have on hand, they always seem to sell fairly well, but I also love making them. Truly! I put as much attention to detail in a mug as I do for any other pot. About a year or so ago I discovered a new way of doing my handles that has sparked a renewed interest, and then last week I decided, “What the hell!”, I would play around with the rims on a series of shapes I was set to make that day. And wouldn’t you know it, the new twist became another spark that makes me happy to step in the studio every day!

But the genesis was probably two years ago when a customer at one of my sales looked at some thick rimmed mugs and proclaimed “Those rims are far too wide and would be impossible to use without dribbling on yourself!” I was shocked and offended. But then I looked at who was speaking, and I saw the pinched lips, the perpetual frown of disapproval, the clenched jaw of someone who doesn’t know very well how to find the pleasure of things, the closed mind of a person who thinks they know it all already, and the stingy purse strings of a person who thinks only of themselves. This was someone who typified the ‘ungenerous’ in every aspect of their being (as far as I could see). No wonder they could not understand the mugs I was offering. No wonder they doubted that their own thinned and bloodless lips would fit the luscious curves of the lips I was presenting. No wonder they assumed that if it didn’t work for them it couldn’t possibly work for anyone else.

So I’m back to playing around with the idea that the lips of mugs can be something distinctive, something present in their own right rather than simply the termination of the top of the pot. Here is what I have been working on. Hope you enjoy:

DSCN4654DSCN4655 DSCN4657 DSCN4659

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, Pottery | 5 Comments

Maximum beauty

“Often, stepping into another artists’ home is like a reassuring brush with the truth that we’re not the crazy ones; that it’s the rest of the aesthetically bankrupt world that’s got it wrong. I love that.”  – Scott Cooper reflecting on his visit to Michael Kline’s

In a recent post I examined how the things we don’t like often get that treatment as a result of our own inexperience. If ‘Try it, you’ll like it’ sometimes makes the difference then our unfamiliarity is just as often a source of suspicion and dislike. Everything from a new type of food to music we’ve never listened to before has a prejudiced hurdle it needs to climb before we can uncover what there is to like. We simply gravitate toward the things we already know (and like). That’s just human nature. And we steer clear of the things we don’t like, but often we don’t like them because we don’t trust them. We don’t yet know what they are offering, so we rush to the judgment that some test has been failed. We make the lazy leap from unknown to unloved.

It is interesting that over time we can change our opinions. Things we didn’t like can eventually become the standards of what we now do like. But what has changed? One answer is that we now know more about what that thing is and the magic of its beauty has been revealed to us. We have unlocked its potential. The closer you pay attention the more you get to see the value of what we are looking at. Its as if there were a tipping point in our exposure that transmutes the disliked into the liked. And it can seem like a magic transformation if we are observing closely. Like pulling rabbits from a hat, “Where did that come from?”

Which makes sense to me. I’ve always wanted to believe that if we simply knew more we would uncover the hidden beauty that surrounds us. We would learn to see the world with new eyes by peering closer and attending to the nuance. I’ve always wanted to believe that seeing beauty was a cumulative experience. That seeing these beautiful insights was a quantitative step taken with the right sort of understanding. If we but learned to see the world as containing these surprising instances of beauty our world would be forever transformed. Its like getting the keys to a car we can now drive.

But its also true that we can change in the opposite direction as well. We can now dislike what we formerly adored. But what has changed? This is not the scenario where we dislike things because we don’t yet understand them. In fact it seems that we occasionally now dislike these things because we have learned even more about them. Its as if we were wrong to love them the way we did, and only now understand the error of our ways. “What was I thinking?” We had a partial glimpse and were deceived into liking what we had no business liking. “If only we had known the truth we would have been spared the indignity of our misspent fondness.”

But doesn’t that sound strange? We can’t usually help the way we feel, and if we like something, that is often the end of the story. If we truly dislike it are we not entitled to have that feeling too? What does knowing more really have to do with it? Liking and disliking are hard facts of our emotional life, and they are true feelings regardless of the contingency of our understanding. ‘Love is blind’ and sometimes we’d rather have that love than know all the gory details. The love itself was real whether the thing loved was truly represented to us…..

But then sometimes knowing too much makes it impossible to continue loving. When I found out my Air Jordans had been made with child labor I no longer felt the same way about them. When I learned that Bill Cosby is a sexual predator he went from my favorite Philadelphian, a hero, to a zero. Some facts are simply hard to swallow without changing us, and understanding some truths is a straight jacket for our feelings. In other words, with the lens of the right facts we are inescapably seeing the world as something specific.

Take, for instance, the duck/rabbit:

duck rabbit

Or the young lady/old lady:

young lady old woman

When we see things as something specific its often true that we can only see it in that one way at a time. One way of understanding it contradicts the other: If its a rabbit its not a duck, and vice versa: if its a young woman its not an old lady, and vice versa. It can be both things but not all at once. There can be a mutual exclusivity to how we appreciate things.

And so when we see beauty we get that the world has this beauty because we see it in a particular way. But then the difference isn’t always an accumulation of insight but the particular quality of the insight itself. We don’t see the beauty by simply seeing more about these things, we see the beauty because this is how we see it. And seeing things differently isn’t just the addition or subtraction of knowledge but adopting an independent framework for making our judgment. Understanding isn’t necessarily additive when the things known are incompatible or cancel one another out.

The truth is that many understood things hang together for us, and that given how much we already see through the lens of a particular kind of framework we are simply incapable of coming to see other particular things with the same kindness. Not at the same time, at least. You can’t be a member of the Sharks and also love the Jets. You can’t be a progressive Democrat and listen to Fox News….. Sometimes those things are so incompatible that bringing them together in one mind at the same time would be like joining matter to anti-matter: We would annihilate ourselves in the collision.

But I have higher hopes for beauty. Perhaps we don’t need to hold inconsistent and contradictory things in our minds at the same time, but can see the value of each on its own in its own time. F Scott Fitzgerald said “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” but maybe its not necessary for everyone to have this particular creative capacity. Maybe we can just be inconsistent serially? Aren’t we that way already? Its like we were an instrument. You can’t play more than one tune at a time, but you can lay down some Led Zeppelin before heading off to a Bach Cantata. It depends on how the instrument is tuned, and being tuned in a particular way gives us access to particular sorts of things we can play. But what is interesting is that we can also retune or recalibrate ourselves to see different things in different ways. Just like in the case of the duck/rabbit.

So what I’d like to propose is that we take our lesson from these two images, the duck/rabbit and young lady/old woman. So what if I like Classical Music? Does that mean I can’t also learn to see the value of Hip Hop? So what if I like salty foods? Can’t I also find something to like in sweet and sour, or tart? So what if Green is the color that moves me the most? Can I not find the hidden joys of yellow and purple? So what if I really get impressionist painting? Can I not also see the potency of abstract expressionism?

Which is not to say that some things are still not worth disliking, only that we rarely cross that line without the prejudice of some other bias hanging over us. We can come to know our dislikes better. We can explore them, mull them over, roll them around on our tongue, fix them with our gaze, wrinkle our nose up and take a big whiff…. We don’t have to be so ignorant about our dislikes. And maybe just then we can also open a few doors that we thought were closed. Perhaps we will stumble into some things we had overlooked and be suddenly struck with the wonder that is now revealed. Isn’t that worth aiming for? And the truth is that the world holds many such surprises for us. Just ask anyone who sees things differently than you. Isn’t the potential for our amazement just… amazing?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

Favorite things

So this week saw my Copying the Masters class draw to a close. Its been great fun for all of us, and I think the students have all gotten some valuable perspective on making pots and in growing their own technique and skill. For me the class is one of the favorite things I can teach, but the title to this post is a coincidence as far as that goes.

In a previous post I spoke about the importance of developing the capacity to see differences, and that by copying the work of other potters you come to see how they did it, what they valued, and perhaps why it was important to them. As my parting gift to the students I wanted to discuss another aspect of the class and of all our deliberate and expressive work in clay.

But let me first start by talking about language, what things we like and what we don’t like. For instance, what are your least favorite words? Well, for me it is foremost the words I pronounce poorly and the words I can’t spell worth a darn. I try to avoid those if I can.

I also don’t have much fondness for lazy words like ‘ain’t’ or shortcut acronyms like ‘lol’. To me utterances like that lower the bar and I can’t help but feel ridiculous. But that’s a statement about me. Its not often a condemnation of other people using them. (I don’t wear hats because I think I look funny in them, but other people look just smashing in hats!) We are all shaped by the culture we grow up with, and that means one way of doing it is never necessarily right.

I also avoid the $10 words like ‘parsimonious’, ‘inchoate’, and ‘voluble’. I’m not interested in impressing people with the big words I know, but it doesn’t mean knowing them is not worth while. Its better to know far more things than one is responsible for bringing out into the world.

I also don’t like words that are too technically specific to a field. Jargon is another way that words are used, and I often feel helpless in the face of them come tax time, applying for medical insurance, and most other brushes with professional-speak that has nothing to do with my ordinary life.

But I like making connections, so I also like the use of metaphor. I like stretching the expectations to make unfamiliar connections. I think a huge part of what interests me about this life and the planet we live on is the serendipity of surprise meaning and unexpected truths.


Perhaps you can now see that I am not really talking just about language. That is, I am talking about language that includes far more than spoken or written words. In fact, I am really talking about the language of clay, pottery, and of any other expressive art medium.

What are the shapes, materials, marks we don’t like to use? The ones we prefer?

What expressions of form and surface do we think makes us look foolish? Poorly constructed handles? Lame surface decoration? What expressions suit us and show what we intend in the best light?

What expressions are so over the top that if we attempted them we’d be laughed out of the building? Should we even care? What is enough and what is too much? Are we trying too hard to impress people? Or are we not trying hard enough, just playing it safe? Or are we simply doing our own thing and waiting for the audience to catch up? Are we even waiting?

What are the details that fit poorly together? Do bowls need handles? When? How many? What proportions seem to match up and which do not? What marks are appropriate and which get in the way of what we are trying to say?

When is it enough nuance and when have we gone overboard?

What connections are a pleasant surprise and which can we not quite get our heads around?

All of these differences are like the words and phrases of a language, and it is up to us to construct meaningful things from them. Depending on what we use the range of our expression either shrinks or expands. When you are growing as a potter you are learning the possibilities of new expression, a new language. It is a thing where the more we learn the greater our powers of expression. The less we learn the more limited we are in what we can say. Learning more is the advantage every adult holds over grade schoolers.

So the big point I am striving to make is that we can back out of exploring for the wrong reasons. Of course it is important to know what our preferences are, but that should not limit us to staying only within the safety and security of what we already know. Stretch outside the comfort zone even if you don’t think you will like what you are doing. The truth is that many of the things we ‘don’t like’ are simply the things we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, and that often has more to do with our own lack of experience than an honest assessment of dislike.

What does a suburban American kid know of Ethiopian food? Not much, unless they are lucky. But kids turn their noses up at strange foods all the time. A two year old’s favorite word is “No!” That’s an important word, but is it always used by them for sensible reasons? Lets not make our pursuit of creativity depend on the whims of imagined dislike. There may be hard limits to what you find acceptable, but my guess is that the horizon of possibility has yet to be fully explored and the boundaries of our interest have yet to be fully circumscribed.

I have seen students who don’t make mugs because they are afraid of pulling handles. I have seen students avoid making plates because they don’t understand how to get them off the wheel. I have seen students refuse to trim pots because they can’t be bothered with controlling the drying conditions. None of these dislikes are the dislike of something they understood. Its the worst sort of shoddy half baked opinion that holds us back and stunts our creative development. Don’t be that person!

Be brave, be bold, be an explorer! Not necessarily a full time adventurer, but live your life as though adventure were an option. Stretch your wings when you feel the warming breeze of an updraft. Climb that tall tree to launch yourself into the unknown. You have wings, and it would be a shame if you spent all your creative time running over the same old ground. “What have we found? The same old fears. Wish you were here”……


This is how I expressed it in an email to a student who had to miss class:

Sorry we missed you! The one thing I talked about at the beginning of class was how what we are doing with clay is like learning a language. And its important to recognize that we have our favorite ‘words’ and ‘phrases’, but also that we have things that we don’t like. I think the comment you made that you “finally feel like you are starting to understand the things that you like” is huge. We need to make that sort of discovery to point us in the right directions for exploration. But one of the points I stressed in class was that as far as language goes, the things we don’t like are typically the things that make us uncomfortable or that we get frustrated by.

For instance, I don’t like words I chronically misspell, words I mispronounce, or confusing text like when I’m trying to file my taxes. The point I was attempting to make is that our dislikes tend to be the stuff we just haven’t learned to do right yet, and its not dislike necessarily in the sense of being opposite to ‘like’. More often its simply a lack of clarity about the unfamiliar. And the point that led me to was that even if we don’t want to use these details of the language of pottery ourselves, by understanding them we have added to our own intelligence and we can better appreciate work that includes them. You don’t need to use the words yourself, but you need to be able to know how to use them. It takes away some of the fear and inhibition. Its just a caution to not so automatically avoid the things we ‘don’t like’. Disliking the merely unfamiliar or uncomfortable is too easily confused with the things for which we have real cause for dislike.

Hope that makes sense!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 3 Comments

Tales of the butterfly and snake

The great potter/blogger Whitney Smith just ran a post in which she confesses feelings of shame about her older work, which is much different than her new explorations. She says;

“This puts me in a strange spot with my older work right now. The standard collection that I’ve been pumping out for the past 7 years or so is all slip cast now, and I have made the decision that a lot of that collection is going to be discontinued– the cupcake stands, the bird bowls and vases for starters, and probably other items as I get used to saying good-bye to this work. But it’s still with me, taking up a lot of space in my studio, and sometimes the things people say to me about this work makes me feel strangely defensive and even ashamed. Another artist friend of mine said, “I loved your cake stands, but enough with the cute already! I like this new work so much better!”

I’ve had many comments from other people that they like this new work better than my older work. Which is nice, it’s a compliment and I know that, and I totally agree with them, but it gives me this feeling that I’ve been walking around with my underwear hanging out, and everyone has known it, and now they can tell me since I finally tucked it back in. It’s just this weird shame.

Whitney's new and better than 'cute' work. Me like!

Whitney’s new and better than ‘cute’ work. Me like!

This was my response:

Hey Whitney,

I think that any creative person who is evolving will be tempted to feel less kindly about their previous work than the current work that they are now excited by. I look at some of my pots from a few years ago and I feel that shame you are talking about. I’m almost embarrassed that some of this stuff is out there in people’s homes. The trick is to not see this new attitude as a reflection of the work as much as its a reflection of our own developing tastes. The person who made those old pots no longer exists. Or that person is slowly being replaced by someone new. Its like we are butterflies metamorphosing. So don’t feel so bad. You are like a snake shedding its skin: The only way to grow is to leave something of ourselves behind.

The price of moving forward is sometimes that we need to give things up that we were not prepared to part with. But that’s okay. All life only exists on the ruin of that which has been surpassed. To stand still is to be removed from the cycle of creation and destruction. Its a different sort of death. The corpse still breaths, and mouths words, but all autonomous activity has been replaced by autopilot responses and a life support apparatus. An artist has to embrace the many small deaths, the constant shedding, to affirm life. Creativity MEANS a certain sort of annihilation. You break eggs to make an omelet.

Or so it seems to me……

Peace all!

Happy shedding!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Pottery | Leave a comment

50 shades of clay

Someone in Monday night’s class mentioned that in an alternate Universe we would have a class called ’50 Shades of Clay’. The whole rest of the evening was spent cracking up and delivering jokes between getting pots on and off the wheels. I even made the mistake of telling one student to “Push deeper. Push harder.” (referring to the rib marks she was attempting) and her mortification turned her face as red as any I have ever seen. Oops!

Ignoring the Hollywood reference I woke up this morning knowing that this was the title I needed for what I am posting today. Today I’d like to talk about the relation and difference between quantity and quality and how that manifests in our pottery, in all art. My head was pointed in this direction after reading yesterday’s post from Seth Godin’s blog, and I knew it was something worth sharing with you folks. Here’s what Seth had to say:

Shoes that don’t fit (and free salt)

A beautiful pair of shoes, but one size too small, on sale and everything…. Not worth buying, not for you, not at any price. Because shoes that don’t fit aren’t a bargain.

And at a restaurant, you may have noticed that there’s no extra charge for salt. You can have as much salt as you want on your food, for free. (Of course, it’s not really free, it’s part of the cost of the meal, so we paid for it, so we might as well get our money’s worth, might as well use a lot.) Of course, that’s silly, because regardless of how much we were billed for the salt, no matter how unlimited our access to it is, using more is merely going to ruin our meal. Too much salt isn’t a bargain.

Buffets (like life, organizations, projects, art…) aren’t actually, “all you can eat.” They’re, “all you care to eat.” Which is something else entirely. Just because you can have it doesn’t mean you want it. Just because we paid for it doesn’t mean we should use all of it.

I think these are interesting observations, and I know that I for one don’t often pay enough attention to the differences. It seems relatively important to try making sense of why and how the world breaks down in this way. And after Seth I’m going to call these two differences fit and seasoning.

It should be readily apparent what the idea of fit means for the pots we make, if only in the way that Seth mentions with shoes. A mug that is so small (or big) as to be unusable or small (or big) enough as to discourage its use is something we have to consider. The idea that one size fits all for pots like mugs is something I never understood. I know people with big hands and big appetites, and I know people with small hands and small appetites. So I make all my mugs different sizes so that hopefully one or more may fit that customer specifically. As if it were made for them.

But with functional pottery that is meant to be hand held its not just about size but comfort and utility too. Fit can mean the nuances of ergonomics and the shape and design of the pot. A mug of the right size can have a devastatingly poor handle that makes using it not worth the effort. Or a bowl of the right size can be too narrow at the top or too wide for the things we want to do with them. In my art school days I used to put small spikes on cups so the user would have to pay attention when using them. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea….

And then there’s also the pot that’s not really what it pretends to be.

teapot or doorstop? Chuck Hinds will tell you "Its Art".

teapot or doorstop? Chuck Hinds will tell you “Its Art”.

For instance, all the elements you’d expect for a teapot are in this objet d’art made by Chuck Hinds, but is it a teapot? The lid is stuck on, and there is no hole for the spout to pour through even if you could get the lid off. Is it still a teapot? Is there some minimum criteria that we need to have for it to still be a teapot?

Oh, the treachery of images and objects!

Oh, the treachery of images and objects!

Magritte tells us “This is not a pipe”. Is a ‘plate’ with a hole in it a plate?

Voulkos platter. Is it a plate or does it just 'look like one'?

Voulkos platter. Is it a plate or does it just ‘look like one’?

Even though Voulkos would have reeled in horror to see deviled eggs and cucumber sandwiches piled on his platter, you can see that its not out of the realm of possibility. So it seems there are gray areas. Four solid holes and five embedded pebbles plus a divot still potentially qualifies this as a ‘plate’. But what about fifty holes? What if the holes were that much larger, and whole sandwiches would get sucked through the gaps?

Or, just the opposite: Real pots not intended for use but as a ‘still life’. Here’s the inimitable Jack Troy to explain it:

Returning home from a recent trip, I faced anunexpected dilemma when several pieces from ceramic still lifes made by different artists were in the cupboard with my everyday cups and bowls. A vase from one still life was on a table, with flowers in it.  The person who had been house-sitting was staying for two more days, and while it it was reassuring to have had the house cared for in my absence, I wondered about whether to raise the issue of the disrupted still lifes, or to just let it go, and rearrange the pieces where they belonged after my guest left.

When I woke up remembering how isolated the remaining pieces in the still lifes appeared on their shelves, and the related isolation the vase embodied, even with its lovely flowers, I felt the artist’s vision had been violated. But what clinched it was seeing my friend eating yogurt and fruit from one of the bowls removed from a still life. It seemed disrespectful to see this bowl-like element in an uncommonly beautiful ceramic composition being put to such common use.” (read the whole essay here)

Enter the notion of seasoning. Following Seth’s example, seasoning counts along a continuum. Say you start out with no seasoning. What you end up with can be bland, so simple it holds little interest for us. As we start to add seasoning it gets more interesting until we hit the sweet spot and can say without equivocation “That’s just about perfect!”

But if you push the seasoning a bit further than that its not just diminishing returns but a downhill slope that ends in something potentially worse than bland. We can overdo the seasoning. A simple form that has no articulation can seem very dull, but with even a few marks or changes in profile it can take on much greater interest. Tony Clennell just riffed on that in a post on his blog last week, and it seems worth noting. There is a range from dull to exciting to too much that circumscribes this aspect of quality. So its important to know when you haven’t done enough and stop before you’ve done too much. Sometimes more of a good thing is not itself a good thing…..

How many handles does a bowl need?

Every bowl needs at least two handles. maybe four....

“Every bowl needs at least two handles. maybe four….” Dan Finnegan (deeds spoken as words)

I’d say that hits the sweet spot, but you can imagine what more would do. The question is where that point actually happens. And maybe its a bit personal taste and a bit practical necessity.

How many wads are too many? The sweet spot supports the pot during the firing but also allows enough clearance for the vapors and/or ash to travel beneath the foot. Too few and the pot slumps. Too many and no atmospherics make their way through.

How much surface decoration/imagery/patterning splits the difference between nuance and garish? How much difference is too subtle and how much is too obvious? How much do we need to stay interested and how much will we be overwhelmed by? (When you cook you try to aim for a sweet spot with just a few distinct spices and flavors, not every flavor all at once)

How many pots are too many for a display? Do you just cram as many as will fit, or do you get some space between them to see the edges? When is a lot of information too much information? One pot per pedestal, or maybe a small tableau, but one pot per table might not be enough. Where is the sweet spot?

How many mugs do you need in your kitchen? A new one for every day, a clutch of favorites, or more than can reasonably fit on the shelves? Build enough shelves, I say! The number of pots is not the problem but the insufficiency of the storage! If you have pots stacked on the floors and every available horizontal surface, maybe you just need a bigger house. Or an addition, like my teacher Ron Meyers built for his wife Hester, to clear out some of the overflow. You’ve gotta have priorities :)

I’m sure I could go on much further, but I’m hoping what I’ve given is still somewhere in the sweet spot. I usually aim for excess, but that doesn’t always do me any favors. Hopefully this will be just enough to stimulate some thought and perhaps bring new light to some issues every potter, every artist, has to deal with. Interesting stuff, without a doubt!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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