In praise of less obvious charms

I saw that the new Bond Girl is to be the fabulous Monica Bellucci. She’s 50. Hey! That’s around my age too! Which got me thinking about how wonderful it is that she gets this role that has been preferred to marginally post-adolescent runway models and the like…. I said this on facebook:

Our culture worships the obvious charms of the young and perfect at the expense of the more hidden less brilliant glamour of those of us who have lived long enough for that superficial shine to have worn thin. Some of us have simply endured enough for all our youthful virtues to have had their perfect edges knocked off, their taut lines to have softened, their slender curves to have grown up.

This merely means that we have changed, not that we are damaged. We are as damaged as butterflies are in emerging from their chrysalis. Our culture mocks us as we get older, but it has simply traded the majesty of our hard won victories over life for the plain and simple virtues of our perfect and pure innocence. We worship the purity of the chrysalis, nothing more….

While those youthful things may sound good and worthy, and they are, they are not more good or more worthy than a callous, a wrinkle, or a scar. If we can’t always see this we just need to look harder. Older people are not beautiful despite their age. The signs of their age are a source of new and different beauty…..

Can we look with eyes that have seen a few turnings of the world? Can we look with eyes grown sharp with experience? Can we even look with eyes that have grown tired of bright lights and flash? Can we expect more from beauty than the simple perfections?

And the thing is, its not just youth we venerate at the expense of experience and its repercussions. No. We also trumpet the spectacle of obvious eye candy and easy accessible charm wherever it finds a home. And what we chronically miss out on is the harder to find qualities and less obvious charms that amazingly surround us everywhere while we are busy being dazzled by the inside joke of a bar being set so low that you can’t easily see under it…..

What that means for me is that, as far as pottery is concerned, its no surprise that galleries (who should know better) and general audiences (who may not) too often take the easy way out. They don’t look very deeply as long as the surface glitter shines away all their doubts. They are so easily seduced by what they can understand, the obviousness, and this deflects them from needing to reach for the forbidden fruit of the as yet unknown. As Michael Simon once observed,

“In our culture the graphic has largely supplanted perception of shape and texture…. I feel a contradiction in drawing images on the pot forms I make. The marks can distract from the more profound aspects of the pots. Pattern can render the shape a secondary concern…. Some pots are lost in the painting, others are improved.” (From his book, Evolution, p.81)

Not that its not charming, this easy virtue. Rather, by putting all our eggs in this one basket we create a culture that has no incentive to look deeper, no incentive to find alternate truths, and one that can easily pretend that THIS is the only value worth pursuing….. Eerily similar to our obsession and glorification of youth…..

The further I get from my invincible and perfect youth the more it seems worth defending these other virtues. I’m not denying youth or perfection, I simply want space to be made for other things. The world is entirely too narrow if we only pay attention to its candy. If the only voice heard were the voice of youth, how just would that be? Shouldn’t we aim for plurality? Shouldn’t we aim for diversity? Shouldn’t we aim beyond the obvious?

The Kizaemon teabowl, very old and very beautiful, but if most people saw it on the street they would pass it by. They might even prefer a brightly decorated beginner's bowl to its serene majesty.....

The Kizaemon teabowl, very old and very beautiful, but if most people saw it on the street they would pass it by. They might even prefer a brightly decorated beginner’s bowl to its serene majesty…..

Think about it.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

Make beauty that takes effort to find!

Or as the Velveteen Rabbit would say,

velveteen rabbit

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

On teaching pottery

A friend just asked what I consider to be the ingredients to a successful class. With a cup of coffee before my breakfast to bolster me this is what I came up with:

Let me see….

Back in my early fire breathing days of teaching my plan was that I would help students learn as much as was possible within the constraints of the class and their lives. I was a teacher and my job was to teach, as much and as well as I could. Students were ‘students’ and their job was to study and learn as much as they could. Or so it seemed to me….. I did handle making exercises before every class and timed them so their focus was more on doing things efficiently than getting sucked into the hypnotic vortex of working with clay. Years later I would hear stories of friends meeting former students and how they all described hating those exercises but how much they appreciated being forced to learn. Like medicine that doesn’t taste good, sometimes learning is not all fun and games. That’s what I was thinking all those years ago…. Geeze, was I ever serious!

After a few years of teaching like this (I was then affectionately known as ‘The Slave Driver’) I had to eventually realize that in a non credit class there were a variety of legitimate reasons for being there, not all having to do with learning. Even if every single student of mine suffered through my stern expectations and came out the other side grateful, that was still me imposing my values on them, and at some point I decided I was no longer comfortable with that. Yes, I want my students to learn, but the thing I had not fully considered was that I am not necessarily training professional potters. Even in academic settings very few students go on to make a career out of throwing pots. I am not training folks who will necessarily be using these pot making skills in any significant sense ever again in their lives. And so I discovered it is perhaps less important what they learn than that what they learn has meaning for them here and now. That’s the conclusion I eventually came to.

I stopped giving mandatory ‘homework’ assignments and slowed the pace and ambitions of the instruction. Rather than exposing the students to new forms and ideas every week I designed broader lessons that they could have multiple weeks to explore. They could choose which of several options to do and then take more than one week to learn what there was to learn. At their own pace and in their own interests. Unlike in academic settings where there may be official ‘requirements’ in particular courses, things to check off a list of criteria for ‘successful’ completion, I recognized the value of greater freedom for my students. It wasn’t so much about the volume of what they were exposed to, the often necessary seeming elements of some imagined ‘foundation’, but the comfort they were able to achieve with each lesson…… The idea of teaching, I discovered, was less about some external measurement than the students’ own psychology.

So when you ask me to define ‘success’ for a class of this nature I would put that definition almost entirely in the students’ hands: Were they happy and fulfilled in the class?

And not every student will always be happy with how each instructor teaches, so you can’t always take it personally when they don’t like what you are offering. Some students have very narrow expectations, and its not always possible to cater to all of them at once. Try your best, but also try to find the middle road where as many students as possible will settle comfortably under the wings of your instruction. They may never end up as full-time potters (I’ve only had one student in 17 years who has gone on to do pottery that seriously. This low number is not a ‘failure’ on my part, either.), but they are all human beings with normal human aspirations and desires. Treat them as humans first, students second, and you will be doing well.

And sometimes you are lucky enough to find a group of students who likes working together. For many of your non-credit/community center type students this will be their escape from the pressures of daily life, the stresses of their jobs, or relief from parenting and other duties, among the hectic full-time diversities that make up any one life. If you get students who so look forward to their time in the class you should do what you can to encourage this camaraderie. Do what you can to make every student feel part of the group and welcome. Include them all in every discussion and show that you value what they have to say, and especially value that they are taking the time out of their day to spend it with you. The dynamics between members of the class will depend on who they are and what they each bring to the table. Your job as teacher is sometimes less about what you are showing them on the wheel, your ‘instruction’, and often more about what you are doing to promote their enjoyment of the experience.

Nip every frustration in the bud. Sometimes students will come to class with awful burdens from their outside life. Make the classroom a safe haven from those troubles. Don’t let minor failures with clay spiral out of control and ruin the experience of sanctuary. Give them warm up exercises. Always remind them to start off in a comfortable size range and work upward in their ambitions. Never have them start off with too great a challenge (technical or size-wise), or you will potentially be setting them up for frustration. For difficult techniques give intermediate assignments and build their skills on less heavily invested exercises.

Always praise the things they are doing well. Appreciate the progress they have made and draw their attention to how far they have come. Letting them see that its not just about what is happening on the wheel at this one moment but that there is a longer term view almost always takes the pressure off. You can even do assignments that you state up front will not be saved, so you can often easily take the anxiety inducing pressure off having something done at the end to show for it.

If you think first how each individual student will benefit from what you are showing them you get to treat them all as people, with specific talents, specific interests, and specific needs. If instead you give them only uniformly strict assignments you imagine them as cookie cutter cogs in the machinery of teaching. And ‘failure’, then, has everything to do with standardized moment to moment performance, not their own personal progress or relative ambitions. Teaching should never be one size fits all. That only asks for trouble, in my experience…..

One of the hardest things for students to sometimes see is that they are working on themselves even more than they are working on the clay. By learning how to shape the clay they are learning to shape their own abilities with the clay, and so its sometimes important to remind them of this, to draw their attention away from the lumps of clay to their own selves. Its never just about the clay. For every bit of technical wisdom there is in how they work the clay or think about what they are doing there are frequent parallels about the larger picture of their own lives. If its only about the clay, then they are not learning very much. Success and failure then hang on a razor’s edge. If what they are learning is part of their own evolution as human beings, then success and failure are simply the bricks and mortar of a foundation that potentially reaches far into their future lives.

Failure on the wheel is not so important for what it says about that one experience, its not make or break, but should be savored for what it teaches us about our own capacities and for how we respond to the challenges we face. Failure with clay should never be the excuse to quit, a flunking grade, and the only reason we drop out. Failure with clay is only ever the stepping stone that we either eventually master or which teaches us new directions that we can take.

Choosing a new direction is often how you turn one idea of failure into a very different looking picture of future success. Its less about measuring up externally than it is about how the external things are eventually incorporated into our own ambitions. That path is never always clear, and in fact almost always diverges at some point from what we expected. Failure is one of the questions being asked of us, the challenge that we either do this one thing better next time or that we learn the new course that it has deflected us into. There is no universal or objective external measure of personal success. Period.

So, success will only ever look different for each and every student, and it is your job as a teacher to nurture that as best you can. It will often be less about what you can read from the pots themselves and more what you can read from their hearts and their laughter. Success will be less about the finished version of some pot they threw and more about the person whose ability it was to throw that pot. The finished pots are nice to have, they are the signs of progress, but you must always remind them that the real progress is in their own ability to make these pots. If they can ‘get it right’ this once, then the measure of true success is that at some other time they will not only get it right again, but they will do it one better. THAT is what success means.


Coincidentally, in my facebook feed just after I had made this response another potter friend asked publicly for “any great lesson tips and/or general teaching advice you may have”. Let me include some of the wisdom that was being shared by her friends:

  • For every “rule”, show an exception to it.
  • Also, demonstrations never go as planned, and thats OK! Its a great time to tell them what can go wrong.
  • Show different ways to execute a process.
  • Handouts! And telling students before every demo that they can ask questions.
  • When doing demos, think of James Barber on the Urban Peasant, and treat the class like a cooking show (have each step done beforehand, and then show them how to do it).
  • In my experience I have found that if a demo last longer than 20-30 minutes I lose them completely. I have had to change the way I disseminate information. I will do many shorter demos throughout the class instead of one or two longer ones. The Julia child’s method of instruction is necessary for this, have the different stages finished before the class begins
  • Teach them what they need to hear at that particular time in their development. Don’t tell them that its ‘the right way’ of doing things, just that doing this gets you that. They don’t always need to hear ‘the truth’ or even the wide variety of possibility. Its like learning math, you don’t give them advanced calculus before they learn algebra, but you neither diminish the importance of algebra or claim that it is the only way of doing math. They need the ladder to climb, but once they have gained perspective and practical resources, they no longer necessarily need it. They can kick the ladder away.

Stuff to think about, at least.

Happy potting!

Happy teaching!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Clay, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Art is the epidemic of human creativity

Time to share a little nugget of how my brain works: When anyone understands anything it usually looks like this, A->B->C…. Things follow one from the other in often well established patterns. That’s a good thing. But what artists (and creative folks in general) add to that is an ability to connect unfamiliar dots. Sometimes curiosity leads us to uncover hidden connections and even to invent new meanings. Sometimes A->K->578. You have to be willing to look at familiar things and ask yourself what other things can be learned from them. What else besides the same old same old are they connected to? Where have we assumed too much? Where are the established connections weaker than we imagine? What exactly are we taking for granted?

So I am always reading new things, not just to have new truths explained to me, but sometimes also to see where these insights unexpectedly lead me. If one new thing is true, how does its truth reflect on other established truths? Do they still fit together in the same comfortable ways? Or is that new insight enough to make me question some of the things I took for granted?

I’ve always been a dissenting voice in debates that assume ‘Art’ is some one thing, a sort of natural category, and that because of this objective quality some specific things are more art than others. These arguments are often used to say that things like pottery and jewelry are lesser forms of art if they are art at all. Its the centerpiece of the establishment’s war to divide out the ‘crafty’ things from the ‘real art’. In my mind this has always been a complete misunderstanding of the nature of art and of the role that the word ‘art’ plays.

So the other day I was wandering around in a new publication by some very smart folks talking about change in the sciences, and I couldn’t help but think of how it relates to the arts. As I so often do, my first thought was to run some of my speculation by others in the arts field, possibly get their feedback, and at least also direct their attention to issues they may be interested in. I wrote the following to one of the folks I sometimes exchange ideas with, and it seems worth sharing with you all as well. I am looking forward to any response he may have, but I am interested in ALL responses that look at the issues candidly. ‘A’ doesn’t just or always lead to ‘B’, so certain habits will sometimes need to be broken for new ways of thinking to bear fruit….

Here’s what I said:


Ahoy again Ian!

I know how tremendously busy you are, so I expect no real feed back. No worries on that score!

But from our shared interest in so many of these arts related themes I can only imagine that if I throw the right pitch you will knock something out of the park. It gives me confidence that I can bounce some ideas your way, and if they look interesting you might take a swing, if not there are countless balls that pass you by every day, though I’d bet not too many strikes….

So here I am with another tangent to something you’ve written, typically off the wall, but the strangeness of the dots I connect doesn’t always mean they should not be connected…..

I was just delving onto the latest Edge publication, This Idea Must Die, and I saw some wonderful parallels to issues in the arts field. Thankfully they posted each of the essays on their website, and perhaps even you’ve already read some of them. Its fascinating stuff, and this installment was focused around the idea that certain ideas in science have outlived their usefulness. The proposal was phrased thus:

“As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals.”

This would seem to have implications for ideas in the arts field as well, and perhaps even shed light on the nature of change in the arts field itself. But that was not why I was eager to throw you another pitch. Among the essays discussing options for retirement were three that held my particular interest. Two were concerned with how the idea of ‘culture’ is outdated for scientific purposes, and the third examines the default explanation why things like ‘culture’ even form the basis of scientific investigation. But culture wasn’t the spin I was interested in. Rather, the same exact cases could be made for the term ‘Art’. That seems like the sort of curve ball that would at least potentially appeal to you.

In your last blog post you mention that the definition of art in the surveys transitioned from more limited orthodoxy to the wider inclusiveness that proponents of participatory engagement find interesting. It simply seems that no one knows what we really mean by ‘art’ or that the ones who do admit to knowing disagree with everyone else who does. Is the idea of a specific thing called ‘art’ ready for retirement?

I’ll give you some of the arguments the authors used for dissecting ‘culture’. If you substitute ‘art’ and the art relevant attributes you can perhaps easily see why these essays fascinated me. Here are some of the quotes:

Culture is like trees. Yes, there are trees around. But that does not mean that we can have a science of trees. Having some rough notion of ‘tree’ is useful for snakes that lurk and fall on their prey, for birds that build nests, for humans trying to escape from rabid dogs, and of course for landscape designers. But the notion is of no use to scientists. There is nothing much to find out, e.g. to explain growth, reproduction, evolution, that would apply to all and only those things human and snakes and birds think of as ‘trees’. Nothing much that would apply to both pines and oaks, to both baobabs and monstrous herbs like the banana tree.

Why do we think there is such a thing as culture? Like ‘tree’, it is a pretty convenient term. We use it to designate all sorts of things we feel need a general term, like the enormous amount of information that humans acquire from other humans, or the set of idiosyncratic concepts or norms we find in some human groups but not others. There is no evidence that either of these domains corresponds to a proper set of things that science could study and about which it could offer general hypotheses or describe mechanisms.


Is the idea of culture really a Bad Thing? Yes, a belief in culture as a domain of phenomena has hindered the development of a proper science of human behavior in groups—what ought to be the domain of social sciences.

First, if you believe that there is such a thing as ‘culture’, you naturally tend to think that it is a special domain of reality with its own laws. But it turns out that you cannot find the unifying causal principles (because there aren’t any). So you marvel at the many-splendored variety and diversity of culture. But culture is splendidly diverse only because it is not a domain at all, just like there is a marvelous variety in the domain of white objects or in the domain of people younger than Socrates.


Third, if you believe in culture you end up believing in magic. You will say that some people behave in a particular way because of “Chinese culture” or “Muslim culture”. In other words you will be trying to explain material phenomena— representations and behaviors—in terms of a non-material entity, a statistical fact about similarity. But a similarity does not cause anything. What causes behaviors are mental states.

Some of us aim to contribute to a natural science of human beings as they interact and form groups. We have no need for that social scientific equivalent of phlogiston, the notion of culture.

(Pascal Boyer:


Worst of all, the flow of discoveries and better theories through institutional choke points is clogged by ideas that are so muddled that they are—in Paul Dirac’s telling phrase—not even wrong. Two of the worst offenders are learning, and its partner in crime, culture, a pair of deeply established, infectiously misleading, yet (seemingly) self-evidently true theories.

What alternative to them could there be except an easily falsified, robotic genetic determinism?

Yet countless obviously true scientific beliefs have had to be discarded—a stationary earth, (absolute) space, the solidity of objects, no action at a distance, etc. Like these others, learning and culture seem so compelling because they map closely to automatic, built-in features of how our minds evolved to interpret the world (e.g., learning is a built-in concept in the theory of mind system). But learning and culture are not scientific explanations for anything. Instead, they are phenomena that themselves require explanation.

All “learning” operationally means is that something about the organism’s interaction with the environment caused a change in the information states of the brain, by mechanisms unexplained. All “culture” means is that some information states in one person’s brain somehow cause, by mechanisms unexplained, “similar” information states to be reconstructed in another’s brain. The assumption is that because supposed instances of “culture” (or equally, “learning”) are referred to with the same name, they are the same kind of thing. Instead, each masks an enormous array of thoroughly dissimilar things. Attempting to construct a science built around culture (or learning) as a unitary concept is as misguided as attempting to develop a robust science of white things (egg shells, clouds, O-type stars, Pat Boone, human scleras, bones, first generation MacBooks, dandelion sap, lilies…).

Consider buildings and the things that allow them to influence each other: roads, power lines, water lines, sewage lines, mail, roads, phone landlines, sound, wireless phone service, cable, insect vectors, cats, rodents, termites, dog to dog barking, fire spread, odors, line of sight communication with neighbors, cars and delivery trucks, trash service, door to door salesmen, heating oil delivery, and so on. A science whose core concept was building-to-building influence (“building-culture”) would be largely gibberish, just as our “science” of culture as person to person influence has turned out to be.


​And this from Richard Dawkins detailing another misuse of labeling:

Paleontologists will argue passionately about whether a particular fossil is, say, Australopithecus or Homo.But any evolutionist knows there must have existed individuals who were exactly intermediate. It’s essentialist folly to insist on the necessity of shoehorning your fossil into one genus or the other. There never was an Australopithecus mother who gave birth to a Homo child, for every child ever born belonged to the same species as its mother. The whole system of labelling species with discontinuous names is geared to a time slice, the present, in which ancestors have been conveniently expunged from our awareness (and “ring species” tactfully ignored). If by some miracle every ancestor were preserved as a fossil, discontinuous naming would be impossible. Creationists are misguidedly fond of citing “gaps” as embarrassing for evolutionists, but gaps are a fortuitous boon for taxonomists who, with good reason, want to give species discrete names. Quarrelling about whether a fossil is “really” Australopithecus or Homo is like quarreling over whether George should be called “tall”. He’s five foot ten, doesn’t that tell you what you need to know?

​This seems like a pitch you’d possibly take a swing at, but if you decline I won’t take it personally. Its not only interest that prevents us from getting to all the projects we can otherwise act on. If you do know of other people who would be candidates to tackle this I’d be delighted if you passed it on to them, regardless of you taking a swing yourself or not. I talk about the Wittgensteinian notion of family resemblances as a proper response to essentialist propaganda when these issues crop up, and it was fascinating to hear these authors tease out other failings. At the very least folks in the sciences are talking about the limitations of our concepts. I just hope that folks in the arts field are not too far behind…….

Hope all is well!
What do you all think?
Peace all!
Happy potting!
Make beauty real!
Help create an epidemic :)
Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, metacognition, Pottery, Wittgenstein | 4 Comments

Every answer about pricing is right, but its often an answer to the wrong question

Every few years the issue of pricing for our art comes up and cycles around the internet before we move on to other things, settle our opinions in relative discomfort, and get on with life. Maybe that’s a metaphor of something in it self. I dunno. The one thing I can sense, however, is that the idea of pricing is a big question, but the answers I know are only ever very small.

Most recently Whitney Smith related her own tribulations and gave insight to a sales experience that many of us I’m sure can relate to. You can read that post here.

My own response went as follows:


There are so many different ways to look at this, from our own perspective of how much we have invested in the making, how much we need to be payed to sustain our work, pay bills, etc, how much we like particular outcomes and what counts as our best work in our own opinion, but also how our audience sees things, what they are looking for and why they should care. None of these things match up easily. Its not bad enough that we can legitimately be conflicted about our own values, but once we stop to consider our audience we can see how the perspectives on value and worth multiply depending on who we are talking to and even where our work is being found…..

Seth Godin ran a post last month that a few folks in arts advocacy circles are discussing. Well worth a read, but here is the gist:

“Thirty years ago, I asked the fabled rock promoter Bill Graham a question that I thought was brilliant, but he owned me in his response. “Bill, given how fast a Bruce Springsteen concert sells out, why don’t you charge $100 a seat and keep all the upside?” (In those days, $100 was considered a ridiculous sum for a concert ticket).

“Well, I could do that, but the thing is, I’m here all year round, and my kids only have a limited budget to spend on concerts. If I charged that much for one concert, they wouldn’t be able to come to the other shows I book…”

Bill wasn’t just spreading the money out over time. He was investing in a community that could develop a habit of music going, a community that would define itself around what he was building.”

That has to be insightful. He ends the post with this observation:

“The promise of our connected economy was that it would reward the good guys, the long-term players, the people who cared enough to contribute. The paradox is that this very same economy has become filled with people who are easily distracted, addicted to shiny objects and too often swayed by the short-term sensation or by short-term profit.

The extraction mindset leads to intelligent short-term decisions. If it costs too much to exploit a resource, move on. The network mindset values the long-term impacts of co-creation.

The network (that would be us) then needs to decide if it will continue to reward short-term thinking in order to enhance extraction, or if we care enough about the long-term that we’ll act up in favor of sustainability, raising the costs of short-term (selfish) action so it becomes ever more profitable to focus on the long-term instead.”

You can find his post here.


Seth’s response doesn’t answer every possible concern, but it does explain how valuing one thing leads in this direction and how valuing another thing leads to other outcomes….. Right and wrong are beside the point. It all depends on the end game you are targeting. Pricing is a means to an end, and therefor cannot have some objectively true determination. If you ask a different question the same answer will no longer fit.

Perhaps the best we can do is to not go into our art commerce blindly. Perhaps the best we can do is to acknowledge that there is no one right perspective, but that we can educate ourselves on the possible variety of perspectives and form our own opinion of how that works for us. Which is only ever provisional, if we suddenly discover each strategy gives with one hand and takes away with the other. The benefits of doing it one way are offset by the limitations. If you charge top dollar you no longer necessarily market to regular folks. If you ‘undercharge’ you may appeal to some folks looking for bargains but you will potentially turn off the collectors who are looking for investments. For every advantage we take aim at we no longer aim in other potentially profitable directions….. There is no one universally ‘right’ way.

If this leaves you confused, just remember that big seeming questions don’t always have big answers. Sometimes the confusion is simply the truth of having to deal with a jumble of smaller answers that each answer different but related questions in different ways. And that’s okay. Welcome to the human predicament :)

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

Peace all!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery | 4 Comments

Creativity had a baby and they named it Art

Of course we don’t talk as glowingly about its illegitimate children….

(This is a brief meditation on how some words work and what the difference between a name and a description is.)

I recently read an article that suggested that saying “best” is the worst thing you can do to end an email/letter. This seemed a pretentious bit of fascism, and it got me thinking about ways in which we use words other than by literally ‘meaning’ them. The article is here, and my response below:

I use ‘cheers!’ hoping to end cheerfully. I think some Brit used it in an email to me and I liked it enough to copy and don’t feel weird using it. The article does make it sound as if you are supposed to say something you ‘mean’ or not say anthing at all, which is a limited view on the way that words function. Sign-offs are a cultural practice in the same way that shaking hands serves in greeting. It doesn’t mean anything in particular beyond simply being what we do. And what we do doesn’t always need to make some sort of ‘extra’ sense……

Another article I read close after described how the arts field is getting more comfortable using “creative expression” for the word “art”. You can read the article here, my response is below:

Part of the issue seems to be our expectation for the word ‘art’. Does it describe something or is it a name? I like the use of ‘creative expression’ for its unabashed descriptive function, but the problem I see with the word ‘art’ is that we often expect it to be similarly descriptive, and yet it is no more descriptive than my name is. The entire argument that if anything can be art then nothing is art relies on the confusion that we are actually describing something. Rather, ‘art’ is a convention of naming, and we can name anything ‘art’ if we want to….

For too long it has been assumed that ‘art’ describes some essential quality that some things have and others do not. Perhaps criteria are more easily found the more specific we get with particular ‘arts’, but the truth is that no one common thread runs through all the various things called ‘art’. Nor should we expect them to have some essential descriptive uniformity. ‘Art’ doesn’t MEAN something specific, it names a collection of practices that through convention have come to be organized and thought of in a certain way. The contingency of this collection is evident in how contestable the use of the word ‘art’ is and how negotiable the borders evidently are.

Perhaps you can see why my two responses are related. We use words not always to mean something specific but because convention dictates that using it in such and such circumstances is appropriate. And we get hung up by names more often than with most other types of word…. But why?

What does a name mean? What does your name mean? What is the connection between a name and the thing named? Does the name contain some secret about the thing? Does it describe it? Always? Necessarily? Can you look into a name and read all you need to know? A short hand? Merely an arbitrary label? Is a name a sort of mental pointing to the thing named? Is it a specific mental pointing or is it blurry around the edges? Is the pointing itself arbitrary and the ways we actually use the word in daily life instead more illuminating? (Cue Wittgenstein if you want to go much further down this road with me)

Names seem to have this power over us that we often feel we are looking into the essence of things by learning their names. And sometimes names do give us access to something specific or peculiar to the thing so named. Sometimes names are based on descriptions or qualities of the thing named (If they had named me ‘Carter Gillies’ back in the day I would have been some guy driving a cart who also held the door open in the Scottish Parliament).

But every name is NOT always a description. And telling the difference between how these words are actually used will likely clear up a few confusions that we tend to get mired in. Is ‘art’ what we say it is, the many disparate things collectively, or is it something specific standing objectively behind the word? That and other similar confusions are why this question matters…..

Something to think about, at least.

Peace all!

Happy potting!


Posted in Art, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 6 Comments

How I fell in love with pottery

When I was first starting out in clay it was the perfect distraction from my graduate degree work in Philosophy. I needed time away from the cerebral stuff of my normal day, and sitting in front of a wheel with a piece of clay was perfect for that. But I think the more invested I became in enjoying the process and the results the more it seemed worth thinking about. And rather than the sometimes ridiculous cerebral antics of my degree work this was something where thinking well obviously pays off. The more I fell on love with clay the less satisfied I was only knowing it through touch and sight. I wanted to also know why. I wanted to know what things were possible and what things I should avoid. You can only blunder around for so long before the lack of mental investment starts to show…..

I said this a few weeks ago in a comment somewhere and it seems worth sharing. Other thoughts:

Imagine a torrid love affair. Imagine passions so strong that sometimes you can’t live with it but you also can’t live without it. Imagine a slow burning and steady flame where its keeping things just warm enough to continue. Imagine a passion so bright that it burns out in a sudden massive conflagration, destroying everything in its path. Imagine a passion that is all in when its in, but changes direction at a moment’s notice and easily moves on to other things. Imagine just needing an occasional break. Imagine a commitment through thick and thin. Imagine a relationship that makes us guilty and self conscious. Imagine a relationship that thrives on our humiliation. Imagine a relationship that brings the best out in us and allows us to flourish in ways we never could have on our own.

We have a relationship to our art, to the clay beneath our fingers, to our own imagination. What is it? How do we feel about it?

Do you love what you are doing enough to explore it further, or do you love it so much that anything outside your scope is a threat? Do you love it so much that the unfolding mystery keeps that love alive, or do you love it so much that you want it preserved exactly as it is, a moment in time bottled up for safe keeping, like pictures from a vacation or a fly trapped in amber? Do you love it so much that you surround yourself with the expressions of other artists to see what someone else has to say, a conversation in an aesthetic language of form and possibility, a conversation evolving through your own fingers and exposure to what others think is true, or do you love it so much that nothing else matters besides what you have to say, what your own opinions are? Do you love it with certainty and conviction or with hope and humility? Do you love it as something that when shared takes on a life of its own, and that this is its natural fulfillment, or do you love it so much that letting it out of your sight is a betrayal and an act of abandonment? Do you love it so much that finding it a home where it will be loved by others is sometimes more important than getting paid or other fair compensation? Is what you are doing, what you are making just a means to an end or is it sometimes an end in itself? Do we love it so much that we only want it to express our ideals, or do we love it so much that we accept it for what it is? Is the relationship bigger than ourselves or does it turn with only us at its center?

Imagine we were instead talking about a friend, a family member, a son or daughter, or a partner. Does it make sense to treat our creativity differently? If so, why? And what does that tell us about our relationship to what we are doing? Is it just a job or is it bigger than that? A passion? A love? What does that mean for us?

So this is what I sometimes think about. Because I care. Because I refuse to blunder through these things with the blinders on and too much unnecessary trauma left in my wake. If I’m not going to care enough about my art, what should I care about?

No right answers. No universal ones, at least. But what do you all think? Like everything else in life, there’s no one right way of doing it, but if doing it matters then maybe it is worth thinking about……. Maybe its worth finding a way to love what you are doing that makes the best possible life to live.

All for now!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

Sale recap and this weekend’s promo


I placed my last pot on the display at 10:03am this past Saturday and signaled to the Universe that I was now ready to receive customers. And folks came.

It was the public face of four months solid effort getting ready and set, gearing up, and launching my little salescraft into orbit. The clouds drew back to light my tiny corner of the universe, the pots, and to welcome the public to my studio. It turned out to be a great weekend. Selling so many pots helped, but seeing old friends, making new ones, and just relaxing with people who care about me and what I do was the best thing I could have asked for after the Herculean labor of putting a show together.


One of the special treats is that so many of my pots get placed in homes where I know they will be appreciated. One of the special special treats is seeing so many small pots wind up in the small hands of smaller people :) Its amazing what a difference your very own mug can make to a young person!

KcKenna, her piggy bank, and her new mug

KcKenna, her piggy bank, and her new mug

My neighbors Rhea and McKenna had been out the day before, but the brand new mug they had left with didn’t survive an entire day of continuous play :( Fortunately the prices being as affordable as they are, McKenna decided that she simply had to replace it and brought her own piggy bank to make the purchase.

Neely rejoices!

Neely rejoices!

Neely rejoices after finding the perfect new mug! Not only are the pots I set out for kids affordably priced but I make them the right size for kids too. I try to respect the smaller versions of a kid’s needs and appetite when I design these pots, and I just hope I have enough variety to give everyone at least a few options to choose from.

chug-a-lug-lug happiness is a cup of water

Luke and Lilly enjoying their new mugs. I think they had said the plan was to drink some milk and some water respectively. The other most popular option kids discussed was hot chocolate :)


So last weekend was lots of fun! Lucky for me I get to do it all again this coming weekend. This time I will be joined by the truly fabulous potters Kyle Jones, Jeff Bishoff, and Geoff Pickett. As I said previously, they are “nearly as amazing potters” as me ( ;) )

I hope folks can make it out this weekend. I hope we get the chance to catch up, hang out a bit, and shoot the breeze. If you don’t need any new pots you should still come out and tell us “Hello!” Seeing you all isn’t just the icing on the cake, it is the cake.

Being a potter isn’t a job. Its being the nexus of a very special community that forms to create and sustain beauty in the humble corners of daily life. Every time you add something new and beautiful to your life or share a pottery gift with someone you know the circle has a chance to get that much larger, helping make the world a place where handcrafted beauty is welcomed and local craftsmanship is nurtured.

Thanks for all you do!

Hope to see you this weekend!




Posted in Art, Ceramics, Creative industry, Imagination, Pottery | 2 Comments