The Completionist

I had a realization last week: I am a completionist.

What I mean by that is that its not in my nature to get much satisfaction by leaving things half done. Sometimes its unavoidable, but when I have a choice and all other things being equal, I often find the incentive to carry through what I’m doing rather than switching things up and/or toggling between a variety of things.

Knowing this about myself its now interesting to observe my behavior. When I eat a meal I finish each foodstuff individually before moving on to the next. I don’t mix my peas with the potatoes, the gravy with the salad, the dessert with the main course. And so on. Funny habit, when you see it for what it is….

I also try to stick to viewing separate TV shows from start to finish. That’s why I always preferred DVD boxed sets over live weekly episodes on television, and Netfilx to both. If I can binge straight through an entire show, season 1 to the end, that makes me happiest.

Same for when I read a great author or a good series. My favorite authors are an ultimate incentive for completion. I will read everything they have done. I want to have a complete handle on their works. And when the latest installment of a series gets published I am as inclined to start back from the beginning as I am to just plunge in. I’d sometimes even rather reread a whole series I love than start something new.

Maybe that has some similarity to eating all of one food at a time too. Keep the taste of one thing separate and pure, not mixed up and commingled with other flavors. Dive in head first as if there were nothing else. Commit. That is what I prefer, if given the chance.

And so pottery. I’ve known it for years, but I haven’t thought too deeply about it. I like making one form and getting it worked through entirely before I move on to the next. I have two making cycles for my two big sale seasons in June and December. I start with mugs, make anywhere from 100-200, and then make bowls. I like the rhythm that approach lets me have. I can test subtle variations, try new things, change it up, without feeling like I’m starting over from scratch. I get to feel I am building on the lessons learned. Working on one type of form at a time I get to see that there is direction. A more scattered approach might hide the direction from me, not that it isn’t there for many artists, but for me a lack of mental clutter is my clarity.

Each day I start the same, with my coffee and the internet. I go through my various inboxes and check them off the list. I read all the new interesting articles, and then I respond to authors who have inspired me. I save the best for last, and communicate with friends and write the really important emails, and only then am I ready for the studio. Each day the same. Brush up on the mental and social life first, then hide out in the studio with a mess of clay and some evanescent mojo. My real purpose. Get rid of the clutter in ascending order and then devote to the thing that holds the most intrinsic value for me.

I guess if I had to sum it up I’d say that everything has to fit, everything in its own place. The better fit the better. The order is part of the fit. Complexity, skipping steps, things in the wrong order end up distracting and diluting if not in fact paralyzing.

I remember back when I was an undergrad and the courses I was taking coalesced so perfectly that at one point I thought I could write variations of the same term paper for each class. That is the sort of ideal I envision for my life, that it all makes sense in some unified way. The sense is in the coalescing, the coming together in order to create a picture. Until its time to switch gears, of course. Complete one picture and move on. Next semester will be a different topic, next phase in the studio some other form, but each in its own place, as much as can be managed. The key is in knowing when you are done, when its complete, when you are permitted to move on without penalty.

Isn’t that interesting? It surprised me!

So, how do you work? How does your life pan out? A little bit of this, a little bit of that? All jumbled together? Separate but equal? Multitasking of necessity or by choice? Hop scotching through a variety of different things? Holding the course? Competing the mission?

Its just fascinating that we all do it just a bit different, but that it is we who choose the course. It could be different, but we may have aligned other factors to make one version both more accessible and more rewarding. And its a good question whether we do things a certain way because that’s what works best, or they work best because we do them a certain way.

And perhaps knowing it is even a question allows us to have a certain freedom we might otherwise not know. Do I do things because this is who I am? Or am I this person because this is what I do? Its not an easy thing to answer, but as long as we are asking the right questions we are not as much simply the victim of our habits and our ignorance…..

Stuff to consider!

As an aside, as I was editing this I remembered the Barry Schwartz TED talk (and writings) on the paradox of choice, and how diverse options can reach a tipping point of effectiveness. Check out what he has to say🙂

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Scarface ‘talks’ identity: A question for the arts and other human interests

This is an email (apology) to my friend Joe Patti, followed by the rant (comment on his blog) that provoked it.


Hey Joe,

I just reread my comment on your identity essay and am shocked at how strident I must have seemed. Oops! I don’t want to make excuses, but I guess its a topic that strikes a nerve with me. I DO see it as vitally important that we get clearer about issues like this, and I probably go ballistic far too easily. I see it as a parallel issue to our pervasive amnesia about issues of value. Its like we have been dropped into a human life with all its attending values and identities, and we know perfectly well what we need to do, but we have no understanding of how we got there. Our understanding of using values and identities was born fully formed, as it were……

And these things crop up on the periphery of so many issues we talk about. And occasionally they are central, but because we understand them so poorly they are perennially neglected. Everything from toilets in rural India to ““I never was a part of that process” quickly became “I understand our shared goal and I want to help.”” (Where the separate “I” gets miraculously transformed into the collaborative “our”) How we see ourselves and what we believe we are supposed to do, or are just capable of doing, is always an issue of identity for us. And our own capacities are mirrored in the way the world makes sense for us. The stuff that matters is always what makes sense in particular to ourselves. Toilets in rural India, for instance……

But I apologize if my sorting through those notions in my blog comment came off a bit ranty. Talk about ‘values’ and how ‘things’ are identified! I’ve been struggling to make sense of and communicate these ideas for a number of years, and there are only a handful of folks who care about these issues even tangentially to their own concerns. I guess my frustration with the arts field in general was due to boil over at some point, and I’m just sorry if it caused collateral damage on your blog. I’m just not sure the best way to communicate these ideas at this point, except to, you know, wade in with guns blazing when the topic comes up……

So I’m sorry if I went overboard yesterday. Its only because I care about the arts field and what we do that this stuff even matters enough for me to express myself. And because I care I get uptight about our baffling inability to get our collective heads around some of these issues. But I guess it isn’t baffling in the end. Other than you, no one has been arguing against a reliance on instrumentality as a persuasive case for the arts. Most other folks don’t get it. And you have been at it and been public about these ideas for far longer than I have. I don’t know how you persevere so calmly in this sea of unwashed ignorance….. You are a damn hero in my book!

Well that all probably sounded ranty too! Darn it! Passion gets in the way at every turn!

Better stop here, but I just felt the need to apologize and to thank you, again, for being at the forefront of so many of these issues. The arts are so lucky to have you! And I’m always grateful of your efforts to challenge us to do better and to be better. Keep up the good work!



So, my friend Joe asks another of his penetrating question, a good question, about the fallout from our confusions about identity. He poses it as “a question about the ethics of presenting a group with a famous name which is comprised of few, if any, of the original members.  Just because a group has the legal right to use a name…. when does it become an issue of misrepresentation when it comes to audience expectations?….What if the conductor who is closely identified with an orchestra and creating their distinctive sound moves on?  Or even going back to the original idea, if there are 80 odd musicians who were part of the ensemble that created the signature sound of the orchestra, as each departs over the years, what is the tipping point where a new orchestra exists?”

I had this to say (if it counts as ‘saying’ that words are spoken in the midst of flying bullets) :

This is a big question, and my feeling is that we are continually tripped up by finding only simple answers. The idea that what we look for in identity is something real out in the world makes perfect sense in only some circumstances. Its not a universal calling card, however, as you rightly point out. Having the same constituent parts gives some things their identity and others not. We make a mistake when we imagine identity can be approached only on a physical basis. This is not a question of doing natural science on cultural objects. It works for us in some cases but not all.

And because this is a powerful image, that identity is located ‘out there’ somewhere, in the things themselves, we are seduced into thinking that our attention need only focus on the objects in question. We imagine, for instance, that Art is some particular thing, and that occasional things qualify and others do not entirely as a matter of measuring up, having appropriate art qualities in their make up. We appeal to this objective seeming identity when we typically answer these questions. As if the artness were located in the things themselves.

What we lack in such cases is an awareness of the functional nature of identity, how things count as something for whom and in what circumstances. Identity, it turns out, is significantly conditional on criteria of who its supposed to matter for.

So if we can’t simply look at the things themselves to tell us ‘what’ they are, we need to uncover the other conditions where identity becomes manifest. Not everything that has an identity exemplifies nature being “carved at the joints”. Rather, there are practices of identifying some things this way at some times and other ways at other times. We are not talking about identity as a manifestation of the things themselves, but as what counts when and for whom. We can’t decide that in all cases by appealing to the objective nature of things themselves, but must instead refer to the conditional nature of who says what about which things.

Identity may have a huge basis in the solidity and permanence of how things in the world come to us, but it ends up often being less about the things than what we are inclined to do with them. Its not what external ‘things’ cause us to think as much as what we think about them.

This is a big question, and as long as we are mired in imagining some necessary objective reference we will be endlessly confused about how others can see things differently and why they would do so. Agreement only means that some things matter similarly for a number of people. And the source of that agreement is not a universality of external objective qualities but a harmony between people caring about similarly grouped things. It is the human practice of mattering that stands at the foundation. We treat them the same, not because they necessarily ARE the same, but because to us in these conditions we behave as if they were. WE behave.

It may turn out that the important question is not why we treat some things the same as the understanding that we do. The foundations of human behavior and culture in general is humans navigating the world. Natural science rightly looks to the world to carve up natural things at their joints, but the navigating part is infinitely more complex and human than that. We are obsessed with looking for natural causes, and one side effect is that we presume the things which interest us are all exclusively natural entities in themselves. We lose sight of the fact that human decisions and human values exhibit a non-necessity that has spawned many ways of doing things and have evolved over history. That, in fact, is the defining moment of contingency. And we had better make peace with that if we want to get clear about some specifically and uniquely human interests.


“Say ‘Hello’ to my little friend.”

The end. Or not. YMMV. Do with it what you will. And sorry for all the spilled blood.

Peace all!

Make beauty real


Posted in Art, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 1 Comment

Notes from The Land of Make Believe

The past year or more I have been tangling myself in conversations attempting to figure out how value works in human lives. We don’t like talking about it, so mostly I am met with silence or treated like a heretic. Eventually I will tie together all the threads into a more coherent offering, but until them it probably makes sense to share snippets of dialogs that express where I am going.

The Great Barry Hessenius posted some interesting questions this morning under the title “Place is more than space – Feeling uncomfortable where you feel you don’t belong and it resonated with some of the issues I have been addressing. You can read Barry’s essay (its worth it!), but the specific concerns I am interested in are as follows:

Hey Barry,

Hope you are doing well. Thanks as always for challenging us with difficult topics! Another good one today

Your post comes on the heels of a conversations I was involved in with Clay Lord about the difficulties with cultural appropriation. For me it highlighted the challenge of squaring values we legitimately hold to be right with other similarly worthy values. Is it possible that two or more virtues we esteem do not scale together, and that promoting one negatively affects our ability to promote the others? Is that what a conflict of interests means?

The difficulty for the arts in being more inclusive is just one such context. The idea that we should reach out to outsiders inevitably seems to mean we want them to become more like us in some fundamental way. We want them to value what we value. It comes to them on our own terms, so its not an equal exchange. But how would we make it equal except by sacrificing the things we wanted to share? That is the conundrum.  To gain one thing we lose the other, but to keep it we also lose what we hoped to gain. It just doesn’t add up. Either we change or they change. Something has to go…… Ideals, meet the real world!

Mostly I have been thinking of this in terms of the problems we have in promoting diversity, which emphasizes the division between things, their difference, and equity, which attempts to be fair across the board. It seems we can’t have both more than in a limited sense. Diversity fractures and equity levels. They are aspirations for us, and good things to aim at, but this does not mean they are also practical. Wanting certain things does not mean we can get them, no matter how right we are to want them. The impracticality of our ideals does not mean we were wrong in wanting them. Its the hard face of reality that all aspirations must confront. But that is the nature of aspirations, after all.

The arts are not alone in their naive assessment of values. Mostly people do not have a clear sense of the role and function of value in our lives. We take recognized goods and imagine that aspirations can automatically be collapsed into real world outcomes. Which is a dangerous assumption. We never stop to wonder why having our cake and eating it too rarely (never) seems to come off except in limited circumstances. We see the challenges and leap to the conclusion that our problems can be solved on the aspirational plane. No wonder we are stuck when we are not prepared to accommodate reality into our wishful thinking!

The first lesson in aspirational thinking is imagining what might happen. The first lesson in practical thinking is assessing what can happen. As long as we find it difficult to see beyond our own desires it is no wonder we are obstructed from reaching our goals.

Any thoughts?

All the best!


The pursuit of values can look a lot like wandering around an Escher painting. The further you get in one direction the less well it adds up with other things.


I welcome any thoughts you all might offer🙂

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Don’t be a tool

Just some things to consider:

A friend picked up one of those fancy Sherrill Do-All trimming tools for me and the different design made using it as if I were almost a novice potter again. I have been so familiar with my Kemper loop tools that using them was like an extension of myself. I could express what I wanted how I wanted. Its what I knew how to do.

The interesting thing is that the new tool stopped me from expressing those things. Isn’t that interesting? I could no longer get from A to B as confidently. I no longer had the assurance that what I wanted to say could be said.

And then it occurred to me that I had become a cypher of my tool’s expression. By accepting the Kemper as my designated means of cutting feet I became a victim of its limitations and an exponent of its graces. I was making the feet that this tool allowed me to make. I was becoming a tool of my tool.

The question is, are we bigger than the tools we use, the language we speak? Yes we need a certain amount of framing for our questions to even be questions, but are they the limit of what we are allowed to speak? Are they among the inevitable permutations?

Sometimes picking up a new tool lets us know how beholden we were to the old tool. At times a tool can become our excuse for actually expressing ourselves. We say what we know how to say. The tool itself can be the vehicle for our expressions. Its limits are our limits. It can become more than the cart being led by our horse. The tool can sometimes become the horse itself. The tool can be what leads us forward, sets the tone and pace, and justifies what we do. We end up serving the tool’s qualities and abilities.

And when the ‘tool’ is the master, who precisely is the tool?

Just an interesting question to ask🙂

I am looking forward to using my new Mud Tools trimming tool and exploring the things that are uniquely possible with it. Because, the freedom to choose between different ways of doing things means that I am not the victim of a single technical possibility.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Tentative efforts with the new tool. Mostly I was using it to complement the old Kemper, attempting to learn what things it does well, what things it does better. The aesthetic aim is similar, but the foot itself is more wedgelike. The hardest part so far is figuring out how to make the broad cutting edge function.

Tentative efforts with the new Sherrill trimming tool. Mostly I was using it to complement the old Kemper, attempting to learn what things it does well, what things it does better. The aesthetic aim is similar, but the foot itself is more wedgelike. The hardest part so far is figuring out how to make the broad cutting edge function.


Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

Beauty is axiomatic

I just read a friend’s essay on a class she is taking described as “Beastly Beauty: The Value That Astounds, Confounds, Perplexes and Vexes Us”. Its great that folks are thinking about these issues! I totally wish I could be a fly on the wall of that conversation.

Maybe you are thinking about similar topics. If so I invite you to join me, in your own spaces or in the comments below. Lets talk about beauty. And just maybe, between us we will have a better sense of the diversity of what it means for us and for others. Here is what I have to say about beauty this morning:


One of the questions that interests me these days is the respect in which something is being measured (Why something counts as beautiful) and the respect in which it is doing the measuring (What things do we find beautiful). There is a difference that I’m not sure we often account for.

When we look at it as a case of needing to measure to find the beautiful we are looking for the ingredients or criteria that add up to something beautiful. We can make a checklist of the attributes that compose beautiful things. We get to say “This is *why* its beautiful”.

On the other hand, beauty also acts as a measure for us, and we apply it out in the world without first needing to find its ingredients or qualifications. Sometimes beauty is the axis about which our judgments turn. We have this sense of the beautiful and we go out in the world and discover where it finds a home. We judge things AS beautiful not by doing an inventory of its various qualities but by seeing beauty FIRST and then accepting that these objects measure up.

The difference is between using something as a measure and using it as a thing to be measured. If it seems like an inconsequential distinction, think of how we use a ruler to determine length. The ruler measures length. Now go ahead and measure the ruler. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some things operate axiomatically for us, and as in the case of beauty, we are not always clear what those things are and when its right to do so. When we don’t see the difference it can seem as if beauty still needs to be justified. The things we measure need justification, but the things that do the measuring ARE the source of justification.

When we fail to see beauty as a measure we assume it is something needing justification. And you know where that attitude has gotten the arts…… If beauty is not (or poorly) justified we can dispense with it. Beauty is not a fact in the way some other things are. And there are times when beauty itself is out of place. That was the conclusion artists came to in the period after the First World War. The aftermath left many feeling that aspirations of beauty were actually repugnant….. Beauty was no longer a measure worth using….

But that’s a cultural mandate. Folks had to decide against using beauty in art. So be it. But life generally tells a different story. We can’t stop seeing things as beautiful, as humans. Sure, the arts can disown it, and it can be riven from us in times of atrocity, but it is also a natural human capacity, and we seemingly need to understand it better than we do.

I just think we make a mistake when we imagine that beauty needs to be justified in some other way by some other quality. Its a common sort of confusion in a world that obsesses with finding how things can be measured. And beautiful things are no different. Our obsession is blanket. Occasionally beauty even seems to hinge on certain presences and absences. But while its true that if we occasionally removed certain qualities from an object they would no longer strike us as beautiful, that does not mean beauty is an aggregate of qualities.

(I wanted to find an image to illustrate this, so I just did a google search for images of ‘beauty’ and was confronted with oodles of dolled up white women. That made me sad, but then I thought to do a search for images of ‘beauty makeover’, which only made me sadder…. Try it at your own risk)

Even if it seems we can add certain things, do a makeover, that achieves beauty from its absence, there is no formula for beauty that holds for every observer universally. The idea that it is cumulative of certain ingredients is persuasive. Measurability is at war with subjectivity. Its the conundrum of quantitative difference leading to qualitative difference, and we have not made much headway with that, least of all in terms of beauty.

But the thing to remember is that beauty IS qualitative. So if beauty fails on the level of ingredients it also fails between different cultures, between different proponents. The lenses themselves are not without controversy. And yet we all have a sense of the beautiful, from early childhood on. So whatever the failure, its not the catastrophe it is often taken for.

Is it strange that everyone carries their own sense of what things measure as beautiful? No more than that some use ‘meters’ and others ‘yards’, and most of us at various times also approximations of ‘near’ and ‘far’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, etc. Space is divided differently depending on what you are doing and whose measurements are getting applied. Beauty is no different, as a human activity. It simply can’t lay claim to ‘objective’ status in the way that geometry and physics calculate space….

But why would beauty need to be compared with something amenable to science? Is that our confusion? If beauty fails objectively we can’t condone it?

“The measurability rule is anchored on the above conceptions, and so requires that the variables around which the researcher intends to collect data should be measurable, or susceptible to acceptable ‘measurement’ (Leedy, 1980: 46)[1]. This is easier done in the natural sciences than in the social sciences; in quantitative studies than in qualitative. Still, one must, in the social sciences too, endeavor to quantify, measure and evaluate. Indeed, the guiding principle of the measurability rule — its corollary, in other words — is this: “What can be measured must be measured.” Thus, not measuring what can be measured is not an option allowed anyone.”  Measurability: A Key Standard of Scientific Research

In a sense, science is a way of looking at the world. Its holding up a microscope to things. Beauty is also a human way of seeing the world, but contrary to what we so often assume, its less a subject for investigation than the method of inquiry itself. Just like science is. Beauty holds its own standards up against the world.

As such it is akin to scientific truths in the way it operates for us. The role of beauty in our lives is axiomatic. Its not a test subject as much as its the experiment we use to determine the character of the world. We just need to learn to recognize beauty as the thing that justifies our appreciation rather than feeling our judgment itself needs justification. We have as much right to see things as beautiful as we do in using a ruler to measure lengths or describe a distance as ‘close’.

The totally awesome Diane Ragsdale has some truly wonderful points to make in defense of beauty. I found myself crying at times as I watched this…

Things to think about at least🙂

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 3 Comments

Why art needs stories

If you go back and read what I’ve blogged the last several months you may see the signs of a story being told. Several stories, perhaps, and that in itself is a story. At least, I have attempted to describe a few stories that may or may not add up to something also interesting. Parts of a larger whole. I’m going to be a bit more explicit, here, with what I’m saying:

Your art will almost never be understood the way you intend it, if you even intended it a specific way. Most things won’t speak for themselves in the way you want, but instead speak any number of things that never mattered to you. And for every artist it only seems inevitable, even necessary, that what we do is subject to gross misunderstanding.

I’ve got plenty to say about this, and I will at some further point, but today I am thinking of a comment some other potter left me about one of my Instagram images.

Latest version of my handle, a bit beefier, and constructed very differently from how I had been making them

Latest version of my handle, a bit beefier, and constructed very differently from how I had been making them

The potter said “if the width of the spiral in the pot is reversed then they will really start to lift and sing. 😊 ”

I won’t deny that he(she?) is seeing what they see, and undoubtedly they are trying to be ‘helpful’, but what does this have to do with me? There is obvious truth that anything we say reveals more of ourselves than whatever we are speaking about. This is what the potter saw. Period. It scratches that surface only. So what did I want to say? And why was it so misunderstood? Why isn’t the work saying what I want it to say?

When you look at a piece of art, a person’s work, its easy to imagine that what you’re looking at tells the whole story. The commodification of art objects gives us this illusion of wholeness, that what you can buy is something discrete and established. That’s a great story to believe. But really, any one piece of work is only good at telling where the artist ended up this one time, not how they got there. The work you are seeing has a role to play, but its only a very small part of what’s going on. Anything you can see at any one time is not the entire story.

Even for artists who are mostly interested in the same consistent finished product, that part which customers get to see is only the visible tip of an iceberg that includes all the trial and error, all the testing and hard won experiments that eventually led to this one place. The duck is paddling furiously but the appearance above water is serene. Its the ugly truth of how the sausage gets made.

Every artwork is the culmination of those things that went before, and are still yet springboards of what will happen after. The finished pot, especially, even, the work at its in-progress latest, is only a snapshot of some moment. Its not nearly the story of ‘why’. The complete meaningful utterance has yet to be spoken.

Its like we skip ahead to the ending of the chapter, see that the princess married the prince, and feel we now understand things. Unfortunately we are blind to how they got there and ignore where they will go on to. We take this thing in front of us now as telling the only story that matters, the whole story, the finished product. We see, and we conclude. As if the ‘conclusion’ we see itself were the thing that mattered most.

At least, that’s the story we often tell ourselves, that reading the visible conclusions of artists’ process, the work, is the essential part.

And so it seems incumbent on artists that we say what really happened. Yes the princess married the prince, it was a nice wedding, but the prince was actually a toad in the beginning of the tale, and the princess had to first escape the clutches of her wicked stepmother! The wedding is all very well and good, but don’t forget the other drama! Don’t forget the other adventure! Don’t forget what really happened! Don’t forget that the story is much bigger than what you can tell from how it ended to us. Did the honeymoon last? “Happily ever after” is us putting a bow on a much bigger picture. For our sake. For brevity’s sake. It had to end somewhere. Something needed to wind up at market……


So what was the story my commenter missed in blithely jumping ahead? Well, the assumption seems to be that I was interested in, if not actually aiming at ‘lifting and singing’ in some particular way, as if the pot would be ‘improved’ by attending to those details. Maybe they would, right? But that’s a pretty big presumption to place on my shoulders. Are those the values I was attempting to convey? Is that the story I was trying to tell?

Not really, unfortunately. Instead of those marks being some sort of ‘design’ element I’d rather you considered them a ‘process’ element. Rather than considering them an intentional aspiration I’d prefer you considered them the fall out of permission. That is the story I like. Its what I believe, at least.

Take this story:

You send your kid to college, and your visiting neighbor sees the transcript and tells you “If only she’d taken more biology courses, then her prospects would really start to lift and sing.” And yeah, maybe some parents would prefer to design their children’s careers in such a way that their college courses make a statement of a particular kind. Maybe that’s okay, for some. But maybe also the nosy neighbor should mind their own business. Let the kid take art and literature classes if she wants and just be happy she is doing something she likes. Maybe that’s okay too. And maybe in those cases its more our job to give them permission rather than specific direction.

You may understand this better if you were offended by the recent Wells Fargo ads that have caused such a justifiable uproar.


The perspective that kids need to be something specific, especially specifically NOT some other things can be a mistake. A presumption. Maybe there’s nothing specific that they should be. Maybe the little boxes we try to stuff them in are insufficient for their purposes. Is the only point what would get them ‘ready for tomorrow’, what would make them ‘lift and sing’? Do we even have a proper understanding of what that means? Maybe its something they must discover themselves for themselves. Invent, themselves.

And that’s what I want my pots to feel, that I gave them permission to be themselves. Sure, they’re my ‘kids’, I helped give them a grounding that sets them on the ‘right’ path, but I left many things up to them themselves. I was there when they needed me and I let them express themselves when it seemed wise to let go. I wasn’t hung up on standardized expectations. I was not a helicopter artist.


The problem artists often face is that there are all these neat categories where things are supposed to fit. We too easily accept that there is a right and a wrong way of doing things. We sometimes expect that things we can fit in certain categories must be aiming at the same things in the same way. We presume to judge. We judge books by covers all the time. We leap to conclusions, because we didn’t get to see how it was made, what gears interlock, what things really matter. We take shortcuts to understand the whole based purely on the visible parts, the process based only on the results, the evolution entirely based on the now. We judge the territory from the map.

Sometimes it is prudent to take these shortcuts, but is this what we are hoping for as artists? Not I. It sometimes offends me to be misunderstood. And to fight this, to make ourselves better known, we simply have to intercede in this fabulation by our audience. Don’t judge us too quickly, because the iceberg is vast, the legs are pumping furiously, bland covers can hide excellent books, and the ingredients that went into it might not all have the same appeal. Much is hidden, and you can only read some things off the surface. Any good art challenges us to look deeper.

In a sense, the audience is doing their speed reading of our work, and what we must do is distract them from their easy assumptions, direct their attention to where we place value. We must tell a ‘better’ story than what they were getting from our work. Paradoxically we must get them to listen to US rather than just to the work itself. The work is silent on too much of what matters, and speaks volumes where it isn’t needed. We artists must do the talking. And if that actually is a better outcome, it only seems making the best of a bad situation.



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

Repost: Defensive potting

Defensive Potting: The story of Michael Simon’s evolution out of the round

So I just got back From the Michael Simon gallery talk at the exhibition of his work, “Pick of the Kiln’, at the Georgia Museum at UGA in Athens. I’m so happy I went! I’ve known Michael since he was my teacher back in the mid 90’s after Ron Meyers retired from UGA. There are many things I’d like to ask Michael and get his insight on, but I came to this talk with one question in mind.

The thing I was curious about was the evolution of his pots to include forms that are out of round.



He makes ovaled, squared, and triangular pots starting from the round form that is natural to the potters wheel. But why? Was his evolution something like mine, and that the example of other potters was his inspiration? For me, I can honestly say that having learned pot making in the presence of these out of round shapes has guided how I think about the possibility of form. From Michael’s angular departures from the round to Ron Meyers’ more fluid and gestural out of round treatments I had examples of things to aspire to beyond round symmetry and uninterrupted circularity. Is that what motivated Michael?

Ron Meyers jar

Ron Meyers shows how not to be too round, in a casual and organic way. Someone once told him his pots look like “wet socks”. He kind of likes that…..

Another possibility I could have understood was that the diversion from round was appealing in its own right. There are things we each like and dislike, and after seeing pots that are not round I can also honestly say that the squareness and triangularity of some of his forms is both fascinating and appealing. I even love that they are not round! Round is almost too simple, too easy. What you get off the wheel if you’ve done a good job is almost always round. Its the hard thing for beginners but almost impossible to not do once you get the hang of making pots. You have to try to get it different. Purposely. You have to break the rules.

Ron does this by casual manipulation of the form, by squeezing the pot while it is still wet, and by handling the shapes without regard for their uniformity. Michael is much more methodical, less immediate. There is a plan. As he explained later in the discussion, you start at one side and make a corner, look to the opposite side and make a corner there, and then in between those on both sides. And if it doesn’t come out even or symmetrical? “Who cares! Its still a pot.”

So I was also prepared for Michael to answer that he simply liked pots that were unround, that squareness held charm for him. That was something I could have understood.

Instead, what he answered was that he just didn’t think some of his round forms were very good.Making them square or triangular was a defensive act. Some pots simply don’t stand well on their own. And putting patterns and motifs on the pots didn’t seem to always make sense on round surfaces. His solution was to make the surface more flat, so that the pots had natural edges to contain the motif.

I later asked him about something he had said in that interview with Mark Shapiro for the Smithsonian. He had said that people often have a hard time seeing forms, and that its much easier for folks to look at something with an image on it. He had also said in that interview that some pots seem to need a bit of something extra, a bit of 2d patterning on the surface, while other pots can stand on their own.

We looked at these pots in the display,


and he said that of those three almost everyone would automatically look at the one on the far left. He also said that he had designed the other two to be undecorated, knowing full well that they would not draw as much attention as the one with the bird…….

Its a profound lesson in humility that a potter like Michael Simon considers some of what he does ‘defensive potting’…… Michael’s forms have almost always blown my mind. Another thing he said was that he never felt his pots were good enough, that he always hoped he was getting better. Maybe the only way to keep challenging yourself creatively, the only way to force yourself to break and rebreak all the rules, is to never be satisfied. Maybe you have to look at your work as a defensive act that addresses your own inadequacies. That seems like an important lesson in a creative culture that feeds on the celebrity of chest pounders and self aggrandizing publicity artists….. Michael remains a humble and gentle soul despite how fantastic the rest of us think his pots are.

Something to think about, at least…..

Peace all!

Happy Potting!

Make beauty real!


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