Potter from another planet

Tony Clennell wrote a nice little blog post that started with his condolences to me for the loss of my dad. He continued the essay with examples of a mentee and a teacher friend who both have experienced some recent obstacles to their creative practice, and he encouraged us all to stay true to our voices, to not flag just because the world is somehow now standing in our way. Its good advice, and a nice companion piece to the essay I wrote about finding motivation during the times we don’t feel like making.

In his comments in the share on facebook Tony wondered if he had to be stupid more than daring to stand up and take the beatings he’s received as a potter. “Is it daring or just my stupidity? Sometimes I’m not sure of my footing but I plod on.” My response was:

I think stubbornness, Tony. Daring is overrated. The important thing is not the risk but the determination to follow through. And I’d never say ‘stupid’, but I don’t think its strange to walk through mine fields to do what you need to do. Ignoring things others turn their lives upside down over is sometimes what it takes to be a creative soul. On the flip side, we also tend to move mountains for things that others can’t even see. As I say, daring and stupid generally have nothing to do with it. Its more like we come from a different planet and just don’t fit the reality others walk in. Or so it often seems to me :)

Creative folks like us are sometimes strangers to the world we are born into. We don’t get what others find so important, and mostly others don’t really get what we are trying to say, the things we want to talk about, the things we find important. If that’s a problem we maybe need to get a ‘real’ job and spend our time chasing the marketplace, chasing the trends, chasing what society wants us to be, rather than camped out in our studios obsessed with discovering fascinating things about shape and color, process and technique, surface and design, that only our own imagination and unique experience of the world can give us access to. We step into our studios, and at the same time we step away from ‘normal’ society. You can’t spend that much time wrapped up in your own imagination and not create some distance to a world for which most parents will tell their kids to not grow up to be an artist…..

Daring would be dropping a normal life for a creative one. Stupid would be not listening to the voice that is inside you. Once you have acknowledged that you have something unique to say, and that expressing this is part of your reason for being here, you have accepted that you may come from a different place than most folks. You have accepted that you may be a potter from another planet….

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Motivation for the lackluster potter

This morning from Seth Godin in my blog reader:

A friend was in a meeting with a few colleagues when my latest book came up.

One person said, “After I finished it, I was all fired up, and I felt like quitting my job to go do something amazing.”

The other one said, “That’s funny. After I finished it, I was all fired up and I couldn’t wait to come to work to do something amazing.”

Fired up isn’t something you can count on, but it’s certainly possibly to create a job, an opportunity and a series of inputs and feedback that makes it more likely that people get that way.

And fired up sometimes drives people to do amazing work with you, especially if you’ve built a job description and an organization that can take that energy and turn it into work that matters.

Give people (give yourself) projects that can take all the magic and energy and enthusiasm they want to give.

Lately I have been feeling undermotivated for making pots, glazing pots, firing pots, looking at pots, in short anything to do with with this one true passion of my life. There is a lot going on right now, and I am doing my best not to feel guilty for letting some dust collect in the studio. My father passed away while I was visiting last month, having collapsed in my arms just before his fatal decline…. I’ve also been mysteriously taken off the teaching schedule at the place I have faithfully taught for the last 17 years, without any warning or explanation…… So you could say at this point that I am lacking a bit of my luster. If not for my cheery natural disposition I’d be in the dumps.

Maybe I can be excused for not feeling like making pots. Perhaps its easy to understand that right now I don’t have the proper motivation to do good work, do any work. I don’t doubt that I will dig back into my clay at some point, dig out of the hole I’m in. In fact, without the income from teaching that I have relied on for 17 years, I had been counting on to pay my bills, now I either need to get some other paying job to replace my lost income or find some way to get my hands busy in clay again. If I don’t find the time for my studio or some inevitably less inspiring day-job, I will be eating Ramen noodles again for all my meals…..

Which brings me to a conversation I was having yesterday with my friend Julie. Her sister has recently returned from the hospital and is pretty depressed. She’s got the same sort of lack of motivation I have. And talking about my friend’s sister helped frame my own situation in a way that helped me see things more clearly. And I really know this stuff already, but its so easy to lose sight when the world just seems so… blech.

What I came to understand (again) was this: We can’t always wait to do things until we feel like doing them, with the risk that we may never feel like doing them. If the incentive necessary to do something is that we feel like it, in a sense we may be confusing the cart with the horse, but not in a straightforward sort of way. You see, the truth quite often is that we don’t simply do what we like, but that we also like what we do. Stepping into the studio would remind me why I love making pots. Making pots would help make me FEEL like making them. I would enjoy it, and have no trouble justifying my time spent in the studio.

But that’s not where I am right now. Right now I feel like I don’t want to be there doing anything, much less making pots. I have no emotional/motivational desire or justification for being there, so I’m not. And yet, as I’ve hopefully just demonstrated, the primary reason I don’t feel like being there is that I AM NOT THERE ALREADY. Being there would itself quite possibly solve that.

I don’t want to downplay serious depression issues, but I know that in my own case, from my own extensive history in the studio making things, you can have the excuse that you won’t make pots because you don’t feel like it, but that if you DO make them anyway you can actually turn a negative day into a positive one. You can change from being the victim of your emotional state into its master.

Its sometimes like a kid who doesn’t like waffles because they look weird, not at all like pancakes: Try them, you’ll like them. Its at least occasionally the difference between an open mind and one that has already decided. Waiting for the right ‘feeling’ is simply saying that feeling is necessary. Without it, why bother? Its also saying that we can’t manually adjust how we are feeling, but that we are simply stuck with the cards we are dealt. In some severe cases that may be true. But as Julian Baggini says:

“Emotions are assumed to be beyond our control, ebbing and flowing in anarchic independence from the rational mind. But if we question the judgments that lie behind our emotions, we will often find that those feelings do, indeed, change. We can help the way we feel, if the way we feel flows from a mistaken judgment that we can correct.”

Sometimes the feeling has to follow the doing. The mistake we sometimes make is in putting the cart before the horse. We can’t simply wait for the cart (feeling) to lead us. If we only do the things we like, there is this tremendous but unseen roadblock in front of us. The cart itself blocks our path. Sometimes we look at the roadblock and are unnerved. We see the obstacle and it prevents us from crossing to the other side. But the roadblock is only stopping us because we refuse to navigate it. Its a form of intimidation. The child whines to its parent “I don’t want to”. As if wanting was the only or most important reason to do something…..

And the weird thing is that once we have crossed over, if we look back, often we can no longer see the roadblock. Once we have rediscovered the joys of doing, our lack of motivation was only ever apparent from the side of ‘not doing’. Its like a see through mirror: from the one side you can see through, but from the other it is blocked and reflects back on you…..

Maybe the mirror analogy is a good one, with maybe an Alice through the looking glass twist. There are times when you need to look at yourself, do a bit of contemplation, but there are others where you need to see what’s going on on the other side, you need to push beyond the barriers, and the mirror is either in the way or it lets you pass through. It shows you what’s on the other side and how to get there….

Stuff to think about, at least…

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 5 Comments

Your art is not a lie, or “Yesterday’s post was my mouse’s fault, not mine”


My mouse has been double clicking erratically and confoundingly for about a week now, and other than exiting tabs unintentionally it hadn’t gotten me into too much trouble until it suddenly decided to post the stuff on my blog yesterday. Whoops!

I wasn’t even begun editing, and there were about fifty other things I wanted to say. The mouse had other ideas. It took the two raw ideas I had copy and pasted into the text and decided that was enough. I was shocked at the mechanical impertinence. How dare my mouse post something without my permission? Something with my name on it, something I had no intention of letting go of without radical and drastic overhaul?

But then the irony of it struck me. The two quotes themselves were lined up to talk about the inadequacy of intention for at least some of our creative expression, and how the tools of our process sometimes inform the essence of what gets ‘published’. How fortuitous that my mouse cooperated enough to let at least those ideas come to light!

Still, I felt bad for all the folks who get my posts via subscription. It must have seemed weird, even among the weirdness of my usual ravings. There are no take backs once its sent, and the explanation I later edited back in would never be seen by these recipients unless they came to the site itself. My apologies to you all for that confusion!

So what was I planning on talking about? The general theme I had been mulling had to do with the difference between expression as something that rides on the surface, that could have been different, that can be true or false, that can lie, and manifestation, which reflects something deeper and more permanent, more essential.

I’m not sure I have the right words for this discussion (yet), but it seemed worth talking about. The idea I had in mind was along the lines of whether helping a friend expresses our friendship or whether it manifests it. Helping seems to actually be what it means to be a friend. This is what friends do. The actions are not symbolic of something other but are in fact the thing itself. You manifest your friendship by doing this and that. Do you see what I’m getting at?

(Note, I am not saying that it is either/or, but that there is a difference worth noting. It seems that some things we express can count as manifestations, but that manifestations are more limited than expression by the constraints of its fundamental nature. We can ‘express’ things besides the truth, for instance, but there isn’t as much leeway in what we can manifest truly. And THAT was the reason I titled my previous post “Your art is a lie”…..)

Now think about that in terms of our creative expression. Is our art a manifestation, or is it simply an expression? In what cases is it one and in what is it the other?

Let me close with something I also read yesterday that may shed some light on what I am thinking. Its from a review of the new film about David Foster Wallace, and if you have the time you should read the whole thing. This is one of the parts I was struck by:

4. One thing that hit me as we watched the film was just how ordinary it all was: the movie, the treatment of the characters, the airport scenes, the car rental lots, the appetites temporarily satisfied with junk food, the outbursts and mumblings…. There is a scene in which Lipsky practically begs Wallace to admit he’s brilliant, and Wallace rebuffs him. Wallace values his “regular-guyness” not as an affectation but as a survival tactic, and as a sincere reality. This is a reality (and not just of being a writer) that we are reticent to admit or openly embrace: no one escapes the ordinariness of everyday life; no one escapes being regular. No one. Sure, there are moments (at widely different scales) of excitement, passion, genius, violence, and rage…there are inequities and injustices that are horrible and that we (hopefully) work to address or redress…. But these are all set against a profoundly mundane backdrop—really the overwhelming foreground—of ordinary life. Wallace’s writings wiggle into the ordinary, the regular, even when his topics occasionally appear charged or esoteric at first blush. But, too, writing is ordinary. It’s just a life, just a form of living life.


Things to consider, perhaps……

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!




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

Your art is a lie

“Writing unfolds like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.” -Michel Foucault ‘What is an Author?


One of the mythologies we have is that our expressions, creative and otherwise, are simply the translations of some inner process, and that getting words down, or even getting a pot off the wheel is just like pulling some preformed idea from its imaginative storage place inside our minds. We think of it as like pulling a string of beads from the dark box of our minds.

Sometimes it does seem to work this way, we CAN have ideas that we then seek to bring out into the external physical world. But the truth is also that we often don’t know what we are going to say until we say it. We are not always RECORDING our thoughts as much as we are sometimes simply building them. We are discovering what we think by actually doing the thinking, and expressing is one of the basic ways we do our thinking. Thinking and saying are not always two different activities. That’s the myth. Sometimes saying actually IS thinking, and we do it with our mouths as thoroughly as we do it with our hands. Its not simply a ‘mental’ activity…..

So of course it matters whether we are more comfortable using a pen or a pencil, or whether typing is just as good. We can be trained to do it differently, but the process is not therefor agnostic. Having different tools that aid the expression actually helps determine what the expression will be. And if some tools are roughly interchangeable, not all tools are. If you can throw pots on a wheel turning counter clockwise, try making something on a wheel that spins the other way. If you are used to ribbing your pots, see what its like not using a rib at all. If you use water to make it easier to thin the walls and manipulate the clay, try throwing without water……

How we express things, WHAT we can express, even, is in part a reflection of the means we have of bringing the expression to life. The thing expressed is birthed by a particular mother and father, and different parents will end with different children….


Do we ever send things out into the world where they represent exactly what we think they should be? Entirely accurately? Sometimes, yes, but in my experience that is rare. For instance: My mouse just acted up on its own and posted this without my permission. If that’s not meta I’ll eat my hat……

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Of currents and creativity, tides and temptation

My brain feels like mush lately. Not promising anything spectacular here, but lets see if I can lay this out in some semblance of reasonableness. These past few weeks I have been much preoccupied with issues of the big picture of cultural bias and systemic inequality, mostly regarding big things like racism and sexism, so much of my thought has wandered into spaces that art sometimes talks about but which are not usually seen as conditions of art itself.

And then, a shoe dropped, and some previously unrelated dots lined up suddenly and a new picture was formed.

Lets see if the picture I am seeing is something that others can see. Maybe not the same picture, but that there is a picture rather than nothing. At least part of the interest is that there is something rather than nothing. You can tell me what you think it is…..

From Brainpickings:

“Our brains are expert at providing explanations for the outcomes we see. People who swim with the current never credit it for their success, because it genuinely feels as though their achievements are produced through sheer merit. These explanations are always partially true — people who do well in life usually are gifted and talented. If we achieve success through corrupt means, we know we got where we are because we cheated. This is what explicit bias feels like. But when we achieve success because of unconscious privileges, it doesn’t feel like cheating. And it isn’t just the people who flow with the current who are unconscious about its existence. People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent. Just as there are always plausible explanations for why some people succeed, there are always plausible explanations for why others do not. You can always attribute failure to some lack of perseverance, foresight, or skill. It’s like a Zen riddle: If you never change directions, how can you tell there is a current?

“Most of us — men and women — will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine. We may have our suspicions, but we cannot know for sure, because most men will never experience life as a woman and most women will never know what it is like to be a man. It is only the transgendered who have the moment of epiphany, when they suddenly face a current they were never really sure existed, or suddenly experience the relief of being carried by a force larger than themselves. The men and women who make this transition viscerally experience something that the rest of us do not. They experience the unfairness of the current.

Now pretend we were talking about art, different forms of art, different practices of art. Pretend we were talking about the tides and currents that sweep through different art forms and practices. Pretend we were talking about the marketplace for art, the things that rise up on the crest of waves, and the things that sink beneath the surface, disappear.

Pretend we were talking about YOU the artist. Pretend we were talking about the creativity you navigate with, the practice that paddles you forward. Are you swimming with the current? Are you, perhaps, in the slipstream of some other artist, moved along in the eddies as they push through to get where they are going? Or are we striking out entirely on our own, heedless of the current, struggling or succeeding in blind faith to our capacity for hard work? Do we occasionally raise sail, tack with the wind, let the breeze fill our sheets? Or do we sometimes also lower the sails and dig in with our oars? Do we even just sit back, give up our control, and let the currents take us where they may? Do we sometimes even drop anchor and moor at docks?

When we fail, do we think the failure is necessarily our own, that we are simply poor swimmers? Or when we fail do we ever think that the currents are simply moving in a different direction, that where we are going is not supported by the general flow in which we are situated? Failure may not be all down to us, especially in a commercial context. We may be caught in opposing currents, riptides, even. The wave that raises one artist up will often fall squarely on our unprepared heads and crush us into the bottom sands…..

Some pots are raised up and others are sunk beneath the waves.....

Some pots are raised up and others are sunk beneath the waves…..

Just this morning Seth Godin posted this:

There’s the obvious sort of laziness, the laziness of not trying very hard, of avoiding strenuous tasks or heavy lifting, of getting others to do your work or not showing up for many hours each day.

We’re quick to point fingers at others (and ourselves) when we demonstrate this sort of sloth.

But there are other sorts of laziness, and they’re far more damaging.

There’s the laziness of racism and sexism, which permits us to write people off (or reward them) without doing the hard work of actually seeing them for who they are.

There’s the laziness of bureaucracy, which gives us the chance to avoid the people right in front of us, defaulting instead to rules and systems.

And the laziness of rules of thumb, which means we won’t have to think very hard about the problem in front of us, and don’t have to accept responsibility for the choices we make.

Don’t forget the laziness of letting someone else tell us what to do, ceding the choice-making to anyone bold enough to announce what we’re supposed to do next.

Or consider the simple laziness of not being willing to sit with uncertainty…

Emotional labor is very different from physical labor. It’s hard to measure, for starters, and it’s easier to avoid, but the consequences are significant.

When we find ourselves looking for a shortcut, an excuse or an easy way out, we’re actually indulging in our laziness.

The hard work involves embracing uncertainty, dancing with fear and taking responsibility before it’s given to us.

So much to consider. So much to think about…..

Peace all!

Happy sailing!


Posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery | 1 Comment

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!


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