Advice for beginning potters

This morning I received a question from a beginning potter worried about clay coming off as she was thinning the walls. She also revealed that she was learning to trim her pots. What advice do I have for her?

This is what I said:

I don’t know the level of your experience other than that you self identify as a ‘beginner’. The advice I will give you may not be appropriate, because students require different information the more they know, but these are the things I would tell anyone showing up in their first several classes:

I prefer not to teach trimming to beginners because it takes pressure off learning how to throw well if you feel you can correct every poorly thrown pot by trimming it. If pots are not thrown well they do not deserve to be trimmed. The time you spend trimming could have been spent learning to throw a better pot. It trades the benefits of a developing skill set for the short term gain of this one poorly thrown pot getting salvaged. This one pot does not matter. Your ability to throw better pots is what you should focus on. I prefer to teach that only a pot specifically designed to be trimmed (even walls, appropriate shape, etc) should be trimmed. You do no learn as quickly if you are not focused on how to get the most out of your clay. Trimming for beginners is a shortcut to making poorly thrown pots less bad, its not a technique for making good pots. Its giving a person a fish rather than teaching them to fish.

The problem you are having with a band of clay separating from the wall is not unusual. It would be difficult to know exactly what you are doing without observing your technique. My guess would be that you are not keeping the walls as consistent as you might, the pressure you apply in squeezing the walls is more focused than dispersed, and you are not sensitive enough to release your hands when a problem starts to develop. My suggestion is that when you first notice things going wrong don’t just power through. This is your chance to learn something about both the clay and your own relation to it. See why things are going off kilter. Try doing it a bit different. Try to understand the physical principles you are working with and how those things limit what you can do. Be as sensitive as possible to the difference you can make. Strategize based on what you know.

For instance, keeping the walls as consistently thick/thin allows you to work without the danger of thin spots weakening the structure. You are aiming for consistent walls, so keeping them as close to that ideal as you go makes sense. The technique should serve the purpose, so know what you are trying to do and find the most direct and accessible way to get there. You will find that the technique itself is less important than understanding what you are doing. It may turn out there are alternate and even better ways of getting there. Focus on what you are trying to achieve rather than mastering a technique. The technique is just a tool. Sometimes its a good tool. But if you don’t know what a hammer is for, no matter how well you have learned to swing it you can’t build things. The technique is not the purpose. Don’t not learn it. Simply know what part it plays in what you are doing.

Clay separates from the pot for even experienced throwers, but beginners often lack the sensitivity to make it less problematic. Often beginners apply pressure to the wall in a focused way, and for them its not an advantage. When things go wrong it sometimes is like using a laser where a flashlight would be more useful. The tight focus only helps you if you already know what you are doing, where you are going. You can get away with so many more things once you have some skills and understanding under your belt. Professional potters can do amazing things that no beginner in their right mind should attempt. If you are a beginning potter you should learn the skills beginners need, not advanced techniques. The fact that an experienced potter can do it does not mean you are ready for it. Until then do what it takes to maximize your learning. You learn algebra and geometry before doing calculus. What things do you need to learn to get you to that place?

Your smartest tools will always be your finger tips. They are the most sensitive and useful tools you’ve got. Get them involved as much and as often as you can. So, rather than just one point of focus on the clay wall, spread your fingers to cover more of the vertical surface of the pot. Get as much of that wall under your supervision. Learn to use each finger tip as a delicate instrument rather than blundering through the process wielding a sharp knife. The more you spread the influence of your fingers the more information you will gather from what you do. Cast a wide net for your understanding.

Think of technique not just as a process to get a specific job done. Also understand why you are doing it, what the advantages are, and what the clay itself allows you to do. You are in a relationship with the clay, and your job is as much trying to understand what the clay wants as figuring out what you yourself would like. Its only going to work if you are sensitive to the needs and are able to put your best foot forward. Know the clay and your own abilities enough to know what is required when. Try not to put the cart before the horse. In the long run you will get results by having listened to the clay. Your finger tips are the most sensitive part of your hand for listening. Give them the space and opportunity to play their role.

Hope that helps.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery, Teaching | 2 Comments

The art of decoration

Humans decorate. Its what we do. We make our surroundings and even ourselves more interesting and more beautiful. We make our public spaces and private sanctuaries just so. We adorn. We garnish. We ornament. We festoon. We lavish. We encrust. We mold. We personalize. We beautify. We embellish. We sculpt. We design. And we do all of it because it matters, to us, and at least potentially to others.

Restaurants present food as artfully as they can. We decide what shoes to wear with what pants, what pants with what shoes, make-up or not, jewelry, new hair cuts, dinner gowns, business suits, uniforms….. We put bumper stickers on our cars. Racing stripes. Details. More details. Even more details.

A Little Bit Of Nonsense, by Randy Blair

A Little Bit Of Nonsense, by Randy Blair

Everywhere we go and everything we do is an opportunity for something to be expressed, some value. We make the world more to our liking by changing it, adding to it, curating it. Its a most human impulse, and in some cases can even be seen as an imperative. The question for me is the difference that speaks to. When are the changes we make coincidental, something like rearranging the furniture, and when are those changes constitutional, as in changing the living room into the kitchen?

And I think this is a good question for artists. Are we just globbing on some cosmetic touch-ups, or are we making something different, something that stands on its own and by its own rules? This is actually a big question. Its part of why addressing quality in the arts is so complicated (See my essay here for a run down of some of the issues)

When a talented painter sketches a drawing are they decorating a piece of paper, or are they drawing a sketch? What is the difference?

Think about that.

Is what they are doing ‘decorating paper’, as if the paper needed some spicing up? Is what they are doing for the sake of the paper, to make the paper more interesting or beautiful?Does the artist buy a sketchbook thinking “My God! All those poor blank pages! Something must be done!”? Or, is there a picture waiting to come out from the artist’s imagination and this page of the sketch book is next in line? Or even, “While sitting there gazing at the marvelous texture of this paper I started to see the shapes. I began drawing, and it was as if the paper was telling me what would happen next”? These are differences, but what kind of differences?

As you can perhaps see, its at least partly a question of properly identifying the means and the ends. Does the decoration serve the canvas or does the canvas serve the decoration? That might be one set of questions to help understand the differences better.

As I’m a potter, and the pottery field puts enormous value on decorating pots, this is a big question for me personally. The question for potters often comes down to the role of the form and the role of the surface. Is the pot itself just there to carry the decoration, that same decoration could have been perpetrated on some other pots just as easily, or is the decoration there because the pot ‘needs’ it? In what sense does the decoration belong on this pot and only this pot, or in what sense is the pot itself irrelevant? In what sense is the decoration irrelevant? The answers to such questions swirl in many potters’ minds, if often below the surface (Was that a joke? Double entendre? Is anyone besides me laughing?).

I’m not saying one way of looking at it/doing it is necessarily better than another, merely that they are different, show our priorities to be different, and show our expectations for what we do to be different.

Another way of phrasing this distinction might be to ask what matters more, the drawing you put on the pot, the pot with or without the drawing, or the pot specifically with this drawing. Is the point of what you do to put drawings on pots, to make pots with drawings, to make pots and then decide if they need drawings, or to make this one pot just to have this one drawing? Again, think of these questions in terms of means and ends. There is no right answer.

The questions I am asking help to solve really only one issue, when it comes down to it: What is the part we think of as necessary? This is the question of what we think we are doing and why we think we are doing it. And the truth is that sometimes the difference between necessary and unnecessary is a difference in kind, and at other times it is a difference in degree. The ‘why?’ can be all consuming or it can be incidental.

Asking this allows us to put the cart where it belongs and the horse where it belongs. We may have a sure sense of this, but the difficulty is that our horses don’t always look like horses to outsiders, and our carts can be so impressive that its easy to imagine putting them first. And this is part of the confusion between makers and their audience…..

For instance, other people looking at the same pot, the same artwork, the same anything, can always understand things differently, that the necessary part was this other thing. It is also true that we cannot understand what we cannot see. So the question is sometimes also whether we successfully communicate our interests and values in terms that are understood by outsiders. If the pot is actually ‘about’ the drawing on it, will the audience get that? If the drawing is incidental to the form, will they understand? If there is nothing drawn on the surface is that a lack of some kind (are pots supposed to have decoration/imagery?)? What exactly does the audience understand, and what does it expect?

The reason I bring this up is that imagery and other decoration is often what folks notice, first-most, second-most, and last-most. Generally what is noticed, what is seen, is not the thing being decorated. That part gets excluded from our understanding, to greater or lesser extents. For instance, we also see the pencil drawing, and not so much the paper it is drawn on. We see the blaze of imagery and not so much the qualities of the clay, the form of the pot, and the proportion and structure of its parts.

The exception: Other 2-D artists will notice the paper, and other potters will notice the pot, but the public at large has a pass that circumvents the need and even desire for that understanding.

And what about arrangements of pots that are a ‘still life’ rather than ‘merely pots’? Jack Troy marvelously explored this in a Ceramics Monthly essay at one point (You can read it here). The fact of a bowl being an ingredient in a still life gets messily obscured with a pile of yogurt in it. Just what does that say about what a thing is and what we think it is?

So where am I going with this?

These are all more or less unfamiliar (to some) observations and questions we can ask. What do you see and what do you think?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Is there such a thing as too much art?

a knots

The problem we have is that we think art is some specific kind of object, so it seems the question is asking whether we can have too many ‘art objects’. I’d rather think of it as questioning our ability to find the art in the world, in its hidden places and everyday occurrences. If you focus on the objects you lose sight of the nature of beauty in the world (and art) as something that humans need to find.

More art in the world does not necessarily mean manufacturing more art objects but UNDERSTANDING the world as containing art more than we previously were able to. Its a matter of seeing art, our own ability, and not proliferating material things. To know something as art means to SEE it as art. If people truly understood the artfulness contained within their lives, the potential for beauty, how could we ever turn away from that?


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

Intending the best

For those of you who’ve been paying attention to the national arts scene lately you will have run across some important and overdue issues being addressed. The idea of equity, of inclusiveness, and of diversity are currently in the spotlight as arts organizations strive to represent and espouse the virtues of society.

So a few weeks ago Americans For The Arts published their ‘Statement on cultural equity‘, apparently years in the making, and then hosted a series of blog commentaries on the statement itself and the issues it involves. On the whole there were some amazing contributions, and it IS something we need to be discussing, need to take seriously enough that we can talk about these things openly. Others in the field weighed in with thoughtful and challenging ideas, and I get a real sense that folks in a position to do something are motivated to take further steps.

One recurring criticism of the initial AFTA statement is that its a great directive with little or no clues for how it is to be applied. The conceptual and aspirational ducks are all lined up, but the practical and applied ducks have yet to be hatched.

My criticism is a bit different. My worry is that our intentions to do the right thing manifest the values we are interested in, but mere interest is not a guarantee that the pursuit even makes sense. There is a disconnect between not just our values and the world itself but between our values themselves. Its not just a difficulty of matching our values to the world, but fitting competing values that often play against one another. In other words, our intentions can be idealistic, which is not a comment on whether we are right to have them, but they may also be unrealistic in ways that are obscured. The lofty goals and the grit of determination find common ground in many places, but rarely to either’s complete satisfaction. The question I have is whether this difficulty is something structural, and that we also need to address that before we get carried away intending the ‘right’ things…..

Here is what I said in response to Doug McLennan’s post:

Once upon a time it was suggested that to know the good was to do the good, and that our failing to do the good was a failure in knowing. And it seems almost certain that equity is a good, inclusiveness is a good, and diversity is a good, but we have an almost impossible time not just implementing these things but understanding what they look like together in a given situation. Moving from the ideal to the practical gets messy real fast. Knowing in itself seems insufficient. Sadly, knowing that equity is a good is not much help in making the world more equitable.

One of the practical issues seems to be that if diversity and equity are not exactly incompatible they are at least somewhat at odds. It seems more and more likely that we can aim at diversity at the expense of equity, or we can aim at equity at the expense of diversity, but we can’t do both well at the same time. The more inclusive and diverse we make things the harder it is to make sense of equity, and the more equitable and fair things are the less room there seems to be for true differentiation. Equity and fairness are leveling, homogenizing, and play on commonalities. Diversity and inclusiveness are multiplying and broadening (if not in fact fracturing). I’m not saying these ideals are necessarily mutually exclusive, just that in practical terms they create difficulties for each other.

So perhaps its a real question whether we can have our cake AND eat it too. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t want to, just that ideals are what we strive for, the values that motivate us, and that their rightness is no measure of their attainability. Ideals are an important aspect of human beliefs and behavior, but there is also the messy reality of the world in which we seek to impose them. Perhaps it resembles the quantum problem of measuring either the position of particles with precision or their momentum, but not both at the same time. Is there a clue here about the fundamental nature of our ability to establish values in the world? The brighter you shine a light the deeper the shadows? The tighter the focus the more things get left unaccounted for?

Maybe we simply need to face up to the condition that the different ways we have of measuring the world, the different values we attach to it, are not all lined up for us to accommodate at the same times. Yes diversity. And yes equity. No question about either of those. But can we really do them both well at the same time?

We don’t need proof that diversity and equity are good things and worth pursuing. What we need proof of is that they can coexist in the world to an exemplary degree at the same time.

Last night I had an interesting conversation with a fellow potter where I talked too much and attempted at one point to get these ideas across. I raised the scenario because I thought it related to the conversation we were having about her plan to do things more intentionally, and my contrasting perspective that intention is all well and good, but there are other values and other possibilities as well as hard realities that intention balks at. It IS important to figure out what matters, to have the best intentions possible. Its an important if not necessary starting point. But its not everything. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts this year you will see that in making art, at least, it sometimes seems important to leave space for permission, for things to evolve on their own. Perhaps this also has some application in life in general as well……

Things to think about!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Imagination, metacognition | 3 Comments

Repost: The bitter truth about professional standards in pottery (and art)

(From April of last year)

“Talk about equality gets off on the wrong foot if we start from the assumption that it expresses an immediate moral demand to treat everyone the same. Of course, there are thousands of legitimate reasons why people may treat different individuals differently. What egalitarianism objects to are social hierarchies that unjustly put different people into superior and inferior positions.” Elizabeth Anderson, NY Times, “What’s wrong with inequality?

So, Tony Clennell opened a can of worms the other day, and its a can I am well versed with opening myself. On facebook, at least, Tony whips up controversy like few potters I know. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind and stand by his opinion. And I really do understand where he’s coming from. I have the same sort of academic training, the same ambitions as a teacher, the same high opinion of craftsmanship, many of the same aesthetic preferences, and generally think his pots are among the tops out there. How could I not agree with him on some level?

What Tony says is this:

“I make no apologies for my opinion about making pots in meat trays for sale. I think it is great to introduce students to clay by means of meat trays, dollies and embossed wall paper or whatever texture available. Perfect intro for beginners. Whatever gets them hooked but then move them on.

I have also had the privilege to have taught at a school that encourages critical dialogue about ceramic art. If a student brought a pot made in a meat tray to a critique students would pay admission to see the horror on 6 faculties faces. My best students have collections of other potters work. They have libraries full to bulging with books on their profession. They can name who made what pot from 50 paces. They attend gallery openings, shows and attend workshops.  They understand and respect the profession. They have not paid 3 years tuition to be told everything they make is “sooooooo pretty.”

A few posts back I wrote what might have been had Steve Jobs been a potter. He was wise in all sorts of ways, but one thing his mind keenly perceived was that there are things which appeal to the ‘pros’ in the field/market, and different things which appeal to less well educated ‘consumers’. When Jobs was talking about computers he was not talking about the difference between a ‘good’ computer and a ‘bad’ one, simply the difference between ones that catered to limited needs and ones that had all the bells and whistles. The souped-up version. The consumer model isn’t made poorly. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with it. Only, its not what you will be looking for if you desire the ‘pro’ specs, and greater capacity, sophistication.

What we are talking about in pottery is that the ‘pro’ model, the souped up version, is simply one that has greater aesthetic capacity. THAT’S the difference. If a bowl carries food, a cup transports liquid, then it was made with all the competence needed to qualify as a legitimate sellable product. And consumers are justified in choosing them. The pared down version that Tony talked about, slab molded meat tray platters, are not lesser versions, if what we are really talking about is a functional pot. Like the ‘consumer’ computer that Apple began making, it does the job, serves the purpose, and fulfills the need that exists for such a product. And it simply does it in such a modest way that it might never appeal to the ‘pros’. On the merits of function alone, a slab built plate has what it takes. So what exactly sticks in the craw of pros like Tony?

Maybe the concern is that this sets the bar incredibly low. Its the perception of catering to mediocrity. Two week beginners can plunk down a lump of clay, roughly center it, stick their thumb somewhere near the middle, dig down, hollow it out, squeeze the walls approximately vertical, and end up with a form that once fired will hold liquid and occasionally not cut the lips of the person doing the drinking.

The question is, why should we expect more? Why are even walls and consistency better than uneven and inconsistent walls? Why is a purely functional simple shape with no aesthetic nuance a downgrade over the same functional form but with nuance? In other words, what is the point of sophistication?

When Tony says that his students look at other potters’ work, can name many contemporary artists, and even collect some of their work, he is explaining the path one takes toward sophistication, toward reaping the benefits of a wider exposure, improved craftsmanship, nurturing aesthetic quality, and moving beyond the limited standards of the ‘consumer’. This is exactly the path I hope that every student of mine will take. Its what I want for them, and its what I want them to want for themselves.

But how do we make that case? How do you praise sophistication without at the same time pooh-poohing the lack there of? How do we advocate for sophistication (our brand of it) without coming off as a fascist pig? When does belief turn from conviction to arrogance?

Pretend we were eating a meal, say a plate of spaghetti. Say we were digging in and enjoying the meal when the waiter shows up and offers some fresh ground pepper and some grated Parmesan. We decide to take a chance and add a bit of each. Now its possible that some people won’t notice the difference. Perhaps their sense of taste is limited in some way. Or obstructed. And its possible that some other folks will think “That’s too much pepper!” or “That cheese tastes weird!” and conclude that they made a mistake going for the extra. But there are also folks who get the cheese and pepper and decide that the meal now tastes that much better. Voila!

And it is this difference that we are counting on when we try to show students what we find interesting about the world. Instructors have the job of taking students who like what they like, often with good and justifiable reasons, and showing them more, of showing them the wider world. If an artist is like the chef preparing the meal, the instructor is the waiter serving it up, explaining the daily special, and describing what ingredients the sauce is made with. “Here, try some more pepper.”


So its not that our lightly seasoned bowls of pasta are deficient in some way and its not that beginner pots have failed. Its simply that they are not on the same page with other versions, as it were. When you get folks to see what a meal tastes like with just the right amount of pepper and some cheese, you are getting them to see the world differently, to no longer be satisfied with what they formerly thought of as ‘good enough’ and even ‘perfectly alright’. This dissatisfaction is what widens the gap between ‘pros’ and ‘consumers’, professionals and beginners.

Think about that for a second.

Its simply hard to say that dissatisfaction is the ‘right’ or only way to approach things. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with that plate of pasta before we learned that more pepper and some cheese made this difference. Our preferences have changed, but history did not change with it. Rather, what has really changed is the person doing the judging, the preferring being. We are now in a position to see the details differently. Its only from where we now are standing that our old opinions look the worse….

If you are in school or are actively encouraging your own growth its hard not to see that change as ‘progress’. We often think it means that having given up more limited tastes for more sophisticated ones we are making forward motion in a continuum of quality, replacing poorer for better. That’s the privilege of our own self confidence. But I’d hesitate to make it an objective claim, in all cases. And its not that we can’t agree that, yes, there is such a thing as improving. It only means that we can and do agree what it means and looks like to be “improving”.

It can happen in several ways: We have the same or approximately similar values; The standards we appeal to are roughly in the same place with the same messages which we interpret similarly. And when other like minded individuals cast their vote alongside us itsbecause we agree that things look to be so confirmed. This simply happens often enough that its not hard to imagine having successfully appealed to some objective authority.

But beware the seduction! The truth is that many folks have trained the same way for many years; studying the same examples; guided by the same influences, backgrounds, and experiences; agreeing to the same standards; appealing to the same ideals; and have simply come to look at this progress as a natural sort of evolution. Because for so many of us “A leads to B leads to C”, and so forth, convention and tradition seem to fully describe the arc of reality.

So things like progress can seem fairly self evident if you know what to look for. Every professional was once a beginner, and that genesis seems to contain the seeds of its fulfillment. How could a professional not believe that she had made progress from her formative roots? We have learned to be ‘better’, and this is what defines us. Its the idea that quality itself is necessarily hierarchical, and that it is THIS which we are teaching our students. “To be a professional with professional standards means exactly this”, we say. And its simply better than that which ‘fails’ to live up to those qualities, or so the argument goes.

But if you notice, something was lost in the shuffle. The magician waved his hand, and while we were gawking at the trombone he just pulled from his nostrils, the real switch happened, the thing we missed.

The flip side of shying away from arrogance is not wanting to champion mediocrity. The difficulty is attempting to do both at once, avoiding the two perilous extremes, arrogant elitism and indifferent relativity, to find the equilibrium at the center. But why is this such a hard task for the arts?

We like to imagine that a professional potter or other artist is something like a professional engineer or dentist. To build a bridge over a wide river you should get someone with the right qualifications. And to do root canal work on one of your molars you find someone with a diploma and an office with a reclining chair and one of those suction tubes. THEREFOR, we like to say that when buying pottery folks should get work from only ‘the professionals’, the ones who have demonstrated their qualifications, jumped through the right hoops, have the right sort of implements and accessories in their studios, don’t use blue glazes, etc…. This is the picture we have for what ‘being professional’ and therefor ‘professional quality’ is supposed to mean.

Where the comparison breaks down is that, in point of fact, those beginners crudely pushing lumps of clay DO make serviceable cups and bowls and plates and spoon rests and vases and toothbrush holders and loose change receptacles and bongs and flower pots and pencil holders and ashtrays and gravy boats and pitchers and sake bottles and yarn bowls and oil lamps and so on and so forth. There’s no sense in which beginners get them wrongin the way that beginning dentists would get dentistry wrong or novice engineers get bridge designs wrong. For other disciplines there may be more than a single way of doing something ‘right’, but in clay and most art you’d be hard pressed to say even beginners were doing it ‘wrong’. “Well… it looks like a bowl:) Maybe you can eat cereal out of it!”

What I’m suggesting, and what I’ve suggested many times before, is that ‘getting it right’ is a sometimes specific move in a specific game, and often we give professional potters too much credit for the ‘right way of doing things’. Quality turns out to be much more eclectic than that, in the arts at least.

Here’s what I mean: Mistakes in well defined games are easily identifiable because the rules draw them up for us and our agreement is implicit in the way we play. But take pottery, or any art really. What is the ‘right way of making a bowl? If it holds food is that enough? Isn’t the aesthetic and overall craftworthiness to a large extent subjective? When I say “That handle sucks!” what standard am I addressing? What if the point of the pot wasn’t even anything related to the handle, but maybe how well it was decorated with pretty flowers and stars? How thick are the walls supposed to be? Is a trade-off in clunkiness actually a functional advantage in insulation? Who is in the right position to determine that?

These different perspectives show how fractured our ideals are rather than our unanimity or objectivity. And that seems like an important truth.

As Ashley Morrow commented on Tony’s blog, “I have seen customers line up mugs and place a ruler on top. If any are too short or too tall by a fraction of an inch, they will not buy them. Then there are the ones that come armed with paint chips and fabric swatches. So long as the glaze matches their sofa, they will buy it.” Who’s to say they are not entitled to those requirements? And who’s to say the potter giving them precisely that is wrong to do so? Steve Jobs knew it, and maybe he’s not so alone anymore in recognizing ‘consumer’ needs.

My own personal pet peeve is handles made as an afterthought and with no real attention to detail, no sophistication. I also turn my nose up at forms that are merely a surface for decoration to exist on. I prefer handles that show some nuance and forms that are interesting enough to stand on their own. I like the marks of process (mostly) and details that show the maker was thinking. I am bored by pots so subtle as to be simple or so simple as to be bland. I’m less drawn to garishness than austerity and I’m more a fan of angular lines than bulbous shapes.

Is that the ‘right’ way to make pots? Obviously not! And it turns out not even for me all of the time. I see my chauvinism and I challenge it regularly. Its my job to do so, both as an artist and a teacher. The world is too full of exciting diversity not to have eclectic tastes and motivations.

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

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

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

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

Maybe I’ve beat this horse for long enough now. I’m not sure its dead, but I get the impression there are folks out there who never even knew it was alive in the first place (much less a horse, it seems).

All for now!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Repost: Maximum Beauty

From March 19th of 2015:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take, for instance, the duck/rabbit:

duck rabbit

Or the young lady/old lady:

young lady old woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Don’t hate me because I’m pretty

Brandon Phillips' pretty pot

Brandon Phillips’ pretty pot

“It’s not often that I make “pretty” pots. But I really like what this glaze does over my bright white slip.”

Isn’t it interesting that some potters avoid making pretty pots? They could if they wanted to. Quite easily, in fact. But for whatever reason they have chosen to aim at something other than pretty. And that has to be alright. Not every pot has to be pretty. They can be alarmingly beautiful without affecting ‘pretty’. The question we need to ask is whether avoiding pretty is itself a goal or the side effect of aiming differently.

If you cook and serve meals without using salt are you aiming at bland food or is the blandness a side effect of some other reason to not use salt? Are there other flavors hidden in too subtle ways for us to make easy connection with? Is what we perceive as blandness not always the lack of taste but the absence of overpowering tastes? Salt may heighten perception, but it also obscures. We can become sensorily jaded.

Salt is too easy on the palate. Pretty is too easy on the palate. The human temptation to believe ‘What You See Is All There Is‘ makes us blind to difficult nuance. Salt and pretty swirl around us and make certain things stand out, but only at the expense of subduing quieter or humbler accents.

There is nothing wrong with pretty. I am thankful for it. But it is not everything. We should not dumb things down by surrounding ourselves with only the prettiest. We miss too much if only the pretty survive. There is more to the world than pretty.

So don’t hate me because I’m pretty. Simply learn to love a wider range of things than the pretty. Educate ourselves to the strange hidden and unexpectedly perplexing beauties that also surround us. Don’t settle only for the obvious in your face qualities. Search deeper. Look wider. Wait until you understand more before casting judgment. If there is a crime pretty perpetrates its that we are urged to make quick judgments. Because its easy. It teaches us not to work hard for beauty. Pretty casts a vote for simple and easy. Its lazy.

We should be thankful of pretty because there are times to be lazy. Just not all the time. Just not now. There is too much at stake to sell ourselves to simplicity and obviousness.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how and why people misunderstand each other. We can’t learn the way others see things unless we take the time, suspend our own judgment, and earn our impressions. Pretty is a shortcut. Sometimes shortcuts are necessary. But life is not a shortcut. We know less than we think we do, and every time we settle for what we think we understand we can be guaranteed we are not getting the whole picture. Certainly not with the things that seem most obvious to us. They are the blind spots we have. Their obviousness is blinding.

Beware the pretty, but don’t give up on it.

Things to think about, at least….

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 4 Comments