If Steve Jobs had been a potter

“When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. After a few weeks of product review sessions, he’d finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. “Here’s what we need,” he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” He labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled. There was a stunned silence. But by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he told me. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”” Walter Isaacson, The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs

If Steve Jobs had been a potter, looking at the dilemma facing an industry that doesn’t always know what it is doing and for whom its doing it, Jobs might have gotten that Magic Marker out and drawn the same diagram, just with different categories. He might have kept something similar at the top with ‘Consumer’ staying the same but the idea of ‘pro’ would have been tweaked. While its true that no one appreciates pottery like fellow potters do, if we end up only selling a majority of that ‘pro’ specific work to ourselves, who is actually making money? Unlike professional computer buyers who often times are also professional computer users, professional potters are the ones making the product, the pots. The market of ‘pro’ pottery buyers turns out to be almost entirely identical with the ones offering that work for sale.

So Jobs might have redrawn the board with ‘Collector/Connoisseur’ replacing the ‘Pro’. Who but a potter who has split wood all day in the brain melting Summer heat and stoked a kiln continuously for days in the bitter soul sapping Winter cold could truly appreciate what went into a wood fired pot? Other potters can appreciate it vicariously and make the inference based on the hardships of their own experiences, but who outside potters themselves is remotely qualified to understand what it took? “It takes one to know one” about sums it up.

Take, for instance my newest purchase: Who but a fellow potter would care about the nuances of handles and how they are made? In a cup like this, made by Allison Coles Severance, who but a potter looking at this or using it would have their mind blown?

Allison Coles Severance mug. That handle looks like its a caged animal crouched and preparing to spring into action. Everything about this mug thrills me: The nuance of the handle attachments just blows my mind, and the throwing marks and form are subtle, nuanced, and have an understated sophistication. Its not a simple pot. Its not an obvious pot. Its not a pot that you'd expect people to understand unless they knew what they were looking at.....

Allison Coles Severance mug. That handle looks like its a caged animal crouched and preparing to spring into action. Everything about this mug thrills me: The nuance of the handle attachments just blows my mind, and the throwing marks and form are subtle, nuanced, and have an understated sophistication. Its not a simple pot. Its not an obvious pot. Its not a pot that you’d expect people to understand unless they knew what they were looking at…..

So lets say Jobs would have expanded the ‘pro’ section to include the better funded more numerous field of collectors. Collectors have invested the most, outside of potters themselves, to understanding and appreciating pots. They look at pots sometimes as much if not more than other potters. And they certainly care about pots in a way that rivals potters. For every one potter making serious collectible work there may be anywhere from a handful to legions supporting them. And the nice thing is that collectors often spread their love around. Its not just exclusive to this one potter anymore than potters collecting work will be exclusive to just one other potter. There are broad shoulders supporting potters who make this sort of work.

Now that Jobs has the columns sorted out we can imagine him turning back to the board and posting the rows, Along the side he would almost definitely have replaced the computer specific ‘Desktop’ and ‘Portable’ with the more pottery specific ‘Decorative’ and ‘Functional’. I won’t use this space to quibble about the hazy lines between some decorative and some functional work, but simply note that these are generic categories that potters understand and often respect. We can move on from there. The diagram now looks complete. And what you get is that we find very well defined goals for what we make and who its intended for.

Consumers get their very own version of decorative ceramics, and so do Collectors. Consumers get their very own version of functional work, and so too do Collectors. And the point is that we are clear that each version is something different, made with that purpose specifically in mind. Its not the same thing, in a significant sense, just being ‘functional’ or just being ‘decorative’, and the difference may be as telling as how much it will cost or the way it was designed, fired, or assembled. If you are making work for Consumers that is intensively crafted with subtlety and hidden nuance and priced relatively high, you’d expect it to fail. If you are making work for Collectors that is inexpensive, broadly appealing, lowers the bar, and perhaps cheaply (inexpensively) made, then that too might be expected to fail. There is a difference, and it makes sense to know exactly what that difference amounts to. There are no-frills pots, and there are exceptional pots, and there is no use denying it.

If Steve Jobs had been a potter, he’d have told us that a pot is not simply a pot. Just because it functions doesn’t mean its comparable to other functional pots. Just because its decorative doesn’t mean its comparable to other decorative pots. The rules are written differently, even if the pieces themselves share a similarity. Its like holding a deck of cards, function and decoration can aim in many different ways. It can be as varied as the difference between Bridge and Solitaire. Just because they are all cards doesn’t mean the same game is being played. Just because its a mug or a vase doesn’t mean that its playing by the same rules or aiming at the same ideas as other mugs or vases.

Steve Jobs was a savvy fellow, and so he would eventually have picked up on the situation potters face regarding how we turn non-potters into collectors. Without the hard labor of actually making pots, what exactly is the gateway to appreciating the nuance and sophistication of exceptional pots? Of course, potters have struck on the strategy that we can lead horses to water. Exposing the general consumer to collector quality work will at least potentially stand a chance at furthering the education and commitment of an ordinary audience to the more financially rewarding line of higher end products. Sometimes the craft and visual sophistication are things inexperienced observers can get clued in on, so its worth making that attempt.

So potters have some choices. We can spend 60 hours a week making 200 bland and unexceptional mugs a day or we can spend 60 hours a week making just 200 mugs with more attention to the specificity and artistic potential of each one individually. There is an audience for both. But its a gamble making pots just for the exclusive market. Of course if you already have a track record selling to people willing to spend $42 a mug, its not a leap in the dark. But every potter wants to grow their audience, and the truth is that collectors are spread pretty thin as it is. The challenge is getting our pots in front of more people who could potentially become collectors. And if we can help those horses take the first drink it will have been worth it, if they keep coming back.

So maybe its still “four great products”, but the quadrants have a blurred or overlapping center vertical patch. Maybe for potters there is a viable middle ground of transitional ware leading ‘Consumers’ up the food chain and even ‘Collectors’ back down? Can a collector also be a user of affordable well crafted if unspectacular handmade pots? Why not? Can regular consumers take a chance on a seemingly overpriced but magnificent centerpiece for their home? We can only hope so. Maybe the difference between ‘Consumers’ and non-potter ‘Collectors’ is more fluid and porous than the simple scheme Jobs suggested for computers? If Steve Jobs had been a potter one can image that he would have thought so……

Something to think about, at least!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Raising the bar and keeping out the riffraff: What Calvin and Hobbes have to say

Pottery, art, music, what have you, are all facing a future that has alarmed folks with a vested interest in what they might like to think of as ‘the status quo’, even the way things were ‘supposed to be’. The reality is that conditions have changed, and folks making a living from these sorts of creative activities are in new competition with practitioners who are less vested, perhaps have less experience and training, and do not aim in the same way at the same notions of quality.

According to mainstream public perception there isn’t necessarily an obvious difference in the work made by trained professionals and folks just starting out or experimenting, and this gets under the skin of folks trying to eek out a living doing something they have devoted large parts of their adult life to do. It is a condition that is encouraged by the fact that the entry point which gatekeepers once guarded so vigorously and forbiddingly is now often in the hands of the artists themselves. Think etsy. Think youtube. These days anyone with a wheel and a kiln in the basement can get their work out into the world. And they can do this far more easily than your grandma and grandpa ever could….. Any person with an internet connection, a bank account, and a UPS accessible street address now has a virtual store front from which to operate. Its as easy as that. Things have changed.


Which in my mind is actually a good thing! Parts, at least. I teach amateurs and hobbyists, and I am thrilled whenever one of them takes the plunge and offers their work up to the world to be appreciated. And I’m not under any illusions that it necessarily has the same high standards that serious professionals have mastered through years of toil and service to their craft.

But for me that’s not the point. The audience isn’t deciding what’s good, it merely decides what it likes, and there should be complete freedom to choose from any possible source to meet that demand. I’d hate to be the fascist who said that folks couldn’t like what they like or could only choose between the selections that some higher authority vetted and offered them. The reality of our situation is that there are no perfect solutions. Its a mixed bag. Every benefit of flooding the market with amateur work is a grain of sand in the undies of some professional. It often depends on where you stand for how you feel about the change….

Rocco Landesman notoriously confronted this issue when, as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, he opined that there was an oversupply of art and artists, and that while the demand for the arts is holding fairly steady, the number of practitioners had grown by leaps and bounds. That’s the new reality, and its easy to see how this has huge consequences for anyone trying to earn a living from their creative pursuit.

And of course there has been considerable backlash. Its not always clear what our options are. There are personal strategies and field wide agendas. Its easy to throw blame about: The ones diluting the market are at fault, or the ones holding the last vestiges of institutional privilege. But picking sides is probably missing the point rather than dealing with the situation itself. Amateurs won’t go away, and the reputation manufacturing Art Establishment is still clinging to its aura of authority with a clenched fist. Its a divided world, in a sense, and there are just more players looking to get their share of the same spoils…. Is there a way for everyone to make a go of it?

Some take it that its no longer as much about the art, the product, and more about the marketing, positioning one’s self in the marketplace, and engineering success through entrepreneurial nuos. Others see that its no longer strictly necessary, desirable, or even practical to design a lifestyle that is all in on the art making: Being part time is not a lesser version of being an artist. The need to be a professional in the sense of being a ‘full-time artist’ is diminishing and seems more illusory now than ever before. But every option I’ve seen discussed thus far serves relative needs at best. All our ‘good’ options seem to satisfy part of the dilemma at the expense of something else just as important. Or suit some but not others. Like I said, there seems to be no perfect solution…

Anyway, more and more professional artists are venting their frustrations, and it can be illuminating to listen to their ideas. These past few days I got to peer inside a number of minds wrestling with these issues. The first I’ll share is a podcast interview that Ben Carter conducted with the esteemed potters Doug Peltzman, Sunshine Cobb, and Jason Bige Burnett. The second rant was lifted from the blog of Classical Music composer Aaron Gervais. Click on the link below and listen to Ben’s interview. Its plenty more interesting than the mere snippets I excerpted.


Ben’s Interview: (minute 36:00)

JBB  “I think the training is the most significant and most important factor really for being educated in your craft, if you’re wanting to really dive in and become, quote unquote, “successful”.”

SC   “But also I think if you want to elevate the field in that way, if you want more people collecting pots, more people understanding how wonderful our handmade objects are. If we’re putting pots out in the world that are crap that’s not helping our industry at all. And coming into contact with so many collectors and people these days where a lot of that culture’s being lost because we haven’t created that new culture to pick up the slack in collecting and educating them about that and we need to lift up our field. Nothing makes me more crazy than when I see bad pots out in the world.”

JBB   “Or when they’re pricing their pots the same as a professional in the field.”


DP   “I feel like if this community grew any more I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’ve been lucky enough that the work that I make goes out in the world and it doesn’t really come back, you know, I sell it. So when we talk about this idea of wanting to disperse handmade pottery to a wider net I’m suspicious of it a little bit, because I don’t think most of the world deserves our work, to be very honest. I just don’t know that they’ll appreciate it in the way that we do. And maybe that’s our bad on not educating them on the importance of it, but maybe that’s also a ‘careful what you wish for’ kind of thing…. If that does happen and there is all of a sudden this need for this stuff, how does that change the work? How does that change NCECA, and that community, and that smallness of it, that wonderful thing that we all love about it? That we all do kind of know each other, that there is this degree of separation: Will that be lost? Because, yeah, we do live in a disposable world and our work is counter to that…. I didn’t mention this but my whole childhood was spent on a skateboard, so for me to be this kind of outsider always, kind of running from the law, a potter, there’s a lot of analogous things there as far as we’re kind of this entity that’s separate from the larger society. And that’s one of the things I love about it.”



And now from Aaron Gervais:

“In certain respects, the situation in music parallels the restaurant business: industrial fast food still feeds the most restaurant-goers by far, especially when you look at growth in the developing world. But as in music, there has also been an explosion of culinary innovation. A coterie of haute cuisine chefs have captured the imagination of foodies, and a privileged minority of well-to-do connoisseurs now indulges in the finest array of culinary virtuosity the world has ever known.


In music, for some reason, we don’t follow this model. In music, there is no difference in pricing between “fast food” and “haute cuisine,” especially when it comes to recordings. An album of new classical compositions (or your preferred form of art music) still sells for the Taylor Swift price of $10–$15 per copy or $0.99 per track, which is the equivalent of trying to price molecular gastronomy to compete with a $5 value meal. There’s simply no way to not lose money doing this: the resources, talent, and expertise required to produce a top-notch album for an art music audience don’t make economic sense until you get to that $300-a-bottle price point. Perhaps then we should stop trying to compete with the musical equivalent of Bud Lite.


So what’s the alternative? We can compete on quality instead of price. That’s what the modernist chefs have done, after all. If you charge a three-figure price for your album, you might sell fewer copies, but the wider margin might make it possible to turn a profit. Who knows, you might even sell more copies than you would have otherwise if the price of your album becomes a mark of prestige in and of itself. Hey, it works for designer handbags… Either way, competing on quality gives you an important advantage: a shot at actually making money at the sub-mass-market level. Which is a good thing, because there is a lot of great music that might appeal to 20,000 people but not to 20 million.


In fact, if enough artists followed this path, we might be able to shift the collective thinking about the value of music in society, reclaiming some of the attention away from the disposable superstars. After all, this seems to be happening in the world of food, where haute cuisine chefs have attracted the interest of the general public and spawned a plethora of knock-on cultural effects: the rise of amateur food blogs, a renewed focus on quality ingredients, an invigorated culture of dinner parties—even the “fast casual” chains that are slowly chipping away at the burger-and-fries hegemony…. It would be great to have an alternative high-margin offering, one that better reflects the value of music and doesn’t encourage people to buy worthless junk destined to end up in desk drawers or landfills.”



Eh… yeah. Like I said, no easy answers…..

Food for thought, at least!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

“Stay on the f-ing bus!”

From an article by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian (followed, of course, by some of my mind blowing and otherwise dubious ramblings):

This column will change your life: Helsinki Bus Station Theory

‘The theory claims the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki’s main bus station’

I’ve never visited Finland. Actually, I probably never should, since it’s a place I love so much on paper – dazzling, snow-blanketed landscapes, best education in the world, first country to give full suffrage to women, home of the Moomins – that reality could only disappoint. Even the staunchest Finnophile, though, might be sceptical on encountering the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. First outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki’s main bus station. It has circulated among photographers for years, but it deserves (pardon the pun) greater exposure. So I invite you to imagine the scene. It’s a bus station like any big bus station – except, presumably, cleaner, and with environmentally-friendly buses driven by strikingly attractive blond(e)s.

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.

There are two reasons this metaphor is so compelling – apart from the sheer fact that it’s Finland-related, I mean. One is how vividly it illustrates a critical insight about persistence: that in the first weeks or years of any worthwhile project, feedback – whether from your own emotions, or from other people – isn’t a reliable indication of how you’re doing. (This shouldn’t be confused with the dodgy dictum that triggering hostile reactions means you must be doing the right thing; it just doesn’t prove you’re doing the wrong one.) The second point concerns the perils of a world that fetishises originality. A hundred self-help books urge you to have the guts to be “different”: the kid who drops out of university to launch a crazy-sounding startup becomes a cultural hero… yet the Helsinki theory suggests that if you pursue originality too vigorously, you’ll never reach it. Sometimes it takes more guts to keep trudging down a pre-trodden path, to the originality beyond. “Stay on the fucking bus”: there are worse fridge-magnet slogans to live by. Just make sure you take it off the fridge when your prudish relatives visit.

oliver.burkeman@guardian.co.uk (End of article)


All of which I take to mean that you can be on the bus essentially for two reasons: With a specific desire to get some particular place, or to simply be open to (to see) where the bus will take you.

It is probably normal for most artists to have an idea that the bus they are on will get them to some possibly well defined goal, like success, or fame, a career, or a minimally sustainable income. We look at other artists and it seems they have gotten somewhere, that they are no longer traveling by bus. The career path, the bus line they were on, has landed them at a good stopping place. They’ve somehow got it figured out. They live in mansions and have the lifestyle we aspire to. They and their work are iconic.

From the outside it seems so very stable, from the view of our seats as the bus we are on goes zipping through neighborhoods and over the crest of hills. And we often take that brief glimpse to mean that arriving at stops has the advantage that our work is now identifiably our own, coherent and consistent, a brand we can base our careers on. Something we can hang our hats on. That seems like an assumption we can safely make. There is something uniquely attractive about stepping off the bus to see where its got us. “Stop and smell the roses, won’t you? Take off your shoes and stay a while….”

But ‘getting off the bus at our stop’ does have the downside that we’ve arrived at a destination. Once we are off the bus there are consequences. That’s where we will stay at least until another bus comes along, even if we still have the fare to get back on. We may also have been off the bus for so long that its hard to get back on, to leave behind the comfort of the familiar resting place for new horizons and unfolding adventures. We say “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” after all….

You see, there are consequences to staying on the bus as well. The truth is also that if we stay on the bus we may not know where all it will take us, and that can seem perilous. Or occasionally too risky, at least. It sometimes frightens us. But making the decision to stay on the bus, enjoying the trip itself, the journey, can potentially be as much worthwhile as any conceivable stop we could have gotten off at. According to the article above, staying on the bus is precisely what matters most. Persistence, not chasing originality. And maybe there’s something to that.

If we get off the bus for fear of where it might next take us, I’m not sure that’s the best reason we could have had. If we simply don’t like bus rides, that’s something else. If the constant motion makes us queasy it might make sense to get out and take some deep breaths before we puke our guts. Stay put, stay safe.

But, as I’ve recently suggested in some other essays, often we simply shy away from the unknown rather than demonstrating our native curiosity. We are often too slick, too worldly wise, for the wide eyed naivety that trades security for serendipity. Giving up what we know is a challenge. We suffer loss aversion. But the allure of the known is not by itself enough justification to permanently avoid traveling further into the unknown…. Is it?

Its the difference between seeing the point of what we are doing as a destination and seeing it as a journey. Do we see ‘success’ as where we got off the bus, or how long we stayed on and how many different things we saw and did? At the end of our lives and our careers will we regret that we stayed on the bus too long or that we got off too early? That we did this one thing well or that we didn’t do enough? That seems like an important distinction…..

Food for thought, at least!

The many buses of Helsinki

The many buses of Helsinki

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!




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

Through the Looking Glass: Studio focus and the vortex of flow

A brief conversation about how ‘inefficient’ time in the studio can sometimes be. This is culled from the larger email conversation between me and Scott Cooper that took place over the course of a few days this past week.


CG: “Why is it that I can only pull so many handles in a day or trim so many feet in a day before I’m burned out? I could barely get 10 feet trimmed in the two hours before I had to run off and teach last night, and the final 10 today ate well into my lunchtime…. Boo hoo!”

SC: “I know! It’s the same for me. Sometimes the enthusiasm wears thin pretty fast. Often I look back at a span of studio time and am astounded at how many clock hours went into a seemingly small, limited task like trimming or handling or decorating a half dozen pots. But then, if I think back on all the sub-tasks and necessary pauses, and unnecessary-but-chosen pauses, etc, etc… it kind of adds up. And sometimes I think I just unconsciously slow down, to where I’m doing all the actions but at a snail’s pace, and fail to notice. Maybe that’s when the sneaky “zone” business creeps in? Maybe the more we enjoy it, the less efficient our making time gets? I dunno!”

CG: “Yeah, that probably does say something about being in ‘the zone’. I swear I am not doing things any slower, or slower than I should be, but I put my head down and when I next look up two whole hours have passed and I’ve only done a few actual things…. Maybe its not about distraction as much as its about focus and absorption? I just watched a video of Bill Van Gilder attaching handles, and it only takes him about two minutes start to finish, about a fifth of the time it takes me. But the interesting thing is that as I sat there watching him I was thinking the whole time “Yep, I do that too, and that, and that, and that too….” In fact I do just about everything he does, and it doesn’t seem that I am doing anything extra or different per se, but maybe I’m doing a bit more of each of them? For instance, I was thinking that I take too much time smoothing over the slurry from pulling the handle, and that I should just quit this. I think you even recently mentioned how that is a part of handles that you like to leave revealed. But Bill sat there for a few seconds doing exactly as I do, really focused on refining the finished shape and the surface marks from the process of pulling. Maybe I take a bit longer than he does, but not enough to make up the entire difference in how long it takes me to do them. One of the reasons I have held off on sharing any videos on me pulling handles is that it seems to take so bloody long. Which is so confounding coming from the guy who used to time his students in handle making exercises at 30 seconds per handle pulled from premade carrots… At one time every advanced class started off that way.”

SC: “The way you described time passing in the studio is exactly how it seems for me, too. All I can figure is that if I put a video camera on myself the whole time, then watched it, I’d see lots of little intervals of fiddling with tools, or getting up and wandering around, or a long stretch or gaze out the window — stuff that I’m not aware I’m doing, so don’t remember, but that are happening in amongst the actual ‘hands on the clay’ stuff. And I know I’m in the habit of my brain kind of getting overloaded, at which point I let myself walk back to the house for a refill, or to “quickly” check in on the iPad, etc, etc. And probably my habit of listening to podcasts slows everything down, as part of my concentration is going to that. (Almost ALL the time – ha! Clary used to listen to NPR for about 6 hours a day and I couldn’t figure out how she did it… now I’m her, at least in that regard. Thank god for podcasts.)”


And there you have it! Its not just punching the clock and churning out the product. For some of us its part of a way of life. For some of us ‘getting it right’ is more important than simply getting it pushed through the kiln (or other inexorable ‘commercial’ type demands). You take the time it takes to make it the way you want it, and you pay attention the whole way. Or, you pay attention while the pot is in your hand, and study and analyze it until you set it down. That’s what you are focused on. But its not obsession: Its part reverie and part ritual. At times you can set it aside, when you’ve done enough, when you’ve done it right. And the time you spend and the things you do are blur of moment to moment activity.

Where did the time go?” You can easily get sucked down the vortex, down the rabbit hole. Entering the studio is sometimes like stepping through the looking glass. It can be an adventure. And when you are that absorbed you can simply lose track of the outside world. You may start out trying to be as efficient as possible, you may have a set agenda to make such and such, this and that, but you can get captured by the moment as you are experiencing it. Sometimes you can lose the hold of what you thought you were doing and why you thought you were there. And when you come back up for air it can be an absolute mystery where the time went and what exactly it is you were doing there. Someone tried to murder time and you have just paid the price.

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

That’s all from this corner of the Universe!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Trawling through Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life

Miranda July Photo: Daniel Boud via The Bygone Bureau

Miranda July
Photo: Daniel Boud via The Bygone Bureau

My friend Joel posted a link on fb to an artnet article based on the new book ‘Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life‘. “artnet News has trawled the book to distill the most useful pearls of wisdom, so you can hit the ground running” and I’ve distilled the ones I think most interesting to share here. Follow the trail back to the source at your convenience :)

Here is some of what I found:

– “If you want a normal life, get a normal job.” Sanford Biggers lays down the law, short and sweet.

– “Creating a non-purposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential. You can tell when you are looking at art that was a drag to make: it’s a drag to look at.” Carol Bove on keeping things clever yet playful.

– “Your life right now is as real as it will ever be. It won’t be more real in the future, when you get into or out of college or into or out of a relationship or a job or a financial quagmire or a health problem. In fact, the things keeping you back—these embarrassing, boring, stupid obstacles—are the heart of what it is to be human. They’re the whole reason for making and needing art.” Miranda July, on embracing life as it is

– “I think that art can be made with virtually anything, so I don’t believe you have to be in a particular kind of economy, cultural context, or a unique space, or have specific items available with which to make art. People who are creative can make art wherever they are.” Wangechi Mutu, on why you should stop looking for excuses not to make art

– Stop making ‘art’ and start making your work. […] It’s so easy to make things that look like art, act like art, get sold like art, yet in the end aren’t really art, but are phantoms, mere commodities, or quantifiable digestible sound bites.” Stephanie Syjuco, on staying clear of Zombie Formalism and finding one’s own path

– “WORST: 1.) The emphasis, since the 1980’s, on making art as a specialist professional ‘career’ rather than as a passionate experiment. 2.) The obsession with the artist as a future ‘art star.’ 3.) The obsession with making an academic rationale for art, a good example being the overuse of the world ‘problematize.’ 4.) Teaching only the contemporary art that is found in the magazines in the library.” Dan Graham on everything that’s wrong with MFA programs

Stuff to think about!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity | 2 Comments

Repost: What Ron Meyers said

It seems my last essay fell utterly flat, DOA to your computer screens…. Thankfully I was just made aware of another post I ran almost exactly four years ago that said many of the same things, but perhaps more interestingly. Just mentioning Ron has probably kickstarted a pulse and dragged the patient from the brink of oblivion…..

Anyway, here’s what I said that Ron Meyers said (slightly edited from the first posting):

What Ron Meyers said

In a lot of ways my timing has been on the edge of perfect. When I first discovered my love for clay Ron Meyers was still teaching at UGA. I started taking a non-credit night class while I was enrolled in the PhD program in Philosophy, kind of as a welcome distraction to my studies, and ended up getting hooked. After about a year into it they dropped the program, the word being that the non credit students were overusing and burdening the facilities (got that right!). I knew Ron by this time and he suggested that I just sign up for credit since I was already enrolled at the University. Amazingly no one at my department raised a stink, and before I knew it Ron was my teacher. Before the Philosophy department knew it they had lost a student.

I have learned so much from Ron, and my pots will always show an appreciation for the clay that he helped foster. But in some ways my timing was just a bit off. I was too much a beginner to fully understand the nuance of some of the ideas he was teaching. I think I kind of picked most of it up unconsciously. Sometimes its hard to see that you are learning with your head when so much is happening with your hands. I was just having fun and doing something that I really enjoyed. The curse of being a beginner is that you don’t yet know enough to understand what it is you understand. The strands have not yet been pulled together to form the picture and bring clarity to what we are doing. You can’t often see subtlety and sophistication until you have lived with it long enough.

So my fear is that I started too late to really get the benefit of Ron’s teaching. But on the other hand, if I had started taking classes much earlier I might also have missed the awesome lineup they brought in to cover for Ron when he retired. Those instructors (for a semester each) were Linda Christianson and Michael Simon. I was definitely still a little green, and missed much of what they had to teach, but still they both were huge influences on me as well.

But back to Ron. I have especially been thinking of Ron these past few weeks. I have been looking at the issue of how we can set ourselves up by having certain expectations about our results and also about our process, and Ron had a few things to say about that. Ron would have been a great influence if only because he helped to take most of the pressure off. It was always about having fun with the clay and exploring what things were possible. Learning about the clay as much as learning about ourselves. The attitude that the project was about discovery rather than achieving specific results is probably crucial.

All this was brought home to me last year (2010?) when Ron was involved in a livecast workshop that I saw on the internet. Fortunately I wrote down some of his quotes from that NCECA preconference. In it Ron said:

“You need to show them you are thinking.”

“Searching for variation.”

“Everyday seeking something new. Trying something different everyday.”

“Picasso was not making work, he was finding it.”

“Discovering through working.”

“Looking for something to change, to get out of.”

Ron’s teabowls in my kitchen. What amazing variation in the shapes and sized and decoration!

Hearing all those thoughts again totally blew my mind. I don’t think I had realized how thoroughly a student of Ron’s I truly was. These are the kinds of things I say to my own students, different words maybe, but the attitude is exactly the same.

Unfortunately in my own work I am not always as vigorous about pursuing these changes. It seems I need some sort of special incentive to break the pattern of what I typically do in the studio on my own time. So I am absolutely grateful for when I teach because I always take it as an opportunity to show my students ways to do things that are purposely NOT the way I would do them myself. I consider it an obligation.

It is a trick I play on myself that I really should use more often. Purposely stepping in an unexpected direction is sometimes like stepping outside one’s self. By ignoring or rejecting all the habits that we feel helps define us we get to see the world in a new way. Its like taking a holiday, a day off from the routine of doing things the ‘normal’ way.

The way I tell it to my students I advise them to thin the walls and then do something to shape it. Don’t overanalyze it while its still on the wheel. Just do something either different from or similar to what you’ve done before and get it off the wheel. You can make more the same way or not, but then in a calm moment afterwards sit down and see what you came up with. If you allow experimentation and discovery to happen while the clay is on the wheel you are not so hooked into expectation that each detail is crucial. You get to see what worked and what didn’t work when you are a step removed from the making.

This way you are not dependent on only making what you already know or can see from that tortured angle sitting above the wheel. Let the pot happen without too much conscious input from your mind*. Do it quickly so you don’t get a chance to spoil it by letting your head step in where it is not needed. And if the results aren’t any good? So what? You now know what not to do in the future. And if something good happened? You might never have gotten there if you had waited to think it up first.


Some of the jars in my kitchen, with Ron Meyers well represented in a variety of firing methods and surface treatments.


Ron likes to joke that he makes the pots he does because he never learned how to center. Actually, he is probably the best thrower I know. They all come out slightly different because he is attempting to see what will happen with this lump of clay, not the next, or paying too close attention to the one before. Every surface is an opportunity to express something. And so while the marks themselves may look alike between several pots, each pot stands as a different expression of the sum of all the details. One teabowl may be larger, another smaller, one have a mark here on the wall, another there, one more rounded, another more straight, one flared in at the lip, another flared out. Its all variable, and the composition depends on the nuance of variation.

So how the hell do I do this myself? I start with entirely flexible and loose ideas for the outcome, but I have specific things I aim for in the process. A push with the rib somewhere around here, a sweeping line somewhere around there, maybe a slight flare at the rim, or maybe not, proportions starting roughly here and ending roughly there, etc,. All this looseness just to see what happens when I do it this way or do it that way. I’m willing to be surprised.

I also try to work in series so that I can build variations on my experimentation and hone in on others. I may take an idea and push it in one direction, realize I’ve gone too far, and then start back up in a different direction. Sometimes I will have an idea for something, maybe a thing I’ve seen someone else do, and then I will play around with that detail or way of doing things until it convinces me. Even in my ‘standard’ forms I am trying not to repeat myself. Or rather, I’m not trying per se, I’m just letting things manifest under their own power. Its more about expressing certain things about the process than achieving specific results. Its more about letting the clay express these things than manufacturing them into the clay. Its more about permission given than obedience and expectation.

So this (unfortunately?) often ends up creating a mishmash of inconsistent pots. If I’ve really gone crazy they look like different people made them. I don’t always like what it looks like on display together, but the question is whether I made them so that they could be displayed together or that I made them to find eventual homes with different people who will appreciate them on their own terms. Am I making for the purpose of historical coherence and stylistic identity or for the day to day inspiration? What exactly is my agenda?

The side effect of being driven to experiment and evolve also seems to be that older pots (in general) become boring pots by a factor of the distance you have moved away from them. The further you have traveled in your experiments the more you have left behind, and the more those older things may no longer interest you. Its as simple as that.


Ron’s mugs. Its not a ‘One Size Fits All’ Universe, folks. Why would our creativity behave as if it were?


So if you have heard me ranting before you will probably know that I’m not a huge fan of being pinned down by one “signature style”. I think it is a good and reasonable thing for many artists, but it is neither inevitable nor necessary. Its just that the further into a career we get the more our identity seems to hinge on our reputation. The pressures of our market and the expectations from our buyers and collectors becomes a huge incentive to not stray too far from a recognizable way of doing things. Our commitment to a style then becomes monogamous, and we don’t allow ourselves to flirt with other techniques or details, even if (in our most secret of hearts) we may want to. It can sometimes take incredible bravery (some would say folly) to be able to start working in a new direction. It can be like going on a first date with someone new, exciting and terrifying all at once.

But if we are lucky we are like the Ron Meyers of the art world who can continue to grow and flex their creative muscles in new directions. You don’t always have to fully reinvent yourself to find new ways of doing things. You can just follow your nose to see where it will take you, even if its not very far from where you started. If we are not lucky, the attitude of exploring new territory dries up, our creative muscles atrophy, and we content ourselves with the impoverished diet of things we have already done. Our pots become stale, something like watching too many reruns of our favorite TV shows. The series is over, and we already know each episode and how its going to end. There are no new surprises because its all been done before and we already know who says what when. Its not just predictable, because there is no guesswork even involved. Its the background of our certainty, a closed system.

Which sounds frightening to me, at least as far as my creativity is concerned. More terrifying even than those risky ventures into unfamiliar territory. So I try to make my pots (to carry the analogy further) like they are episodes of an ongoing series. Some of the characters stay the same, not everyone shows up in every episode, and sometimes there are episodes where most of the characters have never been seen before, as if it was almost a different show that maybe had a guest actor from the original series or used the same sets.

It doesn’t always make sense, but it doesn’t have to. If I don’t like what I’m doing I’m under no obligation to continue torturing myself. I have the absolute freedom to pick up and do something else with the clay. The clay won’t mind. And it keeps me interested. I don’t get bored because each iteration has a possible new ending. There is always a surprise in there somewhere. Even if most of the characters themselves are fairly predictable I still love seeing what will happen next. Put those characters in unfamiliar settings and watch things play out. Will he or won’t he?

And I even love pushing the rewind sometimes, so I can revisit some of the classics. It doesn’t all have to be continually/continuously new (and that is an important point). But neither does it all have to be entirely familiar. Sometimes going over the same ground can be a different experience depending on your own new perspective, how you have grown in the meantime, how you have evolved, what you like and dislike differently now, and also what things you have simply forgotten. In the distance we have from ourselves in other places and other times we will often notice a separation from where we are and who we are now. But if there is no separation, if we are doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’, we don’t always get to see difference. Its always a question of moving beyond ourselves and staying close to home, and neither is the whole of the story…..

But that’s just me. Did any of this make any sense?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

* I am of course only talking about a specific exercise. There are plenty of good reasons to be conscious and demanding of results in other circumstances.

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

Hooking up with pottery

You can try different things out, see what happens, see if you like it, in the same way that we date different people to find the partner we’d like to spend more time with. Finding something you want to engage with long term is something like our choice to move in together, eventually get married. In a long term relationship the commitment is much different from a dating relationship. If you are just picking up phone numbers of people you meet, hooking up with an assortment of partners, you can be said to be playing the field. It can end right there and no hard feelings. The more we invest in something the more bound to it we feel we are. The question is, do we go on dates simply to interview candidates for potential long term romance, ridding off in the sunset together, or do we date because we like spending time with that person, and that’s enough?

Trying new things out in our art practice can be as committed or as casual as we want it to be. Just don’t get confused that a date has to mean we are stuck doing something we may not like or that a casual affair won’t occasionally lead to something we truly fall in love with. Dating only has the rules you accept. Try something new. Run with it as long and as far as it will take you. It may surprise you to find years from now that you have been committed to more partners and much deeper than you imagined. Anything that puts a smile on your face, a reason to get up in the morning, is a vital part of your life. If it means exploring life with a familiar partner, honor that. But if you like an occasional taste of something new, find what you have been missing, uncover the missing pieces in the unfamiliar and unexpected. Do that too. Its only clay, and if you mess around with different ideas it won’t take it personally. If anything, what you learn will only deepen your understanding of those previous relationships…..

A few days ago the fabulous Whitney Smith posted in her always interesting blog about a practice she has been experimenting with. The idea is to give one’s self a specific non-normal creative experience that we can consider something like a holiday or a date (such as when parents need a break from the kids, or when a couple who never see each other need a special moment to remember the passion and bravery of their relationship). Things can get so worn down by the mundane that we sometimes simply need to treat our studio selves with the special agenda of rekindling the romance. Put on the make-up and fancy clothes! A splash of cologne and those new shoes we bought for that ‘special occasion’! Get out of the hum drum and into the candle lit Trattoria or opulent concert hall. We sometimes just need to step outside of ourselves, the daily routine that grinds us down, that impoverishes our soul. Rekindle the Romance! Bring your special self a bouquet! Get frisky with some new media or practice! Break some rules and defy propriety! Challenge the tyranny of dullness that has crept into our lives……

Here’s what Whitney did:

“The experience of trying to come up with the exact right date for myself brought me back around to the general problem I have of trying too hard, being a perfectionist, and then freezing myself through judgement. It’s torture. When I got back to the studio in the later afternoon, one of my new, big tall pieces was waiting for me. I decided to be completely crazy and just give myself an hour to complete it. No thinking, no processing, just go. I needed to undo a creative clusterfuck I created a few days before when I was inspired by some fabric that was pale, almost translucent yellow with some white designs on top. I worked on the idea with a piece and then undid myself with judgement. I don’t know how this one will turn out, but I’m happy I just did it.

This is how I responded in her comments:

This is fascinating! I don’t go off on tangents as much as l’d like to, but I appreciate when circumstances sort of put me in the position where I have to step outside of myself, get over my own presumptions of what’s supposed to matter, and simply do something I’d never have done left up to myself and my mediocre ‘wisdom’.

But maybe the wisdom is in knowing when to make those steps away rather than knowing what they will be. I’ll take at least a tiny bit of credit, as you must for dedicating yourself to the artist dates. Forcing ourselves out of our habits is sometimes the smartest thing we can do…..

So I always look forward to when I teach. I’m not there simply to show students how I would do something, but to give them the wider view of possibility. So I absolutely have to step outside my preferences, to some extent at least, and give them a taste of things I could not anticipate. Almost any demoing or putting together of examples for them to look at requires that I try something that breaks a bunch of my own rules. If I prefer one thing, I now have to do something different, and so on.

A particularly fun class I sometimes teach is the ‘Copying the Masters’ course. Generally I like the pots we choose to make, but the truth is that none of the pots are things I would have made on my own, and that seems to be the important part. There is a little bit of educating my hands to do different things, but mostly its about learning how other artists judge the world, what details matter and why, and then also just seeing value in something beyond the way I have trained myself to look.

We can step outside ourselves in different ways. We can put ourselves in new situations, see where our own sensibilities fit in new media and unusual practices. But we can also adopt different takes on familiar media and comfortable practices. The change can be what things we can do with new materials, but also what we can do with old ones. And that just fascinates the hell out of me!

Here are some images from the class I am teaching, some pots I made the other day that might never have found their way onto or off of my wheel had I not been teaching. Yes, the big handles look like things I might have done otherwise, the foot is familiar to me, but the pots themselves and the combinations and proportions of shape are generally from another universe.


It turns out I like the casseroly pot on the left, and I may toy with taller bottles that are squeezed. The decorative flourish on the butter dish probably needs to be toned down for my tastes, but I’m not opposed to making that sort of statement with embellishment.

So three ‘dates’ out of four will probably lead to something further. That seems like better odds than I had any right to expect! Chalk one up for taking risks, for walking up to that strange notion and seeing what it has to offer. “You heard about Pluto? That’s messed up, right?”

Be brave! Be adventurous! Risk a lump of clay, and if it doesn’t work out, no real harm done. But you won’t know unless you try.

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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