“It is better to have thrown and lost than to have never thrown at all” Paul Keck (one of my students last night!)
That just cracks me up! But it also got me thinking, and I woke up this morning knowing I had to write a post for my blog.
The context of this phrase will probably be familiar to anyone who has consciously tried to learn something new. Making mistakes is the only real way to figure something out. Breaking eggs to make an omelet and all that. What I try to help my students with is understanding the reasons for something having come out poorly. And it is not a failure if you learned something from it. These are actually quite valuable lessons. They can teach us what things are important and why. They give a picture of the principles that are active and demonstrate what will and will not work in accommodating them. So, the key is to identify when things are starting to get shaky, slow down and figure out what just happened, digest the lesson.
The piece of clay itself is unimportant. You will only get so much out of it depending on how far you stray into disaster. So it is often better to cut your losses rather than to proceed with a lump of clay that is fighting you all the way. I have seen students waste an inordinate amount of time on a twisted uneven lump of clay, trying to “save” it, when nothing remotely pleasing will ever come out. The lesson is not to learn how to throw uneven pots but to master making them even. You just have to lose a few to figure this out.
The pot making culture is rife with pithy sayings and mythologies. As a group we are not the shinning light of critical thinking. As generous and open minded as most potters are, when it comes to our beliefs about our process we are idolaters. One of the sayings some folks trot out is “depth not breadth”. This is meant to caution potters to hone their craft in a single direction and expresses the belief that a tight focus is the best way to proceed. And on a certain level this is good advice. They are cautioning against being a dabbler in many things and a master of none. Makes sense, right? That dabbling would be like saying “I’m going to learn foreign languages” and then only learning one word in each of a thousand or so human dialects. Not very practical, eh? So a certain focus does make sense.
My perspective is that almost anything you do with clay amounts to learning the same language. Thus, instead of this advice being a focus on just one ‘language’ it is more like saying “I’m going to learn how to spell, but only using the letters ‘a’, ‘g’, and ‘x'”. Focus like that is just as pointless, isn’t it? How many words can you spell if you are not using the whole alphabet? But maybe there is an advantage to only being able to spell “gax”, “xga”, and “xag” (etc.)?
The idea of “depth versus breadth” is that you don’t stray too far. As if there are no gains to be made by diversifying. And we sometimes use the mantra of “depth” like a stick to beat down all opposition that incites change. But after we have achieved an appropriate depth does that mean we are no longer open to significant change?
This kind of focus can be like digging a hole. The narrower you make it, the less chance you have of being able to do anything useful with it. You may not even be able to turn around and get back out. You might get trapped!!! (And isn’t this the case with so many artists who are “stuck” only doing one thing?) The other reality is that if you only dig in one direction you will eventually reach a dead end, and some of these holes that potters are digging end very close to the surface. Not very deep, and not very interesting….
So the point I’m trying to make is that anything that educates your hands and your eyes is a payoff. The more things you can do and the more things you see simply mean that you have greater ability, and you only get this by training yourself to do a wide range of things, and by looking at a diverse set of details. The one trick ponies are kind of stuck where they’re at, for better or worse, hobbled and nibbling at one scrawny bush for sustenance. But just maybe its a magic shrub (they hope). Just maybe they can live on it and be healthy, and not need the freedom to graze in other pastures, to climb the high branches for other fruit. Just maybe they got it right, and this one is the one that will pay off. Just maybe the entire rest of what you can do with clay is unimportant and uninteresting.
But the potters who make anything what so ever they can imagine are free, and isn’t that a good thing? They are under no obligation to only crank out just one narrowly focused vein of their imagination. They are not restricted by a lack of experience and a stunted ability to move sideways. Its not just one vein they are mining but a whole underground cavern. And the treasures they find there are numerous. They may find diamonds and also gold. Sure, there will probably be some pretty useless discoveries, but they have the chance of finding it all. The depth miners may have something special awaiting them at the bottom of their well, but that’s it, and only that. Or they may not. They may find that they have spent all this time going in a single direction and there really isn’t much of interest there. Not in this direction at least. If only they broadened their search they might discover other things of real value….
Designer Seymour Chwast shares a valuable distinction:
I read once about the concepts of the lateral idea and the vertical idea. If you dig a hole and it’s in the wrong place, digging it deeper isn’t going to help. The lateral idea is when you skip over and dig someplace else.
In the end the ‘dig deeper’ advice actually has an ulterior motive and is being used to justify making only one type of pot. For entirely other reasons potters feel compelled to work only within a signature style, a tight focus. Some of those reasons are good ones, and some are questionable. But trotting out the “depth not breadth” line only serves that interest and itself is not a necessary or even good piece of advice. There are other reasons to focus one’s work, but they are not an avoidance of breadth. There are far too many hazards in hollowing out a narrow deep tube. We are not worms, are we? We are intelligent beings and we need room to breath, room to explore.