The rewards of failure and other lessons

“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.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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16 Responses to The rewards of failure and other lessons

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    Gax xga xag. Agx aggga xx ag ga. X ag xa a gg a gaxga, axagax.

    (First!)

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    After an undistinguished K-12 mathematics education, I made the mistake of taking Calculus as a college freshman. After struggling with it most of the semester, and fearing that I wasn’t going to pass the class, I went to the professor’s office for help. After generously listening to my complaints for a while, he said something that’s stuck with me for 20 years: “It’s not about learning Calculus. It’s about learning how to learn.”

    Ding ding ding ding ding!

    I think the same goes for working at breadth. It’s not about what you can make today, it’s about learning how to make what you’ll want to make tomorrow.

    • “It’s not about what you can make today, it’s about learning how to make what you’ll want to make tomorrow.” Wow! That’s it exactly! Sometimes I think we can lose sight of the big picture by being invested in something close to home, missing the forest for the trees. I have a whole other tangent planned on how we sometimes focus too narrowly on technique rather than training our hands to think for themselves- learning calculus rather than learning how to learn. I see this far too often in the place where I teach classes. Technique can be a gateway to greater understanding, but if it is treated as an end in itself it will only be a dead end eventually. And while it may be a cul de sac with benefits, if that is the only way you know how to do things, what have you really got? More on that later.

  3. Cara says:

    This really resonated with me. I feel frustrated often that I haven’t refined a depth of expression, and I love to look at the works of artists who have accomplished this, who do this well. It’s much more difficult for me to accept my flights of fancy and my total dedication to the path of the clay, the canvas, the stone. I get in there and suddenly I’m not alone making these decisions, something takes over, and I am compelled to follow! Hoping, hoping one day I will truly value my faith in creative process. Thank you for allowing, as artist and instructor, that it is valid.

    • Thanks for this really thoughtful response Cara. I too feel your frustration at times. It can sometimes be really hard to follow that voice when there is so much pressure on us to “give the audience what it wants, what it expects”. And like you say, there are so many examples of successful artists who have made a living on small variations to the gimmick they came up with decades ago. Maybe ‘gimmick’ is too strong a word, but my point is that once we find something that sells there is so much pressure on us to continue in the same direction. This is not a necessary way of doing things and it is not inevitable. But somehow we potters have bought into the idea that this thing we call “depth” is the only way of proceeding. And the fact that the icons of the pottery world are all recognizable in characteristic and defining ways is taken as the ultimate endorsement of the idea. That can be a huge tide of opinion to swim against, but we are not wrong to do so. Make what is in your heart and don’t let anyone tell you differently. As long as you believe in the contribution you are making to the beauty of the world what naysayers tell you just isn’t important.

      The only thing that might be a hitch in this advice is that when we have the goal of improving our craft to a certain extent we do need to hone in on things. It can be seen as a brake on following our every inspiration, but the better perspective is that it is really a new springboard for that inspiration to take flight from. The more you hone your craft the better you will be able to express your creative freedom. If you ask your self “What will it take for me to be a better potter”, sometimes the answer is to buckle down on specific exercises. “How do I make better handles?” Well, you just need to make a lot of handles, and train yourself how to achieve specific results. But learning how to make a good handle doesn’t mean only making one type of handle from now on. It means you now have the freedom to explore just how many different handles will work on your pots. That’s what I believe…. Good luck!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I agree with the hitch you described, and I think it establishes some sort of middle ground in the depth vs. breadth argument. As you mentioned in the original post, there would be drawbacks to taking the breadth approach to an extreme — it could be addictive to randomly bounce from one impulse to the next without ever refining the ideas and techniques well enough to make something worth looking at. But none of that negates your overall point, which was questioning the dogma of “depth not breadth”. (I like how you related that to the “signature style” issue, too.)

        To restate all of that another way, I’d say the idea is, in general, to work broadly. Do things in ways that encourage experimentation, cultivate new ideas and are likely to result in an acceptable amount of failures. To whatever extent you can afford it, avoid mindless repetition, resorting to default solutions, and aiming for quantity over quality or efficiency over learning. But then know when and how to focus in on a particular thing, to go deep after a particular technique, format or idea, like improving your handles. Being able to focus on an idea or train your hands with repetition allows you to make things come out well when you want them to later.

        In terms of honing your craft, this makes me think that your craft is like a double-edged knife, and you’ve got to keep both sides sharp.

        I visualize the two approaches — broad/experimental vs. deep/focused — as being at opposite ends of a wide range of possibilities. In some imaginary, optimal working life, my efforts in the studio would gradually swing back and forth around some center point, without ever quite hitting either extreme. And perhaps different aspects of making pots would reside at different points on the spectrum at any one moment; for example, I might be in an experimental phase throwing at the wheel, but in a focused developmental phase with a batch of new glazes.

        Not sure any of that is useful to anyone else, but that’s what the clackity noise had to say today.

        • I think that’s it exactly. It’s the tension between the two that keeps things healthy. Stray too far in either direction and you are either stifled or ungrounded. I think every artist in some way tries to keep this balance, but part of our mythological bias has trained us to disparage our experimentalism. Its as if we do it but we don’t allow ourselves to see it, acknowledge it or value it. As if the change itself wasn’t important but only what you did with it was: How you subsequently locked in on this new thing and created a new depth around its focus. As if depth itself was more important than the thing being investigated. As long as we have depth the what of it doesn’t matter.

          I just think this prejudice has warped us away from being the naturally free creators we were as children. And sure, it has its advantages, but what have we also lost? Disowning change? Disparaging creative freedom? Turning into tractable rule following drones? If even the artists don’t value breaking the rules just what kind of future awaits us? If keeping inside the box is more important than finding what is on the outside, human imagination will suffer and our dreams wither alongside.

          So, I guess I’m just trying to remember what things really are important, trying to clear my mind from the shackles of an inhibiting mythology. And in the end, a mythology should serve our needs rather than turn us into its servants. Me? I just feel the need for creative freedom, the license to follow my artistic inclinations, and the permission to disobey any rule that gets in the way of that.

  4. Becky says:

    I had to read that post twice to absorb it all. Both you (and Scott) publish really insightful posts about making pots, thinking about pots, looking at pots, learning how to make pots pots pots. It’s really refreshing because there are a lot of blogs out there related to pottery that are.. well.. not that fun to read.

    A little story, related to the post, I promise. I was at a show once, maybe it was my first show, I don’t know.. and a customer asked me why all my pots were different. Different? I asked. She said the potter down the hall had a nice big collection of pots where she had maybe 8-10 different pieces (cups, mugs, plates, bowls etc) and each one was glazed in 4 different colors. You could buy an entire place setting in one color, she had that much of each item. I just told her that we were different types of artists, when really I wanted to say A: I’m not a production potter. I don’t sit down at the wheel and crank out 100 cups a day that look exactly the same and then glaze them with my 4 different glazes, B: That women makes a living off pottery, whereas I was still working full time and making pots on the weekends and after work, and C: I absolutely, 100% don’t have the attention span to make that many of the same.exact.thing. I can’t wrap my head around that kind of mechanical, machine type behavior.

    Oh, and since I’m still a newbie, probably not terribly different than your students, I want to share my favorite part about learning the ‘rules’. After REALLY figuring out how to center, how to control the clay, and how to make different forms.. I am really, really enjoying doing it my ‘own way’ now. I think that goes for any art. You’re supposed to learn it the way it’s meant to be done, but after you’ve learned the basics, it’s over-the-top fun to break all the rules. What do you mean it has to have straight sides?! To heck with straight sides! It’s supposed to have an even rim? What if I want to put a dent in it? I CAN?! Awesome.

    Anyway, I’m sorry for the extra long comment. I’ve got you on my blog roll now, so I’ll be visiting more often. 🙂

    • Thanks Becky! And I totally endorse a lengthy comment. You should see the conversation threads that Scott and I come up with! But I guess you are another of Scott’s fans that has gotten up the nerve to contact him. The fact that you compare my little offering to his Great Blog “This week at St. Earth” is really humbling. I would never have had the confidence to put this out there without his encouragement.

      I totally agree with your perspective, and I have had similar kinds of experiences. There really are different ways of being an artist, and like you, I just wouldn’t be interested in hammering out the same old same old. Its the surprises that keep me excited, and not knowing what adventures lie around the corner. But the world is a big enough place for all kinds, and if truth be told, there are way more patrons of conformity than there are of idiosyncrasy. This makes earning a living a challenge at times, but if we can educate the public into seeing the beauty of each pot on its own we will find our appreciative audience. Scott suggested to me that it is possibly a survival tool of human evolution that we appreciate sameness more than difference. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? (Damn he’s smart!) A shame we have to fight against human biology on top of everything else….

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      • Oh, I almost forgot: The one thing I tell my students is that “The only rule is that there are no rules. If you can figure out something that works for you, that’s all you need. And if some way of doing things doesn’t get you where you want? That’s not a rule against doing it. It only shows you that doing things this way will have this result, not that you can’t do it.”

      • Scott Cooper says:

        @ Becky and Carter,

        Aw shucks, guys. Thanks for the kind words. I thought my ears were kind of itchy last week.

        I don’t remember making the point about human evolution, so I probably stole it from someone else and failed to attribute it properly. But until that’s proven I’ll happily take the credit.

        Although now I’m thinking that what our pattern recognition ability actually values is difference, because in terms of survival it’s most useful when we realize something in our environment is out of whack or that “one of these things is not like the other”. For example, that a certain fruit is now ripe, or that a long black thing on the ground is actually not a stick.

        If so, perhaps the trick for potters who like to make a variety of things is to figure out how to trigger potential customers’ “that looks like food” instinct rather than their “that thing might bite me and I will now run away from it” instinct.

        • Difference of course is important, but I would say that recognizing that black stick-like thing as something potentially dangerous means understanding it as a snake, and that this is ultimately a case of pattern recognition. We know how to react because we have seen the pattern of behavior, seen the consequences, and connect the two in a new train of logic. “A” means “b”. Pattern. We read our future in the tea leaves.

          So yeah, getting customers to see the right pattern, interpret our humble offerings as wholesome and desirable becomes the key. And I think that was why you first brought up the evolutionary argument. If we don’t recognize something we simply don’t know how to react to it yet. Is it edible, or is it poison? So when customers are confused by the unexpected change in your pots they can either trust that you know what you are doing (on faith), or they can drop you like a moldy fruit. If you violate their expectations you are asking them to look beyond the pattern to see something entirely new. Some folks take that risk, or can see the innovation in its own light and appreciate it. Other folks will never move beyond the comfort zone they have caged themselves in, or break free from the ruts their unswerving circular path has bound them to.

  5. Love your student’s quote!
    I’ve been teaching pottery for 25 years, and I’m always telling my students, go ahead and make mistakes, that’s how you learn! I think I’ll hang this quote up along with my other inspirations. One of my favorties that I have is from a fortune cookie… ” It was when you found out you could make mistakes that you knew you were onto something”.
    Thanks for your great post, I’ll share it with my students!

    • Thanks Lucy! I really appreciate your kind words. I love your fortune cookie quote too and will spread it around as well. Thanks so much for reading my post. I’m glad you liked it.

  6. Cara says:

    Pattern recognition is an important concept to me but maybe not as it’s being discussed– I believe the pattern is in us, in our materials, and that it’s our task as artists to manifest our inner patterns into our outer work. I worked many years in commercial design, so with my own art I don’t feel I have the luxury of making art to please the consumer or a client. And I believe, I truly believe, if we make art from what is inside us, even if we’re displeased with the result, that it’s integrity is visible to others. I can’t explain this, it’s the magic that happens when we allow what we’ve created to exist, without placing our unrealistic expectations upon it. One example: a young potter I was mentoring told me she was going to give up, she was so frustrated, so I watched her work for a moment. After a nice pull, and a slight warp, she collapsed her piece and tried to wedge and center the clay to begin again. I asked her to complete each piece, to honor the work she was able to accomplish ‘at that time, in that moment,’ without labeling each one a failure. We can only critique where we are when we’re willing to be where we are. Growth comes from being, seeing, doing, and improving. This is what I’ve seen from the posts on this thread– some quote, some time ago, somewhere in my mind…. a (wo)man’s reach should exceed his grasp. I’m always seeing art in my head, and mostly unable to articulate what I see accurately into the medium, but I’m willing to accept the result– inevitably the pieces I like the least are the first to sell. This is what your collection of comments have fostered in my head, and much more– but enough for now!

    • Hey Cara, lots of good stuff in this comment. I especially like the idea: “it’s the magic that happens when we allow what we’ve created to exist, without placing our unrealistic expectations upon it.” I so totally agree that we can get in the way of not only our own enjoyment of what we create but of our own ability to learn and develop further. Expectation in so many ways is a false paradise. By mapping out a rigid destination we take all the surprise and adventure out of the discovery. What we end up with is essentially what we started with, and it is entirely circumscribed by the paltry limits of our own imagination. Not only can we learn more by letting the process and the clay teach us, but allowing disappointment to flavor our feelings when things don’t exactly match up can be a reason to stop making things.

      Its not wrong to aim at specific outcomes, and a certain level of competence will pay off with new doors having been opened. Learning how to get specific results is a necessary way of educating ourselves, but to only worry about what happens with this one lump of clay puts an unfair weight on it. As Scott said, its also about learning how to learn. And this one lump is only a small step in that process.

      In many ways its better to look at what we do as practice. That way we acknowledge that we are on a mission of improving what we do. Practice. The more things we make the more experience we get. The more experience we get the better we are able to do things. The better we are able to do things the better they will come out. The better they come out the more we will enjoy what we are doing (or so I believe).

      And getting students to enjoy what they are making is key, honoring “the work she was able to accomplish ‘at that time, in that moment'” as you say. The long view is that we are building a foundation, and out of that foundation will grow many more things of undreamt beauty. It is a springboard into the great unknown of our creative potential. And each step along the path of improvement will create new wonders and even more interesting visions of what is possible.

      Keeping your eye on the long view lessens the burden of expectation, and recognizes that the process is what counts, not necessarily some imagined destination. And certainly not this one lump of clay. You may not know where you are heading, but getting there should be fun. Try something new. See what happens if you do it this way. And that way. It may not always be pleasing, but if you are inquisitive and open minded you are on the path of growing as an artist. That’s what I try to tell my students, at least. Good luck!

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