The long view

I just wrote this as a response to Cara’s comment on my previous blog post and I thought it was interesting enough to stand on its own. If interested, please read the comment thread on the last post for some additional context. Lots of great ideas were put forth by the commenters. Anyway, Thanks for reading!

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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!

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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5 Responses to The long view

  1. Becky says:

    You’re right.. that’s a good stand-alone post. 🙂

    I really like the part about it all being practice. My husband tried his hand at throwing last weekend, and he got disappointed right from the get-go because his bowl doesn’t look anything like the bowls that I make. It’s ironic that you talk about it all being practice, because what I said to him was “I’ve just been practicing longer”. I try to look at all the pots I throw as practice, and each one is a learning experience. The question I sometimes think is “at what point will I feel like I’ve mastered something?”. I guess the answer is never. If I never try to make new things, then I fall into the category of ‘100% satisfied with my work’. An instructor told me once that ‘only the mediocre is ever 100% satisfied’. Well, I don’t want to be mediocre, I want to get better, which means I can be happy with pots, but still strive for better. If I didn’t think that way, I’d still be making frumpy little pots with thin rims and 1″ thick bases like I did in middle school, which probably don’t sell very well, nor would I want to spend a lifetime making pots like that.

    This is probably the shortest response from me yet, right? I could write a small novel in response to your posts, but there is clay waiting for me downstairs, and I know I’m not to 1000 yet. 😉

    • A short comment but a good one. Quality not quantity, as they say…. And yeah, practice. While we strive to make the best we can what would it mean if we actually succeeded? A ‘perfect’ pot somehow awaiting us at the end of out trials? And if we did this and knew we could never do it better would we continue or would we quit right there realizing it was possibly all down hill? Would we go crazy knowing that anything other than what we did in that ‘perfect’ pot would be a settling for less? Would we be forced to repeat that perfection every time we sat down? This, I think, is one of the confusions of focusing on the individual lump of clay rather than the process. It sets up false expectations. “The best that lump of clay could possibly be” turns out to be a meaningless statement. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ pot, but there are pots that are better and better. Improving is a process not a destination. And practice aims at improving, not at ‘perfection’. So practice means not settling. I once heard that “all art is born of dissatisfaction with the world as it is…. Those who can be satisfied will be satisfied with crap.” (John G. Nettles from The Flagpole 4/21/10) So, continue to strive. Just don’t let absurd expectations get in your way. And while acknowledging that there is always room for improvement, don’t let that be a reason not to enjoy the ride you are on, or the stops along the way that are scenic, provocative, or inspiring. Be inspired.

      • Ooh, Ooh! I just read Scott Cooper’s new post on This Week at St. Earth and it also discusses perfection and expectation. Check it out!

        He has a great quotation: “If perfect isn’t possible, then perfectionism guarantees failure…. The perfectionism kills what it promises to solve. It’s a fatally flawed strategy for making pots. (And, perhaps, anything.) It lures you in and then spawns it’s own feedback loop. A good old-fashioned downward spiral. That’s stated for dramatic effect, but the more I think about it, the more true it seems.” Something to think about for sure!

  2. Vanessa Grubbs says:

    Very well said Carter. The long view is what matters. I know, that even after 18 years of making I am still more excited about process than the end result. For me process is all about learning and relearning, and never wanting to expect something too defined.

    • Thanks Vanessa! You have always been a beacon of wisdom for me. I am so glad that our paths crossed back then. I still hold you up as an inspiration for how I teach my classes. And if I can imagine you saying something to a student then I think I must be on the right path. Thanks for everything! And thanks for chiming in here as well!

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