The great potter/teacher/blogger Kelly Kessler has been asking some great questions in recent days. I found today’s post extremely provocative. In it she delves into the issue of artists finding their own truths. This is a complex issue and becomes even more tricky in situations where the artist is still in the early stages of learning their craft.
One of the great obstacles of learning anything is a fear of the unknown. Its easy to get intimidated by what we don’t know and there is often an insecurity in our attempts to deal with it. But where fear holds us back confidence will set us free. I am not talking about the blind confidence that says you can do anything you can imagine. That is always a foolish arrogance. Rather, I am talking about the confidence to make the attempt, the confidence that says trying is what counts and nothing is lost if it doesn’t work out. I am talking about confidence as an antidote to fear, as a permission to give it a go, to not hold back, and to not be shattered when you can’t pull it off.
And so, I would say that an artist’s ability to find their own truths is a manifestation of their sense of adventure. It is their ability to problem solve, to take on new questions and to find new answers. And as such, it is more about an attitude than it is about particular skills. We are willing to risk. We wager that things are not yet set in stone and that the future is an open and mysterious terrain, there for us to explore. There are no rules except what gets the job done, and those are always only provisional. Our path is an intrepid sense of adventure and discovery.
Students need to believe its alright and important to try new things, to figure it out on their own. And this means learning that they can do something a particular way, but that they don’t have to do it only this way. This can sometimes be difficult for students to remember. I have found that keeping students open minded about their options is difficult when their confidence seems to hinge on the mastery of a particular technique. They have discovered something that works and they cling to this. They use it on all their pots. A pet technique. It starts as an answer to a particular problem, becomes a habit, and ends up limiting their willingness to explore new ground. They have found one way of doing things and they stop there. And instead of that technique being one stepping stone among many it becomes the isolated island that they live on. What they do is circumscribed by what they already know how to do.
So the question is how to keep that open mindedness alive. Problem solving means you don’t already know all the answers, but that this uncertainty is a good thing. It is the spur that drives progress. It is a discomfort with the way things are, an uneasiness with the given. The ones that already know all the answers are done growing. There are no new questions because all the problems have already been solved.
And in this way knowing can become dogmatic. Instead of seeing that the more we know the more we know how little that is, the self satisfied artist has closed himself off. Anything outside the way of doing things he has learned, the techniques he has mastered, is irrelevant and/or uninteresting. And in this way the artist with all the answers is the antithesis of a problem solver. There are no new questions, only old answers. And the safety of already knowing what we are doing becomes the excuse to not step outside that comfort zone.
So I would say that problem solving is definitely an attitude about our place in the world. It is a fearlessness in the face of the unknown. It is an acceptance of the challenge to discover new things, to break old rules and habits, and to tinker with possibility. But exploring doesn’t mean forgetting or rejecting what we have learned. These are merely tools in our toolbox, to be used or discarded as necessary. And so it is always also a balance between the new and the foundation of the things we are standing on. Are we using that knowledge to launch ourselves forward or are we forever stuck where we are at?
So, how do you help your students keep that sense of adventure alive (How do you keep it alive in yourself)? How do you teach them to get over their fears of the unfamiliar, to not be intimidated, and to not settle for the easy answers (How do you overcome them yourself)? How do you nurture their desire to be problem solvers (How do you nurture this in yourself)? These are all questions I struggle with in my teaching and in my own work. I have seen it play out in so many different ways, and I’m always looking for new ideas for keeping that open minded optimism alive. I’m not sure if its true, but I sometimes believe that the students who really stick with it are the ones who are more successful in cultivating that spirit of invention and learning to think for themselves. What do you think? What are the ways you go about teaching this or cultivating it in yourself? I would love to get some feedback. And please share this with others if you think it might interest them. Thanks!