The need for hobbies

This is an issue I have been thinking about for some time now, and it is related to many of the things I have talked about in my other posts. I was moved to get these words out because of something I read on Kristen Keiffer’s blog this morning. In her post Kristen talks about her own experience in breaking free from the work a day activities of the ‘job’ of making pottery. Please read her post. This is the comment I left there:


This is a great Post Kristen!

I have been having some conversations recently about getting out of the habits and expectations we sometimes build for ourselves when we are ‘on the job’ of pottery making. I think the idea of ‘hobby’ is perfect for this, and I wonder if it may also be possible for potters to pick up clay and call it “hobby-time”. As long as they can get that ‘job’ switch turned off, I suppose. And all of this fresh creative work, this experimentation, has to be good for us when it comes time for us to step back into our ‘work clothes’. Don’t you think?

You have been very successful in keeping your main work playful and fun, but I’m sure (as Ron suggested) that there are folks out there who are losing track of that attitude of making things in clay just for fun. So it really seems to be as much an issue of attitude as it does an issue of particular activities. Having fun is having fun no matter the medium, and if we potters can’t remember what it was to have fun with clay we may be in deep trouble.

What you said about the difficulty and humor of being new at something is exactly what we need to cultivate sometimes. As professional potters we are so good at what we do, so proficient. Our habits are so ingrained, and our expectations are so infused with things like market pressures, branding, and needing to get pots out that we can sometimes forget to have fun with what we do. Can we still pick up a piece of clay and not feel those pressures? The farther we are from our habits the easier it may be to simply play. Sometimes that means doing things outside of clay. Shouldn’t we give ourselves time to also just play with the clay at times?

I’d love to hear what other folks think.

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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23 Responses to The need for hobbies

  1. Zygote says:

    To enjoy a hobby is to luxuriate in an obsession.
    Clay can get to be a pretty big obsession. A few years into it becoming part of my daily routine it was time to find a new hobby, just to take a break.
    At 43, I’m enjoying sinking as many hours as I can a day into learning to play violin. With 2 children in the house (and a bunch in the neighborhood), there’s a lot of park time for me nearly everyday, 3 seasons out of 4. A perfect oppertunity to rack up the time fiddle’n around. The best part is knowing how investing lots of hands on time with a hobby works out.

    • Your fiddling hobby sounds fantastic. I’m envious! I had always wanted to play the violin as a kid, but they put me on the piano first and I hated it. The experience totally blew my desire to play music. One possible hobby snuffed out at a tender age…. I agree that it is important to also have passions for activities outside of clay, and I totally agree that if we play it right our potting stays an opportunity to luxuriate in an obsession. Great way to put that!

      I know that for many of us there is no difficulty in keeping the play active in what we do. Some folks are naturals, and play is simply what they are doing. I guess they are truly luxuriating in an obsession. Others are like Kristen who have to sometimes purposely schedule it into their routines. They have to make time for the low pressure fun stuff because the normal routine has no room for it. Others just have a hard time making space for it. We can get so serious about clay that it starts to seem more like a job, and we can’t even separate ourselves from it by scheduling hobby-time.

      I think my question was asked to get me focused on what it takes to keep the sense of play alive in what we do with clay. The sense of freshness that comes with hobby activities can be a stark contrast to the demands of cranking out the next kiln load. And I guess there is nothing wrong with nose to the grindstone production, but I guess I’m more of a dreamer. I want what I do to be fun. I want to have serious fun and to be obsessive in luxuriating. I always believe that if we aren’t somehow having fun we are doing it wrong. If a hobby wasn’t fun we would drop it, no questions. So if our clay work sometimes suffers from a lack of fun perhaps reclaiming that innocence of hobby-time is an option. I guess that was the point I was hoping to make.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  2. Tom Johnson says:

    Using & making canoes and other 3-D shapes is a good but related jump from clay; canoeing leads to fishing; fishing often leads to eating. These hobbies were once lively-hoods for someone. Hmmmn. All could be a break from what one does to “bring in the bacon.” The key is the break.

    • That’s what I’m asking, I guess. Can we potters take a break from clay with clay? Kristen schedules break-time into her routine, others are comfortable playing at all times and with little excuse. But other folks can’t escape the habits that make it always seem like work. If we forget how to also have fun with clay we can get into trouble. Does any low paid clay artist really want that? We are not getting paid enough to not enjoy what we are doing.

      And that’s why this question interests me. Its not so much the clay itself or the activity of working with clay but our attitude toward it that counts. Sometimes it seems that we can train ourselves to have a bad attitude and everything we end up doing is far from having fun. Some folks may be alright with that. But for those of us that want to still have fun making pots but have forgotten how this is a question that needs to be answered. Sometimes we need to recapture the innocence and freshness that first brought us to our love of clay. How can we do that?

  3. ron philbeck says:

    Hey Carter, Doing some catch up here.

    I like what you say in your response to Zygote. ” I want to have serious fun and to be obsessive in luxuriating. ” Yes, this seems right to me and I think it’s very hard, or that I can make it hard. Or maybe it just takes time and maturity to get there. Or get BACK to there.
    I was decorating pots yesterday and it seemed laborious to me. I wanted it to go faster and be more free. But when I looked back on them I really liked the out come. I don’t know what to do with that information. But I should probably try messing around (playing) with some things/techniques that I enjoy and see how I like the outcome. (Oops!! why should I care about the outcome? I’m playing! Drat.)

    I still don’t feel like I have a hobby. Not one that I indulge in. Cooking. Drawing. Reading. Drinking tea. Napping. All possible candidates.

    Thanks for the great brain food.

    • Hey Ron!

      Thanks for chiming in here! You know, when I saw the post on your blog this morning of the new deco on that platter I thought to myself “Ron’s doing it! He’s playing with clay in a totally new and different way!” That was exactly the question I am asking, and I think you came up with a great response!

      You said that the process seemed slow and laborious, and I suppose we need to expect that when playing in a particular medium is somewhat unfamiliar. I think any professional potter will have so many habits and preferences built up that discarding them can make it seem uncomfortable at first. Trying anything new always puts us up against our inhibitions, especially if those inhibitions have become ingrained. I guess that’s one of the reasons kids have such an easy time of it….

      But I think you in particular will have an easy transition to play-time. You already are such an experimenter. You have made such huge changes in your work over the last few years and you seem to be constantly evolving. Every time I turn around you are doing something new and adventurous. You really are such an inspiration for me! So, I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Keeping it fresh, faster and more free probably just takes practice, like anything else worth doing. I know you will keep us posted!

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Hi Ron,

      I completely relate to what you said about a process that’s laborious or tedious — essentially the opposite of play — but that you like the results enough that it seems worthwhile. One way I try to trick myself out of that mode is to pick one pot in a series (usually the runt of the litter, but that’s because I’m a coward) and do something deliberately different with it, knowing the results will probably stink, but trying to care more about the process than the result. I find that genuinely open-ended exploration to be about as close to hobby-style play as I can get with clay, for all the reasons Carter listed: habit, expectations, pressure of deadlines, etc. And it’s also easier to convince myself that it’s worth it to give up a little 10 or 20% “loss” in that run of pots than to set aside a specific chunk of hours or days to go totally into that mode. I’ve tried the latter method, and like so many good intentions, it just keeps getting pushed farther and farther down the calendar as more pressing things take priority.

      Oh, and on your list of potential hobbies, you forgot blogging,/em>. Ha!

      • ron philbeck says:

        Hey Scott, I think this is perfect timing. This week I made 2 runs of 6 mugs. From each run I took one mug and did this little applique deco on it. It was fun and I liked the results. I plan on putting terra sig over them and rubbing in some black stain after the bisque. Maybe I’ll try it on a larger pot too.

        I also find my playtime comes at the end of the day, maybe I have a pug of clay left over at the pugmill and I’ll take it and make something. That’s how I made the first little jug and recently I did it and made an oval pitcher, I ended up making a couple more of those after the first one. I guess it’s like saying, Okay, I’ve gotten some work done, now I can fool around a bit. Doing that frequently will surely lead to new ideas, or at least allow me to ‘sketch’ out some ideas. If they work fine, if not fine.

        As for hobbies, we recently purchased a used canoe. I’m hoping to take it out in the next week or so.

  4. ron philbeck says:

    Hey again. I didn’t clarify very well in my comment, but what I meant was that my current way of decorating is fairly labor intensive and I don’t feel like the process of scraping away that clay is very playful. I love doing the pencil layout drawings and the initial outlines with the sharp tool. But scraping away clay is hard on the body. I need to learn how to sit or stand or adjust to take care of my shoulders and neck.

    The trailing…now that went fast and fun! Ha. So fun that I had a hard time knowing when to stop. I could just go squirt slip all over the yard and have a fun time!!

    I do like the final out come of the scratched pots. I think since it’s a tedious process that I just need to have fun in other areas, or just keep making some things that I can play around with. We never know where that may lead. Okay, I’m not going to ramble on here.

    • Hah! I encourage rambling if you want to!

      That makes more sense about the scratching. It really is labor intensive. I love the idea of giving yourself other space to do your playing in. That sounds perfect. I guess we just have to reconcile ourselves to certain processes that don’t involve much active creativity. Its all part of the business, like packing pots, loading a kiln, flipping greenware to dry evenly, etc. Its not all fun and adventure. But sometimes it is! I can’t wait to see where you take the trailing. It looked like you were having a lot of fun!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Another great video by Ron Philbeck on this topic:

        • Exactly! Ron is such a huge part of this conversation in my mind. For me, both you and Ron are living this issue, and you do such a great job of sharing how the adventure is playing out. Hearing you both talk about it is so important to my own understanding. Taking a peek at the studio lives you both live gives me incredible insight into my own. Thanks for being so open and generous Scott and Ron!

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Hi Ron,

      [This is in response to you March 30th post, above. I can’t figure out how to get it attached there; maybe WP won’t allow a third-level reply?]

      Yeah, that’s cool! I like the idea of tacking time for exploration on at the end of the day. It’d be hard to convince yourself that this was giving up much of anything; more like working into the bonus period. And probably easier to expect little from the results, which I’d bet is the best way to get something useful from them! It also seems like a good way to make “play” in the studio into a habitual thing, as Carter’s advocating. And as you said, over time just a little bit each day could really add up to something. I find that the difference between thinking about trying something new or risky and just getting that first attempt out of the way is huge; far bigger than I usually expect one iteration will take me.

      This reminds me of an item from designer Bruce Mau’s great “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”:

      18. Stay up late.
      Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far, been up too long, worked too hard, and you’re separated from the rest of the world.

      • Wow! This conversation has taken so many great turns. I love the ideas you guys have proposed of using a certain percentage of pots as experimental opportunities, even if you are only sacrificing the runts. Ron’s idea of taking a pot from each run as a way of introducing new ideas is super cool. I often do this with things like attaching handles, where I do a certain number that follow the ideas I was specifically working on, and then choose a few that will be different, just to see what happens when I try something else.

        And I love the idea of using the after hours bonus time as a further opportunity to break the mould. It seems that there are all sorts of strategies for accommodating a little play time in our work. And stepping outside ourselves and our routines is never easy. Our inhibitions get reinforced as we fine tune our process and work toward an economy of motion in what we do. We actively cultivate what works as an agenda, and the inefficiency of exploration often gets swept under the carpet. Not always a good thing….

        That link to the “incomplete manifesto for growth” is fantastic! The one you picked, “stay up late”, is oddly appropriate for me these days as I seem to be having some issues getting a good night’s sleep. An altered state is one way of seeing things differently and breaking up habits of thought, and sometimes can be judiciously cultivated with things like sleep deprivation or chemical help, and even listening to different music in the studio. Anything to let you step outside your ‘normal’ mental state.

        At one point I was drinking two full pots of coffee every morning, and my brain was on fire in those days. I shudder to imagine what people thought when they had to deal with me. But I didn’t lose any friends, so I must have been reasonably under control. And thankfully that practice is waaaaay back in my past. Still, it was a good lesson to learn.

        Its hard to keep to even the deeper channels of routines when you have that much mental energy. The ruts of habits become low skipping places, and all other obstructions to heading off in unfamiliar directions are simply blown through. But harnessing all that shotgun energy takes discipline, and I don’t think I would advocate other people drinking 20 cups of coffee each morning. But you get the idea. Creative use of some chemicals can lower inhibitions and make seeing a different perspective much more easy.

        I wasn’t sure how much I should say on that, but even something like my parents routine of a glass of wine with dinner each night allows them to wind down and leave the normal stresses of the day behind. Learning to relax is simply learning how to step away from pressures that limit us. We are all adults here (I hope), so choosing something that helps you step outside yourself is sometimes also an issue of social responsibility.

        Getting rip roaring drunk in the studio may have worked for mavericks like Pete Voulkos, but I imagine most of us reading this are far more tame. But maybe a beer or two would loosen the strings, get the juices flowing, or even something as mild as putting on unfamiliar music.

        The point is just that we often work ourselves into a corner with our expectations and our habits, and sometimes we need a little help to nudge us from this comfort zone. We learn far more things when we challenge ourselves, and we only challenge ourselves when we stalk the wild beast of creativity on unfamiliar ground. Hunting for lions is far more adventurous than petting the house cat, but it means we have to take those risks and we have to be prepared to lose ourselves.

        OK. That’s it for me at 3am in my sleep deprived, addled state of mind. Hope some of that made sense…..

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Ron’s video on this topic is great, and really illustrates the point!

  5. Brandon Phillips says:

    I really enjoy woodworking, I’m no pro but I did spend a portion of my early/mid 20’s as a carpenter and cabinet builder so I can hold my own. It’s interesting that my hobby still falls withing the realm of utility, I might have to think about that for awhile. For me the act of working with clay is relatively spontaneous and I like that to show in the finished work. Woodworking is not about spontaneity. I spend time sketching, doing scale drawings, measuring and marking…long before I ever touch the wood. After the project is assembled(or during) hours are spent carefully sanding and removing all the marks that are evidence of the act of making. For me, that never happens with clay.

    Can this possibly influence my work? I think it has. The joint or the coming together of 2 pieces of wood is often something that is celebrated in woodworking. Dovetails not only serve a useful purpose but they’re beautiful. The use of contrasting woods serves to enhance the evidence of craftsmanship. Many joints are hidden within the wood so that only the craftsman even knows they exist. Pretty cool, at least to a nerd like me. I try to incorporate things like this into my work. For my pieces I think that anytime 2 pieces of clay are joined together it is something to be celebrated(exploited?) I don’t hide or smooth any of my joints together. Randy Johnston has a background as a mason and I think carpentry and approaches the clay in a very similar way.

    I think that the great advantage of this hobby for me is that it allows me to explore the meticulous side of making that I don’t allow or want in pottery. I would say that it balances out. As I think about it I’m fairly meticulous in most things that I do so it could be that my spontaneity in potting balances out my meticulous nature.

    Woodworking by it’s nature is fairly tedious but somehow when you enjoy the act there is nothing tedious about it. I imagine if it were an all day every day affair it might become tedious, just as potting can from time to time. Though I would hate for someone to think that I’m comparing the tedium of potting to the tedium of working in a cubicle.

    I make brushes to get some time out of the studio, it’s a nice break but I don’t know if I’d call it a hobby. I enjoy it more than say, working at walmart(I think so, I’ve never actually worked at walmart) but not as much as potting or woodworking. I took it up purely to help my work and it wound up making me a few bucks.

    I’m a very obsessive person. I have a tendency to fixate. This is a huge danger when it comes to hobbies because I will abandon all other things. It works well with potting because it is my career but when I’m fixated on something else potting falls to the wayside, so I have to find times to be a hobbiest when I can afford to be out of the studio. This of course doesn’t apply to everyone, some people can multi-task in this manner just fine.

    While I would consider myself to be a fairly loose potter I do have a problem venturing out when I’m doing a run of pots. The differences in what I make are very subtle. There are things about my work that I’ve wanted to improve or change over the last couple years but I haven’t been able to make myself do it. I’m not very good at “playing” when it comes to my pots. I’m not very good at making 11 of something and then doing something different with number 12. On the same note I can’t just sit down and do one of something unless it’s a demo for my students. Could this be some sort of disorder? Perhaps. This last week I decided that I was going to change my approach to the bottoms of my pots that are unturned. I typically thumb the edge over, it works on some pots, not so much on others. I feel that I outgrew it a couple years ago but I just about have a panic attack when I think about changing it. Most people may not even notice the difference, to me it’s a huge life-altering change(or at least feels that way.) I have to be truthful and say that the nudge to finally do something came from an off-hand comment from my grad school prof. So of course I couldn’t just try something on a few pots. So I’m doing it with my whole cycle. I guess that’s how I play.

    Man, that’s long. I shoulda saved that for a post on my blog. Ah well.

    • Wow! What a fantastic response! Your comment is so honest and revealing, and I know I learned a lot from it. Thanks for sharing it on this thread on my blog, but I agree that you should also post it on “support your local potter”.

      I think the more we talk issues like this through amongst ourselves the more we will see the broader view of what other artists are doing, and not feel so isolated or that we have to personally reinvent the wheel every time. I think the internet has quickly become a huge resource for the pooled knowledge of folks like us. And we are so lucky that folks like you are contributing their hard won knowledge and experience.

      It is so fascinating hearing about your perspective as a wood worker and how this relates to your potting. I think most of us have the dual nature of sometimes wanting to be meticulous and sometimes wanting to be spontaneous. And how you describe this is excellent stuff!

      As far as the “play” aspect of what you are talking about I think you are right and that we each have our own pace. I think the important thing is that we continue to grow, and that even those small changes can be life altering, as you say. But I also think that the more we talk about it the more we understand that its alright to sometimes just play, and the more our reservations lose their substance. It seems that there are so many myths and prejudices that hang over potters’ heads that we really sometimes need the open air of a discussion like this to reveal the dark corners and to blow the smoke and cobwebs away.

      My last comment is that your observation about teaching is probably my best lifeline to changing things up. I almost never show my students pots the way I would make them if left to myself. I always try to show them the huge variety of what is possible, and this forces me out of my box. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to teach, not least of which is that it forces me to look at my pot making differently. Hope that made sense!

      Thanks for the great comment! Do post it on your blog too. You said some really great stuff and I know all your readers will be fascinated to see it.

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Hey Brandon,
      Your woodworking example adds an interesting twist to my ongoing exploration of the perfectionism issue. What I think of as fussy or too tight in my pots wouldn’t even meet the basic technical requirements for a piece of furniture to stand square or be securely joined together. And I’m intrigued by the idea of being more precise in one medium and deliberately less so in another, and how that let’s you satisfy competing instincts as a maker. Good stuff!

      • Good stuff indeed! We can all probably stand to think this through more thoroughly. I know I can! I guess one of the blessings of clay is its tolerance for inexactness. The plastic/fluid nature of the wet clay is an explosion of possibility. If you have ever seen Ron Meyers casually lift a pot off the wheel and literally just dump it on a ware board you know how forgiving the clay can be. And that tolerance can be exploited, less or even more than Ron does. And isn’t that wealth of possibility addictive?

        I know there is an appeal of working within tight limits that is satisfied by things like wood working, and it is really a diametrically opposite quality that draws some folks to clay. The perfectionists among us almost wish the clay were not as messy as it is. I have seen some great clay craftsmen treat leather hard clay almost as if it were pieces of wood. And some of them can pull it off. But the wetter you work the clay the less you may be able to hit those marks of meticulous craftsmanship, and the further perfection will be from your grasp.

        Damn. I need to think about this some more…. Thanks both of you guys for discussing this! I am learning so much from these discussions!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Right on. I think that difference could be categorized into something like “hard perfection” and a “soft perfection” (double entendre noted, but not intended — OK, we’d need better terms to keep people from snickering). The hard version would be like razor-precise dovetail cuts joining two pieces of cabinetry together; the soft version like the finger indentations at the base of a big Meyer’s pot from lifting it off the wheel. One is classical, exacting, unforgiving; the other is primal, gestural, more of a wabi-sabi approach to beauty. And while everyone will have their preferences, in the right hands, both can be fantastic ways to treat clay. Sometimes I even go for both on the same pot, which almost never works, but is an intriguing possibility.

  6. Robert Young says:

    I linked in from Ron’s discussion and video on playing around after a run of cups. I have enjoyed this entire conversation immensely, as it makes me look at my work and how I do it. As a high school teacher, I have my hands in clay all day, but rarely is the work mine. Doing the demo, prompting the students, show them how to pinch this, roll that, scratch and slip, etc, etc. Every project they do is repeated three times, so I guess I do see a lot of repetition. When I finally do get to sit at my wheel (the only one in the school) I find myself literally unable to do a run of anything. I may do a number of cups or mugs, but each one has its own personality and shape. I have a few dozen pieces ready to glaze and fire, but no two are even close to being alike. I have thought about this and come to the conclusion that this is my “play” time – the time I need to get away from the repetitive pieces that I help the students do.

    • Thanks Robert! And thanks for sharing this different perspective. It is so interesting to hear that the thing I use as an excuse to ‘play around’ (my teaching demos) is actually ‘work’ for someone else, and that this also requires the need to take a break from. What a great reminder that our own perspective is just that, our own perspective, and that we can all learn from each other if we keep our minds open.

      I would be fascinated in hearing any strategies you come up with for how you get to play on your own time. Is it somewhat structured, but in different directions from what you do with your students, or is it open ended and just letting your imagination roam free? I’d love to hear!

      Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for sharing what you do and how things make sense to you!

      • Robert Young says:

        I have to admit, Carter, that when I sit down at the wheel I have in mind something I would like to do. What usually happens is that the piece on the wheel takes on a life of its own, and is almost never like what I had in mind. A large bowl may turn into a nice cake stand, a yunomi might morph into a sugar bowl with a lid. I can, occasionally, get something approximating my envisioned product, but more often than not something different springs to life under my fingers.
        This year – the first for this program here – the students are all doing hand-building projects, but next year I am supposed to get 6 wheels for an advanced class. Maybe then my clay will behave itself and turn out like I saw it in my mind. I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation, and comments, as I have learned from it – and your blogs.

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