In a lot of ways my timing has been on the edge of perfect. When I first discovered my love for clay Ron Meyers was still teaching at UGA. I started taking a non-credit night class while I was enrolled in the PhD program in Philosophy, kind of as a welcome distraction to my studies, and ended up getting hooked. After about a year into it they dropped the program, the word being that the non credit students were overusing and burdening the facilities (got that right!). I knew Ron by this time and he suggested that I just sign up for credit since I was already enrolled at the University. Amazingly no one at my department raised a stink, and before I knew it Ron was my teacher. Before they knew it they had lost a student.
I have learned so much from Ron, and my pots will always show an appreciation for the clay that he helped start. But in some ways my timing was just a bit off. I was too much a beginner to fully understand the nuances of some of the ideas he was teaching. I think I kind of picked most of it up unconsciously. I was just having fun and doing something that I really enjoyed. But on the other hand, if I had started taking classes much earlier I might also have missed the awesome lineup they brought in to cover for Ron when he retired. Those instructors (for a semester each) were Linda Christianson and Michael Simon. I was probably still a little green for the opportunity that was set before me, but they both were also huge influences on me.
But back to Ron. I have especially been thinking of Ron these past few weeks because I have been looking at the issue of how we can set ourselves up by having certain expectations about our results and also about our process. Ron was a great influence because he helped to take most of the pressure off. It was always about having fun with the clay and exploring what things were possible. Learning about the clay as much as learning about ourselves. The attitude that the project was about discovery rather than achieving specific results is probably crucial. All this was brought home to me last year when Ron was involved in a livecast workshop that I saw on the internet. I wrote down some of his qoutes from that NCECA preconference. In it he said:
“You need to show them you are thinking.”
“Searching for variation.”
“Everyday seeking something new. Trying something different everyday.”
“Picasso was not making work, he was finding it.”
“Discovering through working.”
“Looking for something to change, to get out of.”
Hearing all those thoughts totally blew my mind. I don’t think I had realized how thoroughly a student of Ron’s I truly was. These are the kinds of things I say to my students, different words maybe, but the attitude is exactly the same.
Unfortunately in my own work I am not always as vigorous about pursuing these changes, but I am absolutely grateful for when I teach because I always take it as an opportunity to show my students ways to do things that are purposely NOT the way I would do them myself. It is a trick I play on myself that I really should use more often. Purposely stepping in an unexpected direction is sometimes like stepping outside one’s self. By ignoring or rejecting all the habits that we feel sometimes help define us we get to see the world in a totally new way. Its like taking a holiday, a day off from the routine of doing things the ‘normal’ way.
The way I tell it to my students I advise them to thin the walls and then do something to shape it. Don’t over analyze it while its still on the wheel. Just do something either different from or similar to what you’ve done before and get it off the wheel. You can make more the same way or not, but then in a calm moment afterwards sit down and see what you came up with. If you allow experimentation and discovery to happen while the clay is on the wheel you are not so hooked into expectation that each detail is crucial. You get to see what worked and what didn’t work when you are a step removed from the making.
This way you are not dependent on only making what you already know or can see from that tortured angle sitting above the wheel. Let the pot happen without too much conscious input from your mind*. Do it quickly so you don’t get a chance to spoil it by letting your head intrude where it is not needed. And if the results aren’t any good? So what? You now know what not to do in the future. And if something good happened? You might never have gotten there if you had waited to think it up first.
Ron likes to joke that he makes the pots he does because he never learned how to center. Actually, he is probably the best thrower I know. They all come out slightly different because he is trying to see what will happen with this lump of clay, not the next or the one before. Every surface is an opportunity to express something, and so while the marks themselves may look alike between several pots each pot stands as a different expression of the sum of all the details. One teabowl may be larger, another smaller, one have a mark here on the wall, another there, one more rounded, another more straight, one flared in at the lip, another flared out. Its all variable, and the composition depends on the nuance of variation.
So how the hell do I do this myself? I start with entirely flexible and loose ideas for the outcome, but I have specific things I aim for in the process. A push with the rib somewhere around here, a sweeping line somewhere around there, maybe a slight flare at the rim, or maybe not, proportions starting roughly here and ending roughly there, etc,. All this looseness just to see what happens when I do it this way or do it that way.
I try to work in a series so that I can build variations on my experimentation and hone in on others. I may take an idea and push it in one direction, realize I’ve gone too far, and then start back up in a different direction. Sometimes I will have an idea for something, maybe something I’ve seen someone else do, and then I will play around with that detail or way of doing things. Even in my ‘standard’ forms I am trying not to repeat myself. Its more about expressing certain things about the process than achieving specific results.
So this unfortunately often ends up creating a mish mash of inconsistent pots. If I’ve really gone crazy they look like different people made them. I don’t always like what it looks like on display together, but the side effect of being driven to experiment and evolve also seems to be that older pots in general become boring pots by the distance you have moved away from them. The further you have traveled in your experiments the more you have left behind, and the more those older things no longer interest you. Its as simple as that.
So if you have heard me ranting before you will probably know that I’m not a huge fan of being pinned down by one “signature style”. I think it is a good and reasonable thing for many artists, but it is neither inevitable nor necessary. Its just that the further into a career we get the more our identity seems to hinge on our reputation. The pressures of our market and the expectations from our buyers and collectors becomes a huge incentive to not stray too far from a recognizable way of doing things. Our commitment to a style then becomes monogamous, and we don’t allow ourselves to flirt with other techniques or details even if, in our most secret of hearts, we want to. It takes incredible bravery (some would say folly) sometimes to be able to start working in a new direction.
But if we are lucky we are like the Ron Meyers of the art world who can continue to grow and flex their creative muscles in new directions. You don’t always have to fully reinvent yourself to find new ways of doing things. You can just follow your nose to see where it will take you, even if its not very far from where you started. If we are not lucky, the attitude of exploring new territory dries up, our creative muscles atrophy, and we content ourselves with the things we have already done. Our pots become something like watching reruns of our favorite TV shows. The series is over, and we already know each episode and how its going to end. There are no new surprises because its all already been done before.
So I try to make my pots like they are episodes of an ongoing series. Some of the characters stay the same, not every one shows up in every episode, and sometimes there are episodes where most of the characters have never been seen before, as if it was almost a different show that maybe had a guest actor from the original series. It doesn’t always make sense, but if I don’t like what I’m doing I’m under no obligation to continue torturing myself. I have the absolute freedom to pick up and do something else with the clay. The clay won’t mind. And it keeps me interested. I don’t get bored because each iteration has a possible new ending. There is always a surprise in there somewhere. Even if most of the characters are usually predictable I love seeing what will happen next. And I even love setting the rewind sometimes, so I can revisit some of the classics.
If you meet the Buddha on the road what do you do?
But that’s just me. Did any of this make any sense?
* I am of course only talking about a specific exercise. There are plenty of good reasons to be conscious and demanding of results in other circumstances.