What now?

Wow! That is some incredible thought and energy that has gone into the discussion on the last post! My intentions for it were totally different, but there were such good comments, and I was learning so much, that I thought I would just see where it would take itself. The discussion definitely took on a life of its own. But rather than dealing with all these loose threads, I thought one important issue came up that deserves a new discussion.

Everyone who commented seems to have legitimate beefs with how pottery is taught in the university, myself included. And I can totally sympathize with turning my back on the clownish antics they seem mostly concerned with. But the question I have to ask is “What then?”. I worry that our avenues to become educated as potters (in the sense that Ron and Brandon and John and Lee are all talking about) are fast disappearing. But the question has to be asked whether that will matter. There are potters out there doing their thing without the help of outside instruction. Tracey Broome made this point in the great comments she left yesterday. So, if potters end up only being able to do their learning on their own, so what? This was my response:

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Agreed! I have no worries about folks like you because with the right internal self motivation just about anything is possible. I wish everyone could do it on their own, had the grit and determination, the fortitude to not need the occasional helping hand. And because you are such a good experimenter and push yourself to learn more and more you will always continue to improve your craft.

I just worry that too many potters on their own end up settling for the easy answers. They don’t always push themselves on their own, and there is no one else in a position to give them that nudge. Of all the reasons people have for quitting pottery, how often is it that they were frustrated by not being able to figure it out on their own, they were discouraged by bad or inadequate instruction, or they just lacked the determination that would get them over any and every obstacle on their own? So I don’t worry about folks like you. I just worry that there are not enough like you.

There will always be great potters because there will always be potters in your mould. But many of the ones who could have been great will fall by the wayside. Many of the potters who only lack a bit of timely instruction will end up being far less than they might have been. If we are only doing it on our own there is no safety net. There is nothing to catch us when we fall. And there is never enough encouragement when we get it right, when we need it.

If we are strong or are lucky we can ride above the swells and dips of the marketplace, but one of the dangers (and its always a danger) is that we can let the market place be too convincing. The marketplace is not a stand in for our education. If we put too much faith in only what sells, the limits of our learning shrink awful quick. We need to be brave against these voices. If we are figuring it out on our own, sometimes these are the only voices we are hearing. But beware the honeyed tongue! Seek wise counsel when you can!

The danger of needing to figure it all out on our own is that unless we are ridiculously smart we would probably be better off with at least a little help. I know I’m not that smart, and as bad as some of my instruction was, some of it was great. I will always be thankful I didn’t have to do it all on my own. As passionate as I am, I’m just not that strong. Sometimes I need a good shoulder to cry on. Sometimes I need someone to explain it to me real simple, point me in the right direction, get my head out of my a–. I am flawed and fragile, and I am in awe of you strong potters. And I’m here because I need your help. Discussions like these make me a better potter because they force me out of the easy answers. I grow because I learn. I learn because I have such good teachers.

Thanks everybody!

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The issue for me is not so much our generation of potters but what will be the case in the future. Many of the great potters today DID get solid educations. What will happen when NO potter receives a solid education? What if the future professional potters are all entirely self educated? And if we are comfortable with that, would we be as comfortable with, say, all surgeons being self educated? All airplane pilots? All carpenters? All math teachers? Why does anyone get an education or training, and why do we think potters can do without?

As I said, some of us will surely rise to the top on our own. But won’t it be difficult? And will as many of us escape the pitfalls if we only have ourselves to rely on? Will our only feedback be the customers who either like what we do or not like it? Is the marketplace a good substitute for an education? It seems the only lesson it has to teach is “If it sells it is good enough”, and that doesn’t count for wisdom in my book.

So there might me a future where the only feedback we get is this mantra: ‘Good’ is what sells. But I never understood that to be a guarantee for achieving excellence. Especially if the market doesn’t really know what they are looking at, the standards will be set fairly low. So the future of relying on customers for our feedback will most likely be less than it could be, certainly less than it is now.

But what about other potters? Won’t we help each other out? And of course this is a shinning light of my hope for the future. But what kind of voice will these future potters hear from their peers? Most of the feedback I see these days comes in the form of a cheering section. The “yea” sayers try their best to offer encouragement. Nothing wrong with that, is there? But is this all we need to hear? When it comes down to it potters are mostly really very polite, and only very rarely say the honest thing when the recipient will be offended. And even if we all suddenly became straight shooters would the potters in our aim listen? Why would they? If they were extremely open minded, maybe yes, but you also have to be prepared to take criticism, and not as many of us may be naturally good at it.

This is one of the things an education at a school offers. Universities hold that grade over your head to remind you that you are never as smart as you think you are, and that you always can learn something new from those with more experience. That is the whole meaning of a student-teacher relationship. So if we give up on that what else are we giving up on? What are the consequences of turning our backs on the the institutions and the university?

Tracey also made a point in her blog that the current AKAR yunomi exhibition was disappointing, and I had to agree with her for all the reasons she pointed out. But still, none of these artists will ever hear this. There is no one in a position to say it, and no one in a position that would make them listen. And most of these potters are well into their professional careers. So if that’s the case, what hope is there for rank beginners? Random potters coming out of the woodwork to criticize what they have done?

As I said, most of us are too polite. A potter would need the gumption to ask another’s opinion, and even then they might not hear the whole honest truth. Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the University system was that it made you pay attention to other people’s opinions, and put you in places where you had to hear them.

So, without that source of critical feedback what will we do? Some of the future potters will be strong enough to get it done on their own. They will be determined enough to stick with it. They will be passionate enough to continue growing and not settle for only the easy answers. They will be candid enough to search out advice and listen to it when they need to. They will be open minded and humble, and look for new challenges as they evolve. They will be smart about what they do and become great problem solvers. They will figure it out on their own in the absence of instruction, and they will be strong enough to stand up to the persuasive siren song of the marketplace.

But what about the rest? The few individuals who rise above our diminished circumstances will of course flourish. But there will be less of them. More potters who could have gone on to do great things with just a bit of timely instruction or a helping hand will now become carpenters or accountants.

If we give up on this issue we are simply throwing all those folks under the bus. Can we live with that? Is it our responsibility to look out for the welfare of future potters or do we only care that right now some of us can earn a living? As long as I can put food on the table as a potter is that good enough? Do we have any responsibility toward the future?

Maybe we just don’t see that this is a real issue. Maybe we just don’t see that we can do something about it. But are we comfortable that those clowns in the ivory tower have turned their back on us? If we say “Who needs them anyway” have we really thought it through? Maybe we don’t, but what of our children, and their children, and their childrens’ children?

So I ask again: Does this matter? And if so, what now? Discuss.

Oh. And one last thought: If the emperor is walking around in the nude and everyone else is happy to let him wear his new ‘clothes’ shouldn’t we do something about it? More hangs on this than just the ludicrous self embarrassment of these institutions. Their mutually self-reinforcing “Ooh”ing and “Ahh”ing over his new ‘clothes’ is just the posturing sycophants who stand to gain by him ‘wearing’ them. They are in fact the ‘tailors’. But our own options as potters are being effected (limited) by their arrogant blindness and blind arrogance. We are not being served by him strutting around in the nude. So, isn’t it important to reveal the deception for what it is?

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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4 Responses to What now?

  1. john bauman says:

    I get too wordy, so let me try to just express my opinions in as few words as possible (it’s your blog, after all. Heh. )

    1. Supply and demand is neither a “good idea” nor a construct. It’s an intractable reality of group human nature. If a person wants to learn how to make pots, there’s never been a better time in our history. Community centers, community colleges, guilds, clay suppliers — they’re all over, and they offer classes and workshops out the wazoo.

    From the moment a person first starts to learn pottery, like water seeking its own level, that neophyte immediately runs to the information centers that serve his aspirations best.

    2. Sure, the university academic world has mostly abandoned pottery in hopes of pursuing the art world. But there are tremendous exceptions. And here’s the important thing: We know the exceptions (Pete Pinnell comes immediately to mind), and if we want that kind of education in clay, that’s where we gravitate.

    And the added benefit of academia that does work? …we potters rely on two sets of folks who have put their hands directly in the firebox (so to speak) to tell us definitively what the heck is going on in there: 1)Academics with departments big enough to test such things, and 2)Potters with enough life experience to have made all the requisite mistakes for us so we don’t have to.

    3. More people see the naked emperor than see him robed. No kidding. Really. We potters tend to look only in one direction (as evidenced by these two blog discussions) — that is, we potters, for whatever reason (a topic for another discussion), seem to be a bit obsessed with the “famous” and acclaimed potters and/or those whom we think have acquired the trappings of acclaim (like those published in our rags). But if, instead of being obsessed with the potters/peers whose acceptance we crave, we’d instead turn around and look the other way, we’d realize that most of the rest of the culture in which we live sees THEM just as we criticize — as having no clothes.

    So, we can either imitate their nudity and hope (by that action) to gain their acceptance….

    ….or we can make the best stuff we know how to make (and strive to find the way to improve that), and reap the benefit of a whole culture dying to hear OUR story.

    4. Of the ceramics rags, CM is getting it. At least, I think they’re getting it. They’ve definitely turned a corner of late and are heralding experience over experiment, excellence over audacity, knowledge over novelty, and a potter’s lifestyle and raison d’craft.

  2. Tracey says:

    Let me just throw this out there: the best skills I have learned for throwing a pot on the wheel I got from videos that Brandon Phillips has done. He taught me to pull a handle, throw a mug and pound 15 lbs. of clay to center. Is the future a youtube education?
    The other tools I have picked up came from workshops at Penland and Arrrowmont and hanging around for a couple of years at Mark Hewitt’s place. I think there is a place for University art education, I have a design degree, I learned a lot and still use those skills today, but what kids are not getting in school is an introduction to reality. It is an elitist atmosphere, it was when I was in school, still is. We took our daughter to the School of the Arts for her interview for film school and those students were walking around like they were directing The Godfather or something. We need to keep it real people! Our society is in such a rush to excel immediately, why can’t we slow down and develop a craft over a lifetime the way older cultures do, what is the rush to be good right away, it’s impossible. We should enjoy the journey of doing.

  3. Linda Starr says:

    Not all colleges or instructors are created equal; the one I went to left a lot to be desired (didn’t want to get into how to make glazes), so I started taking workshops, reading the blogs, visiting with other potters and working away on my own and I’m still working and seeking out other potters and instructors. I took a continuing workshop at another studio and that potter wasn’t interested in helping much either (didn’t want me to make too much work). So I think the trick is in finding the right instructor and courses and also in getting the critiques and hints to progress in your work. At the time if a person can’t find it or are not able to get it any other way then youtube, blogs, and other potters is better than not at all. Colleges seem to romanticize art careers and should put more effort into courses on the business aspects of an art career and working in the world today. But I also think the discipline of going to classes and having to complete work projects is important, the bouncing off ideas with the instructor and other students and being inspired by others enthusiasm. Working independently in my studio I find it’s easy for me to get distracted or go off on tangents. Your post has made me think about that and I intend to write some concrete goals for myself. I thought the last issue of CM was improved over previous ones. Thanks for the post.

  4. don pilcher says:

    I’ll have to think about this. In all honesty, if I had to OPEN an art program today, I don’t know where I’d put pottery. At its most potent, the pottery field is a niche – proud, valuable, interesting, complex, beautiful, inspiring – but just a niche. I knew when I went into it (1958) that this was the case but I had NO IDEA just how small the niche was. It’s hard to know just how to treat such a field. At the end of the day, it may be a calling; something one has to do and if that’s the case, the “hows” will emerge as a natural result of human endeaver and aspiration.

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