Supporting an arts education

Ok. I seem to be just throwing stuff out there as food for thought. There are so many good ideas floating around and I have learned so much from all the folks that have engaged in this discussion. I don’t think there is any one single right take on this issue, and I’m certainly not about to pretend there is. I like almost everything that the commenters have said, and so it seems like there are many valid points of view, and that one truth does not always exclude there being other truths at the same time. Our personal perspectives can sometimes be partial truths or one of many possible truths. And that is why talking about stuff can be so interesting and enlightening.

So let me backtrack a bit and say that if it turns out that some day in our future our children no longer have access to a potters wheel as part of their college education, I personally think that is a diminishment of their opportunity. My opinion alone, perhaps. I sincerely hope that if our kids someday want to become potters there will be other means of learning their trade or even becoming exposed to clay. And so, while we may lose something there may be ways of compensating for the loss. Seriously motivated artists will always find a way to make it happen. There have been wonderful suggestions made in comments to previous posts.

But consider this. How many hundreds of thousands of kids go to college each year? And if that school has a department with pottery being taught, that means that all those kids have a chance to be introduced to pot making. I’m not saying that they will go on to become potters necessarily, but they can become acquainted with some of the skills. The experience may even foster an appreciation for the craft, and they may end up becoming supporters of potters when they leave school for jobs and the big world beyond. No wheels in a university classroom means this will no longer be the case. I count that as thousands of missed opportunities. Hundreds of thousands each year. Hmm,….

So one possibility to think about is that pottery taught at the university level is not just about educating future potters but about educating an audience to appreciate pots. We don’t teach kids Shakespeare only because they will all grow up to become authors. We teach them so that they will enjoy reading, and even come to love literature. We train kids to appreciate the arts and culture, not just to get jobs. And while the self motivated aspiring potters will always find a way to make pots, won’t it be the case that fewer people will actually care?

And isn’t caring what this question is all about? And how do you teach caring? Not by hiding the thing or limiting people’s access to it. Even if only one out of every hundred art students potentially becomes a pottery supporter do we want to lose that support? How many thousands of new pottery patrons will be lost when no one gets to hold a fresh made pot during their 4 years of college, or no one except art history students even gets to see pictures of them?

But taking wheels out of the classroom also takes away a reason to feel that pottery matters. The more we train people to feel that things like pottery are not worth caring about the less we can expect them to support it. And we can’t expect them to miraculously care about pottery if they have no experience of it. Just putting that out there….

I’ve been in and around the fringes of the University clay department long enough to hear and personally experience the horror stories. And if you are on the outside and think things are bad, the reality is probably worse. I have experienced profoundly bad teaching, and through sheer stubbornness alone have been able to shrug it off and continue caring about making pots. But I have also heard from students that were insulted, belittled, treated with contempt, given every excuse to quit, and were not able to keep with it. There is so much bad instruction out there, and the lack of compassion, the inability or unwillingness to nurture budding artists is both shameful and deplorable. I can’t argue that this isn’t true. It needs to be different, and some departments do worse jobs of it than others.

But one bad apple doesn’t always spoil the batch, right? Even if every single department was a potter’s nightmare but one, wouldn’t that one stand tall by comparison? Can’t we still make apple pie with the apples that are not spoiled? Do we cut our arms off to cure an infection in one finger? If we need to, things must be desperate indeed.

So if part of our problem is that we have bad instructors teaching the craft, what if they started hiring better teachers? Isn’t it true that a good teacher can make a huge difference? Is it somehow not in our interest, even as spectators, to push for qualified potters getting jobs in University departments? I was pretty lucky, all things considered, but I would love to have been in a class with Brandon Phillips teaching me. I was super fortunate that Micheal Kline came to my school for a workshop when I was there. I would be giddy with joy if Ron Philbeck became my teacher. I think I would have died and gone to heaven if Scott Cooper had been my instructor. I believe these people, and others like them, can make a difference. Sure things are bad at the U these days, and things look pretty bleak for honest functional pots being taught there, but couldn’t it be better? Every nay sayer might do a better job if they were given the opportunity, so isn’t it just that? Opportunity?

I remember John Bauman telling folks in a comment on his blog last year that he was in talks with the local school about their curriculum and possibly teaching classes. I thought “Cool! Those students will be so fortunate to have him there. There will be wonderful experiences and opportunities for all those students!” And I don’t believe I was wrong. John would be a fabulous teacher. We just need to get him the job. Isn’t that the world we would prefer to live in? Wouldn’t we want folks like John teaching our children, their children, and their childrens’ children? Won’t the world be a better place with good pottery teachers teaching at Universities?

So let me leave you with one last thought: What is the alternative? If we are lucky (in a way that the world seldom is), there will be sufficient avenues to channel all the aspiring potters into the profession. There will be a supply of pottery buyers that never took pottery classes in college, that never crashed the food table at the student pottery show, that never had a roommate or friend who was taking classes and showed them how cool it was to be making and living with pots. In short, this future imagines that funding pottery in schools is something we can do without.

But pottery education is no different in what it gets wrong than painting, sculpture or the other arts. Perhaps we are wasting all the money spent on arts education? Maybe our disgust with how pottery is taught is only a symptom of greater ills, and reason enough to cut all support for the arts in general? Think about it, if we eliminate art departments just how much can we save tax payers? Is this a good trade off?

And all those kids who were being exposed to the arts, some of them actually being nurtured and encouraged as creative individuals, well, they will just have to watch it all on youtube. The salt kiln the school had? Maybe someone in the next county has one that I can get some pots in….The guy who was getting paid to help me grow as a craftsman and artist, paid to give me time, attention, and advice, and the benefit of his experience? Maybe for a few bucks the local professional will take time out from his busy schedule to show me how to center clay, remind me to take my hands off slowly every time I mess up, to get the water out of the opening every time I forget, to use enough water on the walls when they dry thinning them, etc. In short, maybe this guy who is focused on making a living selling his work will have enough time to nurture a beginner several hours a week in basic potting skills…. Sounds good if you can make it work!

In the end, no matter how well we can replace the U what we are giving up is a unique and powerful combination of opportunity and exposure. And as disappointed as I may have been at my own experiences in art school, I would never take that as a reason to lobby my congressman to cut funding for education in the arts. Even mostly bad arts education is better than no arts education. But that’s just me. I was one of the ones who learned a few things in school, so my regrets are only partial. So while I will work to help provide as many other open avenues to future pottery makers, I will also hold out hope that supporting an arts education still has some merit.

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 Supporting an arts education

  1. Lee Love says:

    It is really important to focus on pottery education earlier. We have some of the best ceramics programs in the Middle and High Schools of any States in the country here in Minnesota. What is really interesting to me, is because of Warren MacKenzie, we probably have more Leach type treadle wheels in the schools than found anywhere. They were built in mass in the past. Are scaled down. I own one (it is on my patio) in addition to my Devon Woodley. In addition, many art centers like Northern Clay propagate ceramic knowledge. What impressed me most when I first arrived at NCC after classes at the UofMn, was that the funcitonal pots made there by beginners was actually better than the beginning pots at the U. One of the reasons is probably because no one at the Clay center was taking pottery for an “easy” 3D class. They were all there for the love of clay. While we have many good places at the Universities for the study of functional pottery, this made me realize that there might be better places for some folks to study, outside of the University studio arts program.
    I would say MacKenzie’s legacy in ceramic education is at least equal to the legacy of his pots themselves. Maybe even more important.
    The one thing I think potters after Leach and Hamada failed to do is write about what craft is important in the 21st century. I’ve always felt Leach’s writings and dissemination of knowledge were are greater give than his wonderful pots. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but I at first glance, the Michael Simon catalog is unique in that it includes important writing about his pots. It includes the Smithsonian interview is what first deepened my interest in the “Why” of his pots and was happy to see it included in the catalog. Carter, have you thought about writing a book? Or working with Ron Meyers in collaboration? Like Leach did with Hamada and Yanagi?

    • Great comment Lee! I totally agree that the students’ attitudes are a huge obstacle, kind of like what Tracey pointed out in her great comment a post or so back that the film school students she came across at one point were mostly deluded, self important posers. These are real reasons art schools are so depressing. But for every 30 bad students, Ron was able to reach someone like me, and I will forever be grateful.

      That’s an intriguing idea about a book with Ron. He needs to get his message out there more, and have it recorded in more than just the memories of folks like you and me. I’ll have to give him a holler before he heads off to New York for the summer. Thanks for the idea!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Not so fast, Gillies! It states very clearly in my syllabus that students who die during the course are only assured a spot in Heaven if they can throw a six inch cylinder from one pound of clay.

    But those who make the cut, of course, are thereafter able to make any size pot from any quantity of clay, have cherubs to do their wedging for them, and gain access to the Magic Glazing Wand. (What’s the point of a heaven if you still have to glaze?)

    • Brandon Phillips says:

      6″ from 1 pound? Sounds like a Hewitt pot to me. Man, my 1 pound mugs barely break 4 inches, I should go take Scott’s class!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Well, remember, that’s the requirement to get into Heaven. We’ve got to maintain a high bar. Four inches gets you into Purgatory, which is at least preferable to the third option. You know, where non-potters go.

        In the real world, I like a mug with a little heft, too — even better if it feels like it can hold its own in the dishwasher for a decade or two.

        In any case, I think Carter would have been better off in your class than mine!

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