Here there be monsters

Human culture has always had the job of explaining our world to us. This doesn’t always agree with the ideas of other cultures but is always meant as a guide for behavior. And because we often disagree with the rules and expectations of other cultures foreign behavior can sometimes seem a bit bizarre and alien. Foreign. These people believe in things that seem preposterous to many outsiders. And this is equally true when we look back at our own ancestors and even our grandparent’s and parent’s generations. We look at their maps of behavior and see the vast territories that have been marked out as unsafe: “Here there be monsters”. Communists lurking under every bed, witches and devil worshipers in every town besides our own. And sometimes we know this to be ignorance and superstition. Dragons and crazed sea monsters don’t really exist, do they? But this is what the culture sometimes tells us is out there.

And occasionally it is because of a lack of familiarity and sometimes it is merely an ingrained attitude. Sometimes a group of people are made to sit at the back of the bus and others can sit at the front. Sometimes a group of people are thought of as shiftless, less intelligent, and lazy simply because of their skin color while the people who believe this unquestioningly hold themselves to be superior. Innately superior. Sometimes a group of people are considered too flighty and emotional to have real jobs because somehow they are members of “the weaker sex”. And society divvies out the roles accordingly. Blue for you, and pink for you. Sometimes a person’s life work, because of their gender, is supposed to only include getting married (at 13 not too long ago), cranking out numerous children, raising them, keeping the home, preparing the meals, and waiting for the husband to get off work so that she can slavishly attend to his needs.

Equity doesn’t come into it because these are the things people believe. They are unquestioned. These are the roles that society gives us. This is what we were raised to believe, and this is what our children will most likely also believe. For better or worse the collective wisdom of people relies on many assumptions about the way things are supposed to be.

But eventually when people come to question a society’s traditional beliefs some are shown as valid and some are shown as suspect. But this requires not taking our beliefs at face value. And there are odious prejudices we have had to overcome in our own culture as recently as a few decades ago. And it is ongoing in many cases. So it should be obvious that just because we take certain things for granted they are not therefor correct. Ignorance, prejudice, superstition, habit, legend, tradition, and mythology all conspire to point us in certain directions, but its up to us to see whether this actually makes sense. If folks had just accepted the status quo there would never have been integration, there would never have been Women’s Lib. And I would unhesitatingly say we should be grateful some folks had the backbone and intelligence to stand up and challenge some of these opinions.

Back in potter’s world we can see that in many ways potters have their own culture. There are things we believe and values we accept. In a larger context we are part of the fringe of the artist culture, and so some non-potterly attitudes occasionally bleed across, for better or worse. And if we look more closely we may find that some of our most cherished notions, pet theories, and sacred cows have a bit of misdirection in them. But where are our sacred cows? Where do we start looking?

Whenever someone tells me I have to do something I start to wonder if I am being told to sit at the back of the bus or to be an obedient good little wife. It sometimes sounds like people are telling me that “Here there be monsters”. Many of my recent posts were attempts to shine a light on some of the presumptions that we face, namely the motivation of originality in what we do, and the drive for novelty.

Another of what I consider a potter’s boogeyman cropped up in discussion in the comments, namely the inevitability and necessity for potters to have ‘a voice’. And sure, we can see examples all around us of potters each with their own signature voice. And actually there are good reasons (branding for the marketplace, the psychological comforts of a habit, etc.,) that this is the case. But seeing it done doesn’t make it required. We are free to think for ourselves, are we not?

Our pottery icons are mostly representatives of this belief in having ‘a voice’. So the temptation is to accept that these great people can’t be wrong. But thinking that way is why it took so long for folks to sit anywhere they wanted on a bus, and for each and every person to feel like they had the opportunity to find a job and work for a living. How many Presidents were also slave owners, I wonder? There were probably many more ‘plausible’ reasons to keep people in their places way back when, but one argument for doesn’t mean there are not better arguments against.

So my question to you all, maybe the actual purpose I have in writing this blog, is “What beliefs do we have that perhaps need a second look?” You can scan back over the topics I have posted in recent months to see the things I feel challenged by. They include the need for originality, the need to have a voice, the primacy of technique, striving for perfection, that we can do without pottery being taught in schools, that beauty is unimportant, that artists should be concerned with things more important than mere beauty and function, that we should always be serious making our work,… The list goes on. What are the beliefs you all are challenged by?

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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32 Responses to Here there be monsters

  1. Judy Shreve says:

    Okay Carter — you sure like to stir the pot. I agree with your points but have a couple of questions — do you think these labels or requirements are placed on us by other artists, by our own desires or by society? I think folks who want to market their work tend to feel the most pressure to align with the going trends.

    But I think of ‘voice’ or ‘creativity’ or ‘original’ in a different way than you describe. I’ve noticed that when you give a group of people a pound of clay – (they each have the same minimal skills and have not sold any work yet.) And you ask them all to make a vase with no instructions or guidelines — each one of those folks will come back with a different design. Now take that same group of people — many years later. They are now skilled at working in clay. They’ve tried and had some successes at marketing their work. Now if you ask each of them to make a vase — again no guidelines — some of those vases will look like their instructor’s style or like someone they admire, but only a few might be very original.

    Here is where we differ. I think the true artist works past the need to make someone else’s work — they’ve put in the hours and have enough technical skill to enable them to make ‘their’ vase.

    We are all influenced by what we see in the world and what our individual focuses are — so you might see some outside influences in the work from what I am calling an artist, but he’s now worked long enough to have his ‘voice.’ In other words he is able to translate all he’s seen into something from within him. To me that’s authentic voice or originality.

    I don’t feel pressured to find that voice. I want to that’s what I’m working towards. To know enough technique to create my vision — but it’s self-driven.

    There will always be folks who are not driven to go that far. They are happy either working in their own studios copying photos from books/internet or taking classes. Their joy lies in just making stuff — and there is nothing wrong with that — unless they begin to feel a little unrest.

    Then if they are willing to do the work — they can too get past making someone else’s pots — and find their own authentic original creative voice. It just takes work. It takes being comfortable enough with the materials to create your vision. And then the only pressure is from within – from your own expectations. To me creating work and finding the voice is about the journey.

    • To answer your question Judy, I feel these labels get put there in all those ways. Its not just either/or, one or the other, but sometimes one and sometimes another, and sometimes a combination. That’s like asking why someone smokes. Is it that they like the taste, that they are following an addiction, that they were pressured by their peers, or that they got sucked in by advertising, or that they wanted to emulate their parents, or whatever? The answers are not always something simple, are they. But I think you are right that “folks who want to market their work tend to feel the most pressure to align with the going trends.” Is this a good thing, bad, or indifferent? If we don’t talk about it how will we know? How will we learn? How much will we simply accept as the status quo?

      And you know, everything you then go on to say I also absolutely believe in myself: “Then if they are willing to do the work — they can too get past making someone else’s pots — and find their own authentic original creative voice. It just takes work. It takes being comfortable enough with the materials to create your vision. And then the only pressure is from within – from your own expectations. To me creating work and finding the voice is about the journey.” That was nicely phrased!

      The issue I take a step further is what this voice is supposed to be expressing. Perhaps you didn’t read my response to the question of voice in the previous post, but I will give it another shot here. Voice in art is kind of like voice in communicating with our mouth and tongue. The wind from our lungs passes through our vocal instruments and out comes our voice. It sounds like us as soon as we get comfortable and competent in using it. Similarly, as you say, the clay passes through our fingers and eventually what comes out is an expression of something that ‘sounds like our voice’. We stop copying and learn to express ourselves in the ways that are authentic and original to us.

      All that is true stuff, it seems. But if finding our voice is how we then express ourselves, just what does that end up being? And if it expresses us, who then are we that this is something being expressed? I think these are important questions.

      For instance, in how many ways do we use our voice to express ourselves? We can whisper and we can shout. We can cry and we can laugh out loud. We can give them thunder from the pulpit and we can be sincerely open minded. We can be sarcastic and we can be agreeable. We can be snarky and we can be placating. We can be humble and we can be proud. We can forgive and accuse. We can ask questions and we can give answers. We can be right and we can be wrong. We can make fools of ourselves and we can be heroes. We can sing words and we can sing scat. We can sing opera and we can sing honkey tonk. We can speak English and we can speak French. We can tell jokes and we can tell stories. We can tell jokes in French! And this of course is just a tiny fraction of what it means to use our voice to express ourselves honestly and originally and with integrity.

      The fact that it all sounds like us in some way is fascinating, but the truth is that it doesn’t all sound the same, and it doesn’t all express the same things, and it doesn’t express these things in the same way. The way that voice expresses us is hugely varied. Its not just one thing. But when we turn our attention to how we express ourselves as mature artists, how our voice gets expressed in things like clay, this variety usually seems a bit truncated. Rather than a free voice that expresses the multiplicity of who we are and all the many things we are interested in, many artists come off like they only know how to use their voice to sing one style. And what seems worse is that most artists seem to only have learned a few songs to sing. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Just how true to life is it though?

      So my question, then, is just how authentically we are expressing ourselves if this one way of expressing ourselves is the only ‘voice’ we are capable of? In other words, if our voices are a tool we use to give full expression to who we are and what we like, why does our art come off as such singular and consistent expressions? Why is our art stuck in a rut when in the space of five seconds I can laugh, I can cry, I can speak French, I can speak English, I can lie, I can sing, I can complain, and I can even do some of these at the same time. If we are being true to our selves and honest and authentic, wouldn’t it seem more likely that we represent ALL of the things that we are and all of the things we like? Our voices can be so many things, and above all our voices give us a freedom to say and do so many things. And while in some sense it may all sound like us behind the curtain, our voices almost never give us the same thing. Except in art.

      So why does our ‘voice’ in art make us sound so boring? Why do we express ourselves through our art in ways that only come off as static and one dimensional? Why is it that when we ourselves undergo so many life changing experiences our art is usually on the same train on the same tracks headed in the same direction? Why can I be sad one afternoon, happy the next and yet my art expresses only the same old same old? As if nothing happened, as if nothing was really different about me? Our art does evolve, but at a pace that is glacial compared to the flux that is our authentic state of being. If we only like to express ourselves in one way with the clay, is there anything else about us that gets this same fidelity and same utter consistency of devotion?

      What is true about me? What are the things about me that it is possible to express? What are all the different things I like? What are the things that change about me from one moment to the next? What are the things about me that can seem contradictory or inconsistent from one moment to the next? What are all the different things I can like at the same time? What about what I don’t like? Are these always the same? Can I change my mind? Can I leave things behind and move on to other things? Can I get a divorce? Can I lose a friend? Can I make new fiends? Can friends be taken from me? Can I change jobs? Can I start a new career? Can I go to school? For a different degree? In a different discipline? Can I take more than one class? Can I pursue multiple interests? Can I graduate? Can I plan for the future? Can I change my plans? Can I move to a different house? In a different city? In a different part of the country? In a different part of the world? Can I get a new pet? Can my kids start daycare? Go off to school? Leave the nest? Have kids of their own? Can I walk to work? Can I drive? Can I get a lift from the neighbor? Can I total my car? Can I get a new one?

      OK. I could go on and on about how many changes we go through in our lives, how complex we really are. And this is truly who we are. The only thing inauthentic is portraying ourselves as only something simple and relatively stable or unchanging. I’m NOT saying it is wrong to give only this one simple voice to expressing ourselves. All I’m saying is that it is wrong to pretend that this is the only story we have to tell, or that it is somehow natural or expected that we only do this simple thing with our voice. We CAN, but we don’t have to. We can speak in monotones but we can also change it up if we want to. We can be a voice for freedom and possibility and we can also be a voice for stubborn dogmatism and narrow closemindedness. But even dogmatism and narrowmindedness are not bad things in themselves. Sure, they limit us, but as long as they keep to themselves, don’t force their views on the rest of us, and don’t pretend to be the only ways of doing things, the only real harm (if there is harm) is to the person expressing this steady diet of sameness.

      And don’t get me wrong. Probably a good 50% of the art I make runs in narrow tracks and doesn’t really change much or express much difference over time. Parts of what I do with clay only evolve very slowly, so I’m in the same boat as most every one else. If this is a problem it is a problem for me too. But that’s why its important for me to talk about these issues, and not just take them for granted. So much can happen by default, as a habit, because we were brought up that way, by mistake, because we were not paying attention, because we didn’t know any better, from peer pressure, on a whim, etc. If we don’t examine our beliefs we can get trapped by them. Maybe sometimes that’s a good thing, maybe sometimes its not. But how else do we learn? How else do we learn to think for ourselves? How else do we keep our minds open? How else do we encounter all the difference of opinion that is out there?

      • Judy Shreve says:

        you say – “All that is true stuff, it seems. But if finding our voice is how we then express ourselves, just what does that end up being? And if it expresses us, who then are we that this is something being expressed? I think these are important questions.”

        I guess what I’m trying to say in my response is – if we have integrity – if our work is truly honest, then it doesn’t matter what society or our peer or buying public want or dictate —
        Integrity and presence come from the honest gesture – the harmony between you and your work. No outside aesthetic concepts can replace what is authentically you. When you let go of result, you are free to be yourself. To me there is no greater beauty than the manifestation of that truth.

        And I don’t think this truth is static – it changes as you change – as your need to express different aspects of yourself changes. The only constant needs to be your honesty – to yourself – in your work. And I need to reemphasize that can only happen when you become comfortable and confident enough to manipulate your materials in such a way so that you can express your vision. That’s the part that takes work!

        There are many artists throughout history working in all mediums who were not necessarily appreciated in their time. They were true to their visions – looking back we now can see that.

        Society may influence what we want to say — but it still should come from within you — you respond to society with your voice – loudly, softly, crazed or peaceful — it’s all your voice.

        I can – as I’m sure you can too – immediately recognize the work of most well known potters. I can see an influence whether it comes from a place -Japan or a person -Warren MacKenzie – but the work is still recognizable as their work – even with the outside influences.

        What I think is sad is when an artist is successful – and they finally reach a financial comfort zone – their work seems to stop growing – as if they are afraid their adoring fans will quit buying.

        I think one way to keep our work fresh is to keep learning – keep having these important conversations and keep challenging ourselves. Someone told me not too long ago when I was dissatisfied with my work – he said, ‘if you were completely happy and satisfied, you would probably not feel the need to continue to work or your work would become stale.’

        So I think it is the journey — the processes are just the steps back to self —

        • Exactly, Judy! We are definitely on the same page here. It just took a few thousand words to figure out we are basically saying the same thing.

          My first big crusade on the internet was that post of Kristen Kiefer’s on ‘signature style’. This is an issue that too many people seem to confuse with what we are talking about in ‘voice’. They often use words like “authenticity” and “integrity” but they want you to end up with only one particular style. This seems wrong to me. One style is way more cramped than all the many things we can do with our voices. Our voice can include anything and everything that we are, and we are so many things. A signature style is a tame, cardboard cutout of what we maybe once were at a specific moment of time.

          Captured like lightning in a bottle, a signature style ages more gracefully and with less interruption than anything else about our changeable selves. Its almost as if there is some necessary nobility that we stick to our guns in the face of change. And in my mind this perseverance is hardly the whole picture, and if it is touted as the one truth can never be honest or authentic in the way it is being promoted.

          But I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard artists giving out the advice that you have to settle into a particular style at some point. While it may make good business sense and it may be easier to only do one kind of thing, it is neither necessary nor inevitable. And that’s why my hackles get raised whenever someone seems to be putting out the massage that we need to work in tight little boxes, that we have to only express ourselves in limited ways. I definitely feel these are messages that limit my freedom, that remove my permission to do anything and everything I want to do. They are telling me to sit at the back of the bus and to keep quiet about it.

          So I love how you say “When you let go of result, you are free to be yourself. To me there is no greater beauty than the manifestation of that truth. And I don’t think this truth is static – it changes as you change – as your need to express different aspects of yourself changes. The only constant needs to be your honesty – to yourself – in your work.” This is really poetic stuff! I may have to quote you on this! This expresses exactly what I am pointing at, and its great to know that other people see the same things as I do. Its great to have you along for this discussion!

          Thanks Judy!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        In paragraph 9, “Can I make new fiends?” Freudian slip, or just a typo?

        • Typo, of course! But actually I like it like that, and having something other than what I meant just reinforces the idea that anything and everything should count. We can’t always depend on things working the way we expect, staying in nice clean little boxes, doing the things we want or plan. Life is messy. We are messy.

          Paradoxically only our art is not so messy. When we link it to notions of honesty and authenticity we get this picture of an idealized, clean, homogeneous ‘self’ that stands in the background making all this stuff. But that picture is itself dishonest. We are quite messy. Our lives are chaotic. And if being true to ourselves is what’s important we should maybe be a little more honest in reflecting that.

          Or maybe it is actually more important for our art to be an eye in the center of the storm. An idealized focus that stays calm despite all the hectic irrational clutter, the inconsistent and contradictory batterings we take from the world and our tangled lives in it. So honesty and authenticity, yes. But then don’t just show me how clean and perfect you are. And don’t tell me I’m supposed to be putting out only a single dream of what my work is supposed to be like. That pressure is neither necessary nor inevitable. Beware the monsters!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    This is a really nice thematic summation of what you’ve been going after with the blog lately. Nice one.

    I like the idea of revisiting old beliefs to see which ones I might be better off discarding. One I’ve held until quite recently was the belief that I’d never be a “real potter” or make good pots unless it was my full-time job. One I’m currently trying to dispel is the belief that perfection is worth striving for in the studio. And one that I suspect isn’t doing me any good, but that I doubt I’ll ever find a way to let go of, is that a bottom-heavy pot is fatally flawed, no matter what its other positive attributes may be.

    • Thanks Scott! Yeah, I think my posts lately have been like a school of sharks circling their prey. I’m not quite sure what that thing bleeding and floating just below the surface is yet, but I hope someday I will be ready to pounce and I will taste its flesh and consume its vital energy.

      If I can voice an outsider’s opinion, you are definitely a “real potter” in my books, and a darn good one to boot! But since we are often our own worst critics, I know it can sometimes be difficult to see the progress ourselves. I think you are on the right track, and I would say you do a more interesting job than a lot of folks who have been at it for far longer and with more ‘full time’ commitment.

      It has also been fascinating watching your wrestling match with the great beast ‘perfection’. I think you are in the tenth round, and I have you ahead on points. No knock out blows landed yet, but you have staggered him a few times, and he’s been on the ropes in the last few rounds. Keep on pounding away, protect your chin, beware of his jab, and don’t get seduced by his feints. Keep your feet moving, take good rests between rounds, hydrate, go over what you learn in each round, and psych yourself up for the rest of the match. I know you can take him!

      Yeah, the bottom heavy issue is one I have to tangle with myself. It can be a real turn off in not only in my own pots but in others’. Lack of balance can be a different issue than simply being heavy, and I’m not sure I feel so charitable about pots that seem poorly and unevenly thrown. But I’m glad I had Ron to teach me that being heavy is not always an indication of being poorly thrown. He showed me some of the positives in pots that can have a bit of heft. It always comes down to a matter of taste, but if we only taste the deep fried fatback we may not know that there are also things like bacon and chicken wings. I think the potter who forever changed my mind about this issue was Joe Singewald. Not all his pots are hefty, but I just love the bowl of his I have that weighs enough for three of the same size that I would probably make. But it is brilliant! I just think you haven’t gotten your hands on anything tasty yet. When you come to visit I will make a special tour of all the stout, portly, beefy, and flabby pots I have in my house. And then we can go on the weight watchers tour, and the lean cuisine menu.

    • Scott Cooper says:

      (Damn, I can never figure out which “reply” link I’m supposed to click. Is it just me, or are they missing in spots?)

      Well, I’m proud to be counting among your new fiends. And as such, I’ll give your last comment a bit of the D.A. treatment by saying that I’m aiming for my pots to reflect the best of my various states and circumstances, like a highlight reel, instead of all of them, like a reality TV show. I know the chaos and unintended will inevitably slip in or reveal itself in unintended ways, like a typo, which as you said is fine and interesting, in some measure. But I don’t want those things — the mistakes, the bad days, the foul moods — to run the show. I think the concepts of “craftsmanship” and “quality” depend on making this kind of distinction and then seeking it, and that the messy, uncontrolled aspects of a making life will add some flavor and variety to the mix; a built-in hedge against perfectionism.

      But then again, that’s just me.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        (Yep, sure enough this landed in the wrong place. It’s supposed to go under your May 3, 8:08am comment. User error – sorry!)

      • And this is where I think it makes sense to say that honesty will only get you so far. We need to be honest about our honesty. We have to admit that if we can’t always keep pace with our flux we may need to leave the idea of authenticity behind. Partial authenticity is not authentic. It is a fiction. Scott Cooper with his head lopped off is not Scott Cooper. A fragment is not the whole.

        So why do we pretend it is? If we CAN pull it off, great. But if it is beyond our grasp we just need to say that this is one of the things I like, and that certain things matter more than actually representing my honest and true conditions. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

        So I’m just saying that if we claim honesty we just need to go the distance with it. And I think too many people stop short of that. That is the mythology I am concerned about, not actually that folks do it this way.

        Good clarification Scott! And sorry about lopping your head off…

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Lop away! It’s not like it’s doing me a lot of good attached!

        I think I’m following you now. You’re saying that an artist’s output that does NOT reflect the flux of being alive is by definition inauthentic, at least to some degree, and so why traffic in that kind of justification or rationalization? Right?

        If so, to loop this back around to another bit of chum you’re circling, then authenticity and ‘signature style’ cannot coexist. A generally consistent body of work is an artificial construct, a performance that’s calculated for effect. Yes? And so all the common potter talk about finding your “real” voice, etc, is what — insufficiently examined Romanticism?

        Dangerous assertions. Potentially unpopular. Here come the shark hunters…

        • Yeah, I know this perspective won’t be popular, but that’s why this post is all about questioning our assumptions. If we just go with our cherished and unquestioned belief systems we will be stuck in the dark ages, for better or worse. Slave owners may have felt put out when that was exposed as inhumane, and look how long it has taken for anything approaching equality to manifest. Popularity obviously isn’t enough. Sometimes the truth is painful.

          So yeah, we have all these romanticized visions of what we are doing, and we just don’t think them through very well. At one point in time Joe Smith may have been a pirate, and to base all of his subsequent life’s work on that one moment of time (when that was true about him) is to cling to a fantasy. It makes a hard kernel out of something that was really only ephemeral. If Joe really still is a pirate, then maybe this attitude remains authentic. But most of us move on. Most of us change in subtle and dramatic ways. And rather than examining how we are evolving, how our tastes are changing, we sometimes make particular momentary truths into monuments that we struggle to build the rest of our lives around. Instead of being true to ourselves we become true to this romanticized vision. A signature style may have a lot going for it commercially, but rarely is it authentic in more than a narrow sense of having chained ourselves to a habit. It is more the cart being put in front of the horse, to be honest.

          Claiming honesty and authenticity is a heavy burden. We typically flaunt those words in such casual ways. And the shark hunters are mostly rowing leaky boats and using rusted harpoons. In fact, the harpoons I have actually seen appear to be blunt and unthreatening. If I just wait long enough they will probably capsize or sink on their own. The question will be whether I let them swim back to shore. But I’m basically a nice guy, right? If their fantasies also serve as life preservers I will let them swim lamely away. But maybe they will learn to swim on their own, cast off their assumptions, and join the pack of sharks themselves. That’s what I’m hoping for, at least.

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    Nice shark metaphor! So I take it that means that we, your loyal readers, are like the diver in the safety cage, floating just below the surface, watching with a mixture of awe and terror as we await the final deathblow?

    I suppose the polite response to my public self criticism regarding the “real potter” thing is reassurance and compliments — thanks for being such a generous host. Sorry if chumming the water like that just distracts from the issue you’re focusing on here. It was the first thing that came to mind on the subject of discardable beliefs. I’m currently simmering a post on that issue on a mental back-burner, and it keeps boiling over when I least expect it.

    I like your Ultimate Fighting analogy, too. Me and Perfectionism in a cage match; winner take all. Only problem is that I’ve never been in an actual fight in my life, and he’s hit me in the face so much that I’m punch-drunk and just trying to run away. And he’s starting to get that crazy gleam in his eye that says he just might go for an ear or something as time expires…

    And that’s a good distinction between weight and balance. Perhaps similar to the originality vs. authenticity one you were making earlier? I can imagine how great it would have been to have Ron Meyers demonstrate the difference — his were the first really thick pots that I held in my hands and still loved. I’d really appreciate a tour of those examples; there aren’t many good, weighty pots out here in the hinterlands. Interesting that this is one of those things with pots that is simply impossible to share or learn in this virtual space — you’ve got to meet them in person. Vaguely reassuring that such things still exist, come to think of it.

    • Hah! I wouldn’t be too sure about the safety cage, though! It seems a little rickety, and before you know it you might be out in the open water with me. And maybe with so much blood in the water I might get confused about what the target is. Some of my readers might start to smell like thrashing and bleeding morsels. I think I made that mistake with you a few posts back, and almost made it with Judy above. Too much chum in the water makes my head dizzy. And before you know it there is a feeding frenzy.

      So I’m also counting on folks to talk me down. Or alternately to join my little band of hunters, to circle more prey, and to help snare the ones that are about to get away. So while I almost took a bite out of you a while back I definitely appreciate your presence in these waters and Judy’s too, and Tracey, and Cara, and Becky, and Ron, and Michael, and Tom, and Brandon, and all the other hunters after truth. This thing is way too big for me to handle on my own. Whatever small bites my appetite can provide won’t end up making much difference if the leviathan of legend and superstition is only being attacked by this one small pest.

      So come out of the cages you all. Maybe if we can gang up on the great beast we can sink it!

      And before I go, I believe you have the beating of this ‘perfectionism’ antagonist. Just remember my advice: Keep those feet dancing, keep your chin protected, hydrate, and eventually you will find his weak spot. Then you can lay in the killer blow and fell the boogeyman once and for all! I believe in you. I know you can do it! But KEEP THAT CHIN PROTECTED!

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    Cue JAWS theme music…

  5. john bauman says:

    You can’t stick your hands into the kiln, nor empirically test every possibility with every pot’s: glaze, glaze thickness, glaze formulation, wall variables, clay variables, etc.

    So we potters stand — not quite equally, but more equally than we want to believe — on two legs: “science” and lore.

    Tradition or lore has a way of kicking smartass, know-it-all youth (like me) in the…you know….pants. Especially in this age of new “enlightenment” when we have arrogantly come to believe that in that civilization-long tension between science and philosophy, we are darn near knocking on the front door of the “House of Knowing Everydamnthing”… instead of standing where is our probably more likely locus of having just let go of the garden gate and in our first steps of the sidewalk-long journey toward that door.

    And so we look at traditions that cannot be adequately defended to our “empirical*” satisfaction, and we dismiss those traditions as quaint. Probably even stupid.

    But we often dismiss them at our peril. And we often do so in the mistaken assurance we put in the superiority of novelty, or in the mistaken belief that what we are replacing such tradition/lore with is empiricism that we will, in time, find out is just today’s lore/tomorrow’s tradition, to be tested and used or eschewed. Arriving is an illusion. Wisdom is pragmatic.

    *interesting etymological study: “empirical”.

    • I would say (and have in recent posts) that things like novelty are as riddled with folk lore as what they intend to replace. And empiricism and science aren’t a holy gift of the ultimate true knowledge. Those are ways of looking at things that have their own shortcomings as well: They don’t explain everything, and it is wrong to suggest that they do. And even the things they explain well are really only one version of how we look at things, and not always the best for all purposes. But how do we know? Well, by taking a look, for instance. By not simply accepting it on faith, just because someone told you it was.

      So you misunderstand me if you think I am trying to put something on a pedestal as the one right way of looking at things. I think we are often right to question our assumptions. And that means anything and everything is open to scrutiny. And maybe this is especially important if, as you suggest, we are newly toddling forth into the world. We don’t want to get hit by passing cars, after all.

      Sometimes we examine things and can live with our beliefs in clear conscience, and sometimes we look at them and realize we are selling ourselves short or that we are justifying what we do on pretty flimsy grounds. And maybe that’s alright in some circumstances. Quaint traditions have their appeal, do they not? But don’t you want to check to make sure? Don’t you want to see if there are speeding cars on the street? And so it often pays to look around and see how things work.

      What I’m suggesting is that, like you say, “wisdom is pragmatic”. And if our quaint customs make us happy, so much the better. But if we pretend they are justified in other ways (than merely making us happy), well, is that true? Are we being honest when we say we are? Are we being ‘authentic’ when that is what we are claiming? Are we being original when we justify all our work with this mantra? And, I guess, all I’m asking is whether there are reasons we should care.

      If we say things that are blatantly fictitious will it get us into trouble? Sometimes maybe yes, and sometimes maybe no. But is it always pragmatic to bury our heads in the sand, to daydream and to lie to ourselves and others? Well, why not? And how would we know? If arriving is an illusion, is there anything that counts as progress? Is that an illusion too? If we dismiss all our cherished traditions only at our peril, are we truly better off without slavery and with equality for all people’s and genders? Are these ideals things we should continue to strive for or were we better off when the world was divided more clearly along gender lines and skin color? Are we in fact better served by our superstitions, our ignorance, and by our suspicion of the unfamiliar?

      I’m not saying I have necessary answers, but the questions seem important. And I’m not saying that when we show some cherished belief up as dubious that there is some miracle ‘right’ answer waiting in the wings. Unless we examine that as well we won’t know if we are merely trading the bad for worse.

      So what quaint traditions do YOU think we can stand to look at? Anything? Novelty obviously. Anything else?

  6. john bauman says:

    in other words….

    Hey! Those aren’t monsters! Those are….


  7. john bauman says:

    Oh, I don’t think I’m arguing with you any more than you with me. I think we’re making our way slowly around a circle, hoping to find each other’s point of entry.

    I’ve marveled of late how much (and here I tread carefully, knowing as I do that usually examples lead to rabbit trails rather than clarification) a single book’s influence has fueled seemingly a whole new generation of pseudo-intellectuals with a misunderstanding of some epistemological principles.

    Not so long ago….as the crow publishes…a very popular book published a truncated list of “Logic Fallacies” — a list that every high school or college philosophy class (I had it in bothe) surely introduced to its students. The list contained such fallacies as “ad hominem”, “red herring”, “arguing from authority”, etc.

    The curious twist is that these new intellectuals have come away from that book armed with these “rules”….all the while failing to understand that they are not nails in ones epistemological coffin any more than they are good stones for philosophical foundations.

    What those folks newly armed with this list seem to have failed to comprehend is that the presence of any of these “Fallacies” in an argument don’t refute the argument or disprove the thesis. They are more like signposts that perhaps a failed epistemology is present.

    Thus, if Al Capone tells you that your zipper is down, you may still want to check it — Al’s character notwithstanding. But if Al tells you he’s go some property in Florida he’d like to sell you…well….I’d be checking my zipper still.

    • Scott Cooper says:


      This is interesting, but I’m unclear on how it relates to Carter’s discussion above. Are you saying that as we examine beliefs or traditions to see what might be worth discarding, that we need to beware “pseudo-intellectual” types of analysis, like oversimplifying Logical Fallacies?

      Or maybe you’re suggesting something else entirely?

      • john bauman says:

        I’m afraid that, of this not being my own blog, I felt the freedom to leave rabbit trails all over Carter’s. <—-insert laugh track.

        Actually, was (I think) responding more to the philosophical issue of eschewing traditions. And I fear that we are at a point in our culture wherein we might just be holding two false assumptions about traditions:

        1. That because the rationale behind a tradition's institution may be long gone –or otherwise obscure, that that tradition is therefore not based in a very hard reality. (maybe as a pottery example I might point to the many "myths" about firing schedules that were coming into question….only to have been later found to be rooted in facts that weren't mechanically verifiable at the time the traditional schedules were developed?)

        2. that traditions are a stricture holding back creativity rather than a structure that promotes it.

        I'm thankful as can be for the explosion of knowledge that has affected the pottery world in the 33 years I've been making my living this way. Oxyprobes demystifying reduction, cheap thermocouples backing up cones, better materials…

        …but I was and am basically a folk potter, living in the world of trial-and-error and glaze RECIPES, and throwing lore, and passion for that potter’s raison d’être that, like distant and faint constellations, sometimes grow fainter the harder and more directly we stare at them. And I’m so often delighted by how often my fellow folk potters turn out to be correct, even when we didn’t know why. Living it day to day — and surviving — lends great intuition.

        Just needlessly defending tradition. That’s all. Just as almost everything I’ve written in CM was about defending the potter (though the potter didn’t need my boost either). <—-he said, smiling.

        • I am amazed that this discussion has generated so much food for thought. I also wonder if anyone will have the patience to wade through all our rambling to get all the way down to these last few comments….

          John, I totally sympathize with your jumping to the defense of our honest traditions in the pottery world. I hope you don’t think I am attacking all traditions per se, or that I have something against the traditions of potters in particular. Quite the opposite in fact. Some of these prejudices and superstitions I am so bothered about are prejudices against potters. In other words, that we have to fight for recognition in our culture, in academia, and in the institutions like museums and galleries because in the art world there has been a recent rejection of beauty as a sufficient qualification of art, of craftsmanship as something worthwhile, and of function as a viable platform for artistic expression.

          Those are bigger ‘monsters’ than most we have to deal with, and I’m not at all happy about their ‘quaint acceptance’ in our culture at large. And I don’t think its good enough that a handful of folks have seen through the inequity. When prejudice is still pervasive, the odds are still stacked against the ones being discriminated against. Just ask folks around you in all walks of life. A world where prejudice is allowed to flourish is a world with problems (in my book).

          So things like the perception of beauty as irrelevant, that beauty is insufficient, pottery as something anachronistic, the need for art to be wholly original, novelty for the sake of novelty, that the true artist somehow expresses their untainted uninfluenced soul, that we can’t borrow ideas, that we can’t steal them, that we can’t profit from the hard work of others but have to reinvent the wheel every time by ourselves, that there isn’t in fact a huge crosspollination of influences just below the surface, that inspiration is for sissies, that we can’t experiment however and whenever we want to, that we have to express only one particular ‘voice’, and that if our interests don’t somehow fit that narrow box we are not permitted to try doing these different things, that a signature style is necessary and inevitable, that we have to teach students only the way we do things ourselves, that somehow we won’t be poorer for having pottery no longer taught at the university level, etc., etc., etc.,….

          Here there be plenty of monsters, in my opinion. And all these quaint traditions of prejudice and superstition that have become an impediment to the potters’ way of life, that have served to marginalize us and to disenfranchise us just makes me sad. I’m sure some of it makes you sad as well. But what do we do about it? Accept it lying down? Turn the other cheek? Turn our backs on the bullies and haters who threaten us? Retreat to a fantasy world where everything is ponies and unicorns and rainbows and cotton candy? Cling to romanticized visions of who we are and what we do? Stop talking to people who don’t already ‘get’ us? Pretend that just because we are able to make a living that the health of potters is somehow assured?

          So just what are we supposed to do? If the world is perfect, then we can go on doing things just like we do. But what if its not? What if there are real problems that people have to face everyday? What if there are mistakes being made, false beliefs that impinge on what we do and are permitted to do? What if certain myths and superstitions actually effect us? If there are no consequences to being wrong, then nothing we do will matter. If it is out of our hands anyway, then we can go back to sleep, or just cry in a corner. But what if its not? What if it really matters how we respond to these issues? What if future generations of potters will suffer or flourish, sink or swim, based on what we do and decide today? What if our generation stands at a crossroads of history and how we respond really matters? What if the issue is bigger than just me being able to make a living?

          So what do you think? Are we already living in a utopia? Are we close to the ideal situation for all potters? For some but not all? Could it be better? Is it simply not our responsibility? Do we care? Does the hatred and ignorance of the world simply not matter unless I am personally being effected by it? Are misinformed prejudices at worst an inconvenience, as long as you are outside the blast zone? Does ignorance only matter if you are standing on the wrong side of it?

          Maybe I just worry too much. Maybe as long as we feel unthreatened and secure, or helpless and impotent, it just doesn’t matter….

      • john bauman says:

        Carter, I think we’re in compete agreement. And I need an editor (or the patience to proof read better. sorry for all the typos)

  8. john bauman says:

    heh. I got pulled away and back to work mid-thought. (darn those etsy sales, anyway!)

  9. It’s a by-product of my ADHD mind, and my lack of a dominant brain, that I can hold no beliefs about my work that would hold me back– not for long, anyway. Of course conversely, I have a hard time holding the beliefs that serve me too. It’s a terrible way to live, but somehow I was chosen to do it, the idiot savant of potters.
    It’s tangible things holding me back these days. Do I have the courage to hook up the kiln by myself? Can I successfully bisque fire in the gas kiln, or do I expend the resources to go the expedient electric way?
    Do I invest in the place I’m currently renting, or do I buy land? Can I stay in this area, or should I move to an area with an established community of potters?
    All of these things will be addressed and worked out over time . . . that’s a belief I’m clinging to!

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Hi Cara,

      That’s interesting, because while I have very similar tangible questions, my mind tends to work at the opposite end of the spectrum. Beliefs are hard won and then they really stick, both the beneficial and malevolent kinds. So I have to wonder about the intersection of beliefs, or lack of them, and making pragmatic decisions like the ones you listed. Any ideas?

    • That’s an interesting response Cara! Part of me is very envious of your mind’s flexibility. I think sometimes I am too stubborn. As most people have probably picked up by now, I am somewhat obsessive, and a worrywart.

      So some of my concerns are not for just me personally, but for the bigger picture. I’m not just worried about the beliefs that stand in my way but those that stand in our way, or in the way of my friends, students, and fellow potters, or people in general. In other words, (for instance) just because I’m not a racist or a bigot doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about racism or bigotry.

      Good luck with the tangible practical things!

      • Cara De Celles says:

        Scott, when I first read this blog, I dismissed totally the idea that I held any ‘beliefs’ about my clay work that held me back. Yet when I read your response I could identify with each and every citation. Especially heavy bottoms and unbalanced pots. It probably seems absurd, the idea that popped in and took seed, but I disliked intensely the idea of trimming a pot– it seemed to me (one of those spiritual ideas again!) that the lump of clay was sorted in that way, as that particular lump, because it belonged together, and it was this seminal idea that morphed into the altered legged or skirted shapes that became my ‘signature.’ I wasn’t looking for a style, but I found one, or it found me. I wasn’t focused on the technical aspect, but allowing myself to work out what was bothering me, and finding a way to integrate my feelings about it without guilt, fear (I fail a lot!), or disdain worked.
        My studio experience is this: sometimes I am bigger than the clay, and sometimes the clay is bigger than me. I believe it’s this give and take that seems to be missing from the work of those who seem to have ‘arrived.’ They are always in control of the clay! I don’t begrudge anyone this, I can’t deny how normal I imagine it would feel if I could sit and make the same thing over and over, to recreate success at will, and how secure that seems inside my head. The truth is, in life and in clay, this is not my reality. So Carter, the envy is mutual!
        I don’t know if this is what you’re asking, but this is the way I typically work. I am moved by an idea, and I explore it. I don’t draw out a design– that feels redundant (wasn’t it Victor Hugo who quipped ‘Art cannot be redundant’?). I sit down at the wheel and begin. I like to start large, when I have more energy, and I work smaller as I tire. I don’t typically have a shape in mind as I work, I center and open, and lift, and I let the clay inform me. Look, how many shapes/forms are there? Cylinder, bowl, plate? Up, in, and out (repeat)!
        If something works I may explore it until I feel like I can move on, or I may move on because it ‘worked.’ When I’ve done all the throwing I can in a day, I’ll look at the shapes and forms, and play with some, joining and or altering as ideas present themselves.
        Sometimes I’ll work in a certain process/type or body of work until I’m done with it, and typically that happens when I’ve explored it completely, and it’s given me everything I feel it has to offer. Or until it bores me, or some other idea germinates that requires intense exploration.
        Sometimes I’ll come back to a previously explored idea after being away from it for awhile, usually because an ‘aha’ idea has whispered, ‘what if we do this?’
        As for the tangibles, I have to work out ideas inside my head before Iwill even begin. I have to be able to see it completely, and then visualize each step, and collect every tool and material I know I’m going to need. I love to talk things through, process every what if, pick brains, and thoroughly research ad nauseum, and I don’t force it. I have learned to trust that it will happen in time, and that it will be perfect– and until then I’m right where I’m meant to be. The waiting is frustrating, and I don’t do that well, but there’s always something that needs to be done. Sometimes moving on to another project will shake loose what’s been holding me back. There’s usually a very good reason I’m not there yet– when that’s revealed I can move on!
        As for the bigger picture? I’m glad you’re there, Carter, to address that. I believe the students you have are in good hands– teaching the basics and encouraging exploration, not only of the medium, but also of themselves…. does it get any better?

        • Wow! Cara you say some of the most incredible and insightful things! Sometimes I feel like there is a parallel mind you are expressing, or that we are somehow nearly intellectual twins. This is pretty much how I feel with Scott most of the time (when he’s not prodding me with his devil’s advocacy).

          And I guess this just reinforces the silliness that people are clinging to when they can’t stand to not be original or to share certain things with others. Probably 75% of what you said could have come from my keyboard. And isn’t that delightful! That more than one person can share ways of doing things and ways of looking at the world? I find this amazing and also comforting. I don’t have to come up with it all myself because there are so many people out there that are smarter than me I can learn from. And yet instead of realizing how small the world already is some folks want to make it even tinier and shut out anything that didn’t start with their own consciousness. They want to own as much of it as they can, and they greedily lay claim to everything that they think (in their infinite wisdom and omniscient perspicacity) originated with them.

          And really, its all mostly been done before. But greedy minds are usually not big enough to see this. They miss all the connections and undercurrents of sharing that are INEVITABLE as a part of being human. As long as they didn’t see someone else’s version they feel they can plant their own flag in an idea and claim ownership. Its as if we are what we own, and the fact of owning is more important than the things themselves.

          OK, I’m ranting again. But isn’t it telling that when you are preaching to the choir being original isn’t really an issue? It simply doesn’t matter when some folks share the same way of looking at things. People are OK with that. They are content to share because owning things isn’t the only important thing. Owning things isn’t the only valuable contribution we can make. Claiming proprietorship over all we can and not being open to sharing actually seems to make the world poorer. “You can’t have that because its mine!” just sounds so petty when the truth is that we share these things all the time, unwittingly, accidentally, unconsciously, and coincidentally (After all, just what is a ‘coincidence’?). It sort of reminds me of the kids who get upset and go home taking their ball with them. They would rather have it their own way and enforce their ownership than to be a part of something much larger or to leave the ‘ball’ behind for others to look after and so the game can continue. (I can’t seem to stop once I get started, so let me just terminate my rant right here)

          Thanks for sharing your wisdom! Learning new things from others just means that I get to agree more! Aren’t I lucky! I’m not alone on top of my very own mountain (with its “No trespassing!” signs), but I’m shaking hands and breaking bread down in the valley with my fellow travelers, friends, strangers, acquaintances, teachers and students.

  10. I can go one step further regarding that silliness but I’ll refrain. I haven’t offended anyone here yet, or at least you’ve been quite gracious enough not to say so. In fact, the encouragement I’ve received has been incredibly refreshing. It takes me a long time to say what I want/need to say (nothing like stating the obvious, eh?) and sometimes even longer for the idea to marinate and germinate in my head before I can put it out there. Even then I do so with a lot of trepidation– I seem so easily to step on toes! So thank you for dancing Carter!
    I am intrigued by your comment regarding the smallness of greedy minds and our world diminishing as a result. So taking it one step further I see that we diminish ourselves for the sake of proprietary right, or claim to ownership. I believe I can see this as a microcosm of the bigger picture, too. Magnanimity certainly has more appeal to me personally, and it clearly expresses my idealized world view. Selfishness will be it’s own reward. Obviously these seeds need time to germinate– thanks for letting me play!

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