Vacation can be good for digestion

Howdy all,

I’m back from my vacation visiting the folks in Cape May NJ. 10 days spent wallowing in the surf and dangling my toes in the waves while reading a new favorite author (Neal Stephenson as per Scott Cooper’s recommendation) has restored me. I hope.

Can’t wait to get my hands back in the clay, but one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that sometimes the time off is where I make my biggest creative advances. Its as if putting my nose to the grindstone without let up doesn’t give me a proper chance to digest all the things I am experiencing and thinking. Its as if I can’t see the bigger picture because I’m so focused in the moment. I sometimes need the distance so that I can stand back and absorb the lessons that are being thrown at me. Standing too close to the process I feel I am buffeted about and mostly playing catch-up to the swirl of information.

So now I’m back home and ready to do some experimenting with that decoration issue that I spent several thousand words and countless hours trying to get my head around. I have ideas, but the way things look in the cold light of reality only rarely turn out as glorious as they appear in my imagination. I suppose that’s the curse of working mostly by intuition. I tend to let things happen to see what new things I can learn. I move through discovery and letting the process inform the directions rather than being a planner and a plotter and having all my ideas carefully mapped out in advance. This seems to be related to my lack of 2D imagination (to me, at least). But maybe its a skill I can learn and not something we are either born with or born without.

Of course I should have taken some 2D classes while I was in school, but my path to ceramics graduate school was not as an art undergrad. Somehow they let me in the back door, and by then it was either too late, or I was permitted to carry on as if I already had a well rounded creative background. So I mostly learned by playing around on the wheel, and my fascination with pottery form has always outweighed my interest in the surfaces and especially in its decoration.

And of course when I got exposed to atmospheric firings in wood kilns and salt or soda kilns I found a surface treatment that had all the spontaneity and serendipity that I was working to put into my throwing. A perfect match, I thought. Purposeful decorating was the furthest thing from my mind. But when I was forced to move to firing my pots in an electric kiln I suddenly had a problem with how I was supposed to finish my surfaces. I have basically spent the last 5 years making mostly poor glazing decisions trying to reinvent myself as something other than a wood firing potter.

It took me most of that 5 years to figure out some glazes that have the random serendipitous character of an atmospheric firing, but of course I now have suddenly convinced myself that some purposeful decoration is probably the best way forward. So its back to square one of the learning curve, and countless more pots sacrificed to my ignorance and dismal 2D imagination. At least I have a fabulous Brandon Phillips brush to help make my feeble scrawling look acceptable (once again courtesy of my fairy godpotter Scott Cooper!).

Now for the adventure of figuring out if brushwork can be used in combination with my current glaze palette….

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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9 Responses to Vacation can be good for digestion

  1. Lee Love says:

    I don’t know that 2D would help a potter be a better planner (I do recommend drawing to help folks “See”.) You can be as improvisational on paper as you are in clay. One of the most important aspects of my traditional apprenticeship with Tatsuzo Shimaoka, was knowing what I wanted the final product to look like, before I sat at the wheel. The most important way this is developed is working from a model. In a traditional setting, you are given a model of the form you are assigned to learn and gauges that give you the diameter and inside height. You typically make thousands of these forms, hundreds before any are kept. It is like school figures in skating or doing scales for the musician, or target practice for the marksman. Before learning this way, when throwing, I typically followed any mistakes and let my lack of skill, my lack of ability to make what I initially intended to make, dictate what I ended up with.
    A person doesn’t have to work this way forever, but working from a model in the begining allows you to develop the basic skills. It is one of the major aspects in which traditional apprenticeships differ from University Studio arts programs.
    With my teacher’s work, there was added forethought embedded in the process because most of the decoration was done before the work was bisqued. His rope impression and slip inlay were the primary decoration. So, the design started when you picked the clay, because different clays were used with different inlay.
    Now, when I work, I know what I will make before I pick up the clay. The really great thing about this, is that it is really freeing because when you sit down, you already have a map of what you will do.
    The Minnesota State Arts Board has a grant program for Traditional/Folk craft. I am writing up a proposal. One of the things I want to do is offer a 3 month intensive for folks between H.S. and college and between undergrad and MFA. I can help folks arm themselves with these craft skills before they get indoctrinated into the cult of “self expression at any cost.”

    • You are so right that improvisation is not encouraged or limited by the medium. Its the discipline and imagination that count. I guess what I was trying to express was that my methodology for throwing left me totally clueless about how to even imagine my pots decorated. Every time I have set out to decorate with brushstrokes I have almost always ruined perfectly good forms.

      So your analogy of the map is a good one. If you start out knowing where you are going the map is helpful. But if you don’t even know how to use the map, or where you want to end up, the map does you no good. You can just wander into any old sketchy neighborhood or cul de sac. You might even wander off a cliff side if you are not careful. So the tradition of working from a model is a good means of pointing a student in at least one good direction: You know how to read the map, you know how to apply it, and you get the chance to walk the same path thousands of times until it becomes second nature. Good skills to have!

      I hope your grant gets backed. It sounds like a great opportunity for aspiring potters to get a foundation in the crafts skills you practice. One of my main beefs with the fine arts these days is that this rampant self expression, while in one sense is healthy, is also alienating and not always a good advocate for the human creative potential. I see the value in freedom of expression, but even a good thing carried to extremes can lose its justification…. No wonder school systems have a difficult time doling out dollars for arts education when its often a case of ‘anything goes’, the more outlandish, obscure, or controversial the better. More on that another time (before my ranting gets in full swing!)….

  2. Linda Starr says:

    You’re right about those vacations, even day trips seem to help gain perspective and inspiration, so glad you had a good time. I wish it wasn’t so long ago I took 2d I am way out of practice for just about everything I used to do. I used to do a fair amount of india ink architectural drawings and now I can’t seem to get perspective correct without so many dismal failures. What can we do but keep trying. I have an art center near me I may sign up for the next group of a classes, just don’t want to spread myself too thin. I have one of Brandon’s brushes and I love it.

    • Yeah, day trips or just about anything different from the studio norm can be good for getting that necessary distance. I seem to remember hearing that sleep was when we do most of our serious processing of new information. Just what does that say about our need for separation to get perspective?

      I’m envious you at least had the 2D in your background. Should be something to rebuild your foundation on top of instead of just starting from scratch. I hope you get to take the class and that it doesn’t spread you too thin. You might even decide to set clay aside for a bit to make it happen. Who knows, maybe switching gears for a few weeks will pay off in unexpected ways when you dig your hands back into the mud. Just thinking out loud here….

      I love it that so many of my pottery blogger friends have Brandon’s brushes! I need to do a better job of spreading the word at the studio where I teach. There are a number of students I can think of who would benefit from a top quality brush.

      Thanks for chiming in! See you around the internet!

  3. Judy Shreve says:

    Vacations are the best and I agree that time away from your work can help all your ideas percolate to the surface.

    I have only one small bit of advice about working out new surface designs. I would make some 6″ tiles to try out your ideas. And if you need to see movement with your brushwork, make dozens of small bowls off the hump.

    Then all that work you throw away during the learning curve – doesn’t seem so difficult. It’s easy to work those small test pieces throughout your kiln.

    I have a couple of Brandon’s brushes — they are truly wonderful to use!

    • Thanks Judy! I always do tiles as a first line of sight on new glazes before committing myself to mixing up batches. What often happens is that my tiles are too small for me to read what the glaze looks like on pots, and I end up blowing all my bisqueware on poorly understood glazes. Lately I have been making small 2-3 inch cups to see a glaze’s potworthiness. For some reason I still end up ruining good bisqued pots on glaze combinations that looked good in miniature….

      The whole decorating issue seems to translate from test tiles to actual pots even less, but I know you are right that at least practicing basic brushstrokes, etc., means tons of repetition. One of my ideas involves brushed slip or stain directly on the clay surface, so I could practice the strokes without needing to fire anything, and only glaze the ones I think worked out most interestingly. I think Sequoia Miller said he learned his brushwork with ink on paper.

      Ron Philbeck had a great post a while back that made the excellent case that learning to decorate was as deserving of time commitment (practice) as any other part of the labor process. The effort and time I spent splitting and hauling wood for the anagama should be considered as the same kind of preparation for firing as practicing decorating is. They should be equivalent in how I approach my work. Too bad my decorating so obviously sucks right now. I’d almost rather split wood in the hot Georgia sun than doodle around with a brush….

      Glad you like your Brandon Brushes! I have high hopes for mine!

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    I’m happy to recommend Neal Stephenson books to anybody, and I will send a free BP brush to anyone who sends me a Michael Simon pot. Guaranteed.

    However, sorry to say that I think you’ve confused fairy godpotters with the little devil that sits on your shoulder, opposite the good guy. I know, the wings can be confusing. And I can see how my pitchfork might look like a wand in dim lighting, especially to the 2D-challenged.

    • Hilarious! But you must be just warming up to some devilish abyss with angelic misdirection. So far I have not been led noticeably astray, and all your coercion and suggestion have gotten me more out of trouble than in it. It could just be that with your well established devil’s advocacy I’m always primed to read between the lines and just assume the most favorable interpretation. But then I suppose you are also right that with my numerous perceptive failures that wand I see you holding could quite possibly be the pitchfork you claim it is. Just don’t tell me the BP brush was all a ploy to convert me to the dark side of pot decorators who don’t care about the forms! My battered woodfiring soul is already suffering a crisis of surface faith as it is!

  5. Scott Cooper says:

    Yep – welcome to the Darkside! You’ll never care about form again! (For example, look at Brandon’s pots. It’s bloody obvious that that guy don’t care a lick for form; it’s just brushwork, brushwork, brushwork. Ha – as if!)

    And you’re correct to say “so far”. There’s no statute of limitations on the whole “may speak with honeyed tongue” business. He he he.

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