I’m finally back from my vacation visiting my folks in the lovely town of Cape May NJ. A much needed break but a happy return to what is my life as a potter in Athens GA….
So, the break was good, seeing my parents was great, and I managed to get my once yearly dose of TV fixation out of the way. Fortunate for me my visit coincided with the Olympics! In the space of a single day I had watched more Olympics on TV than I had seen anything else on TV for the sum total of the previous 12 months. There were so many competitions and events that stood out, and some of the performances were truly inspiring.
If you didn’t catch the US women’s semi-final and final soccer matches you missed out on some fabulous athletic skills, intense competition, and some highly emotional drama. What sums the experience up best for me is the anecdote of a 15 year old boy getting the chance to meet and speak with Abby Wambach, the US women’s stalwart goal scoring forward, and telling her that when he grows up he wants to be a women’s soccer player…. How’s THAT for inspiration!
Sports can seem trivial compared to many issues facing us, buy it will always be an important reminder of some of the values that are worth aspiring to. Olympic sport is a humbling example of human endeavor in which we pit ourselves against the odds. It is the crucible where a person gets defined. Hero or goat. Its the pressure where sometimes diamonds are wrought and sometimes coal…. Sport will always be an opportunity for us to challenge the limits and give it our best shot. And so, sport will always offer up the human drama of triumph and tragedy, of let down and of giving our all. At the very least it tells a human story, one that can be related to many other facets of a human life.
So that got me thinking about how pottery would fit in the Olympics. In my mind pottery is not so much about the pot as an end result, a disconnected object, whichever pot gets to stand on the podium and those left behind, but all of the many things that are the result of a process and execution. Pottery making is more a performance than merely the the ho-hummery of getting to the thing we end up with. The process matters. Not to argue that the pot itself isn’t nice, but what comes out of the kiln tells only a small part of the story….
(Which is why I always thought that critiques that only discuss finished work fail to uncover all the really interesting stuff: The decision making, the false starts, the wrong turns, and the hurdles overcome…. It would be like saying the race was only that number on the clock rather than what it took to get there. Its not just the time on the stopwatch, but whether you kept within the lines, committed no foot faults, got over each barrier successfully, and hit the water cleanly. To get that time took incredible amounts of practice and training. Performance and execution.)
So I thought pot making had at least a bit of similarity to events in the Olympics. Take things like the platform and springboard diving and gymnastics: What is important is knowing the forms we are attempting and hitting our marks at all the important points. Artistic flourishes are icing on the cake. And in reality it is a competition with ourselves, to do the best that we can personally do. Two and a half somersault with a half twist and pike position….
The interesting thing is that while potters make ‘standard’ types of forms, cups and bowls, etc, the similarity is often a general one. Like saying that all cups contain and convey liquid. This is as informative as saying that a pair of shoes, a bicycle, a horse and buggy, and a space rocket are all means of containing and conveying transportation…. Potters and other artists are notorious for setting up their own events, and comparing their performances would be like trying to judge between a platform dive and a floor exercise. Or the balance beam and the uneven bars…. A small soup bowl and a large salad bowl. A pasta bowl and a plate…..
But if we’ve done this pottery thing long enough we usually know very well where we are aiming. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we are oh so close. We practice hard and refine our technique and execution. We train rigorously. Our muscle memory repeats the steps until we can make them in our sleep. We don’t have to think too much about what we are doing. We already know it. Our bodies know it. We strive for the right technique so there will be no point deductions. Its just you and the wheel and the clay and some water. Ready, set, go! And we hope the performance will bring out the best in us.
But maybe making pots is also a bit like the team sports where the results are not always just in one person’s control. Or personal control is a smaller part of it than the execution of pure technique. We do our part in bringing the form to life, decorating it and putting it in a kiln. But no matter how well we’ve prepared and executed, there is often a part that escapes our rigor. We aim our passes, and the kiln takes what we’ve given it and either scores the goal, passes it back to us, to someone else, or muffs the shot. Our performance is only part of the story. If our pots know anything about serendipity they know what its like to be a part of a team effort.
And maybe also like in team sports (other than synchronized swimming!) while the result is what you are aiming for it won’t be achieved simply on technical merits. Sometimes quick thinking and improvisation are how we achieve our results, having a plan, but being ready to turn on a dime as things change. Sometimes the ones who win are the ones who adapted best, who exploited their own strengths to their best advantage given the circumstances. Sometimes its not always pressing the point you start out with but learning to interpret the situation given changing factors. In other words, its not always about copying a form but dynamic exploration….
But sometimes its not a team effort and its not us against ourselves- it is several individual competitors on the same track at once. Sometimes its not always about artistic interpretation and one’s own execution but about getting pinned to the mat. Sometimes its not whether we were able to lift the weight cleanly but the exotic criteria the judges are scoring for and when they are prepared to blow the whistle that counts. If the fastest heats advance to the next round, then the ones who fall short miss the cut. They were not fast enough. They didn’t score enough points. Or something. If its ‘by any means necessary within the rules’ then we are not being judged on form. And that seems important…. (Are blue glazed pots ‘cheating’? Like inferior or injured athletes doping with performance enhancing drugs?)
Having missed the cut two years in a row at the local pottery mega-event, I can relate to this. And if I lost my spot in the finals to another worthy potter, just where did I go wrong? Sometimes its true that potters are judged in competition with other potters. What are the criteria that seem to count in pottery events? Is a good pot necessarily always a pot that should be entered in a competition? Are there things besides (or in addition to) ‘quality’ that seem to matter? Do we always train up in ways that are calculated to win the medals? Are we always aiming for gold? Are we sometimes just happy to have been invited? Do we sometimes even know what the judges tend to score for? In the Olympics they are at least trying to be transparent. There are standards. “Do this well and you score high”. Can we say the same for all pottery events and galleries? Is there a universal standard? Does that even make sense? Does each gallery or event promote its own ideals? Are there trends? Is it a crap shoot of personal bias for who the jury is going to be? What does this say about our profession?
That’s all for now.
Happy potting all! Make beauty real!