Art is experienced very differently depending on what side of the production one stands. An audience gets to see the finished product. What it doesn’t see is all the hard work and decision making that went into it. What it sees is the results of creativity, how creativity was embodied, not how it was conceived; Its full fledged adulthood, not how it was born; Not the difficult gestation, not the careful nurturing, not always the creativity itself. It sees the polished performance, not the tedious awkward stumbling that precedes that more consumer friendly version. They read the published book rather than the half baked drafts that came before. They miss out on all that god awful laborious editing. Honing…. The actual creative process is often an invisible mine strewn field of slow starts, backtracking, drudgery, blisters, back ache, and heartbreak….
And so, for beginner artists there is often this deception about what they are undertaking. There can be this romantic presumption that what they are attempting is as easy as ‘the pros’ make it look. They imagine it a simple matter of just doing it the way that those guys are doing it. What could be so difficult? It looks like a simple object/action/technique. How hard is that?
What they don’t see is the hidden costs of such proficiency. The years of toil are not so obvious when an experienced artist makes things look easy. And knowing a little about what the finished product looks like sometimes only stands in the way. Beginners who know so little about getting from A to B can still aspire to visions of masterly perfection. And this can cloud their appreciation of what beginner work actually is supposed to look like. Not knowing any different, beginners often fail to see all the intermediate steps that will eventually lead them to their aspirations. If they only know the art from the outside, then they have not yet learned to see it from the inside, where it can look anything but the tidy glossy and scrubbed end products. They simply haven’t yet learned what it takes to get their hands dirty, to suffer sleepless nights, and to be so wrapped up in creating that they forget to eat, forget where they are, forget what other things they were supposed to be doing. They never think that a manicured end product is only achieved by smears of misplaced paint, lines crossed out, missteps, tragedy, and waste, waste, waste…. And practice, practice, practice.
And so, sometimes a beginner will be astonished that things are not as easy as they were expecting. They didn’t fully understand the dedication and sacrifice necessary to making ‘bad’ work before they could make ‘good’. And the expectation of instant or quick success can spoil the experience.
The flip side of this outsider’s perspective is that rather than the work being ‘not good enough’ whatever happens is ‘as good as it needs to be’. And in a sense there is nothing wrong with that attitude, so long as there are no ambitions of improving. Not every art learning situation is grounded on eventual mastery, becoming professional, earning a degree, or having a permanent place in one’s life for these skills. Sometimes the beginner is just there to muck about, have some fun, and play with their own creativity. Eight lessons and out. Sometimes actual learning is as far from a concern as possible.
A difficulty is that beginners who would like to learn sometimes assume that the mucking about part is all that it takes. This is the other side to the outsider’s perspective: They simply have NO expectations whatsoever. And this stops them in their tracks before they can get started. Learning is more an accident of fumbling about than an organized approach. Rather than being sabotaged by knowing a lot about a small part of the artistic process, these beginners know nothing much at all. And teaching beginners means helping them get over their naivety and prejudices if they want to get the most out of their limited experience.
The trick is to get them to see that what they are doing is part of a continuum of progress. If their goal is to get better, then in a sense it never is good enough (something experienced professionals know as they continue to practice long hours, change, tweak and evolve), and if the student is learning then it is never so bad as to fail to be instructive. If the student aims at improving, then every mishap is an insight into the process, every mistake is a window into what not to do, what can be done better, and how to make that happen. Failure is the price of our education. Getting it wrong is a necessary step to getting it right more often and working with more assurance.
So if a student is interested in learning, it makes sense to look more closely at the process. The trick is learning to judge where you are with the eyes of an insider, to see the good for the good, the bad for the bad, but also the bad for the good it entails. Its a caution not to rush to judgment. Its the idea that experience matters, and that this simply takes time. There are certain things you just cannot know until you have had that experience. For example, a case in point the other night in class….
“Your pot is a raw noodle.” – Josh Podvin, 2/4/13
So, the other night in class a student was going down the well worn path of critiquing her vessel while it was still on the wheel. And you want students to learn the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, to hone the ability of their eyes to pick out details that matter. Its the only way we develop an aesthetic sensibility. And so in an important sense she was doing something valuable.
However, what I alway try to tell students who are learning the ropes is that while the pot is still on the wheel it is too early to judge certain things. Some aspects of shape, some of the details and marks on the clay may be apparent at this early stage, but just how much is this view representative of the finished version? And also especially, potters at the wheel have this wholly unnatural perspective on pots still stuck on wheel heads. Its a skewed and often unforgiving angle from eye level to wheel height. Is that the only measure of a pot’s visual success? Does a pot automatically crash or burn if it fails that test?
Rather, what I like to tell students is that it isn’t doing them or their clay any favors by being judged at that precipitous moment. Sure, the pot may still fail its aesthetic aspirations, but there is more at risk by rushing to judgment than in simply finishing the pot, getting it off the wheel, and then in a calm moment afterwards running the rule over what you accomplished.
Judging your unfinished pot while it is still on the wheel is like deciding you don’t like a book because the cover is all wrong. Its like deciding that the film you are about to watch will be great simply because Bill Murray is in it. In other words, it is a preemptive judgment. While the pot is still on the wheel it not only suffers from the disadvantages of where and how you are looking at it then, but also from the fact that it is incomplete. A pot still on the wheel is something like a noodle before its been cooked. Sure, it will be the foundation for your shrimp scampi, your Miso soup, your Pad Thai, but to judge the eventual meal on what essentially is still an uncooked noodle just seems a bit preposterous. For beginners, at least….
Sometimes one of the hardest things to do as an instructor is to put ourselves back in the place of the neophyte. We already see the differences things make. Our hard won experience has built up a sophistication in judging elements and details. WE can tell the difference between a good noodle and a bad one. But it is important for those just starting out to develop those skills and sensitivities themselves. And until they’ve acquired it, they simply are not yet qualified to make certain judgments.
The position of beginners is so different from that of the professionals who teach them that we sometimes need to develop a split personality just to comprehend what formative artists are going through. We need to go back in time, as it were. Only after much experience do we really learn to see the world in terms of its potential. But without the hard won observation of how one thing will lead to the next, beginners simply can’t know how things will turn out. Its almost the case that any judgment they make will be wrong, so hopelessly off the mark that doing so is practically beside the point. And for professionals even, sometimes things will still surprise us. Just what does that say about a beginner’s qualification for judging?
But of course even beginners know when real disaster has struck. Often its all too obvious when a precious lump of clay has been massaged to death, when aggressive squeezing has weakened walls beyond repair, when gravity has compromised the dream of exaggerated shapes, or when butterfly hands have torn all symmetry from its axis. I think everyone knows when a pot is ‘officially’ done. But the gray area is not always so clear.
And so, my advice to beginners (and to all who still lack the experience of knowing exactly what they’ve got) is that it makes more sense to first take the pots off the wheel without letting judgment intrude too much. To not over think things while the clay is still attached. Over thinking and preemptive judgment only slows us down, introduces a suspect voice into the conversation, and often leaves a taste of dissatisfaction in our mouths. And unfortunately, the negativity of falling short of expectations is its own stumbling block that needs to be as far from the learning process of actually making as possible.
Sure, have things to aim for even as beginners, but don’t let your hopes stand or fall on just this precise moment of what you’ve got going on here and now. Take the long view. Take a deep breath before proclaiming triumph or complete disaster. Count to ten…… Get it off the wheel and only then decide if it came out the way you wanted. Or perhaps even more interesting. And remember, in this raw state a pot is still something like an uncooked noodle, and so much of its ultimate success will depend on how it is further dressed and garnished. A pot still on the wheel is only a small part of what it may become. As beginners we simply don’t know enough to insure that our limited way of looking at it fully appreciates its potential, or that our original ideas are always the best…..
Make beauty real!