Sustaining the creative groove

I just had a wonderful surprise visit with fellow potter Michael Kline this weekend who was in town to see the Michael Simon exhibit “Pick of the kiln” at the Georgia Museum and to visit with our esteemed mutual pottery teacher Ted Saupe. Little did we know that Ron and Hester Meyers were back early from their Summer adventures in New York state and beyond, so it turned into a delicious time of visiting with fellow potters and soaking in some beautiful pots. A tremendous way for me to spend my day on Saturday!

I’ve had all sorts of excellent conversations recently with fellow potters. The weekend before I got to hang out with Maria Dondero, my Athens pottery neighbor, Ron Philbeck and Kyle Carpenter from North Carolina, and Shane Blitch from Oregon. Sadly, there was too much cool stuff from their visit overloading my brain to draw much if any of it together to put on this blog. That and my two week vacation visiting my parents has ground this blog to a halt.

However, one thing Michael Kline and I talked briefly about that I would like to get down here was our shared difficulty in sustaining our creative rhythm. It seems like a big issue. Like many creative artists potters have multiple parts to their artistic process. Often, doing one thing seems to exclude doing another. Or, one phase necessarily precedes others. But this stop and start nature of the routine can have its down side. For instance, it seems that once a potter/artist gets in the swing of a creative cycle things really start to happen that are exciting. They usually start slowly and then build. As if at the beginning we are merely dipping our toes in our creativity, tentatively, and once we get comfortable, start to take risks, move in deeper, we are only then able to find truly surprising and rewarding results. Only then have we found our creative groove.

The difficulty for both Michael and I is that it inevitably comes to pass that when things are really humming along the timer rings and the buzzer goes off: Its time to get out of the pool and do something else. The curtain closes on one performance and we shift gears to settle into something often completely different: Its time to leave the making part of the process and turn to the finishing, for instance. And for many of us the interruption in our creative flow almost always puts us back at square one of whatever new task we embrace. We pick it back up at the beginning. Each phase of the process seems stop and start, and every step forward only leaves us back at the beginning place when we return to it. Like a treadmill that never really goes very far. We find we always have to rekindle the flame. Rarely do we pick back up where we left off, and simply build on the new horizon we established. The fire we had built when we left it is cold ashes when we return…… Scott Cooper has talked about this in his blog, This Week @ St Earth:

I always delay the transition to bisking, glazing and firing as long as possible, then grudgingly accept its inevitability. No doubt I’ll be back here in six or eight weeks, complaining once again about how long it’s been since I kicked the wheel, about my rusty chops and lost momentum.”

One solution that Michael proposed was that he combine his making and finishing efforts to coincide during the process of preparing for a firing rather than staggering one after the other. Its the idea of sustaining momentum in all areas. He described a plan to take the pots he had already bisqued home with him at nights so that he could do his decorative work in roughly the same time frame as his making process. His idea was also to make and decorate each shelf-load consecutively as it would get loaded in the kiln. I agreed that this sounds promising.

As an alternative he had a second possible solution. He also thought that skipping a firing and simply working through would let him take advantage of the rhythm. Rather than sacrificing momentum to a different process, simply continue on with the same one. If you have space to store the pots it sounds like a decent possibility. Scott Cooper also ruminated on this a while back:

I can imagine the appeal of just making wet pots for a longer stretch, honing my throwing chops to that rare sharpness when it feels like I can make anything, piling up the bisqueware into every open slot in the studio, and then firing five or six times in a row. Especially factoring in the weather; there’s no reason to fire in the extremes of summer and winter unless I’m rushing to hit a deadline. It’s a lot easier and more pleasant in spring and fall anyways — a great time to work outside the studio. Food for thought.”

I’d love to hear from other potters who have faced this issue and who have come up with solutions to sustaining their creative rhythm. There must be plenty of different ideas out there.

………………………….

But the issue also seems to go beyond the mechanics of sustaining the good parts. A potential difficulty I can see happening with Michael’s first proposed solution is that for some artists the distraction of decorating at the same time would dilute the focus on making. Often its this focus that puts us in the proper groove in the first place, and that makes the creative arc so high. We often aim better and make fewer ‘mistakes’ when we are not multi-tasking and otherwise distracted. Obsession often helps. That high point on the creative arc was actually the goal in wanting to find a sustaining rhythm (There is no appeal or need to find ways to sustain mediocrity or less than our best, after all….). Does confusing the decorating process with the making process possibly lead to a lesser version of both manifestations of our creativity? It seems worth considering.

Of course the opposite may also be true, and as one gains momentum in decorating there will be new and invigorating ideas for making that evolve and bear fruit, that bleed over into the other creative processes. Its possible that one process will feed on the other process rather than be a distraction from it. This also seems possible. Its not a simple question, and there are no necessary right answers much less answers that are right for every person….

One other issue that impacted me personally for the first decade or so of my potting adventures was that I was an interminably slow learner (I’m better now!). And part of this slowness was that if I kept on making things, nose to the grindstone, I never got the chance to find perspective on what I was doing. If I kept working at making things I would diminish the opportunity for quiet contemplation of where I was and where I wanted to go. Its as if in the continuous making I was cramming my time so fully with one activity that I left no time or energy to assess and digest what I was doing. No time to take a step back and take a deep breath. When you are in art school or trying to make enough pots to earn a living it can often be like that: The outside pressure to keep making when sometimes it only seems you are banging your head on the wall. “If I just keep banging I may force a way through!” I would tell myself….

That was definitely my problem back when, and I remember specifically at one point I realized that it was also important for me to take breaks, and that when I came back to the wheel I was even more refreshed and creatively revitalized. In the intervening time I had learned things that were previously hidden from me. My understanding had often advanced more in the time off than it had in the time working. This too seems like an important possibility.

……………………..

Sustaining a creative rhythm is a big question. Is it something like training for a race? You don’t run full out every day? You also build up to your peak performance and then wind back down? Or, can we sustain our creativity uninterrupted? Are we more like a rocket which achieves escape velocity and continues traveling on that outbound trajectory? Can we keep climbing higher without loosing the air to breathe and the gravity that keeps our bones strong? Or do we sometimes need to fall down for our own good, dust ourselves off and try again? Its an interesting question!

Does this creative challenge sound familiar to some of you? That a steady diet and too much familiarity can sometimes sour even a good thing? But also that if we give up too early we don’t get to the sweet spot? There is something alluring about wanting to milk the sweet spot for all its worth, but the danger is that this fixation runs the well dry. Sometimes it pays to take a vacation and let the batteries recharge. Let the fields lie fallow before planting the next crop. Is there a fatigue factor to our creative resources? That distance will occasionally grant us perspective, and that absence will sometimes make the heart grow fonder? Too much of a good thing is often no longer a good thing….. But where to draw the line? And when?

YMMV, but it seems that sustaining a creative rhythm is a personal challenge that every artist faces, and deals with in their own personal way. For better or worse. But knowing its an issue at least gives us the chance to make improvements. Knowing that we can do things better or more efficiently gives us control over at least some small part of our process that makes a difference.

What makes you tick? What things click? What are your experiences?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

.

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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8 Responses to Sustaining the creative groove

  1. Brandon Phillips says:

    Re: the cycle of working- back before I found out about leatherhard slipping/deco/glazing I would make a crap ton of pots but then when it came to the glazing cycle I would usually be rushed and would make hasty decisions. The results were usually less than satisfactory. I felt that the connection had been lost and I no longer was able to determine the end result for the pots. I don’t like being faced with a lot of pots that need to me to reach down and find the creativity that existed when I was making them, it almost never works. What works for me is a cyclical approach. I spend a day making, a day footing and handling, and a day slipping and decorating, sometimes this is compressed to two long days if the pots are drying faster. This works for me because all the slip work is done at the leatherhard stage, this demands attention to the pots. If I delay too long I’ve lost the pots, they dry out and won’t accept the slip. Over time this has become a natural part of the making cycle, make/trim/slip, repeat. In this process I’m able to maintain the creative flow, it doesn’t stagnate while the bisque is firing. I can approach and contemplate each pot individually and give it the time it needs. Nowadays glazing is a very simple task, the decisions are made when I decorate with the slip so I don’t have to maintain that juice come glazing time. I also try to glaze as the pots come out of the bisque, if I have a couple of hours while waiting for pots to dry or whatever, I glaze a few boards of pots, glaze the liners, do something. I don’t mind the interruption to the making cycle, I can’t sit at a wheel for days on end churning out pots anymore, my back doesn’t like it and my creativity doesn’t like it. It took me years(literally) to work out a cycle that works, it also takes discipline. I’m not trying to insinuate that all artists lack discipline…but lets face it, most of us do on some level. There are certainly days where I would be more productive if I had a manager shouting at me. Another thing that has helped me is a daily list, I always have a making list, but I also make a list of what I need to accomplish on a given day: trim those plates and bowls, load a bisque, sieve that glaze, pick up that load of firewood. i know approximately how long these tasks take and I can structure the day.

    My opinion is that bisque firing is the #1 creativity killer in the studio, it’s an interruption in both the natural production cycle and the creativity cycle. But most of us need it so I don’t know a way around that. My way of dealing with it is to integrate it into the cycle rather than treat it like an external task separate to the making. I think separating out the making is a good idea too, make the pots, deco, glaze, back to the next round. Of course that is what works for me, maybe not everyone else. My creativity is definitely an arc for the overall cycle, but I’m okay with that. It allows for a time of rest and regrouping. Of course I have a big kiln so this is more natural than if I were firing a small kiln.

  2. That’s an awesome response Brandon! Thanks for sharing your process and the philosophy behind it! The question definitely is a big one for most artists I know, and I’m glad you have given it so much thought and have found a good zone to be working in. I hate feeling I am continually reinventing the wheel and am at the mercy of too many factors to have a handle on my own process. As you say, discipline is key.

    Thanks for the response!

  3. John Lowes says:

    As a part timer, I am always running into interruptions to process, and struggling to fill the shelves with ware for the few art festivals I participate in. When taking a workshop with Steven Hill he said that he single fires his work. His reason for single firing is to eliminate the bisque (I agree with Brandon Phillips on it being the creativity killer), so he can go from making, to glazing at leatherhard or bone dry, to firing, and maintain his creativity. That makes sense, but obviously you have to be careful with glaze formulation and application, and then firing. I have on occasion single fired a load, but not regularly. It does help the creative flow to have the bisque step eliminated. It also helps that I can let something get bone dry and still be able to decorate and fire it.
    My creative streaks are usually interrupted by such mundane things as “oh no, it’s 11 PM and I have to work tomorrow” or “this looks like a cool TV show, I’ll go into the studio tomorrow”. So, to keep it going I make my best money making forms, and have a slow evolution with those, and make many one off forms to fulfill the most creative urges. When I find a keeper in the one offs, I work on finding a way to introduce it to the money makers through making it efficient to make, changing scale, or limiting production.

    • Thanks for the response John!

      I can see where both you and Brandon are coming from with the once firing approach. That whole bisque cycle is a creativity killer! I’m just scared to take that step at this point. I think if I did atmospheric firings it wouldn’t be a problem. I just worry that some of my pots are rather delicate in the greenware state, and I’m actually a klutz and a fumble fingers most of the time. I’ll keep the thought in the back of my mind as I go. Thanks for reinforcing it as an option!

      I also like the internal division between pursuing the bread and butter items and the one-offs. I’ve often thought that most of us are artistically schizophrenic most of the time. Some things I do are purely customer oriented and have very little creative interest for me. Things like commissions and special customer projects can be like that. Other things I make are also biased towards the consumer but in some of these I get to play around with the features. That makes it a bit more creatively engaging. Other things I make are following threads and hints pursued from external sources, and I find I am very engaged in those. This can be simply tinkering around with established forms and seeing if I can push them in interesting different directions. Then also there is the more one-off experimental ideas that I explore which may lead nowhere but are thoroughly entertaining at the time. There may be no actual groove there since it may be a creative dead end for all intents and purposes….

      I actually think sustaining the grove for each of these aspects is a different challenge (couldn’t put that in the post or it might be too confusing!). I think the modern potter is fundamentally fractured along very many different demands. And I think that this is only a good thing. The ones who are ‘consistent’ and have a ‘cohesive’ body of work have killed off these other parts of their output. In a real sense part of their creativity has died. Plenty of food for thought there!

      Thanks again for the comment! Good luck with you potting!

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    Thanks for the generous quoting! I’m still not any closer to cracking this dilemma, and, like you, single firing seems more terrifying than promising.

    The problem with stretching out the throwing phase is that it inevitably delays the NEXT throwing phase, and also adds more rust and frustration to the glazing and firing phases when they inevitably get their turn. Short of magically discovering more time, I don’t think there’s any way around this for those of us who insist on taking every pot from wet clay to completion ourselves.

    It does put the old, collective workshop approach in a different light. I can see now that there would be some appeal to the specialization of being only a thrower, or glazer or fireman.

    • Raise your hand if you’d happily let other people glaze your pots and fire them for you! Of course they’d have to do it right, but I for one would be quite content if I never saw a glaze bucket again, and never had to unload a p-ss poor firing. My version of a heavenly afterlife would actually be something like throwing pots out of some clay-like chocolate substance that I would eat after I finished throwing the forms. With ribs made from slices of mango, and throwing slurry an ambrosia of raspberry cream delight….

      Look what you did! Got me all hot and bothered about some wishful thinking! Now I’ve just got to find a person whose version of a heavenly afterlife is putting glaze on someone else’s pots! (Call me if that person is YOU, anyone out there)

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I know exactly what you mean. Like you, I’m a “mud & water” potter much more than a “glaze & fire” potter.

        But it occurs to me that one of the things I dislike most about glazing and firing is that there’s so much build up to that phase and then, just as I’m getting into a groove, I’m out of pots and have to switch processes again. It will never have the appeal that throwing does, but I can imagine spending an extended time in the finishing phases, too, and enjoying it. Back to the start of this post, I know MK has also said that his brushwork gets dialed in just as it’s do-or-die time to fire, and I feel somewhat the same way with regards to getting a feel for my glaze batches and decorative tricks.

        Maybe the real issue is that I (we) just want more time for all of it, and the ability to somehow do all of it at once, all the time. Seems to me that’s the advantage to Brandon’s approach; that he’s as close to working in all phases simultaneously as is reasonably possible.

        • Yeah, that’s the impression I got. I think it might actually work for me as well. Creatively, that is. My problem is that my studio is small enough and poorly efficient enough that I can’t easily mix several different projects at once. When I get my glazes out I pretty much take over the studio. But part of that may also be that I am also trying to organize my bisque at the same time, and that this usually also covers just about every horizontal surface at that point. If I proceeded batch by batch I might find the space for it. And I wouldn’t face the crowding issue of so many green pots at once and so many unglazed bisque pots at the same time either…..

          The changes may pay off, but right now there is at least the stubborn comfort of knowing my own tortured process. Actual efficiency would be a shock I might die from. How could I possibly adjust to doing things in a reasonable and ergonomic approach? Only one way to find out, I suppose…..

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