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?
Make beauty real!