A few ideas for teachers of pottery and ceramics

Recently I was asked to participate in a sharing of lessons and course syllabi between a handful of local(ish) past and present Georgia ceramics instructors. We’ve just gotten the ball rolling, but it seems like a great way of spreading good ideas and circumventing the need to continually reinvent the wheel.

The other instructors in the group all teach at University level. I am only teaching at a community arts center where students meet once a week over 8 weeks. And without having a grade to hold over them there is very little possibility for me to enforce homework assignments. I’ve had to scale back my ambitions from my more serious desire to impart as much of my teaching as possible. That simply won’t always fly in a community arts setting. So I’m not sure how much of my own recent experience will translate to these other instructors. But, as always, you give what you have to give….

Two ideas came up almost immediately. Two other instructors had shared syllabi that  pointed their students to online resources for ideas, and one suggested the students print out copies to bring to class. An easy way to collect and share images might also be to create boards on pinterest for class projects. I don’t know if instagram does the same thing, but the past few sessions I’ve encouraged my students to create boards on pinterest of the pottery they are looking at and inspired by, and that we each ‘follow’ what the others are collecting. Pinterest is a great way to collect and share ideas and images. I could only get a handful of folks in my classes to play along, but in an academic situation if you make it part of their grades I imagine you will get entirely positive results. Looking at other people’s boards is so easy and exposes them to so many new artists and ideas its silly not to get them started.

The other thing I used to do was have a blog for my classes and sign each of the students up as co-administrators or contributing authors of the blog. I could post ideas and further information about assignments, and they could give feedback and ask questions and even post their own contributions to the blog. It doesn’t have to be very labor intensive. You could just post articles you came across for class discussion later. “How about that latest exhibition at the Met?”  It could also be a resource for aggregating videos and images of work that pertains to the themes of the class. (Imagine a site that had all sorts of videos on making covered jars, and images of numerous covered jars all stored in one place!) And each semester you can create a new blog for each class by simply adding a different blog with an updated time frame (“utceramics3025fall2013”). They are easy to set up and they are free! And it would be easy to recycle old class blogs into new ones. Look at WordPress and Blogger blogs to get an idea.

One of the classes I teach that might be interesting for others is called ‘Copying the Masters’. I teach it about about once a year, by popular demand, and we have exercised ourselves on pots made by Michael Simon, Ron Meyers, Sequoia Miller, Nick Joerling, A.J. Argentina, Shadow May, and others. Mostly I bring in individual pots from my collection to study as originals.

The reason I like to teach this class is not simply the excitement of having the students attempt really cool things. Its not just a technical issue for them. In most normal classes where I’ve been either a teacher or student it seems that part of what folks are taught is how to think about what they are doing, to imagine possibilities, and make connections between conceptual content and its manifestation. Another thing teachers try to help students with is the technical execution of their ideas, skill building with the material and the means of manipulating it to achieve desired results. But a further thing that students need to learn is how to understand details. This involves training their eyes to see which things matter, and why they make a difference.

It seems that for beginners and even intermediate level students the execution is usually only very generalized if only for the fact that most students have yet to learn what things count as details. Things like proportion, changes in direction, scale, size, terminations and transitions, and all the marks on the surface, the sense of touch or its absence, are all clues to what the maker is thinking. Some marks and overt decoration are fairly obvious, but the more subtle and nuanced things often get lost in the shuffle. There is simply an extraordinary amount of visual information packed into any one pot, and teasing those details apart starts with figuring out what things make the visual difference. All those properties add up to a statement of the artist’s intent.

Beginners and intermediate students simply can’t always yet read all that information. And they do not yet know how to use that language on their own. Its one thing to look at pretty pictures. Its another thing to understand why they are so appealing. For that you need to understand why the details add up to what they add up to.

One of the easiest ways to get students to see what things count as details is to try to get them to put them there themselves. They need to learn to see their own work as if through an other artist’s eyes. “What would Voulkos do?” They learn the language by learning to speak the language. “What are the details that mattered for this other person?”

Novices often don’t know enough to know what questions to ask, but if they can learn to look from someone else’s point of view they will see what kinds of question other people think are worth asking and what things possibly count as answers. Starting from square one as most beginners do hardly gives them mastery over the visual information that masterful artists employ to make statements. Subtlety and nuance are learned. Slowly and by increments. Its a matter of training their eyes. And this is one way of getting students to learn to see the details: By making them real in the execution of their own process. Speaking the language themselves.

If art is a visual language, think of this as being like getting students to reproduce words, getting them to figure out what things count as words, before they start to think for themselves and form their own sentences. What letters in which combinations add up to one word or another? What are those detail? How does the meaning vary with subtle changes? This exercise is designed to give them access to a whole world of new vocabulary and meaning. Its an education in their visual sophistication.

Of course, once those details have been absorbed and mastered you can take that into assignments that involve the student’s own creative expression, the ideas for similar statements of details that are their own expression. It has seemed that in my situation the best way to get students to see the details is to first make them use those details themselves. Precisely and with purpose. Help them become conversant with those details by repeating the work of other artists who are more experienced at using details and who are better able to form interesting and intelligent statements out of them. Copying the masters puts them on this path.

Feel free to share your own teaching ideas in the comments below.

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.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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