Craftsmanship and artistry: lessons from the golf course

A friend just wrote to me on facebook about how inspired she is by another artist. She wrote:

I kind of love Shadow May’s work. I think I need to forget everything I know and start over from scratch.

This was my response (added to extensively and a bit edited):

“You and me both! I love his work!

Actually, ‘forgetting what you know’ sounds like my mantra to keep things fresh. Its dangerous to think you’ve got it all figured out, and sometimes we can imagine that what we already know is enough. Sometimes you DO need to start over again, let each piece be its own invention rather than a mere repetition.

A few days ago I saw a friend post on a fb thread that you need to look at the distant goal rather than the actual process, like mowing the fairways on a golf course. To get the straight lines you need to look up and simply aim at the point on the horizon. He’s a fine potter, and his skills are sublime, but that only gets you straight lines and predictability. You can’t deny his craftsmanship, but is that all there is for us as artists?

Personally, I think its even better to be like the actual golfers playing the course. You take your best shot, but each one is different. Sometimes you hit for par and sometimes its either better or worse. But the interesting thing is that each shot needs to be crafted from what you’ve got. Its an art. Its not all simply a given. Not everything measures up to the same standards. Its exploration rather than regurgitation.

And the really exciting parts are when you hit that amazing shot from an impossible angle. Doesn’t mean you win the tournament or even finish the hole under par. The shot itself was the best you can do in the circumstances. Sometimes as artists we need to focus on the here and now, and let each ‘shot’ be something unique. Sometimes we need to forget all the shots we’ve made before. Its this ball right here right now. This piece of clay on the wheel is what counts, is what’s important. Make it the best one it can be. Make it its own pot. Not a pot that is determined by others, by the ones that have gone before it, by the prescription for exact measurements, by the still point on the horizon…..

And of course the temptation is that once you’ve found a ‘perfect shot’ you try to repeat it. And by practice and repetition you find (dig) a groove (a hole), and you perhaps do all the rest the exact same way (fall in the hole and can’t get back out). You see so many artists do this, take their one best shot and turn it into a purpose, a teleology. Shadow’s mugs all look pretty damn similar. From the outside that sure is fascinating! That one shape is undeniably great!

I've got a red one in my kitchen that I just love! Shadow is an amazing potter!

I’ve got a red one in my kitchen that I just love! Shadow is an amazing potter!


But on the inside of that process, as the maker, would you rather be the grounds keeper or one of the players? Would you rather ‘mow the lawn’ or ‘play the course’?

And its interesting that no one really pays for the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of the mower. That’s not what your club membership gets you. That’s not what you save up to treat yourself with on special occasions. That’s not what all those lessons were about. You don’t invite your friends the morning of your wedding to go off and cut some grass. Its what you did growing up. As a chore. As your duty. The reward was getting to take an afternoon off to go out and play……

And now that we’ve grown up the choices seem similar. Is what we are doing a reward or more a rite of passage, possibly even a punishment? It seems we have to choose. But as professional potters you can either be a professional maintenance man (nothing wrong with that) or a professional golfer (nothing wrong with that either). You can either trim the grass consistently and with identical purpose, or you can play each shot individually, see what happens, and move on from there. Which one do you see yourself as?

And I suppose we can be a bit of both, if we try. There isn’t one right way of doing it. And I know that I at least personally enjoy the scent of a freshly mowed lawn. I may even enjoy getting out on a warm summer day and pushing the old clunker around for a few minutes. But that’s usually something I have to do. Its not something I usually wake up in the morning excited about. I make the best of the situation and do what I have to do, and try to enjoy it as much as possible. It can be meditative. I can think of other things while I’m doing it. The exercise is good for me. And I like the results of a clean cut lawn….

Actually, most of that’s a lie. But I had to at least present those points. To be honest, I hate mowing and I hate grass (except for city parks and soccer fields). 20 years ago I had a push mower and it was a dreadful task to get behind the beast. I have since let plants and bushes take over all those spaces, and there is no longer a need to mow. I’d much rather weed by hand, where I can pick out undesirable plants one by one than use a mower that simply levels the entire swath of vegetation. And I love that not having a lawn increases the diversity of wildlife in my yard. Its so much more inviting to the insects and birds, and the flowers can look and smell so wonderful when they are in bloom. Pruning and shaping individual plants is a sculptural choice. Reducing a field of grass to a uniform length is a mechanical onslaught….

These ARE things for artists to think about. There is sweat equity to what we do. Trying to make a living is a serious job. But it doesn’t have to be a job we don’t like doing. Its always going to involve hard work and perfecting our skills. But craftsmanship is one side of what we do, and artistry another. There are benefits in both directions. Getting the craftsmanship right is not a bad thing. But maybe getting the artistry wrong isn’t always a bad thing either.

Getting it right is, of course great. But art involves taking risks. It involves hitting the shot that’s never been made before. From that impossible angle. From a distance no one has ever tried before. From behind the Port-O-Potties. And sometimes you need to get it wrong. You need to put yourself in situations that are unfamiliar and where the rules have yet to be written. Sometimes you need to allow yourself the space to make those attempts that go off kilter. You will never be more than predictable if you don’t give yourself the chance to see what happens from new spots on the course. Hit a few in the rough. Knock some balls off the trees. Plunk a few in the sand traps. These are not penalties. They are opportunities for your skills at problem solving. They are opportunities for your invention. They are opportunities for your imagination. If every shot is planned out with no variation, just where has the imagination gone? Imagination dies if all we ever do is repeat ourselves ad nauseum….. And that seems worth considering.

My advice? Take your mower and veer off course. Leave it in a ditch and take up the pruning sheers and the sickle. Trade those for a club and a ball, and take a few hacks from underneath the bushes in your yard. Place the cup on top of the bird feeder. Change it up and invent new targets. See what comes to you. Make it interesting. Not just for your admiring audience, but for your own soul. Find the passion of an adventure. Retire to the cold comforts when you need to. Go to sleep. Be lazy. Wake up. Find new things to be excited by. Examine the inner nuances of each detail. Suck the marrow dry. Wring every last bit of excitement from what you are doing. Fall into a zone. Meditate. Ruminate. Go on autopilot. Do it all as the mood strikes you. Don’t hold back. Hold Back. Be consistent. Be contrary. Embrace the contradictions of living a human life creatively. Act out many parts. See what fits. Settle. Don’t settle. There are no rules. There are rules……. Its up to you to decide. And you CAN change your mind if you want to.

All for now!

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, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Craftsmanship and artistry: lessons from the golf course

  1. I don’t know, is this related? (from the NPR transcript of the Morning Edition story “Why do people agree to work in boring jobs?”):

    DAVID GREENE, HOST: Now, one of Camus’s most famous essays, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” has caught the attention of NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, who joins us each week to discuss interesting social science research. He’s looking at what Camus said about the daily grind today. Hey, Shankar.


    GREENE: So remind us first, if you can, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” It really was about a daily grind.

    VEDANTAM: Right. It’s a famous essay by Camus and it looks at a Greek myth about a man who’s condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down and then repeat the cycle for all eternity. And at one point Camus connects this myth to the fate of the modern worker. He says the workmen of today works every day in his life at the same tasks and this fate is no less absurd.

    GREENE: And you’ve seen some new research that seems to drive the home.

    VEDANTAM: I think so, David. There’s new psychological research out of Duke University. I spoke with Peter Ubel, along with a colleague, David Comerford. He’s looked at people who do boring work. He asked me to imagine applying for a job at a museum where the job was to stand around for several hours a day telling people not to touch the paintings.

    GREENE: We’ve all seen those people.

    VEDANTAM: Exactly. Ubel says there’s a difference between how you think about the job when you’re applying for it and your actual experience of such a job.

    PETER UBEL: At the time it might sound like a wonderful job. I just stand there and do nothing and they pay me for it. Wow. That sounds great. But now imagine standing there all day long while people are walking about the museum enjoying themselves. You’re not even allowed to really talk to them much. I cannot imagine a more boring job.

    VEDANTAM: So I think the thing that he’s talking about here, David, is the idea that when you’re anticipating the kind of work that you want to do, how you think about it might be very different than the actual experience of the job when you’re doing it.

    GREENE: What explains that gap? Is it just the matter of a bad job description or is there something else going on?

    UBEL: No. Ubel and Comerford think there’s something else, that when we think about jobs that we have to do, we often are confronted by a host of different things to think about and it’s difficult to think about all those things at once, and so we simplify it and we think about just one or two of the characteristics of the job. So if I was to tell you, David, that there was a job opportunity and you had to choose between living in sunny Southern California and in freezing Michigan, which would you choose?

    GREENE: Probably Michigan. I’m a Pittsburgher. I like the middle of the country. I like snow. So I think I’d go with Michigan.

    VEDANTAM: That was totally the wrong answer, David.

    GREENE: Sorry.

    VEDANTAM: But anyway, the point is, the question like that makes you think about the weather because, you know, I said sunny Southern California and freezing Michigan. But there are lots of other factors at play, right? There’s traffic jams. There’s the cost of living. And most people don’t think about those things because you simplify the decision into one or two sort of factors.

    And one of the factors Ubel and Comerford think we use is this phenomenon called effort aversion, which is that when we think about work and potential jobs, we pick the job that involves the least effort.

    GREENE: This is the connection with the guy in the museum. I mean I suppose that he decides to take this job because he thinks, you know, I get to sit in this lovely museum all day long, get paid and not have to work all that hard.

    VEDANTAM: Yeah. Now, it’s fair to say, David, of course, that lots of people don’t have choices in the work they do. In this economy a lot of people are just lucky to have a job.

    GREENE: True.

    VEDANTAM: But I think what Ubel and Comerford are basically saying is even when we have a choice, we often end up picking the more boring job. They ran this experiment with business school students. They sat the students in a classroom and said for the next five minutes you will do absolutely nothing. No iPhones, no computers, and we’ll pay you $2.50.

    But they gave them an option. They said instead of sitting and doing nothing, you could solve these really difficult word puzzles. How much would you want us to pay you?

    UBEL: We found that a large majority of the students said we’d have to pay them more than $2.50 to solve the word puzzles, and yet when we actually finished the five minutes and asked them how much they enjoyed those five minutes, the people solving the word puzzles enjoyed the five minutes significantly more, and yet very few of them said yeah, pay me $2 and I’d be happy to do word puzzles ’cause at least I’ll be having fun.

    GREENE: So they thought they should be paid more to do these puzzles, thinking it was harder work. But actually doing something during that time actually turned out to be more interesting for them.

    UBEL: Exactly. And I think there’s a connection here with the world of Camus, David. I think both Ubel and Camus are basically saying when you make choices, make them consciously. Make them deliberately. Don’t let unconscious biases guide you. Camus would even go a step further and say, even when choices are forced on you, live your life with your eyes open because meaning doesn’t lie in the work, it lies in what you bring to the work.

    GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.

    VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

    GREENE: NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, he’s on Twitter @HiddenBrain and you’re listening to NPR News. (Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.)

  2. John Bauman says:

    Nice post (as usual). But my golf course analogy wasn’t about process — it was about distraction. It was about my constantly forgetting the main thing — getting my hands in clay — because I’m constantly getting caught up in all the sometimes necessary distractions of running the business of a pottery.

    Somewhen along when you’re first learning to cut greens or fairways on a golf course, you learn that you can’t create those nifty straight lines that make up the beautiful criss-cross patterns in the grass by holding the steering mechanism as steady as you can.

    No, somewhen along the line it dawns on you that to cut those straight lines you need to keep your eye on a set point on the horizon and head always toward it.

    Sometimes I forget — probably because of the many hats worn when running the pottery as a business — that making the pots is the main thing. If I’ve got my eyes on that, everything else seems to fall into place.

    Beyond that, fighting with “the world” gets me nowhere, When I go off to my corner and do what I do best — and others do the same — sometimes it seems we return center ring to peace and not the boxing match we left.

    Still, I like where you went with it.

    • Dang! I knew I’d get it wrong! I was up early (3:30 am) and was responding to a friend’s message when I thought of your post. Couldn’t find it in the maze of facebook scrolling, and just went for it in my sleep deprived befuddlement. It was a small point in my message, but grew larger when I turned it into an extended blog post. I do ramble!

      Thanks for setting me straight! I like that message a lot! And thanks for including the original! As usual, its brilliant and poetic! Rumor has it that you will pick up the keyboard again in the not too distant future and return to blogging. I can’t wait!

      Good to hear from you!

      Hope all is well!


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