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!
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!
Make beauty real!