I remember the first piece of pottery I ever purchased. This was when I was already a supposed adult, somewhere in the midst of my college years. It was an oil lamp that I somehow imagined was just perfect to give to my dad. No idea why. There was no history with lighting fixtures or accessories for either of us. And yet, something about that handmade oil lamp jumped out at me. It may have been the first lamp I had ever seen in person, the others perhaps only being the pictured representations of Aladdin’s lamp. Somehow I conceived that my dad just had to have one. Who knew?
Years later as an aspiring potter my head started to fill up with the mantras and mythologies of the field. As I learned more about pots I learned more about how potters think about pots. For instance, I learned that glazing your pots blue was the easy way out. Because blue sells ‘serious potters’ don’t often resort to that. Its something looked down on. They don’t paint puppies or babies on their pots either. That’s simply not done! Not if you are ‘serious’, at least. The ‘easy money’ seems tainted.
But also, you don’t make lamps. And I discovered you don’t make oil lamps, especially! And you don’t make a variety of other traditional pottery forms that you see in ‘low brow’ crafty venues. I was told I was better than that, and I believed it. I wanted to aim for the heights of my craft, not the easy pickings of the lowest common denominator. I could make cups and bowls and plates, but no soap dishes, soap dispensers, sponge holders, spoon rests, Christmas ornaments, colanders, ladles, toothbrush holders, coffee drip brewers, yarn bowls, and certainly no oil lamps.
What had changed in me since that first brush with pottery? Its true that with exposure and opportunity our tastes evolve. We hope they get better. Is that what changed in me? I didn’t know any better in college, but as an active pot maker myself I had learned a bit more about the things that count as quality? Well, I suppose that’s true to some degree. But does that explain everything?
I have to admit that these prejudices are deeply embedded in my consciousness now. The pots I admire are not these pots. Give me a mug any day, or a vase, or a teapot. I am almost blind to any potential aesthetic value in a soap dish. My nose crinkles in disdain at sponge holders….
But that’s wrong, isn’t it? That’s the kind of subdivision of the world that categorizes things first and then justifies its bias on where things fit. By definition those things start out on the bottom, and there is no possibility of them ever being more than that. Doesn’t that seem superficial? Arbitrary? Its like judging a person on the color of their skin, on their gender, on the clothes they wear, on the music they listen to. Its not a fair assessment. Its barely even meaningful. It doesn’t do justice to the different sets of values that are in play at all times around us. It speaks nothing to the uniqueness of the individuals involved. Its a broad and unfair brush stroke that paints only one type of picture. Its a snap shot of privilege and advantage. Its the best light on the favored child, and shadows for all the black sheep….
So why this hostility to oil lamps? Well, I suppose that as a potter I have been raised to believe that some pots are simply better than others. Which seems down right uncharitable. The ones you see in galleries are, by definition, the pots I think I’m supposed to be making. Overweening pride points me in this direction, I guess. Anything else seems like a sell-out. It seems like I’m setting the bar low. It seems like an embarrassment…. Somehow I have lost the thread of my humility.
So, those other pots will never wind up in a reputable gallery, but so what? That discrimination says more about the restrictions and prejudices of the gallery system than about the pots. Its like segregation of any sort. Different water fountains for different sorts of pots. Maybe we need to bus a few truck loads of soap dishes and oil lamps to Garth Clark and have him explain why these things are ‘not art’ while some other extravagant boundary pushing vessel possibly is. Why some things by definition end up on seats in the front and others by definition in the back…. Except that pots mostly aren’t ‘art’ in his gallery oriented world view to begin with (See comment #2 below for an illustration of what he thinks)….. Prejudice abounds when you know what it looks like.
Change people’s minds.
It seems that many of the high flying artist potters won’t dirty their hands with mere soap dishes. They won’t light a kiln with an oil lamp in it. If they have bought into the mythology that only some types of objects are worthy, then everything else gets short shrift. I was once like that too. I still am, in my unguarded moments. In fact, just writing about it helps reinforce how important an issue this is. Its taking a stand where a questionable prejudice has a hold of our thinking. The question is, can we change the way we think about these things?
Its not as if we are destined to only make one type of object. We are artists. We have choices. We have the power to decide for ourselves. Sure, if you are attempting to bed down with the gallery crowd you won’t want to embarrass yourself. You won’t go to gallery openings in the nude (or maybe you would). You won’t smear the paté on the showing artist’s canvasses in suggestive personal interpretations of what it should have looked like. These are faux pas. Socially unacceptable. There are things that are against the rules of ‘polite society’. The genteel authority that is meant to guide us. You won’t stick an oil lamp in a display of teapots.
But maybe you should. It doesn’t seem to be the sort of behavior that goes against our broader sense of dignity. As a transgression it has more the flavor of unjustified nonsense. But the distinction gets put forward as important rather than trivial. How can we make sense of that? And that some people actually like oil lamps! For as good reasons as they would like any pottery.
Maybe that subversive gesture is exactly what needs to be said in these hallowed spaces. And the shame I feel for making and exhibiting these ‘low brow’ pots is the shame of a world filled with injustice. Its not a transgression against a natural moral law. Its not a universal mandate. Rather, its a cultural artifact. An ornament of a particular way of looking at things. An heirloom of special practices and interests. And parts of the art world are so bound by their protectionist attitudes that the sphincter of their myopia is clenched ever so tight. Maybe its time to open things up and let some fresh air in, and the stale air out……
When going for the brass ring we don’t often take outsider risks. We end up playing by the rules, saying the right things, doing the right things…. And we feel embarrassed or guilty doing anything different. Its the shame of worrying that the color of your skin is ‘wrong’. Or that you don’t pee standing up. Or don’t look like a wispy super model. Or that in some definable way you simply don’t measure up to the ‘standards’ that society expects, or seems to adore. That we don’t fit those nice and tidy categories that have been prepared for us. WE are different, and that somehow makes us ‘wrong’….. Which is outrageous and absolutely deceitful. Say these words with me, “I am a potter, and I am unashamed.”
Good artists are good artists no matter what they make. Maybe all that is needed is that good artists start introducing these objects in serious venues. That they would be shown as having no inherent qualitative difference from a teapot or a mug. I’d love to see Michael Kline’s version of a soap dish. I’d love to see Michael Simon do an oil lamp. Wouldn’t it be great if Nick Joerling made a soap dispenser? I think if Lorna Meaden can make those gorgeous spoons for her jars she could make a fabulous stand alone ladle. I’d love to see Linda Christianson make a sponge holder. And I can’t wait for Ruggles and Rankin to make a toothbrush holder. I think if Ron Meyers made a silverware strainer it would be an absolutely amazing work of art…..
Its not what a thing counts as, but what the artist does with it creatively that matters. Unfortunately we live in this absurd world where pots for the kitchen are a downgrade from pots made for the living room. Where sculpture is considered more artistic than pottery. What do we do when confronted with these strange rules and biases? Put on our ‘serious potter’ faces and play only the high brow cards we hold? Or do we take a stand, and make whatever we are inclined to make?
As artists, why would we ever willingly limit ourselves? Its easy to just go for the defaults, for the tried and true options, but where’s the fun in that? Remember when we were still figuring it out? One of the reasons I love teaching so much is that it forces me to break outside of my routine and the usual suspects of the pots I make. My students need to see things other than the pots I personally make. It turns out, so do I!
And its great to find inspiration in odd and unexpected places! Sometimes its important to just challenge ourselves to simply see what happens when we try something. Not knowing is the greatest adventure! Copy other people’s pots to see if something about it clicks with you. Take things in new directions. See something made of metal or wood and find out what it would be like to make it from clay. Make art just like you live life: To find out what happens next. Try not to know too much about the future. If its only the same as the past, or something you can already see and predict with certainty it sounds more like robotic life than human…..
Being an artist means finding inspiration everywhere. Coincidentally, that’s also what it means to be human. The world is brimming with potential. For those willing to search it out. For those with the humility to ask the right questions of it. A toothbrush holder should be no less potentially inspiring than the Mona Lisa. For artists, that is…..
I say, make a soap dish. But aim high. Make it the best damn soap dish you can! Make some Christmas ornaments, but put your talent to work in creating the finest version you can think of. They don’t all have to be sublime works of art. The world is full of places for quiet gestures. Not every pot you make needs to be worthy of a plinth in some vault ceilinged museum. Most of us can’t do that even if we tried. Just as with any endeavor in life or artistic form you are experimenting with, start out slow and get comfortable making it. Or, hell, just jump right in and see where that gets you! As you gain in confidence you have more license to carry things further. Which is the way life works. The only possible negative in your control is that you fail to grow, that you don’t evolve with creative ambition. Short of that, anything is possible. Stretch yourself. Make each thing, each gesture of your life, at least have the potential for art.
Succeeding is not always the point. Trying to do your best is the only thing you are responsible for. Its a long term strategy. Not everything will live up to that. Make sure that at least some do, and that you know the difference between giving it your all and playing it safe. And don’t simply accept the conventional wisdom that these things you grew up believing are the only or even the right things for you. Interrogate the world and its values. That’s often the best you can do…. And that’s what makes you an artist.
Things to think about, for sure!
Make beauty real!