I just finished teaching a course at the community arts center that was hugely ambitious but probably not as immediately useful to the students as I had hoped. My plan was that the ‘advanced/intermediate’ potters who signed up for the class would all work on finding some coherent aesthetic direction in a run of pots. Where I teach the classes mostly focus on specific techniques, specific types of forms, specific functional issues, but almost never on aesthetic considerations. So this class was my attempt to get students to start figuring out what kinds of things they liked about specific pots (or pots in general) and to see how those ideas could translate across a variety of shapes and forms.
I realized that the first day of class I would need to expose them to what other potters do that serves as an exploration of particular ideas and interests. For instance, what would it mean to like bulbous forms? Do some artists like simple shapes? Do they like the contrast between surface design and bare clay? Are attachments a manifestation of process or do they need to be integrated seamlessly into the form? What are the ideas that these artists are playing with and how do they find expression across a varied body of work?
Here are some of the artists we looked at: Dandee Pattee
The thing I was trying to help my students see was that each of these artists has very particular things that interest them. Each artist is curious about certain formal aspects that matter to them visually and aesthetically. There are themes and threads of design that run throughout their body of work. There are things they look for that determine their own personal measure of success for what they are doing. What makes one pot better than another? Well, one way to tell is that it looks this way rather than some other way. These potters surveyed above all have distinct ideas about the things that matter to them.
I find that my students generally have very little aesthetic aim. The classes they take, being mostly focused on technical construction problems, aspects of purpose/use, and categories or types of pots, rarely put them in the position where they need to consider what these vessels should actually look like. Success means that a pitcher has a spout on it and a handle. But what makes one pitcher more pleasing to look at than another? What besides ergonomics and function make one pot more successful than another? Everyone will have their own instinctive and inarticulate tastes, but until they learn to look at their own pots with more sophistication they will forever be at a crossroads. Until they wrestle with the idea that design is something that can be aimed at, at most they will succeed in the generic technical accomplishment of types of marks and the broad formal qualities they have captured.
The difference is in treating their work as a technical exercise and as an opportunity to train their aesthetic sensibilities. These are two distinct and fundamentally opposing characteristics of artistic practice. Until students uncover the aesthetic meaning of pots they will lack focus not only in visual intent but in the recognition of what things actually matter to them personally. Design sophistication means having specific intentions about the aesthetic direction of our art, and this is a way of looking at the process that simply needs to be learned. Even my advanced students generally have so very much to learn about the visual possibility of form.
What do they want their work to look like? Well, what can it look like? What are the options? A quick survey of the students in the class and only one out of the dozen actively looked at pots on the internet or in the journals and books we have lying around the studio. In a community arts program where giving homework assignments is like pulling teeth, you can’t often convince students to look up from the hypnotic trance of what they are doing. In their minds its mostly not even an option to explore the wealth of information that other artists have already exhibited. They don’t yet see the potential for creative aesthetic expression. Frankly, they are mostly not even interested…. Yet. In a community arts setting where student ambitions mostly top out at the simple pleasures of their own hobby, paying attention to the wider world of ceramics is not always why they are there.
I remember a time in my own education when I had recently moved into the ‘advanced’ area of the ceramics department where I was taking classes. I remember one critique in particular in which my instructor asked me where I was getting my ideas from. And in my innocence and naivety I stated that the ideas all came from the internal probings of my imagination. I could see how let down and disappointed he was, and we quickly moved on to discussing other things. But the idea that I should be getting ideas from other sources was something new. I had seen slides from the history of pot making, and knew some of the contemporary artists, but I didn’t understand that I was supposed to be looking at this outside work with the idea of inspiration and significant qualitative decision making in mind.
I suppose up to that point I had just assumed that whatever my work was going to be would end up as a direct manifestation of my own inner workings. I don’t think I realized that even those inner workings are influenced by what we see on a daily basis, but also that exploring these interests can be systematic and programmatic. I think I was in a stage where I was so in love with making pots that I didn’t really want to stop and think about what I was doing. I was following my muse, and it had so many fascinating things to show me then. The doing, the exploration, was the important thing. And as long as I enjoyed it why I enjoyed it was beside the point….
That seems to speak for almost every student taking classes where I teach. Its the sense that ‘improving’ is not a real goal unless its feeding the innocent joys of making. Following the muse is about the most sincere agenda to have, and its all about immediate satisfaction and living in the moment. Its a situation where exercises not designed to get finished pieces off the wheel are a burden, and projects that don’t end up as pots are a waste of time.
And unfortunately this attitude can be an obstacle to looking deeper at the practice of making pots. Students simply don’t always have the ambition to be potters in the sense that I and other working professionals do, so they don’t think or behave as career potters might. As a teacher I have to keep this in mind. And that more casual level of commitment is, perhaps, exactly what they need from a class. It can be a challenge to get them to look deeper. Becoming a ‘good’ potter is not why every student takes a class.
So in a sense I understand exactly where most of my students were coming from. But I had hoped to show them this other side to making, that our creativity could have direction, and that we are the ones who are ultimately responsible for deciding what our pots will look like. It was my hope to open up the world of design possibility as an area for their exploration.
Getting students to look at pots as the expression of ideas is the first step to them having some of those ideas. What things are they interested in? Keep looking until you find something. Sometimes you have to stare a while before things come into focus. Find something interesting? Well, how do you explore that? You have to risk things going wrong to find out the division between what works and what does not. You have to put yourself in the position where things can fail aesthetically for them to have the chance to succeed aesthetically. In other words, you have to be looking at the world with the intention that some things matter more than others.
If you like plain pots then a decorated one will be a failure. If you like round shapes then straight walls and hard edges will be a failure. If you like bulbous inclusive forms, then sharp rims and generous open shapes will be a failure. And not every idea translates equally across all possible manifestations. Context and the relationship to other details makes a difference. But the details only matter once we see the world as including these details. The details we see only matter once we have decided which ones are preferable and which ones are best avoided. The first step is to figure out what you are looking at. The next step is to see how exclusive or inclusive those ideas can be.
Unless you know how to look at pots as sophisticated visual objects you might not recognize that pots can have parts and that each of these parts is an opportunity for some sort of expression. We can make artistic statements by defining areas of the pot, and we can do this with simple decorative lines and designs or with gestures and more broadly formal qualities. There are so many possibilities for making a difference with the characteristics of a pot, and you can see that every serious artist working in clay has their own ideas about what things can matter. The sheer breadth of things that potters are interested in is an overwhelming testament to the diversity and plurality of the nature of quality in art. Students should be encouraged that their own explorations will add new insight into these expressions of human creative endeavor.
I think by the end of the course most of my students were starting to see that there is more to be excited by than simply getting new pots off the wheel or that their technical accomplishments now include this new form or that. Those things are great and worth being excited by, but discovering the hidden language of pots in the visual cues of form and surface is a lesson in sophistication that doesn’t always come naturally. I’m still learning things in my own creative practice. I’m still a student of creative possibility despite 20+ years of working in clay. There is no shame in not yet fully understanding how to look at the world.
If there is a lesson here its to keep an open mind, learn to look, and learn to see what things the world has to teach. Keep exploring until you find the things that matter most or until that ability is taken away from you. The only expiration on your creativity is the last breath you take…..
Make beauty real!