Teaching this old dog a few new tricks, pt. 1

Red Clay Rambler Ben Carter was in town the other day and asked if I would do an interview with him for his podcast. What an incredible honor to be asked! Kind of humbling to think that something I might have to say will soon share the airwaves/aether with such big time potters and heavy weight thinkers as Lisa Orr, Matt Long, Linda Arbuckle, Takeshi Yasuda, Martha Grover, Matt Kelleher, Tara Wilson, et all….. What on earth am I doing in such company?

I was worried that anything I might have to say would either not be very interesting or not come out right. When I am put on the spot and made to think on my feet I don’t always perform very well. The speed of my thought is less about words flowing from my mouth than it is about the fumbling of my fingers on a keyboard. Once you verbally say something its out there, no backspacing and no copy and pasting. There is no delete key…. My ‘big idea’ thinking so often tends to rely on a permission to go slowly and methodically but especially also to give it some heavy editing and a few final polishings before it goes for public consumption. There is no safety net with a microphone stuck in my face.

But Ben was an awesome interviewer. He kept the conversation going over my awkward pauses and my less expansive responses. He made sure there was a flow to where things were going, and he did an amazing job of prodding me in interesting (to me) directions. If there is any flaw to the interview it resides entirely in my corner. But despite my mouth drying up in mid-sentence at one point (yikes!!!), and other warbling, voice cracking utterances, I think it was a pretty good conversation. My ‘on-stage’ anxiety did not condemn me to another opportunity to stick my head in the sand and bury myself in shame. I don’t think I embarrassed myself any more than I ordinarily and routinely seem to do on this here blog. I could of course be wrong, but I actually do look forward to getting to listen to the edited and cleaned up version when it comes out! What the hell DID I really say? I can’t remember so well…. Maybe, if I’m unusually lucky, Ben can dub in George Clooney’s voice for when I’m speaking……

“There’s nothing worse than hearing one’s own voice” Doug Fitch, slipware potter

After the interview itself we continued the discussion over lunch, and Ben asked me what I get out of blogging, why I blog. During the interview I had expressed that I first studied Anthropology in school and then Philosophy because I was interested in the question of what makes us human. The blog is a continuation of that quest. I’m trying to figure things out. I don’t have all the answers so I’m asking what other people think, bouncing ideas off their heads, having conversations, but also the act of putting thoughts out there teaches me what it is possible to think. I can go down different avenues and approach topics from unusual angles. But most importantly I am able to reach beyond the borders of what I grew up believing, what I was taught, and even what I may have been thinking last week or yesterday. I am not preaching the gospels as much as I am interrogating why we do the things we do. I’m trying to ask better questions to see where they will lead rather than crafting better answers to worn out and otherwise poor questions. Its not the dead end of some fixed point I am searching for but the expansive horizon that helps me see even more. Which is why a conversation with someone like Ben is a wonderful experience. šŸ™‚ The best conversations are the ones where you leave with something new.

Many of the topics Ben brought up in the interview were issues I had a few things to say about. My previous thinking had already gone down the trail some distance where those questions were concerned. In the context of my runaway train/microphone in the face/mad dash, I blitzed through some points that could have been discussed with more nuance, and I know I left out meaty tangents that could easily have brought better clarity to a few positions. But that’s any conversation for you! Things get left out. You just hope that enough was covered that it was at least marginally interesting.

Ben also rifled a few fastballs that I had to stretch for and swing off balance to make any sort of contact with. One or two may have even slipped by me. The question he ended the interview with caught me totally off guard. He had noticed that most of the pots in my collection are from atmospheric kilns, or are especially earth toned in color. This makes sense to me because those are the sorts of pots that have fascinated me the most, but also they are the pots I was buying back when I had money to spend on pottery. The surprising thing Ben pointed out was that the walls in my house were quite something different. The pots themselves are all mostly brownish, but the other colors in the room are all deep vibrant tones and saturated bright colors. He asked why that was:


I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t thought it through in any meaningful context. It didn’t make sense to me in the way that many other things make sense and can be explained. Back when I was collecting most of these pots I was also making these kind of pots. I was firing in a soda kiln and a wood kiln, and I was looking at Michael Simon and Linda Christianson’s pots. I was looking at Roger Jamison’s pots and I was looking at Chuck Hindes’ pots. I was interested in great forms that were complemented by nuanced surfaces rather than surfaces that overwhelm or distract from the form. These were the pots I was surrounding myself with.

So why do I live in a house with bright colored walls?

Who knows? Certainly not me when he asked the question. It seems a bit of a contradiction. And this is interesting. When I left off woodfiring and had to reinvent myself in a midrange electric kiln I went from something that was known and where the expectations were simple. My education and experiences had led me to this perspective on my process and my aesthetic. The new circumstance was something I had to feel my way through. I had to start out making it up as I went. I had to discover new things that were of interest to me. What different things now mattered that I didn’t have access to before? Browns and muddy earth tones were out, unless I was simply trying to recapture something that had been lost. That ship had sailed, as much as my heart mourned and longed for its fading stern. What new colors did I like?

In the early stages I made a lot of awful pots and glazed them in absolutely cringe-worthy colors. For me, at least. I hadn’t yet discovered what other things spoke to me in any lasting sense. You sometimes have to try it to know where you stand. The precipice of uncertainty means that we make many mistakes and ask for repeated do-overs before we settle into calmer waters. The not so subtle truth is that after years of experimenting and navigating uncertain seas I have eventually found peaceful waters and a new place I can call home. Its a haven of bold, deep, and rich colors. Ta da!

DSCN3722 DSCN3791 DSCN3696 DSCN3417

(Can’t give up the amber golden browns completely šŸ˜‰ )

Maybe this other expression of myself was always something inside of me. Maybe it was only waiting for the right circumstances to come out. Maybe my aesthetic schizophrenia has existed in some form for some time, and is only now expressing itself in the surface of my pots. Maybe it had to evolve as I made sense of my new firing situation. What I do know is that the contrast Ben pointed out was something that took me by surprise. It was the same surprise as looking back and noticing that my newer pots also reflect something true and real about my aesthetic desires. It had simply crept up on me unawares…..

Its not that we have to be stuck doing one thing, going over and over the same ground. If we look deeply and force ourselves out of an acquired comfort zone we will often find that we discover new things about ourselves that were not at all obvious before. Being challenged by the unknown helps teach us who we are, what it means to be us, and a bit more about what it means to be human. Not as a definitive revelation but as the expanding of our lives into the unfolding world.

I am a stranger to myself in some respects, and I’m not sure that is a bad thing. I can still surprise myself. I am not an absolutely known quantity. I am uncertain about myself. I am not fixed but flexible. I evolve. I look back and I’m not always sure how I got here. I look forward and I don’t always know where I am heading to. There is an openness that speaks of possibility and mystery. It speaks of change and adaptation. It tells me there is more than one outlook on the world contained in the life that bears my name…..

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

Peace all!

Happy potting!


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, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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