Tricky business and other tricks of the trade, pt. 4

So this is part four of the wrap up from my conversations with Ben Carter. Its not specifically a topic that we discussed, but its an extension of where the previous ideas were heading. I wish I could have talked about this stuff with him in person, but I don’t think I had that clear an idea of just what we were discussing at the time…..

Sequoia Miller has been investigating some of these same issues, and the current issue of Studio Potter has an essay of his devoted to these inquiries. Sequoia wonders:

“What changes have we experienced in the field of studio pottery in the last fifteen years? How do we situate the dynamic and varied practice of making pots in a ‘post-studio’ and ‘post-disciplinary’ moment that seems to call for a different approach?


How do we respond as studio potters? Who knows. Build alternative institutions? Make more spectacular work? Not care? Maybe the Occupy movement and other radical or anarchic strategies offer alternatives worth exploring. Maybe media theorist Alexander Galloway’s notion that a ‘society of control’ has replaced the society of spectacle opens new ways of thinking and making…..”

The idea that intrigues me most is that of building new institutions and repositioning control. In the last essay I suggested how important it can be to put yourself out there to see who you can connect to. This should mean something practical for us. If we are stuck only figuring things out on our own I’m not so sure we will always get very far. Its sometimes a choice we make, to go it alone and do it all by ourselves. Self sufficiency has its appeal, don’t get me wrong. Being the authority over our own situation is often welcome compared to ceding some of the control to middlemen in gatekeeping institutions. Its just not the only option we have, and maybe there are some hidden advantages to moving forward as a group of fellow artists, at least in part or when we want to.

Fortunately this clay community is brimming with entirely generous souls and amazingly bright personalities. Some real sharp thinkers too! You’ve got a question, someone out there will have an answer. There are kindred spirits all around us, but we might never know it until we start making the overtures to let them know who we are. We end up stronger as individuals just knowing we are not alone, that somewhere at some time some other person has faced similar situations and has the hard earned experience to prove it. We can learn from their mistakes and from their triumphs. We don’t have to figure it out all on our own.

But where does that leave us? A loose community of overlapping shared interests and unconnected individual pursuits? Each of us still forging ahead on our own and in our own peculiar directions? Are we a community of facebook-thread talkers only, or do we actually DO stuff together? As a group? Can we create new ‘institutions’ from our own sense of community whose control is in our own hands?

Another potter I have become friends with is the great potter/blogger John Bauman. We have chewed the cud and shared many a virtual beer over the past several years. Last week on facebook there was a discussion concerning issues of the virtual pottery community in preparation for a panel talk at the NCECA conference. I had raised some issues about the changing role of gatekeepers in this new unfolding environment and eventually the conversation led John to respond in this way:

We need to create our own networks based upon our own stories, brands, and shared values. One of the reasons art fairs worked SO well for so long is that we artists shared the gravitas offered us by our fellow artists — not just the “gatekeeper” juries. In other words, the advantage offered me by an art fair was that I could present my work to an un- or undereducated crowd….but they could see me set up next to a painter, or a jeweler, or a glass blower, and by virtue of THEIR excellence, I might be similarly judged. If the jury considered me in the league of those my fellow artists, I was able to trade on their gravitas.

And though we don’t have the immediate physical presence such an art fair scenario affords us, we DO have the ability to make connections and linkage with other artists online through social network. In a way, we create our own network of peer gatekeepers who advance our brand every time they share our images, our poems, our thoughts. We CAN share in each others gravitas….if we are humble enough. If we can allow ourselves to see a world wherein we can praise another without the perception that in that praise, we diminish ourselves. Seems simple, huh?

Ben Carter has certainly done more than his share of bringing potters together, as well as connecting them to their past. He’s a good example of the new kind of gatekeeper. As he creates his niche, he will bring along people he finds useful and interesting. That’s how it’s going to be for all of us from now on. Find a useful group to hitch your barge to….and be willing to do your share of toting that barge yourself.

Which is such an excellent point!

In today’s art community its not simply individual artists and their institutional leash holding gatekeepers but the wealth and variety of fellow artists who share our values and interests and who help keep things afloat. It only makes sense for us to reach out and become connected to fellow travelers as we attempt to navigate this brave new world. Hitch your barge to the things you like and the people you admire! Offer them something in return. Help them tote their own barges when they need a hand. Reach out to your fellow potters, especially the ones who have the same sorts of interests that you have. Reach out to anyone you admire. We may live spread out all over the world, but we can come together online and form a new intentional sort of community. Having each other’s back is that necessary link that will forge a strong chain and benefit every potter who gives of themselves. When pottery wins we all win. Each potter on their own may never pass the narrowing channels, muddy banks, and sharp turns that artists have to face today. But with a few or more helping hands we can quite possibly operate those barges to our mutual benefit.

As example of what I am talking about witness the potters at Objective Clay:

“Objective Clay was born out of the most recent Utilitarian Clay Symposium at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. The presenters, of which I was one, had a chance to talk about their shared experiences selling and showing work and the idea of banding together to try engaging an audience through online and social media quickly came about. The broad range and high quality of work as well as the intellectual curiosity and rigor of its members gives Objective Clay a strong place to being speaking in its own way about contemporary ceramics…. There is no reason why we cannot be canny and shrewd in regards to redefining the importance of art and craft for future generations. Most would say that the economy is something that happens to us or at us, depending on where you are in your career and life. We should make the attempt to help swing the odds in our favor as an entity focused on educating the public and supporting artists.” Brian Jones, Objective Clay inaugural blog post ‘Carving out a future

In the impending post-institutional scenario that the arts seem faced with and the fading relevance of external gatekeepers it is incumbent on artists to take the reins up in their own hands. By banding together we can sometimes create islands that stand out in the chaotic seas, places where we can shelter from the storm and find sustenance. The academic landmasses are looking more and more like an Atlantis submerged. Gatekeeping galleries are more like increasingly isolated and crumbling monasteries with fewer graying patrons and less career influence day by day. They are not the career factors they once were.

Artists today seeking to forge ahead can’t just hope that aligning themselves with the bastions of the ‘good old days’ will keep them afloat for very long into the future. The new tricks of our trade, the tricky business we have to navigate, seems much more up to us now. And to sink or to swim we need to figure out what things can be counted on in our horizon. We may occasionally need to become like ants surmounting a chasm. We may need to join together and manifest a communal bridge into the future. Together. In bands and roving packs.

ants bridging the chasm

We already are like that. We ARE that. We are used to sharing things and lending a hand. Potters are some of the most generous people I know. The trick will be working on projects of mutual benefit rather than simply pitching in on each other’s projects.

The future we face has too many crumbling and unsteady institutional bridges. The gaps they are spanning are ever widening, and the foundations they were built on are shifting sands. It is not always possible to get where we think we need to go following the old maps. The terrain itself is changing. And its certainly not so easy to navigate when we are all on our own. The institutional cartography that gave us our picture of where we were headed is itself disintegrating. And the question becomes how much effort we put into salvaging the ideals of the old system and how much we put into building something new.

New landmasses are forming. MFA degrees may not lead to academic jobs much anymore, but there are other ways for potters to make a living besides selling work and teaching at the U. Pot making is taught less and less in academic ceramics departments, but aspiring students can apprentice with working potters and get their start in community centers and in their basements. Every potter with a video recorder and a youtube account becomes a potential teacher (for better or worse). Brick and mortar galleries that cater to the ceramics community are closing their doors with alarming frequency, but farmers markets are flourishing and coffee shops and restaurants are becoming increasingly interested in local handmade ceramic work. The career landscape is simply not what it was when many of us veteran potters first started……. What do these changes mean for our collective future?

It has to be said that the virtual opportunity that Brian expressed in his statements about the Objective Clay group is something that already has a history with local groups of potters banding together for physical sales and potters from all over joining forces in self curated events hosted in studios with invited guest artists. Some of the notable examples are the Thrown Together Potters in the Charlotte NC area, the Cousins in Clay event hosted across alternating studios in the NC area, the Sixteen Hands Studio Tour in Virginia, the Hilltown Six Pottery Tour in Western Massachusetts, the St Croix Valley Pottery Tour in Minnesota, Art of the Pot Tour in Austin Texas, and I’m sure plenty more. The idea is that these potters are joining forces to create events and storefronts that replace the need for external gatekeepers. As John Bauman said in that facebook thread, we gain credibility by our association, and participating in these events creates visibility that is curated by the artists themselves. In the words of Scott Cooper, we have to “earn back the 50% commission”. When no institutional middleman gets their pound of flesh its now the artists’ own gatekeeping responsibility….. And maybe that also involves some hard work.

But maybe also we sort of know what some of that work will look like. Many of us have our own internet presence, our own websites, our own blogs, our own facebook pottery pages, our own etsy storefronts, etc. These are things we already do to promote ourselves away from the spotlight of institutional representation and validation. But just by ourselves we are only ever one of many (as evidenced by the herd of artists all clamoring for attention on etsy). The virtual world is an amazing opportunity to self promote, but how much more effective does that become when there are more than one artist being actively represented and showcased? Small intentional groups are very different from the egalitarian free for all of places like etsy.

So, do you already know fellow potters that share your values, that you are already friends with? If you are not simply all on your own, who is part of your community? Are there local potters you believe in who believe in you? Internet buddies? Who is going to look out for you? Who is going to stick up for you and protect you from the ravages of an otherwise anonymous and uncaring world?

We are, that’s who. Your fellow potters. Maybe not me personally being there for you, maybe not you being there for me, but someone out there will have my back, and someone out there will have your back too. If you put in the work to make connections and to get to know these people, that is. If you have their back too.

So, who is in your community? Who helps you span those chasms? Who helps you tote your barge? Who do YOU help? What community are you a part of, and what things do you share? What draws you together?

That’s something to think about, at least 🙂

Peace all!

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, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tricky business and other tricks of the trade, pt. 4

  1. SG: “What fascinates me about it is that this bottom up change in the world is everywhere all the time, so much more common than change that gets put down on us by a dictator or someone who is putatively in charge. And yet we ignore this bottom up thing when in fact its the thing we are most likely to be able to touch and change.” (Seth Godin)

    KT: “I think what you are pointing at in a lot of your work is that because of the way the world has changed subjectively, because we’re living in a post-geography world, that’s the phrase you use, because we have what you call a connection economy, technology is actually empowering that bottom up change, right? And kind of dismantling the hierarchical overbearing leader model that a lot of us actually still grew up with.” (Krtsta Tippett)

    SG: “And at the same time, that is what is empowering technology. So they’re both feeding on each other. The internet wasn’t built by 30 people who were working for a boss. It was built by 300,000 people many ow whom have never met each other. And that this protocol and that technology work together even without a central organizing force. And that’s happening to every industry and its happening even to how our communities organize….” (Seth Godin)


    SG: “The challenge of our future is to say are we going to connect and amplify positive tribes that want to make things better for all of us, or are we going to degrade to warring tribes that are willing to bring other groups down just so they can get ahead.” (Seth Godin)

  2. Dianne Collins says:

    Hi Carter, my name is Dianne and I am entering this public domain with trepidation. Like you, I am very shy, however, unlike you I couldn’t find your direct and private email address to make this initial contact. I found your blog via an accidental and convoluted route, and fortuitously, at a challenging time when your words and ideas could penetrate and resonate deeply. Reading the 4 part series ‘old dogs – new tricks’ was like being shot with a taser gun. My synapses were firing at an alarming and overwhelming rate. My shock and confusing emotional response at finding thoughtfully presented and clearly articulated views to questions I have been pondering in isolation meant I had to push away from the screen and take a breather. You have taken me far outside my comfort zone with your challenge to ‘connect’. So after a metaphorical “lie down and a Bex” , I am PUBLICLY making contact with a complete stranger on the other side of the planet in the hope, at least initially, of a more private conversation.

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