There was a time when I first started this blog that I used to spend moaning about the disappearance of pottery classes from Universities. Not all, of course, just as a perceptible trend. Departments downsizing, hiring sculptors to replace potters, not admitting potters to grad programs, having non potters teach wheel classes to beginners……. It is a depressing picture if you think about it.
Not that pottery won’t survive, just that fewer folks will have access to a decent education about it. Fewer folks may even be exposed to it in a serious context. It doesn’t seem like a consequence-free trend……
I teach in a community arts setting, and folks there are often quite engaged with what they are doing. The students who really want to make it a part of their lives go to heroic lengths to make that happen. I can’t applaud them enough, and I’m willing to go above and beyond what I am getting paid for to make it possible for them.
But the interesting thing is that very many of the folks who walk through the doors where I teach already have some exposure to pot making from some previous part of their lives. Many folks took classes in high school or in college. Some had decent art programs in grade school. There have been generations who were generously exposed to the arts in their classrooms. If you think about the majority of really good potters, all but a few will have taken classes as potters for at least some of their formal education. But opportunity for that seems to be more rare these days…….
The thing I was fearing most was that these sorts of opportunities are steadily diminishing. I could only see the doom and gloom of my worst imaginings. And I knew that if you just look at the success stories you will only ever get a rosy tinted picture. Sure, some Universities still do a marvelous job teaching it. Can we draw any necessary conclusions from that? Do we mistake the forest for the trees? There are increasing opportunities for apprentices. That’s a great thing! But is this a sample size with any chance of replacing the extent and breadth in education potters had from dwindling academic settings? Does a casual community class always challenge students in the same way as having strict homework assignments and the accountability of grades? For me its almost impossible to make that case, except in rare circumstances. Most folks who attend classes at community centers are not trying to figure out the path of their lives as much as they are finding the diversion of a possible hobby. And there is nothing wrong with that….
Its simply obvious the shape of the field is changing. Nothing wrong with that unless we are bogged down in some rigid conservatism of the ‘Golden Age’. But where are we headed? Have we adequately considered the issue of its sustainability?
Well, you can’t say these alternatives are hopeless, but they don’t really solve the entire issue of pottery moving forward. They are obviously part of the puzzle, though. No denying that. The key, however, is that in all these instances of possibility the idea of pottery was already something that people took seriously. You don’t commit to three years of apprenticeship without believing in the value of making pots. You don’t even take a noncredit night class without having a good idea that making pots will be fun. Or that having something made by hand to bring home is a great thing. The issue I am pointing out is that each of these alternatives rests on a foundation where the value of pottery is already accepted. Its a question of how we think of ourselves and how we understand the world. But how did we get there? How do we make the healthy survival of art not moot?
They don’t offer classes in shopping at Walmart, after all…. They don’t need to. We are brought up as consumers, and passively accepting the creativity of other people is second nature to us by the time we are young adults. Doesn’t that tell us a bit about the training of people growing up in today’s world? Doesn’t it say something profound about the odds that are stacked against the active participatory arts? Which is so fundamentally strange, because we all grew up as natural artists……
Is it weird that I get real tears in my eyes every time I see this scene? (I am a sap, if you didn’t already know that, but this just rips my heart open every time….)
So what am I advocating here? Surely not that we all grow up fighting to remain Peter Pan? No, but art has to stay somewhere safe for it to thrive. It needs to be encouraged, nurtured, and it needs a foundation. Whither that?
Well, what I see as the Starting Point of the Future of Pottery, the future of art, is that folks grow up respecting and appreciating these things. That’s as good a starting place as I can imagine. You can’t guarantee it will last, but the more you make a space in peoples’ hearts for an activity or thing the likelier they will have the chance to remember it and pursue it as they move forward. Unless society crushes their creativity from them, which too often can seem inevitable…. Where exactly do we take a stand against that?
On as many fronts as possible is how I’d answer.
As we grow up we find that more and more the further we go we have reasons to make up our minds about the world. We get ‘evidence’ that some things matter and others don’t. We decide. We commit. Its not just the outside pressures and expectations but our own habits in confronting the world. There are accretions of our actions, and our feet so often find the well worn trails. We build in some directions but not others. We are complicit in how things shake out for us. The things we have done and thought become a part of who we are. We are encased in a mantle of what we have experienced and how we have felt about it…..
Of course we can change, but so much of our mental and physical lives are spent reinforcing the things we are already familiar with. We inhabit a loose affiliation of things that matter to us. And it often takes extraordinary effort to break the patterns of our lives. So much seems to point us in the direction of repeating ourselves. Laziness, familiarity, accrued psychological disposition, the confirmation bias and all other motivated reasoning…. (And if you think about it, these are all the reasons brand advertising seems to work so powerfully on us. Does that suggest something notable about the course of our lives and the influence lines of manipulation?) The odds are simply stacked against radical and rapid ephemeral changes. Our lives turn away from unpredictability with an assurance that fairly reeks of engineering. Stability and conformity DO matter to us. We build it into our lives at almost every turn.
The question, then, is if some sort of stability is inevitable, to what do we conform? Can we do a better job of planting the right seeds and nurturing the right growth? What values do we put forth as a locus to build stability around? We’re not living in a fantasy of completely chaotic and untethered free will. Are we?
My thought is that we make a home for art in the world by helping people grow up with art as a part of their lives. No guarantees, of course, and there is no rule against picking it up much later in life. But it seems that IF you start out in life understanding where respect and appreciation come from, you will have a much less difficult time remembering it later in life. When, for instance, the chips are down and you are being hemmed in by other pressures and the need for external adult commitments.
It becomes a choice for us by already being available to us. We are offered art in our future simply as a point of stability in our personal values. Not as some radical departure, but the continuation of who we are. Our self-identity. We make it a preference. Art survives because we remember that art has a place in our lives. We make a place for art in the world by believing in art.
If art is an acquired taste, from where exactly do we acquire it? Interacting with art is a habit that we can let define us the more we invest in it, the more we explore it. The only way to love art is to become invested in it…..
So I try my best to get real pottery in the hands of young (and potential) art enthusiasts. As young as I can get ‘em. If they have the experience of caring that the next meal they eat will be from this handmade piece of pottery, how powerful is that? That’s the question this discussion hinges on. And from where I am sitting I can only see one real answer: Of course it is merely one of the competing values they will grow up with, but if its already there, at least its in contention.
And valuing a piece of pottery isn’t necessarily just about pots. There are more global lessons to be learned by making a place for pottery in one’s life. Its sometimes also about handmade items, about creativity, about imagination, about art in general, museums and public creative works, and its significantly also about their own involvement with these things. Which is why we so often find that our fellow artists are kindred spirits, after all. A person who is sensitive to beauty in paintings may have more capacity (or training) for discovering it in their everyday surroundings and in other creative manifestations.
The more we pay attention to these things the more we are tuned in that way. Its like learning a new language (or anything really): The more we use it the more it becomes part of how we express ourselves. It is the people who have a hard time finding these things who are more truly lost to art. Its not an affinity for them. The don’t ‘speak the language’ yet. Or they have forgotten. Whichever, they don’t have a home for it in their lives. They have very little foundation to build on…. But appreciate one art form and you will have at least potentially opened the gateway to other possible extensions of the human imagination. Doesn’t that just make sense?
Which leaves me. How do I deal with this issue? I seem to care what happens, but what do I DO about it?
Well, each year I devote a large portion of my pot making to smaller sized versions of my pottery that fit small hands and belly sizes. I make pots FOR kids specifically. And I put small adult prices on them to start with, but then I give them to kid customers at half off that already ridiculously low price. Kids can get their mugs for anywhere between $5-$8. There is nothing kids sized I put out that would cost them more than $10. Which makes it cheap enough that parents aren’t discouraged by its higher probability of a short life (the younger they are increasing the incidence of mishap). Why not put inexpensive art in the hands of your children? Things they will truly cherish and which may help them make sense of the creative world as they grow older?
My hope is that these questions still matter to enough parents regardless of whether their own lives have retained the opportunity for serious creative expression. If you believe in art, how do you make it available to your children? I’m trying to give one possible answer to that……
Here’s what I mean:
How can I look at these kids and not feel I am doing the right thing? Even if it costs me money to do, in the long run? Isn’t it easy to believe that the future of pottery is in good hands?
Make beauty real!