Letter to a young potter

“So I only made one piece I liked in my pottery class & I’m pretty sure I put it on my cars roof and drove home. Hum…So much for that one.”

This popped up in my fb feed from a friend and former student. It seemed worth a response. Here is what I said (typically bloated in my inimitable CGPB ramblin’ way 😉 ):

Only one? Either you were not very productive or you are being very very hard on yourself. I wish you had stayed more during class that one time you had signed up with me. It seems we never had much opportunity to talk about things like this. To me the tragedy is not that a pot got broken, even the one you liked the best, but that there was only one pot that you liked. The real misfortune was perhaps in place long before you drove off…….

The danger I sometimes see, if I can presume in your case, is that it is not important enough to you that you like what you are doing. That’s the tricky part of holding one’s self to high standards: The eventual reward of standards are always in competition with the immediate rewards of the process. You can’t always have both at once. And if you can its because you took the long road to figuring out how this was possible. My suggestion is that there is more to making pots than how well we aim or even having the right things to aim for. Especially as we are staring out on that road. We have to have other reasons for traveling it than that we are pointing in the right direction……

In my experience there are also ways of working that focus on making more of the things you like, and ways of working that focus on liking more of the things you make. Liking the road we are traveling seems like a decent reason for being on it. And each of these exercises sometimes requires that we give up the ideas that we feel comfortable with. Your convictions about what you are doing can’t be allowed to stand in the way of finding things outside your normal comfort zone. The road isn’t always a straight line, and we can’t always see beyond the next curve to know what we will get.

Sometimes enjoyment of the process and the things you make will only come to you as a surprise. Just like in reading a book or watching a film, the ending isn’t always what we anticipate. And to get there we sometimes need to learn to suspend our disbelief, suspend our beliefs too, so that we may come to see things from a different perspective. To travel the road to its end we can’t always be the person we thought we were. Sometimes our own ideals stand in the way. Our inexperience stands in the way. Sometimes we have to unlearn the biases that limit us. Or, sometimes we need to understand those biases, where they come from and why they seem to stick with us. And then we can set them aside, when needed, and maintain them when they are actually helping us. And that difference can be hard to decipher…..

Sometimes its like we want to run a marathon and we won’t settle for anything less than that. Nothing else measures up. We are mesmerized by a single notion of excellence. The problem is that we are not always in a position to run marathons. We think we should be able, but we haven’t considered that there is a short term view and a long term view. To eventually run a marathon you can’t just head out the door and be disappointed by every 5 miles you are only able to run. 5 miles is actually good if it is part of the path that will eventually take you to 26.2. The trick is to see where you are at the moment and respect that.

Don’t think you necessarily should be farther along the path than you are. Seeing the finish line is sometimes easy, and that can actually deceive us about the real path to our goal. The getting there is the difficult part, and the apparent ease of our vision is only frustrated by the physical handicaps of the journey itself. Seeing the bullseye doesn’t always mean we are prepared to hit it. We simply haven’t accounted for all the hidden and undiscovered things that are involved in eventually crossing that line.

Which often leads us to frustration. Frustration can be tiring. And if we don’t learn to love or appreciate the steps along the way we may never have the fortitude to reach our final destination.……… Don’t love your work only because of how close it was to your aim. Love what you are doing itself. The process should also be rewarding, no strings attached. And perhaps love each pot because it may be better than the last. If you are improving this difference alone should be important to you. But also love each pot because it may be worse than what will come after, and this was necessary……

Because, unless you take this same awkward step and stumble occasionally you will never get where you are going. The destination is not reached just by unequivocal triumphs but by the missteps we must endure to get there. We are not ushered to the finish line amidst blaring trumpets and cheering crowds. We get there the hard way. We get there by taking a path through the rubble of mistakes and the dubious charms of might-have-beens and also-rans. If there is a symphony waiting for us at the end it sounds nothing like the glossy finished product while we are getting there…..

Cherish those steps for what they are. But also learn to see that there may not really be an end point you will reach. The goal that drove you, it turns out, may in fact be an illusion. Illusory? It may be an unnecessary part of the journey. The need to cross that particular finish line may have dwindled in the rear view as you take different turns that lead to other places. And if we won’t always get where we think we are driving, the question is whether where we think we are driving was all that important to begin with.

So, as you learn to step more confidently you will not just close the gap toward your original destination: You will also see new opportunities to get off the path and explore in different directions. As you gain the skills for moving through the work you will come to understand that the work actually wasn’t really the important thing. Not the physical stuff you made. Rather, the important thing was that you now have the ability and freedom to go where you will. What you have changed is not simply the steps you are able to take but the person taking those steps. By changing yourself you have changed what you can now see. And from this different vantage the terrain can seem drastically different from what it used to look like. There are unexpected mountains to climb and unforeseen streams to cross. These are the surprises we are faced with, and they can seem ever so much more interesting than the ideas we first started out with. And you can now do those things because you are not the person you once were. You are now an artist, not merely a maker of objects.

The transition will be hard to spot, but if you keep at it long enough and keep touch with sustaining reasons for being on this path, eventually you will look back at where you have been and know that even if you didn’t get to where you thought you’d be you have still gotten somewhere. And you will find that it may not even be easy to recognize that person who first took those awkward steps out into the world and explored their creativity. You will know so much more than you ever thought possible. You will dream dreams that were never an option for that person you left behind. And you will now know for a fact that there is so much more to the world than you can ever come to understand. And you may find that this humility was the single biggest step you took, though it may have happened while you were not looking and it may be hard to place a finger on when exactly it took place…… And isn’t that also part of the mystery that we perhaps have to embrace?

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 education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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