Happy new year all!

I’ve just been talking to a friend who got an MFA a year or so ago, and she has been struggling to recover the passion she felt as an artist that led her to go to grad school in the first place. She says, “It is actually the intrinsic impulse to create and the deeply felt passion that I feel the institution really robbed me of. It is so much harder to find now than it was before. But hey – I got an adjunct teaching job where I’ll hardly be paid a damn thing, so I guess the credential was worth it. (worried/sad emoticon)”

This is something you hear all the time from folks who turn their passion into a profession. That transition is difficult to navigate for many of us while for others selling is as natural as breathing. The thing that worries me is that the folks who have a hard time recapturing that expressive joy are held to somehow be doing it wrong. As if the natural state of an artist is to be commercially viable. If you are not making money at it you are some sort of loser. How can that be?

Well, my hat is off to the folks who shimmy and jive their way through sales as if its their birthright. I’m not so worried about them. For others, however, it takes real persuasion to get right with their entrepreneurial roles….. Like my friend, it is possible to wake up one day and see the easy passion for creative expression recede over the horizon, only to find it replaced with the pressures of market and our own critical eye that values certain standards over the intrinsic legitimacy of our passion.

Once upon a time passion was enough. That was all we required to make what we make. But once our eyes are opened to the larger context of what we are doing and where we are doing it, that passion is no longer sufficient. Rarely, at least. What we make isn’t simply chasing our ideas down but a measuring against good and bad. And even our own versions of good and bad can kill passion. Even our own good can throttle the joy we have in making it…..

In a sense, its a bait and switch. We’ve been told that becoming more professionally involved with our passion will only deepen our relationship to it, but the reality is often that we have traded our passion for a profession. The veil has been removed at the cost of our innocence. As David NcRaney says in his essay on the overjustification effect:

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

I’m not saying you can’t get it back, but you have to behave as if innocence belongs. You have to make things that have no external purpose. You have to throw yourself at the process and be alright with the results, no matter what. You have to be open to making mistakes, but rather than calling them out, learn what they have to teach. As another friend John Bauman recently said, “My best stuff is the evolution of accidents that exceeded what I thought I was making at the time.” Its alright not to know what you are doing. Its important to sometimes just be doing it.

If you are an artist looking for a new years resolution perhaps you can dream more dreams that are untethered to extrinsic motivations. Perhaps you can resolve to claim back part of that innocence that so many of us have lost in the shuffle of ‘growing up’ and growing out of our passions.

That’s all I’ve got to start the new year!

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

14 Responses to Innocence

  1. les norton says:

    This is a subject I am really passionate about. The fear of failing or not making ends meet or not being accepted by customers or peers can have a huge affect on our work. I argue this, all the time, with both the artists and the musicians I work and play with. You worry about being successful so you try to make what you think your customers or fans will like. Like being in a band and playing the same songs that all the other bands around town are playing, because it’s safe and you think it’s the only way you will get work. With pottery you might use the same glazes or make the same basic forms as others because the others seem to be selling and you figure that’s the way it has to be.

    I completely disagree with this idea, you need to make what you are passionate about and you need the chops (music) or craftsmanship to pull it off.

    If you try to please someone else and you are not passionate about what you are making it will not only bring you down, but that someone else will see it in your work and they probably won’t want it either. If you just want to get by, then none of this matters, but if you think there is something more, you need to go at it with everything you have and don’t think about, what if I fail. Because if you think that, you probably will.

    • Well put Les! I’m with you completely on this!

      The other thing I’d add is that its not just copying others that can get us in trouble but copying our own selves. Say you have a hit song. The crowd may know that one song the best and prefer that you play it every concert. They may even support it so exclusively that any attempts you make to do different things are responded to negatively. They won’t like you switching styles or genres.

      The more you pay attention to those external pressures the less you will have the freedom to pursue your own passions. Our own best work can become a prison for us. That is the danger I fear the most. But of course its still possible to be passionate about the things we did long ago. In that case, if our passion coincides with what the public wants, then go for it 🙂 But how often have you heard of famous musicians being frustrated by the demand for their older work and the lack of following for what they are currently interested in? That’s the tricky part…..

      Hope all is well! Hope you are having a great start to the new year!


  2. Grace Sheese says:

    I have to admit that I had the complete opposite grad school experience. Perhaps it was the timing but for me, grad school revived my passion for clay. I was a full time potter for 5 years and 34 years old when I decided to go to grad school. One of the main reasons I decided to go was because I was bored with my work. I didn’t know how to break free from that boredom to try something truly different. Grad school allowed me the time and space to explore without major consequences (i.e. sales, damaging gallery relationships etc.) Wanting to know how to continue to create work that is exciting over time was one of my main goals of school.

    Now that it has been 2.5 years after graduation, I find that I’m still excited about this new body of work that began in grad school. That being said, I don’t think my relationship with clay will ever go back to those early heady days. After 20 years together, my love for clay is deeper but also calmer. While I think it may be viewed as less passionate, I would argue that this is a good thing. Wild and crazy passion isn’t sustainable in the same way as quiet, deep abiding love. My connection with clay reminds me of the long term relationships I have with people.

    Have I address the true questions brought up by your blog post? Perhaps not. I do keep, as much as possible, the selling and the making separate. When I make, I make to please me (for the most part). But, not jumping around and getting distracted by the next big new shiny thing is part of a long lasting mature relationship, is it not?

    • I’m so glad to hear it, Grace! I remember when you started grad school and its been awesome to see the evolution of your work. Your experience in grad school is certainly one of the success stories 🙂

      I also love the analogy with human relationships and the passion of new found love vs the settled abiding love that comes from knowing your partner intimately. That’s a great way to put it! It speaks to very much of our experience, clearly.

      I will give you an argument that tests the comparison a bit, and you tell me how much sense it makes. The problem with making these two things (art and relationships with people) equivalent is that the consequences are different. Say your art practice is a relationship with a medium. Its true that the longer you practice the deeper you will tend to go, but what happens if you suddenly want to try something different? If we were talking about our personal relationships and the monogamy of a partnership/marriage, then stepping out would certainly have terrible consequences for the relationship. If we were caught in an affair with someone else, we might not be forgiven. We might have burned a bridge and never be able to go back……

      Its right to want a commitment like that to not get violated. But what if we are talking about art? Why would we necessarily feel the same pressure of commitment when straying outside the practice has no such consequences? I think its an artificial position we sometimes put ourselves in that imagines what we are doing with our art has to stay monogamous. The only negative is that often times you are staring at square one, and the depth you had before is something you will have to now work at……. I just don’t think that this down side always tips the balance against the discovery of new things to be passionate about.

      So I’m an advocate of at least being open to those passions leading us in different directions, as far as art goes. With human relationships there are the rewards of stability and comfort, and the sheer weight of history that has been shared. Those things affect our art too, but they are also fundamentally external pressures. In that sense they are little different from the sales and damaging gallery relationships you avoided in going to grad school.

      The point I am making is that we DO perhaps look at our relationship to our art as some form of commitment. Likening it to our committed relationships with other people is revealing, but perhaps it also holds us back. Maybe looking at it that way gives us an artificial incentive to stick with things longer than we should. Hey, if the passion is still there I’m all for that. But if its boring, or even if we are content but do see some shiny new thing, what is the harm in testing the waters? If you spend one day out of the month to have an affair with something new, what negative consequences do you have to fear? If you engage in random flings with strange materials and processes once or twice a week, when you get home to your regular partner will the relationship necessarily be damaged? Will it possibly even be improved? That’s what I always wonder?

      Here’s another question: In cultures that have polygamous marriage practices, how do artists feel about their commitment to single art forms? Is there less tyranny involved in staying the course? Or if they are more engaged in traditional practices exclusively would they compare what they are doing less to personal relationships and more to things like social codes and class structure? All of which I am asking just to suggest that the comparison, while accurate to a certain extent, only describes a part of what we do. It doesn’t give us the reasons for doing it, necessarily. Don’t turn your back on passion is all I’m saying…..

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Hope all is going well!


    • And then there’s the question of bringing passion back to a relationship that has been on the slow steady burn for too long (starting 2:48):

  3. les norton says:

    There is a local potter who, for as long as I can remember, has made white porcelain pieces with beautiful multi-colored, free flowing brush work. In my eyes his work was the pinnacle of perfection. He was one of the most successful potters I know. Then for some reason he changed his work, it became black with sort of geometric white pattern. He didn’t change the underlining form, just the decoration. I personally didn’t like this new work so for me he fell off his pinnacle. However it appears his sales have not dropped at all, except for a dip when he first made the transition.

    In a related observation, many many years ago Bob Dylan made a transition from acoustic to electric and the same thing happened, He went from very popular to very popular with a dip when he made the transition.

    I am sure that both the potter and Dylan had a strong passion to move on to something new and what happened in both cases were that the fan/customer base changed as well.

    On a related topic… The other day at band practice one of the other guys said that “what ever music we listen to in our pre and early teens will be our preferred music for life.” All the other bandmates seemed to agree, except for me. I may be an exception here but I like, almost equally, music from all era’s. If you put my iPod on random you would get Bach, Airborne Toxic Experiment, The Animals, Coltrane, Sibelius, Hans Zimmer, LInkin Park, Earl Scruggs, Beth Hart … I could go on for pages. The point is I didn’t stop listening to new music when I got out of high school and didn’t stagnate. My pottery and my enjoyment of other peoples work didn’t stop in the 70’s, which is when I started, I still like Leach’s and Hamada’s work along with many of the newer and very creative things being made today.

    And another topic, which I promise to tie together in a minute… No matter what your passion you need the chops and craftsmanship to pull it off. The final work should be of the highest quality. I’m not saying they have to be slick and shinny and perfect looking, but every mark and shape needs to be intended. I have meet production potters who only try to see how many pieces they can make in an hour rather than make sure every piece is held to a very high standard and is made to the very best of their ability. And as far and defining that standard, make it just a little higher than the best piece you have ever made and then strive to hit that mark. Once you have hit that mark consistently, raise it and keep practicing.

    The point of all this is:
    1. If you have a passion, follow it.
    2. There is a fan or customer base that will like your work, even if you change. (see below)
    3. The higher your quality, the better you fan or customer base will be.

    An aside: It’s interesting to note that when the potter changed, I didn’t like the new work, but when Dylan changed, I did like the new direction.

    Customers: I had my work at 3 different galleries that are less than 150 miles apart. With the same work in all three galleries, one gallery sold better by almost 10 to 1. I don’t quite understand the absurd difference but it tells me that this one galley is located near “MY” customer base.

    • Hah! Great anecdotes!

      Those are all good observations. Add to that that customers can look at the pots/music of a stagnant artist and get bored. If its the same old same old and they’ve already seen it all before there is no excitement or anticipation. Folks don’t always like too much of even a good thing. Its as if there’s a quota or limit where too much sameness tips the balance and we have to start over. Can you imagine eating even your favorite meal every day for the rest of your life? Saturation is a real danger, and the brightness we felt when it was new soon gets lost in the tired parade of having our expectations met.

      Which is why, I might add, that we don’t often like just one musician or song, just one potter or pot, but many and extremely different ones to boot. That has to mean something. And if we feel that was as an audience, why should we feel any different as the producers of our art?

      Good conversation! I always enjoy talking things out 🙂

      Thanks as always for your insights!


  4. From Brainpickings this morning:

    “Having grown up playing guitar and working to become a professional musician as a young adult, studying at a conservatory and winning some competitions along the way, Kurtz found himself disillusioned and exasperated with his progress, with the disheartening sense that “ambition and expectation are sometimes not enough.” So he gave up the dream of becoming an artist, borrowed a book from the New York Public Library to learn typing, and got himself a “real” job as an editorial assistant in New York, to which he walked twenty blocks to work every morning, “stunned and heartbroken, a sleepwalker.””

    Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.


    There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things.


    Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.


    Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.

    “So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.”

    Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on.


    From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.

  5. Jeff Mangum interviewed by Marci White in 2002:

    “I think the biggest obstacle for people with their creativity is that they feel they have to sit down and create this finished, polished product. Especially nowadays, it’s so easy to have a library of two thousand CDs, books and records. So many things. We’re used to having all of these finished works of art in our life that seem to arise out of nothing. I think that so much of the creative process is a fragmentary one, and then it’s about just allowing your intuition to put it together for you. It’s funny how you create something and you think you’re going in a million different directions, and then the thing you end up with is the thing that you wanted to create your whole life, but you’re just as surprised by it as anybody else.”

  6. les norton says:

    Carter.. this is an interesting observation but the creative process is just that, a process. In the end you need to get you to the finished, polished product.

    Every few years I do the RPM challenge, it’s where you write and record a CD in one month. The final goal is not necessarily to make a finished CD, but to push your creative mind and kick it into gear. At the end of the process I am always fired up with new ideas and directions for my music. If you are interested here is a link to the results of the 3 years I have done it.

    I mention this because later this year I have been asked to be the feature artist at a gallery that sells my work. I would like to not only have a lot of nice pieces that are a step up from what I have been doing, but would also like to have some new and different things that I have never done before. It struck me this morning that I should create a “Pottery Challenge”. A few ideas for the challenge might be:
    1. Put a time or quanity limit on the challenge (I tend to drift all over the place following ideas, so need a way that will force me to keep focused). Maybe 2 weeks or 50 pieces (depending on how complex they are).
    2. Use at least one new techinque each day of the challenge.
    3. Work on the edge of my comfort zone. Make pots thinner or taller than I think I can.
    4. Alter forms in new ways pushing the my skills to the limit.
    5. Don’t worry about if I think I can sell the piece or not.

    Again, the purpose of this challenge is not necessarily to make finished and polished works, but it is to discover new ideas and directions and just to inspire me.

    • I’m not sure I agree that you always “need to get to the finished, polished product.” Not always, at least. But I do agree that there is all sorts of outside pressure on us to do so. Galleries are one such obligation. Sales. Challenges like the RPM and NaNoWriMo are another.

      I think for an audience the desire is often that an artist will give them the finished product, not something half baked, or cobbled together in haste. And that makes sense. They are usually paying for it, if not in money, in time and attention spent. If artists are ruled by audiences this further baking and polishing is how it usually gets done. Ready for Prime Time. But if its something the artist does entirely for her own reasons, only sometimes will the end product be necessary. Sometimes, not always. Its up to her.

      For instance, I’ve heard of plenty of composers who have small snippets of music that they keep hold of. Sometimes they find their way into a song, but sometimes they don’t. It can be more satisfying when things come together in this way, but sometimes they are just formative ideas. Notes. Prospects. Clues. Tangents. Latent potential. They can be suggestions rather than requirements. Possibility rather than reality. You can’t disown them as being ‘merely unfinished’. A child is no less important for not yet being an adult…..

      Not everything we dream has to find its way into something an audience can stomach. Parboiled art, sketch books, and practice sessions are just one part of an artist’s world. An important part. I look at a sculptors’ studio and see all sorts of random pieces, miscellaneous collections, and unfinished projects. Ideas that have not lead anywhere, but worth saving. Raw materials. Because that’s what we do. We gather ideas and we dream dreams. And then we sometimes make.

      I do a lot of ‘finishing’ and ‘polishing’ for the pots that come out of my kilns. I spend time adding the parts together, slapping a coat of glaze on, and loading and firing kilns. I go from the beginning of a process to the end. I am involved in churning out objects, products for the market, so it makes sense to look at them as adequately finished in some sense. I would never put a piece of bisque ware up for sale and I only occasionally have seconds that I sell. Selling means a minimum of completing the cycle.

      But you know, part of me also feels like all I have been doing is making rough sketches. Part of me feels that if there is a real pot I’m supposed to make I haven’t gotten to it yet. If I had only one pot left to make, one lump of clay to work with, I would still never end up with something I could call ‘finished’.

      Because I’m not done yet. I’m not finished. The pots I make are just stepping stones, as much places to jump from as places to land. If all I was interested in was sticking the landing, that would be one thing. Instead, my eyes shift almost immediately to the next stone, and importantly to the spaces in between. If my art is a process, its a process of taking leaps as much as it is making landings, practicing as much as ‘finishing’. I am in motion rather than at a stand still. I haven’t crossed the finish line yet….

      So, while part of me puts the ‘finishing touches’ on each pot, part of me is always dreaming of what comes next. I’m not finished, and neither are my pots. Even if they may look like a polished product, better than some, worse than others, they are still only links in a chain. The last piece of clay I pick up before I shed this mortal coil will be the end of that chain, and I will be finished whether I want to be or not. Until then the ideas come and go. Some get to live inside lumps of clay and glaze and others never find their home outside my sketch book and imaginings.

      If you only look at the objects themselves you can sometimes believe that the artist was finished. Some artists were dead years before they stopped making things. If you look at the changing evolving artist you can see that she is never done.

      Shoot! I think I’ll have to post this as a blog entry. Thanks Les for making me go through these issues! 🙂

      • Les Norton says:

        When I say finished, I don’t mean you last and greatest work (think Beethoven’s 9th), I’m suggest more that at the end of a book, the end of a song, or when you say your pot is done, that there is no more that you think you can add to that piece at that moment. At some point you have to some adding one more brush stroke, changing one more note and call that piece finished. Sure you look at it later a go, I could have done this different or better, but that’s why you wake up each day just itching to get to work creating!!! What ever song I write last or which ever pot I make last I hope it’s the “best” thing I have ever done.

        • Amen brother!

          Those are exactly some of the points I was trying to make 🙂 But not always or in every circumstance, it seems.

          Its just so very nuanced, and whenever I see something that sounds like a rule I try to test it for where it doesn’t cover things so well. I was just making the case that there is something decidedly ambiguous about the notion of finishing. And I’ve seen writers offer the advice that you “have to finish what you start”. It just seems there are gray areas and room for compromise that we need to honor as well. That’s all I’m saying.. I’ve got bisque ware that I am almost certain to never fire. I’ve thrown countless pots that I never let get past greenware stages. So you can see that its never all or nothing. The world is rarely so simple….

          I just looked up ‘unfinished symphony’ in wikipedia and was reminded of not only Shubert’s 8th but the hypothetical Beethoven’s 10th put together by another composer from various sketches Beethoven left, Tchaikovsky’s 7th which he emphatically abandoned, Sibelius’ 8th which he probably destroyed, and a host of others. Just in classical music! If you are the creator sometimes its your responsibility to never let things started reach a conclusion. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. You can start something and set it aside for years before feeling like you know where its heading. Or it can get started and then you just forget. You get side tracked or are simply interested in other things…..

          It just seems there are a whole host of reasons why some things are sometimes better off left unfinished or are simply abandoned…..

          Can you honestly say that everything you have started you have finished? Not me 🙂

  7. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: January 2015 - Pottery Making Info

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