So this week saw my Copying the Masters class draw to a close. Its been great fun for all of us, and I think the students have all gotten some valuable perspective on making pots and in growing their own technique and skill. For me the class is one of the favorite things I can teach, but the title to this post is a coincidence as far as that goes.
In a previous post I spoke about the importance of developing the capacity to see differences, and that by copying the work of other potters you come to see how they did it, what they valued, and perhaps why it was important to them. As my parting gift to the students I wanted to discuss another aspect of the class and of all our deliberate and expressive work in clay.
But let me first start by talking about language, what things we like and what we don’t like. For instance, what are your least favorite words? Well, for me it is foremost the words I pronounce poorly and the words I can’t spell worth a darn. I try to avoid those if I can.
I also don’t have much fondness for lazy words like ‘ain’t’ or shortcut acronyms like ‘lol’. To me utterances like that lower the bar and I can’t help but feel ridiculous. But that’s a statement about me. Its not often a condemnation of other people using them. (I don’t wear hats because I think I look funny in them, but other people look just smashing in hats!) We are all shaped by the culture we grow up with, and that means one way of doing it is never necessarily right.
I also avoid the $10 words like ‘parsimonious’, ‘inchoate’, and ‘voluble’. I’m not interested in impressing people with the big words I know, but it doesn’t mean knowing them is not worth while. Its better to know far more things than one is responsible for bringing out into the world.
I also don’t like words that are too technically specific to a field. Jargon is another way that words are used, and I often feel helpless in the face of them come tax time, applying for medical insurance, and most other brushes with professional-speak that has nothing to do with my ordinary life.
But I like making connections, so I also like the use of metaphor. I like stretching the expectations to make unfamiliar connections. I think a huge part of what interests me about this life and the planet we live on is the serendipity of surprise meaning and unexpected truths.
Perhaps you can now see that I am not really talking just about language. That is, I am talking about language that includes far more than spoken or written words. In fact, I am really talking about the language of clay, pottery, and of any other expressive art medium.
What are the shapes, materials, marks we don’t like to use? The ones we prefer?
What expressions of form and surface do we think makes us look foolish? Poorly constructed handles? Lame surface decoration? What expressions suit us and show what we intend in the best light?
What expressions are so over the top that if we attempted them we’d be laughed out of the building? Should we even care? What is enough and what is too much? Are we trying too hard to impress people? Or are we not trying hard enough, just playing it safe? Or are we simply doing our own thing and waiting for the audience to catch up? Are we even waiting?
What are the details that fit poorly together? Do bowls need handles? When? How many? What proportions seem to match up and which do not? What marks are appropriate and which get in the way of what we are trying to say?
When is it enough nuance and when have we gone overboard?
What connections are a pleasant surprise and which can we not quite get our heads around?
All of these differences are like the words and phrases of a language, and it is up to us to construct meaningful things from them. Depending on what we use the range of our expression either shrinks or expands. When you are growing as a potter you are learning the possibilities of new expression, a new language. It is a thing where the more we learn the greater our powers of expression. The less we learn the more limited we are in what we can say. Learning more is the advantage every adult holds over grade schoolers.
So the big point I am striving to make is that we can back out of exploring for the wrong reasons. Of course it is important to know what our preferences are, but that should not limit us to staying only within the safety and security of what we already know. Stretch outside the comfort zone even if you don’t think you will like what you are doing. The truth is that many of the things we ‘don’t like’ are simply the things we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, and that often has more to do with our own lack of experience than an honest assessment of dislike.
What does a suburban American kid know of Ethiopian food? Not much, unless they are lucky. But kids turn their noses up at strange foods all the time. A two year old’s favorite word is “No!” That’s an important word, but is it always used by them for sensible reasons? Lets not make our pursuit of creativity depend on the whims of imagined dislike. There may be hard limits to what you find acceptable, but my guess is that the horizon of possibility has yet to be fully explored and the boundaries of our interest have yet to be fully circumscribed.
I have seen students who don’t make mugs because they are afraid of pulling handles. I have seen students avoid making plates because they don’t understand how to get them off the wheel. I have seen students refuse to trim pots because they can’t be bothered with controlling the drying conditions. None of these dislikes are the dislike of something they understood. Its the worst sort of shoddy half baked opinion that holds us back and stunts our creative development. Don’t be that person!
Be brave, be bold, be an explorer! Not necessarily a full time adventurer, but live your life as though adventure were an option. Stretch your wings when you feel the warming breeze of an updraft. Climb that tall tree to launch yourself into the unknown. You have wings, and it would be a shame if you spent all your creative time running over the same old ground. “What have we found? The same old fears. Wish you were here”……
This is how I expressed it in an email to a student who had to miss class:
Sorry we missed you! The one thing I talked about at the beginning of class was how what we are doing with clay is like learning a language. And its important to recognize that we have our favorite ‘words’ and ‘phrases’, but also that we have things that we don’t like. I think the comment you made that you “finally feel like you are starting to understand the things that you like” is huge. We need to make that sort of discovery to point us in the right directions for exploration. But one of the points I stressed in class was that as far as language goes, the things we don’t like are typically the things that make us uncomfortable or that we get frustrated by.
For instance, I don’t like words I chronically misspell, words I mispronounce, or confusing text like when I’m trying to file my taxes. The point I was attempting to make is that our dislikes tend to be the stuff we just haven’t learned to do right yet, and its not dislike necessarily in the sense of being opposite to ‘like’. More often its simply a lack of clarity about the unfamiliar. And the point that led me to was that even if we don’t want to use these details of the language of pottery ourselves, by understanding them we have added to our own intelligence and we can better appreciate work that includes them. You don’t need to use the words yourself, but you need to be able to know how to use them. It takes away some of the fear and inhibition. Its just a caution to not so automatically avoid the things we ‘don’t like’. Disliking the merely unfamiliar or uncomfortable is too easily confused with the things for which we have real cause for dislike.
Hope that makes sense!
Make beauty real!