Repost: What Ron Meyers said

It seems my last essay fell utterly flat, DOA to your computer screens…. Thankfully I was just made aware of another post I ran almost exactly four years ago that said many of the same things, but perhaps more interestingly. Just mentioning Ron has probably kickstarted a pulse and dragged the patient from the brink of oblivion…..

Anyway, here’s what I said that Ron Meyers said (slightly edited from the first posting):

What Ron Meyers said

In a lot of ways my timing has been on the edge of perfect. When I first discovered my love for clay Ron Meyers was still teaching at UGA. I started taking a non-credit night class while I was enrolled in the PhD program in Philosophy, kind of as a welcome distraction to my studies, and ended up getting hooked. After about a year into it they dropped the program, the word being that the non credit students were overusing and burdening the facilities (got that right!). I knew Ron by this time and he suggested that I just sign up for credit since I was already enrolled at the University. Amazingly no one at my department raised a stink, and before I knew it Ron was my teacher. Before the Philosophy department knew it they had lost a student.

I have learned so much from Ron, and my pots will always show an appreciation for the clay that he helped foster. But in some ways my timing was just a bit off. I was too much a beginner to fully understand the nuance of some of the ideas he was teaching. I think I kind of picked most of it up unconsciously. Sometimes its hard to see that you are learning with your head when so much is happening with your hands. I was just having fun and doing something that I really enjoyed. The curse of being a beginner is that you don’t yet know enough to understand what it is you understand. The strands have not yet been pulled together to form the picture and bring clarity to what we are doing. You can’t often see subtlety and sophistication until you have lived with it long enough.

So my fear is that I started too late to really get the benefit of Ron’s teaching. But on the other hand, if I had started taking classes much earlier I might also have missed the awesome lineup they brought in to cover for Ron when he retired. Those instructors (for a semester each) were Linda Christianson and Michael Simon. I was definitely still a little green, and missed much of what they had to teach, but still they both were huge influences on me as well.

But back to Ron. I have especially been thinking of Ron these past few weeks. I have been looking at the issue of how we can set ourselves up by having certain expectations about our results and also about our process, and Ron had a few things to say about that. Ron would have been a great influence if only because he helped to take most of the pressure off. It was always about having fun with the clay and exploring what things were possible. Learning about the clay as much as learning about ourselves. The attitude that the project was about discovery rather than achieving specific results is probably crucial.

All this was brought home to me last year (2010?) when Ron was involved in a livecast workshop that I saw on the internet. Fortunately I wrote down some of his quotes from that NCECA preconference. In it Ron said:

“You need to show them you are thinking.”

“Searching for variation.”

“Everyday seeking something new. Trying something different everyday.”

“Picasso was not making work, he was finding it.”

“Discovering through working.”

“Looking for something to change, to get out of.”

Ron’s teabowls in my kitchen. What amazing variation in the shapes and sized and decoration!

Hearing all those thoughts again totally blew my mind. I don’t think I had realized how thoroughly a student of Ron’s I truly was. These are the kinds of things I say to my own students, different words maybe, but the attitude is exactly the same.

Unfortunately in my own work I am not always as vigorous about pursuing these changes. It seems I need some sort of special incentive to break the pattern of what I typically do in the studio on my own time. So I am absolutely grateful for when I teach because I always take it as an opportunity to show my students ways to do things that are purposely NOT the way I would do them myself. I consider it an obligation.

It is a trick I play on myself that I really should use more often. Purposely stepping in an unexpected direction is sometimes like stepping outside one’s self. By ignoring or rejecting all the habits that we feel helps define us we get to see the world in a new way. Its like taking a holiday, a day off from the routine of doing things the ‘normal’ way.

The way I tell it to my students I advise them to thin the walls and then do something to shape it. Don’t overanalyze it while its still on the wheel. Just do something either different from or similar to what you’ve done before and get it off the wheel. You can make more the same way or not, but then in a calm moment afterwards sit down and see what you came up with. If you allow experimentation and discovery to happen while the clay is on the wheel you are not so hooked into expectation that each detail is crucial. You get to see what worked and what didn’t work when you are a step removed from the making.

This way you are not dependent on only making what you already know or can see from that tortured angle sitting above the wheel. Let the pot happen without too much conscious input from your mind*. Do it quickly so you don’t get a chance to spoil it by letting your head step in where it is not needed. And if the results aren’t any good? So what? You now know what not to do in the future. And if something good happened? You might never have gotten there if you had waited to think it up first.

 

Some of the jars in my kitchen, with Ron Meyers well represented in a variety of firing methods and surface treatments.

 

Ron likes to joke that he makes the pots he does because he never learned how to center. Actually, he is probably the best thrower I know. They all come out slightly different because he is attempting to see what will happen with this lump of clay, not the next, or paying too close attention to the one before. Every surface is an opportunity to express something. And so while the marks themselves may look alike between several pots, each pot stands as a different expression of the sum of all the details. One teabowl may be larger, another smaller, one have a mark here on the wall, another there, one more rounded, another more straight, one flared in at the lip, another flared out. Its all variable, and the composition depends on the nuance of variation.

So how the hell do I do this myself? I start with entirely flexible and loose ideas for the outcome, but I have specific things I aim for in the process. A push with the rib somewhere around here, a sweeping line somewhere around there, maybe a slight flare at the rim, or maybe not, proportions starting roughly here and ending roughly there, etc,. All this looseness just to see what happens when I do it this way or do it that way. I’m willing to be surprised.

I also try to work in series so that I can build variations on my experimentation and hone in on others. I may take an idea and push it in one direction, realize I’ve gone too far, and then start back up in a different direction. Sometimes I will have an idea for something, maybe a thing I’ve seen someone else do, and then I will play around with that detail or way of doing things until it convinces me. Even in my ‘standard’ forms I am trying not to repeat myself. Or rather, I’m not trying per se, I’m just letting things manifest under their own power. Its more about expressing certain things about the process than achieving specific results. Its more about letting the clay express these things than manufacturing them into the clay. Its more about permission given than obedience and expectation.

So this (unfortunately?) often ends up creating a mishmash of inconsistent pots. If I’ve really gone crazy they look like different people made them. I don’t always like what it looks like on display together, but the question is whether I made them so that they could be displayed together or that I made them to find eventual homes with different people who will appreciate them on their own terms. Am I making for the purpose of historical coherence and stylistic identity or for the day to day inspiration? What exactly is my agenda?

The side effect of being driven to experiment and evolve also seems to be that older pots (in general) become boring pots by a factor of the distance you have moved away from them. The further you have traveled in your experiments the more you have left behind, and the more those older things may no longer interest you. Its as simple as that.

 

Ron’s mugs. Its not a ‘One Size Fits All’ Universe, folks. Why would our creativity behave as if it were?

 

So if you have heard me ranting before you will probably know that I’m not a huge fan of being pinned down by one “signature style”. I think it is a good and reasonable thing for many artists, but it is neither inevitable nor necessary. Its just that the further into a career we get the more our identity seems to hinge on our reputation. The pressures of our market and the expectations from our buyers and collectors becomes a huge incentive to not stray too far from a recognizable way of doing things. Our commitment to a style then becomes monogamous, and we don’t allow ourselves to flirt with other techniques or details, even if (in our most secret of hearts) we may want to. It can sometimes take incredible bravery (some would say folly) to be able to start working in a new direction. It can be like going on a first date with someone new, exciting and terrifying all at once.

But if we are lucky we are like the Ron Meyers of the art world who can continue to grow and flex their creative muscles in new directions. You don’t always have to fully reinvent yourself to find new ways of doing things. You can just follow your nose to see where it will take you, even if its not very far from where you started. If we are not lucky, the attitude of exploring new territory dries up, our creative muscles atrophy, and we content ourselves with the impoverished diet of things we have already done. Our pots become stale, something like watching too many reruns of our favorite TV shows. The series is over, and we already know each episode and how its going to end. There are no new surprises because its all been done before and we already know who says what when. Its not just predictable, because there is no guesswork even involved. Its the background of our certainty, a closed system.

Which sounds frightening to me, at least as far as my creativity is concerned. More terrifying even than those risky ventures into unfamiliar territory. So I try to make my pots (to carry the analogy further) like they are episodes of an ongoing series. Some of the characters stay the same, not everyone shows up in every episode, and sometimes there are episodes where most of the characters have never been seen before, as if it was almost a different show that maybe had a guest actor from the original series or used the same sets.

It doesn’t always make sense, but it doesn’t have to. If I don’t like what I’m doing I’m under no obligation to continue torturing myself. I have the absolute freedom to pick up and do something else with the clay. The clay won’t mind. And it keeps me interested. I don’t get bored because each iteration has a possible new ending. There is always a surprise in there somewhere. Even if most of the characters themselves are fairly predictable I still love seeing what will happen next. Put those characters in unfamiliar settings and watch things play out. Will he or won’t he?

And I even love pushing the rewind sometimes, so I can revisit some of the classics. It doesn’t all have to be continually/continuously new (and that is an important point). But neither does it all have to be entirely familiar. Sometimes going over the same ground can be a different experience depending on your own new perspective, how you have grown in the meantime, how you have evolved, what you like and dislike differently now, and also what things you have simply forgotten. In the distance we have from ourselves in other places and other times we will often notice a separation from where we are and who we are now. But if there is no separation, if we are doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’, we don’t always get to see difference. Its always a question of moving beyond ourselves and staying close to home, and neither is the whole of the story…..

But that’s just me. Did any of this make any sense?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

———————————————
* I am of course only talking about a specific exercise. There are plenty of good reasons to be conscious and demanding of results in other circumstances.

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, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Repost: What Ron Meyers said

  1. Is “Something New” really the answer? It does sell. But will Novelty stand the test of time, or will it only be a record of what people like for a moment in time?

    Hamada called novelty “taste.” The depth of the work is in its “feeling.”

    The the single most important insight I had during my 3 year apprenticeship with Tatsuzo Shimaoka is that novelty does not endure. Only Genuine work endures.

    When I met Ron at Northern Clay Center he told me, “I prefer my plain pots. But….. people only buy them if I paint an animal on them.”

    • Lee, You obviously have a greater attachment to tradition than I, and that influences where you place value. I’m not immune to that, which is why my closing line was “Its always a question of moving beyond ourselves and staying close to home, and neither is the whole of the story…..”

      But one of the ideas I put forth was that even the things that supposedly “stand the test of time” can’t just be considered as essentially non-new. The fact of putting them in a different context itself makes them ‘new’ to us. You’ve never tasted chocolate before until you’ve had it drizzled over baked fish. “Standing the test of time'” is an illusion of our language that tries to pin stability in the whirl of chaos. Tradition is an attempt to keep your focus amidst the change that continually displaces things and the grip we thought we had on them.

      Step into a stream. Is it the same stream because the banks look familiar one moment to the next? Is it the same stream season to season? And when the watter erodes the bank and the course of the flow changes, is it still the same stream? If you are hung up on keeping an eye on continuity you might say that in all these cases the stream in fact is the same. But from another point of view the stream is continually unfolding and creating itself anew. The water that passes you one moment to the next is not even the same water that has already flowed past. You yourself are not the same person who is observing and is now a part of that stream. As Heraclitus once said, “Everything changes except change itself”, and he knew a thing or two about standing in streams…..

      If you fixate on some ‘timeless quality’ you stand the chance of ignoring the important things that are different. But chocolate ice cream doesn’t taste the same as chocolate mahi mahi. Its value isn’t independent of the context. Rather, its familiarity helps us understand new ways of looking at unfamiliar things. Let me put it differently (meta): We have the word “blue”, not because it is something timeless but because we get to see the world as containing blue things in new shapes and sizes and in new shades. It makes no sense to say that blue is one thing, simple and changeless. Blue can be many things, and each, as much as it may seem familiar, is importantly different. Isn’t it interesting that we can use a single word to group different things together? And its not because they share some inner timeless essence either. See what Wittgenstein had to say, if you are not convinced.

      You quote Hamada as if he was the only authority worth listening to. Novelty may be reflected in taste, as both things exhibit the vagaries of change more acutely. But taste can’t simply be dismissed, as if it needed to prove itself over time. If you notice, that assumes exactly what you are trying to prove. If you start from the perspective that only the ‘enduring’ has value, then of course its easy to dismiss what doesn’t last. If you fail to honor taste you are simply deferring value to a bias for more stable hooks.

      If you want to throw stones at Ron for making things that he can earn a living on, then its also true that every artist who hung a shingle on the consistency of their work was either too ignorant about the potential for change or too cowed by the audience expectation to deliver the ‘signature’ work that it demands. Tradition isn’t ennobled for simply sticking to what pays. And when it no longer pays, sticking with it beyond when it has outlived its usefulness isn’t a virtue either, from where I am standing. Stubbornness can seem like a self fulfilling/justifying prophecy in the hands of the creatively challenged……

      If there is a problem with novelty, lets not pretend that tradition offers anything less sketchy. Like I said in that closing line, its simply not the whole of the story…..

      • Let me try one more phrasing: Both novelty and tradition have admirable and disagreeable qualities. The problem is in treating them as ends in themselves. Novelty for novelty’s sake is a disease of the mind that puts the cart before the horse. Novelty should SERVE our other interests, nit lead them. Seek something new because the old is worn out. Seek something new because discovering what lies around the bend is worth doing.

        And the same for tradition. Tradition isn’t an end in itself, unless the traditions of hate and violence are worth lauding. Not all traditions are equally praiseworthy. So tradition itself is beside the point if it matters more what it is a tradition of. Right? Once again, we have to be wary of putting carts before horses…. And if the tradition serves as the means to worthy ends, we honor those ends by maintaining or dispensing with the particular traditions depending on how they serve those ends. If we cling to tradition despite all else we are guilty of blind adherence to a thing that no longer serves a purpose but has been made a purpose in its own right. And that seldom makes sense…..

        Does that make sense?

  2. Reminds me of a post by Emily Murphy a few years back:
    http://potteryblog.com/page/4/
    Sitting back in that quiet moment to consider a new form/handle combo is like Christmas morning!

    • I remember that post and I was quite taken with her willingness to push form in so many directions. She was the best pottery blogger back in the day, without question.

      I think its a good temporary assignment, and so much can be learned from just intentionally breaking all your old habits. The one issue I have seen is when a potter seriously tries to make each pot different every time they sit down at the wheel. As a brief assignment I’m all for it, but having seen first hand the numbing exhaustion that needing to do it different every time for the long haul can produce I worry that there are simply no perches to rest on and absorb what’s been learned. It drove my friend bonkers when he interpreted the advice of our instructor to “make every pot individually” to mean that each one had to be in some way different. That is an awful burden for creativity,,,,,

      The way I usually phrase it, part of such an assignment can be purposely making things different, but then that the ‘purpose’ should defer to simply allowing things to not be the same. Do you see the difference? Trying for difference on the one hand and simply not trying to make them the same on the other. You get the same result of difference every time, but in one instance it is contrived and manufactured into each piece and in the other it is organically produced as expressive permission. The truth is that making things all the same is a special sort of concentration, and for them to be at least slightly different you don’t need to do anything specifically purposeful. You can sit back and let it happen. You just have to allow for the possibility of difference to manifest. And what happens can be amazingly instructive. It also happens in the space and freedom of play rather than the restricted confines of planning and design. If you are a planner, planning difference may appeal more, but if you are a player, playing around may appeal more. Good things happen from both these directions.

      My best advice is that there should be room for both. Make the time to be a purposeful designer and make space to simply see what happens. That’s how it seems to me, at least 🙂

  3. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: April 2015 - Pottery Making Info

  4. Lee Love says:

    Don’t recall if I have shared this here before. I once heard a historian say,

    “The mark of the fall of a civilization is when its love of novelty becomes the love of the grotesque.”

    The problem is, that in our place and time, novelty has almost completely obliterated the genuine. Many of the novel things we worship won’t stand the test of time, except for being a historic marker for the character of the people at that time.

    Genuine isn’t simply remaking what has already been made. Genuine can guide the novel too.

    See Hamada quote below.

    Tradition does not need to be destroyed to validate the novel. Our modern attention span has been so handicapped,that we need shiney baubles to make us look. We need celebrity that overpowers the work.

    We overlook what is subtle and understated. It comes from artistic expression overpowering craftsmanship which the University Studio Arts have been the leading proponent of.

    As I heard Phil Rawson say, “Craft has very little to learn from Art. But art has a lot to learn from craft.” There was a Jeff Koons show going on at the Walker, where he was lecturing. And he pointed out that Jeff Koons was a prime example of “A craftless artist.”

    ‘Just to give oneself up to folk art will never do. One must chew and eat up mingei – eat it, consume it, put it in your belly; to put it in your system and digest it is what is required in this day and age. We are to assimilate it and do something of our own with this food.’ Shoji Hamada

    • Nicely said Lee! These are worthy thoughts in this conversation.

      Several things to consider:

      The grotesque is often a frame of reference. The true key is to look beyond what strikes us this way and see if there is value hidden. Sometimes there isn’t but many times there is, and it was simply our unfamiliarity with the form beauty takes that put us off. The key is to learn to see things differently. They threw tomatoes at the stage in the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (my absolute favorite piece of music)….. We just miss too much by rushing to judgment.

      Rawson gets some things right (if this is who I think it is), but a blanket statement like the one you quoted does him no favors. Its too simple to be true and too absolute to actually teach us anything valuable. Its not a nuanced statement anymore than saying “Philip Rawson has very little to learn from Art. But art has a lot to learn from Philip Rawson.”

      Of course we believe what we believe, and others believe differently, but we have to try to see what they find so interesting. If we blow it off we end up being dogmatic in our disdain, fanatical in our hostility. Anyone selling you the ‘absolute truth’ is most certainly a charlatan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s