Through the Looking Glass: Studio focus and the vortex of flow

A brief conversation about how ‘inefficient’ time in the studio can sometimes be. This is culled from the larger email conversation between me and Scott Cooper that took place over the course of a few days this past week.


CG: “Why is it that I can only pull so many handles in a day or trim so many feet in a day before I’m burned out? I could barely get 10 feet trimmed in the two hours before I had to run off and teach last night, and the final 10 today ate well into my lunchtime…. Boo hoo!”

SC: “I know! It’s the same for me. Sometimes the enthusiasm wears thin pretty fast. Often I look back at a span of studio time and am astounded at how many clock hours went into a seemingly small, limited task like trimming or handling or decorating a half dozen pots. But then, if I think back on all the sub-tasks and necessary pauses, and unnecessary-but-chosen pauses, etc, etc… it kind of adds up. And sometimes I think I just unconsciously slow down, to where I’m doing all the actions but at a snail’s pace, and fail to notice. Maybe that’s when the sneaky “zone” business creeps in? Maybe the more we enjoy it, the less efficient our making time gets? I dunno!”

CG: “Yeah, that probably does say something about being in ‘the zone’. I swear I am not doing things any slower, or slower than I should be, but I put my head down and when I next look up two whole hours have passed and I’ve only done a few actual things…. Maybe its not about distraction as much as its about focus and absorption? I just watched a video of Bill Van Gilder attaching handles, and it only takes him about two minutes start to finish, about a fifth of the time it takes me. But the interesting thing is that as I sat there watching him I was thinking the whole time “Yep, I do that too, and that, and that, and that too….” In fact I do just about everything he does, and it doesn’t seem that I am doing anything extra or different per se, but maybe I’m doing a bit more of each of them? For instance, I was thinking that I take too much time smoothing over the slurry from pulling the handle, and that I should just quit this. I think you even recently mentioned how that is a part of handles that you like to leave revealed. But Bill sat there for a few seconds doing exactly as I do, really focused on refining the finished shape and the surface marks from the process of pulling. Maybe I take a bit longer than he does, but not enough to make up the entire difference in how long it takes me to do them. One of the reasons I have held off on sharing any videos on me pulling handles is that it seems to take so bloody long. Which is so confounding coming from the guy who used to time his students in handle making exercises at 30 seconds per handle pulled from premade carrots… At one time every advanced class started off that way.”

SC: “The way you described time passing in the studio is exactly how it seems for me, too. All I can figure is that if I put a video camera on myself the whole time, then watched it, I’d see lots of little intervals of fiddling with tools, or getting up and wandering around, or a long stretch or gaze out the window — stuff that I’m not aware I’m doing, so don’t remember, but that are happening in amongst the actual ‘hands on the clay’ stuff. And I know I’m in the habit of my brain kind of getting overloaded, at which point I let myself walk back to the house for a refill, or to “quickly” check in on the iPad, etc, etc. And probably my habit of listening to podcasts slows everything down, as part of my concentration is going to that. (Almost ALL the time – ha! Clary used to listen to NPR for about 6 hours a day and I couldn’t figure out how she did it… now I’m her, at least in that regard. Thank god for podcasts.)”


And there you have it! Its not just punching the clock and churning out the product. For some of us its part of a way of life. For some of us ‘getting it right’ is more important than simply getting it pushed through the kiln (or other inexorable ‘commercial’ type demands). You take the time it takes to make it the way you want it, and you pay attention the whole way. Or, you pay attention while the pot is in your hand, and study and analyze it until you set it down. That’s what you are focused on. But its not obsession: Its part reverie and part ritual. At times you can set it aside, when you’ve done enough, when you’ve done it right. And the time you spend and the things you do are blur of moment to moment activity.

Where did the time go?” You can easily get sucked down the vortex, down the rabbit hole. Entering the studio is sometimes like stepping through the looking glass. It can be an adventure. And when you are that absorbed you can simply lose track of the outside world. You may start out trying to be as efficient as possible, you may have a set agenda to make such and such, this and that, but you can get captured by the moment as you are experiencing it. Sometimes you can lose the hold of what you thought you were doing and why you thought you were there. And when you come back up for air it can be an absolute mystery where the time went and what exactly it is you were doing there. Someone tried to murder time and you have just paid the price.

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

That’s all from this corner of the Universe!

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

1 Response to Through the Looking Glass: Studio focus and the vortex of flow

  1. Janette D. Baker says:

    Thanks for the analogy, now I know what happens to my day!

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