Navigating the wilderness, Ceramics style

A few days ago a facebook friend posted a few thoughts on how depression and sadness can seem like a wilderness: There is no map, and even if we know some of what we are likely to face (sadness, loss of interest and motivation, feeling alone, etc), none of us knows HOW we will face it. There are no rules, and everyone shows up at the gates totally unprepared. We step into the darkness and are unmoored from the context of meaning in our normal daily lives. We could be walking among our friends and family, but its like they are strangers, or we have some foreign mark on our foreheads. Its like that nightmare where we show up to school in our underwear: There is something about us that doesn’t belong. How the hell do we make it to the other side? How do we escape this wilderness?

I won’t get into those issues right now, but it occurred to me yesterday that there are many such situations where we are utterly unprepared, even knowing that these are things that we may inevitably at some time need to face. And then it struck me that the brave defense of the ceramics program at Grinnell college was very much a case in point.

For those of you who missed it, Simon Levin got word out the past few weeks of news that his alma mater would be shutting the doors on its Ceramics program. Once the current instructor retired they would hire no one to replace her but instead power down the studio and let the dust collect. Of course we were all outraged! But what were we gonna do? Simon advocated a writing campaign, and thankfully as of yesterday the administrators had agreed to offer a class next term. Bullet dodged!

But was this entirely unexpected? Does the field of Ceramics sit so comfortably in academic settings and having its credentials challenged is something new? If anyone has paid any attention most of the studio arts are under some form of threat, but low-man-on-the-totem-pole Ceramics is often the first one pushed off the plank. And if potters were unaware of the tenuous grasp they hold on their academic standing, heads have been buried deep and for a seriously long time….

My sense from the responses circulating is that the administrators were swayed more by the volume and enthusiasm of the outpouring than its content. There were a few anecdotes of ‘what ceramics has meant to me’ and some appeals to ‘why teaching art is good for students’, but not much (from what I could tell) about why Ceramics specifically needs preserving. What is different about clay? What makes it irreplaceable for students and for creative expression? Why are the clay arts different from other art forms?

These are seemingly big issues for the field, and yet it seems like we can’t get a handle on them when its most needed. We are faced with the wilderness and we are utterly unprepared. You don’t save Ceramics by stating that it made a difference in Joe Smith’s life. Plenty of things make plenty of difference in people’s lives. You don’t save Ceramics by advocating for creativity. Plenty of creative practices do the same tasks as well or better. What are the impersonal and unique reasons that sets what we do apart? Why clay?

The next few posts I plan on exploring that a bit. We need a resource for answering those questions, because Grinnell isn’t the first or the last to make such precipitous decisions. We can only be better prepared by putting intelligent and gifted minds to work on the problem. Much work has already been done, pieces of the puzzle, and my plan is to share as many of them as I can. And in the spirit of sharing, let me ask YOU what some of your thoughts are, and if you know of any essays or videos that shed light in the way we need. I have a small list I’m going to share, but the more the better.

This IS worth thinking about.

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 advocacy, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Navigating the wilderness, Ceramics style

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    In a word, “plasticity”.

  2. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: October 2015 - Pottery Making Info

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