Recovering the Mojo

You have perhaps heard me moan about the pitfalls of ‘signature style’ over the years, but it perhaps takes an extraordinary circumstance and not a little courage to be willing to change. We can get too comfortable with our personas in the studio, and if we are not careful complacence eventually gets boring enough that we are condemned to a half-life as artists: We go through the motions but the passion is gone. We are animated husks churning out product. We are less curious than satisfied. And that can be dangerous.

Lately I am a bit lost myself. At some unknown point in my process selling my pots seems to have replaced an interest in making them. I mean, I hate selling, but I suddenly found I was only making in order that I would sell things. My making had become subservient to what I could flog in the marketplace. Yikes!!! Didn’t I know better? But the truth is I never saw the transition. Some malevolent magician waved his hands and while I was distracted, that brief moment I took my eye off what I was doing, the switch was made and I never saw or even noticed the substitution.

That coupled with the fatigues of dealing with an election gone wrong has seen me lose touch with beauty. I know what makes one pot better than the next, but I don’t exactly care. I can make the mental calculations for assessing quality, but I don’t feel why this matters. I don’t understand it. I am no longer thrilled by beauty. The wonder has been sucked from the world. I am no longer amazed. I look at my studio from the outside and I can no longer make sense of the person who spent the last decades enfolded in its embrace. This is the tragedy of my life at the moment…..

But I’m not giving up! I spent a day last week kibitzing around the firing of Ron Meyers’ woodkiln, and got to hang our with my wise potter friends Kyle Jones, Tony Clennell, Steve Driver, Josh Copus, Hannah May, Emma Smith, and Rick Agel. And this weekend I’m attending a workshop with Linda Christianson, who taught me for a semester back in the day. I’m hoping that with all this pottery stimulation I can recapture at least some of what has been lost.

Linda Christianson has always been one of my favorite potters and I love what she has to say. In my mind there is no more generous or wise a potter than she.

I don’t yet have a plan of action for what’s next. I don’t yet have a reason. Knowing is insufficient for understanding. Understanding balks at a lack of desire. I must first rediscover my curiosity. That is the stumbling block I fail to clear. I have wasted too much time in the studio without having a good reason. I need my mojo back.

Wish me luck!


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, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Recovering the Mojo

  1. togeika says:

    I wrote in a Studio Potter article a while back that copying others is not the enemy of the creative person. Copying one’s self after achieving some sucess is. It aborts growth/creativity.

    Warren Mackenzie visited Mashiko during my apprenticeship. Before having dinner at Ken Matsuzaki’s with Shimaoka, he said to me, “You know, I think Shimaoka’s best work was done when he was in his 50s.” I thought it was interesting for him to say so, because it was my favorite work of my teacher’s. It was a time when he was still searching.
    At dinner, Mackenzie said to Shimaoka, “I believe I did my best work in my 50s. What do you think about your own work?” Shimaoka just gave a little laugh and said, “I don’t know.”

    I remember coming back from 10 years in Japan and startled by the fact, that many potters I admired were doing the same work they were doing when I left for Japan almost a decade before. A sort of time freeze.

    During Mackenzie’s trip to Japan, Later, at a panel discussion with Sori Yanagi, moderated by Shimaoka, Mackenzie said to Shimaoka, “I found the repetitive catalog work done at St. Ives while I was there to be lifeless and uninspiring. Your kiln work (counterpart to Leach’s “catalog work”) is full of life. What is your secret?”
    Shmaoka rubbed the back of his head and just did a little embarrassing chuckle. Mackenzie continued speaking about the need to keep the work inspired, with life in it. After a few moments, Shimaoka said, “Maybe what Hamada once said to me is it. He said ‘You must do all your work with your whole heart in it.'” Maybe that means, without regard of financial sucess?

    One thing I have noticed about both Mackenzie and Shimaoka, they continue to try new things. Warren experiments with new forms. He has been changing his yunomi. Now, he is only doing wire cut, footless yunomi. And they are smaller than they used to be. Shimaoka was always trying new forms. And he kept adding new colors to his slips. Maybe, one answer is not to be a slave to your own sucess aka “style.”

  2. alison says:

    having just spent a week with linda at the beginning of last november, i can hazard a guess that her sweet guilelessness will offer another gentle view. not caring about beauty sounds like you’re in a grief process – how well i know that too.
    i’ll share a quote with you that makes sense to me right now … i found it when i was hanging with linda, and it’s been a trustworthy friend ever since.
    “it is not how much is turned in a day’s work, but how beautifully”
    ~juliana busbee

    hoping you have beautiful time with LC. she’s a peach of a human being.

    • togeika says:

      Alison, related to your quote:

      โ€œit is not how much is turned in a dayโ€™s work, but how beautifullyโ€

      My next essay responds to this. My observations in Mashiko, looking at Hamada’s work and my teacher’s work (Tatsuzo Shimaoka), I come to think that the Mingei obsession with mass production was not conducive to creativity, once the craftsman has developed their basic skills. Hamada, Leach and Shimaoka had to produce more peices than they themselves could make, to support their workers, but it wasn’t necessarily good for the quality of the work.

      Also, I put my response above to Carter with pictures at the below post:

    • Thanks Alison! Yesterday was fabulous ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Stephen says:

    Hi Carter, I always call you on this ๐Ÿ™‚ but I guess I just don’t understand why you seem to have such an adversarial attitude on having to make a living doing what you love to do. You use words like ‘hate’ and ‘flog’ which implies that it just makes you miserable . Maybe you should figure that out before starting something new. Unless you benefit from having your bills paid by someone else and from reading your blog I don’t think that’s the case, there is no other way, right? Why does if have to be so awful? Maybe change the way you are doing it.

    The fact that someone likes your work enough to pay hard earned dough for it does not inherently cheapen the work does it? Most people do not have a lot of cash and need to put in time doing something to raise cash so when they buy something of your’s in the most basic sense they are trading their time for your work and that’s what makes art, at least on a full time basis, work, right?

    • Hey Stephen, I guess it is true that you don’t understand why I get worked up by this issue ๐Ÿ™‚ . Let me explain:

      I’m not saying that you can’t enjoy making a living selling pots because obviously many people do. What I’m saying is that its not straightforward. Anything complicated deserves special attention. And it is also true that many people struggle with it. So how do we explain this?

      What do you understand the difference to be between a job and a calling? Why is this an important distinction? How would you describe it?

      A job to me is something you do in order to get payed, and I guess a lot of our pottery commerce can be described that way. Is that to say it is not also at times a calling? A calling is something you do because it is worth doing regardless, not just to get paid, and I hope most potters feel this way at least some of the time. If its just a job, then its an extremely poor paying job. If there is no other reason to be making pots than getting paid, then we might as well be working at the local burger joint. This is the difference between intrinsic value and extrinsic value, and unfortunately we do an abysmal job of understanding the difference.

      Her is an experiment for you: Yes almost anything can be bought and sold, but that doesn’t tell us we should or how to feel about it necessarily. Take sex for instance. The sex trade is a HUGE industry. Millions of people are willing to pay good money for a bit of sex. Does that mean we are supposed to pay for it? If you have a partner or are married (I think I remember you telling me you were) the next time you make love pull out a wad of cash and give it to that person. If this is just another payment for services or goods rendered there should be no problem, right? But there is a problem if we are making love for love’s sake. And it is the same problem if we are making pots for love’s sake. If we love making pots there is a conflict (for some of us) in getting paid to do it. If you have a problem with paying for sex, or getting paid for sex, then you understand this.

      Here is another experiment. Do you have kids? Well, every time they obey you give them some money. Trade their doing something right for a bit of cash. Do you know what eventually happens? They no longer do right things because its the right thing to do. Instead they do it only because they get paid. And if you stop paying for it they now no longer have a compelling reason to do it. Do you see the problem here? When we trade doing things for their own value for doing things for some payment or reward we lose that intrinsic motivation. The intrinsic motivation is no longer sufficient. You end up confusing getting paid with the reason you are there in the first place. And as I said in the paragraph above, the pay ain’t great!

      Does that make sense to you? If not, seriously try those experiments. Human psychology is not always obvious. It makes sense to be as smart as we can about the psychological consequences of our actions. If its just about getting paid then its simple: Working at a burger joint is just as worthwhile, maybe more. And if its all about the money then it also doesn’t matter whether we violate morality in any way. We’d might as well kill our neighbor’s pets if there’s a buck in it for us.

      There simply HAS TO BE something besides the money. Isn’t that how you, in fact, really feel?

      • Stephen says:

        Hi Carter,

        No I understand your point(s) perfectly, always have, I really was just trying to be less confrontational. I love your blog and your post are always very thought provoking. I just can never let this pass because I think its a point that full time artist really should come to grips with so they don’t have this crappy side of their life as an artist that mucks up the whole thing.

        What your doing is creating and adversarial situation where there should not be one. Your making the whole experience something less because money is involved. For the vast majority of people that buy our work money is time, nothing more. They trade their time for money and then after they pay all their essentials they use some of whats left to buy your work. A full time artist who needs to sell their art in order to survive needs to understand that this is part of the deal and I think to constantly struggle with the concept and somehow think it cheapens your work is not healthy. Don’t do it for a living and you can take the money side out of the equation completely. As a full time artist though it just doesn’t work that way. You have to somewhat give a crap that enough people are going spend their time on what you are doing in order to pay for your ability to keep doing it.

        That need to care can be a very productive thing for your work. Anyone can create anything and call it art and it is. It absolutely is. More power to them. Now for others to want to own what you have created. To covet it and possibly show it to others with pride, that’s something added, now there is an attempt to connect with someone in addition to yourself. You know the whole tree falling sound thing. Ink thrown against a canvas in a whim might somehow be better if it was thrown against the canvas in an attempt to connect with someone. The color might have more thought put into it. The distance you stand when throwing might be considered, the force you use, etc etc. You want to connect, you have to connect, your very existence depends on someone connecting with that ink on that canvas.

        I think an artist that wants to do this for a living needs to figure out how to meld the two. It is important for both your art, your mental attitude and last but not least the wonderful people who embrace and buy what you create. I doubt very seriously that they are considering what they are buying is your soul stealing toil.

        Your examples are not any good and really just BS. Love for love’s sake and doing the right thing just because its the right thing is something I think most people agree we should all strive for in our behavior. For a full time artist who is trying to pay for their existence on this rock, needing to get money for your work is not a bad thing and not something that should be avoided. It is part of being a self supporting artist.

        Not everyone is cut out to be a full time artist if they don’t have another means of support and no amount of wanting the impossible will make it possible and having this unhappy situation attached to your daily life I think would be awful so I continually belabor the point when I see it. You have a lot of folks who read your space and I just think people that hate sales but need to do it to pay their bills should be encouraged to try and figure it out and make it not so horrible. I personally love doing shows and dealing with people that buy my work one one one so I tilt to that.

        Please don’t take my attitude as an affront to you personally and thanks so much for all the wonderful post, I look forward to them.

        • No sweat! I’m not taking our difference of opinions personally ๐Ÿ™‚

          As you say, you tilt in one direction and I another. I’m just trying to speak for the people who tilt in this other direction, and I’ve never (I think) said that its wrong to make a living from making pots, just that its not always easy. Some people ARE conflicted, and we can’t just deny the reasons for that conflict to make it easier. People in your position simply DO NOT feel that conflict, so you don’t need to deal with it.

          But not everyone is like you and we shouldn’t pretend they CAN be like you. I’m not saying you are wrong. You are just different from some of us. I’m happy that you are you, that you get to do what you do, but I’m not sure you are happy I am me ๐Ÿ™‚ You want to change me and everyone like me. I’m just telling you that even if we have problems being who we are, we are not necessarily wrong to be who we are…..

          Did that make sense?

  4. Barb Rogers says:

    Ancient artists had their muses. And modern ones do too. Inside ourselves we know how to find them, but we need to connect with that knowing. And each of us has a different way to that path, that connection, that spark that again makes us strive to create beauty. I wish you well as you wait till that happens for you. Your writings and creations help others…so I give you the reminder from my limited experience.

  5. Stephen says:

    to your response as there is no reply link to your reply to my reply ๐Ÿ™‚

    Ok I guess you do see it as an alternative way to go and I respect that. I’m not sure the whore and crappy kid analogy is the best way to make the point but sure if conflicted about selling your work is not something you think artist should work on changing then I can respect that as your your point of view and certainly have zero problem with you being who you are as both an artist and a person.

    I do think that an artist feeling this way should at least ask themselves if its just an aversion to sales though. A lot of folks hate to do sales, nothing to do with art, Some people actually get sick when they even think of it and the dread is very real. That’s nerves, not being artistically conflicted, and that can be worked on and it does get better as you do it more.

    Anyway, thanks for the back and forth. As always it does make me think about this stuff more and that’s a good thing.

    • Amen brother!

      I always attempt to see beyond the obvious of what I know and what things are accepted. I want to know why it is different for some people. I don’t want to think that what is obvious to me is simply the reality and that other people just need to see it my way. I want to understand what other people know. I want to know why they see things differently. Especially when society tells us one thing and that it is wrong to do and say and be anything different I feel the need to question it. Not necessarily disagree, but not just take it for granted. Sometimes its like a religious person talking to an atheist. How they see the world is very different, and there are truths that are internal as well as external truths. Its hard enough making sense of the world without needing to understand where other people are coming from who have different cultures, different personalities, and different motivations. Human psychology is a whole lot bigger than what is going on inside just my own head ๐Ÿ™‚

      And I was not saying that selling pots made you a ‘prostitute’ or that giving money to kids made them ‘bad’. I was simply pointing out that transactions for money are not as simple as people are inclined to think. I was pointing out that it can get complicated, and so when I tell you its complicated for some artists to sell their work I am asking you to relate to that however you can. If you don’t already think like that you need to learn to see it differently. And so I provide analogies and examples that help shed light on the complication. Its that you can feel these things. I’m trying to make a point of view understandable by showing how it is possible. I have never said selling pots made you a prostitute. If it does, then so am I, right?

      Good conversation. Thanks for helping me understand where I need to explain things further and why the people who see things differently from me feel the ways they do. This is what conversations are all about. Good stuff!

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