A few weekends ago I had the good fortune to attend a workshop offered by Linda Christianson. She is not a stranger to me. She was, in fact, my teacher back in the day. Could that really have been almost 25 years ago? She is also an amazing human being. She is just about the kindest most generous person I know, and her wisdom penetrates to the heart of so many issues.
The timing of this workshop could not have come at a better moment for me. I had been suffering a loss of confidence in my life as an artist, I just couldn’t see ‘why art?’ anymore. I needed someone to set me straight…. I was lucky our paths crossed again when they did.
So much of what she had to say was familiar to me from those long ago days. I was even surprised at how much of my own teachings were apparently learned at the wheel she was spinning. I’m not sure I had given her the credit she deserves for making me the potter and teacher that I am. Of course there were differences, important differences. At some point the student must strike out on their own, become their own person with their own motivations. And yet no matter how far we travel, the apple still falls from the tree. And the distance between the two only means there is still more that can be learned……
The stage is set.
Enter Linda, stage left.
Act one: What gets you up in the morning?
At one point in the workshop Ted, another of my former teachers, asked Linda “What part of the process is most fun for you?” She stopped to consider, and after a few moments replied that none of it was really that fun. Maybe this was the response I was least expecting to hear but the one that was the most important to absorb. She said, “Making pots is not fun, or at least not always fun” to paraphrase. Instead, “What is fun is the opportunity to make pots.”
In my state of crisis I could no longer see that making pots was fun, and Linda telling me that it’s not supposed to be ‘fun’ was a revelation. If it was no longer fun for me I had permission for it to not be fun. I need not expect it to be fun. I wasn’t missing something necessary nor even necessarily important. Fun wasn’t the point of making pots. At least, not everyone makes pots because its fun. Meaning could be derived from other sources.
As Linda put it, the opportunity to make pots was the thrilling part. THAT was something that could get a person up in the morning. The making of pots itself did not need to be fun. We don’t need the pressure of the making itself to be the fun part, because when it isn’t fun we would be robbed of that driving reason. We could see the absence of fun, as I then did, as indicating the reason to make pots was also absent.
‘Fun’ was a dangerous motivation to make pots. It stood on shifting sands. We might need something more solid, or if not solid, less unstable. Opportunity is merely the potential for meaning. It does not get knocked off its perch so easily. ‘Fun’ is temporary and coincidental, too subject to accidents. Fun is purely psychological whereas ‘opportunity’ is larger than the contents of our own psyches. If the opportunity to make pots is what motivates us, we may or may not make pots, but the opportunity often survives. Opportunity can be destroyed, but not as easily as fun.
End of act one, curtain closes
Curtain rises, altered setting
Artists face many obstacles. If you have listened to me drone on for any length you might get the impression that artists are alternately imprisoned in cages, puppets of their own branding, in need of counselling, suffer an imperiled morality, need to get ‘honest’ jobs, should ditch their inevitable and shameless prostitution, run off to monasteries and subsist on bread and water, and otherwise face such overwhelming odds that it makes little sense to step outside the door each day.
Of course I never said any of those things literally. Pointing out you could catch a cold from being in a room with strangers does not mean we already need a course of antibiotics. Observing that crossing a street could get us mangled by a speeding car, doesn’t indicate that we already need drastic surgery before the first step is taken. Pointing out the possibility of consequences is not an argument that we need to treat the world as though it already suffered these debilities. Just that we should be cautious crossing streets, and that we can later look for the signs of a lingering cough and a runny nose. We have been warned. Possibility is important in the same respect that opportunity was in act one.
Act two: The least among you shall be the greatest and the greatest the least
Linda sits at the wheel and gazes out at the audience
An obstacle I have not done much work in framing came up as Linda talked about putting handles on cups. She told us, “Find the worst one and try to make it the best, and find the best and treat it as nothing special.” I think if we are serious about our art these are ideas worth hearing. We could, alternately, find the worst and simply discard it. We could also find the best and put it on a pedestal. We in fact do these things all the time. So why did Linda ‘caution’ us to (sometimes at least) do the opposite?
When we later had a chance to converse she explained that for her one way to keep engaged with the opportunity was to “make a game of the next step.” In this way each little grouping of pots was treated as a family unit and they could be organized best among themselves. The focus would be on progressing the group of pots instead of some independent aspiration: Helping the family thrive rather than sending Johnny off to college.
I took another lesson from this, knowing my own temptations, and because it is rare that I would treat the group of pots as their own unit. I get distracted by ideals. Because human nature often plunges us headlong in the direction we are already going. If we value the least and the worst poorly it become easy to dismiss these things and not have the chance to learn from them. If we do not attempt to transform the worst into the best we have no idea what its potential value is. Its bad. It can be discarded.
Similarly, by only valuing the best we… only value the best. These are two sides of the same coin. Linda was cautioning us, again, not to get carried away in promoting only ‘the best’. We too often make too much of it. It is a gallery game rather than a studio game. It makes our world a more shallow place. It pretends that the only things worth considering are the ones deserving acclaim. We need to remember to see the world with more depth. And the game of seeing a group of pots as a family unit is one such step. It places nuance where idealization might otherwise stand.
And so, “Make the worst one be the best, and treat the best one as nothing special.”
End of act two, curtain closes