Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two Brain Thinking

46. Two Brain Thinking

For several years now my wife and I have improved our general effectiveness through what we call, “the two brain system.” It may seem fairly simple and obvious once I’ve explained it, but it can make a big difference in the lives of busy people.
As you may know by now, I’m a big fan of calendars, day planners, and ‘to do’ lists. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone makes it through college without them. So often it’s not enough just to remember what needs to be done, you also have to be able to organize the order in which things get done.
Anyway, early in our relationship as a couple I asked Carla to help remember something for me. Maybe I had no place to write it down. I don’t remember the details. She asked, “Why are you telling me this?”
I responded, “I just figure that with two brains on the job we’re twice as likely to have one of us remember.”
“And if we both forget are you going to blame me for not having reminded you?”
“No.” And this is the crucial point. “I’m not making you responsible for this. It’s my problem, my responsibility. If it doesn’t happen, I can’t blame you, because I forgot it too. Hopefully, you won’t blame me, because I gave you the chance to remember it and you didn’t either.”
Now I can’t say whether ‘two brain thinking’ makes us more gentle with each other or being gentle with each other led to creating ‘two brain thinking,’ but it works. We are far less likely to miss the things we want to do, and we are less angry about the things that get by us. We are sharing information without trying to transfer either the responsibility or the blame.
This same psychology, though most beneficial in a marriage between two busy artists, can certainly be adapted to the use of two or more people in any kind of a shared studio. Tell each other things. Make it clear that you are involving the other person as a memory aid and not as someone to bear responsibility. Often just the act of telling someone else a thing will set it more firmly in your own mind. Encourage them to make similar use of your brain.
This system also works for more than just remembering errands and appointments. A wide variety of problems and puzzles can be solved more easily with a second viewpoint examining the facts. Again you do not surrender responsibility nor spread blame for failure. It’s not their problem. It’s your problem. But perhaps, between the two of you, better solutions will present themselves. You don’t have to face the world alone.
Two heads are better than one, but it’s how you use the brains inside those heads that really matters.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Nature of Work

16. The Nature of Work

Technically speaking, “work” as expressed in a concept like horsepower, involves the effort required to move a certain amount of weight a specific distance. It took work to move the entire wood pile thirty yards when the fire marshal said that it had been originally stacked too close to the building. It took work to unload the pallets of dry clay by hand when the delivery truck arrived and the forklift was broken. It takes work to move a wareboard of greenware out of the drying area and over to be loaded into a kiln.
We have expanded the original meaning of the word “work” to include virtually any effort expended over time. I might work on an essay, work on my income taxes, or work at being a better person. I’ve even heard of couples who were “working” at getting pregnant. I think we may be using the word too broadly.
This situation first came to my attention teaching a Ceramics I class. One of my students had some sort of problem and part of my solution was that he should “put in a little more work on it over the weekend.” I stopped and corrected myself. You see, he was going to college on a football scholarship. His new coach was a tyrant and quitting the team would mean losing the scholarship and quitting school. “Work” for him meant mandatory wind sprints, weight lifting, and three hour long daily practice sessions. I simply couldn’t put the making of a few extra coffee cups in the same terms.
I told him so and we talked about the difference between work and time. Yes, he was going to have to use his muscles and if he maintained the same activity (say, bending over the wheel) for too long, those muscles might get sore and ache, but really he just needed to devote enough time to the problem.
Pulling handles is not the same use of energy as splitting wood or mixing glazes. Every aspect of a potter’s work (or a student’s) involves different degrees of physical and mental effort. Mixing up those diverse activities can go a long way towards maintaining your physical and mental health. If some part of your workload is particularly grinding you down, re-examine it. Can that activity be done a different way or to a different schedule? What equipment can you get to ease the strain it puts on you? Can you eliminate that chore altogether, or perhaps pay someone else to do it?
For instance, I have no inclination to dig my own clays. For one thing I’ve never lived anywhere where the native clays were particularly well thought of by potters. For another I’ve generally lived with my studio and never wanted clay mixing operations to add to the general dust levels already present from throwing and trimming. But mostly, it’s a lot of work. I know what it costs to buy my clay pre-mixed and de-aired. Clay I have to sweat and groan out of the ground and laboriously process seems too expensive. Perhaps if cash were in short supply and time were plentiful, I’d feel differently. But I doubt it.
No, I’m not a lazy potter, nor am I urging others to be lazy. But each of us has a limited capacity for strength, stamina and attentiveness. When you are planning your workweek, you need to budget those resources in order to receive good value in return.
One of the classic tricks of the lazy man is to carry heavier loads so as to save on the number of trips. If I go back and forth carrying one hundred pounds with each delivery it will take me half the time and distance it would have if each trip I had carried fifty pounds. For classic “work” problems this makes sense, until you damage your back. But it doesn’t succeed for problems that are actually “time” problems. You can not make extra mugs by working extra hard (using extra muscles, for instance). You can only make extra mugs by devoting extra time to the activity. So, when you’re tempted to say to your students (or yourself), “you’re just going to have to work harder to get X done,” correct yourself. You can work more thoughtfully or with superior planning or with better techniques but mostly what you’re asking for is more time.
What we’re doing is not generally hard work, it just requires time. Don’t trick yourself or your students into thinking otherwise.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Being Impulsive

63. Being Impulsive

As children and young adults many of us learn that being impulsive is a bad thing. It leads to food spills and missed activities and, occasionally, automobile accidents. These are the countless moments when we act without enough information, or forget some important detail, or just get the distance wrong. We learn (at least some of us do) that impulsiveness is a bad idea and that our impulses themselves are always to be mistrusted as foolish, disastrous, or even sinful.
In my forties now, I am happy to report that this sad state of affairs can change. With time and judgement and practice you can learn to trust your impulses and to have impulses worthy of your trust. Just as with practice the actions involved in throwing a pot or pulling a handle become second nature, the impulses you surrender to in decorating that pot can become easy and seemingly uncalculated.
This subtle faculty of the mind, so often absent in the brains of teenagers, can extend beyond the realm of art to all aspects of your life. In some ways it amounts to knowing things without having to know just how you know those things.
Of course, there are times to be cautious, to double-check your assumptions, and to save boldness for some other occasion. But on a case by case basis, what are the consequences of ‘guessing’ wrong? And doesn’t it feel great to have “magically” chosen correctly?
As I say, for me this has come gradually, a capability developed over years of struggle with calculation and self-doubt. If it is absent in your own life and work, do not despair. Perhaps, like me, you only need time and attentiveness to develop this native strength and to restrain the unartistic part of the brain that says, “No,” to all things wild, unprecedented, and unmeasured.
I am reminded of the George Bernard Shaw quote on the subject. “I never resist temptation for I find that I am no longer tempted by things that are bad for me.” Enjoy.

“A mistake can just as easily be the consequence of careful thought.” -- Jose Saramago, Nobel Laureate for Literature

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

68. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

I once heard Joseph Bennion talk about the point in his career when he realized that he really needed to go to graduate school. You see, he’d been working as a potter, out on his own, making a line of reliably selling kitchenware based solely on his undergraduate training. Business was good. Then at one point he fired a kiln-load of glazeware and didn’t bother to look inside, much less unload it, for days after it had cooled. His work had become so predictable and routine that he had lost all suspense in the results of a kiln firing. He had no expectations of joy or discovery. When he unloaded a kiln all he found was ‘product.’ He decided that that had to change.
At my house we joke about the three kinds of kiln openings that we experience. “Halloween” is a firing with more tricks than treats and the emotional range tends towards fright, anger, disappointment, and disgust. Our simple hopes have been dashed and, potentially, some additional kiln maintenance may be required. I remember once at school when six shelves worth of student low-fire whiteware mistakenly got loaded and fired to cone ten. It was, in a word, horrible.
“Thanksgiving” tends to refer to two situations in particular. The first is when we just need inventory for a closely upcoming sale. Nothing extraordinary was hoped for, but something worthwhile was essential, and we got it. The second version is when either the kiln has been acting up or something unusual is being fired. We are grateful that the repair worked, the kiln reached temperature, the new idea was not hideous, but instead showed promise and justified the effort. Thank God, it was good enough.
Then there is “Christmas.” You know what you wanted but you don’t know what you got. You open up the kiln and the pots are even more spectacular than you hoped they’d be. Pots that you thought were just experimental turn out to have been inspired, and the proportions and glaze effects of regular old pots seem to ‘zing’ for you this time.
How big is your kiln and how often do you fire it? How many Christmases do you need to sustain yourself emotionally and creatively? Do you have fun unloading a kiln?
It leads me to wonder about the ancient Chinese dragon kilns and their alleged once-a-year firing schedules. Did kiln firings get rated then in the way that vintages of wine do now? “Ah yes, the last year of the Dog, a very good year, the copper reds were particularly exquisite, full-bodied, complex, profoundly satisfying. Ah yes, and the celadons…”
For students, every kiln firing should have its element of suspense. It’s in the nature of their exploration. But for potters in business, too much suspense can foretell disaster. Without inventory you have no sales. Without sales you are just a hobbyist, and potentially, a hungry one at that. So by all means, seek consistency. But leave room in your kilns (and in your studio) for pots with the potential to turn out better than you had any right to expect. Give yourself the treat of that occasional Christmas morning when thoughts of business can be set aside for a moment in the childlike appreciation of unexpected beauty.
Thanksgiving may fill your belly, but it’s Christmas that will fill your heart.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ninety-nine Things Right

39. Ninety-nine Things Right

Philip Cornelius came to Iowa City one year to give a lecture on a joint California/Japan ceramics show at the University Art Museum and got roped into giving a workshop for the Ceramics Department. For those of you unfamiliar with his pots, he works with meticulous delicacy to build vessels out of paper thin slabs of porcelain. He, himself, describes it as, “brain surgery.”
Among the many things I wrote down in my journal while observing his working methods and listening to him speak, the most memorable addresses the issue of error in art. His point, and he stressed it most forcefully, was that artists should not expect or require their audiences to overlook physical flaws in their work, no matter how small those flaws might be.
There may be a hundred different aspects to a work of art and you may well have done ninety-nine of those things well, but the one error, whatever it is, will inevitably clash with the overall composition and ruin the piece.
For graduate students struggling from one partial success to the next, this was not good news. Virtually any object we made had some aspect worthy of apology and as such, must be scored a failure in this man’s eyes. Was it even possible to achieve his standard of quality? Clearly it was important to try, and to not delude ourselves about the room for improvement in the objects we were making.
Details do matter. A single typo can spoil the effectiveness of a good resume or job application. A rough spot on the bottom of a mug can ruin the finish of a wonderful tabletop. A teapot with a cramped handle will scorch your fingers. Notice these things.
In defense of his humanity, Professor Cornelius later showed us slides of flawed pots that had somehow not been ruined by their flaws. Pots in which the unplanned for, the unintended, and the just plain wrong had created some new intriguing aesthetic neither jarring nor distasteful. He admitted that it can happen. But you must know that is it is wrong to expect it to happen.
Your audience, particularly the trained members of your audience, will notice everything about your work. Everything. They can not help it. Flaws are not by nature secretive. See what they see and don’t kid yourself about what’s important. Find solutions. Improve your work.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

If You Can't Make It Good...

8. If You Can’t Make It Good...

One of the truisms I heard in graduate school was, “If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it shiny.” Which, of course, implies that “good” objects are small and matte. It also implies that what we are trying to do with our art is impress the audience, to give them something to “Wow!” about, by any means possible. Unfortunately, ugly made large does not become beauty.
Every time I see a large, shiny work of art I have to chuckle to myself and really look hard at it to understand if it might also be “good.’ Is it really worthy of praise or only impressive because of its size? Is it really attractive or just noticeable because of its shininess?
I remember discussing work with other graduate students and hearing “Do you think it would look better if it were larger?” We had to be very careful to focus on the piece and to understand its particular relationship to the audience, because scale is an important design issue and not just a cheap trick to be impressive.
I even made a six foot tall cast iron sculpture specifically as a test of a sculpture class reading assignment about scale and its effect on a viewer. The argument ran that objects smaller than ourselves are somehow insignificant. Objects larger than ourselves are monumental and dominating. And only objects the same size as the viewer can be equal to ourselves with equal personalities. Based on the iron sculpture and my other work to date I think I agree with the theory. I also need for there to be some such logic to scale in my work, a logic beyond the capitalist arts maxim, “Be impressive, impressive sells.”
As graduate students, our truism may have been a lesson, a warning, or a joke, but it brings up fundamental and constant issues about judging our own work and that of other artists. What do we see that is truly virtuous, and what is mere smoke and mirrors, scale and sheen? Does the public sit beside you in the studio whispering in your ear to do this or do that, or to make your objects larger and flashier?
Have the artists who make large scale public and museum work simply taken the easy way out? Is working large really an easier path to fame or does it demand better technique and a bolder spirit? Do larger projects somehow prove your artistic merit? Are there small objects that succeed artistically specifically because they are small? Perhaps the jewelers in our midst would have something to say about that.
Viewing the subject cynically, for some artists audience response is the only issue and they achieve it by whatever means possible. Even when an individual artist defies the market and works only for their own selfish satisfactions, scale and finish remain important choices. Why do we make the choices that we do? Some artists choose not to know. For myself, this is why I’m drawn to furniture and utilitarian art. Function tells us more about appropriate scale than ego and applause ever will.

Monday, November 24, 2008

All the Money You Will Ever Earn

57. All the Money You Will Ever Earn

As far as I know humans are the only species on the planet that engage in barter. Other animals may bring each other gifts, or bribes, and certainly there are species that have mutually beneficial relationships, but only a human will give you something expecting to receive a different something in return.
Having latched onto this exchange idea quite firmly, we are very lucky to be able to use money to govern our exchanges. Currency saves us from having to walk around all the time with our pockets full of sparkly stones and seashells just in case we need to barter for lunch.
Many years ago I noticed that certain segments of our society are seemingly indifferent to the idea that people are the source of finance. Admittedly, as the employee of a prosperous corporation, a state university, or a government with civil service protections, your connection to the money’s source can seem rather distant. Nonetheless, all the money you will ever earn comes to you from other people. Whether living or dead, present or absent, people give up money so that you in turn will do something that they find worthwhile. Every now and then I think it’s worth asking yourself about whether or not you’re giving honest value for your half of the exchange.
For instance, it can be quite easy for tenured professors at a state university to complain about their rate of pay. Certainly graduate students do so all the time. It can be an even greater strain knowing that the people working long hours and very effectively get paid the same as those putting in a minimal effort and to a very low standard. Some colleagues seem to be giving themselves credit for just showing up. They feel entitled to their paychecks, just for being who they are, without feeling guilty for their laziness or incompetence.
The fact is, students and taxpayers are spending their money to reward you as a teacher for the valuable education you make available to each and every student in your department (whether that student appropriately values your teaching or not). Feeling sorry for yourself because doctors and lawyers earn more, or faculty at another school make more, misses the point. Do you really earn what you already make?
I can’t do anything about your personal living expenses or the feeling you have that you deserve to be paid more than you are. But perhaps, if you consider for a moment the work thousands of people in our culture do every day, for minimum wage, you might reconsider your disappointments. Further, when you know what is expected of you, what precisely entitles you to shortchange your employer? What entitles you to cheat? Seek always to participate in a ‘fair exchange,’ or respond cheerfully when you, in turn, get defrauded by someone you’ve hired. They may well have been your most attentive student.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

With Perfect Clarity

52. With Perfect Clarity

Several years after finishing graduate school I started working for a scholarly press. The money was regular, it was good to have my family on health insurance, and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was about memory.
The work I did was meticulous, exacting, and highly repetitive. Occasionally I would get asked a question about some point of detail, or just asked, “Have you done x?” Invariably I would answer, “I think so, let me go check.”
Often this would surprise them. “You think so? You mean you don’t remember? You were just on this half an hour ago. Do you usually have trouble remembering things?”
To which I would patiently reply, “Of course I remember doing that. I’ve done that particular thing hundreds of times and I can remember every detail of that operation, with perfect clarity. What I can’t be sure of, and don’t want to guess about, is if any of those memories are of today’s work and the particular job you want to know about.” It’s not that I don’t remember enough, it’s that I remember too much, all those other occasions that are no longer relevant.
For potters, this comes up with all those repetitive chores around the studio, especially the really anonymous ones. For me, in particular, switching up an electric kiln often has to be re-checked. You’re busy, you’re moving fast, you ask yourself, “Have I turned up the electric kiln? Certainly I remember having turned up the electric kiln, but what did I do just before then and just after? Am I remembering switching it up today or some other day?”
And so you check, just to be sure.
This can also be important while mixing glazes. I make check marks on the recipe card. “Have I measured out the dolomite?” An interrupting phone call or family emergency could ruin an entire glaze bucket. “Don’t you remember having measured out the dolomite?” “Sure I do, hundreds of times, with perfect clarity.”
Where error can intrude it will. Keeping good notes and double-checking will protect you and your work from some of that error. I’m sure that there are people out there with perfect memories who can recall every detail of their lives in its correct sequence by date and hour, but they don’t work in my studio and I suspect that they don’t work in yours either. When you are learning to be a potter you are not only learning what the clay requires you are also learning about what you require. Adapt your working habits accordingly.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Backwards Thinking

30. Backwards Thinking

People in the arts often get accused of thinking “differently.” Somehow, what we notice, what we care about, and what we choose to do are all unlike the reactions of the general public. I can’t say whether “weird” minds are drawn to art careers or perhaps it’s that art careers make people “weird,” but the distinction is there and it can cause problems.
One by-product of this popular stereotype is the idea that although artists are all unlike ‘regular’ people they are all like one another. Those of us in the field know that the truth is much more complex. We may be unlike the common fish of the general population but we also have as much individual variation as an aquarium full of tropical exotics. Gallery managers, in particular, have to exercise great flexibility in interacting with their artists. We may run to types, but we are never the same.
Among the wide variety of abnormal (or at least unusual) thought patterns that an artist may find useful is one I think of as, “backwards thinking.” For instance, I’m planning my studio time for a given Tuesday morning in July. I’m a self-employed studio artist with the freedom to create anything I want within the limitations of my skills and equipment. What should I do?
If I choose to build teapots I can predict how the coming days will be spent; throwing, trimming, assembling, drying, bisquing, glazing, and glaze-firing. But what if I take the reverse approach? Say I have a Fair planned. The last useful day for a glaze firing will be the Thursday preceding the Saturday of the Fair. Wednesday then becomes the last available bisque firing day. There are a few forms that I could throw, trim, and speed dry overnight, but teapots are not among them. Do I need more inventory for the Fair? Perhaps I’m making the teapots anyway and letting them dry over the weekend. Perhaps I need to be making one last load of chalices, tumblers, shot glasses, and breakfast bowls. Perhaps Saturday governs Tuesday.
What you want to make is only one factor among many and sometimes viewing your workweek from its conclusion can be more informative than the view from its beginning.
In a similar vein, some pots are better made if thrown upside down. I recently experimented with a particular style of vase done this way. It made for a refreshing change.
When assembling my clay armchairs I build a certain double-walled section that will be partially removed later in the process. I am spending time and clay on part of the chair that I need as part of the chair’s structural evolution but not as part of the chair’s final form.
You can imagine the construction of a piece as you would the creation of a chimney by simply stacking bricks from start to finish, or you can work backwards. Imagine the final piece and picture each stage of its development back to the first clay you touch. What does it look like just before it’s done? And just before that? And so on. How do the forces of the physical world conspire to help or hinder your design? What do you need to do to get from one stage to the next?
How you display a piece need not be how it was built. And clever solutions to “weird” problems are likely to seem a little “weird” themselves. As artists, our daily challenges are inherently ‘odd’ to the people around us. The thinking required to meet those challenges may seem a little odd, too. Try not to assume that you only need to think about your work. Give a thought to your audience, as well.
You say you don’t give a damn about your audience? Well, that’s the other kind of “backwards thinking.” That approach creates more problems that it solves, and not just for you, for all of us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Art as Baseball

29. Art as Baseball

Baseball has been described as a simple game. I believe the movie ‘Bull Durham’ said it best. “You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.” Enough said, or so one would imagine. But in this world complication can find its way into anything. As an amusement, I would like to take a moment to think of Ceramics in terms of baseball, in both its simplicity and complexity. You throw the pot. You fire the pot. You show the pot.
Throwing seems basic to both worlds, baseball and ceramics. Handbuilding, too, falls into this performance category. An outfielder with a strong arm can be like a potter who makes very large pots. A pitcher with very fine control, a potter who creates meticulous forms. A great curveball might be similar to a full-bellied jar or similar well-rounded forms. A knuckleball, the wobbly loose pots of a successful anagama firing. A fastball, pure speed and power, the basic precision weapon of big league pitchers, and most production potters.
Base running might refer to the sort of travel to workshops, conferences, and shows that really helps you to ‘score’ as an artist. Stealing a base can equate to travelling on short notice to a wonderful event that you only heard about through the phone call of a friend. Who do you know that seems to have been everywhere and met everyone?
And hitting? Perhaps hitting refers to the venues you get your work into. A single for a gallery, a double for a juried show, a triple for an invitational, the home run becomes the solo show, and the grand slam? An international invitational.
Organizationally, baseball has its various levels from local parks and recreation softball up to the major leagues, and so does ceramics. At community art centers across the country people make pots never expecting to get good enough to get paid for making them, to turn ‘pro’. At the other end of the spectrum, major university ceramics programs compete for the best professors and students, spending tens of thousands of dollars on salaries, assistantships, equipment, and travel funds. The professors they hire have generally worked their way up from positions at lesser schools or graduated with spectacular recommendations from the best graduate programs in the country. These are people who can hit for average as well as power, who can throw (or handbuild) with strength and accuracy, and who have been around the bases a few times, to thunderous applause and critical approval.
For most of us, just getting paid to make the pots we make is still a privilege and a novelty. Many spend years ‘playing’ at the minor league level, never getting the call to move up to the majors. Even those who do make it to the major leagues can not all maintain the level of production required to stay there. Tenure becomes the equivalent of the long term contract.
Which programs now serve as our best ‘teams?’ The Alfred “Yankees,” with the same advantages as their downstate role models? The Rhode Island “Risdees”? The University of Iowa “Woodfires”? Or perhaps the Gainesville “Feminists”? Who’s to tell from season to season? What really causes a team to soar or slump? Or do we judge great teams on consistency of performance year after year?
As individuals, all we can do is attend to the fundamentals; throwing, hitting, and catching. And try to have some fun playing the game. It’s what the fans want to see, some skill and joy, and shared love of the sport. And at next year’s World Series [NCECA?] we’ll see just who can really play the game.
Yes, it’s a serious business. Yes, people strain and suffer and work their tails off to excel at it. But it’s also supposed to be fun. That sense of fun is not the exclusive privilege of the champions among us. That sense of fun animates the activity at every level and binds us all together regardless of our pay scales or show histories. Promising rookies or cunning veterans, never-was or never-will-be, no one owns the game or has the power to keep anyone else out of it.
Whatever your level of play, do the best you can and stay loose. Getting tense will just throw off your aim and mess with your swing. Keep it a simple game and find satisfaction in its simple pleasures.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

the Burden of History

36. The Burden of History

For Art students today there are two great questions relating to Art History. The first is “Why do I have to know about all these other artists?” The second is “I wonder how famous I’ll be someday?”
A lot of people aren’t really very interested in the past. It doesn’t seem very relevant to our current existence and there’s just so damn much of it. Periods, cultures, personalities, and dates—always they seem to want you to memorize the dates. And once you’ve memorized a few things about Michelangelo and his contemporaries some smartaleck PhD will come up with a whole new superstar colleague of theirs you just have to know about or a revisionist theory about so-and-so being gay, or how gay were they? And why does being a gay artist matter anyway? Blah, blah, blah.
For the History of Ceramics we have fewer known personalities to study but plenty of different cultures, and over seven thousand years of production. It’s enough to make a potter feel puny and students, in particular, hate that. There are quite a variety of reasons for choosing a career as an artist, but the opportunity to feel small and insignificant is not generally among them.
Further, our culture places a lot of emphasis on originality, innovation, and personal genius. We do not want or encourage artists who “merely” copy the work of previous generations, no matter how beautiful the originals or how exact the copies. Unfortunately, for ceramics students a lot of what can be done in clay has been. The sense is that “it’s all been done before.” Spoken with resignation and resentment. Many artists simply stop looking at historical images of ceramics in an attempt to remain “original” through ignorance. What they have never seen they cannot be guilty of copying. Besides, it saves them all that reading and remembering all those dates.
Ignorance, too, may seem like one of the privileges of the artist. Certainly many Art students choose Art in part to avoid the rigors of other college courses. Why suffer through all that reading and math when in Art all you have to do is show up and be original?
The fact is there are bright potters and there are dim potters and to be a dim potter is no badge of honor.
Personally, I describe the world of Art History as the landscape or geography of the artist. Through ignorance the artist can choose to live in solitude (as if at the bottom of a well) without colleagues, or culture, or the convenience of other people’s research. But why? Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing but I prefer a wider horizon to my world. And the fact that Mondrian is here, and Michelangelo is over there, and next to him the majolica wares of Deruta, and on the left (around the other side) the Minoan octopus jars—none of it obligates me or enslaves me in any way. They are simply the geographical landmarks of my rich and diverse artistic heritage. Choosing not to know them is a lot like choosing not to learn your way around the town you live in. As if you could remain a child, forever chauffeured by your parents and content not to look out the car’s windows nor to understand what any of those places were or meant.
As to your own place in the landscape of Art only time will tell. Dan Rhoades, the noted ceramicist and author of ceramics texts, started his career as a painter. Worrying about his ultimate place in Art History (his personal paragraph or page in the textbooks of the future) wore on him so badly that, mid-career, he took up ceramics instead. After seeing Mexican potters at work he was drawn to the immediacy, utility, and anonymity of the profession. Where no one is famous you need never worry about failing to become famous.
Ah well, sometimes fame comes without being called.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shopping for a Graduate School

24. Shopping for a Graduate School

This is one of those subjects that could easily fill a book all by itself. Certainly the discussions about whether or not to go to graduate school at all would take pages and pages. But we’ll assume here that you’ve thought it through and considered all the factors and that graduate school is what you want. We’ll also presume, just to simplify the discussion, that your qualifications are first rate and any program in the country would be proud to have you.
To be a careful shopper implies the gathering and evaluation of information. NCECA keeps a database about graduate ceramics programs and each school will gladly send you brochures and promotional materials. Where possible, get a Graduate Catalog, a current timetable of courses, and a copy of the departmental requirements for degree completion. If you can visit while classes are in session, do so. Talk to current students. If you can’t make it to the campus try to talk to current students by some other means, perhaps at the NCECA conference. Discuss your choices with your current professors. And here are some of the issues you need to consider.
Facilities. This means classrooms, kilns, wheels, clay mixers, leaking roofs, unreliable forklifts, ventilation systems, and cramped studios, everything that could possibly make your experience broad and exciting or narrow and frustrating.
Faculty. Who teaches at this school and what is their personal work like? When is their next sabbatical scheduled? If there is more than one ceramics professor (as you hope), how well do they get along? Multiple professors give you more viewpoints on your improvement, but many departments divide into ‘camps’ with loyalty issues and petty discourtesies that could make your time there a purgatory. Also, what sorts of visiting artists or temporary faculty do they bring in? Do the faculty teach gently or ferociously, attentively or absent-mindedly? Are their students on a long tether or a short leash?
Fellow students. How many other students are in the program and how diverse are their backgrounds? What are they like? These are potentially life-long friends, even future spouses. These will also be your guides through many of the practical difficulties of graduate school and university regulations. These are your core colleagues for the rest of your ceramics career, the start of your network. No zombies, psychos, or hermits, please.
Curriculum and Regulation. Is it a two or three year MFA? What are the administrative hoops you’ll have to jump through? Will you have “undergraduate deficiencies” you need to make up? Is the office staff helpful and friendly? Will you have time for unsuccessful explorations or are you obligated to succeed brilliantly from the very beginning?
Expense and support. Some departments are poor and others are not. What are the relative in-state and out-of-state tuition rates? How many assistantships are available? Do you pay for your own materials or does the department cover that? Is subsidized housing available for students and if so, how long is the waiting list? What scholarships and grants are there for ceramics students? What’s the departmental view on students selling their work, collectively or as individuals?
Local culture. Is this an urban or rural setting? What’s the cost of living or the availability of housing? If you or your spouse are looking for work what will you find? If the “scene” is boring will that help you to spend more time in the studio? Do you have prejudices against the local weather or culture that will make you miserable most of the time? Will you be too close to home to avoid family distractions or so far away that you ruin yourself every time you travel home for a visit?
Prestige. Does this program have a reputation that you want to be a part of? If you’re hoping to teach, do their graduates tend to get teaching jobs? You will be known as one of Professor So-and-so’s students or as an MFA from “X.” How do you feel about that? If you benefit from their reputation they will also share in yours. How do you feel about being prodded to excel, to push yourself and your work upon the world? How public are you?
I have given you a lot of difficult questions to answer and people have certainly committed themselves to graduate programs without doing this much research or soul-searching. Either way, carefully researched or luck-of-the-draw, you are likely to do some suffering in graduate school. The path is simply too long and too steep not to include some pain and disappointment. It is part of your job simply to endure, and to overcome, and to grow stronger. On the other hand, you can protect yourself from the truly defective graduate ceramics programs, the madhouses and the snake-pits, just by taking the time to ask questions and to make informed choices before you apply.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Academic Marriage and Divorce

28. Academic Marriage and Divorce

When people get married they generally see the union of the two lives as being beneficial to themselves as individuals. They may derive some pleasure from the achievements of their spouse and in having a part in those achievements, but their highest satisfactions will come from their own successes. Graduate school complicates this.
Your job as a graduate student is to focus your time and attention on your course of study. This means you have less to offer your spouse. They may resent this. Further, you are growing and changing with your education. You are becoming a different person. They may also resent that. And finally, all this educational effort is being expended in the hopes that you will be a “success” with your graduate degree. Should that “success” be unlike your shared imaginings the mutual deprivations of graduate school will be thought a waste and you will be resented as a failure, whatever your personal satisfactions might be.
For a single person, graduate school happens in three possible ways. First, the student lives completely focused on the course of study with no love life distractions (except for loneliness) at all. Second, the student endures (or enjoys) a romantic roller coaster of temporary loves and losses, less lonely than solitude, but considerably more distracting and time-consuming. Third, the student maintains a single partner in a relationship similar to marriage or ultimately leading to marriage.
Married graduate students have a much wider range of general realities, each with their own benefits and hazards. All the variations relate to two factors. What is the graduate student’s spouse doing during the years of the degree program? And does the graduate student continue to respect and admire the spouse?
Spouse activity typically ranges all the way from enrollment in the same graduate program to staying in the home full time attending to small children. Each variation has predictable benefits and problems.
A married couple enrolled in the same course of study share everything; hopes, dreams, schedules, irritations, opportunities, excitements, and disappointments. If they are borrowing money to go to school they may be borrowing twice as much as other couples. They may be in competition for professorial praise, assistantships, awards, and ultimately, jobs. They can offer to share a single teaching position and be very valuable to an employer in that way, but their shared advancement will be limited by the qualifications of the weaker individual.
A married couple enrolled at the same level but in different fields will not be competing head-to-head for specific honors or positions. Unfortunately, one babbling about “X” may not mix well with the other babbling about “Y”. Further, as difficult as job hunting can be, getting two teaching jobs in the same metropolitan area, much less on the same campus, will be statistically unlikely. The career of the less employable spouse will therefore suffer and may require a creative adaptation of skills, and a re-invention of ‘self’.
A couple working at different academic levels, regardless of discipline, may share a mutual respect for their endeavors but will suffer timing problems. Either the person who completes their degree first waits around, losing professional momentum, or the “junior” spouse is torn away from their program and must re-establish themselves as a degree candidate wherever the “senior” spouse finds employment.
For graduate students with non-student spouses the challenges can be even greater. For some, the spouse is fully employed in their chosen profession and relatively independent in their satisfactions. Nonetheless, they may still resent the student’s many absences and fail to express respect and concern for the dramas in the student’s life.
More often the spouse is merely slaving away at the best job they can find among the limited opportunities available to them in a college town. On top of the resentments they carry for the “fun” the graduate student is having, they may resent the conditions of their own employment. Even if they embrace the graduate student’s new stories and friendships, it may be very difficult for the graduate student to do the same. The partnership of the marriage will become inherently unbalanced. The student gets excitement and personal growth and the spouse gets drudgery, loneliness, and inadequacy. One of the most common stereotypes of academic culture is the spouse who slaves away for years supporting a degree candidate only to be divorced by that new doctor, lawyer, engineer, or teacher in the months following graduation.
A variation on this example, though far less common in our current culture, is the spouse in the home full time with the children. In this case all the other resentments are joined by the home parent’s lack of adult contact and the student’s increased responsibility for financial stability. The student resents not being able to study sufficiently and the stay-at-home resents being abandoned.
In all cases, subsequent professional achievement and financial rewards may serve to heal the rifts, but it will always be difficult for one person to endure in order for another person to thrive. Be careful not to ask your spouse to do too much for too little. Take the time to be respectful, and attentive, and grateful. Do not make too much of your new status and the elitism your achievements may encourage. Do not allow higher education’s rewards to include bitterness and divorce.

Monday, November 17, 2008


67. Galleries

In the normal course of things you will eventually start to think about whether or not you should try to sell your work through a gallery. This can be a difficult decision for many artists and, frankly, the galleries don’t make it any easier, and for several reasons.
First off, galleries will generally try to give the impression that their inventory is extraordinarily good and its stable of artists tremendously talented. Presenting your work and yourself to the gallery’s jury process can be quite daunting. Second, the gallery generally does not buy your work but merely displays it “on consignment.” So getting your work into the gallery doesn’t actually put any money in your pocket. Third, when a piece does sell, the gallery will keep 50% of the sale price (though some galleries take smaller percentages) and will pay you your share some time next month (if you’re lucky). Particularly for work that sells quickly, or effortlessly, it can be hard for an artist to believe that the gallery really earned its 50%. And fourth, horror stories abound of galleries failing to send checks, damaging work, or letting work languish in storage rooms.
If you are earning enough money selling your work yourself you probably don't have much reason to even approach a gallery about selling your work. It’s really not all that prestigious (with a few exceptions) to be represented by a gallery. It can, however, be a convenience.
When you sell your own work retail it doesn’t take long before you begin to see the hidden costs associated with earning the full retail price. If you have a storefront, there are rent and utility costs. If you’re travelling to fairs, there are booth and jury fees, as well as motels and travel expenses. One year I calculated having spent 89 days on the road selling my work. Aside from the disruption to home life, those were days spent away from the studio, thus reducing my total productivity for the year.
Further, fairs do not always attract “financially-empowered, action-oriented” buyers as well as a successful gallery does. How expensive is your work? A gallery patron may return several times, over the course of weeks, before writing out a big check. Customers at fairs do not have that luxury of time and will often leave without making the big purchase. If you’ve found a fair where expensive pieces are being sold, cherish it, and make doubly sure to have work there worthy of the customers’ interest.
Having your work in a gallery gives you two valuable gifts of time. It gives your work the time it needs to be noticed, appreciated, and purchased. And it gives you more time in the studio. Good galleries can also give you important feedback about the sorts of things that are selling and the candid observations of customers uninhibited by the artist’s presence. You will quickly notice the differences between truly excellent galleries and simply average ones.
Whenever possible (before even asking about their jury procedures) go to the gallery and observe the setting, the work, and the staff. Galleries will often have a theme or a direction to their inventory. Does your work fit in? Does it fit in too well? I have twice had admittance denied because my works bore “too close a resemblance to the work of other artists already represented.” At least they were polite. Don’t waste everyone’s time trying to get into inappropriate galleries or galleries you don’t really want to support with your work.
Once you’re in somewhere, stay in touch. Bring in fresh work and remove the stale. (It can go to a different gallery, in a different city, where it will be “new” again.) Talk to the staff about the work, the market, developments in your life, etc. They need story material to share with potential customers when they’re ‘chatting them up’ about your work. Your fates are now linked, the artist and the gallery, and they need their 50% (for rent, utilities, taxes, salaries, credit card fees, and advertising) just as much as you need yours. Occasionally a gallery manager will ask if I’m willing to haggle at all on my prices. I generally answer, “Yes, but be greedy. It’s your money you’re giving away, too.” They invariably smile. I’m sure that most of their artists fail to see the underlying partnership at work, the shared effort and shared success. Do your best to be a good ally and choose galleries that you really want to support.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Machine for Making Money

58. A Machine for Making Money

Although there are machines and industrial processes used to create coins and banknotes I don’t intend to discuss that sort of ‘money making’ here. The money making machine that I want to examine here is your business, or any business venture for that matter. A successful business is not magic. It’s a variety of moving parts, some energizing activity, and a lot of design. It uses money, organization, and effort to earn still more money by adding value to some pre-existing set of conditions. Any business is really just a complex design problem under constant and imperfectly predictable stress. Most businesses fail. Yours doesn’t have to.
A typical business has a location, equipment, employees, production processes, price structures, and customers. A well-designed and well-operated business runs with the quiet cleverness of a fine clock. Other businesses, especially new businesses, often run like a snow-blind hippopotamus with one foot stuck in a bucket. From a safe distance it might seem funny. Up close, these clumsy businesses can get a lot of people hurt: employees, clients, creditors, and owners.
Nonetheless, you still want to try your luck at business. You want to be your own boss. You want to make some serious money. You want to stop being someone else’s employee, doing their work to meet their needs, making them wealthy.
There are two terms you should know, even though they don’t much apply to Art related businesses. The first is “turnkey,” and the second is “franchise.”
When someone buys a business on a “turnkey” basis that means that everything is in place at the time of the purchase. All the questions have been answered, all the supplies are in stock, and all the employees have been hired and trained. The business is ready to run, perhaps it has already been running for months or years. Yesterday someone else owned it, today you do. As owner you may literally have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the business. You may not even have much to say about long term plans or shifts in focus. You may just read about the results in your quarterly reports.
If the business you bought is a good one you may not need to fiddle with it at all. The employees get paid, the product gets sold, the taxes get calculated, and you spend the profits.
“Franchises” are sometimes sold as turnkey operations. When I buy a franchise I am buying an exact copy of a business someone else designed and proved would work. A lot of our restaurants are franchises these days, in part because it’s safer to go into the restaurant business following a model that has already succeeded elsewhere. Success is not guaranteed even then. We’ve all seen franchise locations fail. But franchises have a system, an image, buying power, and advertising momentum. They come with a lot of advantages.
As a sole proprietor, setting up your own art business from scratch, you have very few advantages. You’re trying to design a machine to create and sell Art. You start with relatively low costs and a lot of freedom to make decisions. You are not bound to someone else’s ideas of how to proceed. I’ve seen turnkey pottery operations advertised for sale, but the only “Art” franchises I can think of sell prints in “limited editions” of moderate to low value. You can’t franchise originality.
You can derive some of the benefits of a franchise, however, by closely observing the existing business operations of other artists. Historically, of course, you would have done this as an apprentice and as a journeyman, learning the business from a master potter. Our university-trained potters are at a disadvantage in this regard, since most schools frown on teaching a profit-oriented approach to being an artist.
Even so, you can probably find a local ceramic artist of some sort who would be willing to bring you along to some Fair or Sale as an assistant. Notice how things are being done there, and ask questions.
Start selling your own work while you’re still in school. Learn as much as you can about selling your work before you put yourself in the position where your pots must sell in order for you to make the next rent payment. Try to avoid all ‘must sell’ situations. They’re bad business.
Be observant. Talk to other self-employed artists, to shop owners, and to gallery managers. Experiment. Learn to think of your business as its own work of art, a work in progress, constantly seeking to improve, to understand itself, to succeed. Be flexible. Ask yourself questions.
Do you need employees? Do you want employees? How much time do you want to spend on being an artist and how much on being a business operator? What are you hoping to achieve?
And when you’ve got your money making machine built just the way you want it, keep a steady hand on the pump handle. It’s your energy and creativity and standard for excellence that will maintain the flow of profits. Pace yourself for the long haul.
Success in business always means more than just how you did today. Someday your retirement may depend on your ability to sell your business as a turnkey operation to some future generation of optimistic ceramic artists. Plan for that possibility. Build the best machine you can, and try to enjoy the challenges you will overcome in creating it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Organizational Genius

74. Organizational Genius

I am probably not the person to be writing this essay. Certainly I am no expert, no role model. However, over the years I have struggled mightily with this issue and maybe I can give you some tips about my old enemy.
In this case, the organization I want to discuss is that of objects and spaces. Organizing people, thoughts, and time are all separate, lengthy issues.
In the beginning, like many teenagers, my system of organization was archaeological and anecdotal. In looking for a particular possession I would dredge up my freshest memory of the object. Where did I see it last? What was it near? How long ago was that? I would then go to the correct area, look under the appropriate layers of subsequent stuff and find the object. W.C. Fields played an office clerk once with just such an infallible filing system and a stacked-to-the-ceiling roll-top desk. Hilarious.
Advancing age brought out several inherent problems with this system. 1) It only works in a space you do not share. Otherwise, someone else is moving your stuff, or adding to the layers, or stepping where they should not step. 2) If your memory fades (or gets over-loaded) you lose that vital element, “the freshest memory.” 3) This is absolutely not child-proof or child-safe. A toddler loose in your piles will destroy your ability to find anything. 4) It’s a mess and, sooner or later, an embarrassing mess.
And then I read something that changed my whole view of the subject. It’s very simple. Look at the object. Where’s the first place you would look for that object? Milk goes in the refrigerator. Winter coats in the closet by the front door. Kiln furniture next to the kiln. Clay tools next to the wheel. Then, always put the object where it goes, where you will look for it first.
When you’re in a strange kitchen, do you have trouble finding the silverware drawer or the cabinet with the drinking glasses? Isn’t it satisfying when the spoons are just where they ought to be, right there in the first drawer you open?
Your studio (your office, your home) can be the same way. What is it? Where does it go? Put it there.
Now, some objects defy organization and some spaces are inadequate or poorly sub-divided. No system is perfect and I still have a lot of trouble with papers and filing cabinets, but I’m doing better. And if things start getting a little messy again a simple question (often asked by my wife) puts it right. “Is that where that goes?”
In a shared space it’s the only way to function. A friend of mine runs a shared shop space professionally and he’s taken this need for efficiency and order very seriously. If someone can’t find a tool right away, all work stops until the object is found. Whatever the reason it wasn’t in its proper place, it’s better for four people to lose a few minutes work time than it is for one person to lose half an hour. Further, it reminds everyone to maintain good habits about putting things away when they’re no longer being used.
When you are sharing someone else’s space you will have to learn and respect their system. When the space is yours you will be the expert. You expect to find the welder under the bed? Fine. Just be sure to put it back when you’re done so you can find it quickly next time. When it comes to organizing your stuff, you are the resident genius. Find your system and stick to it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reasons and Excuses

20. Reasons and Excuses

There came a point in my graduate school experience when I noticed a particular phrase creeping into my speech. It was the phrase, “…but I was afraid that…” as in, “I was going to go to the slide lecture but I was afraid that, as tired as I’ve been lately, I would just fall asleep, sitting there in the dark.”
Okay, I can see where that might be an unnecessary embarrassment, but it’s also inherently cowardly not to take the chance. You don’t go to graduate school to avoid educational opportunities or to make excuses for yourself. How about, “I had intended to go to the slide lecture but I’ve been so tired lately I fell asleep on the couch after dinner and missed it”? You still missed the lecture but you’re no longer being “afraid” and you may have done yourself some good with the additional (though unplanned) sleep. You’re also using reasons, not excuses, to explain your actions.
“I was going to make a series of these things four to six feet tall but I was afraid that…” What? You are in school specifically to be courageous. Hell, in some ways, you are an artist specifically to be courageous. This doesn’t mean that you need to mindlessly lunge towards every passing creative impulse but you must do things. For instance, “I was going to make a series of these things four to six feet tall but I went to a Richard Notkin lecture and was really struck by his challenge to create big images in small formats.” Or perhaps, “…but I considered just how long such objects would take to dry and realized that I could never get them fired before the [insert deadline here].” Or even, “…but I measured the largest available kiln and it’s only three and a half feet tall. I may have to arrange to fire them elsewhere or work out a way to fire them on their sides. In the meantime, I’m continuing the series in their current size and working on issues other than scale.”
By all means, understand your problems and expect to be a problem-solver. Pay attention to how you speak. However inadvertently it might be, what you say reveals a lot about how you think. And notice the important differences between reasons and excuses. The people around you can certainly see them.
You don’t have to conquer the world to succeed as an artist but some days you may have to conquer yourself. Sure you have doubts. We all have doubts. You may even have profound fears. Don’t dwell on them. Be courageous in the ways appropriate to you and all the rest can just stay your little secret. We don’t need to be reminded of the things you fear. What we need is to share in the glow of your successes and the cleverness of your ambitions.
No excuses, please, just reasons. Reasons will help you to define the limits of your aesthetic problem. Excuses make it all too obvious that you are the limiting factor.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coping with Retail

66. Coping with Retail

Over the years I’ve been surprised to find that many students of ceramics do not cope very well with either the idea of making work to sell or the practicalities of direct sales. Luckily for them, there are other ways to earn a living from their skills as a ceramist. However, given the history of our profession, a failure to even attempt to learn about retail sales must be considered unacceptable.
There are two parts to this discussion. The first concerns selling at all. The second concerns the variation and principles of direct retail sales.
If you are a ceramic artist, potter, craftsman/designer, etc., you make objects. Those objects have three possible fates. They can be destroyed. They can be kept and stored by their maker. Or they can become the property of someone other than the maker.
I suppose, as a matter of therapy, that the simple making of an object might be enough for some people and the objects themselves might then be unimportant and of no value. Certainly some objects ‘fail’ as either utilitarian or strictly aesthetic projects. Those pots may well deserve destruction, but I find it too depressing to imagine that the entire output of an artist’s creativity might be worthy of immediate doom.
So, of the surviving objects, some get given away as gifts and others stay with the artist. Sooner or later, this will become a storage problem. Selling part of your inventory is the solution.
What if no one wants to buy your work? Well, then either you aren’t presenting it well to the right audiences, or your instructors have been lying to you about its quality and your skills.
Unfortunately, the practical details of retail sales are numerous enough to fill a complete book of their own (versions of which have already been written), but there are three general areas of concern that I can address in the space allowed here.
First, not all retail spaces are created equal. A table set out on your driveway, yard sale fashion, is not the same as a Ceramics Department Christmas sale, which is not the same as an Ann Arbor street fair, which is not the same as the annual Smithsonian Craft Show. Some of the principles remain the same in all settings, but do your research. Don’t let the first Fair you go to be the same Fair you’re selling your pots at. Go to some Fairs as a tourist or, better yet, as a helper for an established artist. Pay attention.
Second, know your own work. If you’re selling functional objects understand the utility of each type. How much does that mug hold? The question will come up. Be able to describe your pots performing their functions. For instance, “That type of mug works particularly well with hot chocolate.” Or, “This particular size of colander works well for steaming vegetables. This is how you do it.” When the potential customer asks, “What do you use this for?” they don’t want to hear, “Whatever you’d like.” They want ideas. Have some ready.
Third, show some respect for the process. Yes, some customers defy understanding and some retail venues are disastrous. Don’t let your contempt show on your face or in your body language. It is not beneath your dignity to be selling your colored bits of burnt dirt for money that represents hours of labor to people who slave away at jobs you would probably hate. Among the people you sell to will be individuals who have never owned art before, individuals whose lives may well be improved by daily interaction with an object you made, and individuals who may well bring you business (i.e. money) for years to come. Further, your return customers are often the friendly faces that will sustain you emotionally when mere money starts to seem less important. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy having customers. Let them teach you about your work.
I know people all across the country simply because they have bought my pottery. Selling through shops and galleries filters out that contact and separates you from an important source of emotional sustenance. Ceramics can be a lonely enough occupation without you hiding in your studio all the time. Go to a Fair. Gawk at the people walking past. Tell a few stories. Sell a few pots. Have some fun. Be happy in your successes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Your True Work

55. Your True Work

Nothing tires you out quite so much as a chore you don’t want to be doing, and nothing gives you strength so much as doing something you love. Some artists will describe it as, “getting on a roll,” or, “being in the zone.” It’s a magical state of being that justifies every sacrifice you’ve ever made, every wound you’ve ever suffered, in the pursuit of your creative ambitions. It’s when you finally look up at the clock and hours have passed, effortlessly and without notice.
In Bernard Leach’s 1975 book, Hamada, Potter, Leach’s wife tells a story quoting Hamada as saying, “Your true work makes you stronger.” It seems that he needed to decorate some 400 pots on a day when he was also expected in Tokyo in the evening and would have to catch a particular train to get there. The long and the short of it is that the ease and gracefulness of his decorating steadily improved throughout the day until his helpers ran out of undecorated pieces twenty minutes before his self-imposed deadline. Though the level of activity nearly exhausted his audience, Hamada himself seemed to display no fatigue.
People working in “normal” careers for reasons of finance or stability may never experience the energizing benefits of work. For them work is always simply drudgery and obligation. On good days the work flows smoothly and without difficulty, or problems down the line interrupt the pattern and the employee sits idle, happy to have nothing to do at all. But every day going to work is simply something that must be done and retirement is nothing but a distant dream, a chance to finally live as one would choose to live.
I, like most artists, have had a few, scattered moments of practicality where I wondered if indeed life might be much simpler if I just closed up the shop. Wouldn’t life be better, more enjoyable, without the chores and disappointments of a ceramics studio? Couldn’t I support my family more successfully as a regular citizen in a more conventional career? Shouldn’t I be heroic in the way that everyone else is being heroic, going for the steady paycheck, being a cog in the machine?
And then I’ll have a session where I’ve dragged myself down to the studio, merely to check on how things are drying, and end up spending hours trimming and pulling handles just because “the pots are ready now.” In a mundane world whose many demands exhaust me I have often been reinvigorated by the work of being a potter. It hardly seems like work at all. How could any other work be better?
Only that kind of love and that kind of energy will get you through the difficult times of your education and career. Only your true work will make you strong enough to succeed, strong enough to put in the hours, the repetitions it takes to achieve true mastery.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Answering Your Question

Yes, the two photos are of my work. The large one is of an armchair and the other is of "Firetrap #5," both fired at the fabulous anagama kiln in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. I just drove up yesterday to get Firetrap #10, which is even better. I'll post photos when I get them back from yesterday's photo session. Thanks to Rob Johnson, Tom Harnack, and everyone on the crew at the Omaha Clayworks.

Larry M. Brow

The Limitations of Instructors

10. The Limitations of Instructors

At the 1989 NCECA conference in Kansas City one of the panels was a first ever discussion of student concerns as presented by student panelists. At one point it degenerated into complaints about the inadequacies of their instructors. I couldn’t help thinking of it as whining and told them so at the time.
Yes, ceramics instructors are often inadequate in the breadth and depth of their knowledge. Yes, insufficient departmental funding often impairs students’ ability to follow their curiosity fully. Yes, an education in ceramics is time-consuming and unsystematic. Too bad. It’s not just your teacher, your school, or your particular circle of hell. Even the best-taught students in the world could complain, “Our professors never take us on any month-long field trips to the notable potteries of southwestern England.” Boo hoo. If you feel compelled to study some particular aspect of ceramics, it may well be up to you to find your own way to make it happen.
Shoji Hamada once said something to the effect of, “If you want to know what I know, don’t study me, study the things I studied.” What do you study to become another Shoji Hamada? He had no one instructor or single learning experience. How many teachers and learning experiences did it take to create a Bernard Leach or a Peter Voulkos?
At some point, and this is what graduate school should be about, you need to learn to be your own best teacher. Identify the gaps in your expertise and do what it takes to fill them. Read, travel, experiment, listen, and discuss. How can your instructors ever be experts on your art? They can not give you everything you’ll need to know on photocopied sheets of paper. They can only help by showing you the bits of the puzzle they’ve collected in the search for their own art. The puzzle that is your art will always be different.
On the other hand, if your instructor really is incompetent or abusive, move on! Give yourself permission to do better elsewhere. Do not give yourself permission to be whining, lazy, or over-impressed by the qualities of your own work. Energy, determination, humility, and attentiveness will always be your best instructors, no matter where you end up earning a degree.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Pots are the Horses ..."

42. “The Pots Are the Horses…”

Dick Francis, the noted British mystery novelist, has written a long series of wonderful books in which his heroes have a variety of jobs related to the world of horse racing. A former champion steeplechase jockey, he has been uniquely qualified to convey the singular drama and beauty of horses in an all out thunderous charge to reach the finish line first. In none of his books has he ever tried to rank the importance of the various human occupations surrounding horse racing. Stable boys, jockeys, owners, trainers, horsebox drivers, bankers, etc. are all treated with dignity and respect and curiosity. They are each noble and beautiful and ultimately insignificant when placed in comparison with the incomparable passion of steeplechase horses clearing fences to the cheers of their supporters and the subtle urgings of the jockeys. No matter what nefarious schemes are afoot, the reader knows that it is the beauty of the horses in majestic flight which is the great good to be preserved, to be exulted, to be admired.
The title of this essay is a direct quote from Jack Troy, the internationally famous ceramicist and author. The discussions at the 1999 International Woodfire Conference (held in Iowa City, Iowa) had begun to wander into some pretty heady and potentially useless directions when he brought the entire room up short with the following statement. “The pots are the horses, the critics are just the guys with the brooms.” The room loved it. At least those of us in the room who weren’t critics loved it.
Good pots are the engine of our profession. As individuals, we become process-driven, language-driven, money-driven, ego-driven, and lifestyle-driven and none of it is as important, as powerful, or as significant as the good pot (sculptural or utilitarian). What do you need to do to have a successful career in ceramics? Hundreds of things, but they all start with the making of good pots. And when your troubles come, as they are bound to, and when you doubt the enterprise, your best protector will be an admirable pot. Make it noble and beautiful and let it inspire you to persevere.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Production Bottlenecks

78. Production Bottlenecks

Whether you’re still a student or out working full time in your own studio there are factors in your life which place arbitrary limits on your productivity. Everybody’s got them and it doesn’t take an outrageous amount of pencil and paper to figure them out. In this case, I’m referring just to the physical limitations of time and equipment. The limits placed on you by emotion, psychology and lifestyle are a different matter.
At one point in my evolution as a self-employed potter, I was feeling pretty badly about not getting enough pots made. (I often feel this way, actually). I correctly understood that without sufficient inventory I simply could not earn enough money to keep things going. Luckily I had the thought to speculate about my maximum output capacity. If I were a better organized and more competent potter and never let my kiln get cold except for days I had to be away selling pots, how many pots per year could I produce?
It’s a relatively simple problem. The kiln holds x number of average sized pots, each pot gets fired twice (bisque and glaze), say 250 firing days per year. And the final number was… way too low. Given my average price per piece the very best I could possibly hope for was still poverty.
I thought of three solutions immediately. One, switch to single firing, thus doubling the number of glaze firings per year. Intriguing, but as yet impractical. My return customers and I were too loyal to my existing palette of clays and glazes. I have, since that time, once-fired several clay armchairs in wood fueled kilns and in a very large electric kiln (borrowed) with a computer controller. Results have been excellent.
Two, I could replace my current kiln with a larger one. Impractical at that time, because I was renting and couldn’t really add the additional electrical service I would have needed for a larger, higher amp kiln. Switching to a large gas kiln was likewise impossible for very similar reasons.
And three, buy a second kiln so that while one was cooling the other could be heating up. This I did, and I also built a little shed in the backyard to house them and that eliminated the need for a vent system.
Four, increasing prices on the current inventory did not seem practical at the time. Since then, however, I have raised my prices twice and sales have remained strong after some initial drop-off.
Keep in mind, this solution still only doubled the previously calculated maximum annual capacity. I might someday improve my studio practices to the point where I was again being held back by the lack of kiln space but that would not be for quite a while.
In the meantime, I had discovered another bottleneck in my production. You see, I was driving a heroic little Toyota Tercel two door hatchback at the time. I needed a van. Later the van needed a trailer, and so on. Now I have an even bigger van, without a trailer.
Every business must periodically evaluate itself in this way. What goals do you set for yourself? What’s on your shopping list that will help to improve your productivity and profitability? You will love doing better. But first you must figure out what it is that is holding you back.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Asset Inventory

61. Asset Inventory – “What You Got?”

In the medieval and early modern guild structures an apprentice brought little more to the profession than a tuition fee from his parents and a willingness to work. Sometimes the willingness to work had to be beat into the child. By the time the apprentice had become an experienced journeyman he would have learned most of the necessary job skills and acquired most of his own personal tools. The master would still provide the shop, as well as the larger tools, but in most ways the journeyman was self-sufficient and could shift his employment to a different shop and a different master if he wished.
When we consider our own places in the ceramics professions we often lose sight of those ancient, practical considerations. Most notably, our new “Masters,” the people earning MFA degrees, frequently leave school with an incomplete set of personal tools, no studio space or kiln set up, and a woefully inadequate understanding of ceramic art as a business. Perhaps they intend only to teach, using the facilities at the school that employs them. Very well, what about that? What do they have to offer an employer? What do you have to offer?
What are the assets you bring to the next stage in your career? Yes, you’ve got skills and experience, a good work ethic, letters of recommendation, slide sets, and a degree. Do you imagine that you’re competing against people who don’t have these things?
Are you portable? For instance, I’m married with children. Many residencies simply have no provision even for spouses. I may have to consider schools for my children, finding a job for my spouse, and the greater maintenance expense for a group this size. A young loner has some important advantages here.
Have you ever run a gallery, taught drawing, taught Art History, or served on academic committees? Do you have a religion? Many small colleges in this country have religious affiliations. A Baptist college, for instance, will always prefer to hire Baptist faculty members in much the same way that a Canadian or Australian school will want to hire their own citizens. Many institutions don’t have to be equal opportunity employers. Their predispositions might be to your advantage.
A single male teacher is probably at a disadvantage applying to an all girls school where a single woman or contentedly married person is not. Would working at a military school freak you out? (Do military schools even have art departments?)
Do you have geographical or cultural prejudices limiting your search? My wife simply can not abide summer heat and has no ambition to teach below the Mason/Dixon line. Foreign countries with tropical climates are right out, too. No offense intended in either case. On the other hand, some people can’t abide snow.
Do you speak any foreign languages or are you open to learning one? Personally, I wouldn’t mind learning Aussie or Kiwi, and have some experience with French and Portuguese. My wife has already spent a year learning British and summer learning Scottish.
Are you a big strong sweaty sort of a brute or a small, delicate, won’t-disturb-the-established-routine-of-the-shop sort of a person? Do you drink hot tea?
Do you have job skills that would allow you to work in ceramics part-time while using your full time job to pay the bills and provide health insurance?
Do you or your family own land where you could build a kiln and a studio? Where is this land and would you really be willing to live there and homestead?
What do you drive? A motorcycle!?!
Do you have specific ambitions, or are you just exhausted, relieved to be earning your degree, and desperate for a change of scenery? What do you want?
Too many questions, I know, but before you can do all the job-hunting chores and future-building tasks you need to think about the limits of your search. Are those limits appropriate and in what ways do you look good for that particular job? What have you been overlooking or taking for granted? You need to know what your assets are to be able to put them to work for you. Make lists if you have to. Talk to friends. Think it through.

Friday, November 7, 2008


79. Profit

Most of us have a simple, relatively accurate understanding of the concept, “Profit.” When you sell an object to someone for more than it cost you the extra money earned is your profit. The difficulty comes in understanding what things really cost. Without an accurate understanding of your costs you can not know what your profits really are or even if you’re making a profit at all.
[Before continuing I must stress that I’m discussing money. You can profit from experiences in non-tangible ways, but those profits are not subject to tax. For instance, I may not profit much from the sale of my writing financially, but emotionally, intellectually, and even socially, I can find it lavishly rewarding.]
The quickest way to learn about the costs of being a self-employed potter is to get a blank “Schedule C” federal income tax form and to read the corresponding explanations in the tax code. Imagine that you were in business as a working potter all of last year. Make up some numbers. Say you made and sold 2,000 pots for ten dollars apiece. Each pot used two pounds of clay, purchased pre-mixed wet at twenty cents per pound. So, you spent $800 on clay and got paid $20,000 for it. It might seem like a profit of $19,200, but it’s not.
Calculate equipment costs, studio rent, utilities, glaze materials, mileage to and from sales, overnight travel expenses and meals, display equipment, packing materials, booth fees, license fees, commissions, etc. One of the odd things here is that the wages you pay any employees count as costs but you, as the owner, get no wages. You have to live off of profits and you won’t know if you’ve made a profit at all until the year is over. If you have made a profit, those profits will be taxed 15%, for Social Security (employer and employee contributions combined) and taxed under the normal rates of the tax code. Your $20,000 gross income is not going to amount to much in the end, but if you’ve been efficient (and live frugally) it might be enough.
On the other hand, what if you can double production? Four thousand pots at ten dollars apiece might be more profitable. Equipment and rent costs might remain the same, but firing costs and materials costs will go up. What if you can’t sell four thousand pots? Perhaps you get stuck with a thousand unsold pots or you have to spend extra on advertising and extra travel. It’s not as easy as “sell more, earn more.” Unsold inventory increases your costs without increasing your income.
What if instead you double your prices? Now, two thousand pots bring in $40,000. All profit, right? Wrong. What if higher priced pots don’t sell as readily? Again, you’re back to spending money on advertising, travel, higher booth fees for more expensive Fairs, better looking display equipment and tentage. And you can’t really predict any of it with much accuracy.
Is profit impossible? No, just complicated. In fact, profit is possible in some unexpected ways. For instance, the Schedule C allows for a standard mileage rate for vehicle travel. It varies from year to year, but say they allow thirty cents per mile as the expense rate for travel. In other words, for tax purposes you are presumed to spend thirty dollars every time your business use vehicle travels one hundred miles. But you may well drive a less expensive vehicle. It is to your advantage to do so. The tax law rewards you for minimizing waste by allowing you to pocket the difference between your expense and the standard allowance.
At this point you may also wonder if being profitable is all that wonderful. After all, higher profits just mean higher taxes and who’s to know just how much cash you received at all those Fairs last year? Cheating may be a strong temptation. But consider this….
One, the IRS is inherently mistrustful of businesses that take in cash for just this reason. If you are ever audited, they will likely find your cheating out and deal with you accordingly.
Two, you must make a profit every now and then in order to be considered a business at all. Without business status your enterprise becomes a hobby. Your gross income gets taxed as pure income and your costs are just your own damn problem.
Three, when you go to the bank for a vehicle or equipment loan they will judge your income, your ability to re-pay the loan, from your previous year’s tax return. You need for it to be as strong as the facts entitle it to be.
Four, the 15% tax that goes to Social Security may be the closest thing you’ll ever have to a retirement plan. Why cheat yourself by under-reporting? If you actually invested the cash you’ve been skimming into some other retirement scheme you might be ahead of the game but then you’ve made it easier for the IRS to find your fraud.
Five, if you’ve made enough profit to have to pay significant Income and Social Security taxes, congratulations! It means that you’ve found success where so many others have failed. You have a good product, priced and marketed well, and your costs are reasonable. You’re in a position to build on this success, expand profitably, and do better next year. You’re figuring it out. Use some of those excess profits to invest in better equipment and facilities, or to expose your work to new markets. Build your business into something you can sell to someone else (profitably) when you eventually decide that you want to retire.
To calculate profit you need to consider price, volume, and cost. What was profitable yesterday may not be so tomorrow. Learn to examine your own business with the exactness you normally save for judging teapots and dinner sets. And if your boss proves to be a slave-driving unrelenting son-of-a-bitch, well, that can sometimes be the price you pay for being self-employed. Remember, too, that not all profits are monetary. Those are just the ones that get taxed. You can count your blessings without having to use a calculator or a government form.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Clay Chairs [MFA written thesis, 1989]

99. Clay Chairs

This is the text of my written thesis for the Master of Fine Arts degree (May, 1989) from the University of Iowa.

I make clay chairs. Life-sized, functional, comfortable clay chairs. I make them to combine the issues of sculpture and the now alienated and devalued issues of traditional pottery.
I have been reluctant to write about my work, and the chairs in particular, because I know how powerful words are, and how premature it is for me to issue manifestoes or lectures on the appropriate nature of art. However, the requirement of the written thesis forces me to act now, and perhaps that is for the best.
There are three major faults with art as I find it today. The first, and most obvious, is the domination of the visual image. Television, film, photographs, and slides have combined to persuade us that “seeing is believing” and that if we can just get a good picture of the problem, we can solve it. As a functional potter, I know all too well just how inadequate pictures are in conveying the weight, balance, texture, and design of an object.
Even the visually flawless holograms of the future can not describe the feel of a mug in your hand, its touch to your lips, the transmission of heat through its walls, or the flow of its contents as you tip it back to drink. These are the only issues which differentiate a good mug from a bad mug. No amount of surface design and decoration will matter in the least when you close your eyes to savor the coffee.
Slides, too, limit the viewer to the one “best” view, and notoriously distort the true scale of the object. We are necessarily distanced from the true nature of the object and our true relationship to it.
In fairness, slides have allowed artists today to observe thousands of years worth of artifacts and cultural history. By preserving our treasures photographically and behind museums’ DO NOT TOUCH signs, millions of people have been able to share, in some small way, the aesthetic pleasures these objects provide.
Unfortunately, this has lead to a second tyranny, the domination of the history of art. At no time in the past have so many historical movements, aesthetic theories, philosophies, and objects co-existed to influence and subvert the artist. To seek absolutely virgin territory becomes an obsessive impossibility and the culture of the “new” must settle for “new” rhetoric in support of current variations on past examples. Many artists simply immerse themselves in the past and the near past, and the language of art, producing an art for the art intelligentsia which is purely literary in its mingling of allusions and metaphors.
This self-referential class of art threatens the destruction of public support for all art because it stupidly excludes the public and then insults it for being uninformed. These are the merchants who tell others what they ought to like, and ought to pay for, and ought to live with, and ought to drink their coffee from, even if it is painful, awkward, and unpleasant.
Clearly the past exists and each new artist’s work exists within a framework of historical and contemporary connections. But within this vast realm of “it’s already been done” the artist still lives in a world of people dealing with the problems of today and tomorrow. Each artist must say, “there’s nothing left to do but my own work,” the problems I find for myself and the solutions I seek for those problems.
This leads to the third problem in art, the tyranny of self. I speak now of artists so full of themselves, their work, their genius, that the issues of politics, nature, society, and the public mean nothing to them. These are often artists who tout “process” and focus so narrowly on themselves in the god-like act of creation that the consequences, and results, of their activities mean nothing to them.
For some artists this is the only way to be artists. But again, this separates art from the lives of non-artists, and to the extent that it is offered to students as a philosophical solution, it is dangerous.
The public does matter. How the public interacts with your finished work does matter. And the effect your work has on the lives of others, publicly and privately, is the only opportunity art has for improving conditions in the world around us. Surrendering the opportunity to improve the world, for the suspect benefits of narcissistic self-absorption, is indefensible in a world which needs so much thoughtful action.
So, I make clay chairs.
They have several practical advantages. They are durable, long-lasting, weather-proof (excepting large hail), and never need re-upholstering. They eliminate the distance between artist, art, and audience. Comfortable, sculptural, and thought-provoking, each chair is an individual, with all the ego that implies. Each give the weary a place to rest.
I enjoy making them. Each presents the sort of physical challenges which actually scare me, elevating my heart beat and respiration. I am forced to focus on the immediate physics of the clay without forgetting the needs of the future and my guests who will share the use of this object.
As I build it, layer by layer, rising from the floor (waiting for the right moment to add the next layer) I must imagine it in use, not just as I see it then, but after the shrinkage of drying and firing. Only after it has been bisque fired can I test my judgements by sitting, noticing then how it fits my body, the width of the hips, the curve of the back, the length of the legs, the arms, and so on. Each new chair then builds on my experience of the previous chairs.
It is a problem with an infinite number of solutions extending beyond the variations in human proportion and mood to the imagined proportions and tastes of fictional subjects. The Siege Perilous of Arthurian legend, perhaps, or the Thrones of Olympus and Valhalla. They are a challenge which suits me, and yet still serves others.
The chairs also quite plainly defy complete understanding through photography. To know and understand each chair you must give up your personal doubts and “DO NOT TOUCH” training. You must sit. Only then can you begin to understand the piece. I can not prevent my work from being judged and dispersed photographically (nor do I want to), but it becomes much more obvious to any viewer that there are aspects to the experience of my art that they are missing. This should be realized with work of other artists, too, but often it is not and the picture becomes the sum total of the work.
The experience of my chairs is also not one of intellectual allusion to past chairs and philosophical rhetoric about the nature of reality. My chairs are real, similar to some past objects, completely unlike others. And though the process has been important to me, the joys and frustrations of its construction are part of my memory, evident in the shapes and surfaces of the chair, but never more important than the final product and its relationship to you. I want you to feel better because of my art.
Some may say that sitting comfortably is not the solution to any significant problem—not art.
To be comfortable is not the same as to be complacent. And sitting may not imply labor, but where we are, and how we feel about being there, is as close to a definition of “life” as many of us need. We are all “sitting” on the planet Earth and we need to do what we can to make it something we can feel better about.
Not all art needs to convey warmth and pleasure, but poking yourself in the eye never helped anything.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Asking Stupid Questions

3. Asking Stupid Questions

Throughout our lives we each have an unending variety of questions to ask of one another. Some are brilliant, some are polite, some are useful, some are perfectly routine, and some are stupid. Fear of asking a stupid question can often lead us to remain silent rather than risk embarrassment. We need to better understand what truly is a stupid question.
The most obvious category of stupid question is the one for which you already have the answer. For instance, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?” Or, “You said the wood kiln won’t be cool enough to unload for another three days, can I get my pieces out of it tomorrow for my critique?”
The second category of stupid question is the nonsense question. “How much of Mozart’s music is green?” “If Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had had a child do you think that child would have been a good swimmer?” Or, “I’ve run out of cone ten cones for the kiln sitter, can I put two cone five cones in side-by-side and get the same result?”
A third category is the unnecessary question. “Will class attendance affect my grade?” Or, “Do my pieces have to be finish fired for my critique?”
Pause. Take a deep breath. Not too much now, we don’t want you to get dizzy. Now re-consider your question. Do you already have the answer? Is it a question for which an answer is likely to exist? Is your question useful to the moment?
Keep in mind, usually it’s silence that’s stupid. The safe operation of the studio demands that all good questions be asked and answered. “How do you brick up the kiln door?” “Here, let me show you.”
“How do you add the salt to a salt firing?”
“There are several ways. I’ve had my best results doing it like this, but you should also consider these three other factors.”
You ask the question because you need the answer. Maybe you’re asking again, or asking a second person, because you need to be certain. To work safely and effectively you’re going to need a lot of correct and timely information. Having the maturity and courage to get that information is never stupid.

What's happening here?

The essays I've started with, and will be adding to, are from a collection of ninety-nine essays entitled, "Liberation and Constraint - Ninety-nine Things I Learned Making Pots." Each has a number associated with the title, relating to its alphabetical ranking in the full collection. I hope that as time goes on, questions from readers will lead to fresh essays on new subjects or on unresolved issues in past essays. Thank you for taking the time to be here.