Sunday, November 2, 2008


17. Permission

Permission in this case refers to both the permissions you need from other people and the permissions you have to be able to give to yourself. These latter can often be a matter of each person’s childhood and the forces at work in their development towards adulthood. Some children grow up so liberated it’s a wonder they ever got toilet trained. The rest of us grow up with so many internal and external restrictions that we end up wasting years of adulthood struggling to understand just what we need to be happy.
On a practical level, there are permissions that must be granted to us by external entities. At the University of Iowa, for instance, we had a variety of kilns at our disposal including wood kilns right outside the back door. You could arrange your own firings but you had to talk to a professor about it just to be sure that your plans didn’t conflict with anyone else’s. At the University of Montana at Missoula, while passing through on our way to NCECA in Portland, David Dyche and I noticed a multi-page permission form that had to be signed by several different authorities to be able to use a wood kiln some miles away in the mountains. Same principle but much more difficult conditions.
Of course it’s easy to imagine that after graduate school (when you’ve set up your own studio) you won’t need these same sorts of permissions. Being your own boss will mean your liberation. That may be, but suppose that you’re only renting your first studio. The owner will have to approve of any modifications you make to accommodate a kiln, even if it’s just a small electric kiln. Also, are you within city limits? The city is bound to have an opinion about your plans for a wood-fired salt kiln (or a hammer mill). Are you in the country but under occasional drought and fire hazard restrictions? Certain valleys in Montana no longer permit new housing to include fireplaces or wood stoves because the atmosphere of the valley is already choked by the smoke from the existing homes.
Everywhere you go people have rights which you must take into account while trying to act on your ambitions. What is far less obvious is the extent to which you (and the people you care about) must give permission for you to have those ambitions at all.
For example, in college I had permission from my friends and family to play soccer. A couple of them ribbed me a little for being a ‘jock’ but at that time soccer was an odd enough choice that it showed a little flair to be playing it. On the other hand, I did not have permission to be on the football team. My mother would have worried ceaselessly, the rest of my family would have scorned my choice, and several of my friends would have likely dropped me as a friend. Of course, if I’d really wanted it badly enough, if I’d given myself permission to do it in spite of outside disapproval, I’d have done it anyway. But I didn’t.
I did, however, give myself permission to study art, to go to graduate school, to design and build clay armchairs, to move away after earning an MFA, and to work full time as a studio potter under completely inadequate business conditions. In this regard fools, stubborn bastards, and geniuses have a lot in common. They give themselves permission to act without feeling the need to consult ‘good sense.’
Most of you have gone to school with students for whom it would be unthinkable to live and work as an artist. Perhaps their family background wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps they view it as a waste of a college education. Perhaps they don’t think of themselves as having those talents. You have at least given yourself permission to think about life as an artist. To succeed you will need to give yourself permission to do much more. This may well make you seem a little rude and self-serving from time to time. So be it. Just don’t abuse the privilege and don’t expect everyone to like it. Give them permission to disagree with your choices and try to be polite about it when they do.

“You must tolerate what you allow.” -- Duane Slick, Native American artist

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