Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When the Fish Are Running

94. When the Fish Are Running

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the idea of “running” fish. It may seem as unlikely a thing as a fish ladder but both are indeed real. Salmon, in particular, will migrate in from the sea to swim back upstream to the fresh water riverbeds where they originally hatched. It only happens for a few weeks each year, but when it does fishermen of all sorts, including bears, have a field day. In the nineteenth century the fish ran in such numbers it was said that you could walk from riverbank to riverbank on their backs.
I know a woman who owns a children’s bookstore on Cape Cod and her life bears some similarity to that of an old time salmon fisherman. During the tourist season the streets of her little town are packed, the store has lots of visitors, and the cash register heats up from the constant activity. The same is true for most of the rest of the town. From May to September the fish are running and the local folk have to work ceaselessly to land as many of them as they can before the end of the season. Summer income pays the bills for the entire year.
Once the season has ended, traffic drops off dramatically and some days there are no customers in the bookstore at all. This is the time when you rest, and plan for next year’s season, and make your savings last by living frugally.
It’s no different for potters.
For instance, I have my biggest fair of the year every August in western Pennsylvania. I sell hundreds of pots there. And afterwards, I don’t have a major fair scheduled again until March. I need to do everything in my power to do well at that August fair. Anything I do in September will be too late.
Further, while I’m at the fair I can not afford to be sloppy or inattentive. Sure, I can survive an off year, a poor harvest, but it’s worth my time and effort to do the best job I can with the conditions I’m offered. Slacking off is not an option.
Luckily, I’m not selling bananas or paper products. If the weather turns nasty, or business is slow, my inventory is not ruined. A slow day today just means more inventory for tomorrow or for the next fair. But I don’t want inventory just now. I want sales. I want to travel home light, with lots of happy customers carrying my pots to their homes. I want to have packed my pots for a one-way ride.
Whether you travel to just a few fairs a year or have a full time sales gallery attached to your studio, your customers are only available during business hours and only during those times of the year when it suits their purposes to be buying. Those times are different in Cape Cod than they are in Key West. They are different everywhere.
Study the ‘fish’ you are selling to carefully. Learn how to present your work to them attractively. Plan for their feeding frenzies and be ready when they happen. Learn to live frugally during the lean times and expect to work with extra effort when the money is coming in.
In business, tomorrow is not just another day. Tomorrow is a different day. It may be better or worse. It may be spent driving sixteen hours straight home. If the fish are running today, today is when you fish.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bad Backs

31. Bad Backs

I remember once hearing someone comment that they had a “bad back” and smugly thinking to myself, “glad I don’t have a bad back.” Then I had to pause. I don’t have a bad back. I have a perfectly strong and able back. But I can think of five distinct types of back pain I’ve endured and their separate specific causes. I have a human back, which means it’s imperfect and subject to damage when mistreated.
In the same way you can’t afford to melt down your kiln, or stand on the flywheel of your kickwheel, or slide your van across an icy bridge into a concrete median, you can’t afford to damage your back. It’s a tool, impossible to replace and difficult to repair.
At the 1989 Kansas City NCECA conference David Shaner interrupted his throwing demonstration and completely switched his discussion to the issue of back pain. He had recently been forced to undergo back surgery and showed us strengthening exercises and brought up improved methods of working. His audience was by no means silent on the subject either. Tips, suggestions, and anecdotes fairly flew around the room. It certainly seemed more significant than merely watching a few bowls being thrown would have been.
For the younger members of the audience it may have looked like a lot of geriatric foolishness, but that’s youth for you, resilient, confident, immortal. For the rest of us, I’ll share my list of five back pains and some suggestions for avoiding them.
1) Bent over a wheel too long. Avoid long ‘throwing only’ or ‘trimming only’ work sessions. Stretch periodically and get up to do other chores. If possible, learn to throw standing up with your wheel elevated to an appropriate height.
2) Too much coolie labor. This is simple overuse of the back as a lifting mechanism. Make more trips carrying lighter loads. Break up the work into multiple sessions if possible. Get help. Raw lifting and carrying is inherently unskilled labor and doesn’t need to be done by a highly trained potter. Use your legs. Learn the best physical techniques for lifting. Be smart.
3) Lifting and twisting simultaneously. This is particularly likely in getting heavy items out of a car’s backseat or trunk. Removing the benches from a van presents a risk for this, too. Try to avoid these situations. If you can’t, stretch first and move carefully. Don’t get distracted.
4) General anxiety. Just worrying can set up a particular and recognizable backache. Stretch out. Reevaluate your problems. Do something enjoyable. Relax. Find reasons for laughter.
5) Worrying about money. This is very much like the general anxiety backache but sharper and in its own distinctive location. Be careful with money. Cultivate income while resisting out-go. Some would recommend using a budget, but that implies that you can predict a certain regular income and if you’re self-employed as a potter you can’t predict any such thing. Instead carefully prioritize the use of the money that does come in. Try to relax. Learn to enjoy paying your bills.

I’m sure that there are many additional variations on the sore back, but you get the idea. Take measures to protect yourself. Roberta Lampert, an Iowa alum (and nothing like a lumberjack), specifically invested in an expensive de-airing pug mill to save her back from the strains of wedging. She figures it will add ten years to her career. [The late] Richard Peeler threw six thousand pots a year and figured that sit-down potters waste a lot of time and energy getting up and down from their wheels. He averaged 26 pots a day at a stand-up wheel and never just threw all of them at the same time. Varying his work chores kept him flexible, strong, and productive. Jun Kaneko uses electric cranes and hoists to minimize the weight he personally lifts in building even his most massive sculptures. Money and intelligence can be substituted for physical strength.
Perhaps you do just have a bad back. Maybe it “went bad” in your youth, long before clay could be labeled the culprit. You may just have to limit your efforts, or seek surgery, or acupuncture, or chiropractors, or yoga, or any of the countless other strategies in the world of pain management. You have my sympathies. The solutions will be up to you.
If, as yet, your back is still ‘good,’ congratulations! I’ve given you some advice for keeping it that way. I hope it helps. Take good care of your tools. Some of them can not be replaced. Use good techniques, good work habits, labor-saving equipment, and assistants (if necessary) to protect yours now while you still have your best chance of succeeding.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Recommended Reading

43. Recommended Reading

Graduate school can involve a lot of reading. I remember one semester in particular in which the class list of recommended books available at the University Bookstore had a total price tag of three hundred and sixty dollars. We confronted our teacher with this outrageous fact and he responded rather benignly, “I don’t actually expect anyone to buy them all. But they’re all worth owning.” We each went back and bought what we could afford. (I don’t know how many the bookstore wound up returning to the distributor, but they must have found our teacher’s methods quite disappointing, if not infuriating.)
Nonetheless, I did come out of graduate school with a lot of books on Ceramics and received even more when my mother-in-law, a former potter, gave me her library during a move to a smaller house. I love them all and still use them for reference questions or just to fill idle moments with pictures of good pots. But I haven’t actually read them all. A horrible confession, I know.
I’m willing to make such a dire admission in part because I know that I’m not alone in this flaw. A lot of potters own books they haven’t read. In some cases, the writing itself is to blame. In others, the subjects covered are only partially of interest and we tend to only pay attention to those things that bear an immediate importance to our own work.
So be it. I don’t expect the readers of my essays to be any different. Some essays will seem to be a waste of time, others (I most fervently hope) will provide the insight or spark to be valuable for years to come. Of course, no one can predict the preferences of other people.
I do have two recommendations to make here on the subject of reading. The first is just to make time for reading in your day, even if it’s only a few minutes every night before you drop off to sleep. This is not just because my mother is a librarian. Reading stirs up your brain in ways that movies and TV don’t. Thanks to public library books on tape, I can also “read” while in the studio making pots. In fact, thanks to unabridged literature on cassette tapes the potential exists for artists and long haul truck drivers to become the best read people in our culture. What an opportunity to shatter stereotypes!
My second recommendation is of a particular book and I do so knowing that you’d never encounter it otherwise and that it doesn’t involve playing favorites among the many fine ceramics books available today. The book is called, “Musashi,” by the Japanese novelist Eiji Yoshikawa. It briefly admires the work of potters, but it chiefly follows the twisting paths to self-improvement of Minamoto Musashi and a half dozen other characters. Musashi, the finest swordsman in the history of Japan, and himself the author of, “The Book of Five Rings,” marvelously illustrates the demands for discipline and decision-making required equally of warrior and artist.
The superbly produced hardbound edition runs to 970 pages. (You must learn to conquer your fear.) It was originally published in a serial format, I believe by the Sunday Tokyo Times, and the stories move along with many dramatic twists and surprises. Certainly the students of mine who have read the book have been improved, not only by the stories told but by the confidence they gain in being able to say, “done,” to a volume of such majesty. It is indeed an achievement.
I leave you with the following quoted passage from page 926.

“I wouldn’t call Musashi ordinary.”
“But he is. That’s what’s extraordinary about him. He’s not content with relying on whatever natural gifts he may have. Knowing he’s ordinary, he’s always trying to improve himself. No one appreciates the agonizing effort he’s had to make. Now that his years of training have yielded such spectacular results, everybody’s talking about his ‘god-given talent.’ That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Telling Stories

90. Telling Stories

Once upon a time, a student of ceramics happened to be throwing a pot and was having some difficulty. Aside from the usual challenges associated with throwing a tallish sort of pot, he was nervous. You see, he had an audience, a young woman who would later become his ex-wife.
She asked, “Does my watching make you nervous?”
He agreed that it did.
“Too bad. If you’re going to ever work teaching other people how to do this you’d better get used to people watching you.”
He had to admit her point and persevered.
Years later, a student asked him, “Do you want us to not look at the clay while we’re pulling it up?”
Apparently he had been showing off by maintaining eye contact with his (now much larger) audience while demonstrating throwing. He apologized and assured them that they should, by all means, watch the clay when they were throwing.
Learning about ceramics is not just about reading books and manipulating clay. For beginning students it may be enough to be shown the physical skills required for handbuilding and throwing, but for more advanced students to learn the broader lessons and skills of ceramics, stories must be told. (If you’re naturally shy about this sort of thing you’ll just have to get over it.)
This is one of those areas where experience confers so many advantages. Not only are there a wider selection of stories to choose from (your own as well as those told to you by others), you’ve had more practice at telling them. The same practice that makes you a better potter also makes you better at telling the stories about the making of pots. Of course, this may require a particularly tolerant spouse since the spouse often ends up hearing the stories over and over again.
Furthermore it’s not just a teacher’s students who need to hear stories. Part of what makes a handmade pot more personal for the buyer is knowing something about the maker. Even just the small talk of a day at the Fair is going to demand much more from you than, “Yes, Ma’am,” and “No, Ma’am.”
“So, you’re from Kansas? That’s certainly a long way to come. How was your drive?”
You could just answer, “Fine.” But what if your van caught fire in the mountains of West Virginia and you had to crawl under it to put it out, but the fire extinguisher was mysteriously empty, so you used water instead, and when you yelled to the kids to get away from the van you heard them reply from way up the slope along the road, “We already have, Dad”? Or maybe you miscalculated your timing and drove across the George Washington bridge into New York City at five p.m. on a Friday afternoon, bumper-to-bumper, bouncing along through the potholes with your eight year-old son gleefully bouncing around in the back of the van, asking you to go faster, like it was some sort of amusement park ride? Or maybe you just took a side trip at Flagstaff to let both son and daughter stare in amazement at the Grand Canyon for the first time. (“Kids, this is what can happen when erosion gets really out of hand.”) Don’t little stories like that give your customer more value than just a pot and the word, “Fine”?
Many of us in our culture are starved for story material. Think about all of those men who would have nothing to talk about at all if it weren’t for sports. I’ve even had a fellow tell me about his restaurant dinner the night before, and what he ordered, and what he usually orders, and why they go to that particular Mexican restaurant because they’re related to the people who run the other restaurants, and there’s this feud that’s been going on for years (though no one can remember what started it), and if you’re a relative, and you go to one of those other restaurants, it means you’re picking sides.
Jeesh! Please, give these people something better to talk about!
Thinking of food, though, reminds me of the last Art Department pig roast, when the pans collecting the grease under the pig (all of it inside a big, gas kiln) caught fire, and they thought for a moment that the whole building was going to go, and…well…perhaps some other time.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sacred Grandparents

44. Sacred Grandparents

Each of us has literal, biological grandparents whether or not they still live, whether or not we ever met them. For many of us we see our grandparents most in the influences they had in creating our parents. We may not even know that this mannerism or that speech pattern in our parents is a direct quote from the generation before. Something similar is true with ceramics teachers.
My college art professors were in some ways like parents to me. They were older role models and taskmasters and, in a previous century, I might have been the dutiful son learning from them the family business. Indeed the woman who first taught ceramics to my wife and me is still referred to as “Ma” (but please don’t tell her I said so.) This effect may be even more pronounced at the graduate level where the student is much more likely to have chosen the program specifically because of its faculty, and has a much more intense experience with that faculty.
If we think then of our instructors as being of the previous generation, metaphorically, since physical age is not being considered here, then that generation’s instruction came from our “grandparents.” For instance, both Chuck Hindes and Kirk Mangus studied with Norm Schulman. To the extent I learn from them, I am also learning from him, without necessarily knowing what aspects of their teaching are just an extension or distillation of his teaching.
By this thinking, when I learn from Bunny McBride I also get some David Shaner, and from Clary Illian or Warren Mackenzie we get Bernard Leach.
I first noticed this process (and started using the honorific, “sacred grandfather”) in graduate school, and the “sacred” seemed to fit for several reasons. For some of us Bernard Leach or Michael Cardew are literally “grandfather,” and I add “sacred” to disclaim that distinction. None of my grandparents were artists of any type. Second, these great teachers hold a semi-mystical place in the history of contemporary American ceramics. Their influence has been spiritual for some people and that magical element should not be ignored. And third, they have become praiseworthy to such a degree that one criticizes any of them at one’s peril. Even those with obvious and documented faults and foibles are protected by the dignity of their reputations. Like the alcoholism of Jackson Pollock or the amorous misadventures of Picasso the faults of these artists pale beside the accomplishments of their careers.
Once an artist has risen to “sacred grandparent” status there’s simply not much point in bringing up their flaws. Either people don’t want to hear it, or they see those flaws as romantic, or they see them as grounds for indulging their own less than praiseworthy impulses. We may praise our grandparents for being good artists, or we may praise them for their teaching, but their qualities as people (blurred by time and distance) are no longer relevant.
As the teachers of our teachers, the “sacred grandparents” are an undeniable part of what we give to our own students. Their work is our tradition. Just as eventually, ours will be the tradition of generations to come. We are more connected to each other than we realize.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Pious Potter

41. The Pious Potter

For many potters clay is either a romance or an addiction. Listen to enough stories about “how I got into clay” and the words “love” and “addicted” will come up over and over again. What is less obvious, even to the potters themselves, is the degree to which they believe in clay. For many of them, it is their religion, the source of their spiritual strength, their standard for good in an otherwise evil world.
I first started joking about the religion of ceramics while in graduate school. Grad school became “the seminary” with each of us students subject to our own vows of poverty, obedience, and (in some cases) celibacy. There we were, walled up away from the common world, learning our lessons, studying the catechisms of our theology. Good shows or museum collections became temples or shrines, as did the studios of great potters. Those potters too served as our saints (regardless of their personalities) and the most noteworthy ceramics programs became cathedral schools. Graduation would be our ordination.
Of course, like actual clerics, not all of our devout priests are destined for a bishop’s mitre, and many will never even find themselves a parish of their own. From local arts centers, to community colleges, to small liberal arts colleges, to Art Institutes and universities, the parishes vary in prestige and importance. Freshly ordained, you may have to settle for a drab parish, perhaps in a small out-of-the-way or undesirable location. Or you may wander as an itinerant, giving workshops, for instance, or working a variety of technical assistant jobs. Or you may just settle down as a hermit, letting your pots be your meditations and your customers your flock.
It’s a field of discussion that’s all pretty humorous until you get to the issues of fundamentalism, profound faith, and heresy. “Heresy?” you ask. Yes, heresy, with all the anger and intolerance that word implies. People get emotional.
One of my favorite petty heresies is summed up by the phrase, “It’s just dirt.” I use this to encourage my students to take chances and to not worry about mistakes and failures. (Personally, I found precious metals so inhibiting (simply on a cost per failure basis) I came dangerously close to flunking Jewelry class as an undergraduate.)
As art materials go, clay is cheap, and whatever magical things can come of it, it’s nothing to be intimidated by, not even…[hushed anticipation]…porcelain. But don’t repeat that too loudly around the true believers.
Now, before I get too far with this bashing of people’s emotional and spiritual connections to clay, I must confess to my own foolish passions and lifestyle of faith. I have been the devoted hermit laboring away in seclusion and poverty. I have driven six and a half hours with greenware to be part of a friend’s wood kiln firing. I have found myself pulling handles at two a.m. when I had been barely awake at ten p.m. I spent a semester commuting to teach a Ceramics I class when I was already working twelve hours a day on a Night Shift job. One of my favorite family pictures is of my son, age eight, stoking a wood kiln. And I think of artists married to non-artists as being in “mixed” marriages and inherently less likely to avoid divorce.
So I am a believer, and yet I am a heretic. I make life-sized clay armchairs; comfortable, and durable, and yet somehow wrong. I’ve seen the looks on people’s faces. I’ve noticed their refusals to sit down. To some of my fellow potters I have done what should not be done. And now I am writing about things which, perhaps, should not be written about.
I suppose that’s one of the advantages to being a hermit. The luxuries others might deny you you have already denied yourself. Those who might wish to ostracize you can not add to your solitude. And always there are the pots to keep you “grounded” and “centered.” Keep smiling. It’s just dirt.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Student and Scholar

89. Student and Scholar

In his 1959 novel, “Dorsai!” the author Gordon R. Dickson makes an important distinction between students and scholars. To paraphrase, ‘a student has read some of what has been written on a particular subject, a scholar has read all of what has been written on a particular subject.’ English colleges still refer to a student’s course of study as the subject the student is reading. Authority within an intellectual community derives in part from scholarship, this professional certainty that a fellow professor’s knowledge of a subject is unsurpassed in depth and breadth.
In Ceramics, or any other studio art, we don’t really put much emphasis on reading. In the limited time available to us in graduate school we’ve got a lot of physical skills and practical experiences to go through. Furthermore, in spite of the burgeoning number of books and articles available on the subject of ceramic art only a fraction of what is written will be immediately relevant to this artist’s teapots or that artist’s sculptures. Only a supremely well-read professor would be able to direct a student’s reading time for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. It’s also a common understanding in the studio arts that excessive intellectualizing is suspect, and likely to ruin the physical creativity of any artist. The student who reads things other than picture captions may well be ridiculed or teased for doing so. The student who spends too much time reading will simply be urged to ‘spend more time on your pots.’ So, true scholarship is not likely to occur in graduate school.
No, scholarship is only possible after decades of conscientious independent work and only a very few individuals will ever achieve it. I admit I’m hard pressed to think of a dozen luminaries of our profession who might even be thought to be on that path.
It’s one of the weak points of our current university-based system. Our “terminally educated” professors have too often terminated their own educations and when toe-to-toe with the professors from more rigorously demanding fields fall short on educational authority. It’s a fight we can almost never win and the other departments know it, because it’s a fight our interests and expectations don’t prepare us for. They have brilliance and scholarship, we have creativity, artistry, and pragmatism. Administrative respect for those things comes slowly, if at all, and as a result studio art faculty often find themselves in a second rate role, dismissed as being less worthy than instructors in other disciplines.
The best tactic that I can suggest for minimizing this problem is to steadfastly resist complacency. Be active in your profession. Read, yes, but also travel. Spend time with distant colleagues. Push your own work in directions that demand research and adaptation. Solve technical problems. Read as much as you have time for, and even if you’ll never be a true scholar, refuse to ever stop being an active student.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Biped Rat

34. The Biped Rat

After many years of observing graduate students, I worked up the following story to illustrate the developmental stages of the typical M.F.A. student and some of their potential consequences. Of course, not all graduate school professors use the same techniques and, as always, “individual results may vary.”
In spite of the thoroughness of the grad school application process most professors know very little about their new graduate students. Each student is assumed to have a broad knowledge of issues and techniques as well as the focused expertise that created their application portfolio. However, that portfolio is ancient history now and it’s time to move on.
Let’s say the new student starts out wanting to work on teapots. Perhaps the application work involved a clever series of pitchers. Teapots involve many of the same issues but demand greater skill and sophistication, a good choice. The work begins.
No matter how good the results may be grad school is not about praise. It’s about criticism and a constant poking at anything which might be improved. After a while, the teapots stop seeming like such a good idea and the concept teapot becomes unbearable. The student shifts to ewers. After ewers, amphoras, and so on. In the middle of this, predictably, is the “why am I in grad school” period of doubt and despair.
In this way, through an unrelenting negativity and the student’s increasingly desperate search for success and approval, the student starts a series of Byzantine dog dishes. This time when the criticisms come, as they must, the student has no choice. The deadlines for degree completion are upon them. The student rises up on its hind legs like a cornered rat and, hissing its defiance, says, “No, it’s perfect. It’s just as it ought to be. It completely matches the originality of my vision and purpose.”
The professor shakes the student’s hand, more or less congratulates them on now being a biped, and within a matter of weeks the new MFA is out on the streets with their personal esteem bound to the successful creation of Byzantine dog dishes. They experience a perverse blend of confusions combining “how did I get here?” with “what do I do now?” and “why am I next to this hideous dog dish?” No wonder so many new MFA’s never work in clay again.
There are several lessons to be learned here. First, you don’t go to grad school to make more of what you already know how to make. Get over it. Expect to be working on unfamiliar problems and expect to have your failures noticed. Second, pick good problems to work on. Nothing too small, but also nothing so extreme that you can’t possibly achieve worthwhile results by the time of your thesis show. Third, give yourself a full year for your thesis problem and be prolific that year. These will be your job search portfolio pieces. They will also be your self-esteem for years to come. And finally, learn to critique (your own work as well as others). But don’t forget to praise as well. Few professors will ever feel that it is their place to hold your hand and sweet talk you through grad school. Don’t expect it. But neither should you be going through grad school completely alone. Learn from and support your fellow grad students. Teach each other and help each other to make sustainable choices. Don’t be shy about praising what is praiseworthy, and when it comes time to truly defend your own work, make it work worth defending.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Minutes in Between

15. The Minutes in Between

The difference between success and failure can be something as simple and basic as time management. As an undergraduate, especially the first few years, I was horrible at this. My grades and my stress levels suffered needlessly.
For example, I remember saying, “You’re not really behind until you’re two weeks behind.” Also, “No point in studying now, there’re only forty-five minutes left until dinner.” By the time I left graduate school, I could make productive use of a spare five minutes.
I don’t mean to imply by this that I had my nose to the grindstone every minute of the day. Far from it. A rough sketch of my graduate school routine starts with taking kids to daycare and wife to her job by eight in the morning. Park the car and walk to the ceramics studio. Classes and studio time until it was time to get the car (4:50), the wife (5:00), and the kids (5:15). Some evenings I would return to campus, particularly if a kiln needed my attention or I had work to do in the foundry. Weekends, too, could be busy, but I wasn’t in the studio all the time. I just used my studio time to good effect. Much of that is as simple as knowing how long it takes to do the various things you do as a graduate student (and later as a self-employed potter). If I may suggest:
First, don’t give yourself unreasonable workloads. I completed an undergraduate double major in four years by never taking more than two writing courses or two studio courses in the same semester. When you diversify, your one set of chores will serve as a break from the other. You flex different physical and intellectual muscles, and that makes your work more interesting and you less likely to burnout.
Second, use a calendar. I have a three month planner on the wall and a two year planner in my coat pocket. Watch out for congestion (too many things due or happening at the same time) and prerequisites (things which must be finished before other things can be started).
Third, not all time is equal, especially with clay. The two hours spent trimming pots when they are perfectly ready to be trimmed are far more valuable than any four hours when the pots are either too wet or too dry to be trimmed. Certain jobs require timing not just time.
Fourth, know how long it really takes to do things. I’m still pretty bad at predicting how long it will take to do some things. A “half hour” of errand running may keep me away from the studio for three or four times that long. This sort of miscalculation can really tear up a tightly planned schedule and test the patience and humor of one’s spouse. Pay attention. How long does it take to do all the things you do, the big and the small, the way that you want to do them?
Fifth, everything counts. Taking a few minutes to pay the phone bill is as much a part of your total workload as hours spent throwing coffee mugs. In the ten minutes available before your next time commitment (whether that’s a lecture or a lunch), fit in a small chore that you then won’t have to do later.
Sixth, do it now and then it’s done. Planning to do things, updating calendars and writing out “to do” lists take time. It’s time well spent, but you can minimize that expenditure by finishing things which, personal satisfaction aside, then don’t have to be planned for.
Seventh, give yourself open ended work periods. It’s all well and good to budget one hour and fifteen minutes for pulling handles or two hours for throwing bowls, but you also need unconstrained time. So you go into the studio at eight p.m. and absent-mindedly end up working until three a.m. Good for you. You may need a nap the next day and an alarm clock in the morning, but creative energy is precious and not to be walled in or summoned at will.
And finally, don’t dither. Sitting around trying to decide what to do or not wanting to do what’s on the schedule wastes both time and spirit. Sometimes, as a mature person, you will simply have to force yourself to do the unpleasant chore or several unpleasant chores, but not all the time and not everyday. Do something. Understand the wide variety of things you need to get done, the large and the small, and make good use of the minutes in between.

Monday, December 22, 2008


14. Minimalism

Minimalism in Art History refers to the simplification of images and forms in an attempt to seek ‘essences’ and to eliminate distracting details and embellishment. Under the banner “Less is More” some interesting work has been made and many long discussions instigated. Unfortunately, for many art students (and indeed professionals in every academic field) the banner has been changed to, “Less Work Is More Fun.” Everywhere you go there are people just wanting to ‘get by’ on the least amount of effort possible.
I once started a semester with a fellow student who wanted to know what he had to do to get a ‘C’ in the class. I was shocked, and asked, “Don’t you want to at least try for a ‘B’?” No, apparently he was a struggling Chemistry major whose upcoming semester was going to be particularly tough. Just to survive in his required work he was going to have to shortchange his Ceramics class. I had to feel sorry for him and just wish him the best.
It may be that something similar is happening with a lot of academics. Their time and talents are being over-stretched and just to survive they’re having to cut corners and leave things undone. I know how it happens but it’s hard to approve of it.
We can not do everything in this life that other people might want us to do but we ought to work honestly and in a way that permits us to accept challenges. Pay attention to the commitments you establish for yourself. How many classes have you enrolled in and how many of them are studio classes? Your teachers won’t be cutting you any special deals because you’re over-booked and sleep-deprived. They can only judge you by your results with the the work assignedassignments. Everyone else evaluates you in the same way. If you have a family, your spouse and children will judge you by the time you spend with them. If you have a job, or an assistantship, you are just another employeeno one really cares whether or not you have a great personality. As an employee you just need to get the work done. Someone whoseYour work and work habits are either good or bad.(fragment) If you schedule yourself to do more than you can handle, too much more, your results will be unsatisfactory, perhaps even unacceptable.
Hard-working virtuous people often set themselves up with too much to do. It happens. But we also have plain ol’ slackers among us. These self-serving lazy-bones go to school, and stay in school, simply to avoid “real work.” Their childhoods may not have prepared them for dedicated effort. Their personal pleasures may be too compelling and too time-consuming. They may be members of a sub-species that simply does not mature as quickly as regular humans. Whatever the cause of their apparent sloth they are generally poor company.
The inactivity and inattentiveness of the true slacker makes them an irritant in a shared studio. Their complacent attitude makes them seem irreverent and somehow disrespectful of the enterpriseartistic process, but as college students they a’re in the class voluntarily. There are Ccertain levels of effort and respect are basic.
If a person wants (or needs) to take a Mminimalist approach to their study of ceramics, fine. They will make poor objects and receive a poor grade, but I can’t claim that doing poorly in an art class will ruin their life. It may, however, interfere with the quality of the class for the rest of the group. Pieces that blow up in the kiln often destroy the work of nearby innocent bystanders. Glazes that get mixed incorrectly get turned into mysterious new formulations completely unlike the test tiles other students were relying on. Bad attitudes and verbal trash can ruin the calm and focus of people trying diligently to master difficult skills. A student who never bothers to learn the difference between low fire and high fire clays and glazes…well, disastrous.
Every person who chooses to make a second rate effort still has certain basic responsibilities to the rest of the class. They may not be passionate about clay, or three-dimensional design, or art at all. Not everyone can be. But they need to know enough and care enough to share the studio space safely with the people who are making an honest effort. A condition of mutual respect really is the least that we can demand of one another and ourselves.
It’s not up to me or any other teacher to require ask that every student fall in love with the subject matter. But we’d like for every student to be mature enough to be polite and to be a safe member of the shared studio. It also helps to know that the reluctant ceramicist is short on time because they are dedicated to the study of something else. Teachers want to believe that every student is improving themselves in some direction and is in college in part to find and prepare for their life’s work.
You may not believe in art or in clay but, please, believe in your own value to the group. Do more than the minimum. None of us exist to merely serve as bit characters in other people’s stories. Be a protagonist. Be heroic.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Making Clay

97. Making Clay

Every profession has its jargon, and Ceramics, being an older profession, has more than its share. “Throwing pots,” and “firing kilns” are common enough, but some people may also wonder about the phrase “making clay.”
No one actually makes clay. Clay is made of microscopic flakes of rock, shaped something like playing cards. The planet just makes clay as part of the natural weathering of rock. Because the parent rocks vary, and the travels of the particles vary, no two clays are exactly the same. Each deposit has an individual combination of particle size, physical purity, texture, color, and temperature range. For potters, this provides both an opportunity and a problem.
The problem is that clay from a single deposit is only rarely suitable for making pots. Often the clay matures (vitrifies) at too low a temperature or cracks too easily or shrinks too much. Maybe its trace impurities give it an undesirable color. The complete range and subtlety of native clays are beyond numbering.
However, the opportunity exists for the potter to alter one clay by combining it with another clay. Each clay then moderates the properties of the other. Of course, more than two clays can be used and this leads to the use of “clay body recipes.” These recipes are often exchanged and collected by potters in the same way that cooks exchange and collect food recipes. Each clay body (clay of a specific mixture) has known properties to meet known needs. The process of mixing the individual clays together to create the final clay body is what potters refer to as “making clay.”
For potters working in different cultures, making clay involves many different techniques. Most spend a lot of time digging it out of the ground, pulverizing, drying, slaking (mixing with water to a thin soup consistency), sieving out the twigs and pebbles, and eventually letting the best of what they started with dry into a consistency for making pots. Few observers pause to consider the labor that takes place before the lump of clay can be made into a pot. It is one of those unseen parts of the job.
To make our clay, we buy finely powdered clays from mines all across the country and have them shipped to us. Rather than arriving by dumptruck or wheelbarrow, the clay comes in paper bags, like dog food, each bag weighing fifty or a hundred pounds. Stacked neatly on wooden pallets, several tons can be quickly removed from the delivery truck and stored inside by fork-lift. For most ingredients the total cost is less than fifteen cents per pound.
To mix a particular recipe, the measured amounts (measured by weight) are emptied into an old industrial dough mixer and thoroughly combined. This is dusty, physical work, requiring ventilation systems, dust masks, strong bodies, and a certain willingness to get dirty. Once mixed dry, water is added and mixed in to create the desired consistency (firm or soft).
The recipe I most often use involves APGreen Fireclay (white bags with green lettering), Goldart (a bright yellow bag marked “Cedar Heights”], Ball Clay (a dull brown bag marked simply “OM4,” for “Old Mine #4”), Redart (a bright red bag), powdered Silica (often called “Flint,” in a blue and white bag), and so on. A normal batch makes about three hundred pounds of throwing clay, the amount of clay a hard-working professional potter might make into pots in a single morning.
Making clay is not a lot of fun—I don’t know anyone who looks forward to the chore—but it has its peculiar pleasures. Feeling the clay flow out of the bags, observing each clay’s individual character, listening to the mixer churn away while the dust ventilator howls, watching the mixed (and aerated) clay swirl and flow like quicksand, pouring in just the right amount of water for perfect throwing clay, none of these are glamorous pleasures. Nonetheless, to make pots you must first have clay.
Once a fellow student/potter spoke to me about his dislike of glazing. It, too, can be a messy job and physically tiring. But the comment got me thinking about all the little jobs that go into finishing the big job. Especially in ceramics, people judge the work by a small part of the total activity. Many people have no idea of what happens before or after a pot is thrown on a wheel. Perhaps they know a little about glaze, and that the pots are fired in a kiln, but most know little more than that, and nothing of the subtleties. Clearly, the more they know about the process, the better their understanding is of the final product.
This principle holds true for any profession from doctor and lawyer, through professor and business executive, to truck driver, farmer, or garbage collector. Each of us has an image in our mind of what these jobs entail, and each of us is more or less drawn to such work based on that image. But few of us really understand the practical needs and aesthetics of each job.
For instance, every Spring I fancy myself a gardener, imagining the pleasures of delicious vegetables and beautiful plants. Each Spring I dutifully re-kindle the dream, putting behind me all my past failures. I plant my little garden of hope and wait to see how things will turn out. But I don’t really understand how to prepare the soil, or fertilize, or even properly arrange the different types of plants. There are thousands of tiny little considerations which I fail to see. I don’t even have the proper temperament for long hours of weeding and watering and spotting little problems. I want the results, not the process.
Unfortunately, the world of work is about process. The final results, in any field, are a simple matter of necessity, and most often, nothing more than yesterday’s news. All the little jobs are what the work is really about, and what the professional must find satisfaction in, in order to continue.
So, I thought about my friend who hated glazing and I thought about all the parts of being a potter, from the heavy lifting and dust of making clay to the long hours and emotional displacements of selling the pots. Some jobs I just enjoyed, like making the pots, and getting them out of the final kiln firing, and using them in my own life. Other jobs, making clay, mixing glazes, firing kilns, I didn’t really look forward to, but seemed to enjoy while I was doing them. And finally, I decided that I didn’t really “hate” any of the jobs of being a potter. For me, it was all worthwhile and interesting. It was that realization, many years ago, that convinced me that my interest in ceramics had serious career potential. I knew that my ambition could not just be a matter of ‘employment opportunities’ or ‘starting salaries.’ It had to be a job (in all its parts) that I could do with real satisfaction.
Since that time, I’ve noticed other people who seem to enjoy (even while complaining) all the little jobs of their work. Each of these people seems calmer, more relaxed, and more self-confident than their somewhat disillusioned peers. They are at peace with their professions.
Of course, enjoying something, even in all its parts, does not automatically make you good at it. However, improvement in anything requires attention, patience, and the stamina to continue beyond the inevitable mistakes and failures. Without an enjoyment of the process, a love of the most unlikely things, the only emotion which can see you through to mastery is cold stubbornness.
I tell myself, with each new garden, perhaps this year’s crop will be better. And in time, perhaps I will learn to enjoy all the little jobs in the garden, and the results will then take care of themselves. One must always start with the basics, the smallest parts, the unseen chores, the grubby jobs—like making clay, and the potential to combine all those elements into something worthwhile.

Friday, December 19, 2008


4. Conversations

I have been appalled over the years by students who seemed to be avoiding conversations with each other and with their professors. I understand that idle talk can interfere with getting objects made but the information you pick up and share in chance conversations can be just as valuable as the stuff you get in class lectures. More so, in some cases.
Consider for a moment the diversity of experience presented by a typical group of graduate students. While each student knows less about the profession than their professor, each knows many things unknown to their fellow students and several things unknown to the teacher. Each student has their own body of knowledge from their own individual backgrounds. This one has tips on salt firing, and that one has childhood experiences of Warren MacKenzie as a family friend. This one is particularly good at pulling handles off the pot and that one has useful stories from job interviews and conferences. It all gets added to the mix and becomes your own particular body of knowledge and part of the shared heritage of that group of graduate students.
Early in my grad school experience our studios were set up in such a way that I could work in my studio while talking with the student in the next space. The student one further down the line was out of earshot. Later, as the same space held more bodies and more studios, this easy system broke down. More people wanted in on the conversation, which was good, but we would all end up standing in one studio, just to be heard and understood, and no one could get any work made until the conversation had been exhausted. It ate up more time, but they were still great conversations and a big part of what I miss these days being out on my own as a studio potter.
I could never have enjoyed the system they used at that time in the Painting Department. Each student there had their own room with a door and a lock and many chose to lock themselves in while they worked. Perhaps they preferred a private dialogue with their paints, but from the results I saw I’d say they’d have benefited from more articulate conversations with strangers off the street.
Your education will not come to you on photocopied sheets of paper or through the memorization of textbooks. Most of what you learn will be from pots and potters, and not on any set schedule either. You have to be open to information at all times and from any source.
This is one of the least controllable and most overlooked elements in creating a good graduate ceramics program. How many other graduate students are there in the program and what do they bring with them to the discussion? How will they be a valuable part of your education? And what will you be contributing to theirs?
We in ceramics are a talkative, non-secretive, mutually supportive bunch. Expect your school experiences to reflect that reality and resist any impulses to isolate yourself or to “not bother” your professors outside of class time. It may not be a substitute for making pots but neither should conversation ever be thought of as a waste of time. Conversation is how we thrive.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Break from the Pattern

Today I'm going to respond to current events, for a change. So far, I've been posting essays from a group I wrote several years ago. Entitled, "Liberation and Constraint -- Ninety-Nine Things I Learned Making Pots", the collection has yet to be published in any useful way and I started this blog, in part, to correct that. Yesterday though, two different sources brought up the idea of self-examination. The first, French Fancy, introduced me to the idea of a 'meme' posting, addressing a series of leading phrases. The second, a friend and former student, asked a group of us, "if you could flip a switch and be doing your dream job, what would it be?" So here I go.

My ex was five years older than me and put up with a lot during our thirteen plus years as a couple. Not that I was evil, nor did she do it without complaint. Indeed, she became increasingly venomous and the last few years were quite a grey period for me. She has had two bouts of stroke and been diagnosed with diabetes since our divorce and is now full time in a nursing home. I have not seen her since just before the second stroke as I consider myself a risk factor for further strokes. I hear a little of her from my parents and our grown son. We also have a grown daughter.

Maybe I should have been much more assertive in my youth. I got a lot done, but not enough of it put money in my pocket or addressed my career(s) with any urgency. Perhaps it was a lack of confidence, or an excess of politeness, or a naive faith in a slow-and-steady progress towards a worthwhile destiny. Ah, destiny.

I love audience approval, particularly of the surprised variety. Even becoming an artist in college surprised my parents and I loved that. The problem is that it's a buzz that wears off fairly quickly. I also love it when my students (ceramics, martial arts) do really well. I love competence, particularly when I had a hand in creating it.

People would say that I'm a nice guy but not really a success. Maybe I'm wrong about that (both). I know people in so many different ways that I don't know that anyone sees more than three or four facets of my existence and personality. To my dismay, I recently found out that some people totally misunderstood me, and I no longer work at that job as a result.

But really I think that I am both far safer than anyone fears and potentially more mysterious than anyone imagines. And again, I should probably just bull on and not worry so much about it.

I don't understand how people get from childhood to adult states of competence. How many types of secret knowledge get passed around. For instance, there's a mixed race kid in Hawaii and a little over thirty years later he is President Elect of the United States, with every indication that he may be one of our best ever. How does that happen? What do I have to do to still make a success of my life, or am I right on track for a very individual journey of my own? At this point, if I'm ever an "overnight success" it will have been after thirty years or more of work.

When I wake up in the morning I prefer to do it slowly. I don't often get my wish, though I no longer dash like I did when I was younger. I'm not cranky, but I probably look a mess.

I lost something, I'm sure, but I can't remember what now, and that's probably a defense mechanism. I try not to harbor grudges or collect old hurts, but they're there.

My past is sometimes mysterious to me, particularly parts of my grey period. I'm not sure I can remember a single identifying moment from 1993, for instance. Other things are still marvelously vivid and I'm generally known as a story teller. Lately though, I've found myself making a distinction between remembering stories, and remembering the moments those stories describe, if you get my meaning.

Parties are something I'm consciously trying to get better at, both as host and as guest. I've known two women now who always threw tremendous parties with great attendance and I marvel at the ability. One of my career paths is in Museums, and parties there are the lifeblood of the institution. If your parties are a failure, likely your museum will soon be a failure, too.

I wish I were back on good terms with my grown daughter. She's in graduate school in New Mexico now and hasn't spoken to me in a couple of years. She's a good woman but shares her mother's self-destructive capacity for anger.

Dogs are something I run into at other people's houses. I know there's at least one in my future, but not soon. I had one as a teenager and wasn't ready for it. Even now, the whole "poop management" aspect has no appeal. But generally they like me and I like them.

Cats are what we have now, an orange long-hair named "Rutile" [pronounced, ROO teal], and a black and white (currently on my lap) named "Pepito." Both are fairly young and active and friendly. My wife is particularly good at training cats (always neutered males) to be gentlemen and good roommates. I marvel at the monster cats that other people make themselves servants to. In the past, she had the best old gentleman cat, Fidel, and I've had good ones myself, "Binx", and "Digger."

Tomorrow I need to trim and put handles on the many pots I'm due to start when I finish here. I also need to ready the car for an eight hour drive Saturday to visit family in the boot-heel of Missouri. Our family gathers roughly every two or three years, not always at Christmas. It'll be three grandparents, six parents, and seven first cousins, including the two youngest, flown in from Norway.

I have a low tolerance for incompetence. I'm not actually a perfectionist, ceramics runs contrary to that, but typos in professional publications! people on the radio who hem, and haw, and stutter!? I also don't watch broadcast TV or cable any more, and when I do, usually when staying at a motel, the noise and intrusiveness and fear-mongering really put me off.

If I had a million pounds I might move to the UK, for where better might one spend it? No, I value friends, and place, and my house too much. I'd pay off my debts, my wife's debts, my parents' debts, and my children's debts and then put the rest away and try to act (aside from vacations to the UK) like no such money existed.

I am totally terrified of the sort of torture where they snip bits off your body, even just an earlobe. I would make a terrible spy. I would bury them in information, stories about everything that had ever happened to me and tales of things I only THOUGHT about doing. But I can be very brave in other things and my wife reminds me that people endure torture to prevent something worse from happening.

So there it is, for what it's worth, and my dream job? I think I would like to be teaching Ceramics and Sculpture at the college level and finishing up my tenth or twelfth novel. And who knows, I might still get to do both.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wood Kilns

53. Wood Kilns

The expanded role of wood fueled kilns in the culture of ceramic art in the past thirty years has been the single most exciting phenomenon of the period. Everywhere, it seems, potters are being measured by their experience with, and competence in firing, wood kilns. Graduate schools find it hard to maintain respectability without at least one working wood kiln in their inventory. And yet wood-fired pots remain a small fraction of the work being sold and American audiences have yet to embrace the aesthetic with either open arms or open wallets.
Volumes could be (and have been) written on the subject.
Personally, I still have some issues with the typical results of a wood firing – the snotted up aesthetic and the high percentage of ‘wasters’ – but I have no qualms about the process. You see, I grew up reading novels of the sea, adventures of sailing ships harnessing the wind to travel around the world. I thrived on Horatio Hornblower and the ingenuity of a world of wooden ships and iron men. I am delighted that the Coast Guard Academy still sends its cadets to sea in a sailing ship to teach them the practical physics of a life at sea. It teaches respect for forces more powerful than engines and electrons.
Wood-fueled kilns are the same for me, a constant lesson in the physics of heat and the challenges of human strength, stamina, design, and ingenuity. As a teaching tool, nothing else works so well in illustrating all the elements of a successful firing.
I once had to lunge across a kiln room to prevent students from opening the door on a large updraft gas kiln that had just been turned off after reaching cone ten. Raised on microwave ovens, these college students had so poor a grasp of basic physics that they expected to be able to instantly retrieve their finished pots from the white hot interior of the kiln. Technology has made us idiots.
One of the great delights of my life has been to share wood firing with my children. They have seen what fire is and how it works. They understand the labor involved in a wood firing and the peculiar magic of its sights and sounds. We have together faced the universe with a clay box [modified groundhog design] and a pile of wood and used them to create sustained white heat and perfectly wonderful finished pots. The only electronics involved was a radio. They have been liberated.
All ceramics students deserve to be liberated. Hell, more and more, I hear of non-artists helping their potter friends at kiln firing time. They, too, are liberating themselves. (A friend of mine, Jim Kasper, liberated himself completely out of a PhD Physics program into a successful career running Prairie Dog Pottery.) This basic confrontation and negotiation with the physical world is theatre, magic, religion, and therapy. There is no muscle you can flex to make the temperature climb more swiftly, no words you can shout to push the flames between the pots. You must be humble and attentive and patient and enduring.
You must be virtuous in the face of forces indifferent to your virtues. You must be virtuous because that is the only way to succeed.
Firing by other means is certainly more convenient, less work, and less suspenseful than wood firing. Few of us will ever get to do the bulk of our firings in wood kilns and many would not want to if they could. Consistency and product are what pay the bills. And some may be truly grateful for the convenience of their computer controlled electric kilns. But when potters speak fondly of “process” being more important to them than “product,” I always think of firing the wood kiln, hearing the dragon breathe, judging the smoke and flame, and letting myself grow weary in the exercise of a great love. Surely Horatio Hornblower never had a better day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


73. Opportunity

According to the old adage, “Opportunity only knocks once,” and I suppose that for certain spectacular events that is true. On the other hand, I’m a potter, and I see opportunity in every lump of clay, in every pile of wood, in every estate auction or used bookstore or antique mall. I see opportunity in every student and in every audience. I see no shortage of opportunities, quite the reverse.
Some opportunities are, of course, limited by the calendar. You can enter countless juried shows all over the country but if you fail to get into this year’s ‘Strictly Functional Show’ you’ll have to wait another year to try again. Two years, if the show you had your heart set on was the Orton Cone Box Show.
Plan for it. The same delay that is your frustration is also your opportunity. Use the time to make more work, improve your skills, get better photographs, and to develop broader ambitions. Sure, having your work on the next Cone Box Show poster would be great, but so would having it on the cover of Ceramics Monthly, or on the promotional poster for the Smithsonian Craft Show, or on the cover of Time or Newsweek.
Focus can get things done, but focus can also make you crazy. Don’t turn focus into tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is an opportunity for social, psychological, and professional disaster. When you obsess about a limited number and range of opportunities missed or achieved you undervalue everything else and everyone else. You yourself lose value as a person.
Lighten up. Give the world the opportunity to give you things you hadn’t been looking for. Take another look at what you thought was good and bad in your life. Think through your ambitions in order to recognize their component parts and learn to celebrate your incremental successes. Stop looking for your one big break and don’t expect your future to come to you as a miraculous moment accompanied by the songs of angels.
You’re a potter, for heaven’s sake! Get some clay. Make something. How much more opportunity do you really need than that? You need to show your work? You need to sell your work? Improve your presentation and widen your search for venues. Most people would drown in this much opportunity.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Retirement for Potters

81. Retirement for Potters

People in most careers work for decades putting money into retirement plans looking forward to the day when they can say, “good-bye,” to the world of work. Retirement is to be their last great vacation, their ‘happily ever after’. It doesn’t always work out that way. For some people, retirement is just when the energy ran out, when all the best attributes of a person have been used up in the service of someone else’s causes.
Artists, on the other hand, are presumed by our culture to be laboring in the service of their own causes, strengthened over time by their accomplishments, and fueled by love to continue working until death itself intervenes. This can be a disastrous assumption for a working artist and even if the artist wants to continue working, poor planning or poor luck may make that impossible.
I’m not going to address the issues of injury and disability here. Yes, both are statistically more likely with advancing age, but disability can strike at any time and carries with it none of the emotional baggage or daydreaming that come with thoughts of retirement. Here, I want to focus on the aging potter.
There are two paradoxical dreads that come with a potter’s thoughts of retirement. (If they bother to think of retirement at all.) The first is that poor finances will require them to work unceasingly until they expire face down into their last coffee cup. The second dread is that forces will intervene to lock them out of their studios and that a life’s satisfactions will have to be abandoned prematurely.
Working out of financial necessity, even when a person would rather not, can happen to people from almost any career. Insufficient financial planning or unexpected expenses can force the nominal retiree back into the workforce. At least the self-employed artist can avoid having to apply to other people for the opportunity to work. Still, if you would rather not continue to produce and sell your work out of necessity you must plan for that while you are still young. You must project beyond this week and this month to the distant, seemingly impossible decades ahead. You must spend less and invest more.
Artists who have had other parallel careers as teachers, or workers in other fields, have some advantages here. They receive the retirement benefits associated with those second careers. Artists with large enough operations to involve family members, or employees, can also plan to be decreasingly required to work. Solitary artists can only invest their money wisely in other enterprises to create a diverse range of retirement income sources. Thinking of it in your fifties or sixties may well be waiting too long.
On the other hand, if you wish to follow Beatrice Wood’s example and produce art past your hundredth birthday you have a different range of plans to make. First and foremost, you must control your workspace. Many professors receive studio space as part of their employment and have nothing but their personal tools left to them when the school has retired them. Renters, too, can be forced away from their facilities any time a lease is not renewed. Karen Karnes enjoyed a studio space that disappeared as one of the consequences of divorce. Luckily, her galleries were able to persuade her bankers that she could pay the mortgage on a new studio. She had to create for herself a new life from scratch, with no equity.
If you own your studio, consider its layout. Age will increasingly limit your strength and stamina even if you never suffer a disabling injury. Do you have stairs? Heavy kiln shelves? Labor-intensive work processes? What potential do you have for properly employing an assistant, an apprentice, or a younger partner? Can you switch to a car kiln and leave the shelves in place? Can you reduce your need for wedging by buying pre-mixed de-aired clay? Can you install cranes and lifts if you know you’ll need them?
When we are young and in school it’s easy to imagine that the future holds nothing more serious for us than job-hunting and re-paying our student loans. We are thoroughly distracted by our immediate pleasures and difficulties. And retirement is an issue we may never live long enough to face (or think too frightening to consider). But the actuarial tables say otherwise. Most of the people reading this will live into their seventies, many even longer. Living one day at a time may see you through, but I doubt it.
Whatever vision you hold for your final years, the things you do to make that vision possible start now. One of my professors, Bunny McBride, once warned me, “You only have so many pots in you.” He’s right. Anything can happen. The supply is not infinite and whether it’s the spirit or the flesh that weakens first there will come a time for each of us that is after ceramics. None of us can predict when that time will be, but it’s inevitable.
Choose to plan for it, or not, but it is as much a part of your art career as the first day you ever sat in a Ceramics class and heard the words, “pinch pot.” Retirement need not be either a punishment or an impossibility. Continuing forever will be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


27. Toxicity

*Early in any teaching situation, and absolutely before teaching my students about glazing, I give them a version of the following talk about toxicity.

There’s a lot of concern in our culture today about toxicity, about what’s toxic and what’s not, and about being safe. This can be particularly important for potters since we work with so many chemicals and we tend to have a lot of dust in our studios.
To begin, I want to talk about the dangers of distilled water. If you breathe in too much distilled water (and I don’t know just how many ounces that is) you’ll die. We call that, “drowning.” You can also kill yourself with water just by drinking it. In this case, the lethal dose is something over three gallons, and we know this because some poor eating disordered woman in Florida ran the experiment on herself. Apparently all that extra water so messed up the chemistry of her blood that her cells just couldn’t function properly. I don’t know how long your skin has to be wet for the effects to be ‘toxic’ but I once fell asleep in a bath and it hurt like hell when I woke up and toweled off.
The point is, for a chemical to hurt you it must get into your body, either through the lungs (inhalation), through the stomach (ingestion), or through the skin (contact). Further, dosage matters. There is no particle of plutonium so small that once lodged in your lungs it will fail to kill you. You may not die right away but your fatal cancer is inevitable. We can call that, “most toxic.” On the other hand, the Dutch chemist who discovered cyanide learned what it could do by picking up a little on his little finger and tasting it. He woke up on his floor twelve hours later. He was lucky. He had a ‘sub-lethal’ dose.
When scientists test the toxicity of a substance on animals they come up with something called, “LD 50.” This is the dosage level that killed 50% of the test animals.
One of the problems with most toxicity warnings you encounter is that they don’t generally tell you the warning signs of a sub-lethal exposure level. Barium Carbonate, for instance, is a classically “toxic” ingredient used (less and less often) in some matte glazes. I’ve seen the ‘toxic’ amount shown next to a dime for scale. But you may have to do some research to find out that it interferes with nerve function and that headaches and tremors are your warning symptoms.
Some partial exposures are more dangerous than others, too, because of what it takes for your body to remove the toxin. Some toxins your body simply can not remove. Any further exposure you permit is simply added to the dosage already in your system until, of course, your total dosage becomes too high to bear.
So, what can you do?
First, don’t be stupid. Everything is toxic, it’s just a matter of dosage and exposure. The lungs are the most vulnerable, followed by the digestive system, followed by the skin. So, don’t breathe the dirt, don’t eat the dirt, don’t get the dirt on your skin (or let it stay there) unnecessarily. Wear dust masks (or better) in dusty situations (mixing clay, mixing glazes, or sweeping up) or when spraying glazes. Do what you can to minimize your dusty situations. The books all recommend wet mopping your workspace regularly. No one ever does it, but maybe you could start a trend. Don’t breathe the dirt!
Second, absolutely no food or drink in a glazing area. You shouldn’t have food or drink in a clay studio at all, but that’s probably unrealistic. One tip; just eat it or drink it and be done. Don’t let time conspire to add undesirable elements to your lunch. Do not put food and drink where foreign elements can fall into them. Further, do not put food or drink where they can fall into other things. Nothing in your studio will be improved by having food bits rotting in them. Don’t eat the dirt!
Third, wash your hands a lot. Even just regular old “non-toxic” clay will dry out your skin. My first semester in clay my sub-lethal contact exposure symptoms included knuckles so badly chapped they bled. Use lotion. Use gloves where that seems appropriate. Skin is great stuff, but you have to take care of it. Don’t be stupid.
So, I don’t want to hear a lot of questions about, “Is this toxic?” Of course it’s toxic, but the things that are toxic in small amounts are labeled, “TOXIC.” Read the labels, read the books, and don’t eat the dirt. Keep a clean studio. Wear dust masks when doing dusty jobs and use ventilation systems. Wash your hands and use lotion. Protect yourself and protect each other by establishing good habits and good studio hygiene.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Keeping Your Thumbs Out

38. Keeping Your Thumbs Out

This is actually an important business lesson tangentially related to a slightly vulgar joke. As deadlines approach and fatigue levels rise, it can be extra important to be safe in your work. Doing something foolish, say, breaking a drill bit and driving the still rotating broken stump into and partially through your left thumbnail can dramatically limit your ability to complete the work you already felt behind on. During your final push towards any production deadline you are most subject to injury and it is the least convenient time for you to be injured. Be careful.
As an artist, the only person with the skills, knowledge, and access to protect you from injury is you. Take the job seriously, in part by not taking your deadline so seriously. Laugh a little. Look around. Accurately assess your own fatigue and maintain safe work habits. Keep yourself cheerful and safe.

So, …a traveler buys a camel for a journey across a desert. The salesman assures the traveler that the camel is more than fit enough to cover the distance. Unfortunately, the salesman is wrong, the camel founders, and the traveler is forced to return on foot. He complains, most forcefully, to the camel salesman and receives a second, “better” camel.
A week later the traveler is back, the second camel having met a similar fate. The traveler is exhausted, bedraggled, and irate.
The salesman asks, “Did you water the camels before you left?”
“Of course,” replies the traveler.
“Did you brick them?” asks the salesman.
“Brick them? What do you mean ‘brick’ them?”
“Ah,” replies the salesman, knowingly. “When the camel has its nose in the water and is almost done drinking, you smash its testicles between two bricks and the camel snorts up that final gulp of water it will need to make it across the desert.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” asks the traveler, appalled.
“No, no, you just have to keep your thumbs out.”

With too much to do and too little time to do it you might feel a little short-handed. Don’t risk also being short a hand. Being safe saves time.

Friday, December 12, 2008


88. Slick

Occasionally in graduate school we’d come across something in ceramics that could only be referred to as “slick.” This was always something glossy, faintly expensive, and probably insincere. Something so polished in its presentation that its only flaw was its inhuman flawlessness.
I remember in particular a glossy brochure advertising the work and career of an artist whose name I wouldn’t repeat here even if I could remember it. His photos all had a superbly groomed quality, darkly handsome, bearded, forty-something. Beyond that, in every image he held a single rose. Even the few images of actual pots each included his trademark single rose.
This guy was using high end corporate style printing and his own middle aged sexuality to sell his pots. We were simultaneously impressed, terrified, and nauseated. ‘Impressed’ by how good this guy’s presentation made him look and by how much money and effort had gone into these promotional materials. ‘Terrified’ that our wholesome hand-made world of pottery had been so clearly overrun by the polished cynicism of corporate marketing and that somehow in failing to compete at this level we were already losing. And ‘nauseated’ by the idea that this guy’s good looks and painfully obvious ploy of the single rose might (indeed, would) sell a lot of moderately boring pots to vaguely discontented middle aged women. The only thing wrong with any of it was that it had happened at all.
If being “slick” is the opposite of being sloppy and amateurish then it must be a virtue. But how easily does it also become soulless and cynical? Further, as expensive promotional materials become the standard rather than the novelty they are now, “standard” business presentation will involve higher and higher overhead, pricing our work out of more and more households.
The challenges to one’s integrity never end, and while being ‘slick’ may just be a business decision, then again, it may not. Perhaps it identifies the point when your art becomes nothing more than a business. Perhaps it’s just the altitude and attitude required for international credibility. I don’t really know.
“Slick” can be used as a compliment or a complaint or even as both simultaneously. Every audience and every situation is going to be different. But I think we can agree that the focus of our attentions ought to be on the process and its products. Give your pots all the presentation you can stand but please save the sensual images of over-groomed potters and their roses for the covers of romance novels. As hard as it may be sometimes, many of us would still like to think of ceramics as a dignified career choice.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Making It Look Easy

12. Making it Look Easy

Every teacher of ceramics will eventually have a student say, “You make it look so easy.” Well, for the teacher it’s supposed to happen easily, given all their experience. And I, like most people in the role of teacher, just brushed aside such compliments as being par for the course. Until I gave the idea further thought.
Watching beginning throwing students struggle, I realized that, aside from the difficulties associated with teaching their bodies new skills, throwing was hard for them because they were making it harder for themselves. Because they wedge badly, centering is harder. Because the clay is improperly centered, opening and pulling up are more difficult. And so on, until by the trimming stage they have successively added error upon error and must count it a miracle to have created anything as complex as a breakfast bowl with a trimmed foot.
So now, when I’m teaching beginning (and even intermediate) throwers I bring all this up with a generous helping of sympathy. I’ll review the various stages of throwing a pot and how error at each stage makes the following stages more difficult. And we talk about just how one can have trouble getting clean rims because of poor wedging. It seems to help.
It can also help, in cases of great frustration, to give them a correctly wedged and centered lump of clay to open, pull up, and shape. And when we go back over wedging and centering again and again they now know just how that will be helping them to make better pots.
Of course, when you answer their compliment, “You make it look so easy” with “For me it is easy” some of the magic fades out of their eyes. They want your ease to be heroic, even divine. Only with further explanation do their eyes brighten again at the idea that someday, with practice and correct technique, they will be able to make it look easy, too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Math for Potters

13. Math for Potters

In keeping with the liberal arts aspects of a career in ceramics I gave my students a variety of extra credit math assignments. These problems were not whimsical. Each of them came from my own experiences as a studio potter.
The first deals with the time and space constraints of kiln size, firing schedules, and event deadlines. For example, “Today is the first of February and you have a Fair on the 23rd. Any pots you throw today won’t be dry enough to bisque until the 5th. Your kiln holds 24 of your standard sized mugs and each mug will need to be fired twice (bisque and glaze). The firing cycle for your kiln, loading to unloading, is 24 hours. You buy your clay wet in fifty pound boxes, two bags of 25 lbs. each. You get 15 mugs from each 25 lb. bag of clay.
“Presuming no breakage, how many new mugs will you have for the Fair? Also, how much clay do you need to buy if you have none in your studio to begin with? Bonus question: If you make 32 mugs per day, on what day will you be done throwing mugs for this Fair?”
The second problem relates to mixing glazes. Glaze recipes are written in grams but ceramic supply houses sell those ingredients by the pound. Using a glaze recipe chosen at random from those used by the students, the questions is, “How many pounds of each ingredient do you need to buy to make a full 10,000 gram batch of that glaze?” [It takes 454.5 grams to make a pound.] Most students, raised on fill-in-the-dot multiple choice tests, will tend to round off their calculations. (Sometimes in the wrong direction.) The universe is not so convenient as to provide round numbers for its real life problems.
Neither of these problems involves the calculus of determining complex volumes or the simple fingers-and-toes counting of a checking account deposit slip. Certainly a wide variety of ceramics math problems are available and students need to learn to think them through. The point is to demonstrate to the students the diverse complexities of ceramics and the unending need to use their brains fully. Studying ceramics does not free us from the need to read and write and use mathematics. It gives us the opportunity to use all those skills in a worthy and noble cause.
So, if a train full of potters leaves Chicago travelling eastward at sixty miles per hour… how much fun will they have at the clay conference?

Tuesday, December 9, 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, December 8, 2008

What You Don't Know

50. What You Don’t Know

Here’s a little secret. The correct answer, nine times out of ten, is “I don’t know.” (Though my numbers may be a little off.) I’m not suggesting this to be insulting or depressing. Ignorance and uncertainty are simply powerful forces in the universe and blind assertions to the contrary really don’t help. What do you really know about what you know?
Those of us choosing to study ceramics share a common focus to our ignorance. Fortunately, we do not all labor under an identical ignorance. So, maybe I’ve picked up some partial truths about pulling handles or using casting slip to decorate bisqueware. You, for your own unique reasons, may have picked up a few insights into celadon glazes, or teapot spouts, or salt firing. Perhaps we’ll be able to share these things and each grow a little stronger, a little more capable, as a result.
Humility is still the order of the day. Only people who have learned quite a lot about a subject can really get a picture of where the gaps in that understanding really are. And only by viewing the hard and fast ‘truths’ with skepticism will we ever be truly innovative.
And how do we define, “Knowledge?” So much of what ceramic artists know they know with their bodies rather than their minds. The feedback you get in your arms and shoulders when you wedge clay, the resistance between your fingertips as you pull up a cylinder wall, the sounds of flame coursing through a kiln, the smells of reduction, none of these can be taught, only shown. Some will learn them and others will not. The only truly intelligent approach to any subject is to remain conscious that further improvements in our understanding and insight are always possible.
Each of us makes assertions and assumptions in our interactions with the public and with other artists. Truths may be among them, but none of us speak a complete or perfect truth. Be gentle with each other’s unending capacity for error and misconception. Every one of us still has a lot to learn, if only we can be cheerful and open to that reality.

“Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” -- Will Rogers

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Three Wrongs

98. The Three Wrongs

This essay was part of a collection of three that I submitted for my Master of Arts written thesis at the University of Iowa in 1988.

The sign reads: THE THREE WRONGS

It’s not an elaborate sign, nor is it an elaborate message, but it speaks volumes. It might adorn the office or workspace of any hard-working person, but it happens to hang in the studio of a graduate student studying ceramics.
For most people, Graduate School brings to mind intense scholarship in almost any field except that of ceramics. Making pots, with all its traditions of folk craft, and its many menial aspects, hardly seems like the work of University professors and expensively educated intellectuals. Nonetheless, the field of ceramics has been advanced to the realm of Art, and Art to the realm of higher education.
Of course, the three wrongs apply as well to life in general, regardless of the intensity or flavor of each person’s particular niche.
Most people do not really get enough work done, no matter how busy they seem to keep themselves. Much of our time is spent on simple motion, comings and goings, or wasted on the immobility of electronic entertainment. Even when we ‘work’ our results are often woefully impermanent or unnecessary.
‘Work’ implies difficulty and effort. For the potter, that often means long hours and a large quantity of finished pots. But it can also refer to extensive reading, research, experimentation, and the struggle to achieve quality. It can mean the heaviest of physical labor and the most subtle of aesthetic explorations. And the work of students often extends into coursework in other fields, financial jugglings, and exhausting self-doubt.
For some, work also includes family, a spouse and children, whose needs you can not go back to satisfy at some more convenient time. The same holds true for pots. You can not go back and do the job correctly later; clay dries, kilns get filled, and the season passes. There can be no adequate or sufficient level of love to devote to such things. It is simply wrong to devote too little.
Always, when a person is working, there are a variety of forces influencing that work. For students, their teachers dominate; for employees, their bosses; for the self-employed, their perceptions of the market. So often, people do what they think other people want done, even when originality is eagerly sought.
The classic example is the politician, saying the things that each audience wants to hear, stroking each set of special interests, and softening all public statements to avoid offense. Compromise and tact are very civilized attributes, but each of us must realize that our integrity (or more importantly, the public perception of our integrity) is at stake.
Art, especially, has come to focus narrowly on the artist, on issues of authorship, authenticity, and individual genius. Lacking any single standard of quality of beauty for works of art, patrons must now consider the market value of the artists themselves. Originality and individual character become the artist’s products, even more than craftsmanship and skill.
Of course, if your name is the unique commodity, your works must be clearly recognizable as yours, and yours alone. To work in someone else’s style, no matter how exemplary that style is, means falling into their shadow and losing your significance as an individual. This is, of course, short-sighted and unreasonable, but nonetheless, it exists. The highest prices in the art world are only tangentially related to the direct importance of the object. The bulk of the “value” relates to the historical and fetishistic importance of the artist.
In the academic setting, students often have difficulty finding an appropriate distance between their own work and that of their teachers. At one extreme, the two products are identical, differing only in the greater craftsmanship and experience of the teacher. At the other extreme, the student rebels completely, refusing to accept any limitations, guidance, or teaching. Though the image is romantic, recalling icons of misunderstood artistic genius, in practice, the attitude is short-sighted, ignorant, and wasteful.
Any teacher may pose a problem, even a fairly restrictive one, and the good student can find room within the limitations for an individual solution. The obligation remains on the student, as well as on the professional artist, to find solutions that reflect their own values and experiences. No two people would naturally, without external constraints, draw the world the same, or debate an issue the same, or run their homes the same. Often, however, we forget to define our true limitations and creatively utilize the spaces in between. We just meet the minimum requirements, or submit what we know will be acceptable. We get by, wasting opportunities to challenge assumptions, to expand the potential of materials, and to do our own stuff.
Sometimes this waste, this failing to do our own stuff, is a matter of fear. So often I have heard myself explain to others that, “I was going to do that, but I was afraid that….” The phrase has even started to ring alarm bells in my mind, for it reeks of cowardice and waste.
If I had a legitimate justification for my inaction, I would say, “I was going to do that, but I realized that something else would be better, or something definite would make it impossible.” I would have a reason. I would be operating from knowledge. The phrase “I was afraid that,” implies ignorance, doubt, and an unwillingness to test the situation to reach actual results. “I was afraid that,” is a clear statement of defeat, defeat without so much as a struggle.
Not accepting challenges can be a problem in any life. Even as artists, we can not do everything that comes to mind. But we do not grow, as individuals, without trying to increase our capabilities from day to day. Perhaps, the challenge is like the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” or maybe it’s just a matter of something new and unfamiliar. Whatever the life, we do not get much credit for those things we can already handle easily. Nor can we give ourselves the right to be content with those skills. The excitement in life – one might even say life, itself – is solely driven by the joys of the new and the old seen anew.
The idea that children are immature, or incomplete, adults can be very damaging in this regard, for it conditions us to believe that childhood is for learning and adulthood is for something else. However, our minds and bodies never really stop developing and changing. Adulthood is merely an increasingly vague point rather near the beginning of that lifelong process. Work, personal expressions, and a variety of challenges await each of us, every day, and it will always be wrong to fear or deny them.