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.


Lee Love said...

Sometimes potters aren't so talkative. During my apprenticeship with a very traditional Japanese potter, we were expected to be seen and not heard, especially when the Sensei was around. My closest experience to this has been my time at Zen monasteries in America and Japan.

One thing I have noticed that really effects one's approach to clay is one's social background. Folks from a working class background tend to see themselves more as workmen. Folks from educated backgrounds tend to be more like other artists. Each has their strength and some of us, who come from a working class background and are the first college educated individuals in their family tend to be cultural interpreters. Like, have you ever seen the movie Seven Samurai?, like Kikuchiyo in that movie, who was a peasant masquerading as a samurai. Being in a transitional role allowed him to be a cultural interpreter between the farmers and the samurai.

I certainly missed discussion in Japan. Japanese potters tend to be a quiet lot.

French Fancy said...

"You have to be open to information at all times and from any source".

that goes for everywhere I think. I love listening to other people talk about their experiences and can't imagine how anyone would benefit from working or creating something in isolation. Although maybe too much talking would be distracting. It's a fine balance really.