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.

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