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.

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