Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Visiting the Painters

48. Visiting the Painters

Several times during my schooling at the University of Iowa the Painting Department hosted an open house and a group of us potters would walk over, primarily for the free food. To our credit, we would usually tour the studios first unless it looked like the food might be gone before we returned. Every time I went I was reminded of several lessons I might have otherwise missed.
The first lesson was an appreciation for the working conditions in the Ceramics Department. The Painting building [lately demolished] had been some sort of office building or grade school and each of the thirty or so graduate students had their own room as a personal studio. Some of them would go so far as to lock themselves in while they worked. A few would keep their doors open and visit each other, but the overall mood was one of personal isolation. This was aggravated by the building’s location completely across campus from the cluster of buildings housing the rest of the Department of Art and Art History. Without the open houses we might never have seen these fellow artists except in the darkened auditoriums of art history lectures.
The second lesson related to the use of color. This issue still arouses a lot of passion in me. For whatever reasons, the graduate school painters of that time period were using a lot of dull greens and browns and mustard yellows. We in ceramics, who have to negotiate so painfully with glaze chemistry and kiln atmospheres to get the colors we want, simply couldn’t understand why the painters, who have all the colors available straight out of the tube would choose not to use them. Maybe four out of the thirty had a color palette worthy of their chosen profession. We potters would stride forcefully back across campus fuming loudly about artists too stupid to utilize the advantages of their chosen medium. It made me think about the advantages of my chosen medium.
And third, I learned to appreciate the practical, utilitarian traditions of ceramics. The painters were clearly in a constant struggle to place themselves within a context of genius and royal patronage. Every great painter in history seemed to serve as a further reminder of the student’s current inadequacies. Sure, some of the students were making enviable efforts, but the entire enterprise seemed so lonely and so likely to fail. At least in ceramics I had the camaraderie of the studio and the wood firings, as well as a certain bond with the people who would someday be using my utilitarian pots. I learned that I was in ceramics because I value other people and that I have no wish to place my name and ego in competition with those of ancient masters. I learned that I had been correct to choose ceramics for myself.
He serves, too, who only brings the coffee cups.

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