Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Seven Day Race

85. The Seven Day Race

"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly (http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org),
DECEMBER, 2002, PAGE 112. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic Publications Company"

In these days of marathons and triathlons, iron men and iron women, certain more self-demanding runners have resurrected an oddity from the Depression Era—the seven day race. This audience resistant spectacle is held annually on an outdoor track in upstate New York, rain or shine. After one hundred and sixty-eight hours (taking breaks as they each require) these runners have covered distances some among us would be hesitant to drive.

I read about this phenomenon several years ago, and you could tell, it was a challenge for the sportswriter covering it. What do you focus on? Who? What counts as an exciting development? This may be the only sport in the world slower and more time consuming than either Cricket or Chess.

So, he picked the three best returning runners from the previous year, as well as a couple of interesting foreign entrants, and chronicled their outlooks, running styles, training methods, diets, and sleep strategies. It rained. It turned colder. And still the runners ran their endless laps, battling their individual doubts and their exhaustion.

Of course, many pulled up lame, or just gave up, but in the end the time ran out. The laps were totaled for each runner and, to the chagrin of the sportswriter, the winner was a relatively dull fellow who hadn’t even been mentioned in the early coverage, much less interviewed. Belatedly, the winner was asked about his philosophy, his secret to success.

‘I just spent as much time as I could on the track.’ Where others had had personal masseuses, and diet experts, and trackside tents, the winner had taken catnaps in his car and eaten sandwiches brought to him by his wife. The race rewarded running and he just ran.

The story has stuck with me over the years and his plain-spoken steadiness remains a beacon to guide me in times of uncertainty.

Those of us trying to earn a living from our pots also run a sort of seven day race. Whether we think of our “week” as starting on Monday or the Saturday morning of the Fair, we are constantly running. Fresh clay, wet pots, trimmed pots, dried pots. Load the greenware, unload the bisque, glaze and load, fire and unload. The full cycle may be a month, or less, or more, but always the deadlines loom ahead of us, the immediate one and the one after that, and so on. But it’s not just about running. It’s about being attentive enough to detail to maintain and improve one’s craftsmanship. It’s about paperwork, and errands, meeting people, and noticing the world around you. And it’s about running this race week after week for the entire year.

Every now and again one of us will pull up lame, still more just quit. Maybe they had the wrong shoes, maybe they thought it would be easier than it proved to be, maybe they needed more applause, maybe the sidelines just looked too comfortable. Without them, our profession is a little lonelier, a little less diverse. And when others collapse beside the track we can easily doubt the wisdom of our own efforts. Are you weak-willed for quitting, or weak-minded for continuing?

Perhaps, the long race is not for you. Years ago, I took a full time job away from clay, and switched the pottery to part time. I worried that I wouldn’t find the time to devote to the pots. Instead, I find that I travel less and make more pots than ever. I sell more by attending fewer Fairs with a larger presence at each. And my regulars buy more eagerly, because they see me less often.

And so, I deposit their checks and start the next week, doing what I can to make my time on the track productive. And when I can, I take comfort from the friendly faces of colleagues who have run this race so many times before, and who share with me an appreciation for good pots and happy customers.

Sometimes it’s only pride that keeps you running through the rain.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Framing the Problem

6. Framing the Problem

"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly (http://webmail.windstream.net/do/redirect?url=http%253A%252F%252Fwww.ceramicsmonthly.org),
JANUARY, 2004, PAGE 112. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic Publications Company"

One of the odd little requirements of my graduate program was that each degree candidate had to take one drawing class at the university. It didn’t matter how much drawing you might or might not have done elsewhere. One class, at this university, and it didn’t matter what skill level either, you just had to have it.

So, having nothing to brag about in the way of personal drawing skills (though I’d had some previous training) I dutifully enrolled in Drawing I. The class was full of freshmen and sophomores and taught by a Painting graduate student.

I found that I had one major advantage over my fellow students (other than being old enough to drink). I knew how to frame the problem. That is to say, I knew what not to draw, what not to worry about. I could get more done on my drawings in the first minute than my fellow students were getting done in five.

Drawing instructors will often have their students make small rectangular cut-outs to look through to help them to imagine the edges of their drawings. It’s a little like our stereotypical images of movie directors looking at scenes through a rectangular box formed by their thumbs and forefingers. What needs to be included and what can be left out? What is the most interesting composition?

These issues come up again and again. As a student, writing papers, working in the studio, meeting departmental deadlines, and juggling outside work responsibilities, you have to be able to frame the problem. What is the focus of the assignment? How wide a view can you take? How much space or time do you have to work with? What do you need to achieve?

In many ways it’s a matter of defining the hoops you have to jump through and it doesn’t end when you leave school. Far from it. The paper is always only so large. What do you choose to spend your time drawing? Every day you have a powerful influence on how your energies are spent. Of course outside entities make demands on your time, but it’s always up to you to organize your response to those demands.

My college soccer coach once spoke to us candidly about the advantages dim athletes have in sports. He felt that they performed better because they were better at sticking to the problem at hand. The game totally filled their minds while the “bright” kids might have their attention diluted by passing thoughts of Latin declensions, Hegelian meta-physics, and upcoming Chemistry experiments. Certainly the time spent on those other things can be important, but the time to spend on those things is not game time.

To what extent do unimportant considerations slow you down? Do you have trouble identifying or predicting the irrelevant elements of your problems? Do you stare blankly at the page unable to find a starting point? Sometimes meditation and contemplation are appropriate, but not when the bloodhounds are on your trail, the devil is at the door, or the toddler is headed for the open elevator.

If you must train yourself to be decisive, so be it. With practice comes competence, with competence comes confidence, with confidence comes everything. Once you can apply the full range of your abilities to the limited scope of your problems those problems will seem far less intimidating or time-consuming.
[My thanks for the illustration to Kevin Cannon of Grinnell College '02, and Big Time Attic.]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Price and the Second Highest Bidder

76. Price and the Second Highest Bidder

"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly (http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org), SEPTEMBER, 2003, PAGE 128. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic Publications Company"

When a person tries to sell a car by parking it in some prominent roadside spot with a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window they’re running a sort of “Dutch auction.” That’s a European auction format in which the auctioneer starts with a fairly high price and works slowly downward until someone says, “Yes!” By waiting to respond, you’re gambling that no one else will buy it first. If you correctly ‘read’ the other bidders and the seller’s willingness to continue lowering the price, you can get the sale item fairly cheaply. But, of course, with a car parked along a busy highway you don’t know who the other potential buyers might be and you’d have to make a special effort to meet the seller.

In a classic American style auction, the price starts low and, with all the potential buyers present, the auctioneer tries to persuade people to offer greater and greater sums of money, however much it will take, to win away the item being sold (within the limited time period of the auction). Auctions in this style thrive on the emotions and natural competitiveness of the bidders. In the heat of the moment prices may rise far above any normal, reasonable level through an unreasoning desire to possess. The seller loves this.

On the other hand, unlike the ‘Dutch’ format which only requires a seller, a buyer, and an imagined second potential buyer, the American format is absolutely dependent on the activity level of the second bidder. It is the second bidder (or third, or fourth) who drives up the final price by repeatedly attempting (through higher bids) to become the winning bidder. The final winning bid is not set so much by the winning bidder’s willingness to pay as by the second bidder’s ultimate unwillingness to pay more. If the second bidder gives up early, the winning bidder gets a bargain and the seller loses out.

As an artist, particularly when setting your prices at a gallery (or when setting a reserve price at an auction) you are placing yourself in the role of the second highest bidder. For instance, your sculpture has been priced at five hundred dollars. In effect you would rather give up the object than turn down the money. But you would rather keep the object than sell it for less than five hundred dollars. If the customer is unwilling, or unable, to pay the full five hundred dollars they will not be the winning bidder and will not go home with the sculpture. You, in effect, will be the winning bidder, and you get to go home with the sculpture.

I mention all this because I have several times heard stories of artists who didn’t really want to sell particular works of art and so, put what they thought were outrageous prices on them and had them sell anyway. In effect, they were outbid for ownership of the object even when their final bid seemed ridiculously high. The thing is, if this happens to you, you can not whine about it later. You determined what the winning bid would be. It’s up to you to appropriately appreciate getting the money.

The reverse also holds true. If the price is set too high and no one buys the object you have, in effect, made yourself the winning bidder. You may not have shown the piece in its best light or to the right group of potential bidders but, today at least, you won. You get to keep the object.

Tomorrow you may decide that it’s not worth as much as you previously imagined, and you’ll be free to lower the price (or raise it even higher if the mood strikes you). But never lower it to the point where you’ll feel cheated if it sells. Once it sells all you have are memories and money. You don’t want to have the world’s greatest collection of your own stuff but neither should you feel unhappy to be the second highest bidder. As an artist, being the second highest bidder is how you sell your work. Learn to be cheerful in the role, and good luck at the auction.

“Every person who gets a piece of art cheap is another person who thinks art is worthless.” -- Rudy Autio

Saturday, February 21, 2009


84. Service

"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly (http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org),
FEBRUARY, 1995, PAGE 96. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic
Publications Company"

Several years ago, at a car dealership service shop, I met a man with one of the worst jobs I could ever envision myself holding. It didn’t involve heavy lifting, hot tar or the chronic stench of fast-food grease. In fact, it probably wasn’t physically unpleasant at all, except for the necktie. He answered telephones, scheduled appointments and apologized. Mostly, he apologized.

Sadly, he seemed to have a lot to apologize for. While I waited (on several occasions) for a competent and timely repair of my car’s malfunction, he said he was sorry to dozens of people for scores of problems, very few of them his responsibility. He never lost his temper. He always seemed sincere. Yet his efforts didn’t make anyone happier.

When I think of service, of doing my job well, to the complete satisfaction of my customers, I think of the apologizer and the apologies I am sometimes required to make. None of us can control every variable in our schedules and in our work. The more challenges we accept, the more likely it is that we will come up short, or late, every now and then. Apologies will be necessary. When in business as an artist, a policy of “never apologize, never explain” will not do.

Struggling to overcome difficulties is part of the classic heroic mission of the artist, and you should never deny your patrons good stories. But you must also find solutions and put an end to all of your least dignified mistakes. For instance, when I started selling at art fairs, I would wrap my pots in newspaper and send them off in old grocery bags. By reusing resources, I was being environmentally conscious (and frugal). But the ink from the newspapers got all over my hands and pots, and I hated making my customers walk around with some grocery chain logo blaring out from their arms—particularly at historical theme fairs.

So my wife bought a bale of new, unmarked paper bags from a manufacturer (less than $30), and I started buying end rolls of clean newsprint from our local paper (2 bucks apiece). I went from frequent apologies about smudges on pots to a positive pride in crisp, clean wrapping and a tastefully anonymous brown paper sack. I am giving better service, and though each customer has only a slightly better experience because of it, my own experience, my certainty that I have nothing to apologize for, nothing to regret, is priceless. That feeling is part of why many of us choose to be self-employed in an uncertain world.

These days I use my apologies as a sort of Geiger counter of my own performance. Once in while is normal, human and unavoidable in the context of clay and people. But when the same apologies recur, or the total number increases, changes must be made. Great service, the kind that requires few—if any—apologies, is not just good for your customers and for your business, it’s good for you.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Artist's Statement 2.23.07

Artist’s Statement 2/23/07 Larry M. Brow

I’ve recently started to look at my work and career as if I was a musician rather than an object maker. Who would I list as my “influences,” and how long a list would it be? Do I only play well-rehearsed tunes written by other artists or do I improvise and “jam,” creating new beauties built of theme and discipline, impulse and moment? Am I a writer of jingles, pop songs, or symphonies? And is my genre jazz, rock, folk, or the blues? A lot of odd questions, I know, but lately the answers have pleased me.
My “Firetrap” series, in particular, has been a very good line to follow. These structures combine throwing and hand-building, modernist sculpture and post-modern architecture, simplicity and complexity, dignity and whimsy. I’ve even joked about them and the influence of the architectural firm of Gehry and Seuss.
I’ve also been pleased lately by my successes in the strangely intricate world of double-walled and upside-down throwing. Broader than broad rims, pierced works that nonetheless hold water, the puzzled looks of other potters, and decorating with the ultimate black of the pierced interior, have all added to the fun of what really ought to be an enjoyable enterprise all the time.
And my list of influences? Everyday it seems I find something new to add to the already long list. But best of all, more and more, the strongest influence on my work has been me. I’m looking forward to the even stronger work good “musicianship” promises ahead.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Academic Scrap

100. Academic Scrap
by Larry M. Brow
copyright 2007

In any manufacturing process there’s a certain inevitable amount of material that falls to the side as scrap. These bits may get used elsewhere in the process, or recycled into new material, or just thrown away. They are the cost of doing business and while it makes good sense to reduce the amount of scrap you produce you can’t eliminate it all. Even in the virtual world and the realm of creativity some ideas and some impulses turn out to be useless and must be discarded.

In Academia, the idea of wasted material (and wasted time) is much more problematic. The primary raw material of colleges and universities is people.

Everywhere in higher education there are people who are thriving, people who are just getting by, and people who just aren’t getting it. Even the process of going off to college leaves a certain number of people behind. At this stage, those individuals may not mind. They are making other choices and embracing other pleasures. They may even be educating themselves further in fields that simply aren’t taught on campus. The directions they’ve taken their lives do not make them failures. In fact, some of them are on their way to making a comfortable living with enviable families in idyllic communities.

College students, however, have chosen a different path. Whether you believe that they compete against each other, against their own ignorance, or against the inherent difficulties of their coursework, the college student is competing. This competition can be stressful, and for most students it’s at least a four year commitment.

Statistically, most college students succeed, if we measure success in terms of graduation. However, many do not. At some institutions the non-completion rate defies explanation. What insidious combination of poor preparation and poor habits, recreation and recreational drugs, financial stress and financial incompetence could possibly explain the failures of so many undergraduates? Whatever the reasons, some students move up through the system and others merely move on, perhaps discovering the same joys and successes as those who never attempted the academic life.

So, you’ve graduated and now you’re one of the few, the elite, moving on to graduate school. Will any graduate program do, or are your sights set on one of the “elite” programs? Elitism can be fun, particularly when you’re winning at it. At every level you can think of yourself as doing better than those who have given up, dropped out, tanked their grade point averages, or made less prestigious choices.

Unfortunately, the creation of scrap continues still at these elevated levels. Even tenured professors can be scrapped out by exhaustion, collapse, or a fundamental change of heart. How do you cope at that most heartless of stages when you are trying to turn your brand new terminal degree into full time employment? When you know that there are too few jobs openings for all the fresh-faced academic “elites” on the market, how do you avoid thinking about the “scrap?”

For academic scrap there can be a variety of fates. Some find new uses for themselves taking jobs they hadn’t previously envisioned, in administration, or academic support professions, or business – adapting their skills and aptitudes to new requirements. Some refuse to take a “terminal” view of their own educations and carry on in some new field working towards new goals. Some marry well, or make other arrangements with the universe. And some just melt down.

Don’t self-destruct. And don’t lash out. At every level the decision-makers are not acting to disrespect you or scrap you out. Their mandate is only to elevate the few they have spaces for and most need. That extra candidates must look elsewhere is a simple, emotionless reality. They are not putting you down. Only you (and your family) can do that. Refuse to permit it.

You were happy when the system was working for you, when you were winning. Perhaps, now you will have to use some cleverness, creativity, patience, and tenacity to re-invent yourself or to just keep putting yourself forward. You will always have choices and opportunities, if you have the humility to re-examine your expectations of purpose and reward. Be your own inventor and nothing goes to waste.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My Harshest Critic

My Harshest Critic

By Larry M. Brow

In the past year I’ve noticed a certain clamoring in the ceramics world for a higher standard of criticism. Somehow the current crop of writers on the subject have failed us by being too friendly, too poorly traveled, or too poorly educated. It makes me wonder what’s being hoped for from an ideal critic.

What do you hope for from an art critic? The easy answer, of course, is PRAISE. We want the acid-tongued curmudgeon who harshly exposes everyone’s weaknesses and failings to (nonetheless) praise our own work to the stars. We each want to think that we’re on the right track and that our craftsmanship is flawless. We want the machinery of success to come to us – galleries, collectors, publishers, and employers – without our having to waste time hustling to be noticed. We want a genius to use their words and insights to point the way to virtue and success.

Certainly we have people attempting to write relevant ceramic criticism now. Is it that they are too polite? Would art criticism of ceramics be better if it were more vicious? Should it quote French theorists more often? Should the critics be secretly traveling to more shows and studios, like disguised restaurant reviewers, so that we can find our pieces being vilified in magazines without the slightest warning?

Could a really wonderful ceramics critic help us with the broader art culture? Are we getting any respect now from the painters and sculptors and performance artists and expanded media twits? Do museum curators give a damn what we make? On the broad road to our uncertain global future how many of us are on some little side path following the Amish? Can terrific prose make us more relevant? How good would our brilliant new critic’s writing have to be to a get a potter’s picture on the cover of Time or Newsweek? I must admit, as much as I’d heard about Peter Voulkos my whole career, I was shocked at how little notice his death got in the national press. Peter Voulkos! We are an insignificant fraction of an increasingly insignificant art world.

Could a really world class ceramics critic help improve sales? Not just for the few stellar artists worthy of reluctant praise, but for the genre as a whole? I frequently worry that more and more of the people I meet know nothing about art, know less about pots, and can’t work up the slightest embarrassment about their ignorance. Many of my best customers are people I’ve had to painstakingly educate as consumers over the course of years. Do any of us have the strength and stamina to fully educate ALL of our customers for the foreseeable future? Is the alternative a microscopic (if international) subculture making objects solely for its own amusement?

Perhaps the agent of our salvation is already among us, simply building skill sets and confidence while waiting for the chance to strike. Perhaps dozens are waiting in the wings for a mandate, and an honorarium, to cut loose with their inspired analysis. If so, the onslaught won’t be pretty. A lot of egos and institutions are going to get bruised. Blood may spill. Work is going to be called crap. Teachers are going to be called incompetent. Specific university programs are going to collect labels like, disarray, shambles, safety hazard, and snake pit. “Educational malpractice” may emerge as a point of casual conversation. Longstanding hypocrisies could be exposed. Civility and cooperation will suffer. And certainly some friendships will pay the price.

And when the new, better, more incisive criticism has taken its bite out of our current comfortable lack of leadership, what then? Will we then achieve the complacent totalitarianism of a new academy, in which artists A, B, and C are reliably admirable and only styles X, Y, and Z will ever get you considered for a college teaching job or a really worthwhile solo show? Will the new certainty about what is good art create more confidence in the marketplace, leading to more sales and higher prices? Will we then truly hate the art magazines we nonetheless can not afford to miss reading? How many versions of an avant garde will we be able to sustain simultaneously? Will we advertise professorships in “Avant Garde Ceramics?” Will we all be united in our respect for, and fear of, the new, fully competent, ceramics critics? Could the words of a critic get you dropped from a gallery, blackballed from a show, fired as a teacher, shunned by polite company?

I am reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon. Two guys are sitting together on what appears to be a commuter train. The one says something like, “Listen, Bob, you can be my best friend or my harshest critic, but you can’t be both.” (My ex-wife made the same mistake.)

The new critics, whoever they turn out to be, will have to be ready to find their friendships elsewhere. Very few will love them for the truths they tell. Even the artists they praise will be too beholden to them to be actual friends. Perhaps the utter meanness of that reality is why we’ve been short of volunteers for the role. Who among us has the thick skin, clear vision, agile tongue, spotless pedigree, and complete self-confidence for a job so unlikely to lead to praise, reward, or even respect?

And if such critics find the courage to put themselves forward, do our publishers have the will and financial muscle to bring us the truth when it gets written? I doubt it. But then, who am I to criticize?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The No Sweat Workout

[Again, this is one from the files, though still relevant. Because my jobs have changed, my habits have had to change and I need to get back to this. I love that since having written this, without causing it in any way, Yoga has really taken off in this country. Flexibility is great stuff.]

The No Sweat Workout by Larry Brow 4/25/2002

Five years ago I happened to notice a small pair of dumbbells in the darkroom where I worked. They were unlabelled, but seemed to be about seven pounds apiece. Alone, I figured, “Why not?” and stopped in my work routine to do some curls. Being so light, they put no strain on my joints and I did forty repetitions before stopping. I hadn’t used much time and, what’s more important, I hadn’t even started to work up a sweat. As you can imagine, my co-workers would not have enjoyed seeing me stumbling out of the darkroom exhausted and sweating.

Now I’ve been to gyms. I’ve seen the buff gods pumping away, streaming with sweat. I’ve even done my own sad imitations of them. But you need a regular routine, away from your workday, to truly enjoy the benefits of such a lifestyle. Away from work, I’m too busy, too lazy, too cheap.

On the other hand, I’m in my forties. I don’t much mind growing old, but I do not want to spend the coming decades being frail. So, I started studying weightlifting (from over here, mind) and I got interested in “high repetitions.” This is where you lift lighter weights, yes, sissy weights, but for many more repetitions than you would your personal maximum. You still strengthen your muscles, but you also strengthen your joints and without putting the dangerous strains on them that heavier weights invariably create. I went back to the little weights in the darkroom.

Soon, aside from my improved number of reps, I noticed that my total on Mondays was often higher than my maximums the rest of the week. The rest my muscles got over the weekend was improving that Monday performance. Keep in mind, in my own ignorant way I was still only doing curls, that being the only exercise I knew how to do with proper form. So I watched more television fitness shows and picked up a few other lifts to do on those other weekdays, exercising different muscle groups, trying to use proper form for maximum safety and results.

Monday became arms, Tuesday shoulders, Wednesday legs, and Thursdays abs. If I missed a day I might make it up the next or just let it slide a week. But each week I’d start again just trying to do as well as last week or maybe another five or ten reps better.

And I did improve. I found that one hundred reps were as much as I had time for, so I had to invest in my own pair of weights, now ten pounders. My number of reps dropped accordingly. Years later I’m now using fifteen pounders. It seems like such a little thing to do, but the results speak for themselves. What was once forty reps with seven pound weights is now eighty reps with fifteen pound weights.

This may not be something you can do working in a cubicle or in a public space. Our business cultures do not yet include the institutional breaks for exercise and stretching that the Japanese employ. You may have to make this part of a pre-shower routine at home. But it’s worth a try.

I suggest doing what you can to stretch and remain limber as well. I think that a lot of the frailty that we associate with aging is actually the stiffness that comes from a reduced range of motion. Spend more time on the carpet and less in the recliner. Yoga is great for this.

Five basic tips:
First, use light weights and good form. If you can’t do ten or twenty reps get lighter weights until you can. Once you can routinely do one hundred reps it’s time to get the next heavier weights.
Second, no sweating. Sure, you could, but not at work, and if you’re doing this at home the no sweating rule will keep you from overdoing it. This is just a cute little fitness thing to do, nobody is trying to turn you into a bodybuilder or athlete, and nobody is watching.*
Third, this is about strength and muscle tone, NOT cardio-vascular fitness. The exercise that improves the fitness of your heart and lungs WILL cause you to sweat and WILL require more than a couple of minutes a day. Know what you’re trying to achieve.
Fourth, give yourself time to recover by making this a workday routine and moving each day to a different set of muscles. Aging bodies need more time to heal and re-build.
And Fifth, be patient. No illusions, this will take time and though the mirror will eventually show you the improvements, for weeks you will have to please yourself just by improving your repetition totals. Nothing more. It was just a break in your workday. Back to work now.

*If you are already frail, certainly your doctor should know that you are doing this. That doctor should approve. Also, for some activities, like cleaning roof gutters and old age weightlifting, you should always have a “911 person.” Someone to correctly interpret the sound of you falling and make the phone call.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Children's Vocabulary

Children’s Vocabulary

These days we hear a lot about the need to improve our public schools, about falling behind in our educational standards compared to other developed nations, about the need for more homework and better parent/teacher teamwork in preparing our children for the current century. I also hear a lot of vulgarity and baby talk. The two situations are not unrelated.

In many cases our educational problems begin at home with baby talk. Children are talked down to with useless, infantile words like “wa-wa” and “din-din,” with stilted speech patterns, and that sort of elevated tone of voice commonly used with elderly individuals thought to be hard of hearing and confused. Children learn cuss words from television, movies, and parents who use them unthinkingly. Children are limited in the range of their vocabulary by the stunted vocabulary used by the people and institutions around them.

We hear a lot about “phonics” and sounding out the word, but if you’ve never heard the word “reference,” for instance, how are you supposed to recognize it when you’re a child sounding it out?

My kids never got baby talk. One of my eldest son’s first words was “gladiator.” And my children have thanked me, unprompted, for the advantage this gave them in school. They saw too many of their classmates struggle to read words they had never encountered before. It made learning to read like learning a second language.

We’ve often wondered how school-kids could ever flunk English. Sure, it’s a large and complex language. And some kids blow off their homework or do poorly with some exam formats. But English is their native language isn’t it? Are they doomed by a cultural upbringing limited to five hundred partially made-up words and a complete absence of recreational reading?

I’ve known smart people to rise above this sort of handicap, but it leaves its traces. They’ve learned the words, can spell them reliably, but pronounce them as they imagine they ought to be pronounced. How do I correct the pronunciation of a college graduate who simply has never heard the word spoken by other people of broader conversational experience? Perhaps, if they start listening to books on tape, the right books on tape, they’ll notice the differences and correct themselves.

The first cuss words my kids ever learned they picked up from other kids in preschool. Not that trash talk has never sullied my lips. No, I’m ashamed to admit that particularly in college unthinking vulgarities flowed from me like pauses for breath. But having children changed all that. Suddenly those little ears, those little play-back tape recorders got me thinking about everything I said and everything I wanted to say.

At first, when my kids let slip the vulgarities they’d learned elsewhere, I’d shut them up with one simple tactic. I’d ask, “Do you know what that word means?” “No,” they’d reply. “Then you probably shouldn’t use it.”

Of course, eventually, they were able to sheepishly answer, “Yes.” My response then changed to, “Do you use language like that in front of your teachers?” “No,” they’d reply with some shock.

“Good, please don’t use it in front of me either.”

They are learning the differences between the many types of language that English now contains within it: the infantile, the casual, the vulgar, the proper, the educated, and the business-like. In their lives-to-come they may need them all, but the vulgar and the infantile they don’t need to learn at home. The language they learn first, best, most naturally will be the language they learned at home.

I have a friend from Spain who teaches Art at a Midwestern University. Yes, she has an accent, but her vocabulary is better than that of most of her publicly educated students. When I say “publicly,” I don’t just mean the public schools. I mean all the language learning these eighteen through twenty-something native speakers of English have encountered in the whole of their lives. Whatever they’ve read, whoever they’ve listened to, wherever they’ve traveled, it has not been enough. Certainly not enough for legitimately qualified college students!

Given the richness and complexity of English, perhaps no one truly knows enough. But it’s a challenge most of us have given up on or ignored. Sure it’s cute to be able to convey sixty-seven separate shades of meaning with different pronunciations of the word “Dude,” but none of them are likely to be on the test or provide you with much of a business connection with a tri-lingual foreign national.

I agree that it can be hard for our teachers to teach our children. Common household and media English are simply not enough help. What’s going on in your home? A five year-old should, with practice, be able to say any word you know, even if the particulars of its meaning are unclear. Have we forgotten “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?” Of course your kids can learn vocabulary! What vocabulary are you giving them to use, “shit” and “damn,” or “substantial, innovative, and unconstitutional?” The language they speak may well determine who they become. What are you preparing your own children to be? When we choose to talk ‘down’ to our kids and to those other children around us we unintentionally help to keep them down for the rest of their lives.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Book of Five Dings

[I don't think it's come up before but I'm also a martial artist. I've now spent thirty-five years on one martial art, in particular, and the age-old analogies of swordsmanship to artistry are not abstract for me. The following, though, was written years ago as a humorous counter to Minamoto Musashi's classic manual, The Book of Five Rings. As with most humor, some of it is truth.]

By Minimal Magnanimity

There are five terrible surprises in the life of a warrior, or any person, for that matter. These
“dings” can be completely devastating, or merely inconvenient, depending on the circumstances
of the moment and our state of mind. This will be discussed further.

From the moment of conception, we are constantly changing as individuals. Our bodies, our minds, the air, the stars, everything changes, subtly or drastically, from moment to moment. So we have no hope of knowing exactly how things are going to be from day to day. We guess. We play the averages or just stumble along in the rut of our habits. That more of us are not destroyed by the unexpected, the unnoticed, or the unlikely, than are, is merely luck.
Observe every moment carefully. Or don’t. Since everything is changing, studying the present and quantifying the patterns of the past can’t save you from the future. Enjoy something.

Everyone else is a construction of your imagination. Prove me wrong. On the other hand, some of these constructions are nicer to be around than others. Some of them are so wonderful to be around you may be tempted to think of yourself as a minor feature in a universe centered around them. This is foolishness. Still, they make life interesting and you don’t dare assume that they exist to serve your needs, real or imagined. Treat them well or lose them. Of course, you may lose them anyway, see above. Sure it hurts, but don’t take it personally, and don’t whine about it. Who wants to be alone in a universe with a whiner?

Ignorance is a powerful force in the universe, ranked somewhere between gravity and magnetism. A lot of the things we learn, to be the people we are, still stink of mythological stories told around campfires. What we are, what we should be, what we need, are all just heroic inventions created so haphazardly that we can’t even blame someone specific for the trouble they cause. Just do the best you can, try to understand what it is you really want (knowing that everything changes), and don’t take the things you hear any more seriously than you take the things you say.
In a changing world of certain loneliness, don’t expect any really terrific answers to what are, in the end, pretty uninformed questions. Everyone is stupid about a lot of things.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is pick a good spot and refuse to be budged from it. Assemble such armor as you can, observe all approaching hazards carefully, and extend imaginary roots through your feet deep into the solid ground. Become immovable. This is in no way the same as remaining on the couch.
Most of the time, though, you must move to find your successes. Too slow and not enough gets done and you seem disinterested. Too fast and you miss a lot of important detail. Change direction too often and you look like a twit and your achievements will seem accidental. Refuse to alter course when appropriate and you are obsessed, unapproachable, maniacal.
Of course, no one else will ever really understand what you’re up to anyway. Be up to something. Keep moving. Exercise some options.

You can not really know what’s going to be important later in life, or later in the day, so you have to treat everything, every moment, as potentially huge. The smallest, least likely element may make the difference between success and failure. You may be great without ever understanding why. You may suffer unbearable agonies. Don’t worry about it. Anxiety counts double. It also makes you rotten company. Choose instead to be wonderful. Respect counts most of all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Good Stuff

[Again, this is an essay from the files. Nonetheless, have a Happy Valentine's Day.]

The Good Stuff

I belong to a group that occasionally (jokingly) refers to itself as “the Society for Consenting Adults.” Some of your readers may be familiar with this organization. From time to time, throughout the year and across the country, we get together in medieval-looking tent cities for as much as two weeks at a time to study medieval Europe as living history. As one might expect when thousands of healthy, intelligent, imaginative people get together for a while, some of them get laid.

Several years ago, at such an event near Phoenix, the fellow I had traveled with lucked into magical moments with three different women in the same night. The first was a former girlfriend. The second, an old friend from California, showed up at his tent less than ten minutes after the first had left. And the third came home with him from a party (he’d never met her before) and stayed until morning.

He couldn’t explain it. In fact, he’d been running a pretty significant drought in the ol’ romance department for months. Maybe it was astrological, or his pheromones, or…what? It was driving me nuts trying to figure it out. For him, he was just in a massive post-coital glow with a slight tinge of curiosity about the evening to come.

I took it quite badly. You see, like many a shy young man, my sexual history had been fairly cautious. In fact, in that one night he had had sex with more women than I’d ever been with. I knew there had to be some way of thinking about this situation that could save my self-respect, but what was it?

If having sex with a wide variety of women was success, clearly I was unsuccessful. Sure, I thought about the STD’s I’d never had, the paternity suits my name would never be a part of, and the psycho tripping women I had correctly identified from a safe distance. I thought about being happy with my wife and kids, and about all that time and energy I didn’t have to waste cruising for a willing partner. And then I thought about how beautiful all those women are and how much I ached to be in their arms, between their legs, in their trust.

I was a mess; ferocious envy, sour grapes, dangerous daydreams, everything.

And then I had the thought that saved me. “Every woman who had ever had sex with me had stayed with me a minimum of four years.” Whatever I was bringing to the bed these women (both of them) had found it worth coming back for, night after night, for at least four years.

I’m ashamed to say that my competitive nature wouldn’t allow me to just think the thought, I also had to tell my friend, to present him with that difference between us. As I should have known, the idea hurt him. By one measure he had scored three times in one night like a fullback with a great offensive line. Yet at the same time, he had flunked three auditions between nightfall and morning. All the women had left. And sadly, a long-term stable partner was what he secretly wanted most.

When people are dating, or just doing that conversational mating dance that leads up to sex, it’s like they’re conducting a job interview or casting an actor for a part. What is the role? What is the candidate’s history? Do they seem to have the moves, the look, the accent, the potential? Will they be a good fit?

And then, after screening all the available applicants, and a careful (or casual) examination of the variables, someone gets laid. This is the audition. Don’t blow your lines. Don’t fall asleep too soon. Don’t throw up, or fart, or give up before you ought to. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t give her anything to regret later.

Clearly some people are not auditioning partners for a recurring role. Some just want auditions and aren’t even interested in callbacks. Others are satisfied with an occasional cameo appearance. Some just audition as often as they can without much regard for the part being offered. Some fail to get auditions at all because they blow the interviews or insist on interviewing for roles they do not fit. It’s a clumsy business, and often quite sad.
It’s been years since my revelation in the desert. My friend is now happy in a stable partnership, and I’m now married to a different woman. She’s only my third partner, and yes, we’ve been together more than four years. She says she first thought I’d be a good fit based on how I hugged her in college. We’ve known each other twenty-three years. Just friends from college most of that time, but all along I had been unwittingly interviewing to be with her. And now I have the part, a recurring role as husband, lover, partner, and parent.

I’m glad I passed the audition. I’m delighted that she’s been so willing to come back for more. There are a lot of beautiful women in the world. I know dozens of them. But to find one that thinks of you as the good stuff, the brand to be loyal to, the one to take home for keeps, there’s the challenge. Good luck at your next audition, and remember to be flattered if you get the part.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Good Kind of Bad Luck

The Good Kind of Bad Luck

My ex-wife’s father used to be able to control the weather. I don’t mean by that that he could aim lightning or direct a particular cloud to drop its rain on a specific farmer, but if you needed good weather on a particular weekend he was the man to talk to. Of course, this magical service came at a price and with a grave warning. In his view, the universe was normally balanced, good days and bad days, good luck and bad luck. By nudging a given weekend into the good column where it might not naturally have been an imbalance was created. In compensation, some future storm would be extra bad or some other day rotten when it might not have been. Tropical paradises provide the most dramatic illustration of this principle. Their months of sunshine, cool breezes, and brief refreshing showers are balanced with a hurricane’s few days of terror and destruction.

All we can ever do is prepare for the bad and properly enjoy the good. The same is true for more than weather. No one’s life is all good or all bad. Certainly the percentages seem to vary from person to person and here, perhaps, the concept of ‘karma’ comes into play, but everyone has some sort of bad luck in their lives and the best you can hope for is to have the “good” kind of bad luck.

For example, I’m driving down the interstate in a small hatchback when I notice a semi about to pass me on the left and hear the flapping/slapping sound of a tire shredding itself. I assume that one of the truck’s tires is coming apart and, with nowhere to hide, I just hang onto my steering wheel and pray that I don’t get any large chunks of truck tire smashing through my side window. I slow down to let it pass more quickly and then it’s ahead of me, its tires intact, and the sound continuing. Oops, it must be me.

I pulled over and, sure enough, one of my rear tires had shredded itself. Bad luck, but not nearly so bad as it might have been. Uncharacteristically, I was alone in the car and traveling with almost no luggage to an event I did not have to be at and where I was not expected. The weather was dry and pleasant with an hour left before sunset. I had known that those rear tires had been needing replacement, and had just put off getting new ones bought and installed. Out of a sense of caution I went around to check the condition of my other rear tire. Bald, yes, but still operational, and then…I noticed the brand name. Factory originals, on a car with one hundred and six thousand miles on it. I’d bought the car used with sixty-four thousand miles on it and relatively new front tires. It was a front wheel drive car so I hadn’t really given the rear tires much consideration. I had been driving a rolling miracle, and usually with a full load (including my wife and two kids) and on a tight schedule.

Grateful for my many blessings I swapped the ruined tire for the little donut spare and gingerly drove home praying for the continued stamina of my remaining factory original. Not only did my good luck hold, it extended even further. In spite of my lengthy jaunt down the interstate waiting for the truck to pass I somehow hadn’t ruined the rim of the wheel on my flat tire. In celebration I may have bought four new tires that day, I don’t remember.

Things happen to people and the optimists among them respond, “well, it could have been worse.” The humorous among us may even derive some pleasure in elaborating on all the particular ways in which it might have been worse. I am not that way. I can empathize all too well with the discomfort, suffering, and even tragedy of true misfortune. Some people’s stories make me want to cry.

One afternoon, in the summer of 1993, my wife and I were coping with a rainstorm that had filled the window wells on one side of the house and had water streaming into the basement. With a bucket in my hands I turned to her and said, "I’m glad we’re not in Iowa.”

“Why?” she asked, thinking it a spectacularly irrelevant thing to say in the drama of our moment.

“I hear they’re having flooding up in Iowa.”

We were having a bad afternoon, an inconvenience, an annoyance. But it was just a dramatic rain storm and a poorly graded backyard. Elsewhere in the Midwest rivers had risen, homes had disappeared, levees had been breached, livelihoods had been destroyed. The city of Des Moines had lost its water treatment plant. It had been raining somewhere in Iowa for more than forty days and forty nights. Jokes about Noah were no longer funny.

Whenever we are having good times we need to really notice just how good those times are and store up those pleasant memories for the hard days to come. And when the bad has come into your life, as it does for everyone, pay attention to everything good that’s still there in the picture with you. Appreciate what it is to have the good kind of bad luck.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Survival of the Fit Enough

[Again this essay is a bit out of date, and sadly, not much has improved since I wrote it. My youngest son is now six and a half, and we just keep trying to do what we can.]

Survival of the Fit Enough
By Larry Brow
Copyright 2002

I used to work at a scholarly press where we printed a lot of scientific journals in a wide variety of fields including biology. Over the years, reading snippets here and there, I came to a conclusion about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Our culture refers to it as “Survival of the Fittest,” with the ferocious conviction that weaklings die and only the brutal will thrive. A more accurate simplification of Darwin’s conclusions would be, “Survival of the Fit Enough.”
The fact is that many environments on our planet are relatively benign. Mild weather, a constant food supply, and few if any predators make it possible for many types of fragile, even ridiculous, creatures to thrive. The parallels in our own society are not hard to see. The skills required to survive on the freeways of Southern California are not the same as those needed on the streets of Boston, or country highways of rural Iowa. Success in one environment can offer no guarantees of success in another. True, the rural Iowan might never make it off the end of the on ramp in LA or San Diego, but the ferocious Californian is just as poorly adapted in the face of roads without shoulders, open ditches, and slow-moving farm equipment. Asking the nation as a whole to mimic the hard-driving psychologies of either coast is similarly simple-minded and inappropriate. We are not a homogeneous culture requiring homogeneous skill sets. We each adapt to our own niches.
Biologically, of course, the survival of any individual is only of minor consideration in the much more crucial survival of the species. At this level it might be thought that having children is sufficient proof of “fitness.” Unfortunately, by this measure, the parents of a mule could count themselves successful and we know that that is not the case. Whatever its practical value, the mule is an evolutionary dead-end.
No, to really prove sufficiently that you have been ‘fit enough’ you must successfully create grandchildren. Childless couples have for centuries endured the constant urgings of their parents to produce grandchildren. We always thought it was a simple desire to spoil little kids and to brag to one’s friends about their virtues. We were wrong.
Consider the basic obituary. Among the deceased’s most important accomplishments are their surviving descendants. In some environments, dying with ten or more grandchildren is quite commonplace. In some parts of our country, having great-grandchildren before the age of sixty is not uncommon. And yet we argue about being “the fittest” and the need to do more and compete harder.
I’m not in favor of teen pregnancy nor am I arguing for a purely reproductive standard of success for the human race. But I think that we are missing the point when we focus on money, luxuries, and market share as the markers of accomplishment. Even just looking at our children is not sufficient focus on the issues of our evolution. Our children’s world is too much like our own to be judged either good or bad, sustainable or doomed.
What will the adulthood of my grandchildren look like? What measures can we take today to present them with a better world in which to enjoy their own grandchildren? Presuming that we as a whole are ‘fit enough’ to survive both the savage and the benign of our individual environments, how hard are we making it for our grandchildren to be ‘fit enough’ for their environments?
In many parts of our country coyotes have made such a resurgence that common housecats are no longer safe outside at night. Whatever the hazards to the coyotes, for the cats the city has become less benign, less easy to survive in. Species travel and adapt and force changes in the lives of other species all the time. Restoring those compromised habitats is both difficult and unlikely. Whether you seek a harsh or benign environment for yourself, whether your particular niche is stable or constantly changing, your future grandchildren will always need you to have been fit enough.
Take your vitamins. Plant a tree. Produce less garbage. Read good books. Have conversations with children. Walk to more destinations. Learn a second language. Resist the urge to become a coyote.
My youngest son is just one month old. I am forty-three. If he waits as long to have his children the world will have changed considerably for both of us. Me, I remember black & white television and cars without seatbelts. I remember a nationwide campaign to stop using our roadsides as trashcans and ashtrays. I remember summer trips without air conditioning. I remember a time when the police just stopped answering calls to a certain part of the city because their cars kept getting flipped over and burned by the angry mobs. I remember nickel candy. Everything changes.
I don’t think it’s important for me, my children, or my future grandchildren, to be the “fittest” we can possibly be. We only need to be fit enough, and we all get to help determine just how difficult that will be. Every day we do things (or fail to do things) that help create the conditions of our future. Yet many of us can’t be bothered to think past, “What’s for dinner?” Let’s see what we can do to keep housecat off the menu.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bragging About Our Parents

[This essay is not part of the original Liberation and Constraint collection. The teenagers in this essay are now in their twenties, one in graduate school, and the other a Senior at the University of Kansas. Both are admirable, whatever they currently think of me. And now I have a six year old son, too. So it's all begun again. Oh, and my parents are still terrific.]

Bragging About Our Parents
By Larry Brow
Copyright 2002

These days we spend a lot of time and ink on trying to understand kids and teenagers and the crazy/weird/stupid things they do. We worry about the influence of television, movies, music, and video games. We yammer endlessly about their esteem issues and their messed up attitudes about adulthood. We worry about their lack of respect.
Part of the solution for some people has been to swamp the child in activities and lavish praise for those activities. Some parents choose to express their love and concern through a seemingly full time commitment to their child’s every want and need. Whether it’s, “My child is an honor student at…,” or “My child can beat up your honor student,” many parents live through the achievements of their children.
I have had my share of this myself, though my children would be mortified if I ever put a bumper sticker about them on our car. Children are an eternal wellspring of story material and I have gladly told the stories to anyone who would listen. What seems more important to me though, is that they have stories to tell about me.
As a child I moved around a lot. My parents are academics and it seemed as if every other year I was the new kid in school. Under those conditions you cling to your family for a sense of identity and you depend upon their accomplishments for a sense of capability and purpose. I could brag about my parents (and still can). It gave me strength and it gave me an edge.
For most kids, their parents just work. Whatever the jobs are, it may be hard for the child to really understand the skills and accomplishments the job entails. Further, many jobs in our culture suffer a lot of bashing in the media. For instance, lawyers and salesmen may have children who lie about what their parents do, or feel no value in it except for the salary.
My parents are fluent in three languages and can read a couple more. Both in their sixties, my father still plays water polo and my mother is a librarian of legendary competence. I am proud to be their son and it has been part of my wanting to be a worthy person doing worthy things.
I look at my two teenagers carefully these days looking for the dangerous cracks in their self-esteem or the over-willingness to accommodate stupid friends. I see two fine people unwilling to have stupid friends. Two people who use seatbelts without shame or second thought. Two people who see cigarettes as idiotic and drunkenness as an undesirable loss of self-control. And I see them looking at me.
They see the man they grew up with; a lifelong martial artist, a working potter, a writer, a teacher. They see faults, as well, and dare to comment on them. Those faults get talked about. I am a work-in-progress, as are they. But their lives are not so much about the time they spend with their parents as it is about the time they spend elsewhere. What do they take from their parents to strengthen and protect them when those parents are absent?
Do they take with them rules or respect, pride or prejudice, praise or complaint? What do you do as a person (who happens to be a parent) to fill your child with respect? Every child wants to have something in their lives worthy of their friends’ envy. How many of us only supply money and material possessions? The next time you’re tempted to sign your kid up for yet another after-school activity why not sign yourself up for one instead? (And I don’t mean bowling and a few beers with the guys.) If your child is learning to play an instrument why not pick up an instrument yourself? If your kids play soccer, you could, too. Learn a language or improve your command of a language you studied as a child. Write a book. Do something.
Everyone I know who is happy with their parents (and by extension happy with themselves) expresses their respect for their parents in praise. That praise is never about money or possessions. One man’s mother produced television shows for public TV. A woman’s parents still travel the world in their seventies. Another woman’s father was indeed a great bowler, and used to go jogging back when the police still found that a suspicious activity. And so on, story after story.
Certainly men and women of accomplishment have found ways over the centuries to fail or ruin their kids. Many others have simply failed to express their own accomplishments appropriately. But for a sad multitude of parents, creating and shepherding the child seems to be their only accomplishment. All vices, faults, and mistakes aside, when you go to brag about your child consider what they might have to brag about in return.
Your child desperately wants to admire you, in part so that they can admire themselves, and in part so that your praise is more meaningful. Be admirable. Live courageously. Find ways to be worthy of their respect.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


56. Advertising

P.T. Barnum, of the internationally famous circus, once said something to the effect of, “Half of every dollar I spend on advertising is a complete waste. Unfortunately, I can never tell in advance which half that will be.” Advertising is full of such mysteries and no one has the correct approach all the time. It can also be a depressing aspect of your business, feeling that you could be doing better if your work were better known, and not being able to afford to advertise until your work starts to sell better. What can you do?
To start with, there are two broad categories of advertising to be considered. The first, name recognition, affects everyone in the ceramics professions and can be as simple as wearing your name tag at workshops or conferences. Meet people, learn their names, have them learn yours. Whenever possible, it’s nice when people can associate images of your pots with your name and face, but at this level the important thing is to be known at all. Until your fellow professionals have some sort of name for you, you don’t exist. Sure, that’s still you in the mirror, but an absolutely private artist is merely a hobbyist, no matter how good their work may be, posthumous fame notwithstanding.
This stage of your “advertising campaign” may seem very simple but you still have decisions to make. Most people have variations to their names. For instance, I can be, in different situations, “Larry Brow, Lawrence Michael Brow,” or “Lars.” My nephews refer to me as “Uncle Lars” because they have another Uncle Larry. As a toddler in Latin America I was, “Miguelito.” For some people I’m probably just, “that chair guy.” That’s fine. It’s all part of the process. Choose how to present yourself. Are you “Algonquin Remington Artfreak III” or “Butch?” Which “you” goes best with your pots and your profession?
Physical descriptions can be important, too. The same person can be either, “that tall guy, clean-shaven, always wears a nice black leather jacket,” or, “you know, the tall guy, scruffy beard, doesn’t own any pants without holes in the knees.” What’s your artist’s uniform?
What do you have to advertise? Until you know enough to be a useful information source, or until your pots are worthy of praise, all you can really do is be good company. Be a good listener. Be polite. Keep yourself and your work area tidy. Be an active student.
You may be tempted at this stage to have business cards. Are you in business? Before the phone companies stole the term people had “calling cards.” These occasionally quite elegant cards included a name and address and perhaps a phone number. They were not printed to promote business but rather as a gracious way to introduce oneself or to indicate that one had tried to visit but found the host absent. What information should you include? You may wish to add a phone number or an email address by hand for the benefit of a particular person but you’re not allowed to cross out such printed information unless it really is obsolete.
Which brings up quantity. If you’re completely stable, getting the good price on a thousand cards might seem like an excellent idea, but few of us are that stable. If nothing else, the phone companies keep making cards out-of-date by changing the area codes. I’ve been happiest lately buying cardstock and printing my own business cards with my computer printer at home. Do what you’re comfortable doing. Recently, I’ve received business cards from fellow artists that include full color images of their pots. It’s an amazing world.
In the second stage, sales advertising can be much more particular and much more expensive than simple name recognition. Your business name and any logo (or trademark visual) come to play here. What are you hoping to achieve? Keep in mind, you only advertise in an effort to sell additional inventory or to justify price increases on your current level of inventory. If you are selling well, on prices you feel happy with, without advertising, then you don’t need to advertise.
You still need good signage and displays, but don’t waste money advertising to sell pots you don’t have. First you must have good inventory and excess production capacity. Only then will you need to stimulate customer demand to meet your over-abundant supply.
This is where careful research and understanding of your potential customers will be most important. Sure you could mortgage your house and buy television advertising during a four a.m. bass fishing show, but how exactly would that help you to sell more tea sets or casseroles? Think it through.
In general, the Fairs you show at and the galleries you sell through all do their own advertising. Your single most effective way to assist them in those efforts is to keep your former customers informed. Your former customers are your potential return customers and the engines behind the word-of-mouth advertising you really want.
Give people the chance to be on your mailing list. Also, note the addresses on any checks you receive. These people have already proved that they like your work and are willing to pay to own it. Isn’t that wonderful? If you have a sale coming up at your studio, or a Fair in the area, let them know about it with enough advance notice so that they have time to make plans to attend (and to tell their friends, as well).
Of course, none of this is worth a nickel until you’ve got the work and the business habits to back it up. Word-of-mouth can also spread complaints, so be careful. Do not pull the spotlights onto yourself until you and your work can stand the glare. Why be the instrument of your own suffering? Mr. Barnum may have also asserted that “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” but he was not selling pots or advertising himself as an artist. You are. Pay attention. Look around. Ask questions. Be careful. Don’t frighten the fish. Advertising inappropriately can be the very thing that destroys your business.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Art Auctions

59. Art Auctions

You will, sooner or later, be invited to donate something to a charity art auction. You may even ask to be able to donate to a particular auction. This may be to support that particular cause, or perhaps you’re just hoping to improve your visibility among a certain group of people. Be warned, the art auction can be a very abusive experience, especially for a fledgling artist.
I see several possible benefits for the artist in participating in an art auction. I say, “possible” because you have to be paying attention to derive any of these benefits.
First, financially, your donation is tax deductible. As I understand the law, you get to deduct the cost of the materials and that’s all. Market value has nothing to do with it. If a tax deduction is what you’re after sell the work of art and donate the cash to the charity. Be sure to get a receipt, label it well and put it where you can find it when you prepare your taxes. If you still want the other benefits associated with having your work in the auction, sell it to a friend and have them donate it to the auction. The friend will deduct the full value of the piece (as documented by the detailed sales receipt you provide) and you can still donate the cash you received and for which you get a receipt from the charity. I’ve never done this, check with a qualified tax advisor first.
Financially too, my favorite art auction will give me one third of the final sales price if I request it. Other, less generous charities will look at you with some disdain if you even ask about this sort of arrangement. The one third serves mostly to repay artists for the out-of-pocket expense of having something professionally framed and is the mark of an auction that is trying to take care of its artists. It is added paperwork for the auction though, and some charities have trouble handling the details of even a basic auction.
Whenever possible research a particular art auction before you agree to participate in it. Observe their treatment of the art and the artists. Pay close attention to the crowd and the bids. And note carefully the sorts of objects that do well and the ones that do poorly.
Part of the value of any work of art is the value associated with the name and personality of the artist. If you are a new artist or unknown in the area of the auction your work will be at a disadvantage. Further, to do well in the context of an auction, your artwork must have at least two financially capable bidders. I once had a major piece sell for less than it should have simply because the second bidder reached her upper limit too soon. The couple with the winning bid expected the bidding to go higher and would have still bought the piece if it had. Of course I only learned this by talking to them later. Without that conversation I might have been quite depressed about the final price and considered the donation a mistake. Tying your ego to the results of an auction can be very dangerous particularly when no one in the audience knows to bid on your work.
Given a large enough (and empowered enough) audience an art auction can be a very good way to study public response to your work. In addition to the information you’ll get from the bidding the comments you overhear as an anonymous member of the audience may help you to understand and improve your work. One year I entered a piece of a type I liked but was having trouble selling to my regular clientele. At the auction, for charity I admit, but to a crowd of people unlike my usual customers, the piece sold for three times my expected price. Further, the bidding involved more that the minimum two bidders needed to advance the price. That particular auction showed me a lot about presenting work to its appropriate audience. This applies just as strongly to galleries and fairs. Sometimes your price is wrong, sometimes your presentation is wrong, sometimes your audience is wrong.
I’ve participated in various auctions because I liked how I was asked, because I liked the cause, because I thought it would be good publicity, and because I was just curious about the process. I’ve continued to donate work only to the one auction that truly works to treat its artists well. The work is on display for a month before the auction date. I am invited to several catered receptions during that month. I get two tickets to the auction evening. And I can choose to receive one third of the sale price back. Even if I don’t, I receive a nice thank you letter that identifies the buyer and the final sales price.
Auctions which do not provide these elements have a strong likelihood of leaving you feeling used, abused, and unimproved. Why agree to any of that?
One final point. Every such auction receives a certain number of “white elephants,” typically large unsuccessful pieces that the artist is dumping on the auction in the hope that some charitable fool will buy it. Now, the uncertainties of the auction format may lead to any object going unloved and unwanted but give yourself a chance! This is in part about your reputation and a piece that no one wants is a source of pain to everyone at the auction, not least the artist. That process of the auctioneer going lower and lower in search for an opening bid is excruciating. Do not use an art auction as a dumping ground for your mistakes or you may well do harm to your reputation as well as to that of the auction and the charity.
You may even use this concern to turn down an invitation simply by saying, “Yes, I’d love to be able to donate something to your auction but this year I just don’t have anything available that’s good enough. Will you be holding a similar auction next year at this time?” Then you can attend this year’s and judge for yourself about contributing to next year’s.
Expect to be treated with respect and make every effort to be worthy of that respect.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How Much Fame Do You Need?

69. How Much Fame Do You Need?

There are a wide variety of reasons for dedicating oneself to a life as a ceramic artist. Whether it’s money, job security, romanticism, self-satisfaction, therapy, or ego, each person in the profession has their own subtle mix and blend of personal ambitions. The hard part comes when those ambitions are either unreasonable or offensive.
Other people’s ambitions can be pretty amusing sometimes, even if our own are deadly serious. For instance, a person can wish to sell thousand dollar teapots, to be the most respected ceramics teacher in North America, to achieve tremendous artistic success with every pot they make, and to get their picture on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Ceramics Monthly at the same time. But just wishing for such things will not make them happen, and some ambitions are simply unattainable. Getting bent out of shape, or vocal, because those things aren’t happening just makes you poor company and even less likely to earn the respect of your profession.
At a wood-fire workshop in Wichita, Kansas, Joseph Bennion commented on the foolishness of up-and-coming young artists who want to be famous “by this time tomorrow.” What do they see as the benefits of fame? Do they see the hidden costs? Why do they imagine the world should particularly notice and honor their work?
Few of us take a completely anonymous approach to our art. You have to have a certain amount of ego just to be an artist, to attempt to create something, to impose some part of your will onto the clay, or stone, or canvas, or paper. Is your name part of your business name? Do you sign your pots? Is that signature actually legible? Do you understand the role of ego in your own work and career?
The question is, how much applause do we really need to sustain us? And how do we place ourselves to best earn the applause we desire? Books, magazines, workshops, conferences, juried shows, international competitions, and solo shows are all obvious mechanisms for getting your name and work recognized by a broader and more prestigious public. Is it worth giving up studio time to spend that time on self-promotion efforts? Only you can say, and then only years from now when the results are in.
In the meantime, remember that potters tend to have long careers and that respect takes longer to acquire than celebrity. The newspapers are full of well-known unfortunates nobody knew a thing about last year and nobody has any respect for now. Let your career build at its own natural pace without being either shy or obnoxious. Go places. Meet people. Make good pots. And please don’t sulk if the universe fails to kneel before your unprecedented genius “by this time tomorrow.” Everyone’s busy, we’ll get around to adoring you later.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

All Bleeding Eventually Stops

2. All Bleeding Eventually Stops

In one of the administrative offices at my graduate school they posted a not-so-subtle sign which read, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on our part.” Well, so much for sympathy. You’ve missed a deadline or failed to read your graduate catalog or never picked up the “Requirements for Degree Completion” and…what? This delays the awarding of your degree by a semester? A year? You get kicked out of the program? What?
First off, don’t set yourself up for these sorts of problems. Read the information they give you. Mark important dates on a calendar and, …wait for it…look at your damn calendar from time to time! Talk to fellow students, and to teachers, to keep up on rumored changes. Go into the office occasionally to read the announcements and memos posted there. Talk to the office staff. Know their names. Let them know you when you don’t have a problem and you don’t specifically want something from them. Notice things. Be polite.
My wife was a paramedic for ten years before returning to college for graduate degrees in Art History and Textiles. She’s always particularly amused when academics talk about an “emergency situation.” Is everyone breathing? Is anyone losing blood? How much blood? When you’ve restored absent heartbeats and saved dying babies, budget shortfalls and plagiarism hearings don’t seem so life-threatening. Even in a true emergency the paramedics’ proverb holds true. “All bleeding eventually stops.” The patient will either get better or die. And everybody dies, eventually. For paramedics, you do what you can the best way that you can, and after the call is over you go back to the station house, get your equipment back in order, and clean up. Some days you smile and brag, other days you just sulk and grumble. You cope.
Certainly some mistakes have disproportionately high costs, and no one should have to live a life of constant sorrows, but what really constitutes an emergency to you? Perhaps what you have is actually just an annoying, inconvenient, or notably stupid situation? I thought so.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Being a Valuable Person

62. Being a Valuable Person

Tony Hillerman writes wonderful crime novels set in the American Southwest, in the reservation country of the Navajo, the Hopi, the Zuni, and other Native American nations. In one of his books in particular he refers to a specific Zuni man as being respected by his neighbors as “a valuable man.” I was struck by this and have thought of it many times since. How many of us even think about being thought of in such terms? How much better might our culture be if we each worked towards such a goal? You could write a whole book on that subject alone.
In our culture we’re not shy about making judgements about one another. Rich or poor, nice or a jerk, handsome or ugly, the only people spared our opinions are the ones we don’t notice or can’t be bothered to notice. Everyone’s tastes vary but in general the best that we can hope for in the opinions of others is to be thought ‘nice, good-looking, and financially secure.’ Extremes of these virtues can even be a problem. For instance, being rich, gorgeous, and super-sweet can all be seen as hard to be around and untrustworthy. It’s difficult to know what to want for oneself. What does it mean to really be successful?
It’s good to be financially secure, to pay one’s bills, and to have the money to get things done. On the other hand, Lottery winners often find themselves alienated from their family and friends, and increasingly paranoid about losing their sudden wealth.
Beautiful people can be perceived as vain and unapproachable (whether they are or not) and end up lonelier and less confident than the merely attractive.
Saccharin sweet personalities can easily be seen as unintelligent or unable to defend their own interests. Working too hard to be agreeable makes them difficult to respect or to see as having likes and dislikes of their own. They seem to lack any substance worthy of respect.
The respect you receive for being well-off, attractive, and good company can be delightful but those virtues don’t necessarily have staying power and they don’t improve your community. Beauty fades, wealth can dissipate, and even personalities can sour or stiffen with time. How do you remain valuable to your community? Do you have skills or special knowledge? Are you reliable and available to those who may need you? Do you only act in your own self-interest or do you willingly act to benefit others? Are things better where you have been?
Being valuable here is not about money, though in a capitalist culture it can be hard not to think in terms of money. If I earn less money than some other employee clearly the employer finds me and my work less valuable. What other conclusion can I draw? It’s one of the most devastating aspects of unemployment, job-hunting, and retirement. If my skills are not worth money to someone else today then I am without worth today.
When your pots aren’t selling does that make them worthless? No. Buying and selling are much too complex for a snap judgement like that to be true. Similarly, the unemployed (or the underemployed) person should not allow themselves to be tricked into miscalculating their own worth. Yet it happens all the time.
Be valuable to your community and keep matters of money separate from matters of esteem. Be clear-eyed in the ways other people are valuable to you and express your appreciation. Act to place yourself in situations in which your skills and experiences can be put to work. Do not be the center of your own universe.
If everything you do and say is about you, what value can you possibly bring to anyone else’s life? Sure, you can always serve as a bad example to others, but each of us can easily be more valuable in other ways. Wherever you go, seek to be remembered as having been “a valuable person” when you have gone. That will be your true mark of success.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Vampire Potters

47. Vampire Potters

Among the many temptations facing ceramics students is the temptation to work late into the night. The phones don’t ring, the bustle of the shared studio spaces has eased, and a person simply works until exhaustion stops them. This can easily lead to the curse of a studio inhabited by “vampire potters,” potters you never see in daylight.
Some of this phenomenon may just be youthful exuberance, a leftover teenage delight in staying up late. For others, the daylight hours are simply too cluttered with class and work conflicts. And, of course, there is always the occasional all-nighter just to meet a deadline or to finish a project or to fire off a kiln. I remember fantasizing in the weary hours about never pulling another all-nighter again once I was safely out of school. Ironically, I’ve endured more all-nighters since leaving school than I ever did during school.
No, my concern is not for those students who enjoy the night and who harness its great potential for productivity. My complaint was with those students who seemed to be actively avoiding the day, particularly when those same students held assistantships.
Because my schedule was linked with my wife’s work and my children’s daycare schedules, I was an unusually ‘eight to five’ graduate student. Though mornings were quiet, especially early on, as the day progressed the building could get both busy and noisy. On the other hand, the professors were there and available for conversations, problem-solving, and up-to-the-minute rumor exchange. They could answer questions, see your work, and see you as someone who was working.
Of course, they sometimes had chores for anyone they could find to do them. This could be anything from the “coolie labor” of shifting a wood pile to the normal maintenance of kilns and a kiln room. The “vampires” were increasing cynical and self-serving in avoiding those chores. Sometimes, work assignments would be forwarded to the vampires by message or note, and they would get the work done in the wee hours. But this absenteeism was not good for their relationships with the professors. Regardless of their productivity in the dark hours, because they were absent during the day it was harder to think of them as good students; interested, active, conversational, and helpful.
I understand that during the glory days of the Otis Art Institute, Peter Voulkos and his students would often work late into the nights feeding off each other’s energy to achieve spectacular results. Great stuff, and today’s students should not deny themselves similar experiences if they can find a “vampire professor” to share them with. But you go to graduate school in part to have access to the guidance of professors and you should not lose track of them or your shared commitment to the life of the studio. You’ve worked hard to gain access to your professor’s expertise. Why avoid it now? Why hide in the dark?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Taking Commissions

45. Taking Commissions

This can be a very divisive issue among potters. Many refuse to even consider creating art to match someone else’s specifications. It becomes a fundamental issue of authorship. Others have horror stories of difficult or even impossible patrons, projects from hell. Certainly an artist’s life is much simpler without taking commissions. On the other hand, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted as a commission and Michelangelo did not want to do it. Good things can come from taking commissions.
First among the benefits, of course, is the money. When the technical problems emerge (or the client changes their mind) the money may not seem like enough but it is money at a time, perhaps, when money is in short supply. Value that money appropriately, but be careful not to set your price too low.
Second, a commission is, in effect, a class assignment for which you get paid. The challenge of the assignment has many of the benefits for you as an artist that school assignments had. You will be learning things you might never have attempted otherwise. Successfully completing the commission will make you a better artist simply because you will have added to your storehouse of experience and expanded the range of your skills.
Third, completing a commission is good for your sense of confidence and self-esteem. Even if the project stunk and the customer was a complete nuisance, you survived. You now know more than you did before, even if what you now know is that you never want to take another commission again. Fine. You were tough enough to see this one through. Congratulate yourself. Walk taller.
And fourth, work is work and valuable for its own sake. However horrible fulfilling the commission may have been, you were working, problem-solving, creating. What must be more horrible for any artist is inactivity. Creating art for which you do not get paid makes you a hobbyist. Failing to create work at all makes you either a has-been or a never-was. If it takes a commission to keep you working, then God bless it, and do your best.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


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.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wave Theory for Prospective Teachers

32. Wave Theory for Prospective Teachers

For a variety of reasons students earning an M.F.A. are often relatively uninformed about the process of applying for college teaching jobs. Many seem to think that the jobs announced by the College Art Association in the winter months are the only positions available. Online job search sites are easing this somewhat but academic jobs still don’t come open in the same way that those in other careers do.
Like gardening, job hunting in academia is a lot about timing. Most schools start their academic years in August or September and any new faculty they hire need to be ready to get to work at that time. Luckily for the schools, they usually have many months or even years to prepare for and conduct their selection process. In Art related fields this often involves the College Art Association and its annual conference in February. The jobs available at this time are what I think of as the “first wave” of jobs. It is only the first of four distinct periods of job availability.
The first wave of available jobs are those that have been announced by the most prestigious institutions and by those schools that had the most warning that they were going to have a gap in their faculty. Because they have enough time they can advertise widely and give a large number of applications careful consideration. (Oddly enough, because the selection process is imperfect, all schools hiring new faculty are likely to have to repeat the process within two to three years when the person they’ve hired moves on or fails to meet expectations. Keep an eye out for those return opportunities.)
Anyway, because the first wave of job searches is the most attractive, best organized, and most competitive, the people being hired for those positions are often current faculty at other schools. The searches mounted to replace the teachers who have left for new jobs are the “second wave” of job opportunities.
The second wave also includes institutions that mishandled the deadlines necessary to be part of the first wave and those schools whose authority to conduct a search did not exist until March or April. Whatever the reasons, these schools have to act with greater haste and with less widespread publicity. And, of course, they can’t conduct interviews at the CAA conference. These positions are often less desirable, too, because someone has given them up to take a better situation in the first wave.
Nonetheless, some of the people winning job offers in the second wave of searches are also teachers currently employed at other schools. Their resignations from their previous jobs usually come just before the deadline for signing their contracts for the coming year. At this point in the academic calendar (just after the second wave) everyone with a teaching job is committed to that job for the next year, so you’re no longer competing against other teachers. But vacancies still need to be filled. Resignations, unplanned retirements, illnesses, and deaths occur over the summer months. Further, school administrators may find that a mid-summer shift in finances makes it possible to hire adjunct faculty. This then is the “third wave.”
Because the third wave of job searches occurs so near to the start of the school year it is usually limited to the immediate vicinity of the college or university. Few may hear of it. Advertising is likely to be very haphazard and often relies on word of mouth and a network of phone calls. The pool of applications the school collects is likely to be very small and their expectations of finding someone fully qualified will be low. Some institutions would rather cancel the classes than suffer the indignities of a third wave job search, but many hate having to turn students away from classes they pre-registered for in the Spring and will compromise their standards. For the recent M.F.A. without “three years college teaching experience” this is the best opportunity for getting onto someone’s faculty. Because you’ll be bailing some administrator out of a jam, and because they aren’t expecting much, this is also a great chance to really shine. If you do well enough they may just keep renewing your contract so that they don’t have to go through the trouble of conducting a proper (and expensive) “first wave” job search for the next year.
Do your absolute best. Cut no corners. Remember that your initial difficulties in getting a job were not about your talent or your education. Usually they were about experience. Once you’ve been hired, however undignified the circumstances, you start becoming an experienced teacher. You’ve got a lot to learn and you may only have a single semester to earn good letters of recommendation from your colleagues and department chair. Be attentive, cheerful, competent, and adaptable.
The “fourth wave,” such as it is, is similar to the third but precedes the start of the Spring semester. To take advantage of the third or fourth wave of job openings; make some kind of contact with the departments of every school you could reasonably commute to, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities that can not be predicted, have all your application materials up to date, and be ready to start quickly.