Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Piece You Wish You'd Made

"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly, DECEMBER, 2008, PAGE 80. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic Publications Company"

The Piece You Wish You’d Made

This is not intended as an essay on the subject of regret, but rather, as an exploration of artistic ambition. However, regret can easily become part of the life of any working artist. What might I have made of my opportunities if I had only approached things a little differently? What objects might I have made instead?

One of the best assignments I ever came up with for a Ceramics I class required leaving the ceramics studio completely. The whole class took time away from the pots to walk over to the library. Some of my students had never actually been in the building before. Even my seniors weren’t very familiar with its layout, and were properly embarrassed about that.

As a group, we puzzled out the location of the ceramics books. I hadn’t taken the time beforehand to see what the library had. Luckily, they had a good selection, almost two and a half shelves worth, probably purchased in earlier decades.

The assignment was simple. Browse. Look at the pictures of pots. Find one that you wish you’d made. Bring the book to class next week. Show us the picture and spend a few minutes explaining your choice. I was also very careful to stress that this was not a trick. I wasn’t then going to require that they copy the piece. I just wanted them to browse (without using the internet), to think about a variety of pots, to make value judgments about those pots, and (most importantly for a beginning ceramics class) to talk about a good pot with the rest of the class.

In effect I had created a first “practice” critique in which very few of the comments or questions would be negative and in which each student could remain relatively unemotional, because they had no “authorship” stake, and because there were no wrong answers to the assignment. As the semester progressed, it helped a great deal to have given the students this early time imagining themselves as fully trained professional ceramicists making skillful decisions about beautiful works of art. And, independent of my prodding, it got the students talking about issues of decoration and form, utility and whimsy.

In my own life I’ve often played a similar game at art galleries, museums, or receptions. It has two parts, sometimes three. First, which work of art do I wish I’d made? Sometimes, it’s a brilliant use of materials, sometimes it’s a combination of ideas and elements that play off each other dramatically. Scale, both large and small can bring me to envy. Technique, particularly the most mysterious combinations of techniques can often catch my eye. Color, texture, form, and harmony all sing their little songs to me.

Second, which work of art would I most like to own? (Not for its resale value but for the pleasure of living with it.) Many successful works of art are nonetheless disturbing and hard to be around for any length of time. These pieces, though impressive in their own way, may be part of why museums of contemporary art are often so difficult to linger in. They communicate in ways that may be ideal for those with short attention spans, but which ultimately run contrary to the search for personal harmony.

And third, when price lists are available, which of all the pieces in the show has the highest price tag? In other words, which piece do I think the artist found most successful, or was the most reluctant to part with?

Now some may wonder how often the piece I wish I’d made and the piece I most want to own are different pieces? Quite often, actually. I have a lot of fascination with, and respect for, skills and visions I don’t personally want to possess. Also, art in a home creates a sort of open dialogue from piece to piece and from piece to person. I don’t want to live in an internal landscape populated exclusively with my own work. That’s much too much like sitting in a corner talking to myself.

Nor am I interested in copying the works of other artists I wish I’d made myself. I try to learn from them. I try to make my future work successful in some of the same ways. I try to take courage from their success. But I don’t make copies, not even of my own work. The lessons I need to learn come from my own ongoing improvisational work, incremental variations on the various themes that reflect my personal jumble of values and preferences.

We can look for challenge and inspiration outward or inward or in our current work. It’s all bound to help in some way, even if that help is often mysterious. What always helps, though, is having a sense of ambition about our future work, wanting it to be terrific in some way we only get hints of in the work of other artists. If you’re just making product, just trying to fill the shelves for the next show, then you’re leaving an important part of your brain (and your heart) out of the fun. You’re just having another day at your job. And maybe ambition hasn’t been a part of the picture for a while.

Because our shows, and portfolios, and careers are always based on pieces we’ve already made – last week, last month, or last year – we can easily be forced to spend too much time focusing on our own past work. Terrific or horrible, promising or unexciting, past efforts should not be what fills the thoughts of a working artist. The greatest source of emphasis for the artist must always be the piece at hand, the piece of greatest suspense, the emotionally charged masterwork of the near future, the combination of solutions answering the freshest questions.

As an artist, it’s up to you to organize your life so that today you can spend some time working on “the piece you wish you’d made” yesterday. There are no guarantees. Your vision may prove flawed, your techniques inadequate, and your materials defective, but if you’re good at harnessing the unrelenting energy of your ambition, day after day, you will inevitably improve your work and find joy in having made it.

Fame and fortune? Those are different ambitions entirely.