Archives for the month of: October, 2006

Happy Halloween, all.

Make dilemmonade.

Last night the salt kiln’s first firing had to be aborted due to frozen tanks and maybe a short stack, but it was really exciting to be standing there watching the creature we had built last summer, bricked up and breathing fire. The bricks used to be Diana’s kiln in Canada, and it’s truly a phoenix — even if was a few hundred degrees short of rising all the way out of the flames, reborn. My teacher says we learn from our failures… I’m taking notes about what changes we’ll make.

We’re revved up and want to refire, soon. I have offered to park my pop-up out there for a warm place with coffee, a table for cards, and beds for sleeping in shifts, if it comes to that.

This morning I woke to the kids, standing by my bed, looking stricken. Apparently they had been wrestliing around and crashed into the box of pots I brought home to finish last night — two big faceted jars awaiting lids are now history.

I’d love to say I leapt from bed smiling and said something positive, but I’m a quart low on Mary Poppins this morning. There was a lot of grumbling as I stumbled around trying to get my day going, stuck between the need to ride herd on my little homeschoolers, and the need to produce some work — and fast — for the gas kiln Patrick, Reem and I are supposed to load and fire next week. I have a private student coming at 3:30, and teach at the guild tonight, so there were just not going to be enough hours in the day.

I started my coffee, and walked out across the frosted lawn to the studio. There was a thin skin of ice across the bat-washing tub under my rain barrel, and my Brent looked cold and forlorn on the deck. (The CI, my student wheel, is inside where it’s warm.) So I had a brainstorm.

I went back in to the new sunroom, where the boys were getting out their books at the table, and laid a tarp on the (still unfinished) landing. (It’s cement, and cement board, awaiting the hand made tiles I will magically have time to make one day.) I brought in my wheel and laid ware boards along the edge of the landing, scooted the armchair table over to where I could help Molly with her schooling, and brought in the broken pots as a visual reminder.

So I have been throwing all morning, and just took a break for lunch. The wheel can’t stay where it is, but for today, this setup seems to have solved both problems.

The kids still felt bad, but I said, “Hey, look. They are just pots. I can make more. Diana wants me to make a series of every form, so I’ll just call those broken ones my practice runs, and go from there.” They seemed to think that was a good plan, and quit looking guilty.

Gotta go. More coffee, more pots, multiplying fractions and antonyms and synonyms.

A friend read my last blog and gave me a gentle scolding. It sounded to her like I was caving in, backsliding, losing my resolve to put my MFA work above all else and give it 100% for the two allotted years. “You have to make sacrifices”, she said.

I thought about that for a day or so. One of the things that has happened to me in my critique-rich environment is that I’m seeing the advice people offer, suggestions and perspectives from outside my own little bubble, can be very useful if I let them in. I come from an advice-dealing family and quit giving outside counsel much credence somewhere in my teen years.  I’ve evolved to a point where I could let it in — sometimes — in limited quantities — when I am feeling grounded, and when it doesn’t seem to contradict my basic sense of who I am. As a firstborn whose first inclination is to tap dance for approval, I have learned that my sense of self relies heavily on my ability to recalibrate my giveashit meter when it comes to other people’s opinions.

So I looked over my last blog, the part about taking back a few of the pleasures, some of the down time. The part about pacing myself. I tried on the possibility that I was surrendering, in some way. Here’s what I came up with.

I’m not too worried about becoming lazy. Work without brakes is a family tradition, and the family joke. When I am not working on pots, I am working on the house, digging fall clothes for five out of the attic, making homeschool lesson plans, working in the yard, working on my website or — for recreation — gathering wood to build a fire and bake hearth oven bread.

But I am determined not to become the family Jane Goodman writes about, both parents working all the time to pay child care for kids they rarely see, and to afford a big house they are never in because they are at work all the time. My compromise is to work my ass off here at home, but it’s still possible to “miss it”.

I am not especially goal oriented with this college program. The MFA is the bar I have set for myself, but it in itself is not a ticket to anything I want, especially. I don’t picture myself launching a teaching career right away, if it means putting my kids in school before they choose to go.  Between my seven years in the english department, my husband’s 15 managing a university research facility, and my general impression of what life is like for my current art department profs, teaching looks like a lot of battles, a shrinking budget, a tangle of bureaucracy and very little time to make your own pots. I don’t have the energy for that AND homeschooling. But if I was just in this for the piece of paper, I might be tempted to skate by and do less. As it is, I am in it for the experience, and want every minute I have paid for.

But the reason I am in this — and the reason I am carving tuition payments out of our groceries, out of Christmas — is to learn everything there is to know, in two years. Diana offered me some flexibility with scheduling, but I have not yet taken advantage of the offer. I have never missed a class, plus spend nine hours every Tuesday at the wheel in the EMU studio — and much of the weekend in my own. Last weekend in between family stuff I made half a dozen porcelain-ish cups, another three part Anatolian jug, a giant beetle shaped platter which I then cast in plaster at the kitchen table, and several pots that would never live to see a kiln — plus glazed and fired a couple of big casseroles for a fundraiser auction for homeless transitional housing. I read my seminar homework (postmodern painting) on the drive to buy pumpkins (even though when my kids read in the car, I say, “You’re missing the fall trees!”)

I see plenty of fall color driving US23, but I miss other stuff. I have never met my kids’ lego robotics team. I haven’t seen Molly do gymnastics, been there for my boys’ Tae Kwon Do belt tests, or attended a scout meeting. Grandma takes them to the art museum instead of Mom. Four nights a week they eat dinner with my empty chair, while I microwave yet another plastic tub of white-bean-and-kale soup. I spend much of Thursday with private students or teaching my one remaining guild class, earning the money to pay my tuition. (Half time grad assistantship helps, but I have to pay the other half without being able to make pots to sell.)

I’m skipping the guild Christmas sale this year, though I could use the cash. There’s just no way to make “extra” pots, not to mention fitting in the mandatory meetings, set up, clean up, and sign up to sell. I might glaze and box last summer’s leftover bisque for the little craft sale at the UU church, but frankly, it now looks like a collection of awkward proportions, too sharp rims, “I-never-really-considered-this-heavy-until-I-started-school” weightyness.

Other sacrifices I made to prepare for the MFA weigh on me in a background-mourning kind of way: after 15 years of tending a 30X40 organic garden, this year I pulled out the fences and mowed the whole thing. It’s now an odd colored patch of lawn, with crabgrass, dandelions and volunteer arugula (which makes for a skunky mow.)

I gave away my laying hens after 12 years and tore down the coop.

The absent-ness of big purple eggplants, fresh warm eggs and rows of canned stewed tomatoes in my kitchen doesn’t seem like a quality-of-life issue, but I am beginning to see that I gardened more for the mental health factor than the produce.

So yeah, I feel like I am making sacrifices. The fact that it’s stuff some of my friends jettisoned long ago (like sit down dinners) is small consolation.

While my parents, husband, brother and kids sat down to Tyler’s birthday dinner, I was in the car, doing part of my 200-miles-in-three-days commute.

My littlest child’s last years of being little will be available to me in glimpses, between let’s-sit-down-and-get-your-schoolwork-done and gimmee-a-kiss-mom-has-to-go-see-you-tomorrow-night. I know I still see as much of my kids as my friends who put theirs on the yellow bus every day, but so much of our week now is about work, work, get your work done, do this over, bring me the one you didn’t finish at grandma’s yesterday. Teacher mom is not much fun, and fun mom is only around on weekends — when she’s not in the studio.

This is damn hard. It’s not easy, at 45, to step out of the teacher-who-knows-her-stuff role and sit in the student-who-has-a-lot-to-learn chair. I can be a grown up about it, joke with Patrick and Reem about it, and I DO believe it’s worth the hard work to ferret out all that is wrong with my pots and reach for a higher standard. But it sucks sometimes.

Last night I came in quietly, locked the front door, dumped my bags in the front room and came in to see if the kids were asleep, or still reading. Connor peered out of his loft bed and stretched down to give me a kiss goodnight. “How was your drive?” he asked. “Fine,” I said, “no snow, no ice, no rain. One creamed deer.”

“I heard you cried at school”, he said. (He must have heard his dad on the phone.)

“Nobody saw me”, I said. “I just get frustrated because I can’t make my pots get better as fast as I want them to.”

He reached down and patted my head. I had to laugh at the role reversal. Next my kids will have to go in for a parent-teacher conference so Diana can report on my progress. And wait until I bring home my grade card! I was handed back a graded paper last night in seminar. It’s the first time my writing has come back scribbled with corrections and suggestions since 1988. Even Polly at Clay Times doesn’t do that.

So after a bit of soul searching, I am still OK with giving myself time for guilty pleasures and stolen time. I never watch TV and don’t have many time-suckign habits besides this blog. I can still work circles around some folks, and I have learned that there is a price for pushing too hard (esp.in my 40s.) I get scattered, forget things — I can handle that. I get sick if I don’t get enough sleep or stay too stressed for too long — I’ll be careful. But if I don’t put down my things-to-do list once in a while to breathe in, recharge, and take stock, I become joyless.

I can’t make good work without some spark of joy. I can’t be a good mom without some spark of joy. I can make a little spark go a long way — especially in mid winter, when the world can look pretty bleak — but I can’t let it go out. That means figuring out what can be sacrificed, and what’s not negotiable.

Time to make breakfast, the kids are up.

 

This is the bigger shot of the timeline I talk about below. I have no idea how to do most of the tricks this blog requires, and have no idea why my posts come out with huge spaces between paragraphs or how to edit them. I also don’t know how to respond to guestbook comments. It’s basically a message in a bottle, intended for who-knows-who…

splash…

Once in a while you hear something so true, so directed to the moment you are living, that it resounds like a bell in your head. Most recently it was an African proverb shared by my friend Stephani — one which needs to be lettered in paint on my studio door.

“Go fast”, said the rabbit.

“Go slow”, said the tortoise.

“Pace yourself”, said the cheetah. “It’s a long run.”

This week the readjustments of ballast have resulted in a more even keel. Jeff gave the kids a pep talk about teamwork, explaining that supporting mom in her new challenge means more than just saying so… it means pitching in and doing your part. So that helped.

One of the things I realized was that some of the pursuits I eliminated from my schedule as “luxuries” — like exercise, coffee with a friend, or making pizzas in the backyard cob-oven — were not luxuries at all, but instead were the pleasure-breaks that refuel my enthusiasm, and give me a break so I can come back to my pursuits with a fresh perspective.

I have come to relish weekends, that breather after early-week college hours and late-week catch up at home — and am determined to preserve them for family and rest, for regeneration. No little nagging voices are allowed to whisper, “You could be making pots” or “Go make the kids’ lesson plans for next week”. We cook, we relax, we play board games and lie around reading or hike at the park. Jeff goes out to turn wood, and I go out to the studio just to dork around, play, do little fun projects totally unrelated to my academic pottery.

You know what? Some of my best ideas happen when I am not trying to be profound.  When I try NOT to do university-work with clay, stuff still happens.

And somehow the less I think intentionally about art and my reading, pots and ideas, the more everything around me sneaks up with suggestions or connections. So I am renewed in my faith that there is no such thing as wasted time.

One of the things I am by no means required to do – so it’s really fun — is to photocopy the ancient pots I am learning about at school, and stick them on the hallway timeline the kids made last year for our ongoing “Story of the World” ancient history curriculum.

Like most pre-packaged learning materials, we take what we like and leave the rest, ignoring coloring pages and more schoolish approaches, but reading the cool stories. The kids draw their own pictures for the timeline. Today the boys made Lego seige towers after we read about the cruel leader of Assyria — and Molly drew him, looking mean and surrounded by the heads of the conquered, on pikes. Honestly, they seem fascinated by this stuff, gore and all. My leanings are a little more pacifist, but I figure if the boys can watch “X-Men” with their dad, they can handle history.

I tape my pots on their timeline, and they think, “Hey, look at the stuff these people made and used.” For me, it’s much more interesting. I always knew the pots, and now I am learning the history to match them. That Minoan jar I always liked with the painted octopus has now been colored in for me by the story of King Minos and the people and culture of his time.

History of the world, in pots. I suppose if I was an architect it would be dwellings and palaces. they say when the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything like it’s a nail.

A friend suggested that I should be sure to let my kids see what I am getting out of this MFA experience. It’s not what you might expect.

What they are enjoying the most is seeing their mom/teacher getting a little of her own medicine.  Part of my job as a fun-sucking mom is to say, “You can do better than that. Try again.”

Or, “Sorry, that’s wrong. Give it another shot.”

They sometimes wail that they worked HAAAARD on that, or tell me all the reasons it’s really not wrong, but I am the final word around here, and that is that.

So now it’s mom. I come home and report to them that I have to make three lidded jars bigger than my head and not squatty, and remake the Anatolian jug with the RIGHT proportions this time, and read this convoluted several pages of postmodern art vocabulary for my seminar class… if they are unsympathetic I read them a few lines until they flee.

Then on Monday afternoon, I pack my pottery homework into a foam lined box and my books and papers into my bookbag, four meals in my lunchbox, and off I go, assured by the kids that my pots looks great and I’ll do fine.

Then I come home. “How did they like your pots?” the kids ask brightly. A lot of times the answer is, “They didn’t”. Some went in the slop, some ride the long miles back to my home studio, some need reworking if they ever hope to see the inside of a kiln.

I don’t whine, I don’t tell them I worked haaaaard, I don’t say the profs are wrong and I am right. I do what I hope they will do, and go start over. And do it better.

Last time I came home pretty happy. The glaze kiln had been unloaded and my very first pots to survive wet-leatherhard-greenware-bisque-glazing were finished.  I announced proudly to Connor, who met me at the door, that I made some pots that turned out pretty good.

He folded his arms, doubtfully. “YOU think they were good, or Diana thinks they were good?” When I reported that Diana had liked a bowl I painted in cuerda seca with a big beetle, (his favorite bug to draw) he ran off woo-hooing through the house, and went to report to his siblings that mom finally made some pots that didn’t suck.

Whichever kid set table for breakfast even awarded me the “fish dish”, the special plate reserved for a family member who has a big event or successful day.

So, yeah, they are learning something out of all this. Molly is still dubious, and  has suspicions that when I finish my MFA I might like to teach, which would mean I wouldn’t be home all day. She has insisted for years that she plans to live with me forever, even when she is a grown up. She does intend to marry and have children one day, but expects they won’t mind living with me.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that by the time she is 16 and knows everything, I will be so stupid and dorky and clueless that she will count the days until she can move out.

Or that by the time she is having my grandbabies — if, indeed, that is what she chooses — I might well be traveling, in an elderhostel somewhere, or on a train in India, sending postcards home.

For now, though, I tell her that will be fine, and she can live with me for as long as she likes.

Off to bed, for me. Tomorrow is library-piano-saxophone-lessons day, and breakfast is bright and early.

It’s week 5 of the MFA. In last night’s seminar, students from various disciplines went from studio to studio, discussing each others’ work — an incredibly useful, informative, and sometimes bewildering experience.

When we talked about what we are learning, my self assessment was uncharacteristically humble. I explained that, although I once considered myself pretty accomplished, the new space, new clay, new glazes, new goals, new standards, and instructions to forego my old rodeo tricks, have taught me that I can’t find my ass with both hands.

Another student looked up with similarly work-weary eyes, and said, “YOU’RE using TWO hands?”

The other highlight of my week was something I overheard, walking into the MFA studio. (The generous profs gave up their roomy, well lit office space to cram desks into a little entryway, so the MFA students could have the big room.)

I had been making and scrapping pots and making more, cutting off parts of pots I liked to leave on my table as a visual reminder, and making lots of pots in the EMU studio and my own, to bring in for crits. Many — OK, most — were discussed as interesting learning experiences, with a seed of idea, but deemed unworthy of the kiln. So when I heard Diana and Lee at my table, raving over something lovely that should be fired, I puffed myself up and elbowed in to see what had passed muster.

Turns out it was my scrap pile. I had cut the rim off of one pot, tossed a few trimmings in the middle of it, and then picked it up to dump it in the slop before getting interrupted and putting it down.

They knew it was my scrap pile, but pointed out the accidental loveliness, elements of un-plannedness, un-sketchedness, un-carefulness, un-fussiness, un-controlledness and un-all that other stuff they are trying to beat out of me ;0)

It was hilarious. It’s in the bisque now as a reminder. “Honey, guess what? I made something that got a good review!”

Don’t get me wrong — Diana is all about form, form and form. She’s not the type to encourage students to make conceptual work or write flowery statements about a lump of s’crap. There was just something about the undulating boat-shaped rim, and the randomness of its fillings, that she wanted me to see, so I could loosen up and allow for the occasional happy accident in my work. She is amazed that I am a tight, controlled thrower, as it seems to ill suit my personality.

I have to admit that while I feel the challenges of the MFA are not insurmountable, I am quickly losing my sister-mary-sunshine predictions about how smoothly things would go at home. After five weeks the wheels have begun to come off the wagon. Household duties neglected for five weeks begin to pile up. My kids are so over the novelty of this new routine, and just want me home. Three nights a week I am in Michigan for dinner… one night a week I am teaching at the guild to pay my tuition. We have never missed family dinners together, not since they were old enough to sit at the table and rub peas into their hair. So this is new, and they are weary of it.

Homeschooling done on Tuesday at Grandma’s is generally on the “Cat’s away” plan, rushed through because Grandma has air hockey and a pool table and lets them eat Froot-Loops and watch cartoons and play nintendo until their eyeballs fall out of their heads. I end up on Wednesday mornings playing catch-up for Monday and Tuesday, trying to get everybody back on track before I’m back on the highway headed for Wednesday night class. Plus there’s laundry, bills, meals, appointments, and whatever else my truly helpful and hardworking hubby can’t wedge in after work — as he runs kids to Tae Kwon Do, scouts, gymnastics and lego robotics, negotiating their suppers and showers and details.

Molly now follows me around the house all day long, carrying her homeschooling to wherever I am so she can be nearby. I made her a calendar but she asks almost daily, “Are you going to be home tonight?

So I keep readjusting my approach. I made a new rule that school work not done well on Tuesdays will be made up on Saturday mornings. I have started getting the crew up at 8 for a big sit down breakfast with mom, so we can talk and enjoy each other, and then all get our school work done before lunch. We have always had a chore chart with little ring tags to flip, but now jobs well done without reminders are points toward “screen time” — (limited amounts of educational CDs/games/programs during the week, and brain candy/nintendo/game boy on weekends.) The chore chart is on my website, primalpotter.com — (somebody always asks). Don’t look at the pots.

My next project will involve a thin board on the closet wall for each kid, with seven clothes pins screwed to it — M-T-W-Th-F-S-S. One pair of clean matched socks per kid per day, to be sorted and “loaded” on Sundays. My kids put on and take off socks all day long, and I find them under couch cushions, on book shelves, under the computer, under the piano, everywhere. Then when it’s time to go to gym class nobody can find a pair. I suppose before long I will have to hang up our little clothespin-board for clipping mittens by the back door, too.

I am realizing that I organized my life so that I could divide my time between my own schooling and the kids’ schooling. What I didn’t do is allow any wiggle room — “what the heck, let’s go pick apples today” room — spontaneous picnics and art projects — lie in the papa san chair and read together time… nor did I consider the time I usually spend on birthdays (Tyler was 13 on Monday, Connor’s 11 in November) home made halloween costumes, house projects, grown up social life and mommy’s sit-quietly-and-just-breathe moments. The bread oven in the yard is collecting spider webs.

Two years, Jeff keeps saying. You can do anything for two years. But then Molly looks at me with her big bambi eyes and asks if she can sleep with my pillow at night because it smells like me… and I think about how long two years can be when you’re a third grader.

Readjustment, that’s all. I’m home with my kids every morning but one, I do half my work in a studio fifty yards from my house, and we’re all pretty lucky. It’s just hard for me to remember that. I am the classic firstborn, needing to be good at everything. I have to be a good student, a good potter. But then mommy guilt makes me overcompensate by trying to be super-mom as well. I gave up chickens, garden and a few committees but I’m looking around for other things I can jettison to get more altitude. (The kids are not an option.)

After we put a chimney on the salt kiln and chained up the new tanks on Tuesday, Diana made us all omelettes at her house for lunch. When I told her I hadn’t made of canned the winter’s applesauce yet this year, she looked at me like I was nuts. Oh, yeah, I think. I can buy it at the store. For two years.

When I worried aloud, last weekend at the women’s campout, that Jeff’s suppers — grilled cheese, hot dogs, french toast, and pizza — are not too nutritious for the kids, I was almost laughed out of the fire ring by a couple of women friends who described family dinners as “throwing the bag of french fries over the back seat at the kids”. When I told them that some homeschoolers have been critical of my decision to go back to school and “abandon my kids”, they told me to get real. One had her kids in day care from six weeks old, and the rest described schedules where the only conversations happen in the car on the way to after school activities — with a kid engaged with ipod, cell phone, and game boy.

So I am blessed by reality checks all around. My profs have not showed up at my house to crit the unmopped kitchen floor and my boys are enjoying their grown up responsibilities and independence.

Now if I could just get Molly off my ankle… ;0)

Yours

Kelly in Ohio…off to bed. Breakfast is at 8, scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, fruit, yogurt, and juice.

On the left is Reem Gibriel, glamorous newlywed sculptor from Libya… yours truly, middle aged mother of three, on the right .. and behind us, a lion. No, wait, that’s Patrick Green, the softspoken Tennessee boy who calls us “Miss Kelly” and “Miss Reem”. The three of us have kind of made family of each other.

The lion standing over us is guarding the Chicago Art Institute… sheesh, what tourists we were, flagging down a stranger to take the picture… but aren’t we having a good time?

I’m home from the overnighter days of my school week — tomorrow is homeschool and catch-up, and then back for more class tomorrow night.

One potter on yesterday’s clayart listserver wrote, “(My daughter) is going into the ceramics department at UNCA and I wonder, worry… is formal art training going to curb, stifle, bend, steer or deform her natural instinctive eye for design?”

I will admit that I worried a bit about what formal art school was going to do to my natural instinctive eye for design. I held on tight to the title “self taught”. I worried about losing my authenticity, about taking on somebody else’s aesthetic, making somebody else’s pots and losing myself.

It quickly became clear to me that I HAVE no natural instinctive eye for design. (lol)

If art is a means of communication — like a language — then it has to be learned, in conversation with other artists, or by watching and listening and observing. What was that movie with Jodie Foster, where she grew up alone in the hills and spoke her own language that nobody else could understand? Well, that was me in my studio, alone, making work from an internal dialogue.

I once had a college course in 2d design, but it was taught by a moonlighting high school teacher and he did a bad job. I am having to educate myself — remedially — about the most basic concepts of design (I’m soliciting suggestions for a brief, concise, basic “design for dummies” type book.) Diana is doing her best to give me a crash course as well.

I have evolved in isolation, by making pots that distract from and apologize for a lack of good form. I realize now that I have overcompensated and overdecorated with every possible kind of stamp, gadget, detail and glaze-trick. Even when I thought I was pretty good, I looked at my work and then looked at really good pots and could not for the life of me figure out why they were so different.

Patrick, Reem and I joke that the MFA has been the process of showing our instructors what we do best — and then being told not to do that anymore. I’ve been forbidden to add doodads, textures and tricks. Just naked pots. It sounds harsh — like somebody kicking the crutches out from under you — but the truth is, I’m learning to walk without them, wobbly but sure.

Humbled? Hell, yeah. Have I been discouraged, frustrated, whining to my studio-mates? Yep. But here’s what we take turns reminding each other:

No pain, no gain.

If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The harder the work, the more proud we’ll be when we make it. (If we all make it.)

We don’t need to learn to do what we already know how to do – we need to learn to do the stuff we suck at. (Even if it means feeling like beginners again, starting from scratch, setting our big ideas aside to relearn our ABCs.)

Then I tell Reem and Patrick again about Lee Love’s zen-teacher-pouring-tea-for-the-student-whose-cup-is-already-full story.

The point isn’t that we’re learning to make Diana Pancioli pots — though we are — or Etruscan pots, or Bellarmine pots (those too). The point is that in order to stretch ourselves as potters, we need to become fluent in other languages, and not hang on to whatever baggage we brought with us. Either it was good, and will be back one day, or it was an old habit and will be replaced by something better.

Before, I couldn’t “speak” form, and wasn’t seeing it when I looked at other pots. I saw texture, additions, handles, glaze and surface decoration. Form is a whole new way of seeing. My bulliten board now is full of pix of Bruce Cochran’s lidded jars, ancient beaked jugs, ewers and amphoras. I feel like Helen Keller when Annie finally spelled “WATER” into her palm and she got it. THIS is the difference between my pots and the good pots. This was the wall I had hit in my self-instruction. (One of many, I imagine, though I can’t really think about that yet.)

I follow Diana around now with my Lark 500 books, or a favorite clayarter’s coffee mug, a fresh wet pot or a historic photo — “Tell me what you see.”

I am learning about proportion, and asymmetry, about the names of patterns in Islamic ware and in early Spanish Majolica, about balancing foot and rim, shoulder and belly, about what kinds of curves look graceful and what kinds are squatty, overly controlled, tight or mechanical. None of this was “instinctive” for me. Imagination, I have — creativity, work ethic, teaching skills, lots of good stuff. But not design. Not yet.

I remember at the Josh DeWeese workshop at ACC two summers ago, being sad because a week was just not enough. I could only get started down the road and then it was over. “Workshop junkie” just was not going to do it anymore.

These last four weeks with Diana and Lee started out feeling like a workshop, but without the we’re-all-here-for-fun factor, and with a deeper level of commitment. I have gone from feeling like two years would be sufficient, to feeling like it’s not enough time for all I need to get done. I have gone from thinking I was a pretty accomplished potter to realizing that, once out of my comfort zone, I can’t find my ass with both hands.

I am grateful that I came into this with ego to spare — that Reem and Patrick have my back — and that I am determined enough, at 45, not to just take my ball and go home.

It helps that my thursday night students at the guild still think I’m a pretty competent potter.

Not entirely off subject: I’m reading a book called “The Optimistic Child”, about raising kids to be more resistant to depression. I swear mel wrote it. The thesis is that the children of the “self esteem movement” were fed a lot of baloney that they KNEW was baloney (ie: being told they were great at something when they barely tried, or being sheltered from any kind of disappointment) — and the author suggests that a little bit of harsh reality, sadness, frustration and failure can vaccinate a kid against feeling helpless in the face of depression, later in life. I figure if I can take a total reassessment of where I rank on the potter-scale, it can only be uphill from here.

So while I appreciate that a lot of people have liked and purchased my pots, it has become increasingly clear over the years that just because it sold doesn’t mean it was any good. And people who liked my pots were not necessarily idiots… they were likely taken in by my skill in dressing them up to conceal their design problems. I certainly liked most of them when I made them. I didn’t know any better, and I was a potter.

OK: on to the anti-academic, anti-intellectual and artist statement debates raging on clayart. Tonight my very academic professor in my very academic graduate studio seminar was discussing the very same issues that clayart bats around: should art stand on its own merits, or include explanatory materials? In true intellectual academic fashion, he didn’t take a side, just presented the issues for thorough discussion. I don’t feel the least bit indoctrinated, and hate when people talk like all graduates of academia march in lock step.

Should all displayed work, decorative, functional, sculptural, painting and performance, be self explanatory? Beats me. If I make a pot that was inspired by an obscure myth about seven hairy Peruvian dwarves who set to set in a poppyseed teakettle, am I not allowed to point that out to the viewer? What if I fill an entire gallery with pieces from folklore, myth and anthropology? Would I be an ass to provide the information that I was a folklorist in a previous life?

Explaining the theme that unifies a show — if it’s just a title, is that fair game? Can I have a paragraph, if I promise not to use the word “juxtaposition”?

If I am a regular joe applying for a job or other opportunity, I send a resume. If I am am artist doing the same, am I required to stick to a list of positions, dates, transcripts, references,GPA? Or can I tell what kind of art I make, in what media, and why? Because that’s an artist’s statement.

I think what people object to is puffed up language. I used to define it to my writing students as “words intended to impress rather than inform.” It’s certainly not relegated to the arts. It’s not hard to find a company selling services by choosing words that convey to the customer, “hire us for this complicated stuff because you’re too stupid and unqualified.”

Politics, too. You want cliche and empty hyperbole, read a political candidate’s “statement”.

Patrick and I, in a midnight bull session, came to the following conclusion: just because some legitimate art bewilders or angers the general public — it does not follow that anyone who manages to bewilder or intimidate the public is an artist.

In a similar vein, I would suggest that even though some artists statements are intentionally written in high-sounding, empty obfuscation, it does not follow that if you don’t “get” an artist’s statement it must be bullshit. Maybe you just don’t deal in those particular images, phrases or ideas. Me, I could read a line of computer programmer text and have no clue. Should I assume they are just making up nonsense, or that the message is intended for someone else in that field who would understand it?

In college I published poetry in literary magazines — very dense, symbolic work. Editors liked it. But I have arelative who didn’t understand a word of the published work and said, “Remember the one you wrote about your horse, back in fourth grade? I liked that one, it rhymed.”

Artists can reach a point where they are making work largely for an audience of other artists. Before you roll your eyes, consider the pots you could sell at the county fair, compared to pots potters drool over in galleries, mags and at NCECA. There are pots for the public, and pots for potters. If Uncle Bob looks at an ancient tea bowl and says, “My kid could make better than that!”, is the teabowl crap, or just better suited to a more informed eye? If Aunt Bess picks up a wood fired Jack Troy pot and says, “This is too brown, and has crunchy spots on it and a dent in the side. Do you have a nice round one, maybe in blue?” … you get the point. Would a nice bit of text next to the ancient teabowl give Uncle Bob an inkling of insight? mebbe.

I am very much enjoying the cross pollination of being with other art students. Some student work seems overly self involved and navel-gazing in nature, and sometimes it overestimates the viewer’s level of giveashit about the artist’s deep personal issues… but that gets said out loud in critiques, and maybe reflects the “figure out who you are” stage of the early grad experience (which is supposed to evolve into the “have something to say” stage at some point.)

Last Friday night my fam went to the circus, because Tyler won tickets in a library contest. (I hate the circus, all but the trapeze acrobats, and watching Molly’s face when she sees dancing white ponies or elephants with sparkles on them.)

Afterward, I tucked them in bed, loaded up my stuff and drove to EMU to sleep at Diana’s — because at 6 the next morning, Patrick, Reem and I were on a bus headed to the Chicago art museums with a bunch of other grad art students and profs. We talked all the way there and all the way back, and the three MFA-ske-teers spent the day exploring. When the bus pulled up in front of the Chicago Art Institute, Yo Yo Ma was on the front steps with the Silk Road Ensemble and some dancing dragon teams from Chinatown, for the opening of the Silk Road exhibition. We saw ancient pots from every part of the globe — sketched and took pictures — filled our brains until we couldn’t process anymore. We saw Indonesian women dancing with bells on their ankles, took the trolley to the museum of contemporary art, thoroughly enjoyed Chicago and didn’t get home on the bus until after midnight. I have pictures to put up in my blog… but it will have to wait until tomorrow. It’s getting late and Molly will crawl into my bed at dawn…

yours, at 2 am, head spinning with ^6 reduction glazes and glaze resist and wax-iron-sgraffito-on-shino and cut and assembled pots, today’s video interviews for the documentary and the fast-5 glaze test tiles, lidded jar assignments and amphora handles, shallow bisqued bowls for cuerda seca and not enough time to get it all done…