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…

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