Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Clay is Frustrating

Clay is frustrating. All my big ideas, my great plans for how a pot will turn out, hinge on so many little details of execution, that only in my later years have I made what I have imagined actually come to pass predictably. Pottery requires discipline and attention to details. I am primarily a “big idea” person, a visual-spatial learner, one for whom generating fresh ideas is no problem at all, but for whom the execution is tough, keeping track of sequential details is boring, and finishing projects is never easy.

But this is not strictly my fault! It is also a result of the inherent difficulty of the craft. Clay responds to the laws of physics and chemistry, and makes exceptions for no one. Only my determination to try, try again has led me past seemingly endless disappointments.

Anyone who has watched a potter throw on the wheel knows how easy it looks--it’s like watching gymnasts in the Olympics. But the reality behind the wheel demo is “practice, practice, and more practice.” Not just practice in throwing pots: good pots appearing on the wheel also require a good clay “body”--the composition of the clay lump itself--as well as proper aging of the clay, wedging, a stable wheel to throw on, and probably a dozen other details. Then, too, the clay must dry right, and survive a first or “bisque” firing; the application of glaze must be consistent and correct (not too thick or too thin); the clay body and the glaze must match in expansion coefficients; and all must culminate in a good firing (not too hot or too cold, too fast or too slow). All these areas require meticulous note-taking, and years of practice before they all “sing together” (as Marguerite Wildenhain would say).

Too many students exposed to pottery classes in college think that in a semester or two, working a few hours a week, they will be able to master clay. This United States assumption was one of Marguerite’s pet peeves: in Europe (and probably Asia as well, although I am not certain), it was expected that seven years of full-time effort could turn a novice--with talent and determination--into a Journeyman, who could then branch out on his own and eventually attain Master recognition. When Marguerite trained with Max Krehan at the Bauhaus in Germany, she and six other pottery students were not allowed to show or sell any of their work for two years at least.

When I studied with Marguerite, her students were not allowed to keep ANY of their work during the six week course; in fact, we didn’t fire a single piece--we focused only on throwing. Without true perspective on how hard this craft is, would-be students of pottery in college become completely discouraged at what they think is their own failure. And they stop right there, and see no way to get to their dream.

This state of affairs is a shame, and I know of very few places in this country which really take pottery seriously enough to provide adequate support and training in the craft. All the good potters I know have gray hair! Where are the kids, the young adults, who want to risk all to become excellent in an “outdated” craft? I think college pottery classes have been killing their dreams. There are exceptions, but too few.

Is apprenticeship the answer? Many people have asked me to teach them how to make pots. I have responded by asking them if they just want a private demo, or if they want to “take home something” that they’ve made, or if they really want to become potters. So far, none have really wanted to become potters. Dave Stewart saw that I really wanted to make pots. He taught me at his home once a week, and let me pick up what was useful out of college classes on the side. I would do the same for some younger person--but so far, I have taught no one.

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