Thursday, February 22, 2018

Unconscious Competence -- The Invisible Man

I've been thinking about this quite a lot lately. I was thinking of writing a short story (an ironic endeavor, given the intended subject matter)....I'm not exactly sure how to do it...maybe it will come to me and I'll blog it.

Anyway, the idea of the story would be the progression of a successful piece evolving from a total awareness of the artist to a total unawareness of the artist.

What got me thinking about it is that there is this sort of uncomfortable stage in a creative person's life when they realize that the reason they are being complimented on their work is not because the work is successful, but rather, because the effort they are putting into the work is so evident. Everyone wants to be encouraging and praise them for it. Like parents do with their children. "Oh, that's BEAUTIFUL, honey!"

There's a stage of learning -- of incompetence -- where the effort is at least as evident as the intended goal.

People want to be encouraging to creative people. We will find something worthy of complimenting in even the most abject beginner's work. And even in this age wherein ideologies and beliefs are defined in the negative by our professional ridiculers, most people will still avoid being cruel to those who are making sincere attempts in the creative world.

But there are any number of creative endeavors in which it suddenly dawns on the creative person that they either suck because nobody compliments them on their work....or -- and this is the long-awaited punchline -- nobody compliments them on their work because they have arrived at the level of expected competence. That is, we don't compliment experts doing what experts do. We expect it.

Looked at from another angle -- It seems as though really competent creative people recede as their work advances. As the work nears perfection, the person behind the work nears invisibility. Transparency.

I know.  I just set up the scenario in which you fellow potters are suddenly set to second-guessing upon receipt of a compliment. "I just got complimented.  Does that mean I suck?"

I don't think it exactly works that way.  In fact, the point I'm trying to make is quite opposite of that.  What I'm trying (unsuccessfully) to convey is that there is a level of competence achieved wherein the absence of praise is actually a confirmation of success -- especially as your peers count you among their number.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Garage Sale Art Fair

My dad and my best friend growing up were coin collectors.  In both cases, it started when they were young paper boys, dealing day to day with small change.  They never rolled coins without first checking to see if any of the coins were collectible.

I was a paper boy too.  Collecting never really caught on with me beyond keeping the wheat pennies and buffalo nickels.   But because of my dad and my friend, I knew about some of the esoterica that surrounded collecting.  I knew some of the language: 1909 S VDB, Steel pennies, Silver certificates, Mercury dimes.

But to me perhaps the most intriguing of all that esoterica was the "1955 Double-Die Penny".  The 1955 Double-Die Penny is one of the most valuable collectible coins out there -- a "Holy Grail" for the coin finder (the mythical paper boy who finds one in his change purse), and the most expensive to trade from collector to collector.

And why?  Because the 1955 Double-Die penny was a mistake.  The machinery slipped up.  The imprint in the copper got pressed in twice, side-by-side, creating a doubling effect on all the letters and numbers.  

But, again, why does that make it the most valuable?

Because the mistake that cause its production made it rare.  It was created by accident.  That accident created an incredibly short run of those particular pennies.  And because they were created by mistake, they will never be duplicated.  The mistake was corrected.  The faulty pennies are inherently rare.

And "rare" is -- or always has been -- a principle determinant of value.

See, even when we acknowledge that enhanced value, we cannot, then, simply create more Double Die pennies so that more people could own them.  For one thing, intention was not what created them in the first place.  But, again, even if it were possible to recreate them, they then would no longer have the very value for which we went about duplicating them.

Sort of a value "Catch 22".

So the Double Die penny will always be valuable.

Hand made pottery is also inherently rare.  The output of one potter will always be inhibited by human limitation.  So, in addition to the value contained in the creative and individual ideas communicated by a given potter, value is also implied by the potter's limited output.

Brian Beam will only make so many tree jars in his lifetime.  Kristy Jo Beber will only produce so many whimsical landscape plates.  Same with Joe Pelka's sculptural pots.  Mike Taylor will create only a limited number of clay baskets in his lifetime.  And Michael Kifer's clay-as-canvas paintings will be limited in the same way.  

But you know what's even more rare than Brian's, and Kristy Jo's, and Joe's, and Mike's, and Michael's award-winning, eye-popping, show-stopping, artistry?

What is even more rare is the work they put into the kiln in their ambitious, unrelenting quest to develop that excellent work by which they are so regionally and nationally known.  The "error" part of the trial-and-error method that got them all to the top of their game -- that is what is even more rare.  And sometimes quite interesting.  And usually quite un-duplicatable.

And, if you like to collect pottery, these rarities are among the most fun as conversation pieces to own.  Those rare and one-off pieces often tell us more than words can about what it really takes to get to that level -- the pinnacle of pottery proficiency -- of a Beam, a Beeber, a Pelka, a Taylor, or a Kifer.

And like those Double-Die pennies, these potters are not going to backtrack, retrace their steps, and re-create the works along the way -- the works they learned from -- their means to an end.  They've moved on.

But they are going to sell those rarities.  I am too.

The Garage Sale Art Fair is happening this Saturday, Feb 24th.  Some of the best potters in the Midwest will be there with varying arrays and numbers of pots (my selection will be quite limited this year). 

You could go to the St Croix Valley Pottery Festival or the Old Church Pottery Festival or any number of the other fine pottery festivals that are popping up around the country, and you might find a gathering of different fine potters who may be just as good as the potters you'll see at the Garage Sale Art Fair....

....but you won't find an array of potters any better.

Come to Kalamazoo.  You won't regret it if you love pottery.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Price Paid

High and outside is my biggest weakness.  I can hardly leave it be (I hope you can appreciate some good Hoosier breeding in that colloquialism).

It’s not that I’m faked by high and outside such that I believe that it’s in the strike zone.  I’m not that perceptive.  No, it’s really just the highness and outside-ness that I find so innately appealing.   

First, I’m tall.  High requires no laborious bending.  And outside appears to meet the most promising part of my bat. 

Oh, I’m not right about that.  But in the split second I’m allowed to make that assessment, it just seems like, between my long arms and my long bat, that’s where the fat meets the leather.  My impulse for the glory of the long ball makes it such that I don’t just swing, I really swing (if you catch my drift).

Okay, and maybe the angle of the view from the opposite side of the plate fakes me the most into believing the perception of less velocity on that outside ball.  Looking as relatively across its path as one is on an outside pitch, it seems to travel slower.  It seems more hittable
Low and inside, though?  That’s definitely not my temptation.  And, again, it’s not that my perception is good.  It’s not.  It’s not that I think it’s in OR outside the strike zone.  Actually, by the time low and inside has whizzed past my shinbones….or where my shinbones should be – and would be if I wasn’t a chicken – I’ve very likely stepped all the way out of the batter’s box to avoid getting hit.

I think that fear goes all the way back to the season before I got glasses.  I never did see the one that hit me coming.  And, apparently, I never forgot it either.
So, no, I don’t go for the low and inside.

But the count keeps climbing.  And the count doesn’t favor me.  And probability educated by experience tells me I can’t keep tipping foul balls indefinitely. 

It’s going to end. 

 It’s either going to end in glory or shame.  I’m either going to hit or whiff.  And with the choices narrowed by the count, just a bit of panic starts setting in, clouding my judgment a making the latter outcome even more probable.  Shame.  Strikeout.

And then it happens.  

Oh, yeah.  It was never only two choices.  There was that third one all along.

The pitcher paid the price.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


The conversations you overhear in public aren’t necessarily aimed at you.  But it doesn’t mean they weren’t meant for you.

As I was entering the automatic double doors to the grocery store my mind barely registered a 40-something woman -- a store employee -- who was pushing a cart overflowing with large cardboard boxes. She had come from my right and crossed in front of me on her way out the doors.

But I took more notice of the young fellow who came from my left and then followed closely behind the woman with the cart.

I noticed the kid because I thought how young he looked. In that split second assessment I made as we passed in the doorway, I guessed this bagging and stocking job was his first job. He appeared no more than fifteen or sixteen years old. And he was a small 15 or 16. Bookish looking, with small horn rim glasses.

Anyway, as the kid was passing me I didn't turn my head, but I heard him growl, "Box-x-x-x-xy La-a-a-a-dy" toward the woman in front of him.

Then I heard the older woman giggle and say, "Ye-e-e-e-ah."

It made my day.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Maybe Didn't Think This One Through?

Part of me understands and even likes the sentiment expressed in this meme. Really, I do. I aspire to the pursuit of all those things the meme tells me “Study” will bring me. And I admire all those traits in other people.

But there's also a certain irony in the meme. An unintended irony. An irony and an audacious presumption. And a bit of an elitist snobbery accidentally thrown in.

I grew up an athlete with athletic heroes. And athletic friends. Good athletes, too. At no time did it occur to me or my friends that sports were an alternative to "education, wisdom, logic, thoughtfulness, kindness, and the ability to communicate”. 

In fact, I would opine that sports was the very most effective avenue for a young person to arrive at “logic, wisdom, and the ability to communicate”. Sports were the effective, “do or die” world of logic, wisdom, and the ability to communicate. 

And if you weren’t kind, you’d better be awfully, awfully good at sports or you weren’t going to get anywhere in the sports world.

And three of my friends – now successful business men – acquired their education via their athletic prowess. Yes, real education. MBAs. PhDs, even.
And, not to reverse the offense here, but it was those who couldn’t be kind, communicate effectively, and weren’t thoughtful – the socially unwilling – who were the very ones huddled away in their “study”.


I can’t help but notice that the “study” pictured in the meme appears to be the den of a multi-million dollar home (or a Decorator/Fashion Magazine). The image smacks of "study" to exactly the same extent that (for instance) Pierce Brosnan effects by donning horn rimmed glasses. Which is to say, "not at all".

So, maybe I misunderstood the meme. Which room in the photograph represents the self-indulgent materialism?

My “study” is a corner of my pottery shop. No leather chairs. No leather bound books. And my window looks out on a hay field that’s next to a railroad track that’s next to the town’s biggest industry – an orthopedic manufacturer. Not a manicured lawn in sight.

So, maybe what the meme is saying is that if I’d pursued the right kind of education, wisdom, thoughtfulness, kindness, and ability to communicate, then that multi-million dollar study could have been mine?

I guess there’s logic in that.

I'd suggest we discuss it over over a few beers....but that, of course, tips my hand as well.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Messy Mercy

I fear I will always feel more kinship with those needing mercy and grace -- even when they don't realize or acknowledge that need...
... than I will ever feel with those who take delight in a justice they don't fear.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tales From The Future

I can remember back when pottery wasn’t regulated.  Anyone who wanted to make a pot was allowed to. 

Clay was for sale to anyone who had the money to buy some.  Worse, they could simply dig some up if they wanted.  They didn’t even have to secure a permit to dig for it.  There was no agency tasked with making sure that the environmental impact of such digging and foraging was minimized, much less restored.
Nobody had to submit their design plans to the approval agency for the pots they planned to make.  I know it sounds unbelievable now, but they could simply make anything they felt like making.  No market viability had to be proven or approved.  Even worse, there was no Aesthetics Panel to which designs had to be submitted.  In the name of creativity or even novelty, anyone could make whatever they could imagine out of clay. 

It took decades of dedication and public money to recycle all that material – at least, what could be recycled out of it all.  It kept the crushers busy 24 hours a day.  There was that much unauthorized pottery out there.  And it had been fired.  Some of those materials – now so rare we’d give almost anything to have them back – are fired into this rubble of their careless and unregulated use.
And these potters weren’t even educated as we today might expect.  A full 60% of them never had any formal university training in ceramics.  And those with university degrees often had such degrees in unrelated fields.  They had no business believing themselves properly trained for making clay work.  An audacious bunch they were, working out of garages and basements and back yard sheds – again, totally unregulated.  And blissfully unaware.  They’d openly share what they were working on together.  They had no sense that what they were doing should have been kept quietly under wraps.  So much so that with one of them openly making clay objects, so many others just assumed it was okay for them to do so as well.  Or as poorly, I should say.

 And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Or clayberg.  They fired totally unregulated kilns.  They used completely unregulated combustible materials to fire them.  They would even take wood from what used to be forested land and fire kilns with it.  There’s simply no way of calculating the cubic footage of wood burned, nor the volume of gas – natural and propane.  The kilns were totally unregulated.  The government never even had a sense of just how many of these kilns existed.  The kilns didn’t even have to be submitted to a governmental board for kiln plan approval.  I remember a guy who simply lined a garbage can with bricks, took some plumbing fixtures, and built a kiln that vented straight into the open air.

It took nearly a century to come to our senses.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Kiln Not Taken

When I posted this parody on my blog this morning...

Two kilns diverged and one fired wood,
And sorry I could not manage both
Be one potter, and still live good
And looked down one as far as I could
To where its bag wall bent in ashy growth;

Then built the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was gas and wanted ware;
Though as for that the firing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both their shelving equally lay
In wash, and without the first crack.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere potters and potters hence:
Two kilns diverged, gas and wood, and I—
I took the one more fired by,
And that has made all the difference.

Mark Fitzgerald responded with the perfect prose version of my parody. So I thought I'd share it here:

mug by Mark Fitzgerald


Some thoughts on your lovely poem and other random musings on this path we’ve chosen.
The best results of wood fired pots, the “racers”, make the allure of this technique nearly irresistible. Like so many potters, (and non-potters) many of my favorite pieces are those that have undergone the extended exposure to fly ash, intense heat and unique stacking configurations that are the standard of most wood firings. Even slight variations from one firing to the next, which, by the nature of the entire process are inevitable, yield results that are never exactly repeatable. Only similarity can be achieved. And therein lies the beauty. If expectations were always met and the results were consistently predictable, who in their right mind would subject themselves to the incredibly labor intensive process of firing a wood kiln? It’s precisely that unpredictability and those elusive “racers” that will make someone who is otherwise completely rational, risk weeks or even months of hard work just to bring about.

And I get it! I love wood fired pots. I love the process. And I admire the devotion that those who utilize only this process have to it. What completely mystifies me is how anyone but a very few, can make even a reasonably comfortable living this way. For starters, the loss rate is so much higher and the market is so much narrower for this type of work that one is starting a few steps behind from the outset. I understand that “artists” are not supposed to be market driven to make their work. But for me, reality has a funny way of intruding: materials, overhead and basic living expenses (not to mention planning for future needs) all have to be considered. These are forces that can’t be ignored.

I realized long ago that most of us who have undertaken this as a way of life are constantly on that thin edge between success and failure. I also realized that in order to have even a long shot at being successful, that I would have to make some concessions to the marketplace. After all, in the end, we are all (most of us, anyway) making work that needs a market.

So, I’m a production potter who makes a lot of pieces, not all of which are my favorite things to make…but many are. And I fire a gas kiln because I know I can achieve somewhat predictable results and I have developed a market both locally and regionally that seems to still like what I make. Do I drool over a Jack Troy wood fired bottle or tea bowl? You bet! Do I hope to someday make more “one offs” and fewer production pieces? I do, and I feel that I’m gradually moving in that direction. For now though I’ll continue the process with the already established rhythms and maybe occasionally participate in a communal wood firing as I have done a few times. But I’ll sleep better knowing that when the gas bill comes and a couple of tons of materials need to be purchased I can meet those expenses.

Thanks for the stimulating poem.

Mark Fitzgerald

Sunday, October 15, 2017

If Poets Were Potters -- Installment #4

Two kilns diverged and one fired wood,
And sorry I could not manage both
Be one potter, and still live good
And looked down one as far as I could
To where its bag wall bent in ashy growth;

Then built the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was gas and wanted ware;
Though as for that the firing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both their shelving equally lay
In wash, and without the first crack.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere potters and potters hence:
Two kilns diverged, gas and wood, and I—
I took the one more fired by,
And that has made all the difference.