Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ways Out Of The Starting Blocks

1. Steal from the best. Listen to better music. Read better literature -- poems, prayers, stories, and lies (if you can listen to them it's even better). Good artists can take you to different worlds. Those worlds are a good stepping off place to create your own. You're not copying. It's just that it's much harder to get somewhere from nowhere.
Nephew, Stephen Bauman at work

2. Draw from life. When I was very young I loved to draw and paint. My family encouraged me by telling me I was talented. What they meant was that they could tell what I was drawing better than, say, what my dog Tippy might have drawn with the same crayon in hand. So I kept at it. I was never satisfied. My images made sense and looked like the thing I intended. Sort of. Then I took life drawing in college. Oh...

There's nothing like the illumination that comes when you realize for the first time that the reason your drawings were lifeless is because you weren't drawing them from life.

So there's that. And there's this: Art isn't really about art. You're going to do your best writing while you're driving. Or cooking. Or sailing. My mom wrote while she knitted. I write while I'm at the potter's wheel. I'm not saying anything about the quality of my writing. I'm just saying that that's when it happens most frequently.

What I'm talking about there is called "The Effortless Custody of Automatism". It's the converse of "The idle mind is the devil's playground". It's the observation that when doing practiced tasks that no longer require thought, the mind is free to create -- and often does with a greater facility than the mind of a body at rest.

There's a bit of a star-gazing phenomenon to it too. What I mean by that is: You ever notice that when you look into the night sky you can see stars in your peripheral vision that you can't see when you then turn to stare at them? Some things come better to us when we're not approaching them directly.

You also avoid the intimidation of the blank page.

A word picture within a word picture -- a thought within a thought: Perhaps if you become so proficient at the skill of guitar that you can be in its effortless custody, you can more easily add words while playing. If that's so, then you can have your cake and eat it to. You can write lyrics while you're playing music -- and not while driving or cooking or potting or knitting. Maybe.

3. Disregard everything I said before and realize that some art is about art. Some really good art. Noodle on the guitar. Write the next "Jabberwocky" by simply playing with words. Don't draw from life. Simply write down one word and follow it with the next one. Play one chord and follow it with the next one. Find a fit. Find a song.

4. Sit in the darkness and be somebody else. Write something in somebody else's voice. Write as if you are somebody else. Write "Angel From Montgomery" even though you're a man. Write "Millworker" even though you're a man and never worked a day in a mill. Oh, but get ready to be ridiculed because you didn't fact check your imagination.

5. Copy a rhythm first and then match chords and words to that.

6. Backwards engineer a song. Find a song and write a different lyric to it. Find a song and write a new melody to it.

7. "Muse" is what we call the 1000th visitor to the door we keep opening. We call all the other visitors "Attempts".

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Not For The Faint Of Praise

Frustrating, isn’t it?  There are few things quite so deflating as being "damned with faint praise".  But try not to be discouraged when folks seem to say the wrong things.  They really mean to be saying the right things.

When I wrote short bios of my potter friends as part of my social media push to amplify a pottery festival I was going to be part of, it was easy to do.  The potters I was writing about are all fantastic potters.  They are my heroes, my role models, my friends.  Their work is easy to promote for all I’m worth.  It’s some of the finest pottery being made by some of the most accomplished potters in the country today.

But I was (and continue to be) acutely aware of the danger of describing someone's work in a way that, though meant to be complimentary,  could be misunderstood as anything but. Maybe what I wrote would be read and taken as too slight – not superlative enough.  I may not have said enough. I might have praised the wrong aspect. I might even have mis-interpreted their work. I might have said too much about one and not enough about the other.
It's a real minefield.

Additionally, though I observe this at the risk of being misunderstood completely, I was writing those reviews at the height of the "Me Too" movement. For that reason, I wrote only one review of a woman potter.  My lack of reviewing women was the unintended consequence of a well-meaning movement, but a movement that had nonetheless  interjected just too much risk into writing about a woman. I could have written something TOTALLY intending to be complimentary -- but would be misunderstood because the default mood of the day had "offended" dialed up to 11.  On social media I’ve always intended to stay politically neutral and that made it additionally risky.  Ironically, anyone who knows me well has heard me say that my favorite potters are almost all women.

I only went down that particular rabbit trail to point out that, in addition to simple "damning with faint praise", there are other factors that play heavily into why what one means to be saying – or not saying -- is OFTEN taken the wrong way.

One thing I've noticed in the past 20 years -- since the inception of internet communication -- is how much trouble people have when trying to express themselves in writing. There may be one in a million people who, when they write, can actually convey well what they mean to be saying. And one in a billion who can say it in a way that also conveys something satisfactorily beyond some journalistic literalism. Those statistics might be inaccurate or exaggerated. My research is incomplete.

People generally just don't write well. They don't speak well either.
Additionally, we as creative people have our necks stuck out there by choice. We choose to put our works (and our dreams) out there and put to the criticism of strangers. We want our creative endeavors validated. But we're simultaneously scared that they won't be.

So we're hyper sensitive.

We want to believe the lies of validation. That's the strength of social media. There's always a facebook friend who will tell us what we want to hear.  And they don't mean to be untruthful any more than the faint praiser means to deflate us. They ALL want to encourage us. They just suck at it.

As long as I'm bloviating, would you indulge me one more observation about praise -- faint, absent, or misunderstood?

Experts don't praise experts for their expertise. They expect it. It's really not professional jealousy or competitiveness that keeps peers mum about our work. Oh, it might be that from time to time. But I think it's most often simply that peers expect the level of proficiency that makes one a peer. Peers don't find that proficiency praise worthy. Peers find proficiency to simply be the baseline.

You can wait until the day you die to get praise from your peers. Peers don't regularly praise peers. Peers aren't startled into praising what they expect.

I think we get a different kind of validation from our peers. I think the affirmation we get from peers comes in the form of inclusion, not praise.

So, if the artists you admire most aren't saying much about your work, you might just be receiving the highest praise possible.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Low Bridge -- Everybody Down

I pulled it old right from the kiln.
So hot I could barely hold it 

But it told a tale of ancient places it had been.

Of 16th century years, of tavern beers
Held in rounded shapes, peasants draped in capes
Landscapes of Renaissance paintings. 

Glazed like later years rolled ‘round and Albany brown
Dug straight from the ground the sound
Of barges down the Erie Canal

Low bridge!  Everybody down!
This mug, brand new
But with a soul so old
It couldn’t have come from my hand.

Maybe it came from my dreams.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

It's Springtime. So Of Course It's Not The Fall

Nobody seems to have anything good to say about falling into the abyss. 

But if you think about it, the problem with falling from a great height (as has so often been pointed out) is not the fall, but rather, the abrupt stop at the bottom.

Well, the abyss is, by definition, bottomless. That means that, unlike a fall from a great height,  at least the fear of that abrupt stop is allayed. 

Perhaps it's not all bad. 
So, the abyss might have a silver lining but it's dark in here, so I'm not sure.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Language of Love

She speaks “Bless your heart” like a native. No discernible accent. She learned the language as a child and has spoken it ever since.

If I were to speak it, it would sound like a bad script rehearsal. I can’t fake it.

She doesn’t need to.

The love falls from her words as naturally as rain from the sky. As natural as grace. And the old and infirm welcome it just as naturally as she offers it.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Old people smile at her words like they’ve been in a strange land and they’re hearing their native language spoken for the first time in years.

They may have been in the good and able care of others, but at the same time they’ve been starved for the intimacy she offers them. They eat it up.

She listens. She listens even when it means getting real close so she can hear. And she asks them to repeat themselves if she doesn’t get it. She could fake it and nod. She doesn’t. She leans in closer. She holds an offered hand.

And so it was as she started helping to care for Marjorie this past year. She quickly became the brightest light in a life so small and cordoned off by age that it consisted mostly of one chair set in front of a picture window so that Marjorie could watch the bird feeder just beyond the glass. The books that used to entertain her became blank pages. The TV became noise.

But when she came into the room to clean it, she always took the time to sit with Marjorie for a while.
There was never much new to talk about, but that’s just another of her gifts – questions. She prompted years of retold memories to pass the long and previously empty hours.

You could find her in the room with Marjorie most evenings before leaving for home. She would be kneeling on the floor in front of Marjorie. They’d be laughing and talking and sharing, hand in hand.

Yesterday she went to Marjorie’s side. It had been a rough night before. In words I couldn’t summon if I had to, she leaned in real close to Marjorie’s ear and said quietly, “I love you Marjorie. I’m going to pray that angels might come to make your journey go easily. Tonight you’ll be in the arms of Jesus.” And then she bent forward and kissed Marjorie’s 98 year old lips – because that’s how they always say goodnight.

Marjorie nodded. And about an hour later she was with Jesus.

Who is this woman I married?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

I Am Sure With You

First, I loved 60s pop. Absolutely loved it. I listened to AM radio every day, and I could have listened all day -- and during the summer I often did, even often putting a little radio on a long extension cord by the driveway goalpost at the Spring Mill Road house as I shot baskets. I even remember tuning in a transistor (whose, I don’t know – it was a Zenith) late at night in my room -- the sound all tinny, but my mind filling in all the fullness of the recordings.

I loved it all.

But even considering the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Byrds, Hollies, Spoonful, Motown groups and singles.... favorite was the Rascals.

And when I watch this video and see Kate Taylor's reaction to the magical opening notes pour out of Brigati's mouth, I can see she must have felt at least nearly the same way. How could any group have had TWO such superlative voices as Brigati's and Cavaliere's, not to mention such a winsome catalog?

I remember a few years ago when I was back home with my HUGE family (a good 25-30 in the huge meeting room of an Indianapolis Hotel) for Christmas. At such gatherings my brother, Geoff, and I often picked up guitars and played. The family says they loved to hear us, I know that’s true, though the din of a gathering never lessened just because we were playing. And we were playing for each other – we wouldn’t have wanted the room to quiet as though we were “entertaining” them.

And this holiday gathering wasn't any different from any other. Geoff and I picked up our guitars and played some songs -- basically to each other.

But then I started playing "How Can I Be Sure" (in drop D, for you guitar players!). Brigati's vocal range is probably 2 1/2 times mine and I was REALLY straining to hit the high notes. Additionally, I was sort of concentrating on the changes -- the guitar part being new to me at the time.

Well, it suddenly dawned on me that something was different. As I started in on "Whenever I, whenever I am away from you...." I realized that everyone in the room was singing along with me at the tops of their voices. We finished the song that way, half shouting it out together. It was absolutely horriible sounding......and it was one of the best musical memories of my life.

Thanks you Rascals, you.

Subtle To A T

Mark Nafziger mug
Subtle seems to me to be harder to produce. I've got a friend who makes a mug that's nothing more than a modified cylinder. But he sees something in the making that he can produce, while I can see the shape for the winsome thing it is, but never fully grasp the shape well enough to reproduce it. If I did try to reproduce it, it would very quickly move away from his subtle interpretation of the cylinder.
Subtle is harder.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Taken. ..For Granted

"Each year, individual artists and collaboratives are anonymously nominated by a geographically diverse and rotating group of scholars, critics, arts administrators, producers, curators, artists, field experts and other cultural professionals. Each nominated artist is then invited to submit an application and work samples. We then convene discipline-specific panels comprised of artists, curators, historians, experts, academics, and, and producers who review all applications and select the finalists, who are then approved by our Board of Trustees. Please note that the fellowship is not an open application and is by nomination only."

I spent a few hours looking into the United States Artists grants. I'd never heard of it, but they take tax deductible contributions and give $50,000 grants to artists, regardless of how the money will be used.

At first I internally groused at the very underlying hot-button fundamental of the idea -- that the country's tax burden is shifted ever lower down the economic ladder when society's "haves" are able to dodge their share of the tax burden ever downward to the have-nots by the tax-deductibility of contributions that gain those haves social status.

But that's never going to change, so why grouse? 

But the reason I couldn't let go of the research into this grant is the hope that I too could maybe apply next year because it -- the dollar amount...the need.... hits so close to home.  Why complain when maybe the system was actually meant to serve me, right?

I'm not the lone potter/craftsman who, after more than 30 years making a living solely from craft, took the double gut-punch of the 2008 economic collapse coupled to the feldspar debacle...and have tried to manage a survival that rarely breaks even, despite still having good, marketable, honorable work. 

I could click off 5 artists -- artists at the top of their game, craft-wise, for whom $50,000 would be an absolute game-changer -- would get them out of debt, would allow them to continue their market-tested (not academically intellectualized and vindicated) excellence in craft. 

In the case of these artist/craftspeople, $50,000 would allow them to actually be contributing members of the tax base, rather than subsidized by public programs.

Their work is that good and sells that well....but the burden of previously incurred debt is a task master worthy of the most ruthless, merciless pharaoh. The banker comes first. Interest must be paid. And then interest upon interest must be paid.

Any day now
Any day now
I shall be released

But the United States Artists grant requires nomination.

And as near as I can tell, it's like most grants -- that is -- the chief qualification for receiving the grant is providing evidence that you are at the top of your craft anyway, and therefore don't really need the grant. You're just looking for the leg up that life in the upper crust -- life among those who can afford to give away $50,000 a year -- would place you.

It's sort of a perverse mirror image to the old maxim: Sell to the classes and live with the masses, or sell to the masses and live with the classes.
If you want to both sell to AND live with the're gonna need a grant. A good job in addition to your craft is apparently not enough.

I wonder what could give working craftsmen access to such grants? I wonder if a group like the NAIA or a panel convened by some connection to ZAPP or some potter's guild could ever be one of those "rotating group of scholars, critics, arts administrators, producers, curators, artists, field experts and other cultural professionals" who could nominate working craftsmen for such a grant?

I wonder if there is such a grant for working craftsmen who don't have other means of financial support (like, craft isn't their avocation or a second income)?

I wonder if nominees could ever be named from a pool of craftsmen really in need of a grant -- rather than the current model of granting money to those who, by virtue of the quality of the work by which they are judged in the first place, have proven that they don't really need the grant -- who already have incomes well in excess of any working craftsman I'm aware of? (The "Catch 22" of the grant system -- prove your worthiness for the grant on the basis that your work is SO excellent that you don't actually need the grant)

I'll stop whining now.


Friday, March 16, 2018

The Sixth Day

I admit – I was more disappointed than surprised.

I even had a hand in setting up the interview.  I was curious.  I wondered if other people of faith contemplate things in anywhere near the same fashion as I do.  But when the inquiry was met with abject, almost comical silence, I had my answer.

Maybe I should give the silent response more credit.  Maybe the respondents intuited the good sense that a joke explained is a joke ruined.  Artists don't like to explain.

But those of the religion in question whom I’ve come to know have either developed an almost perfect dichotomy between religious life and temporal.  Or their belief system is so integrated that they’ve never had cause to contemplate how that integration of faith and life came to be. 

Mostly the latter, I suspect.

Most of them I know are fiercely loyal to their religion in the sense of it defining how the world could be a better place.  They are an exceedingly devoted social club – marked by generous acts of kindness and caring that have evolved in the current vernacular to be defined as social justice. 

But there remains only the faintest vestigial artifacts of anything transcendent.  And certainly nothing idiosyncratic.  True to their history, they are not Protestant (nor are they Catholic).  Untrue to their history, they are also not – as other Christian manifestations – concerned with things like afterlife, judgment, salvation, etc.  They are concerned deeply with righteousness, and about that they are passionate.

Reformed theology resonates with me more than other Christian theologies.  And the imaginations of those from  John Calvin to C.S. Lewis – the imaginations I was steeped in as a kid – always prompted me to wonder more about creativity – because I believe in a creation.

Oh, I don’t pretend to know how creation occurred.  I’m interested.  I read, but I don’t conclude as much as I wonder.

But one thing I’ve observed is how close the musings about creativity lead one to a bending of the otherwise seemingly parallel rails of science and theology.  That is:  Musings about creation have made me wonder that both science and theology wrestle with one big and central question – determinism/sovereignty vs. will (free or otherwise).

I haven’t tied anything together.  I’m not that scholarly.  But I’m a passionate wonderer.  And I can’t help but notice that the impulse to create is strongly driven by a wish to see something *other*.  Something new.  Something independent of the creator.

And I’ve noticed that this *other*, this third visitor to the table, sitting between the creator and the creation, is almost always present.

It’s why, beyond simple narcissism, a potter can be fascinated by his own pots, a poet can return to her own words, a musician can return to his own compositions in abject fascination that something happened during the creation process.  Something happened to create a third presence.

As potters we are more aware than most that we are inviting – accidentally (or more accurately, incidentally) – the third element.  When we put only semi-controlled substances into a semi-controlled fire, something we didn’t expect is going to happen.
So, maybe what I’m observing is no more complicated than that.  And I might leave it at that if I hadn’t also delved into writing and music where I find that third – that “other” – present in the product of creation.

And I imagine the God of creation as a child in a sand box.  With a small block of wood he’s graded a network of roads up and down the hills of sand.  And with his hand he pushes a Tonka truck up and down them.  With eyes squinted or purposely blurred, he imagines this world of his creation such that his hand doesn’t need to be there – that the Tonka truck will move around those roads of its own volition.  

Really, he’s not even satisfied with that.  He’d like to add purpose to volition.
But try as he might, the creation never stands independent.  Even when he grows up and trades the Tonka truck for a radio controlled version, the technology of hands free locomotion enhances his ability to imagine an independent creation….

…but he knows.  He knows it’s not.

But he still does it.  He still creates because, to his unending fascination, that third “other” always appears anyway.  Maybe it’s simply the materials of creation that cause them.  Maybe it’s basic math.  Maybe it’s just that the creator’s toy or tool chest is infinite in possibility.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Retirement: A Forty Year Fait Accompli

Dick Lehman (Feb issue) has written a thoughtful article in Ceramics Monthly on a subject so many of us are facing.  Retirement.  Or at least thinking about retirement-ish thoughts as we’ve reached the age when normal, non-clay-addled folks do such things.
 Dick and I started our potteries within a year of each other back in the last century, in the mid '70s.

Dick Lehman and Mark Nafziger and Royce Yoder and Jane Graber and Lynn Lais and all those guys who came through Goshen are the "Gallants" against whom my "Goofus" has always introspectively been held in stark contrast (what?  You didn’t subscribe to “Boy’s Life”?). 

Those potters all seem to have their ... you know ... STUFF (the properly vulgar word has been recently appropriated out of usefulness, so I'll avoid it) together.  I haven't. My stuff is most definitely not together.

 Never has been. 
I dove and continually dive into deep ends and only by sheer:
1. luck
2. persistence
3. the grace of God,
4. marrying a woman willing to put up with all that "stuff" I got her into, and
5. strangling ducks and forcing them into rows that didn't properly fit them

....have I been able to flail around in some sort of dog paddle that resembles surviving the swim.

So, Dick's article is apt. It's proper. It's how things ought to be.

It's not me. 

Have you ever ridden a bicycle over the edge of the road? You know what I mean? 

There's this raised edge to a road and when riding a bicycle you either stay on the road or you stay on the shoulder. But riding a bike doesn't always allow you to stay on only one or the other. Traffic or simply not paying attention often forces you to transition from the road to the shoulder, or t'other way 'round.
And from there you start what can be a very protracted, agonizing fall. A fall that at every point pre-fall, you delude yourself into supposing doesn't have to happen -- isn't inevitable. 

You catch yourself. And then you don't. And then you do.

The wheels keep turning. You're still upright. You're still moving forward. But your front wheel keeps getting jerked at angles against the will of your handlebars. And you're wobbling. And your heart is pounding. And you can't sleep at night because you know you're falling.... 

...okay, that last one isn't really part of the metaphor. That last one is the reality of the life lived in that metaphor.

Terror of embarrassment at your failure.
Terror of the very meaninglessness of life that had you pursuing a vocation that you thought would give it significance and meaning in the first place.
Terror of the consequences your stupidity placed on the shoulders of the family you love and who depended upon you for security.

...but the bike hasn't actually fallen over yet. You're still wobbling. And you might forever. Never on the road. Never on the shoulder. On and on. On and on.

And then

RATIONALIZATION. Or how one paddles a sinking inflatable lifeboat with one hand while inflating the next lifeboat with the other.

Yeah, that's pretty much the story.

When your dog gets sick you end up telling your friends, "Man, I just spent $1500 on veterinary care for my dog". 

And your friends say, "Are you NUTS?", because they envision that you went to the vet's one day with your sick dog in tow and the vet said, "Tell you what, you give me $1500 and I'll make your dog well".
That scenario would, of course, test the most pet-loving-but-broke among us......but that's not my point.
My point is that it doesn't happen that way. Vet bills don't happen that way. What happens is you take your dog to the vet and he does this test for $50, and that shot for $75, and this office call for $30, and that follow-up appointment for $30 more and when he's done he figures out that you need to go to that specialist for $125, who prescribes this med for $22 ....... and when ALL IS SAID AND DONE you've spent the $1,500.

And retiring seems to similarly occur in a series of events, problems, and choices over the entire span of a career.

We started out with art fairs on the rise 35 years ago. Even those of us who might have had an inkling of their (art fair's) shelf life -- and for good reason -- still chose it because it WAS good money, it was what we SEEMED to be relatively good at, it was personally rewarding to our sense of significance even when it wasn't always thus for our sense of security. But the shows didn't -- like some light switch -- shut off all of a sudden.

They were good and they were bad. We told ourselves and each other that "Hey, this is what's selling now" and, "Here's where to go to sell your stuff". And we watched neophytes enter the market and kick our butts. Totally. So we KNEW that even in the dwindling market....if we could just wrangle up the right stuff.....and schlep it off to exactly the right (supernaturally divined) series of art fairs....we were still gonna be alright.
Then one year you don't get into a single show you've entered until July. And then the only thing people ask you is, "What do you have that's new?” And it rains at 50% of your shows.....and snows at the other 50%. And in panic you start producing what everyone (customer and fellow artist alike) is telling you sells (instead of what brought you to the dance .... because what brought you to the dance is getting you published in national magazines.....but national magazines don't taste even as good as mac & cheese).

And then you find a balance. 

The shows aren't terrible. They're not great, but they’re not terrible. And some of them are pretty good. And you're still selling everything you can make because half your life is spent wearing your marketing cap.....the very half that used to be wearing your art-producing cap.....which you put on when you weren't entering shows or selling shit online.

But then you look at your books and see that that "balance" is like being the tiny girl at the far end of the teeter-totter holding up the weight of your 450 lb brother-in-law because he's sitting really, really close to the middle. But he's sliding back. And by "sliding back" I mean "leaping back". And when he reaches the distant end of the teeter-totter with that full 450 pounds, your tiny little girl ass has just been launched into the oblivion of....
....rising health insurance cost (I finally had to drop mine -- probably the MAIN reason I'm looking for work), rising show fees, rising gas costs, rising clay costs, bad firings, bad glaze chemicals, van repairs on your ten year old Ford with 200,000 miles on it.

...and just like that $1500 vet bill .... there was no simple decision to have been made at any one single point in your life wherein you knew beyond a doubt that you would be throwing good life after bad in a mad dash to grab your tail between your teeth. 

And you look back and in hind sight you say to yourself, "THEN! ....THAT'S when I should have called it quits! THAT'S when I was still young enough to re-train in a different field. THAT'S when I still had the energy and physical capacity for the kind of labor for which I’m qualified”....

...but it was exactly then that you were making the very most money from the art fairs, and it was exactly then that a change of life would have made the least sense to the contemporary you.

And by "you", I mean "me".

I retired at age 21.  And, well, now that I’ve actually somewhat successfully reached the more culturally accepted retirement age, I can sigh out a satisfied, “I made it…
…so far.”

Retirement isn't for sissies.