Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What Potters Talk About

Conner Burns

A potter named Conner Burns wrote THIS article for Ceramics Monthly. It ran in an issue at the end of 2009. I wrote the following response -- it can be found in the "LETTERS" section of the current Ceramics Monthly. I thought my blog readers might enjoy the contrasting views of two potters...

I understand what Conner Burns is talking about. Really, I do. I want to always be putting my best foot forward -- quality-wise.

But it appears, from my perspective as a functional potter who has made his entire living for the last thirty years from making and selling pottery, that Mr. Burns lives in a different reality from mine. Maybe his reality is a better one than mine, but it is surely different.

The "hundred years down the road" question was one of the key points of departure for me. Mr. Burns' perspective on it seems to ignore the way we currently view the past 6,000 years of ceramic history.

There is a great understanding of the many process-related difficulties inherent in clay throughout its history that I doubt that anyone would draw many conclusions about the level of perfection put out by a particular potter based on such process-related problems. Even so, still, what we consider perfect or imperfect will likely have little meaning to the world one hundred years from now.

Add aesthetic considerations to those process-related considerations, and I'm guessing there will really be next to no point of reference one hundred years from now.

But if Mr. Burns is right, then when I thus consider the view others might have of me and my pottery one hundred years from now, all I can say is "whoops."

I never had the luxury of putting out only the pots I was most proud of. I've been making my living as a potter since I was a college kid. By the time I was even 25 years old there were literally thousands of pots in circulation with my name on them. 15,000. That’s my guess. Most, if not all of them were pieces that would cause me a pretty good cringe if I were to see them today. If I wanted my name to go down in history conjoined to notions of perfection, that ship sailed about 35,000 pots ago.

But the funny thing about that progression -- and I think it's a universal among potters -- I was proud enough of my pots all along that I was at least self-assured that I was giving the people who bought them the value that they were expecting in the transaction. I didn't at any time think I was selling anything less than my best. But the judgments I made back then had a different basis. Less experience. If the twenty-five year old me were to write something like what Mr. Burns wrote -- about not letting go of his less-than-perfect work (And I could have written something like that back then. I did feel that way), I would look at that bit of writing with quite probably more embarrassment at my precocious hubris in the claims I'd have made in that writing, than any embarrassment I might feel at my less mature pots in the same retrospect.

So making probable landfill allowed me to advance my craft so that eventually time and trial & error overcame my insufficient education, and I actually made a pot or two that I was thrilled to stand behind at my art fair booth.

Maybe it's different for artists who pop into this world with a full-blown vision of their creative goal -- coupled immediately to the skill to actualize that vision. Wow. Zounds. I'm pretty sure I’ve met those with the self-assurance that they are such prodigies.

And maybe I'm too comfortable with the inevitability that I will plod along rather anonymously -- happily bounding between the joy of clay and the reality of making a living -- to such an extent that, no more known than I am today, I will be even less known 100 years from now.

So, if someone finds a less than perfect Bauman piece one hundred years from now:

1. They're not likely to be an art critic/academic with the wherewith all to "properly" analyze the success or failure of the piece they hold in their hands, but...

2. If given such a second, academic/critical thought, no doubt the piece will be met with a

"Yawn...Oh yes, another late 20th century American piece of ceramic -- an
era of wild abandon when every Tom, Dick, and Harry Potter was setting up shop
in his garage or barn and making stuff because there was no regulating agency
telling them that they couldn't --- and there was a HUGE market of equally
unschooled middle class buyers predisposed to home decorating and gift buying.
They all thought of themselves as 'artists'. *Chortle*

Last year I went to a songwriting workshop. The leader was a fellow name Pierce Pettis whose songs -- whose writing -- I love. Mr. Pettis said something in that workshop that was so obvious that I was stunned to have not thought about it in exactly the way he framed it before. What he said is that a song never need be "finished". Oh, for the sake of recording or marketing purposes, of course an element of permanence is required and will be attached to it. But in reality, as a work, a song can be added to, improved, edited, re-framed in melody, rewritten in lyric. The possibilities are endless.

Seems to me that's how a working potter can approach clay. Pieces to market and ideas to expand on. The pieces to market aren't "perfect". They're marketable. Maybe they aren't even conceptually complete as yet. I know that the pieces I make -- that I believe to be successful enough to continue making -- still evolve. And that evolution happens as unconsciously as it does consciously. It's one of the many reasons I've chosen to remain a potter and not a manufacturer. The evolution is almost as impossible to stop as it is gratifying to witness.

I hope history judges me kindly. But if I were a betting man, I'd put the big money on the probability that "history" won't be judging me at all. Maybe some working stiff will still enjoy his beer in one of my steins, though.

1 comment:

  1. wow! this connor burns article has sparked a lot of interest...
    Someone using one of my mugs 100 years from now seems like it'd be the pinnacle of success.