Friday, May 28, 2010

Paths Chosen

My friend, Jim, is a guitar/mandolin builder who has carved himself a very respectable (and respected) niche in the local music scene – both with his instruments and his playing as a guitarist.

This past half year or so, Jim and I have been playing music with a quartet of friends. On the drive to our friend Joe’s (where we play) we often discuss our respective lives as craftsmen. We take great encouragement from this comparing of notes and sharing ideas.

One such conversation I found particularly interesting.

Jim was talking about his journey from his first guitars to the ones he’s making now. Very early on in his guitar-building career, he started really designing guitars as he wanted to see them. Rather than more or less copy the great guitar builders who went before (after all, that "paved" road would have seemed easier) Jim started designing his own guitars. For better or for worse.

Jim is the go-to guy in the area for instrument repair. As such, he rubs elbows with every important musician in the acoustic scene in this area. One such musician for whom Jim does lots of work is a guy who is an internationally known Old-timey player of fiddle and banjo. This fellow of great reputation is known for his abrupt manner. He calls ‘em as he sees ‘em. And he saw Jim’s early efforts as a guitar builder as Jim foolishly and needlessly spinning his wheels and getting nowhere.

This fellow suggested Jim should be copying the masters who have gone before (Martin/Gibson for you guitar players) if he wanted to build good guitars.

Jim wasn’t quick to dismiss this guy’s advice. This guy knows stringed instruments. But Jim wanted to follow his muse. He WANTED his guitars to be different. Still, Jim was quick to acknowledge that there really was no good sense in re-inventing the wheel. Surely (he supposed) a trial-and-error approach to his building wasn’t really going to net him the best results. Was it?

Jim chose to continue to follow his muse. Wise guy that Jim is, of course, he realized that his building wasn’t REALLY simple trial-and-error. He did at least have a leg up by virtue of his repair work. He daily saw how good guitars were constructed. He also saw how even those good guitars (the Martins and the Gibsons) had flaws – flaws he could hope to avoid in his own building.

As a potter I saw SO many parallels to my own journey as a craftsman…

At my age I should be beyond this sort of introspection and navel-gazing. This sort of “what if-ing” should have been worked out and left behind in my forties when guys are supposed to have their midlife crises. But I often wonder, beyond the nature/nurture thing, how different would my pottery be today if I had set a different course for myself.

Like Jim (and his building), I started out sort of “following my muse”. But I did so without a clue. I had scant education in clay. I knew two potters – my professor from college, and his professor. All I knew was that I really enjoyed clay. Well, that, and I had few other career prospects in my future.

I made a decision that changed the course of everything for me. As a young twenty-year-old, I jumped right in to doing art fairs. I had never even fired a kiln on my own.

Now, instead of either following my muse or learning more from “masters”, I was in the deep end and having to survive. I think that the fact that I could dog-paddle right from the start – and continue that stroke for the next thirty years – actually tells a very large part of the story of why my clay work is what it is yet today.

I was always so busy making a living. I didn’t give myself the time to have “learned from the masters” when I had the youth, freedom, and lack of commitments to do so. I have spent most of my career needlessly re-inventing a wheel that only on its best days is even completely round.

This is a VERY long post, and it sounds very solipsistic in its approach. I’m sorry for that, but to get to the point….

…how do you readers who are involved in creative endeavors feel as though you've fared regarding having launched your work in public at the right point in your development? Do any of you feel, as I do in my life's work, that you probably could have stood to learn more before diving in the deep end? Any of you feel exactly the opposite? -- that following one's muse is all that’s really necessary, and all the technical stuff will just come on an “as-you-need-it” basis?

Really curious. I can’t go back, but I’m just curious.

Maybe you figure that it really boils down to: “you got it or you ain’t” as regards the spark of genius that sets the best apart, or that defines excellence?


  1. Point well taken. Definitely makes one think...

  2. John, while I haven't made a living as a player for much longer than I care to relate, as far as life in general goes - just diving in and going for it is pretty much all I've ever done. Sometimes I think I'm just too lazy to put the pre-work in - others, I think I know inside, that anything I've ever really learned, I learned by getting my hands dirty, and that's the only way it stuck. And I have certainly re-invented some wheels over the years, but it all worked out in the end.

    Good post.

  3. Hi John,

    You ask another thought provoking question. I think you touch on my answer when you relate how this dynamic was influenced for you by the actual amount of time you had for experimenting. Being thrown in the deep end doesn't always permit the kind of risk taking that coincides with following one's muse. The more finances depend on mistake free potting the more we are bound by repeating what already works. It can even be a something of a tautology: I make only what sells and the only stuff that sells is what I already make. Could be a self fulfilling prophecy involved in there somewhere too....

    Sometimes in that position we can still allow ourselves the opportunity to fine tune and innovate, but often only within parameters that are fairly safe. It is incredibly brave for someone whose livelihood depends entirely on the next kiln load to throw it all into doubt by trying something entirely new. I'm not so sure that is a smart thing and it either speaks of great confidence and self assurance or of foolishness and folly. Sometimes also we are stopped dead in our tracks and the pressure to make a living is solved by hammering out the same old same old ad nauseum. A lot of jobs are like that, and not every craft-making artist even has a muse to follow.

    I suppose that the less the burden of financial return the easier it is to grant one's self permission to experiment. This challenge is not always taken up by everyone in this position and it becomes more an issue of the artist already knowing what he/she wants to say with their medium. And this is an entirely acceptable and praiseworthy position. There simply is no curiosity for that which lies on the other side of the fence. The mystery is not intriguing and surprise is no more welcome than a vegetarian faced with a hamburger. Some artists are merely confident in what they know while others thrive on uncertainty and on living on the edge. Different strokes, I suppose....

  4. I had to break my long winded response into two parts yet again. Your questions are just so provocative I can't help myself!

    So, I think you are right to define the question in terms of creativity relating to pressures of the deep end. For me personally, one of the very few pearls of wisdom I was granted in school was from a visiting instructor who observed that it is perhaps uncommon if not rare that a potter will make his/her entire income just on selling pots. Quite often there is a need to supplement this with teaching, doing workshops, and sadly also getting a job outside of clay work. All of these other options take some of the pressure off the next kiln load, and that breathing space can be used to experiment in ways that are simply not available where every dollar is already counted for every pot made. Experimental work sitting on a shelf for a few years is a luxury at best, an abomination at worst. But the less you are counting on selling your work the less those negative overtones associate with experimentation.

    After grad school I plunged into a 40-45 hour a week job that drained any creative impulse from my being. It took a long while to pick up some clay again, and for the next several years it was only part time and the stuff I was making should have embarrassed me more. But at least I was back at it and having fun being creative again. When I quit that job I had already started teaching clay classes, so the pressure to sell pots was not as immediate or constraining as it might otherwise have been. Until only the last few years I would say that a significant portion of my pots have been mediocre but I feel that I get them right more often than not these days. Interestingly, I have found that I am never the best judge of what another person needs in their home. So even the work I dislike or have moved well beyond can wind up on my display and find a new home somewhere. Although I recognize the 'professionalism' in having a tight display I am simply not a tight potter and my customers are far more varied than the odd ball production I sell. If someone likes this one pot I made enough to take it home with them, who am I to argue with that?

    So I guess part of my answer is also that I am still developing, still experimenting, and that surviving "the deep end" also involves learning different strokes, not just adapting the stroke you already know. If you want to extend the metaphor I would say my job teaching is one hell of a life preserver. If it is a question of only sink or swim, most folks might be expected to doggy paddle for the rest of their days. And yet swimmers learn the backstroke and breaststroke. Do we potters merely need a flotation device or some swimming lessons to better navigate the deep end? Would we sink if we mixed in a new stroke every hundred paddles? Would it all be jeopardized by doing one unfamiliar thing every once in a while? Is the possibility of one failed stroke a threat to everything we will ever do in the future? Is it only our lack of curiosity that holds us back? On the other hand, confidence and satisfaction in knowing what you know can be self sustaining and is NOT a bad thing. I should stop there....

  5. Rick,

    I think that what you say is true -- that is, it's unlikely that creative people would ever not just jump right in. It's our nature.


    I think I like that. Just because one is not making one's sole livelihood from pottery, the extent to which sales validate the work that is sold isn't necessarily diminished. That's a good thing to think about.

    Thanks for the thoughts and the continued discussion, guys.

  6. Catching up on some reading last night, I came across the perfect quote for this post. I found it in a Ceramics Monthly profile of Charity Davis-Woodard.

    "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  7. John, Our conversations about our respective crafts, different and similar in so many ways, have always been amazing and inspiring for me. I must say one thing about living in the "deep end". Still there and still alive. It was never about the money, or I would have given up exactly twenty years ago. I've been learning my craft and learning to live from it at the same time. Sometimes my arms get tired, but I think I can doggie paddle for another twenty years. Not a bad life actually,and never a dull moment.

  8. Yeah, Jim, the water's fine in the deep end.

    And it isn't about the money. The money part has had it's highs and lows, but the constant is that, in addition to allowing me to put bread on the table, it's allowed me an exceptionally satisfying life for over 30 years now.