Friday, August 20, 2010

To Don Pilcher, With Love. Heh.

A most EXCELLENT conversation taking place over here at the "Sawdust & Dirt blog of potter Michael Kline. I couldn't help but remember this now famous video about art. So, I'm sending it along to Don Pilcher and the rest of the conversationalists over at Michael's place...



Well, it's obvious that I can talk. And talk. And talk. I like thinking about this craftsman's life I've chosen (or that chose me). And sometimes -- particularly after hours at the wheel with my mind spinning faster than my Pacifica Glyde Torc, I feel the need to get some words down. I write to help me organize my thoughts.

Lately I've had many conversations that circled around the same subject: Is there a new generation of craftsmen out there? ...or has the world evolved enough that an actual change of values has taken place?

And I've had several permutations of this coincidental conversation lately. One was with a fellow from an engineering firm who said that new hires were great with software, but equally great at designing stuff that couldn't be made. His firm concluded that the new hire's schoolin' didn't involve real-life hands-on experience it might take to realize that the things designed by a computer can't actually be made.

Are hands becoming vestigial? Will they someday evolve into a more keypad-user-friendly shape, or can we count on retaining our opposable thumbs so that we can at least still simultaneously grab and hold drivethru burgers and the steering wheel?

Me being involved in the world of craftsmanship, I couldn't help but think of the parallel questions facing us. It is the talk of the pottery world that there seem to be fewer younger people interested in entering this world. If it can't be done while sitting in front of a computer with earbuds in, they aren't interested (so goes the conversation).

And I fear that we've bought the false notion that technology is some sort of evolutionary step forward. But, well...

1) Evolution doesn't step forward or backwards. It just steps.

2) For every step we DO take forward in technology, we lose skills. Sure, some of the skills may be unnecessary (we aren't all very good with horses ever since we got cars....and we aren't very good at working on cars since they became computerized). Still, every once in a while we stumble on a skill that we wish we hadn't let slip. Like politeness, for example.

And, of course, much of this phenomenon is just simply that it is impossible for most people to keep up with the rapid changes that are occurring in every aspect of our lives. I recently spent several hours trying to learn a simple computer task. I can't imagine having the time it would take me to be truly technically savvy on a computer -- all the while keeping up on the changes I should know when wearing my businessman's hat, my marketing hat, my promoter's hat....

It's just crazy. So we end up needing to specialize. But specializing leads to compartmentalizing -- meaning that the guy you deal with is often not the guy who solved the problem with the new process or product, and therefore can't tell you what you need to know about it in order to do YOUR specialized process to the product.

I'm dizzy.

And I think I changed the subject on myself. Twice. Okay, three times.

Oh well, you weren't doing anything today anyway, right?


  1. John, you are so my hero! Those were such excellent comments on the S&D blog. I had missed the acrimonious first posting of Pilcher's thoughts, and have yet to decide how I would like to respond myself, but I love the humorous dismantling of Pilcher's notion of where the problem lies. I have a lot of respect for him as a person who has challenged us with his art, but he clearly is prejudiced toward the H-O-R-S-E shot specialist.

    I also think you have just made the strongest possible case for why you CAN NOT QUIT blogging. I absolutely love reading what you have to say, am fascinated and entertained by your stories, and learn so much from what you have to share with us. I wish you felt more rewarded for the effort you put out, but I can honestly say that you are doing an invaluable service to your audience and the pottery making and loving community would be tremendously poorer in your absence. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing with us.

  2. May I second Carter's comment! I enjoy your work and your words...I'd like to think we'll share a beer and an eyeball to eyeball conversation one day.

  3. I anxiously look forward to your posts every day! Keep up the good thoughts, and tell Breeze that I enjoy his humor too!

  4. Well I may have distracted folks from your (as usual) excellent post. Oops! You may be wondering at this point what it will take to generate a good conversation on one of those topics Pilcher seems to despair of finding. I keep checking back to see if anyone has bitten, and since no one else has I will contribute my two cents worth.

    Well, actually, let me first contribute someone else's two cents. At about the same time you posted this I saw an interview of the guy who started the blog boingboing. The topics mostly concern ideas from his book "Searching for meaning in a throwaway world". The two interesting tangents I feel he brings to your question are 1) that a do-it-yourself attitude has a certain amount of psychological nutrition: it increases our feelings of self-efficacy and that "people who make their own stuff have more sense of meaning in their lives". It also teaches us first hand how the learning curve works and this means that mistakes are absorbed into the larger picture, a healthy alternative to feelings of impotence and inadequacy. Point 2) was that in a bleak future the makers of the world will have more of the skills required to sustain society. Hands on and problem solving skills are more adaptive, and some of the skills, such as growing your own food, have value in their own right. So, making things by hand has some survival value as well. Check the article out at

    My own thoughts are that yes, the modern world demands things of us that require this compartmentalization and that the more we get sucked into it the less control we seem to have in our lives. Or, our dependency puts us at the mercy of our own specialization induced limitations. And while self sufficiency is being drummed out of main stream society, and hands on do-it-yourselfers are being pushed further into the margins, there does seem to be this underground swell of resistance. I think at least some folks have responded with the attitude that these skills are too important to lose, and if they don't have their own vegetable gardens, knit their own socks and sweaters, bake their own bread, brew their own beer etc., then they will support things that are handmade and especially locally made and grown products. It isn't much, perhaps, maybe even little more than a sop to our feelings of loss and disassociation in the modern world, but for now a tiny spark remains. And what we do as potters is probably even one of the most marginal of these efforts, but as long as there are folks like us engaging an audience with the honest value of hand made and beautiful objects, hope is alive.

    (Are you buying any of this?)

  5. Thanks for the too kind words and the additional thoughts. I got in from WI at one-ayem-in-the-morning and I'm trying to get some pots made today. I had a HUMONGOUS Etsy weekend -- 16 sales/2000 visits, all new.

    I'm reeling right now, but I'll post again soon!

  6. hey john, i too decry compartmentalization of skills... we're getting older. the video is great, my favorite was the dog printmaker