Monday, February 14, 2011

Conversation With Cheney, Continued

In yesterday's post I started a conversation prompted by a series of questions from my friend, Cheney. I'll continue the conversation here in today's post. The Thomas Hart Benton images are here because you can't have a blog post without pictures. It's a rule.

Cheney: So all this made me think of you for some reason. What if you decide some day to make a line of bowls in dayglow colors with geometric shapes on them? Not that you would, but what if your muse took some PCP and told you to? How easy is it for an established artist to shift gears and hope his fan base follows him? The same questions can be applied to musicians. When Michael Hedges started singing, a lot of his fans (like me) said, "Shut up and play." Then again, when Genesis left Progressive rock and started pumping out power ballads and dance tunes they got more popular, not less (well less popular with me but more popular with the rest of the world).

Me: Funny thing in that regard. It can and often does go either way.

At the end of the 1980s I was just about to pack it in. I was making pottery that looked almost completely different from what I do now -- different inspiration, different method, different market (as it turned out)

...and curiously, I was still busy as a one-armed paper hanger trying to keep up. So....why wasn't it working?

Because I failed to see that playing only to the same audience had painted me into a corner of ever-less-cost-effective item making.

When I finally came to my senses....beaten over the head by a more forward-thinking Dar....I was made to realize that I had to change and hope that if there was something essentially "ME" about the work, maybe some of my past customers would follow me into my new adventures. But even if they didn't (follow me), me quitting pottery didn't supply their demand either, right?

So, overnight I simply quit doing what I had been doing for a decade. And I changed. I did several hundred glaze experiments and came up with something that, in retrospect, was awkward, inferior, and demanded its own learning curve.

But I also learned that the novelty of change was a stronger public draw than the safe stagnancy I had unwittingly come to rely on. I actually started selling better.

And as that change freed my mind and my expectations, the next change created what turned out to be the best demand for my work in my life (best selling potter at three of the biggest art fairs in the country).

So, thick-headed as I am, I do learn some things every once in a while.

Incidentally, I find myself knocking on that door right now -- working toward change again.

Cheney: The other part of the question was more along the lines of why change if it isn't broken. This isn't from a marketing point of view but an artistic satisfaction pov. What if making the things you do right now are the height of artistic expression re your career? What if you look at what you do and think, "This is it. This is what has been in my mind's eye for 30 years and I am finally able to make it real." At that point why change? I'm sure there are successful artists that have been cranking out the same stuff over and over again forever. Their fans love it, the critics may get bored but they don't pay retail anyway and the artist may be fine with it. Part of the question in there, if there is one, is where do you see yourself in that scale? How much do you want to or are open to drastic or even subtle changes in your artistic direction at this stage in your career?

Me: Why change if it isn't broken?

1. Boredom.

2. Sufficient humility (enforced by enough casual dismissal from peer and public alike) to realize that what I do at any one time is not earth-shaking stuff. I’m making pottery, not changing the world.

3. The muse knocks and creative people answer. I don't know how to not be creative. I know my word games, punnery, and endless stories may be tiresome. But my mind doesn't simply shut down. I never stop thinking about connectivity and creativity.

4. And this one is the real insidious one. As I hinted above, we aren't always aware when something is "broke" and needs fixing. Market demand rarely ever shuts off immediately like a faucet. There are SO MANY factors that play into demand...and so many forces that settle a man toward inertia. We don't always read the times well....we don't always know when it's time to move on. We often tell ourselves that we're doing fine....the market will turn around....that show was bad but this one is good (and so the next one will be good). All kinds of rationalizations. Sometimes we wait too long.

These are just a few of my favorite potters (I showed Cheney images of each of the following).

Cathi Jefferson
Ellen Shankin
Tom Clarkson
Pete Pinnell
Jane Hamlyn
Richard Aerni
John Peterson
Shirl & Jim Parmentier
Pat Horsley
Tom Coleman
Elaine Coleman
Dick Lehman
John Tilton
Dan Finnegan
John Leach
Paul Morris
Tim Sullivan
Adam Spector
David Greenbaum
Mark Hewitt

Cheney: Now that you have posted all of those, I can see some of your work in a few of them (which ones came first?) and others that are pretty distant from you. What do you see in each that draws you to them? What about what they do are you drawn to? Is there some of what they do that you wish you did? Some of it seems to have influenced you (some a little, some greatly) but others are nothing like your work at all.

Me: What do I like about most of them? What do I think I similarly strive for (whether I hit it or not)?

Probably their strong shapes.

Possibly a sort of "timelessness" to most of them (Horsley's being the most obvious exception).

Definitely what is referred to as "transparent craftsmanship" -- that notion of a craftsmanship so comfortably competent that the HOW of the making takes a back seat to the WHAT of the finished product....yet still utterly "human" in the execution. The perfection of execution that is still stopping WAY short of an erasure of the human hand that would put the end result into that "It's so perfect that it looks like it was machine-made" realm.


  1. hi john, love the post and know that feeling of having to change well. would that i had a cheney hanging around to make me answer these kinds of questions

  2. These last two posts of yours have been an incredible read! I have really loved hearing about your history as a potter and I have loved the thoughtful and insightful way you approach all these issues. And to top it off you are on the cusp of some changes in your work. Pretty exciting stuff! I will follow your story with great anticipation.

    The only argument I would throw your way has to do with the #2 on your list of reasons to change. I am not convinced that humility requires us to deny any contribution to making a difference. Sure, you and I are both only potters, not brain surgeons or political leaders, but people LIKE what we do. They pay good money for it and they want to have it in their homes. And they think highly enough of what we do that they also want to give it as gifts. Sure, not earth shaking stuff, but not insignificant either.

    You are a GOOD potter. And humble intimate things ARE valued. They DO make a difference. Its not only the major events that change the world, but each part that grew and swelled into something on that scale. An avalanche only starts as that first pebble rolling. And even if it is still only one small pebble, now there are many more moving in the same direction and with greater velocity. In some ways we are that avalanche, perhaps not picking up much steam these days but each of us pebbles helps to keep it moving.

    I think that what we do is needed in today's world. What if artists finally gave in to all the pressures that make doing our craft such a difficult thing? Can you imagine what things would be like if no one made art? No one made music, no one made pots or sculpture? No one danced anymore? The creativity in the world would obviously carry on if you and I were to quit making pots, but it would be LESS without us. And maybe no one would miss us after a short while. But every person we would have gifted with a new appreciation of beauty, every person we would have helped inspire to become potters or to become better with their art would miss that chance. So what we are doing may only be one small piece of the puzzle, tiny and humble, but what we do is NOT insignificant.

    A world without handmade beauty would be a terrible thing. Every pot we cast forth into the world is us taking a stand that the world deserves to be more beautiful. And if we didn't believe this wouldn't we be less concerned with making these timeless executions of our craftsmanship? Don't we really believe that we are contributing something of value? Humility has very little to do with it. We don't need to make 'great' art to be making a difference. Small difference is still difference, after all.

    That's the short version of my feelings on the matter. For a more elaborated discussion, if you are inclined, check out my blog post on this issue at:

    Good stuff as always John! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  3. Thanks for making us think too

  4. I think you can't help but change. Either that or turn into a caricature of an artist. If all you are doing as a musician, potter, painter, writer, is turn out the same thing decade after decade, then you're a one man factory, and the creative part was only in the design, and is long gone. I think you have to change to keep alive that wonderful feeling you first had, the first time you created something you thought was worthwhile.

    But then, there's always that making a living thing, isn't here, and safety in income. It's tough to tinker with success.

  5. John, I've enjoyed reading these exchanges, both here and elsewhere. And I love that you used paintings from one of my favorite painters in this post.