Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Road Less Traveled

Mr friend, Cheney, asks the best questions. This morning he asked:

John, I've got a question about inspiration and artistic freedom within one's own style.

If I look at your work (minus the snowmen), I can pretty much see a consistent style for most of it. The nature themes -- leaves, acorns, glazes, swirls, etc. So the question isn't where do you get your inspiration, but what do you do when your inspiration doesn't look anything at all like everything you have done before? How easy is it for an artist to shift gears and produce something unlike the work that made him moderately famous or at least profitable?

Do you allow yourself to break out and try new looks from time to time or do you feel either completely fulfilled within the artistic style you have developed or limited by the same style?


That's a good question. You ask really good questions.

I'll have to think about it some.

I think breaking free from one way of doing things is very important. At my age, and at this point in my pottery career, I've seen more potters stumble and struggle because of the comfort they found in a style with which they either had success or found easy to do, or both. They got in a rut. It's easy to do.

The first thing that comes to mind though, is that there are two major barriers (though there are obviously many minor ones) that seem to define most potters in the expression of a style. They're both on a sliding scale, and though they both seem to allow for breakthroughs, those breakthroughs are usually inconsistent. They seem to be spurred by exceptional moments and acts.

But the two are:

1. inspiration -- what currently or always seems to "float our boat"
2. limitations -- what we seem incapable of, either by virtue of lacking the skill (sometimes can be overcome, other times not), or lacking proper materials to pull off that something new.

My friend, Tim, and I have discussed this at length. One conclusion we share is that we both try to be open-minded and analytical about our mistakes -- mistakes in firing, mistakes in execution. We both even invite such evolution by the processes we chose.

For instance, the inherent lack of control that comes with firing in a gas kiln invites a MUCH higher degree of unpredictability to the results. That unpredictability can be a terrible frustration when a consistent set of results are desired or required (like, for instance, to make a living). But those unpredictable results -- those mistakes -- are a window into possibilities that we'd probably be blind to if we took the safe road. By going with safer production methods, we just might be sacrificing a chance at better outcomes for results that might be merely "suitably good".

But changing direction is something that I believe should be built into the processes one chooses (as, for instance, Tim and I do by implementing "imperfect methods" as a tool). This is because the alternative -- stagnation -- is a worse fate than the occasional bad firing. Trying to move on and grow/change may SEEM like a chancy/dangerous road compared to sticking with only the tried-and-true, but if you've been in pottery as long as I have, you begin to notice the slow death-by-stagnation that occurs to your safe-road traveling contemporaries.

There are other means of moving on besides allowing methods that bring a variable->appraisal->adjustment method into the process. Many potters attend workshops. I think workshops are especially great for potters who are imaginative but lack the skill at the time to pull off their best ideas. Sometimes sharing problem solving with other potters is the best way to get off the bubble.

Of course, the downside with the workshop idea is the same thing that happens in kindergarten "art" class. The first kid to draw something inspires an entire class of copycats. In contemporary ceramics right now it's pretty easy in lots of cases to sus out exactly where most potters get their ideas. There's a "Penland" look. There's a "look" connected to most every workshop, and maybe even every successful potter. It's often easy to deduce the inspirational foundations from which/whom others derive their work. Workshops don't always inspire creativity as much as they inspire imitation.

I've rambled on and probably haven't even addressed the original question. I do think that in some ways -- as counter intuitive as this may sound -- it's easier to be creative within the framework of a style. But that's just a whole nuther post.


  1. Freed by boundaries of our own making...

  2. Never has a question been more relevant to I've been embracing the 'inner bird' in me I have been asking myself how this new body of work fits in a life that has been devoted to something rather different. My intuition often leads me before my brain catches up with a justification for a new investigation. Great post! (per usual!)

  3. If you are going to be a potter for as long as we have been, 43 years for me, you have to figure out how to keep yourself motivated and inspired. It's perhaps the most important thing you have to do.

  4. Excellent post! I love discussions like this! I am especially curious about how artists reconcile creativity and making a living. How much does your audience influence what you do? What happens when what you really want to do doesn't sell? What would you do if money wasn't an issue? So many little time...

  5. Thanks for chiming in, folks.

    Dan, I thought about you and the birds when Cheney started asking me about change.