Side by Side with Tony Clennell and Ben Carter

by Jen Allen and Lindsay Oesterritter

With so many new ways to access information, and current sharing platforms (podcasts, N.I.C.E., online classes, social media, etc.), we were curious how people collect and disseminate information to their respected community. We reached out to Ben Carter, founder of the Tales of the Red Clay Rambler Podcast and Tony Clennell, who has produced videos, published a book, and is a blogger extraordinaire. They both graciously shared information about themselves, the social media outlets they manage, and how they view the role of these outlets in the ceramics community.

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews and investigations about contemporary ceramics education and the shifts in learning. If you, as the reader has specific questions or ideas that you would like answered as part of this new series of articles published on the Objective Clay Blog, please feel free to email Objective Clay, directing your questions and ideas to Jen Allen and Lindsay Oesterritter.

Jen Allen and Lindsay Oesterritter

 

Tony Clennell & Ben Carter

Tony Clennell & Ben Carter

Introduction:

What is your background/education?

TC: My aunt and uncle started their pottery in 1946. I started working in clay when I was 6 years old.  They encouraged me not to become a potter. They wanted me to work with my head and not my hands. I went to Ryerson University and finished my Bachelor’s of Business Administration and then my Bachelor of Education. I taught high school for 13 years before going full time in pottery. At the ripe age of 55 I went to Utah State University for my Masters of Fine Arts.

BC: My training comes from both academic and studio environments. My degrees from Appalachian State University and the University of Florida are focused on ceramic design and painting. Between degrees I worked as a production potter at Black Mountain Studios in Swannanoa, NC and other potteries in the Appalachian region.

How were you first introduced to clay/ceramics?

TC: My aunt and uncle made pots for 47 years. 

BC: I was fortunate to find ceramics as a high school student in southwestern Virginia. I was hooked from day one and have been making pots every since.

What was one important decision you made in your career path to get where you are now?

TC: I’m not sure if they were decisions or misfires. I had hung out with these two eccentric potters all my life so I really didn’t know how to conform to life in the business world or the ringing of a bell.  I never saw failure to make a living at pots as an option so I just did it. 

BC: Three quarters of the way into a non-studio arts degree my ceramics professor Lisa Stinson asked me, “How can you be a good teacher if you are not a good artist?” Within a week I transferred over to the studio-based program where I could focus solely on learning to be a potter. This decision to aim for a depth of knowledge in ceramics instead of a breadth of knowledge across all art has been key to me being firmly rooted in the field of ceramics. This approach wouldn’t work for all artists but giving myself permission to focus solely on ceramics opened my mind. By making the commitment to clay as a primary material I greatly expanded how far I could take the ceramic process.

tony clennell ben carter

Goals & Impact:

What motivates you to continue to contribute to a blog? How do you use this platform in conjunction with your pottery, videos, and book?

TC: Lindsay, the blog started when we went to China as part of our graduate studies. I started it to keep in touch with my family and friends. As you know everything in China is interesting. Sharks hanging in Wal-Mart, dried flying squirrels as medicine in the drug store. So my diary of our day to day in China exploded with more than 750 readers per day.

It brought attention to me as a potter and I have to think it has contributed to a life as a travelling mudslinger. 2015 had me in WV, Georgia, Florida, Korea, Wales, British Colombia, NY and Italy. How else would they know about me? I am lucky enough to sell my pots and my book at these workshops. The DVD’s died with You-tube and Ceramics Arts Daily doing their own. 

What motivates you to continue to contribute to your podcast? How do you use this platform in conjunction with your personal website, instructional videos, etc.?

BC: This might seem obvious, but I’m a huge fan of ceramics. I’m motivated by my own ceramic geekery. Interviewing other artists is a huge honor and a reward in and of itself. The podcast has allowed me direct access to my ceramic heroes, which I don't take lightly. We are in the midst of a resurgence of both studio pottery and ceramics in the fine art context, and I’m just lucky to be one of the people who gets to observe and document it all. I also really enjoy being able to contribute to the ceramics community and widen access to discussions in the field.

The podcast is a core part of my personal presence online but it is not directly about me. For information about myself I use my website and social media to disseminate information about the exhibitions and workshops that I participate in. 

What do you hope to contribute or gain from your blog/podcast on a personal level and professional level?

TC: I really don’t write the blog for anyone or for any particular reason. I write it for me. I work and live alone so it my way of talking out what I’m thinking. I feel like I’m talking to someone but mostly I am talking to myself and trying to figure out what I’m doing with my work and my life. I do get notes from loyal followers when I haven’t written for a few days asking me if I’m Ok and what’s goin’ on? So in a way it has become a responsibility.

BC: What do you hope to contribute or gain from your podcast on a personal level and professional level? In the beginning the podcast was documentation of exchanges I was already having with people. It was more about making a memory tool for myself. About a year into recording episodes I realized I could make an impact on the field if I focused on bringing forward the collective narratives of the ceramic world. My motivation is now focused on recording both individual and institutional contributions to the ceramic field with the hope that this will help others draw their own conclusions about the field’s growth and importance.

The podcast has now become an integral part of my studio and teaching life. My conversations with podcast guests have introduced me to a whole new set of questions to answer in my studio practice. I’ve done long-form interviews with around 140 artists, which is only part of the experience. With every interview I am shown how smart, skilled, and impassioned the members of our ceramic community. Collecting this information fuels me to make better work when I am in the studio.

It’s hard to boil it down, but I’d say the podcast’s greatest contribution is that it is a catalyst for dialogue about the role of ceramics in contemporary life. I regularly receive emails, tweets, and comments from listeners who came to a new awareness of their experiences through listening to one of my guests talk about their creative practice. I have had that same feeling while listening to other podcasts, so I feel fortunate to be apart of that process for my listeners.

In reading many of your posts, it seems like you easily relate personal aspects of your life on a very public platform. Can you ever share too much? Do you struggle with knowing how much to let people know, or being offensive in informality? How much do you worry about being grammatically correct?

TC: I don’t air my dirty laundry publicly. If you write as much as I do you are bound to piss someone off. There are those trolls out there that just want to burn my ass because they are jealous of something or the other. Maybe I struck a cord that they really felt was directed to them. It wasn’t but they take it all personally. 

How do you navigate the art of conversation?  Do you ever struggle with how casual or how formal the interview is?  How much editing do you do, if any?

BC: Recording a conversation is surprisingly different than recording an interview. Conversations are filled with verbal affirmations that let the other person know you are paying attention. Most speakers tend to lean on casual verbal ticks when they are speaking casually. An interview on the other hand is more direct in its tone. I wouldn’t say my style is formal, but it is direct. I ask a question, and I try my best to wait for a response. This allows the other person time to think.

So much of the information that is available out there is either first person narrative from artists or critical response from art critics and scholars. While these two are helpful, there is a need for a middle ground that is built on the observations of an educated practitioner. When I’m interviewing I’m not a critic, I’m a researcher, and so my job is to ask questions that will draw out the unique thought processes that enable each individual to make the work that they make.

Most of the content editing I do involves taking out gaps of silence or waiting words (um, ah, etc.). The end result of those edits is a livelier interview. In terms of sound editing I edit for clarity and overall sound quality. A lot of those edits depend on the conditions of the room where we recorded the interview. I try to make our voices as clear and noise free as possible so that the listener feels included in the conversation. If edited correctly the illusion is that listener joins myself and the other person in the interview space. It's a subtle shift in terms of sound, but it makes a world of difference. Some interviews take up two or three hours to create that type of sound, while others only take thirty minutes. I do most of my interviews on location at people’s homes so I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to isolate errant sounds in the room before the conversation as opposed to try and take them out of the recording later. 

What is a memorable post/podcast because of the comments you got back or unintentional impact that it had?

TC: If I want to increase the numbers of readers I just swear, mention God or meat tray pottery. The one that went nuts was my post on Meat trays and paper dollies. Geezus the airwaves were burnin’. I referred to them as beginner pots that had no right being sold for money at Guild sales. I think readership that day went to 1800 readers. People wrote me and told me they would never take a workshop with me etc., etc. If you write as much as I have you have to accept the delete button as one of your best friends. 

BC: I’ve found there are two very different levels of perception that happen in an interview. The first is the face-to-face perspective I witness when sitting in front of a person. This is more about emotional and social connections that happen in a conversation. The second is the auditory perspective of the listener who isn’t present in the room with us. They don’t see and feel the body language of the person, and this physical distance creates a perceptual shift. It seems to allow the listener to focus solely on the ideas we talk about in the interview. I’m always amazed when episodes that have a lot of emotional connection for me don’t elicit the most comments or downloads. Because of that I have my favorite podcasts, and I think the listeners have theirs.

tony clennell and ben carter

Past & Future:

What research or blogs did you look to before starting your own?

TC: None. I just did it. A bit like my entire career!

BC: I was a regular reader of Michael Kline’s Sawdust and Dirt, Carole Epp’s Musing about Mud, and Carter Gillies’ ceramic blog before I started writing my own. All three of those folks focus on slightly different aspects of their ceramic experience, and I think my blog posts were a mixture of the three. Once I started podcasting my influences came more from radio. I’ve been a loyal radio fan my whole life, so I’ve drawn heavily from the interview styles of Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Dave Davies. I also have benefited hugely from friendships with fellow podcasting potters Brian Jones (Brian R. Jonescast) and Paul Blias (The Potterscast). They are the brain trust I turn to if I have questions about the tone or direction of the show.

Ideally, how do students/ potters/ patrons/etc. use the information you are relaying? What is your end goal? 

TC: I hope it gives students something to think about in the making of their work and living of their lives.  My end goal is to keep making pots. That’s pretty how simple my mind is. 

BC: My goal is for the episodes to be conversation starters. I love the idea that an episode might create a discussion between two artists who disagree about an idea that was brought up in the interview. I’ve had a few college professors tell me they play the interviews during their open studio sessions and then talk about them with their students afterwards. This is tremendously gratifying because they are experiencing the same excitement and stimulation I feel from doing the interviews.

In a larger sense my goal is to energize the ceramic field with a sense of shared experience. Artists are great at putting our heads down and working alone in our studios. I find we aren’t as good at reaching out to other artists even if we share so much in common with them. The most frequent comment that I receive is that the show makes listeners feel connected to other makers.

How has your blog/podcast evolved over the years?  Has your interview/writing style changed?  If so, how?

TC: No, I think ever since my writing days with Clay Times I have had my own voice. It is as you suggested very personal and I hope sincere.

BC: Um…well….ah…um….I guess….I have tried hard to learn how to speak in complete sentences. Listening back to some of the early episodes all I can hear is how many nervous verbal ticks I had. I am now conscious to ask a question and then sit back and wait for an answer. This makes the interviews more potent.

I’ve also become more direct in my questions and more willing to hear the words “I’d rather not talk about that.” I used to be much more tentative because I was afraid to challenge the other person too much. Now I try to get into challenging territory within the first 15 minutes. In my mind a good interview is one in which both the interviewee and myself talk about a subject that we have never put into words before. I’m trying to draw out areas of experience and understanding that we have thought about but have never talked about with our peers. If we can ride that edge of fresh understanding, the interview process can become focused on discovery and learning. The episodes that achieve that make for compelling listening.

How do you envision the future of your blog/podcast?  Do you anticipate it evolving into something new?

TC: Gee, Lindsay some 12 year old walking down the street will have to lead me into something new. I dread that they will even change the format of my blog and I’ll have to learn to do something else. I haven’t changed it at all in a couple of years mostly out of computer ignorance.

BC: I plan to continue the podcast in its current form with the possibility of increasing the amount of episodes I release each week. I’m looking at funding options that will enable me to hire a sound engineer. I’d love to generate enough backing to increase my output to two episodes a week, including one-on-one interviews and more live tapings of topical panel discussions. I plan to keep the show free to the public but I’m knocking around merchandise ideas, grant possibilities and private funding.

In the last year I’ve come to see the podcast as a research archive. I’m in the gathering stage of a larger understanding of the “state of the field” in contemporary ceramics. I’d like to compile the observations I’ve made over the last four years and write them down in a cohesive and accessible way. I’m not sure if it will take the form of a book or of a series of journal articles, but I’m thinking about ways to get the information out there.

tony clennell ben carter