by A. Blair Clemo
I spent the first week of this month at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, teaching a one week class on combining press molding, handbuilding and wheel throwing into utilitarian pots. This was the first time I had taught a session at Arrowmont, my previous visit there was to participate in the Utilitarian Clay Conference VI in 2012 (followers of Objective Clay need not be reminded of our connection to that event). I wanted to reflect a little on some things that I have been pondering on since my return.
This class, as I had planned it, was a pretty straightforward technical workshop, heavy on demos and intended to get hands dirt. Instead of a group “critique” at the end of the class, I had planned a discussion on methods to critique ones own work. The mention of this might have served as an invitation as early in the week, I was pleasantly surprise that several students were interested going beyond the technical, wanting to gather more information on building and articulating the content of their work. Looking at my itinerary for the week, packed with plaster and clay demos, it was clear that I had not anticipated this. I scrambled to put together some programming to address how content happens in pots, my best efforts resulting in a candid image presentation on my own research and how it manifests into something tangible in my own work.
This conversation of content is so important, especially for artists making useful pots. Pottery is such a unique means of disseminating ideas. Unlike viewing art in a gallery or museum, pots reveal their substance over time: a coffee break, a Sunday dinner, a lifetime of daily use (according to one survey conducted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewers spend an average of 32.5 seconds looking at a piece before moving on). When walking through a museum or attending a First Friday opening, we tend to put on our “art viewing pants”, we expect to critically access, to be skeptical, to decipher meaning. We engage with pottery differently though, we often encounter pots at our most disarmed moments, when content can sneak up on us as our fingers trace over the foot of a cup or the decoration on a bowls interior is revealed as the food within get consumed. Potters have a great opportunity to balance use and meaning, and I was happy to see that many potters in my class were hungry to hone skill to both ends. Reflecting on this, I am encouraged to challenge myself and try a new kind of workshop, one that will equally emphasize what work means, not just how it’s made (new to me that is, lots of more seasoned workshoppers already do this).
The biggest challenge I faced while preparing for the week was to try and find ways to present technical (and conceptual for that matter) information in a “neutral” way. I am all too familiar with the workshop mode of sharing how to make “my” work, demonstrating exactly how I create the pots I do, the workshop concluding with a table full of demo pots that look an awful lot like my regular studio output. This is somewhat troublesome to me, as it is so far from my usual approach towards teaching.
The other 9 months of the year, when I am teaching at a university, I make sure never to do demos of “my” work… ever. My in-class demos, which I keep in the studio as greenware references all semester, look nothing like the pots I usually make. My teaching style embraces the technical demonstration, but does it in a very strategic way, careful not to make MY way, THE way! I see my own studio work as a series of solutions to the challenges that pottery offers me. I think it is vital to the education process that students are able to find their own solution to similar problems. Thinking this way, I find it a little problematic to show-and-tell my own pots at longer workshops (at shorter workshops and demos, I think it is necessary). That said, this is a hurdle I have yet to jump over cleanly, my week at Arrowmont resulted in demos that sure looked a lot like my work.
I got feedback in both directions on this. One person in my course, a full-time potter, expressed to me that he was having difficulty finding a way to apply the techniques I demonstrated to his own work, as there was too much of my aesthetic flavoring his ideas. A few other participants wanted to see exact elements of my work, as I typically apply them. Clearly there needs to be a balance here; enough of my process and approach to spark something new, but not enough to provide the answer. I am excited to explore what that striving for balance might look like, and what kind of demo pots it will yield.
This last week at Arrowmont really helped me to question how I offer workshops and what potential there is for changing that method. I want to provide new information, techniques… and a little wow factor. I want to challenge students to use the voice they have found in their own work to ask questions of the viewer. I want to encourage students to take what they have learned and build on it, improve on it, and keep it moving as a new contribution to the field.