Thursday, April 30, 2009


For those who don't know, Alya's dog Arlo (whom you may have met over the last year at good dirt) has a medical issue that puts him in a considerable amount of pain. If untreated it will only get worse, but unfortunately the surgery costs around $2,500 which is a huge chunk for a poor potter to cough up. The studio assistants, prompted especially by Julie, have come up with the idea of a benefit to help raise the funds. The original idea of a pure pottery sale has morphed into a 'whatever we can get money for' event. Alya wants artists to have the option of getting a percentage of all their art work sold rather than just making it a straight donation, but that will be the individual's discretion. All other types of donations are being accepted and can be dropped off at good dirt in Julie's space. So we hope everyone can come out to buy something special (I know several artists whose work will be there who I wouldn't mind adding to my collection!) and possibly chip in with a contrabution of their own art work or other household items. The event is being hosted by Teresa in the Cobham district on the west side of Athens, sort of near the Athens Regional Medical Center. Hope everyone can be there!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sonia asked a question on the last post which may have some relevance for others. As you may remember she is making some nice covered jar forms with cap lids kind of like small ginger jars. The problem she has run into is that the opening at the top doesn't line up with the base, as if it has been pushed off that central axis. This can sometimes be more consequential when you have a multiple part pot like a covered jar form where the difference is worst at the area that the lid sits. This only exagerates the inconsistency and can make it a frustrating resolution. The lid sits at an angle or noticably off center.

I will have to watch your process to help you uncover where this difficulty is being introduced, but there are some typical problems that might help explain what went wrong ( I am of course assuming that it isn't an issue related to uneven distribution of the clay through either centering or opening the form). One issue might be that the clay has twisted out of its proper round distribution. Julie, Teresa, Jayne and I were discussing this just yesterday at an impromptu group potting session. Coincidentally all three are using porcelain these days and this issue is perhaps most severe with that clay. What can happen is that as you apply pressure to the walls inorder to thin them out the water disapears from the surface and creates more and more friction the less water there is between your fingers and the clay. This drag can twist the clay so that it is distinctly off center. As the clay dries out it can even get worse as the clay shrinks and unwinds unevenly.

Another possibility is that picking the pot up off the wheel was done in such a way that a tilt was introduced into the shape. If you are careful to lift the pot straight up and set it gently straight down you should minimize the distortion. If your pot is simply too thin or shaped in an exagerated way I endorce using the pot lifters to avoid these complications. While I try to promote a fearless attitude as a means of problem solving issues through direct experience of the clay, there simply are those times when you can't do what you want just by hand and need to use tools like pot lifters and bats. If this is where the problem is being introduced you have my blessings to use either of those tools.

Good luck and happy potting!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Originality and Copying Ideas

Howdy all! I can't believe we are almost finished with this session. I have felt more rewarded as the instructor of this class than any other class in recent memory. I am going to really miss having this group to work with. I hope we can do more work together in the future, but if not I know I will have fun looking at all the creative ideas for pots you all will come up with when they cycle through the studio. Everyone has learned so much and done some really quality work this session. I am proud of you all!

Anyway, I had an interesting brief conversation with Jayne before class last night on a topic that has been rumbling around my head for weeks now. I have already touched on it in the post about Inspiration. Basically the question is how much we can take from what others have done and still legitimately be our own work. I think that at a certain skill level you can copy another's work exactly, detail for detail, so that there is really no difference in what was made. This is the extreme side of this equation though, and the intention is to make a reproduction. It does not happen by accident. So this is the possibility at one extreme of the continuum. Anything short of that intention to make a duplicate will have atleast some influence of the actual maker. So the question then becomes "how much of it is our own work?". I think it is possible to ask this question and believe that anything short of being entirely our own is illegitimate. That would be an unfortunate and limiting response. It would put the burden of creativity in the realm of needing to 'recreate the wheel' every time, or settling for a narrow focus of what you had already done on your own. If you think of art as being a kind of language, and the elements and details of expression as being like words, then it becomes clear that expressing yourself requires using words, phrases, concepts, and thoughts that are shared with others. You think for yourself not by comming up with your own language, but by making a common language perform the way you want it to. You can come up with new words, new phrases, new concepts and ideas and this can be exciting and even change the way people look at things, but for basic communication we are all fumbling around with essentially the same tool box.

So think of your art and your influences as being a range of expression. The more you know how to do the more interesting the statements you can make. If you don't even look at what other people are doing it is like sitting alone in your closet while the world passes you by right outside your window. I guess the point I am trying to make is just that it is nothing but healthy to expose yourself to other's art and to experiment with the ideas of others as much as you can. Take a theme or detail from somewhere and see what you can make of it. Actually try to copy some things just so you know how to do something new. This will be good for you!

This issue really strikes home for me because at one point when I was in school I had been asked where my inspirations came from and at the time my answer was based on the conviction that I was making it all up as I went. I had failed to acknowledge that I had seen so many pots of other artists that they had become a background through which I approached my own work. Now that I am comfortable with the idea of influences I can see that there is really very little that I have done that is entirely my own invention. I have learned some things from one artist, other things from others, taken some details directly, twisted and changed others a bit. The synthesis of all these ideas and influences manifests in pots that are somehow recognizable as my own. But even so, that is not so important. I am not concearned with having a 'unique voice'. That misses the point of why anyone does this stuff in the first place. I do what I want to do, and as long as I am having fun I will keep at it. Hope you do too!

Good luck as always!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Describe your projects

Howdy again. I had announced last night that I would set up a post so that you could leave a comment describing the ideas you have for your final projects, so here it is. Leave as much detail as you can and try to identify the issues that you feel you may have difficulty with. I will update the blog as much as I can throughout the week to get you answers to questions or suggestions for possible directions. Good luck!

Clay Consistency

I am really delighted at the progress that is being experienced throughout the class these days. As your instructor I can say that my real reward for being at good dirt is to see how well my students are coming along. Even with the occasional frustrations of a failed pot there are valuable lessons being learned. It is all a part of the growing experience.

One point I should have made to Sandrine but which could have been made to the class as a whole is something that Jayne learned from a conversation she had had with Alya a few days ago. The issue relates to the different consistencies of the clay that you use. I always try to make the point that if your clay is too stiff to center you are often better off setting it aside with some water in the bag until it softens up some. If you can't wait or can't switch to a new bag of clay you may be able to center smaller lumps and confine your aspirations to more modest sized pots. One other possibility is to cone up and down as long as it takes to get some moisture worked into the clay. May take a while, but the point is that you can't just assume that you can set out to make what ever you want without first analyzing the limitations inherent in the materials and the possible avenues for correcting/dealing with them.

The specific issue that Sandrine had was that she was working with her reclaim and that it was especially wet, so it was sort of the opposite scenario. While being wetter may make it easier to center, and therefor center larger masses of clay, this does not mean that your ambitions should be for larger pots as well. The wetter the clay the less able it is to stand up to and resist gravity. The clay will want to sag if it is put in a vulnurable shape or if there is too much weight being supported by too thin a wall. This may mean that you have to leave extra clay in the walls for support, you restrict your shapes to low walls and undramatic curves, or that you choose a smaller scale that is not subject to the same threats of gravity.

What I should also have told you, Sandrine, was that instead of trying to throw the form upside down as we had originally strategized, it may just as well have been thrown right side up and then just trimmed down to the correct thickness and shape. Try it both ways to see what the difference will be. If you get to your trimming while the clay is still moist enough you can still do the slip decoration you want to investigate. Good luck!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Special Projects

Howdy all,

This is just to remind everyone that we are finishing bowls this week and moving on to the final project. I thought everyone has been demonstrating significant advancement in skill and comfort with the clay (or at the least some hard lessons learned). So this new week begins our work on special individual projects. Not everyone has told me what they intend to do for the assignment, but if you still haven't figured it out we can come up with something on Monday, or you can decide it as you go. It can be specific or something loosely organised around a theme you are interested in or you can even change the plan over the next few weeks. I just want you to focus on the skills you are learning and bring them to new forms and new ideas. Above all I want you to have fun with it, so make something you are interested in. And always remember that any project is but a step along the process of your evolution as artists. You don't have to feel pressured to make something exact or in some way 'perfect'. Think of everything you make as merely practice or a sketch. The real point of the exercise (any exercise) is to learn, not the finished piece. You may feel more satisfaction if the pot comes off well, but if you have made it as a result of your growing skill level and not just because you got lucky this once, then you have what it takes to repeat that sucess, and to move on to even more satisfying results. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the massive amount of preparation that goes into the creation of something successful. There is always an entire history of endeavor that precedes any finished work, even your own. Sometimes you can forget where you had to come from to get where you are now. If you were a concert pianist you could only perform at Carnegie Hall because of the hard work you put in. You don't just jump straight into Lizst without hundreds of hours spent on 'chopsticks'. A runner doesn't run a marathon without hours and hours of training and preparation. Professional potters are only able to create their magic because they have thrown thousands of pounds of clay, made thousands of pots and labored for thousands of hours. So don't feel too disapointed if things you make don't always live up to those lofty standards. Even professionals had to make bad pots before they gained the experience necessary to move on to bigger and better things. It is my job to put you on that path and to help you continue in the right direction. We are fortunate that working with clay is both forgiving and intuitive. It is possible to make decent and very good pots at a very early stage of experience. If you are focused on learning then you are developing the tools to make anything you want. Imerse yourself in the process and find the joy in discovering new things to learn and do. Challenge yourself with new ideas and push the limits of your safe zone, not necessarily with the goal of a fabulous work of art as the end product, but with the aim of greater comprehension of the process and your abilities. Good luck and have some fun!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rules and The Illusion Of Technique

Follow up to Jayne's follow up comment on the last post.

Good question about changing your hand position depending on the issue you are dealing with. The only thing that really matters is whether you are putting yourself in a position to succeed at what you are doing. I made a lot of noise on the last post about the important reasons for choosing one hand position over another. Always try to think of technique as a means to particular ends. Identify what you are trying to achieve and think of the best ways of getting there. Try to resist the feeling that technique is everything. If you place too high an importance on a particular way of doing things you become dependant on that technique. Only doing things one way only teaches you about how the clay responds to doing it that one way. That is why I tend to discourage a reliance on specific technique. Of course if you are paying attention you will learn greater things about the medium that are tangential to a procedure, but there seems to be a difference between learning what you can do with a particular technique and learning what you can do with the clay. Obsessing about technique and hand position will only get you so far. What really matters is how you are educating your hands. If your hands understand the clay then it doesn't really matter how you are holding them. You can use a knuckle, a sponge, a rib, or any 'tool'. When your hands have gotten to the stage of understanding the clay itself, not just understanding the clay mediated by this particular hand position, then the idea of technique melts away. You may find that throwing with your feet like Rob is even possible (afterall, he only is able to do this because he knows alot about the clay, not because there is some 'magic tecnique' for doing it).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hand Positions


That is of course worthy of a blog entry, but I also want to respond to your questions on the last post. I don't have images of the bowl handles we discussed on Monday, but they are still in Julie's space for you to inspect. My advice is to see what they look like, try to hand build the shape as close as you can, and attach and modify/fine tune with some water. Maybe try a few without the pot to see how close you can get. There is no one right way of doing it, so see what you can come up with by experimenting along the themes that interest you. One of the greatest skills you can have as an artist is the ability to problem solve- See what someone else has done and try to figure out how they got there.

One of my pet issues as a teacher is that there is of course no one right way to do things. If something works for you, then you have at least one reason to continue doing it. Also, no two people have the same abilities or strenghts or sensitivities. So, what works for one person may not work for another. It is therefore important to explore different ways of working to figure out what suits an individual best. I like Rob's idea of changing your hand position as a way of more effectively muscling the clay out of the bottom of botankerous pots. Using your hands parallel to each other will focus the pressure put on the walls at the finger tips over a small band of the wall. This idea is similar to the way Geoff pulls up walls using a knuckle on the outside. By focusing the point of pressure the ammount of force used is more efficient. The same ammount of force spread out will have more resistance and have more area that it is dispersed over. The result is less work done.

So why do I advise you guys to try it with your finger tips perpendicular? Well, first off, this advice is meant only as an aid to putting beginners in a position to understand the clay better and therefore be able to progress more easily. Someone who already understands the clay has moved beyond the need for that hand position and can simply get away with techniques that no beginner would profit from. Geoff uses his knuckle because it gives him advantages that are lost on someone just starting out. And, quite frankly, Geoff's knuckle is so sensitive and well trained that the rest of us may never be as sensitive with even our finger tips after years of practice and thousands of pots thrown. Rob can throw a good bowl using his feet, but is that a technique that we should start practicing to make our mugs with? Just because a professional can do something does not mean that it is necessarily the best way to learn about the medium.

So what are some reasons for putting your hands perpendicular to thin walls out? Well, If you are trying to learn something about the clay the most sensitive instrument most people have is their finger tips. So Rob's suggestion makes sense in that regard. The one drawback (and the reason I like to suggest a perpendicular finger position for novices) is that it sacrifices some control to gain that greater efficiency. But if control is not something that worries you then a parallel hand position should be fine. Most novices struggle to maintain control, so it makes sense to have a greater band of the clay wall under observation/manipulation. Control is aided by being steady and consistent. Spreading that pressure along a greater vertical area of the wall puts more of that wall under your control. This means that more of that surface is being dealt with in the same way at the same time. If your hands are steady and your pressure consistent the walls should respond in kind. The narrower the pressure the greater the skill required to keep things consistent and steady. Wobble once with a laser and guess what happens....

Also, a parallel hand position is one in which both hands are active. Both hands want to squeeze. This works fine if you know what you are doing, but if you are even a little unsure I have found that it helps to have one of the hands act as a stable support while only the other hand squeezes. I have seen more novices fail to control the pot because keeping both hands active takes the focus off of staying anchored in a stable position. Most people can stand on one leg and swing the other without difficulty. Only really coordinated people can be unsupported and swing both legs with any grace or control. Throwing pots with a parallel hand position only looks easy if the person doing it knows what they are doing. And just because they already have enough conrol over the process to make it look easy doesn't mean that others without that background of control will have the same success.

Remember to always be aware of where you are in your experience with the clay. If you are still learning, what are the things you need to do to get the most out of your practice? If you have moved beyond learning, what are the things you are trying to accomplish? Different techniques are helpful in that they are different ways of reading the clay. Always try to analyze what the benefits are and what you lose by doing things a particular way. If they lead to a better understanding or help achieve a certain effect then they have done their job. In the end what is important is not this technique or that one but how well you understand the clay and how well you can make it do what you want.

One side piece of advice: If you are leaving too much clay on the bottom edge of the walls, just do some extra work there! The bottom of the wall is always the hardest area to read, so don't always trust yourself. An instructor once told me "If you think you are done, do three more pulls". It is better to go too far and learn what the limit is than to never push it far enough and settle for poorly thrown pots all the time. One thing to check is how it looks. Comparing the inside and outside of the wall from above can often show where things still need work. Until your hands have become as sensitive as those of us who have thrown several thousand pots (just to give you some perspective) you may need to trust your eyes more than you might think. Sometimes just the shape on the inside compared to the shape on the outside will be revealing enough. Sometimes you can watch your fingers move apart or together as they travel up or down the sides of the pot. Problem solve what you need to do to make better use of the clay. Sometimes it is a defect in a particular technique that needs to be overcome. Sometimes it is a defect in application.

Hope that helps!