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was: sneering/malcolm, now: college clay

updated thu 25 may 06


Snail Scott on wed 24 may 06

At 03:51 PM 5/23/2006 EDT, Cindy G wrote:
>Hey Malcolm,
>...I agree with you except in my small corner I don't see them
>knowing how to build kilns or make glazes just write "artist" statements. I
>thought it was just me, I always thought that selling pottery that was
warped or
>razor sharp or the glaze had crawled or etc.was in bad taste and showed no
>craftsmanship or respect for the art/craft of pottery...

Coming from the academic side, I think a big part
of the problem is that most college programs don't
teach people how to be potters. It's not that they're
failing in their mission; it's simply not the mission
they've chosen. Most of them set out to teach 'ceramic
art'. They draw on a lot of different influences for
their inspiration, and in ceramics, you can't really
discuss the medium without discussing pottery, past
and present. So, pottery becomes a topic of discussion,
and a thing to be tried. Sometimes it becomes a
contributing element to a sense of abstract form or
suggests surface treatments for sculpture. Sometimes
is becomes subject matter - the idea of the vessel,
and the history and use of functional objects. And
a lot of those students give a shot at making pottery,
even if it's not the purpose of the course. A mug for
Mom, a bowl for their roommate - They do a little,
learn a little, but they may not learn how much they
don't yet know.

I don't teach pottery. I say so on the first day of
class. I use pottery as examples, both with physically
present objects to handle and with slide lectures, but
I don't believe that my class is a good one to learn
pottery in. For one thing, it's a one-semester course
with no sequence or follow-up in the curriculum, and
for another, I'm teaching clay sculpture - concept and
composition - in the same class; doing all that together
with pottery means none of it will get covered the way
it should. I don't want them leaving at the end of the
semester thinking they know how to make pottery. It
can't help but be bad, after only a few months of
part-time trying, and bad pottery has a greater impact
than bad fine art. Bad sculpture seldom poisons anyone,
or blows up in a microwave, or shivers shards of glaze
into food, or scalds with its contents when it cracks
while carrying. I don't teach pottery, precisely because
I feel a respect for pottery, and a responsibility.

I teach my students ABOUT pottery; I don't teach pottery.
I teach them that there is such a thing as toxic or
unstable glaze, bad glaze fit, undervitrified clay,
thermal stresses on handles, steam. I teach them that
there is a thing called ergonomics, which discusses the
way the human body fits the things it uses - the shape
of a handle, or a mug lip. I talk about the way some
shapes suit their purposes: how does a bowl fit a spoon?
I talk about the life of a craft potter - working
every day, developing skill and speed and refinement
through repetition. I talk about kinds of kilns our
department hasn't got, and ways to make clay that we
don't use. I talk about these things because I can't
teach them to actually do them, not in a one-semester
elective for non-majors, but I need them to know that
these things exist.

I need them to know, because although I don't teach
pottery, some of them will try it anyway. They will
see pottery as a likelier living than fine art, and
might think they know enough. I want them to know what
there is yet to learn. If they really care, they can go
look for that training, and get it in a setting better
suited to it than my class. If they don't, they may
go on to be your best customers: the knowledgeable
ones who check for well-joined handles and spouts that
pour and well-finished feet, and who respect the
effort that went into learning those skills, and who
don't get seduced by awkward forms in trashy raku

Statistically, only about 5% of art students actually
persist and become artists. Some figure it out early.
Others enjoy the art-student life, and discover that
the real-world version is much less supportive and
desirable only after graduation. Some need a few years
working for Cindy and Mark at the MudPit (or any other
real-world place) to realize they made a mistake. It
may not be their fault that they didn't figure it out
sooner. But it may not be the fault of their school,
either, which may not have thought it was in the
potter-training business.


lee love on wed 24 may 06

--- In, Snail Scott wrote:
> Coming from the academic side, I think a big part
> of the problem is that most college programs don't
> teach people how to be potters.


I really think it depends upon the program. They teach
pottery at the UofMN, Kansas City, Alfred and at Vince's institution.
No doubt, there are other places.

Lee In Mashiko, Japan
My google Notebooks:

Snail Scott on wed 24 may 06

>--- In, Snail Scott wrote:
>> Coming from the academic side, I think a big part
>> of the problem is that most college programs don't
>> teach people how to be potters.

At 01:55 PM 5/24/2006 -0000, Lee Love wrote:
>Snail, I really think it depends upon the program. They teach
>pottery at the UofMN, Kansas City, Alfred and at Vince's institution.
> No doubt, there are other places.

Absolutely! If a program actually teaches pottery as
a specific element of the curriculum, to majors who
are focused on it, they can do very well. I believe
a lot of the 'don't-quite-get-it' potters that Cindy G
and Malcolm were bemoaning are not usually products of
those types of programs, but of those where pottery
was a side-note, and a student might finish a ceramics
degree without ever realizing how much more pottery-
specific information they needed to learn to be an
actual potter. Those programs may be good ones, but
not for training potters.

I teach metals students to weld, but they'd better
not believe they're qualified to build bridges when
they're done, and neither is wooden sculpture the
same as furniture. When I teach throwing, I try to
make it clear that pottery is more than clay with a
hole in the middle. If they want to make pottery,
they have an ethical responsibility, like a bridge-
builder or a furniture-maker, to learn to do it right.

Too many people, even within ceramics, seem to think
that a general ceramics curriculum is fine for all
purposes. I think that although pottery and clay
sculpture share many things in common, failure to point
out the distinctions between them leads to a lot of bad
pottery AND bad sculpture. Too much ceramics is unclear
on its intent, stuck somewhere in the middle. A 'non-
functional' piece of pottery is NOT by default a work
of sculpture, any more than a piece of sculpture that
can hold stuff is pottery.

Sculpture can be well-inspired by pottery, and pottery
can derive strength from sculptural principles, but
each has specific assumptions, philosophies and intents
that are very different. A lot of clay sculpture is
hobbled by practices and habits retained from pottery-
based traditions; good things for their original role,
but things which were never reevaluated in the light
of a differing purpose.

Pottery can likewise be hindered by seeing it as merely
a sculptural form for holding food, and that's an easy,
invisible trap in fine-arts departments where function
(and even craft-based practice) may seldom be an issue
elsewhere. A ceramics program doesn't have to teach both,
and I'd rather see a program do one (either one) and not
the other, or both distinctly, than to do both as though
you can just average the two and teach it as one subject.

The students who leave unprepared to fire a kiln, make
a glaze, etc, are a separate issue. I've met graduating
seniors who were left high and dry with no idea how to
work independently. Some of this is the fault of the
program, but what about the students who never even
asked these questions before May of their senior year?

I asked an instructor at one of these schools why the
students never fired kilns, or made glazes themselves.
He said they never seemed to want to, and he didn't feel
it was his job to insist. And I'm not sure he's wrong.
Students need encouragement and guidance, but if they
don't have the initiative to push for themselves, these
will be the first to fall by the wayside as artists,
regardless of their education.

I'm not sure it's possible to teach everything that's
needed in a college setting anyway, where other things
vie for attention: English class, day job, etc., and
intensive studio sessions may not even be possible.
Perhaps it's best to see college art courses as a
foundation, priming the student for another step:
apprenticeship, workshop job, or specialty school?
College has other worthwhile benefits, and not just
as vocational training.

PLenty of non-college-trained artists are half-assed
in their practices, too, and education is a thing of
value even without a practical career outcome.