I have come to realize that the main reason I decided, against all logic, to pursue this MFA, was that my sales pitch is — and long has been — better than my pots.
I write easily, (if not well), and enjoy the company of potters. As a typical firstborn, I tend to tap-dance for approval, and make a lot of noise about whatever little things I manage to do. I have a few articles in ceramics magazines and blather a lot on the clayart listserver. So at workshops and conferences, I often meet people who know who I am, even though my pots are pretty unremarkable.
In school, when I got good grades, it often had to do with people skills, general apple-polishing, and an ability to write as if I had done my homework. I never felt so good about those A’s, though. I crashed and burned on subjects that were really hard, or imposssible to skate through on charm and bravado alone.
And so it is with my “art”. I am not a total hack, as a potter, but when I got a column in Clay Times, I wasn’t sure I belonged there. I am just a writer who makes pots. I want to be a potter who writes.
And so, in my determination to overcome a lifetime of all-hat-and-no-cattle, I determined to see what I can do besides show off. An MFA program seemed like the place to do it.
Potters wrote me and said, “It’s going to be life changing, painful, transforming.. Hold on to your marriage, your sanity, your balance.” I laid awake nights over those emails.
Other potters wrote and said, “Meh, it’s a cake walk. You can do it with one hand tied behind your back. You pay the tuition, you get the piece of paper.”
Honestly, that possibility scared me even more. What if I turned my family upside down for two years, spent that much money, presented myself for trial-by-fire and found I couldn’t even break a sweat? I SO do not want this to be an easy ride, dumbed down, just another laurel I don’t really deserve.
Well, after the last few days, I’m not worrying about that any more.
Day one: Monday. I spent the morning at home, teaching Molly how to do long division with “the little house thingy” and remainders… pulling boxes of fall clothes out of the attic for cooler September mornings… taking the kids to the metropark for our weekly “park day” with half a dozen homeschool families… filling the gas tank, the bank account, my cell phone card and the refrigerator. Late in the afternoon I headed for EMU while Jeff took the kids to Tae Kwon Do and gymnastics, and then dropped them at their grandma’s in their jammies, with book bags full of Tuesday’s homeschooling.
The EMU faculty union strike has been in and out of negotiations, suspended for day long intervals. While it is not yet resolved, luck was with me and my classes fell on the days that teachers were teaching. Diana’s house is always full of pottery students, though, anyway, drawn by a welcoming atmosphere, abundant good food, “bad wine” and strong coffee, and the fact that she lives right on the edge of campus (and will occasionally let us park in her yard.)
So between Monday evening when I arrived, and 30-some hours later when I headed for home, there were caucuses and conferences, learning experiences both formal and informal, from Diana’s kitchen to the ceramic studio in Sill hall, from critiques of the bowl holding our soup, to slides of ancient pots, Diana’s pots, discussions of books, technique and philosophy. My syllabus sits now beside my keyboard, waiting for me to finish here and find used textbooks on line.
I slept in Diana’s guest room monday night, in a brass bed with a fluffy duvet, and woke to the cell phone. My husband, already at work, made the promised wake up call, offering time, temperature and the news that EMU professors would be off the picket line and in the classroom that day while negotiations continued. Fortified with coffee, I headed to the studio with Diana and Patrick where we made clay, and set about getting organized. Students will all be making small batches of experimental clay bodies using a coarse kaolin, making shrinkage and absorption tests, and comparing results to choose one for class use.
If I had ever questioned whether I needed to be here, doing this, all doubt faded by Tuesday afternoon.
In the insulated environment of my own studio, and in the classes I teach at the guild (where I do demos like a trick pony for mostly beginner adult students), I can often convince myself that I know quite a bit. In the big pond, though, it has become clear very quickly that what I do not know — even about basic stuff — could fill volumes.
New clay, new space, new wheels. I blamed all of those things, in turn, for the fact that I suddenly could not throw a decent pot to save my life. I threw and threw, and the folded, abandoned bowls piled high. Diana sat down and did a quick demo of four bowl forms — the v-shaped rice bowl, the English bowl with the flat rim, the round boule, and the Islamic bowl with its little pedestal and angled-in profile. Quick, simple. “Try these.”
Probably sixty pounds of clay later, I still have not managed to throw a bowl worth keeping.
Tuesday lunch was a delight, because lovely, arty, enthusiastic Marta Matray (whose work is in many of the 500 series Lark Books) had arrived for a few days, to visit, look around, and make pots. Again, of course, Diana provided a lovely meal, and potters gathered to select this bowl, that cup, this plate from open cupboards. Reem brought baklava. Gotta love Reem.
An afternoon in the studio flew by. Lee — the other instructor, and apparently a very smart man– stopped in to point out what was wrong with the few pots I had allowed to survive my throwing ventures. (In a masochistic sort of way, this felt good. This is what I don’t get, working in isolation.) Then it was time to bolt (in a downpour) to the graduate studio seminar.
If my inability to produce a decent pot had been humbling, three hours in a room full of MFAs in various disciplines completed the job. I have no BFA, (and an unconventional MA,) and have very little background in 2d art, except a few drawing/life drawing courses and a 2d design. When the prof asked us to go around the table and explain what art history classes we had taken in the past, I was impressed. A Chinese student in graphic arts had studied a wide array of art histories. The Korean photography student had started with art history in middle school, and listed undergrad and grad classes. There were similar “resumes” for two metal sculptors, a painter, a printmaker, and an MA-art education guy.
Now, I am not a total doofus on the subject. I have done some reading, I have taken courses like Ekphrastic Writing at the art museum where my mom was a docent, and where I spend a winter day every week in the galleries with my kids.
My MA focused on anthropological art, though, and folk art, and it quickly became clear to me that there is a language of talking about Capital-A-Art that is unfamiliar territory for me.
Right here in the middle of my life, though, I am learning that that’s OK. I don’t need to blather up something to make myself sound smarter than I am. I don’t need to give up on those #*&% Islamic bowls and start making things I know I can succeed at, just to prove to the students around me, “no, really, I CAN throw pots”.
The seminar class is both daunting and promising. Next week we are to present a 15 minute, informal, slide or powerpoint presentation of our work, just to introduce ourselves. We’ll be required to do “the real thing” at the end of the course (14 long weeks away) when we have learned how we might present our work to a gallery.
We will visit every class member in his/her studio to see and discuss the work, and will be assigned to write about the artwork of someone in the class. We’ll take field trips to galleries, draft and revise artist statements, and keep journals discussing the distributed readings.
The readings were another reality check. It’s been 20 years since I was compelled to read something so dense, abstract or challenging that I would otherwise have tossed it aside for an easier read. This is the highlighter-and-dictionary kind of reading. I was kind of sighing over how difficult it would be, until, during a break, Reem began to ask the definition of words she had jotted in margins as the class discussed a slide of a painting. “What is dichotomy? What is bleak?”
I decided that if Arabic-speaking Reem and the two Asian students could get through the English readings with dictionaries and determination, I should just cowboy up and get to work.
I got home late Tuesday night. Jeff had picked up the kids at grandma’s, where they had delivered mobile meals, gone to a movie, eaten ice cream, watched cartoons and otherwise suffered in my absence. They all were tucked in bed by the time I got in, and Jeff himself was turning in, since he had to get up at 5:30 this morning to leave for a conference in Montana. (btw, 20 hours later, he’s stuck in a bad motel in Denver, after a day of delayed flights and missed connections… though his luggage did make it to Missoula without him.)
Wednesday morning it was back to laundry, long division, punctuation, multiplying fractions, Spanish future tenses, parts of the tooth, and history. When we settle into our rhythm, I hope to do my homework while they do theirs. It occurred to me that I could have Tyler read my art history/theory assignments to me on long drives. He has a lovely reading voice, and he might be suitably impressed about how hard you have to study in college. The afternoon was for chores, Tyler’s saxophone practice and Connor’s piano, and art class at the botanical garden.
Since Jeff wouldn’t be coming home from work today, in late afternoon I loaded the kids in the van, picked up a pizza, and off we went to Ypsilanti again. I have to admit that repetition is making the 45 minute drive seem shorter — one cup of coffee and I am in Dundee, then there’s the prison, and before you know it, exit 34. It helps that you can drive 70 once you cross the Michigan border. Tyler brought a CD he got at the library with some nice saxophone parts, and Molly read a chapter book about Rex the Cat Detective for the third time this week. We had to smell the pizza for the entire ride.
I dropped the kids at Diana’s with the pizza, and immobilized them with a Madagascar DVD (guaranteed to keep them riveted in one spot, glassy-eyed and unresponsive to outside stimuli.) We have a “no screen time rule” in effect at home now that school has started, so they consider this a treat. I consider it a good way to keep them out of trouble for a couple of hours. Bad mommy, bad.
I headed off to the studio/class, and quickly learned what the parking folks meant when they called my hang tag a “hunting license”. I had managed to throw two halfway reputable pots at home and had brought them in the van, to finish them in the studio (and provide some evidence that I was not a total waste of studio space) but I had to park a mile away, so they never made it out of the van to save my ego. Diana likely would have offered a frank assessment of them, anyway.
I continued to throw miserably, but it was great to watch what the other students were making. Marta had created a hollow swirl-form that looked half flower seed pod, half animal. Patrick was throwing a series of traditional looking juggish-forms. I thought about doing some handbuilding, but had to be honest with myself: it was a way to show off, and avoid practicing those damned Islamic bowls. So I stayed at the wheel.
I kind of felt like my heart was in two places at once. It was getting near the kids’ bedtime… I kept stepping out into the courtyard to call and check on them. As always, they humored me, answering questions patiently, one finger on the pause button.
At the end of the session, Diana offered us brownies and slides of some wonderful ancient pottery, including clay versions of Chinese watch towers, and “mountain jars” and other fascinating pieces with insides and outsides, doorways and windows, small figures and details.
After class, back at Diana’s, the kids chatted with Marta and Diana while we got ready for the drive home. Diana apologized to me for her straightforward critique of some of the too-small, tight, mechanical pots I had thrown, and my tendency to make things “squatty”. I assured her that this was exactly what I was paying for, and as long as she didn’t tell me I was a bad person besides, I certainly wouldn’t get my feelings hurt over her assessments of my pots. Which, my gut tells me, have been right on — putting a name to symptoms of my more unsatisfying work that have nagged at me, but for which I had no diagnosis.
On the way home, I called to reassure my mother, who clearly had not been happy that I was hauling her grandchildren down a highway after dark with careening semi trucks and a hundred other worries. Then Tyler and Connor took turns reading essays out of Dave Barry collections. Connor sometimes giggles so hard in mid page that he can barely finish, which gets us all laughing at once. They headed straight for bed, and here I sit, still, at two in the morning, still too wound up to sleep.
Tomorrow, maybe I’ll do my homework when the kids do theirs, between breakfast and lunch. I have a private wheel student in the afternoon, and then my first guild class of fall session, in the evening while the kids are with their lego robotics team. After the last three days, I might just have to show up for class and confess to my students that I don’t know a damn thing about making pots, and they are all on their own. Or maybe once I am back with familiar clay and familiar faces, I will get my confidence back and be able to throw again.
Maybe I’ll demo one of those nice Islamic bowls…