I’m in the middle of week two at Eastern Michigan, and it’s very much the same feeling as post-workshop brain overload. I suppose it will become the norm but for now it’s a cross between adrenaline and exhaustion, inspiration and despair.

I feel lucky that I am able to “compartmentalize”. I have a block of clay/art intensive time, and then come home to a full home-and-mommy focus, plus a full day in my own studio.

Since Jeff went to a conference for a few days, he and I have not had dinner together for nine days — and we won’t tonight or tomorrow, either. I have to admit, that part is hard. The kids have a lovely dinner every night with one or the other of us, and their lives, schedules and homeschooling are singularly undisrupted, but the handoff of child care means Jeff and I can go days with only voice-on-the-cell-phone contact.

The good part is that when friday comes, we waste no family-together-time by staring at tvs or monitors, or otherwise ignoring each other. I find that I am much more able to “be here now” on the days when my main role is “mommy”. Mommy guilt will always seep in, no matter what we do.  Mine used to be about all the times a kid has asked me to bake with him, or go out to the hammock with her, hold somebody’s guinea pig or play a game of chess — and gotten an exasperated list of how much laundry, bill paying, dinner making or kiln loading I have to do right now. 

Now, it’s as if the break from my routine helps me appreciate the things I had taken for granted. So when we are together I am better able to be in the moment, sit still, listen, chat, monotask. A lot of things will just have to get done when they are in bed for the night.

I have had (what is it about women and their advice?) comments from friends and relatives conveying the subtle opinions that I am neglecting my children by starting an MFA at all. I have to say that this is a new one to me. When we slept with babies in our beds for the first two years, when I quit my job to be home with them and then decided to homeschool, the criticism I got was that I was a hover-mother, smothering them with too much attention, and that I would lose myself or lose my mind if I didn’t put those toddlers in day care/ put those kids in school and get on with it.

So I am pretty well vaccinated against the how-can-you-do-this-to-your-kids argument. Most of their peers have a window between school bus, homework, team sports and sleep where they see family, and everybody seems to be thriving just fine. Mine are still underfoot 24/7, with me, or their dad, or their beloved grandma (who has them working on a quilt on the tuesdays they don’t deliver Mobile Meals together.)

My biggest problem is not pushing out school when I am at home, it’s forgetting about home when I am at school.  Jeff has been traveling, which made it more complicated these two weeks – for last Wednesday night’s class, I brought the kids to Diana’s house with a movie for a couple of hours. The last Monday class, Jeff’s flight was hung up in Denver and I drove to Ypsilanti with the kids, left them in my MFA studio drawing and eating Diana’s crackers until their dad could get there from Detroit airport. They thought it was great and got to meet Patrick, but I felt like my attention was divided until they all were safely home, having navigated the semi trucks and rain.

What helps in this case is what helps in “full immersion” experiences like at Appalachian Center for Craft: being too damn busy to be able to think about it. From the time I arrive at my Monday evening class, the ball starts rolling and is uninterrupted except by sleep.

In class, we make pots (or sculpture, like Reem) and Diana “works the room”, offering critique, suggestion, advice. Her warmth and real affection for us make the crits a little easier to handle — there is clearly a separation between who we are as people, full of ideas and intentions, hopes and bravado — and where our pots are (which apparently is not as far along as we had assumed!)  ;0)  Diana brought brownies one week, fresh bread the next, shows slides every session of ancient pots that flash up on the screen in the darkened studio like potter fireworks — oooo! aaaahhhhh!  — enter the eye and implant themselves somewhere in our brains, forever. Likely they will show up in our work sooner or later.

We will be making and then translating some pot from antiquity, sharing the research for a collection on historical works, making and testing our own clay bodies, learning glaze chemistry, and that’s just the beginning of the syllabus.  And doesn’t include the pot assignments. But the hardest part, really, is what happens between me and the clay.

It’s kind of like dental work, the process of asking for critique. The bad teeth have to come out, the cavities need to be filled, we WANT the work done, but we know it’s going to be complicated and possibly painful, in that annoying-but-not-too-traumatic way. In a few cases I asked the other instructor for a “second opinion”, and got a whole different set of comments, but with the same general diagnosis of which bad teeth had to go.

This week I brought a box of the pots I had made during the Thursday in my own studio, packed in foam in a box, and pulled them out to line up like runway models for a crit. I had finally managed — alone in my space with nobody watching — to throw the forms which had eluded me in class. Diana is not unkind, but doesn’t waste any words with ego stroking, either — the problems are here, here, here. I needed to write them down, there were so many light bulbs going off. It’s a gift, being able to put to words what it is about a pot that makes it dorky, awkward, squatty, tight, controlled, unbalanced. Patrick and I have learned that while our hands are skilled at doing whatever we ask them to do with the clay, we do not yet have the eye to design an elegant or expressive pot (which we’re calling phase two) or the ability to take that skill into making “our own” work (phase three).

Reem and Patrick, the MAs and a couple of undergrads are wonderful company, and I had underestimated how much of this experience would involve my peers. The three MFAs, in particular, seem devoted to looking out for each other.

When Reem struggles with the text in the seminar readings, as English is her second language, we help her out. When I don’t know Hegel from hash browns, Patrick gives me a crash course. When Patrick is cooking a midnight frittatta at Diana’s, I am sitting at the table re-reading our chapter aloud (we discussed and debated about art history and theory, until one thirty in the morning. Diana was working in the other room, but came though on her way to bed to read us a relevant section from “Homo Aestheticus”.)  When more grad assistant money became available, we each privately went to Diana and lobbied for it to go to one of the others, even though we’re all pinching our pennies. And Reem in her little car ferries us class, or to our own dark parking lots after class.

In short, the whole cut-throat competitive thing I was warned about between grad students has certainly not raised its ugly head thus far. It helps that we all met — and continue to meet — over food at Diana’s, and that we have learned to keep each other laughing in the wake of crits, deflated egoes and frustration. Patrick does a great imitation of a Scottish shopkeeper from Saturday Night Live, in finally surrendering his hopes for a few of his pots — “It’s CrrrrrrAP!” 

Me, I am using a more euphemistic category, like for the pots I brought in the box, all deemed not worthy of University kilns and sent back to Toledo  — “Some idiot will probably buy it”.  Wrap laughter around all of it, in a circle of wheels with familiar faces laboring over them — it all seems like good, worthwhile, hard work.

The graduate studio seminar also promises to be a wonderful experience. I am starting to understand what people
meant during the most recent clayart MFA conversation when they said they learned more than they expected from the artists/students in other disciplines. Around the table are welders/metal artists, graphic designers, printmakers, painters, and more, and last night’s conversation was enjoyable, intelligent and animated. I think the raucous, opinionated potters added to the energy in the room. I gave my presentation with slides of my work, and got to see the work of the other students — some of it very inspiring.

So from class to throwing late after class, to the seminar discussion over Patrick’s frittatta, then a few hours of sleep. Before I had settled into my first cup of morning coffee, though, it began again. There was Diana with pots, books, conversation about what needed to be done, what we’d be spending our GA hours on this week. Patrick had two lidded casseroles plunked in front of his breakfast plate and we chewed while Diana talked about lids, rims, feet, balance, form. The lady wastes no opportunity — it’s “all clay, all the time”.

I headed for the studio after breakfast and spend one entire day just making bowls. Maybe a third got recycled after my own crit, Lee’s or Diana’s, and the rest will probably hit the slop after I trim. It’s not an easy shift, we’re finding, to go from “making for the marketplace” (ie: some idiot will buy it) and making with an eye to design, perfection, a higher bar and Diana’s standard.

At one point I found myself making a simple bowl, and finding that whatever I remembered to do right, I was forgetting and doing two things wrong.  Angle, rim, proportion, balance, thickness, dance.

I told Diana it’s like learning to water ski. Five people in the boat are giving instructions — all of them crucial, and to be done simultaneously – “Keep your knees together!  Keep your tips up!  Straighten your skis! Lean back and let the boat pull you out!  Keep your knees bent!”

and meanwhile, I’m wallowing in the water with boards strapped to my feet, tangled in the rope and trying not to drown…


Kelly in Ohio… where the kids are up and I’m off to make them a frittatta for breakfast…