Next week is finals week and the last crit of the semester in Diana’s studio– followed, of course, by a pot lock at her house on the edge of campus. Tonight we all worked to clean the studio, sponging and mopping, labeling and organizing. Being mature and serious students we also took turns taping little signs on each other. I wore a “kick me” sign for part of the evening before it was passed to several others… Patrick spent part of the class mopping with a sign on his back that said “critique me”. I cannot imagine who would have done such a childish thing. (grin.)

We’re all reflecting on what we’ve done this semester. I have one major observation to share: simple is hard.

Simple, decent forms are so hard to make that it’s not even fun to keep hammering at it. It’s tempting to give up and start some other project that seems more easily mastered, more instantly rewarding.

Deferred gratification is hard to teach. I know this as a mom/homeschool teacher, because there was no way to make my kids get excited about playing scales and dorky one handed piano tunes. They don’t know they will care one day about being able to sit down at a piano or pick up a saxophone and make something beautiful happen (if they are talented, maybe even make something original). So my best teaching technique so far has been the time tested, “you have to learn this, because I’m the mom and I said so.”

Somehow Diana has been able to persist all semester, through my grumbling about the slowness of this process, my sighing after the loss of inspiration, and my angst over trying on all these other ways to make a spout and a rim and a foot, none of which look like ones I recognize as mine. It is starting to sink in, though, that the ones that looked like mine (learned somewhere, from someone) were not all that remarkable, and the pots that I WILL make one day will draw from a wide range of options (all of which I need to master before I keep, discard, or “personalize” them.)

There is a lot you have to take a teacher’s word for. “Less is more, simple is elegant” I only believe when I look at lovely pots made by skilled potters, but not so much when I look at my own attempts. So the trick is, “Less is more, once you learn to make careful choices, tune yourself to tiny nuances, perfect the bones of a pot. It’s no good dressing up a badly made pot with more more more.”

I have had workshops with potters offering wonderful rodeo tricks: textures and stamps, facets and glazes, altering and decorating, how to add this and that to a pot. I have never had the intensive, time consuming and taxing chore of taking everything AWAY from a pot and still having it look good. Simple is hard.

The process of being a student has been one of sorting, as well. Before, any idea that flew into my head seemed worth pursuing. Most were scribbled into my notebook and mostly never seen again once the page was turned, like those poor emails that move to page 2 and are lost forever.

Now, all ideas have to pass several criteria:

Is it important enough to make it into the EMU kiln?

Is it worth my time? Except for one class period I spent making xmas gifts (with my own clay, which I glazed/fired at home) and maybe three weekend evenings dorking around in my own studio, I haven’t made a pot all semester except university work. That included saying “no” to my two usual christmas shows.

Another hurdle: Would Diana consider it worth doing? This isn’t necessarily the deal breaker, but it guarantees that I need to care enough about it to make a case for it if/when she objects. I don’t think anything has seemed worthy of arguing for, as yet.

And often when I have a cute idea I think, “Why now? Am I really just putting off the hard, slow work of perfecting my basic forms?”

Next week I give my final presentation to my seminar class (the group of mostly 2d MAs/MFAs.) They all liked my old work better than my newer, struggling-to-be-simple forms, which is understandable. The old work has lots of doodads to look at, and often has a narrative quality that relies on cleverness more than skill.

I am taking homemade honey candies to serve during my presentation, and am sorely tempted to bring tea in one of my old teapots (with the little faces) that they liked so much. “Feel the weight? Do you see that you could drive a nail with it? See how it piddles tea down the spout? This stuff matters…”

So I am halfway through my first year of school. Conventional wisdom holds that if I took all the money I am paying for tuition and spent it on tools and supplies — and took all the time I am spending at school, and spent it at home making more pots and more pots — that I would be better off in the end. I am not sure that’s true, not for this potter, in this program, anyway.

As for tools and supplies: The first several weeks I hauled to school and back two large tackle boxes full of trimmers, assorted tools, roulettes, NCECA-purchased gadgets and tricky stuff from chinese clayart. Now I often forget to bring tools at all, grabbing a metal rib and needle tool from the studio bin and getting after it. I have access to the most amazing equipment, including an absurd number of glazes, a range of possible clays and firing temps, a gas, wood and salt kiln… and none of it has magically transformed my pots into great ones.

And as for doing as well on my own: I have been making pots “seriously” outside of university classes for 15 years, and selling them (with some success) for 10. I was apparently able to make the same bad pot several hundred times without having it spontaneously evolve into a good pot. I needed to be trained how to look deeply, see differently, study ancient pots and other potters’ pots, and then line up my own, series after series, to compare, pick the accidental beauties and pursue those.

A lot of that has to do with the right teacher for the job. I needed one who would be patient with my wordy soliloquies about what the whole experience means, patient with my ego, my “cleverness” and my doubts about the whole process. One who really and truly gave a shit about pots and students, not in that “make you feel better” way, but in the “make you BE better” way. Well, I found one. In fact, two.

My grad advisor teaches his MA/education art grads that kids in school need to WORK HARD at art, that art is NOT SUPPOSED TO BE FUN and that it’s NOT ALL GOOD ART. He gets a lot of heat for that position, but honestly, if my grade school experience had been a little more like this experience, there would be a lot fewer people who think art class is the easy A and artists are too lazy to get real jobs.

And fewer people saying, “Grad school in ceramics! That must be FUN! ” (twitch.. twitch…)