mel wrote: (on clayart, the ceramics listserver)

“the acts of throwing, slab building and a thousand other
tasks in ceramics…..are not art, metaphor, smarty pants…
they are craft/skill.

it is skill based.

when you control the skill and understand your materials…
clay/glaze/fire most anything can be done and you may sneak
into some art.

far too many teachers in the past two decades did not want to
teach craftsmanship…they wanted to teach big A art.
craft was treated like a disease. idea became the savior of art.
it did not work. bad ideas, executed with zero skill is still junk.”

OK, mel, that post was my 2X4 for this evening. I pulled into my driveway tonight ready to quit school.

(I won’t go into personal details, family drama, health issues, etc. but take my word when I say it’s been a rocky, worrisome week to begin with, so I didn’t have a lot of “reserve” for school.)

I hadn’t seen my kids since yesterday lunch, or hubby since sunday night. I came inches from hitting a deer on the way home (she turned at the last second) and my hands shook for three miles afterward.

I had come to school Monday with two big flat boxes full of new mug and creamer forms I had stormed up over the weekend, only to learn that they were too this, too that, wrong here, heavy there, poorly designed, etc. I spent this morning with my head in a dirty clay mixer, and the rest of the day dripping sweat in a hot, windowless cinder block room over a shimpo that sounds like a John Deere.

The kicker is that last night I attended the lecture of Dr. James Elkins, prof of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. His 18 books include “The Object Stares Back: on the Nature of Seeing” — and he was the keynote speaker at an NCECA once (Kansas City, maybe?) His talk was interesting and not at all dry.

This morning he came to the ceramics grad studio to critique the intricate sculptural work of my studio mates Joanne North and Nancy Sly. Sculpture is, of course, capital-A-art. It looks damn good in a gallery, and profs from all over the art department accept it as a valid form of creative high-art expression.

Joanne invited me to sit in. It was exciting to listen to the discourse. He challenged her to think about why she was making the choices she made, what her work means, how much information about her work she would/should share with the viewer in her show, and the pros and cons of sharing vs. not. They talked about color and surface, her artist statements, her vision for future work, where her limits were and what she might do if she could surpass them. They talked about ideas. Damn, I love ideas.

He talked with the same insight and reflectiveness about Nancy’s massive stupa forms, and suggested to both of them that they imagine their “big break” one woman show, the one “someday”, where the media and reviewers show up — and then picture what would be in that show.

Meanwhile, there I sat in my corner, making pots. I felt like Cinderella in rags watching her stepsisters (though these two are not the least bit wicked) dance with the prince.

Though I’d declined the offer, Diana suggested that he look over a year-old project of mine, the only thing handy, collecting dust on a shelf. It was a series of ancient Anatolian jugs (somewhat awkwardly thrown and embarassing, now, to my more trained eye) that I’d tried to “evolve’ from the original funerary decoration form to something more functional, utilitarian and “pourable”.

He suggested what every prof except mine suggests to me, sooner or later, in one way or another: forget function. Try another series, making it increasingly LESS functional. I sighed and shrugged at Diana. How do I tell him that’s out of the question?

I have been given the task, for these two years, of throwing utilitarian work until I can do it without flaw, without effort, without doodads or gimmicks, and with some kind of personal style. Non-functional is NOT an option. Not with this prof, not for me.

No metaphor, no narrative, no deep personal motivations, symbolism or meaningful statements for me. I am to make pots.

Some days it feels like a very short leash.

No artist’s statement I can write will keep the Capital A artists from thinking, “craft” about my making “dishes”. Even if I fancied myself a writer — and most days I doubt it — I can’t imagine what might be said, beyond the clicheed, oft-repeated sentimentalities about the intimacy of the cup we hold in our hand every day, the niceness of using handmade things, bla bla bla. That doesn’t make it Art. Ask anybody.

I work without my shoes because it is so blazing hot in the studio, summer or winter, kilns or no, and the cement floor feels cool on my feet. Often I forget that I am barefoot, and travel the hall with my board of pots, headed for the kiln. Our building is full of tech classes, and I often pass students from India, Pakistan, Africa… they take in my bare feet and muddy clothes and my board of pots with an ironic smile. I imagine some of them come from towns where potters often walk barefoot in the street, carrying their wares. If so, they likely do not have — or need — tuition bills or letters behind their names.

But I am too far invested in this project to quit. Diana is too much a product of Alfred to see any possible grey area between Utilitarian work and Sculpture. It’s an either-or proposition. And mostly, I hear mel’s taunt/challenge in my head: do you say it’s dull to throw good work in series because it’s dull, or because you don’t have the ability? I can’t let myself quit because it’s hard, or the bar is set high.

Still, I am crit-weary. I rarely see Patrick anymore, and he was my moral support/fellow thrower in the program; we’re on different schedules and are no longer “roomies” at Diana’s. Surrounded in the grad studio by 4 sculptors I feel like the one onion in the petunia patch. And profs Lee and Diana waste no time gushing over anybody’s work; they cut straight to the failures. Usually it feels useful and necessary, like dental work. And usually it’s about as enjoyable. On a bad day it just makes me want to surrender, like there is no such thing as “getting there” — no milestone, no light at the end of the tunnel, no wiggle room in my assigned role.

On the way home I thought about how often I correct my kids. When I got home tonight I went to kiss each one goodnight and promised that I would tell them something wonderful about them, every day. My Tyler is trustworthy and responsible. Connor is enthusiastic and generous. Molly is affectionate and has a great sense of humor. I told them to remind me if they hadn’t had their compliment for the day, and I would come up with a new (and honest) one every time.

Mel, I have eight months left, give or take. I am not ungrateful, and feel my prof is one of the best anywhere for teaching the skills, the design, the craftsmanship of good pots. But it’s a long road. The possibility of my ever “sneaking into some art” seems discouragingly remote at this point. And the chance of my “art” being taken seriously by the other profs/students seems slimmer still. I know I should be above caring. I’m working on that.