Smashing Plates

(This started out as a comment over at Websnark, about NaNoWriMo, and I found the notion sufficiently interesting that I wanted to follow it up further.)

Little Known Fact: Prior to deciding to learn to draw in college, Ursula’s great artistic love was ceramics. Yes, I wanted to be a potter. I took some classes in high school, at the local arts center, and in college knuckled down for two years of pounding clay. While I wrote a lot as a kid, ceramics were the first art I ever pursued which required an actual manual skill and where it was immediately obvious when you had failed.

I was praising the art of pottery today, in the face of what I interpreted as contempt for the focus on mere output of something like NanoWriMo. What I praised was the fact that ceramics in one of the few art forms where the more time you spend on a piece, the more it sucks. If you are sweating and laboring and obsessing over a piece on the wheel, chances are that you’ve blown it. Ceramics is hard as hell because it is in many ways a speed trial–the clay will only love you for so long, and once you have thrown the walls too thin, stretched the clay too far, soaked the lump too much–you are DONE. It is over. People early into the process will often bemoan this, and labor mightily to save a piece, but soon you learn not to bother. It’s a lot easier to just squash it and cut the thing off the wheel and try again.

Potters cannot spend six months on a single pot. A) they’ll starve and B) the pot won’t stand for it. The medium simply doesn’t support that. Potters, in my experience, tend to be slightly flaky, covered in dried clay (which is also often slightly flaky) laid back people, often with intensity lurking just under the surface where you don’t expect it, with forearms like dock workers. They’re probably not all like that, but the ones I’ve met almost always fall into that category. I have never met a potter who was nervous and hyper. They probably exist, but it’s not an art form that rewards hyperness. You need calm, focused, consistency. And strong forearms, of course.

So potters are not generally focused on the one perfect pot. They’re focused on ten thousand good pots. Ten thousand pots that make the world a better place, or at least a place with better pots. High output is a requirement. And you rarely fix things–if you screw up, you learn and avoid it on the NEXT thing, because fixing is bloody hard. (This is not to say that people don’t slap handles over bent bits or whatever, because of course they do, but compared to digital art or writing, ceramics is not what you’d call editable.)

So there’s none of the thinly veiled contempt for the prolific that creeps into writing, and to an extent art. We mock the fact that Piers Anthony has an entire freakin’ shelf at the bookstore (and yes, I do it too!) but in our defense, he’s pretty awful. But if a book takes ten years to write–well, hell, it must be good! People mention the amount of time that a painting took, as if the fact that something took eighty hours is more significant than eight. But pottery–hell, you’re SUPPOSED to throw two hundred plates in a day. You’re a potter. How else you gonna get good, except by throwing a whole helluva lot of pots?

There is also another sense in which ceramics was insanely valuable to me, and that was that it taught me my art is not precious merely because I had the audacity to create it. The wheel breaks you quickly of preciousness. You can turn out a truly shocking number of shockingly mediocre stuff, and there comes a time as you stand before a table of lumpy glazed thingies, that you realize this stuff does not, by merely existing, have a right to continue existing. You have not improved the world by the existence of these things, you have merely added unlovely clutter.

Then you take it out to the dumpster, and you dither for about thirty seconds, and your chest feels tight, and finally you grit your teeth and take the very worst one, the one that looks like a dog turd with a lid, and you wind up and you pitch it into the half-empty dumpster and you listen to it smash and something happens in your head that falls about halfway between a cry of anguish and an orgasm. And you pick up the next one and smash it, and the next one, and the next one, and by the end you’re grinning like an idiot and you feel as clean and sleek and hollow as a Hamada tea bowl.

Some of us are never able to smash our work. That’s okay. Every semester, a small, forlorn pile of pottery would show up in the Free To Good Home box next to the dumpster, so if somebody wanted it, it was theirs. It’s okay. The hardest lesson in art, I think, is learning to fail, and admit failure, and learn to learn from it, without having to carry your failures with you like millstones. Pottery taught me that failure was inevitable, and that merely because I created it did not make it worth keeping, that hours spent trying to torture out art did not, in and of themselves, convey any particular grace. It taught me that no one painting, no one story, no one creative act is, itself, all that important. What matters is doing it over and over, until you get good. And then continuing to do it over and over. And that even when you’re good, you fail at least one pot out of ten. Que sera, sera. Don’t wallow. Cut it off the wheel. Do better on the next one.

There are few masterpieces in pottery. Oh, sure, there are individually neat pieces, but people found schools. They have styles. They do not create one great masterpiece and rest, they get up every morning and throw pots until lunch, and then they carve ’em and glaze ’em and sell ’em out of the garage.

This was the aesthetic I think I absorbed. That, and the fact that I rarely go back and fix things. If I fail in a painting, eh, I fail. Sometimes I punch it to the wheel and start over, sometimes I just say, “Yup, that’s a flaw all right,” but it does not occur to me to go back and try to fix it. I will make the next one better. One of the reasons that commissions are so rough on me is because they take so long, and require so much fiddling long after I’m mentally done with the piece. It is inimical to my nature. I can do it, but I lose the passion. Art, for me, is like throwing a pot–careful, intense, concentration, for a relatively short period, and then it’s either done or smacked back to the wheel. Overworking is death.

In case anybody’s wondering, I’m not that great at pottery. That’s probably why I stuck to it for so long. It was the first thing I had ever wanted to do that I was BAD at, and didn’t get better. It wasn’t so much the manual skill, although I’m no great shakes–whatever indefinable quality of sculpture and grace that such things require, I didn’t have it. But, as my family will attest, if one believes in spirit animals, we could make a really good case for the mule. (I am told that my beloved wombat is also a stubborn animal that dislikes being thwarted. I can relate.) I really, seriously worked hard at it, out of sheer bafflement that all art was NOT equal, and mine wasn’t very good! (It corresponded with my first critiques, which may have something to do with it.) I might still be doing it, out of pure stubborness, but ultimately nature intervened–after a marathon wheel throwing session, when I was eighteen or nineteen, my back went out. If you’ve never had your back go out, it’s one of those experiences, like sex and psychedelics, for which words can only sketch a general outline. Stubborness suddenly no longer avails you. The dominant emotion is, I think, utter disbelief–how is that I am not able to move? I am laying on the floor and can’t get up! What the hell is up with that? That can’t be right!

So in a roundabout fashion, what I have realized is how much influence pottery had on me, even if I was never all that great at it. And I recommend that highly for people struggling with that sort of thing in their art–take some ceramics class, and stick to it long enough to be BAD, and try really hard, and still be bad.

And learn to smash your plates.

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