Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010

Articles & Reviews

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The Convergence of Parallel Tangents

Timothy John Berg, Pitzer College
(transcribed from the presentation given at the College Arts Association conference February 2009, Los Angeles. Some images are omitted from the original presentation.)

Contents | Home


by Mary Drach McInnes

The Convergence of Parallel Tangents

by Timothy John Berg

Time, Place, and Perception

by Lawrence A. Bush


by Rory MacDonald


by Michael Jones McKean

Interdisciplinary Mind, Deft Hand

by Annabeth Rosen

To Eat, To Die, To Play

by Linda Sikora


by Linda Sormin


The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Michael Tooby

Modern British Potters and their Studios

by Douglas Phillips

A Guide to Collecting Studio Pottery

by Juliet Armstrong

Ceramics Film Festival

by Leah McLaughlin

Getting it Right

by Alan Wallwork

NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.


In mathematics, a tangent is a straight-line that extends from a point along a curve, usually a circle. Imagine that you are following a circle and that your progression is smooth, regular and constant. At every point, you are acted upon by a force, which pulls you inward toward the center of the circle. As you continue to trace your circle, you suddenly are pulled by an outside force, which causes you to leave your circle. Now free from uniform circular motion you embark on another path. You have ‘gone off on a tangent’.

In my studio practice, I attempt to recognize the outside force where it exists so I can diverge from my original motive or course and take the tangent instead. Like my studio practice, my pedagogy is predicated upon the belief that mature, sophisticated and socially relevant artwork comes from an ability to integrate and synthesize knowledge across a wide frame of references as well as collaborate in a variety of ways to make the most out of this knowledge.

Part 1: Tangents - Describing Collaboration

For the purpose of this discussion, I would like you to consider the act of collaborating, whether common or infrequent, as tangential, in that it is a divergence from a single individual’s typical studio practice. Today, I would like to focus on a specific type of collaboration that I refer to as ‘parallel tangents’.

Imagine that the studio practice of two individuals is described as the movement around two separate circles. Now imagine that each person’s practice heads off on a tangent from these circles and that these two tangents are parallel to one another. These tangents describe the collaboration between the two individuals whose separate deviations from his or her normal daily practice move each of them in the same direction.

My parallel tangent is the sculptor and graphic designer Rebekah Myers. While we have worked alongside each other for more than ten years, only within the last three years have our objectives aligned themselves in such a way that we left our normal practice and went off on tangents moving in the same direction, side-by-side.

While this collaboration is not the only type of collaboration we have been involved with it has been the most significant in that it has affected the direction and success of our work. Collaborating with someone, as a full time occupation is very different than working with someone on something that is specific and self-contained. Although there are a variety of reasons for working with other craftspeople and other industries, Rebekah and I tend to collaborate with other people on self-contained projects where we lack the material or technical proficiency to accomplish the task the way we believe it can or should be done. At times, this means handing over a project such as this (Eat your heart out!) to a manufacturer who can take the prototypes we have made and create fiberglass molds, fabricate multiples and paint the parts to our specifications. In this case, we are working with a manufacturer who isn’t making any decisions that truly influence the final product. However, we also have worked with people who have had input into the design or content of our work. Recently, when we wanted to build a wooden chest for a collection of 1/64th scale gold lustered ceramic Tyrannosaurus Rex bones, we worked with a woodworker to design something that would fit our needs. His expertise was invaluable not only for the fabrication of this piece, but also in determining how this chest could reinforce our idea of a modern spin on a classic natural history display. Either of these types of collaboration can be imagined as a third line, parallel to ours, yet transient.

Rebekah and I have had an ongoing discussion between ourselves from which this presentation developed. How this back and forth exchange of ideas operates and the implications of our specific form of collaboration is best explained through a discussion of three distinct components:


Part 2: The Specifics of Collaboration


When Rebekah and I first began working together, I was creating several life-size emperor penguins out of clay for a solo exhibition entitled Hope Springs Eternal. It was important to me to create a finished surface that was slick and flawless on these pieces. I decided to have these pieces painted at a local auto body shop. At first, I had to convince Rebekah that despite the extra cost, painting them would be worthwhile because it would give us more control over the finished product. After discussing the color options, she explained that pale pink was the right color because it emphasizes these creatures vulnerability, a critical part of the content of this piece. Both she and I had ideas about what we thought was right, but before proceeding we were forced to confer with each other and articulate these ideas. This slows the decision making process down because it forces us each to explain as fully as possible his or her perspective so that we can make an informed decision together. Whether one person’s ideas are intuitive or not, he or she is always asked to explain why his or her idea may be more compelling than the other’s, at times having to argue the point vehemently. As a result, our decision making process has become more deliberate and more critical.

This process is familiar to us having been educated in a system that relies heavily upon a critique structure. It is also a strategy I employ in the classroom at the beginning, middle and end of projects. Often, I assign a project and the first thing my class does is discuss each individual’s ideas. Thus, the entire class is given the opportunity to provide feedback. Often we will do an in-process critique and a final critique is mandatory. In many cases, I believe this fosters positive relationships within the class and leads to a stronger end result. This strategy works well as long as there is an emphasis that individual successes are actually something to be shared by the group.


An important benefit of working with Rebekah has been our ability to expose new possibilities by changing our points of reference. Once we have agreed upon a course of action, we usually divide up the workload. At times, working on the same project simultaneously in order to accomplish the task more efficiently or because we both enjoy it. At other times, each person takes on a task the other does not wish to do or doesn’t have time to accomplish. Most importantly, dividing up the workload allows one person with a fresh perspective to join a project at any point within the process.

For example, when we created the installation between a rock… I decided it would be best to create the large meteorite seen here in the background, out of Styrofoam and then coat it with silicon carbide. However, when I was carving the Styrofoam I had trouble translating my drawings into a comparable form. I asked Rebekah what she thought was wrong with my approach and she started aggressively carving away at it. I realized from watching her how conservative I was being about removing material. We were then able to finish carving the meteorite in a way that suited us both.

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Figs 1. – 3. Timothy John Berg, ‘between a rock …’, 2008, ceramic, urethane paint, birch, dimensions variable.

The fresh vantage point one of us can add to a project at any given point allows us to reevaluate our actions or their results. Most importantly, it allows us to negotiate problems more efficiently and gets us out of our individual patterns of circular thinking. The result of working this way is that a stronger correlation emerges between our objectives.

In the classroom, I create opportunities for students to make correlations between things that may or may not be related. I do this primarily by beginning with exercises or information from outside the field of ceramics and then adding the material and technical component so that the students are challenged to synthesize theory and practice in a meaningful way. One example of this comes from a beginning ceramics course that revolves around the five senses. In this project, based upon our sense of sight I quickly project several images of 20th century works of art that include a figure and have an ambiguous but weighted subtext. I then ask the students to recall one of the images and create a narrative that leads up to, includes and resolves the issues portrayed in the still. Then, each student creates a figurine as well as the context the figurine belongs within using a part of his or her narrative as a point of departure. This exercise, as a modification of a projective psychological testing method, opens up the possibilities of self-analysis to the students and demonstrates ways in which they may create work that depends on their own idiosyncratic experiences but that others may relate to because they often deal with basic human emotions such as fear or joy.1


As Rebekah’s and my collaboration has evolved, we both have been challenged to revise our sense of ownership of our shared work. We believe that if our collaboration is to be successful then we must not only be open to each other’s ideas and solutions, but also be able to control our individual inclination towards self-importance. We don’t suppress who we are, but rather trust that the strength of the work is not a result of individual genius, as is the commonplace art historical trope.

Having another person’s hand in every aspect of your work from the look and feel to the content and intent is not always easy or comfortable. One must learn to acquiesce; to remove one’s self from the equation in an effort to yield a stronger outcome. This becomes a delicate balancing act because it is tempting to remove yourself in order to avoid making a difficult decision. So it is important to acquiesce in an appropriate way, but also in the right spirit, a spirit of generosity. Learning how to do this is not easy, however making the type of work we make has helped in that we are not fixed to any specific set of techniques.

We make work that comments on humankind’s insatiable appetites for consuming and the consequences of this consumption. Our commentary manifests itself in its most tangible form as souvenirs of our exhibitions. Although subversive the exchange that takes place when someone decides to purchase a souvenir is surprisingly charming. People are genuinely happy to be able to take away a memento of an exhibition as a reminder of the experience and as an accessible work of art. Although we are not giving away the work for free it is important it remains affordable. In this respect, we are acquiescing to the interests of our audience.

In the work I have shown you today the objectives of Rebekah and I converge. If one saw this work for the first time, one might assume there is only one author, one voice, because the viewer experiences our work at its limit, at the point where parallel lines converge.2


Striving to find the limits of Rebekah’s and my practice, where our individual objectives come together is one force that projects us forward. Fortunately, I work in an institution that is propelled forward by similar forces. The faculty governs Pitzer College; the college creates incentives for co-teaching, is a part of a broader coalition of colleges within Claremont and encourages responsible community engagement. Each of these components set important examples of the ways in which working with others to achieve similar objectives can have incredible benefits both to the individual as well as the community.

Listen: Timothy Berg   |   Watch: Timothy Berg


  1. This exercise is modeled on the Thematic Apperception Exercise (TAT). TAT was developed by the American psychologists Henry A. Murray and Christiana D. Morgan at Harvard during the 1930s to explore the underlying dynamics of personality, such as internal conflicts, dominant drives, interests, and motives (WIKIPEDIA.) back to text
  2. Projective geometry is the most general and least restrictive in the hierarchy of fundamental geometries, i.e. Euclidean - metric (similarity) - affine - projective. It is an intrinsically non-metrical geometry, whose facts are independent of any metric structure. Under the projective transformations, the incidence structure and the cross-ratio are preserved. It is a non-Euclidean geometry. In particular, it formalizes one of the central principles of perspective art: that parallel lines meet at infinity and therefore are to be drawn that way. In essence, a projective geometry may be thought of as an extension of Euclidean geometry in which the "direction" of each line is subsumed within the line as an extra "point", and in which a "horizon" of directions corresponding to coplanar lines is regarded as a "line". Thus, two parallel lines will meet on a horizon line in virtue of their possessing the same direction. back to text

© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated


The Convergence of Parallel Tangents • Issue 12

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