Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010

Articles & Reviews

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Time, Place, and Perception

Lawrence A. Bush, Rhode Island School of Design
(transcribed from the presentation given at the National Conference for Education in the Ceramic Arts, April 2009Phoenix, Arizona)

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.

Time, place, and perception are everything. I once heard a fabulous lecture by Louise Cort about how an object could radically shift meaning depending on context. In physics it has been known for a long time that the observer distorts the observed.

I got into ceramics when I was very young. It was messy, wide-open, far-out, whacky. It fitted my notion of what I needed to survive. To the adolescent mind, it gave me the power of being unacceptable. Pulling up in his Impala, wearing his black 10-gallon hat, leather jacket, and handle bar mustache, Howard Kottler came to my high school. He wrapped himself in cellophane, threw pots, and made fun of my teacher. Down in the new building on the city dump, below my house, the big kids were doing weird stuff with clay – flocking, whatever. Then I worked for Ken Ferguson, I was initially attracted to him as much by his antisocial behavior as his pottery. Being fenced in didn't occur to me.

I've always had a hard time being a true believer. I'm not much of a joiner. Unpretentious ubiquitousness made clay attractive. It was easy to fall into. I didn't see gatekeepers and it wasn't clear any judgment was necessary. Looking back it seems the old Zen saw is kind of true – to a beginner any thing is possible, to the expert … very little. I don't know where he stole the phrase or even what exactly he meant, but in his old age my grandpa used to refer to himself as an ‘expert amateur’. Until about thirty I did everything with about the same intention and awareness. I didn't differentiate. I did this and I did that. I easily switched hats. I made pots for a long time before I awoke to being a potter.

Other people may have thought of me that way but I still thought I could do anything, there were no boundaries. All options were open. I was kind of surprised when I went to grad school and Val Cushing asked me how it was as a production potter.

So that is how I got into this, side-ways and little skeptical. Now I am such a professional specialist in ceramics that I not only teach the history of, the material science of, the idea development of, the practice of, the technologies of, the application of, and so on - I run the department ‘of’ at a fancy art school – some might say the best in the country.

Now, here's my open book quiz. My answers are below:

  1. Are boundaries important?
  2. Is skill and craftsmanship of any value?
  3. What about material limitations and process?
  4. What about ceramics departments promoting a ghetto mentality?
  5. Is ceramics really different than other fields of study?
  6. Why don’t we connect?
  7. Is the hand that important?
  8. What about new technology?
  9. Where is the Avant-garde?

1. Are boundaries important?Yes. By really understanding boundaries and how they are formed, subtleties are revealed, options expand, and work can be developed in full. However, the boundaries are permeable at various points and in a variety of ways. Part of understanding definitions is understanding where they include other disciplines and how the meanings can morph.

2. Is skill and craftsmanship of any value? Yes and no. They have little value in and of themselves. Their real value is as a vehicle for expression. I have a simple definition of craftsmanship - which you end up with what you intended when you started. But to be a very good, versatile craftsman is hard. Think of how much language you have to know to write a good poem, let alone one that people might want to hear more than once. Being a proficient typist doesn’t really help.

3. What about material limitations and process? Materials and process are more like sounds and tonality. How come the same tune played on Eric Clapton's guitar feels different than when played by Jean-Paul Rampal's golden flute? Even within the range of clays and clay processes, the potential range of implication and tone can be huge. Work doesn't have to be clay, or only clay. But to get the maximum out of effort and have full control of the result, limits can help. It depends on intention and self-established rules. Even if they didn’t mean anything to the resulting expression, which they do, limits are helpful pedagogically.

4. What about ceramics departments promoting a ghetto mentality? What about ceramics departments promoting a ghetto mentality? Ghetto-ing is natural, but it is a big mistake. The human tendency especially for young students is to want to be one of ‘us’ and to discount and fight with ‘the other’. To support difference and a developing sense of self-identity while encouraging borderless curiosity and experimentation is tricky.

5. Is ceramics really different than other fields of study? I am not sure how different our field is from others are. With in the field there is a great potential for variability - different strokes. I think plurality and individual approach is the way to go. Some time students are more comfortable with ‘right’ thinking and it takes a bit to convince them they can deviate, even be conservative.

I would love for some one to do some psychological profiling of clay people. From anecdotal observation I would guess that there are higher percentages of learning disabilities like ADD [attention deficit disorder] and dyslexia than in most other populations. Also there is a distinct leaning toward kinesthetic learning. It's ok; in fact I wouldn’t have it other wise. It makes us different than architects. I think reasons for recognizable characteristics in the population can be found in what allows success in the field. I think it is also part of why we are perennially faced with a dearth of scholarship. There are exceptions of course.

6. Why don’t we connect? When people wring their hands about interdisciplinarity and how hard it is to bridge between disciplines, it is my experience that we are not the ones blocking the way. It is tricky though for others to connect with us. They often don’t understand who they are talking to. Beyond our material particularities, and our general in ability to plan ahead, we are such an eclectic discipline; very little discipline is exclusively ours. It can be confusing, even for us. Our collection of roots and traditions tap into craft, decorative, minor, major, utilitarian, applied, and fine art. We often have the problem within ceramics of miss communicating because our syntax is different.

7. & 8. Is the hand that important?/What about new technology? Fear and loathing of industrialization gave birth to the arts and crafts movement. Leach, who was that movement’s heir, was a progenitor of departments like ours. Being a Luddite didn’t resolve the trauma of the nineteenth century. I don't think that the cultural trauma ever was properly absorbed. Now along comes digitization to push the same buttons. We can whine and be swamped by the digital wave. Or maybe us hands-on-empirical learners embrace digital, play along, and help define the future. And while we’re at it maybe we should recapture industrial processes like casting, jiggering, and pressing, decalcomania, and add them to coiling and pinching and throwing. Some never let these things go but there is a cadre in our midst that is scared by them. I think we are silly not to use the whole box of toys. We might discover some new ones.

9. Where is the Avant-garde? Students often ask where the vanguard is. I used to think about that but I don't really care any more. There is too much other stuff happening to worry about it. I am more interested in making a good plate - one that will cause love to break out.

I like being an expert. It is a Darwinian survival strategy. I think it is incumbent on an expert not only to understand the field but also to understand when he should collaborate and give way.


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


Time, Place, and Perception • Issue 12

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