Recently this summer I had the wonderful time to attend a two-week hand building pottery class that focused on surface design techniques. The class was instructed by a fantastic ceramic duo and friendship. Two American ceramicists from the Midwest, who, for this article, I’ll keep anonymous, calling them 74-year old ceramicist A and 30-something year old ceramicist B. They hosted a fantastic class and an ideal learning environment in which they shared their secrets and methods behind how they create.
By day one, I was overloaded with tidbits of information here and there. Whether it was during a demonstration or not, I found myself jotting notes down everywhere: my phone, my notepad, a post it, the table. Despite a relatively loose class schedule (classes usually began at 9am and ended around 4pm, with meals before, during and after those hours), I found myself in the studio for 14 hours at a time each day. After a year-long hiatus from working with clay, I was eager and enthusiastic. There was so much to try, so much to see, and the freedom to do just that. Summarised, the program was refreshing, invigorating, inspiring, and infuriating. Surrounded by such kind and talented individuals, it was simultaneously the most unchill and also chill environment I was in during my summer holiday.
Yet learning the two artists’ techniques, recipes, methods, and influences, experiencing the differences in preference for materials, glaze composition, glaze application, methods and more, I was left slightly frazzled and divided, trying to maximise my time there and apply everything I was learning to the things I was working on.
What resulted was a hodge podge of poorly crafted pieces: a crooked bowl, with unrefined edges, and lumps throughout; a casserole dish with just the faintest of pattern design applied due to rushed and poorly drawn application; a cookie jar themed ‘spring’, off centre and an ugly yellow reminiscent of literal urine (it was supposed to be baby yellow and light green, with white bunnies). I left the program pensive and conflicted, happy to have learnt so much, to have met such great individuals, and to have witnessed such breath-taking talent in my class as well as in the others (the school hosted an array of programs in other mediums including wood, glass, textiles, and metal). But something was bugging me, and I was almost certain it was something a lot of artists and individuals consider in relation to art.
How do we appreciate art now? In time and effort put into a piece, surely. But what about the process, the precision of techniques used to design and construct? Or the inspiration behind such design choices? What about the final, resulting, ‘beauty’ or aesthetics of the finished product? What is it that people seek out in a piece of art, the thing/s that makes them desire and crave art?
I was using Photoshop to manipulate photos of patterns (tiles, leaves, beads, kaleidoscopes, anything I found visually pleasing really) to then print them from inkjet printers, to then transfer such designs onto clay slabs via slip (underglaze), like tattoos onto blank canvases. They weren’t hand drawn patterns. Mostly due to time constraints, they were often borrowed, either from the internet, the outdoors, or anywhere else.
On the other hand, I was also dotting bowls and mugs, taking a paintbrush and haphazardly splotching on different coloured underglazes to decorate my pieces. The messier, the merrier, as I flicked and jabbed and blotted amorphous shapes of my creation, to and fro.
I am not dismissing either of these artists’ works, nor am I trying to criticize their work or techniques. I was amazed and fortunate to have such exposure to and instruction from talented and unique individuals. Rather, I am stunned by the differences in methodology and finished product that can result, the variation of approaches to just clay. Learning the array of design techniques from two individuals of different generations, and more importantly, seeing the final pieces that resulted from design A and B, it reminded me of the wide spectrum of approaches to art that exist, the terminology and names used to describe art, and subsequent connotations left behind.
‘Popular art’, as opposed to ‘fine’ art (a subjective adjective), is rampant everywhere. It reassures its audience, disallowing the individual to think of the future or see what is possible. It gives a representation or placeholder of the past along with a forced nostalgia for it. It does not help to awaken anyone to new possibilities, only offering what is already known or less. Cute figurines, generic paper lanterns, and arguably, repeated prints and patterns (think Target’s shower curtains), oversimplify and further perpetuate the promiscuous use of the word ‘art’.
I think language is incredibly important, especially for art educators introducing students to the world of visual art. Certain words can tranquilize. The phrase ‘The art of ____’ to describe pretty much anything, confuses and reduces a highly cared for artistic creation. While we become rightly sensitized to names and words associated with things such as race and gender, we should be just as rigorous considering terms associated with art. Obviously, with artists coming along with a variety of different influences, does the designer turned producer rank higher than the artist, appearing as the vanishing point for traditional studio artists?
Visual culture might even survive through its appropriation by avant-garde artists, who plaster these images onto their canvases (collages). Over the summer, because we were in a town full of so many artists, we had the privilege of watching demos by some of the local artists that lived nearby, a couple of who utilised book ages, newspaper print, image decals, and items of popular culture to decorate their work.
If artistic creation is to have a serious role in society, as it should, artists and individuals overall cannot go on assuming an art exists in everything. Exposure to art forms and their historical lineage is crucial to appreciating the medium and creation of a subject. Only with this backdrop will anyone interacting with art achieve the mental stimuli and enjoyment that it can offer.