August 18, 2010

Guest Blogger: Don Pilcher

OK. We’re back by popular demand…and unpopular demand. Chewing
nuts; I must have hit a nerve. I got one proposal of marriage and two
suggestions to drop dead.

The nut I was chewing was the lack of depth in the endless, light-speed
postings on numerous clay sites; lots of text and pictures about how many
this and gee wiz that. No doubt digital technology is perfectly suited for “up
to the minute” communication. But I fear that too much Twitter could turn
us into twits, crowding out more reflective and nuanced discussions. So this
is my plea for some deep, personal story telling, stories that go beyond your
new log splitter. I’d love to read about life’s interior matters – the things
we can’t necessarily see from outside; the potter’s private insights which
eventually result in personal, and occasionally, great pots. I suspect that
some of the best of these private inspirations linger out of sight and remain
there because most of the best potters write little, if at all. (Pricked by my
own pen.)

A peek into private inspiration is a precious and surprising thing. I’m
talking about those self-critical conversations that we have with ourselves in
the shower where it’s safe to ask, “What is the weakest part of my work?”
(Public inspiration by contrast is that collective yippee we get when we fire
and unload a kiln together. It’s fine enough but not usually corrective to the
core.) I have a friend who is a big-time soloist at the Metropolitan Opera;
in fact, he sings all over the world. Of course his voice and musicianship
are wonderful. But what’s really interesting and instructive is to hear
him discuss how he weaves the story, the music and his character so as
to increase the artistic yield and still be a member of the ensemble. Not
many potters discuss their work in this way. I’d love to read what Donna
Polseno or Tom Spleth have to say about corralling an idea, nurturing and
perfecting it and then making something of that process that sustains their
artistic output for another five years. Like the doing, such writing is hard
work and it takes time. But what a gift to our collective conversation. (As I
write, I’m too proud to tell you how many drafts this blog will see, however,
I’m sure it will be at least one too few. Regrets are just part of the activity.)

Spleth doesn’t need me defending his work; he is one smart and talented
guy. (Just to be clear, we’ve met a few times but we have no established
friendship.) However, having mentioned him by name and reading some
of your remarks about his work, I feel I owe him some cover. This is why I
like his work. Where others appropriate forms, surfaces, bodies and decals/
finishes, he does it all from scratch. Does it matter? Yes, IF your perspective
requires that all art exhibit some element of love’s labor. And if, as Redd
Fox used to say, “Unique is what you seek,” then Tom’s scat pieces (pun
intended) immediately separate themselves. Not a small thing and, forgive
the professorial analysis, his letter fonts often cleverly mimic his word
choice in image, placement, color and gesture. In my view, that’s hugely
more satisfying than ad agency marks from an expensive Japanese brush,
loaded with oxides and dragged across a virgin surface. Call me a snob.

And add heretic. Another thing that dilutes our much too rapid
conversations is that we venerate and anoint some mediocre people –
just like Congress, big business and most other collective bodies. Those
mediocre models may point in the right direction but they fail to elevate our
sensibilities. One respondent to my earlier iteration said I was fortunate not
to have called Leach a hack and Hamada a poser for, if I had, I wouldn’t be
safe in the southeast. Well Leach was not a hack, but his grandson’s work
exhibits unmistakable regression to the mean. Too critical? Give me a break.
I’m entitled to an opinion and while I don’t intend to overhaul contemporary
ceramics, I can certainly take part in a frank discussion about the merits of
our efforts and whose work we salute.

Ours is a small business and most people are reluctant to speak candidly
for fear of reprisal. That’s not hard to understand. Folks have long memories
about criticism. Robert Altman described critics as people who come down
from the mountain top, walk onto the battlefield after the fighting has
stopped… and shoot the survivors. Who wouldn’t be pissed off by that?
But like you, I don’t reside on a mountain top. I’m one of the people on the
battlefield and I have an interest in the outcome. Ultimately we don’t dignify
our efforts or clarify our goals by “talking around” important matters. One
of my most valued possessions is a three page letter I received from Val
Cushing after he rejected all of my entries to an exhibition. His willingness
to explain his decisions, in detail, was most inspiring. Not because I then
changed what I was making, I didn’t. But he demonstrated that some people
in our group look closely and actually care about what they see. That’s a
group I want to be a part of.

I’m not alone in a search for serious thought. I see the next issue of Studio
Potter will be about the uses of failure. Mary Barringer has chosen exactly
the kind of subject that shows us at our best. Almost anybody can buy a
good porcelain, mix a batch of Rob’s Green, soften cone 11 with 3 cords of
split pine and get beautiful, complicated, nuanced, seductive pottery. But
practically, professionally and emotionally, it’s more valuable to learn how
to dispose of a weakness for Rob’s Green in order to make room for your
own formula. (Take a look at the new glazes Tom Turner has produced. Talk
about love’s labor!)

I’ll close with my own account of the shower conversation from just
this morning. What is the weakest part of my work? I’ve concluded it’s
an attitude, an attitude shown by vases that don’t need to hold anything
and bowls that are already full when they come from the kiln. My work
doesn’t serve in the usual sense. It postures, makes jokes, presumes to be
instructive and so on. I’ve never been clear on whether that’s asking more
of a pot than we should ask, or, if that kind of idea should be attempted
only by people with huge talent. I keep hoping I haven’t yet cracked the
shell of my talent and that the nut is still there, but I can’t be certain.

Don Pilcher lives in Champaign Illinois where he taught for many years at the University of Illinois. A gifted potter, thinker,and provocateur, Don shares his unique views on the field of contemporary ceramics. Visit Don's web site where you can read more of Don's stories. He can be also reached at