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advice to new potters

updated tue 5 apr 05


primalmommy on sun 3 apr 05

I have been out working in the studio in the quiet, musing over an email
I got accusing me of being -- well, let's just say a "brown-noser". I
was told by a wise man long ago not to pay much attention to off-list
raspberries OR attaboys, so it doesn't bug me much.

I don't reply to stuff like that, but it inspired me to lay out what I
have learned about learning, in hopes that it might help potters who
really are burning to be better and better potters.

First: See who is making great pots and find out everything you can from
them. Philosophy, technique, marketing, aesthetic, it's all relevant. A
great way to do this is at week long, hands-on workshops. Haystack and
Penland are famous but generally two weeks long and out of my price
range -- I love Appalachian Center for Craft, a week's workshop and room
and board (good food!) for around 500 bucks.

It makes a difference who you find to teach you. The kind of people who
cultivate butt-kissers and hangers-on generally aren't a good choice.
They will spend a lot of time talking about their work -- showing slides
-- but they will jealously guard techniques and are generally more
interested in feeding their own egoes than in helping others improve
skills. I have never had one of those at ACC by the way ;0) but they are
out there, and they generally are proof that "brown nosing" would be a
blind alley anyway.

You have to know how to be a student if you want to learn. You have to
keep your mind open and leave your ego at home. Get your money's worth.
You need to ask the question that everybody in the workshop wanted to
know but felt too embarrassed to ask. You have to be willing to stop
showing off what you're good at and start trying the thing you know
you'll fail at again and again, with everybody watching.

The kind of people who don't seem to learn much come into a learning
situation acting like they have nothing left to learn. "Look at ME, look
what I do, here's a resume, let me drop names and travels so you know
I'm a serious potter"... well, at some point everybody's going to have
to make a pot, and it becomes clear who is in the "learning" phase and
who is just blowing a lot of hot air. I see more men make this mistake
than women. Maybe it's one of those
never-ask-for-directions-when-you're-lost things. You can't bluff your
way smart. I figured that out in about fourth grade.

There are enough good potters who are also good people that I have been
able to find teachers and mentors and friends -- some who are all three
-- without ever having to "make nice" with people I don't respect or
enjoy. There are good potters who -- as my grandma would say -- "could
drive a cat off a gut wagon". I suppose a true apple polisher would
brave it in order to "get ahead", but life is too short and good people
too easy to find for me to suffer the company of a jackass, no matter
how brilliant his/her work may be. and potters aren't Donald Trump --
there is no "promotion" or "raise" without working your ass off to get

And making friends is not "social climbing". I have found that
friendship is based on whether you are a good person, not whether you
are a good potter. I bow to my superiors (taking notes all the while)
when it comes to pottery skills, but my friends who are beginners and my
friends who are divas/big dogs are just fun to be around, and that's
that. The fact that we are all in love with clay makes a nice common

The most important thing -- which I didn't know when I started out -- is
that anybody anywhere can teach you something new. My students, fellow
workshoppers, some guy in an elevator at NCECA -- can have just the
right tip that will change the way I work, forever. It doesn't take a
big dog to teach you stuff.

Clay is what I do. I don't shop or play golf or go to movies, so if i am
going to find somebody to play with, it's going to be somebody who loves
clay. If I want to learn hands-on skill, I need to roll up my sleeves
and offer my hands.

In the homeschooling community, like in more organic pre-industrial
cultures, that's how learning happens. The little kids watch the big
kids, the big kids teach the little kids. The apprentice works for the
craftsman, doing the grunt work -- but with eyes wide open, learning the

Now we have some silly notion that we're supposed to just magically know
stuff -- self generated skill and knowledge. Or that
bluffing/cheating/copying is as good as knowing, as long as you can fool
everybody. And anyone who is eager to learn is "kissing up" to the
teacher and should learn the "I'm too cool for this" bored eyeroll. I
think it comes from a lifetime of grading and testing, but that's
another topic for another time.

Anyway that's my big advice -- as a first grader, addressing maybe
kindergarteners just starting out. Watch the big kids. Some of them are
really nice and won't throw you out of the locker room in your underwear
if you ask how to get to the cafeteria.

yours, off to a hot bath
Kelly in Ohio

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