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about giving good workshop..

updated thu 19 may 05


primalmommy on mon 16 may 05

It's a good question. I don't know who is accountable for workshop
content. As I attend more every year, and as I teach clay classes at the
guild and do some mini workshops for beginners in my own studio, I have
a growing appreciation for how hard it must be to do a major workshop.

When I got into my junior and senior years in college, I began to
realize that some of the most brilliant minds in the country - the
astrophysicists and engineers, computer genuises and famous poets, profs
who were the jewels in the University's crown of prestige (and major
cash cows as well, when it came to research and publication ) -- were
not necessarily personable, or socially adept, or able to verbalize what
they knew. In short, they were sometimes really lousy teachers.

I think the same is true for potters. You could be a very good potter
and have the personality of an over-baked yam. You could have a
brilliant vision and not know how to convey it to others. You could be a
genius, an artist and a jerk at the same time.

There are all kinds of workshops, too, and workshoppers. When Piepenberg
came to our guild, he had our sometimes contentious members holding
hands and dancing to pipe music around an altar covered with our
personal symbols. Some had a blast and went home transformed; some
thought it was embarrassingly touchy-feely and silly. Most were
somewhere in the middle.

Last weekend we had Stephen Roberts and Stephanie Rozene, teaching glaze
calculations and line blends and the ins and outs of a unity formula.
One or two members already knew a lot of it... a few were completely
bewildered, and doodled and yawned and watched the clock -- but most of
us got our money's worth. (For me, it was that push into actually
GETTING what had been explained to me by books and potters and clayart,
and now I'm off and running.) Nice workshop, good potluck, some
interesting tricks with shellac and latex and stuff interspersed with
the chemistry and calculation.

Giving workshops can't be easy. As a former teacher (high school french,
then college English) I can attest that teaching is an intricate dance,
and the tune changes constantly depending on the group, the day, the
subject. If they like you, if you can laugh at yourself and make them
laugh, make the lesson fun and interesting, that's one thing -- but if
you don't have your ducks in a row with the content and information, you
won't have their respect no matter how many rabbits you pull out of your

Granted, potters will stare mesmerized at somebody working on a wheel,
as if they haven't spent half their lives doing the same thing. But once
workshoppers have had their coffee and the novelty starts to wear off,
that teacher had better have some new and interesting stuff to make
everybody feel like they got their money's worth.

In my opinion, here are some of the ways potters giving workshops screw

1.) Underestimating your audience. If your potters know less that you
assume they do, they will ask for more information. If they know more
that you assume they do, they will feel insulted and condescended to by
your explanations of stuff any potter knows.

You can always "dumb down" your presentation later if you need to, but
once you've talked to a group of potters like they've never seen clay
before, it will take you a while to win them back.

2.) Overestimating yourself. Obviously the folks who invited you know
who you are and what you do, and that's why they invited you. Slides of
your work are a wonderful thing to offer, but you don't need to keep
"applying for the job" once you've begun the workshop. (Yeah, yeah, we
get it, you're a big deal.)

On clayart and in real life, I find the older and more 'landed" a potter
is, the more humble he/she is. I don't know if it's because we all
learn, with experience, how much there is to know and what a small bite
of it we have taken... or if we are humbled by constantly running across
our "inferiors" and finding out they can kick our butts at something, or
that everybody has SOMETHING to teach us...

Maybe the introspection required of an MFA leaves us with the illusion
that our personal visions are as interesting to others they are to us,
or maybe we're in love with the sound of our own voices explaining
them... Though, like Annie and Jonathan have said, it's that confidence
that carries us out into the world that would like to wear us down.
Maybe youthful self involvement and ego are the defense of art against
fear, the drive behind 'the artist's way". It's still damn annoying to
others, though.

Maybe we just all get over ourselves as we get older.

I think the best workshops are given by those who look at their paid
customers as peers -- folks who might also have valid ideas and tips to
share, who are probably really good at something themselves. I can't
pick on those who teach in an academic setting, because some of my best
workshop teachers - Dannon, Tony, Vince -- are also teachers, but are
able to make that switch from teacher mode to workshop mode. If you are
Teacher, assigner of grades and dictator of the classroom, it might be
appropriate to give a dirty look to students who are having a side
conversation while you are lecturing. And you certainly don't have to
worry about whether they are bored with the lesson, or grumbling about
the challenges you throw them.

But if it's a workshop, none of those things are going to go over very
well. You're an invited (and paid) guest. You might be able to joke or
charm your audience back to attentiveness if their attention is
wandering, but dirty looks are out.

Workshops are almost performances. Kevin Crowe reads poetry. Jack Troy
speaks magic. Julia Galloway weaves words and tells stories. Lana Wilson
has a wonderful soul that wraps around those in her presence.

I think about workshops I loved and they were people with a sense of
fun, a lot of good answers to questions, and a few zowie rodeo tricks up
their sleeves that observers were sure to run home and try for

And the ones we like best, and want back, and recommend to others, are
the ones who listen to the potters they came to teach. Don Davis asked
questions about our work, looked at our pots, listened to our ideas.
David Hendley made us laugh and knew who we all were by the end of the
workshop, and what made us tick.

Remember "slam books" in grade school, those cruel passed-around books
where people wrote secret, sometimes mean things about other kids in
class? I sometimes wish there was a secret list like that where we could
share our impressons of workshops off -list without the need to be
diplomatic. The more I progress as a potter, (and the harder I work for
my money) the less any old workshop will do. I now ask the folks whose
workshops I have enjoyed who they would recommend. And ask folks on
clayart to post me off list with impressions of this one or that when I
am trying to choose.

OK, it's late, and the high seller from our last guild sale brought
champagne to tonight's meeting so I am sleepy... I appreciated the
thoughtful responses to my grumpy post...

About bad tennis: those folks are out there. You have to just get
through the game without losing your dignity or sinking to their level
(we homeschoolers call that "socialization") and then make a mental note
to cross that one of your list of tennis partners.

And about bad drunks and avoiding confrontation: that makes sense, too.
We are all a product of our histories. I forget who said, "Speak your
mind, even if your voice shakes". The folks who have the quietest voices
are often the still waters that run deep, and I very much like to hear
what they have to say. Sometimes the quiet ones do us a disservice by
depriving us of their perspectives.

And about dissonance and argument in general: I know more than one
person who claims to "avoid confrontation" even though they can't get
enough of it on TV -- same goes for melodramatic posturing and gossip.
"Clayart is too confrontational.. gonna turn it off and go watch Jerry
Springer/COPS/Rush Limbaugh/battling pundits/COPS/survivor...

Nothing wrong with it, I suppose.. just ironic.

Kelly in Ohio.. where my son got a pet guinea pig today to add to our
menagerie of
I was sort of apathetic about the whole thing, but now that she is here,
she is remarkably appealing-- white with blue eyes, friendly, and silky,
and shaped like a little round pastry. I keep sneaking in to wake her up
and give her a cuddle.

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Craig Martell on tue 17 may 05

Kelly, while neglecting her son's guinea pig, was saying:

>It's a good question. I don't know who is accountable for workshop

Hello Kelly:

I can only speak for myself here but I think the presenter is accountable
for the content of a workshop. The people organizing the workshop and
providing the presenter with a place to do the work, equipment etc, would
share some responsibility regarding the success of the presentation. What
I mean here is possible problems with materials, bad equipment, broken
slide projectors, stuff like that. But the presentation and how well info
is conveyed to the participants is totally my responsibility.

As you've pointed out, a big part of things working well is having a
rapport with the people you are sharing information with. I've been
working with clay for a tiny bit more than 30 years and thankfully I can
still remember those early days and what I was trying to learn and figure
out, so I think I can relate to folks who are new to clay and not adopt an
"expert" stance. I don't think I'm an expert anyway and that helps quite a

I also think it's very important that people feel comfortable about
interjecting comments and asking questions at any time during a
workshop. I usually make a point of telling the group that I work alone
all the time and I can get introverted while I'm working and not say things
that I should so I tell them to interupt me, ask what I'm doing, make
comments, whatever is needed. I'm working for them, not showing off, so I
need to be cognizant about communicating everything I can.

I usually ask that people let me know what their interests are and can I do
anything that I haven't done that they might want to see. Providing, of
course, that I know how to do what they want. I'll will also go outside
the outline of things, or the basic stuff that I'm there to teach, and
discuss anything related to being a potter and making work and a
living. Part of what happens here is that I learn stuff. I've never done
a workshop where I haven't learned a thing or two and seen participants
sharing info and direction among themselves. To me, that's the whole point
of a workshop.

It's important to pass along things that are perhaps new to many of the
group, or different approaches to normal potting activities that could make
things easier, better, or more interesting. Hopefully, that's what most of
us do.

regards, Craig Martell Hopewell, Oregon

dannon rhudy on wed 18 may 05

Craig Martell said:
I think the presenter is accountable
> for the content of a workshop. The people organizing the workshop and
> providing the presenter with a place to do the work, equipment etc, would
> share some responsibility.....

I essentially agree with Craig that the presenter is responsible for
workshop content - in the main. Sometimes I'm asked to do a
workshop on a specific item, and then I will slant the workshop
that way. Sometimes I'm just asked to do a workshop with no
specific theme. I often send a general outline in advance, but
I diverge from that outline when it seems appropriate. Often
attendees will ask me to cover something in particular. When
it's possible in terms of time, I do. Other things inevitably work their
way in,
and the flow
of the presentation dictates that. I don't like to be too rigid about
content, because sometimes it depends on the size of the group,
whether or not it's "hands on", etc. In every case the more audience
participation the better. Often good conversation is as much a part
of the workshop as "this-is-how-to-do-X". And conversations are
not the same as lectures.

I've taught college level ceramics for quite some time, but my
favorite teaching venue is ALWAYS the workshop. And why?
Because - everyone there, including me, is there because they
WANT to be there. The workshop starts and ends relatively
quickly, it's easy for all concerned to keep their attention on
the moment at hand - lots of positive energy for all concerned.
Sort of hate to admit this, but if a workshop goes well it is almost
always because those in attendance MAKE it go well. If it does
not go so well - I know whose fault that is, too. Sighhhhhhh.


Dannon Rhudy