Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Big Entry: origins

"Far and away the best gift that life has to offer is to work hard at work worth doing." – attributed to Theodore Roosevelt

In 1991 when I first stepped into a clay studio at Kenyon College's craft center, I was a bit scared and unnerved.  I was 21 and had never thought about "making" things or working artistically.  My two great loves were my history studies - I was always in the library - and swimming.  For history I loved writing papers, I know that sounds weird, but I did.  What made the papers fun was that each time I sat down to compose the latest set of conclusions; I was synthesizing all of the previous week's research into what I believed to be as comprehensive an historical model as I could produce.  My studies were about Medieval Iceland and relied heavily on the sagas, which are rich in historical, cultural, and legal details.  Not ever having been to Iceland and the impossibility of time travel, my job as an historian was to sift through these primary resources and to establish links and connections, which, I hoped, would lead to some kind of understanding.  My papers attempted to reveal that understanding with each proposed model about how the medieval Icelandic legal system worked.  Without fail, in the week following each new paper, I would begin a new book that would show me the foolishness of my model and would demonstrate just how little I knew.  It was frustrating and to an extent, futile, but it was exactly this cat and mouse chase that made me love research.

With swimming, what I found great satisfaction in pushing myself and my body beyond what I thought I could do, only to reach the end of the practice...alive, energized, and reflecting immediately on that practice saying, "that was bad, but not so bad."  Each practice taught me about my limitations and boundaries, where they existed both in self-perception and those that were much more real.  As a competitor, the opportunity to surpass previous achievements was an incredible motivator.  Reaching each peak of accomplishment, I knew it would not last and that only through continued dedicated engagement could I sustain it or surpass it one day...maybe.  That was always the task, trying to move further but not quite knowing how.  I knew that it was possible in some way and I needed to find out how.  As a coach of 90 kids, I had the same feeling.  Watching my team members reach personal goals and beating one of the best teams in our league (the only time in my 11 years with our team that we were victorious)...these were thrills.  The accomplishments pulled the team together, yielded the most wonderful maturity, self-awareness that 10 year olds could offer, and set the groundwork for several of those kids to compete at nationals in their later high school years.

Well after college, once both swimming and my historical studies had been traded out for time in the studio, friends and family would often wonder if I made connections among swimming, medieval Iceland, and pottery.  (Wouldn’t that be something!)  Their sense of connection was literal, printing Icelandic imagery onto the pots or maybe drawing swimmers onto mugs.  For me there were subtle connections, all of which go directly to the heart of this question that Clare has been asking us these two weeks, "Why Make?"

In making pottery, there is a rhythm, one on the wheel and one in the studio, not too unlike the rhythm that our LSU community established this week working with Clare.  Swimming has this too.  Where many people say they would get bored going back and forth in the pool lanes for hours each day, I found the rhythm to be extraordinary.  In both the pool and the studio, the union of physical and mental energies within, more or less, repetitive actions was able to extract thoughts and consciousness that I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced outside of similar activities – running and long hikes for instance.  The actions and the intensity of them brought my mind to places where I could feel aspirations, where I could recognize and see myself and the potential that was mine as a human, and then to feel the conviction to these thoughts evident in my body, exhausted and tried by the labor of both the athletic practice and the studio discipline.

It took at least 4-6 years in my studio before I started to understand the links between my historical research and the studio pottery.  There are few apparent topical similarities but there are a great deal of shared procedures in method, and I quite enjoy the development of successful methods.  At base, the similarity is really quite simple.  In each, historical research and studio pottery, I begin with raw materials, primary sources for history and dry ceramics materials for the pottery.  From those, it is my task as either historian or potter to organize, compose, and to suggest a model that represents my understanding of historical concerns or those relating to finding form within utilitarian purpose.  The models, a historical paper or a cup, bowl, or plate, address my rationale, knowledge, and objectives at a specific point of time.  With analysis, revision, and further research, I inform the project which leads to the next model, which hopefully is an improvement.  It’s that cat and mouse all over again.  Add to that the sensation that marks a new achievement, the composition of a better pot than the previous one or of any that I had made before and then the motivation is similar to the athletic personal accomplishments.  From that point, I work with focus and continue to make in order to find my own personal best again.

I have known about many of the reflections shared here for nearly half of my career, but I’m still realizing just how internally they were known at the very beginning, at the point of recognizing pottery as an interest.  What’s most exciting in this context is that that very point of recognition speaks directly to Clare’s question, “Why make?”

In college, after burning out from swimming – a person can work too much at something – I no longer had an outlet for physical exertion.  My body and mind both felt the absence of swimming practice and I knew that somehow I needed a substitute but just did not know what it might be.  At the same time a friend and I would walk through the rural hills of Ohio talking romantically about working on a self-sufficient farm.  We liked what seemed to us to be the purity of a life spent producing what we needed and we found that the philosophies underlying this were quite exciting.  I was 21 and that is one of the best times in life to dream and project philosophies into action.  During my days at college I felt lacking in skills, wishing to chop wood for a fireplace or to grow a garden, but living in the dorms, I needed neither.  Although I loved reading the history, the satisfaction that I gained from the books each day seemed incomplete.  What was missing was a connection between my studies and other people.  To find balance I tutored a 2nd grade reading class.  I liked sharing my time with the kids and I loved the reciprocity in the relations.  Teaching them to read helped me to learn about learning, to gain awareness of the specifics for each of these 8-year old lives, and to work alongside kids whose undiagnosed but apparent learning disabilities were visibly separating them from classmates who would move forward, graduating to 3rd grade without them.  Their needs to learn, to feel good in achievement, and to face the struggles of connecting sounds to written symbols prodded me to develop a reading game.  One boy, in his second year in 2nd grade finally learned his vowels with this game.  Somewhere in this 2nd grade classroom experience, there was something present that my historical studies could never address and whatever it was, it made me anxious to gain a skill, as I called it.

So it was with these three things prominently on my mind - a physical outlet, self-sufficiency, and a skill that I could share with others – that I joined a friend in a casual afternoon trip to Cleveland to see her sister.  The home was huge.  My friend’s brother-in-law, Jim, was an oil executive.  As we toured the house, some objects kept coming into my view.  In the kitchen I saw a distinctive set of pottery canisters.  In the living room, large open bowls sat on side tables and around the house there were similar pieces. The pottery resembled itself but didn’t match anything else in the home.  I turned to my friend Katie, curious about the oddity of the pots in this environment.  “Where did these dishes come from?”  Katie said that Jim had made them.  I then asked a pivotal question, but I had no idea that it would be.  “If Jim is an oil executive, why would he make them if he could just buy them?”  No joke, instantly in that moment, those three life needs that I described above instantly intersected.  The intensity of that moment was so much that I knew it to be impossible to ignore.  I don’t even know how my friend replied.  My mind was racing, filling in the response to my own question, but instead of clear answers, what I found was self-recognition and more or less a dare to pursue the revelation to see what was there.  I had never had one of these Road to Damascus type moments before in my life and knew that something truly monumental had happened.  To ignore it would be a grave error; I didn’t’ know why; I just knew that it would be.

So at 21, without any prior interest or experience making art, I stepped into the craft center and threw my first pot.  Love at first touch.  I think many clay artists felt the same way in their first contacts with the material.  The rest, between 1991 and now has been an interesting, surprising, and curious search to figure out what is or was underlying that intersection of ideas in that home in Cleveland.   The question, “Why would you make something if you can buy it?” is a strong component of Clare’s project and it has brought me full circle back to where I began.  Funny thing is that I never feel like I move too far away from that initial question from 1991.  Each semester, I start class by asking each student, “Why are you here in an art class?”

In a Macro sort of way, each time I step into my studio, I’m asking this question – or those relating to it – and the work that I produce, even the fact that I would still produce any work at all, suggests that I’m still trying to establish a model for understanding, one that seems complete, knowing that of all things, good questions only open up to more.  For me, the making confirms that there is something to extract from my life, from my time, and from developing forms that represent how I would like to address my world.  The making, in a bit of a twisted way, also lets me know that I will never really get it; that I will never really comprehend the complexities behind the making and the motivations for it.  And I like that quite a lot.

Andy Shaw

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