Guest post: Carter Gillies

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One of the changes I’m hoping will evolve on musing over the next year is the inclusion of more guest posts by other artists and writers. I have always hoped that musing could become more of a space for dialogue, debate and critical writing. This voice shouldn’t me solely my own as this is a blog for the community, so I am encouraging anyone and everyone that is interested in writing for musing to get in touch. I’m open to just about anything you can come up with so long as it’s some how clay/craft/art related.

Earlier in the week I posted the video Adopt a Potter by Lisa Hammond, and Carter Gillies has started a great conversation in the comments of this post. Now I often worry because musing is often a bit thin on comments that people might miss these conversations that happen in the background of a post. So I’ve asked Carter to present some of this discussion here as a guest post. I encourage you to go back and read the comments, and of course add your own thoughts to the conversation.

Make sure as well to check out Carter’s website here for a glimpse into his incredible practice and for a wonderful read of a great established blog, which if it isn’t on your reading list, it should be.

Thanks Carter!

The following is Carter Gillies:

When I think of current and recent eminent potters almost all
of them either were pottery students at Universities or had some
exposure there which led them to pursue it outside academia.
The exceptions right now are a rare breed. How many of today’s great
potters had absolutely no contact with pots in college? Can you name even a few? So what happens when fewer and fewer people have that opportunity? What will happen if some depressing future day no one has that chance to study pottery in school any longer?

In the video Carole posted a few days ago, the potter Lisa Hammond
proposes that apprenticeships are at least one of the solutions to what
she and I both see as a problem facing the art of pottery making. She
talks about being “really disheartened” by “the demise of colleges and
ceramics colleges closing down” and what needs to be done “until those
in power realize what’s missing”.

This seems like an issue that impacts potters not only now, but the
future of our craft. Is it something we can talk about? Are we
interested in talking about it?

Lisa Hammond and some others are suggesting that apprenticeships are a
stopgap measure to fill the need for ceramics education, and obviously
it is a path to serious professionalism. I just worry that this
alternative is far too small a band-aid on the hemorrhaging of potters
from Universities. This is an extremely narrow chute to pass the future of all pot making through. The question I need to ask is whether apprenticeships will be enough…..

How many working potters can afford to take on apprentices? How many
of those will have the time and commitment to replace full time
University instruction? If even one out of every ten potters were able,
would this be enough to keep the momentum going? And if this is our only
solution will it ever be less a bottleneck than our current

And the question is also how a person got to the point that they were
willing to commit to a one to four year span of learning a trade from a
professional potter. They won’t often be starting from scratch. And few
potters would accept them if they didn’t already demonstrate the
serious motivation to be there and learn. Really, apprenticeships will
only fill the need of a ‘finishing school’. And while it is a viable means of honing one’s skills and
knowledge, it almost seems too quaint and romanticized a throwback
to have much currency in the modern world. It speaks of a pathway that is only rarer and rarer…..

Workshops and crafts schools are in a similar position. They are
opportunities for folks already on the path to becoming professionals or
passionate amateurs. And they would be too expensive for most folks to
spend one to four years of continuous class time…. They are a different
sort of ‘finishing school’ at best.

So how do folks get inspired to make that apprenticeship commitment?
One way that prospective professionals are exposed to pot making is
through classes in grade school, summer camps, and community centers.
And perhaps these are enough to get folks interested. I’m not
discounting that. But I’d think that the transitional step from summer
camp to prospective professional still requires enormous training and
persistence. It requires opportunity. And the question is how folks will
get this.

If the community center where I teach is like most others, then it
will be rare that an academic-like training can be offered. Most folks
taking classes already have their lives sorted out. Even the ones
who are serious about learning almost always have full time
jobs or are in school to become something else. They have the serious
passion for a hobby, not a career path. And so it is extremely
rare that I can teach to an academically rigorous standard. Its almost
impossible to even give homework assignments…. There are no grades. And
I’m not a gatekeeper….

So the question is whether a seriously trained professional potter
will be the exception in the future. Will the future of pot making be
mostly in the hands of willing and enthusiastic but under-trained
amateurs? I worry that without the opportunity afforded in universities
the overall health of our craft will be mostly up to folks who take a
class or two at a community center and then sell the begeezus out of
their pots on etsy…. (Not to disrespect or diminish the self directed
passion of these artists. Its only that passion is not always a
substitute for training and the honing of academic critique. And its
perhaps rarest of all that an artist is self directed enough to do
without even occasional critical feedback. We tend to think that if it
sells its good enough. And is that always a standard of quality? Will
this future be almost entirely market driven? And does our audience
always know enough to push us towards excellence? How often is that the
case? Etsy anyone?… These seem like important questions….)

But over and above the actual training that prospective potters miss
out on with diminishing opportunities in academia, perhaps the worse
harm is a lack of exposure. Of the countless students to walk through a
university’s Ceramics department doors, how many did it take for some to
stick? And of those how many to actually make a career of it? Are the odds any less than one in a thousand?

Universities are
that golden opportunity that you can take a class without yet knowing
your major. Its that golden opportunity to DECIDE what you are
interested in…. University educations are that incredible time in
one’s life when a person is figuring out what they want to do with the
rest of their lives. And they can experiment with little risk that wrong
turns and dead ends will be more than the waste of a semester. Its a rare time of freedom and diversity. When
folks eventually graduate most are started on the paths that will define
their lives. And it scares me that fewer and fewer will have an
opportunity to choose pot making from this irreplaceable period of

How many of today’s potters walked into a college ceramics class by
mistake? They took a wrong turn and ended up in the Art school basement?
Because the painting classes were all full? On a dare? Because
some cute guy was taking the class….? It almost seems that becoming a
potter requires this touch of the irrelevant and accidental…. Just how
do we replace THAT?

So here’s my question. Does anyone really think that
apprenticeships will fully substitute for the loss of pottery opportunities in
academia? Are we worried about the situation? Enough to do something
about it? Or are we too disinterested to lift a finger? Are we content
to get ours now and let the future generations of potters sink or swim
on their own? Are we apologists for the direction that academic
institutions and the gallery/museum establishment are heading? Are we
defending the pathway of community classroom settings and the amateurism
of many etsy sellers?

It seems there is no one right answer but that we need ALL these
opportunities in play. I just fear that our future as a viable craft
will be diminished if we give up on pottery being taught in academia. 
Anyone else see what I’m worried about?