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Authenticity, My Own Personal Struggle With What It Means

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#1 Tyler Miller

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 01:55 AM

This is something I wrote to articulate a struggle I've been having with my own work and to help me resolve my feelings about it.  I thought I'd share because it may help others crystallize their own artistic project.  I will disclaim that the contents may not sit well with you the reader, but it is not meant to be directed outward, this comes from my own perception of myself and no one else.  Please bear that in mind. This is 100% an internal and personal criticism directed at myself, no one else.

 

I’ve come to the conclusion that my impulses as a potter have come into conflict.  On the one hand, i want to explore and understand EVERY form.  i want to know why Wedgewood is beautiful, why chawan can be perfection and how to get there, how to make the most perfect imitation of a longquan celadon, or get the highest gloss possible on an attic red-figure copy.

 

But on the other, I can’t help but feel like I’m betraying myself and my own potential for a naturalistic artistic vision if I carry those desires too far.

 

Horace and Hamada ring in my ears.  I can’t help but think about what Hamada said about the pretentiousness of Japanese potters adding granite to their clay to make it like the prized clays of Shigaraki that naturally had it present, or the excessive effort put into applying hake me brush strokes in a beautiful manner when the Korean potters who came up with the technique were just hoping to cover the red clay of the body.

 

Indeed, there are many Hamada copyists who miss entirely Hamada’s artistic vision.  Hamada was a brilliant potter who could work in any style and formulate any glaze to fit his purpose, but he chose to be a Mashiko potter and work within the limitations of that folk tradition.  The boldness and revolutionary nature wasn’t his forms, it wasn’t his subject matter, it was that he let those decisions make themselves as he set down roots.  Leach (and Cardew) tried to do something similar, but he found that he couldn’t authentically work in the English country potter tradition as he’d hoped.  Cardew’s attempts especially failed at making slipware commercially viable the way he’d hoped.  After all, it wasn’t too long after Cardew was struggling to make it work that the last old time English country potteries closed.  I suspect potters like Isaac Button would've thought Cardew “daft” for being too precious with “nought but clay.”

 

Leach’s true success was his marketing.  The studio potter was his invention and I’m not quite sure I properly know what being a studio potter is all about.  Maybe you do.  But the concept eludes me.

 

What bothers me, however, is how many Hamada and Leach copyists exist out there.  How many little brown jugs and pitchers exist, how many tea bowls are thrown, only to be an awkward way to drink Earl Grey or a latté, or how many anagamas are built in North America and Europe.  It may all be a part of the natural progression of studio potters—the artist’s indulgence in the process seems to be part of the process, and that’s fine.  But to what extent are we really just adding granite to our finely levigated clay?  To what extent are we just lingering too long over how we’re going to apply our slip with a rough brush, when maybe we should be thinking about how best to do justice to our art as a continuation of ourselves?

 

It’s too easy to don masks and pretend we’re one thing or another.  Playing at pretend is almost a right in the western world.  We’ve allowed ourselves the luxury of saying “well, I’m pagan, but I really like buddhist meditation, and I wear a rosary to honour my great aunt, who was a nun—I can still feel her spirit with me.”  To me, as I get older, this kind of pastiche of cultural appropriation seems to miss the point entirely.  We can dissemble ourselves into oblivion, when the point of it all is to seek and express truth.  Can a westerner truly grasp wabi-sabi?  Maybe academically, but I think we only have limited choices before us when it comes to approaching another culture, we can step into it through a contextualized “window” of study,  we can compartmentalize its attributes into our own, preexisting culture, or we can let it wash over us and envelope us and change us, but even then, we’re never quite authentically a part of it.  Disagree?  Examine how you feel about immigrants who come to where you live, do they ever really become a part of your culture in your eyes?  Is the person with an accent ever really American/Canadian/Mexican/British/French/Swiss/or Japanese?  I want them to feel like they are, but they know as well as I do that’s not an identity they get. Their children and their children’s children get that, but never them.

 

So too, I feel it is with culture.  We will always have a cultural “accent” when we work within an artistic context other than our own.  I’m getting pretty good at throwing Hellenic forms and I make a decent chawan, but they’re not real, my Canadian accent is too thick for me to speak proper Greek (οὐκ ὀρθως ἑλληνίζω).  And while it’s a good and acculturating experience for me to try and expose myself to different cultures and ideas, at some point it becomes an exercise in hiding from oneself.  At some point that in-between space between cultures becomes an insulation.  Something like:  I cannot identify with my own culture, so I adopt another to act as a mask among my own people, a means of explaining myself through other peoples and hiding myself the same way.  Maybe the artist has a right to do this, but I’ve never been comfortable with that kind of conceptual art.  It seems too much like the Animé fan girls who obsess over Japanese culture and pine over its superiority in order to compensate for their own struggle to fit in.  Or a friend of mine who constantly travels, with no roots anywhere.  When things get “too real” in any one place, he moves on, and finds a new set of friends and a new culture.

 

But all this begs the question?  What do I do as an artist to be authentic to myself and my work?  I think Horace’s Ars Poetica has a venerable answer.  A painter cannot legitimately paint a horse’s neck with a human head and all manner of feathers and features down below.  At least, not without proper context.  A writer sounds ridiculous writing a day’s events in purple prose.  There’s a proper register and justice to be done to everything.  A proper way to work with clay.  Indeed, i think that’s what the Japanese are talking about when they talk about the “flavour” of the clay.  It’s like a wine’s terroir.  A certain kind of climate does the best justice to a certain kind of grape.  And so too, I think a certain land produces a certain kind of clay, a certain culture a certain set of vessels, and a certain person a certain kind of approach.  There’s little place for obfuscation in this, I think.  No real reason to try to appropriate another culture, at least, for any length of time.  The culture you grew out of is culture enough.  And really, the best artists I know, seem to shoot at something above it anyway, they look too deeply inward.  Their imitators, however, seem all too superficial by comparison.



#2 Marcia Selsor

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 06:55 AM

Well said, Tyler. I think you address many truths about our evolving global culture. We all struggle with many of the same issues.

Marcia


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#3 ChenowethArts

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 11:22 AM

Tyler Miller  I appreciate you sharing this very personal reflection.  The question you ask, "What do I do as an artist to be authentic to myself and my work?" is one that I need to tackle as well.

 

I see radical differences between the writer and the painter compared to the individual who works in the broad spectrum of ceramics.  Neither the writer or the painter are likely to make their own paper, ink, canvas, paints from the most basic of materials (although there may be some who do)...but the ceramic artist is not faced with a blank piece of paper or a blank canvas. The ceramic artist is faced with multiple directions/paths at almost every turn of the process.  At every turn (no pun intended) the artist working in clay and glaze and firing technique comes to decision making points that impact the final outcome.  The learning process in ceramics lends itself to copying...but copying (whether that is clay choice, construction method, decorating technique, or firing process, etc.) that is accompanied by the depth of reflection you offer, results in personal growth.  The question I am currently asking myself regarding authenticity centers around borrowed techniques that result in pieces that I want to  call mine (as a reflection of who I am)  rather than a copy of the individual who taught/shared their own process and outcomes.  I don't have answers.  But as long as I am still asking questions (personal reflection), I see that there is progress.  From all of that, I am more satisfied to ask, "What do I do as an artist to make consistent progress toward being authentic to myself and to my work?"

 

Good thoughts, Tyler!

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#4 TJR

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 12:59 PM

Tyler;

That was a great essay. Well thought out. As artists we grapple with these universal problems all the time.I watched a youtube video on the British potter Phil Rogers. I really like his work. He has visited Japan many times. There is a video of him at Mashiko. It is still possible to buy Hamada pots there if you have the dosh[English slang for money].

I noticed on youtube that a lot of British potters try to emulate Japanese pots. I guess because Hamada worked at the Leach pottery. The Hamada pots in the video were head and shoulders above any there that is being created in Mashiko today. He was a true genius.

There are two roads that you can choose here. Copy the greats in order to be great youself.

Or, reject your teachers and create your own vision. I choose the latter.

I am a bit more ham strung than you as I come from a cultural back water. But I have a computer.

What is the Canadian pottery tradition? Should we be searching for it? It is not painting polar bears on plates.

TJR



#5 Tyler Miller

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 02:03 PM

 

What is the Canadian pottery tradition? Should we be searching for it? It is not painting polar bears on plates.

 

 

I ask myself this question all the time.



#6 Chris Campbell

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 04:13 PM

What is the Canadian pottery tradition? Should we be searching for it? It is not painting polar bears on plates.

 
I ask myself this question all the time.

Whenever I'm back in Ontario, I try to visit Jonathon's Gallery in London .... 100% Canadian potters from across the country ... a showcase of the breadth and depth of talent. Amazing work and they rep the potters very well. Cannot say that I can see a definite aesthetic, other than the awesome originality on display ... Canadian potters certainly do have their own voices.
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#7 TJR

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 04:41 PM

 

 

What is the Canadian pottery tradition? Should we be searching for it? It is not painting polar bears on plates.

 
I ask myself this question all the time.

Whenever I'm back in Ontario, I try to visit Jonathon's Gallery in London .... 100% Canadian potters from across the country ... a showcase of the breadth and depth of talent. Amazing work and they rep the potters very well. Cannot say that I can see a definite aesthetic, other than the awesome originality on display ... Canadian potters certainly do have their own voices.

 

We have the One of a Kind show coming up in Toronto. It is on after NCECA. I will be attendng.

T.



#8 Babs

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 05:53 PM

When you are totally immersed in your work, are you really still reacting to  what is outside? Does it matter? Do you see the subtle changes in your work? Where are these coming form? Observation of self or the world around you?



#9 Cavy Fire Studios

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 07:33 PM

Uh...I gotta admit, there was one thing that tweaked a nerve with me in there. I'm a biracial Latina whose mother is Mexican and whose father is French. Now, I was raised by my mom and oldschool Mexican grandmother, and was ingrained heavily into the culture iof Mexico through her. However, though my blood is Mexican, and I was raised in a Mexican-American, according to your argument, I will never be accepted by the culture of my heritage because of the circumstances of my birth being outside Mexico. I grew up eating menudo and cow tongue tacos, but because I'm not a Mexican national, I'll never make true art befitting my heritage.
I think that's a huge "no."
That's the same thing as saying someone from immigrant parents can't properly cook food from their parents' homeland because they were born in the United States, or that they won't learn to play football because they aren't of "legit" American-born parents.
Culture is important to a lot of people, including myself. It is part of what makes me the guinea I am. I work in terracotta and paint with bright colors in the way my fellow Mexicans have done for centuries, but I can't do it right because I wasn't born in Chihuahua, like my grandparents? Come on, man.
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#10 Tyler Miller

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 08:27 PM

Babs,

 

I’m a big believer in the idea that the criticisms a person levels against others are rooted in the insecurities one has about his/herself.  The same with praise; it comes from what that person has internalized as “good.”  So while the criticisms made in my above post are written outwardly, they’re really meant to be reflections of myself.  I’m not so sure I’m so self aware that I can see past myself and my own preoccupations in things.  So when I say that Leach or Hamada copies bother me, it’s not because I think the people making them are untalented or not self-critical, it’s because the copies reflect my own anxieties about the depth of thought in my own work.  After all, there are piles of pottery that I don’t care for that doesn’t even register on my radar.  It’s not that I think it’s good or bad, it’s that it doesn’t say anything to me.

 

Ideally I should be able to tune everything out and just meditate to myself about my own work and what I think i should make, but I’m not that mentally competent.  That’s genius level work where you can pick forms and vessels out from the air and revolutionize how people use/look at ceramic.  Instead, I think it’s more an issue of engaging in a dialogue with pre-existing works and saying “I like this, but not that and I’d change x, y, and z to make it better.  This form is nice, but I can’t integrate it into my life in any kind of meaningful way.”  It’s discrimination, of course, but self-directed and irrelevant to other artists.

 

As well, I feel as though my full immersion in my work doesn’t always lead me to the end I’d find most desirable.  Being immersed in art, for me, is a lot like being immersed in a video game or overly immersed in fishing or maybe gambling, if I were a gambler.  The internal logic of the work doesn’t always allow for clear self-criticism and analysis.  It’s easy to get caught up in the workings of a Rube Goldberg machine when really just a hammer or screwdriver will do.  I’m not ashamed to admit that there have been times where I’ve spent days working on a project only to decide when it’s done the idea was a flaming turd.  Last winter I tried throwing a psykter-krater because I liked the form and thought “that’s an idea I could turn into something modern and useful.”  Three tries at getting a double-walled 8 part vessel assembled later and it occured to me:  I had just made a glorified ice bucket that makes serving wine awkward and ridiculous.  it might have worked as one of those terracotta refrigerators you see in Saudi Arabia and Northern Africa, but not in Ontario where the summers are too humid to let it work.  Practicality has never been my strong suit ;)



#11 Tyler Miller

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 08:28 PM

Chris, 

 

I completely agree.  i think it’s because we have a self-consciousness about the fact that we’re constantly looking outward to other cultures, the UK, France, and the US.  We’ve got our own thing going on, but we view it as a continuum with the cultures we look to.

 

Would you believe I thought butter tarts, poutine, and ketchup chips were American until about 5 years ago?

 

 

GP,

 

That’s not at all what I said.  I have no idea where you’re getting that from.  I’m reluctant to try to clarify because I’m worried about the potential for starting conflict, but here we go.

 

In Rome, the city, you’re not considered to be a true Roman unless your family’s been there for eight generations.  That’s like 200 years.  If I were to move to Mexico, I wouldn’t be accepted as a Mexican because I’d always have an accent, my Spanish is poor (and would remain poor). I’d always be “el canadiense”   If I moved to Japan, I’d be considered a foreigner the rest of my life.  That’s just the way it goes, the world over.  I wish this weren’t the case, but it is.  And so it is with ceramics, If I were to take up Mexican style lead-glazed earthenware, the same would be true, I’d be a Canadian copying a style without really being able to fully integrate it into the culture in-born in me.

 

I had literally nothing to say about your situation. I’m sorry I came off that way, it really wasn’t my intent.  I actually kindof meant the exact opposite.  For what it’s worth, I always thought your work was pretty authentic.  I’ll admit I never saw it as particularly Mexican.  But then again, I didn’t know you were Mexican-American. I just saw it as the work of someone irrepressibly in love with small animals and illustration, who made the clay and glaze choices you did because it best suited your illustrative style and equipment limitations.

 

That fair?



#12 LeeU

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 10:27 PM

The rigors of aging (or maybe having been around the block a few too many times) have diminished my capacity for intelligent introspection. Not saying that is good, bad, or indifferent, but sadly it has also affected my capacity for being able to fairly readily understand somebody else's stuff. I want to appreciate all that has been written and respond with some kind of purposeful content but I am coming up empty. I am not sure I "get it".  In Lee-Land, "why" is a crooked letter, there is nothing new under the sun, and angst over anything more often than not ends up as a waste of time and energy. Help me out here---what is the essential distillation of "the struggle"? 


Lee Ustinich

 

 

 

 

 

#13 Chris Campbell

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Posted 17 March 2015 - 10:33 PM

> I’m not ashamed to admit that there have been times where I’ve spent days working on a project only to decide when it’s done the idea was a flaming turd. 

 

Thank goodness you can do that ... creativity is not a straight line. We tend to forget how often successful people fail before something finally works. Please do not ever stop trying 'dumb stuff', don't ever stop wondering "What would happen if ...." That's at least half the fun of being an artist. You get to fail and nobody but you notices.


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#14 Diesel Clay

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Posted 18 March 2015 - 01:26 AM

Americans don't have butter tarts?!?!!

!!!


Okay, that threw me for a moment, but back to the thought I had originally.

I'd like to propose that many CRAFT forms, and ceramic technologies in particular, evolved out of the admiration of the craft produced by someone else's culture, and a subsequent desire to have some of that kicking about your own house. What about the evoloution of bone china and tin glazed wares? Europeans and various Middle Easterners thought Chinese blue and white wares were highly desirable, but freaking hard to come by and cost prohibitive. The aesthetic was deemed beautiful enough for others to try and (pay someone local to) recreate it closer to home, even given a lack of "complete" understanding of the originating culture. (Yes, I know kaolin deposits were integral, but I believe the arguement still holds.) Consequently there are now Delft patterns and boggling tile work on Mosques that are a part of their cultural identities now, without disturbing the integrity of the original Ming wares. Look at something like Zakka, which is bourne out of Asian cultures, Japan in particular, looking at Nordic handwork and applying their own sensibilities to create an exquisite new aesthetic all its own. I'm sure there were questionable design and function issues made along the road to creating all these new ways of working. But they morphed into their own things over time. (I did kind of wonder why you never posted pictures of your psykter-krater. Sometimes you just have to try stuff, man.)

And what, exactly, is wrong with just making something for the love of it? Creation and critique are neurologically two different actions, and if you try and do them both at the same time, you will do neither well.


Also, Southern Alberta, particularly the Medicine Hat area has a history of industrial stoneware production for hotels in Britian and the U.S. The production has been shut down since I believe the end of WW2, but the old Medalta potteries have been turned into an interpretive site, and an artist centre of high calibre. I'll argue we're currently creating Canada's ceramic tradition. Given we're all immigrants here, it's understandable we get influence from all kinds of other cultures that have come here to live.

#15 Chris Campbell

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Posted 18 March 2015 - 10:23 AM

> Creation and critique are neurologically two different actions, and if you try and do them both at the same time, you will do neither well.

Wow, my Aha! moment of the week. Thanks.
I get myself stuck quite often critiquing as I go so I am going to put this up in my studio.

> Americans don't have butter tarts?!?!!

Sad isn't it?
We have something called a miniature pecan pie which has none of the mind numbing, sweet gooey-ness of a butter tart.
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>TRY ... FAIL ... LEARN ... REPEAT"

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#16 Tyler Miller

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Posted 18 March 2015 - 02:42 PM

Diesel, 

 

If you've got some time, head up to Etsy and check out how many little brown tea pots there are that don't pour.  Or Google "tsubo pot" (just "tsubo" seems to bring up a shoe company) or "mizuzashi" and notice that the majority of the makers aren't Japanese and don't really get what the forms are about.  I say this as someone who's tried to make both and missed the mark completely.

 

The imitation of porcelain happened because porcelain is and was the superior ceramic material (especially when compared to lead glazed earthenware).  But is a wobbly vase called a tsubo really better because it's a tsubo?  Or, to get back to Hamada's original criticism, is someone adding granite to a clay body because they're imitating a certain pottery tradition really in keeping with that tradition when its objectives were different and more humble?  I think the answer is no, and the potter shouldn't pretend they're a part of that tradition.  Leach's forms were about functionality over excessive flourishes of form.  But when a little brown teapot doesn't pour properly, is it really in the tradition of Leach?  I think the answer is no there too.

 

Cultural appropriation is one of the basic forms of cultural advancement and there's nothing wrong with taking a visual effect or a technique and exploiting it for your own purposes. 

 

Again, i say this of myself and not of others.  I found myself going down that road and it's not in keeping with my own aesthetic.  I'm not saying I'm right, just that I'm reconsidering what I do and how I do it in relation to some of my personal heroes.  There are other, completely robust and fleshed out schools of thought about how to do things (some probably far better thought out than what I'm trying to follow), this is just how I personally feel.

 

I don't hold all this stuff in my head while I'm throwing, btw, that would be ludicrous.  But I do regularly ask myself while I am throwing "Is this what I want to make?  Is this something I feel is what I'm going for?"  and sometimes it isn't.  I pour test every teapot I make and I make sure every line is the way I want it before my pots come off the wheel, after trimming, and then before and after time in the kiln.  If a pot's wobbly, it's because I wanted exactly that wobble.  Anything that fails gets the hammer.  Things that don't meet my own personal aesthetic are the same.  If I don't see it being a "good" pot, then it's no good.

 

I don't do so much blacksmithing right now, but something that's really considered egregiously bad is to "let the steel do what it wants."  That's beginner's B.S. for "I don't have control."  I believe the same is true of ceramics if a potter's not able to make exactly what he or she wants, their skill needs work or they're undisciplined.  That's not to say a potter shouldn't do what comes naturally, but there's a big difference between that and throwing without self-evaluative eyes.

 

I have some Medalta stuff, btw.  What I especially like is a blue mixing bowl from my grandmother by way of my great aunt that's absolutely lovely.  Charming little stilt marks and everything.  Something I've been tryign to track down is pottery from the Brantford pottery near my house.  Salt glazed every day stuff made from stoneware, with simple decorations.  They never did very well and I don't think their wares were too appreciated locally.   My dad's family is from around there and infuriatingly all the pottery that comes from his parents and grandparents is cheap British industrially made stuff from around 1900-1920.  



#17 Chris Campbell

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Posted 18 March 2015 - 03:01 PM

Tyler ... I would like to recommend you Google Chris Staley and watch some of his many you tube videos.
Chris probably thinks more about pots then anyone else I have ever met. His thinking is deep yet simple ... I think you might enjoy them.
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#18 Babs

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Posted 18 March 2015 - 04:14 PM

"So when I say that Leach or Hamada copies bother me, it’s not because I think the people making them are untalented or not self-critical, it’s because the copies reflect my own anxieties about the depth of thought in my own work."

I'd say that the pots created are from the teaching of or in the style of but to be a copy well, the potters would have to be pretty learned and technically superb.

Diesel Clay, were there no indigenous clay workers of Canada...what is a butter tart? recipe??

Trawling around looking at many pots whislt on the road of self discovery.. too much external stimulation unless a strong dispassionate eye is used. "oh, I could make that"  but  Where does this sit in my "room"?

Too many fluctuations, too messy . Less time on  the computer , more on the wheel. Going inward takes much practice.

Back to the artist statement.

The practice of making pot when it is meaningful practice will free your brain from the physical to allow that watchful self to create .



#19 Chris Campbell

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Posted 18 March 2015 - 05:09 PM

> ...what is a butter tart? recipe??

Totally off this very serious and worthwhile topic ....

 

Makes 15 small tarts

  • 1/2 cup Raisins
  • 1/4 cup soft butter (NOT margarine!!!BUTTER tarts)
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup corn syrup
  • 2 slightly beaten eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  1. Pour boiling water over raisins. Let stand 5 minutes and drain.
  2. Stir together butter and brown sugar.
  3. Blend in corn syrup, eggs, vanilla and lemon juice
  4. Stir in raisins or currants.
  5. Fill pastry-lined muffin cups 2/3 full
  6. Bake at 375 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until pastry is golden. Do not allow filling to bubble.

Crazy good! As I write this I am trying very hard not to start a batch.

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Chris Campbell Pottery
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>TRY ... FAIL ... LEARN ... REPEAT"

" If a sufficient number of people are different, no one has to be normal "

Fredrick Bachman

#20 Cavy Fire Studios

Cavy Fire Studios

    Resident Guinea Pig

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  • LocationA hay field in E.Washington

Posted 18 March 2015 - 09:05 PM

Yep. Gonna eat the holy moses outta those.
As soon as I MOVE.
"I wheek; therefore, I am."
-Guinea
@--@
( ' x ' )
( u u ) . . . .




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