A view from somewhere

On the first few weeks of the school year 

Yesterday – Saturday – I spent four hours in the studio with a small group of students who had requested some weekend studio time to work on a project.  With the exception of a short lunch break for pizza that one of the students brought, we worked for the full four hours, throwing cups with red clay.  Conversation was minimal – and when remarks were made, they were usually directed at or around pottery.  Occasionally we would have tips or suggestions for each other, or compliments on a form that had just been created.  I was not their teacher; I was making alongside them.  I have as many questions and doubts about the project we are working on together as they do, and we are trusting each other to follow through.

Just past three weeks into the school year, and I have already fired two bisque loads in our giant kiln.  My ceramics classes are running themselves, even the introductory course.  Three seniors are deep into the process of making puzzle jugs.  One of them is not currently enrolled in a class, but spends every open moment he has in the studio.  I can’t project what’s going on in his thinking; we don’t talk much, as I sense he needs his space to work.  He reminds me of a younger me, spending my last year of college locked in the ceramic studio because it made more sense than anything else, and gave me some sense of power when a lot of other factors seemed beyond my control.

Craft, as you may know, comes form the German word Kraft, meaning power or strength. As Emerson said, the law is: “Do the thing, and you shall have the power. But they who do not the thing, have not the powers.” We can’t fake craft. It lies in the act. The strains we have put in the clay break open in the fire. We do not have the craft, or craftsmanship, if we do not speak to the light that lies within the earthly materials; this means all earthly materials, including men themselves.

MC Richards, Centering

1234767_10151909665103582_1534423024_nAn informal ‘tea club’ meets in the studio almost every day after school, brewing loose-leaf tea in a handmade teapot I brought home from Canada a few years ago, a piece that has a near-perfect pour and a generous, lightweight volume.  I’ll be pugging, or cleaning up, or doing ‘teacher-work,’ and a mug of delicious oolong materializes within my reach, without any request.  It’s nice.  Because of the tea-trend, students are analyzing teapot forms very carefully.  Why does this teapot work better than any others in the studio?  What about its form, its spout attachment, its handle makes it so perfect?  In Ceramics III, there’s an intensity and focus on the assigned teapot project that seems to be driven by tea, and the potential reality of use.  Tea Club is very much in-the-moment; who knows how long this trend will last?  But it’s student-driven, experiential, and driving up the quality of course content.  I’ll take it – and the oolong.

The current educational regime is based on a certain view about what kind of knowledge is important: “knowing that,” as opposed to “knowing how.”  This corresponds roughly to universal knowledge versus the kind that comes from individual experience.  If you know that something is the case, then this preposition can be stated from anywhere.  In fact, such knowledge aspires to a view from nowhere.  That is, it aspires to a view that gets at the true nature of things because it isn’t conditioned by the circumstances of the viewer.  It can be transmitted through speech or writing without loss of meaning, and expounded by a generic self that need not have any prerequisite experiences.  Occupations based on universal, propositional knowledge are more prestigious, but they are also the kind that face competition from the whole world as book learning becomes more widely disseminated in the global economy.  Practical knowledge, on the other hand, is always tied to the experience of a particular person.  It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.

-Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

Living the knowledge.  Sing it, Crawford.

The 3D printer has just been installed in another building.  Who knows what consequences its novelty – and eventual thoughtful use – will have for the rhythm of trust, strength, and practical, immersive knowledge that goes on in the studio?  This video tells me how easy it will be to download and print objects – and suggests how quickly this technology will spread.  It sure seems a lot easier to make things without getting one’s hands dirty.  Download and print.  Break and discard and replace and repeat.  Oh, the possibilities.

But in the studio, we’re still aspiring to a view from somewhere – an experience based in hands-on, practical knowledge.  Maybe that knowledge is archaic?  Who needs to know how to make pots by hand when you can print them instead?  The answer (I think?  I hope?) – my students do.  They need the trust I place in them in giving the responsibility of working with materials; the understanding of kraft that comes from actions having consequences; and the practical knowledge it takes to conceptualize, problem-solve, and make something real.  I’m not as articulate as Richards, Crawford, Staley, or Sennett on the reasons why, but I’m feeling this urgency and intensity to get there, fast.  And the only way I’m going to get there is by staying present and attentive to these students, and to these long days in the studio, and to these deep, slow readings that are pushing me to grow.

“We can’t fake craft.  It lies in the act.”

Thank God.


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