Storytime, Redux

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This is a revision of an earlier post, in response to a prompt on the Haystack scholarship application: “Why do you want to take the workshop/s you have selected?”  My response space was 1000 characters; this is 1000 words.

Some days in studio, I announce to my students that it’s ‘storytime’ – and we tell stories as we work.  This prompt calls for storytime.

In summer 2010, I ended up at a Peters Valley workshop taught by one of my heroes, Chris Staley.  I use Staley’s essays and examples so frequently in my teaching that I had him up on a bit of a pedestal, and I was nervous.  I shared my nerves with my students, who mostly laughed, and one of my closer mentors, Jon, who understood a bit more.

Then one of my students got a scholarship to attend the workshop, and the next day Jon told me had also signed up.  So, I packed my bags for rural Jersey, to spend five days working with my hero, my student, and my mentor.

Sounds perfect, right? But to me, the five-day workshop felt like my first weeks of fumbling in clay.  Every time I sat down at the wheel – a place normally my comfort zone – it felt like I was back in my college’s studio, struggling through those first attempts. To the left, I’d see Pat (my student) progressing with each vessel he threw.  On my right was Jon with a tableful of pots, discarding some and combining others together in a creative zone.  But something felt very off-balance with my own process.

Three days in, Staley had us working on teapots.  He sat down near my wheel, watched my hands quietly for a few minutes, and asked, “Have you ever made a teapot before?”

I froze.

I’ve made hundreds of teapots.  My students do teapots in the second semester, and I’ve done countless demos– designing sketches, inflating the body, fitting the lid, positioning the spout.  Did Pat hear Staley’s question?  He could come to my defense; he had seen me do this at least twenty times.  Did Jon hear the question?  He’d guided me through making my first teapot years ago.  I was embarrassed.  I avoided Staley’s gaze, and left the studio with a lot on my mind.

That night, Jon listened to me lament my ability, my chosen profession, my life.  He was patient.  Either he or the crickets coaxed me down from the ledge and back into the studio later, where I threw one-pound cylinders for a few moonlit hours.  I can make a pretty mean cylinder, close to twelve inches out of a single pound.  The great teacher Paul Bernhardt challenged me to this, years ago.  In his class, the other students progressed through making pitchers and plates, but Paul made me focus on nothing but throwing one-pound balls of clay, cylinder after cylinder.  Whenever I’d get close, trying to stretch ten inches into eleven, he’d throw another twelve-inch cylinder with arthritic hands, cut it, hand it to me, and laugh his one-in-a-million harrrugh.  By the end of his class, that laugh was worth as much to me as the progress I’d made in throwing.  Since then, and especially since Paul’s passing, one-pound cylinders have become my meditation.

I hardly slept that night, and showed up to studio in early morning dressed in the same clay-splattered garb that I’d worn the night before.  Staley – also an early riser – looked curiously at the pile of flopped cylinders I was re-wedging. I whispered good morning and kept working.

And then it was though he read all the thoughts that had been swirling in my mind since the previous afternoon.  ”What I meant, Kate,” he said slowly, “was to ask if you had ever made your teapot before.”

I believe that in order to teach well – any subject – one should be involved in the subject matter as a practitioner.  The best teachers of poetry are poets; the best teachers of mathematics practice applications of math in science; the best teachers of physical education are athletes themselves.  Otherwise, one teaches from a platform that can be removed from the field and artificial.

Teaching, of course, is its own practice.  It’s not a guarantee that every poet will be able to teach poetry in the same graceful way that my writer friend Brandon does.  But when you have a twenty-four hour day, how much of it do you spend practicing the craft of teaching, and how much time do you spend involved in your own creative practice?

Chris was pointing out was that I’d perhaps strayed too far from the practice of making my own work.  The teapots that were on my shelf of workshop creations were accurate, but missing substance.  It had been so long since I’d focused on anything but teaching that authenticity had wandered away from my own work like a disinterested teenager.  The wheel had become someone else’s home – my students’ – and the task in front of me was to reclaim it for my own.

Since that workshop, I’ve made my best effort to find balance in my practice.  If I want to capture my students’ attention and imaginations – and to maintain my own – I have to do more than teach.  I have to make, I have to keep learning, and I have to do it all as a practitioner in my craft.  Writing has helped, and lately I am more and more interested in stories about making and place.  Thus, the workshops I am interested in attending are themed on making, meaning, and writing.

One of the best ways to reclaim my own practice as a maker/artist is to to retreat into the sort of community-based intensive and focused studio time that I experienced at Haystack once before.  By retreating, I reclaim my creative practice, and validate its importance.  It makes me a better teacher and a better person.  I haven’t found many places in the world that create a better environment for this re-focusing than Haystack.

I still haven’t made “my” teapot, but I value the tension that inspires me to keep trying.

The end – or, I hope, the beginning.

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