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The Power To Do Good

by Dick Lehman

The package arrived unannounced and unexpected.  A hand-made card read:  “Dick:  Thinking of you and your family at this time of gathering.  May the New Year bring good tidings.  Warm wishes……” ……and then a signature.

Inside the package was a sublime Shino-glazed bowl.  Even with my modest visual literacy I recognized it as a museum-quality piece.  This was a pot for which the forces at work in its making converged to bring all the goodness imaginable into a single piece.

The bowl had been sent to me by one of my “clay-heroes”.  Our paths had crossed only occasionally – and then primarily through my attendance of his workshops and lectures.  I would hardly have claimed to have been on a first-name basis with him. 

His gift was, for me, a powerful encouragement.  It suggested recognition and mutuality.  Coming when it did, in the course of my ceramics career, it nurtured a confidence in myself and in my work that had never existed before:  a good that the giver would likely never have imagined.  It is one of events that has changed my life as a ceramic artist.

Another life-changing event occurred when I received an invitation from a ceramics professor at a prominent Southwestern University asking me to work with him for several months as a visiting artist/adjunct faculty.  Me?  A relatively unknown Midwestern production potter?

The confidence and endorsement implicit in this invitation altered forever the way I viewed myself.  While I still was relatively unknown, I was not insignificant.  While I had no Art degree, this professor knew (even before I did) that I had something to offer his graduate students. 

The teaching and visiting artist experience was so powerful for me that I wanted to find an avenue through which I might share it with other potters.  The idea of submitting an article to Ceramics Monthly Magazine crossed my mind.  I initially decided against it:  four years of college and nearly three years of graduate school had left me convinced (by professorial feedback and my own assessment of myself) that I was no writer.

But eventually, and with no small measure of trepidation and anxiety, I submitted the article.  It was accepted and published.  But more importantly, within months the editor contacted me, asking for more writing.  Over time he convinced me that I had a writer’s voice, and encouraged me to listen to it, and to share it.  This editor, like the ones before him and those who have followed, exerted his power to do good by nurturing and soliciting the best from others……for the good of the entire field.

In all three of these occasions, by exercising their power to do good, these folks offered me an opportunity to see myself in new ways.  And ultimately they invited me into more-responsible participation in the larger clay community.

Exercising the power to do good, however varied in its form, carries a few common themes:  there is an expression of encouragement, altruism and nurture toward the next generation.  It embodies a commitment to the long term success of the many, as opposed to a singular commitment to self.  There is mutuality and open sharing which results in the diminishment of status differences.  And driving all of this is a passion for life and work that seeks to continually find and redefine meaning in life.

Regarding the power to do good, my friend Bill Hunt put it this way:  “…I consider it among the most important of life’s opportunities, and certainly one of the things that returns to us so much happiness and even joy.  I’d have to say that I live to exercise this power.  Nothing seems to match it.”

It is my observation that a significant part of the ceramics community lives to exercise this same power.  Still I’ve wondered what it is that motivates the behavior that prompts the often-heard-stereotype that clay artists are less secretive, less self-protective, more generative than those from some other of the fine arts media.  Why are ceramic artists more willing to exercise their power to do good?

Is it just that ceramics involves a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ and we have learned that helping each other mix, carry, load and fire makes life better? 

Is it connected intrinsically to the Leach/Hamada phenomenon:  coming on the American scene at an absolutely critical time in the redevelopment of the studio pottery movement?  … modeling a new ‘workshop’ approach that birthed altruistic motivations of genuinely new and lasting proportions?  Did their being well-known and well-respected professionals who exhibited a passionately collaborative and generative approach, set an enduring precedent which has lived on in subsequent generations of ceramic artists?

I suspect that there are no simple answers when it comes to such motivations.  But none the less, I would be willing to wager that passion, and indeed love of the work will always be near the heart of these motivations.  To quote Hunt again, “…(love) seems to me to be at the core of the power to do good.”

Each of us, regardless of status or place within the clay world, has almost unlimited opportunities to exercise our power to do good: from the smallest most-private actions, to the more-public extensions of encouragement and recognition.  As Hunt indicates, these behaviors return to us much happiness and joy.  And in so doing, they also invite responsible contribution back to the field from an ever-increasing number of participants.

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I am personally approaching another life-changing experience.  With the return of my lymphoma and plans for a stem cell transplant this autumn, I face an extended period of time away from my studio.  My best hopes are for a return to the studio after a period of months.  But the more dire possibilities could bring a more extended absence from my work, with more serious effects on my staff, and indeed my very studio.

I was overwhelmed and humbled to recently learn that several of my friends and teachers and collectors are sponsoring an exhibition to assist with cash flow during this tenuous time.  Their effort is to lighten my load and provide some continuity so that when I recover I will not have such a deep hole to climb out of. 

I am, again, the recipient of this remarkable community’s expression of its power to do good.  I only hope that I can return some of the same….to offer back some portion of the gift that I have been given.  I live in gratitude. 

The exhibition sponsored by Dick’s friends, “Extended Hands: A Show of Support” opens at Lehman’s Goshen, Indiana gallery on November 4, 2006.  More than 100 prominent ceramic artists from around the world have contributed works to this event.  Online access to the exhibition is available at http://www.claylink.com/lehman2006.html

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the November 2006 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

Dick Lehman
Copyright 2006
All rights reserved


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