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The Thursday Night Challenge

…stagnation, deepening, and stoking the fire within…

Dick Lehman

Copyright 2008

All rights reserved.

Recently I sent an email note to a friend of mine, briefly telling her how much I was enjoying a little cup that she’d sent me.  What I didn’t tell her was this:  that her cup was different from any I’d ever used, and my particular enjoyment of the piece caused me to stop and attempt to identify the elements about the piece that felt so “right”.  It was interesting for me to notice how her piece nudged me to see a little more deeply, imagine with a bit more creativity, and hatch some ideas for new ways that I might like to approach cup-making.

How interesting to me, then, when her next email back to me included this paragraph:

“Do you ever find yourself feeling a bit stagnant or in need of a deepening? I'm curious what other clay artists do to stoke the fire. Good books, talking with others, travel, meditation, personal assignments......? I suppose the process is unique and personal to each of us.”

Her question caused me to reflect, with a little more purpose:  Just what is it that I do to “stoke the fire” within?

Of course, there was the obvious:   how important it is to surround oneself with good work – the best of one’s own work, and a fine collection from other makers from across the span of history.  This, most all of us do, whether through our own personal collections, trips to museums, international travel, or simply a trip to a fine museum collection compliments of our local broadband connection.

But what else can be done to stay fresh….to stoke the fire?   And is this ‘freshening’ different for production potters, or sculptors, or those who never tie themselves into a pattern of “production” or repetition?   I’m not sure I know….

But as I thought more about this, I noticed that I utilize at least three regular patterns in an attempt to keep things fresh.

Each week I set aside at least one day to work in ways that are not “production-oriented”.   So what does that mean?  For me, one who spends most of his life working with several key employees producing a “line” of 100 different production pieces, it means rejecting production, “success” and “salability” demands.  I give myself permission to explore a new teapot design, or a new pitcher or baking dish – without the requirement that the work I create will produce something that will make its way to the kiln, much less be something that I can sell.  It is freedom from any sense of “commodity” being attached to the efforts of these work days.  Such investigations always produce some work that ends up in the ‘re-work barrels’.  Yet without fail, there is some idea or component of this exploration that informs my visual literacy, sets aflame some new understanding of composition or balance or utility.  And these understandings are eventually utilized in future work, creating ideas and understandings that I would not have come to, without setting aside the requirements of productivity, commodity, and salability.

Another way that I try to stoke the fire is to give myself “assignments”.  Here is a recent example:  I “assigned” myself the task of creating 100 cups for under $100 in 100 days, and mounting them on the “ceramics for sale” portion of my web site.  An additional requirement that I assigned myself was to try to make cup forms that were largely new to me, or which utilized our existing glaze materials in ways that I had never attempted before.

The remarkable speed of development, progress and newness within this 100-piece series surprised even me.  The “assignment” caused/nudged me to take risks, try the improbable, and stretch myself.  The results expanded my visual literacy, my technical acuity, and allowed me to see beauty in new ways.  What a gift!  A gift only surpassed by my collectors’ willingness to see and enjoy my works in new ways, as well.

Finally I want to tell you about the “Thursday Night Challenge” – obviously named, as you will see.  I employ two other full-time potters who work with me, but who also make their own works and pursue their own careers.  Once each week, on Thursdays, an hour before closing (schedule allowing), we stop the “regular” work.  The employees stay “on the clock” but work on their own pieces.  What guides our time together is an assignment to which we have all agreed.  Deciding the nature of the assignment is a task that is passed around, among all the studio mates.  Our most recent challenge was “altered cups”.  The rules are simple:  during the first half hour we each commit to pursue the challenge-piece in a way that we have never tried before.  At the end of the first half-hour we spend 5 minutes looking at the methods or approaches that the others have attempted.  The assignment for the last half hour is to steal – to appropriate from someone else – a method or approach that they have utilized (which is new to us).

Here is a list of some of the ‘challenges’ which we have utilized, or which are on our list of things to do:

Platters over 10 pounds, 5 minute teapots (completely thrown and assembled), facetted and expanded (while on the wheel) cups, facetted, textured and expanded (while on the wheel) cups, altered bowls, divided dishes, pitchers with spouts guaranteed not to drip, thrown and altered plates, extruded trays – using existing dies and using them in new ways, flattened bottles,  a pot thrown upside-down, two-part assembled pots under 3 pounds total,  two-part assembled pots over 15 pounds total,  handle-less pouring pieces,  high-footed cups requiring trimming,  textured and expanded (while on the wheel) vases, left-handed cups, handle-less lidded jars.

The point of all this is to purposefully place ourselves in a position to encounter what is unfamiliar to us: to work outside the areas of comfort to which we have accustomed ourselves, to counteract stagnation, to encourage ‘deepening’, and to ‘stoke the fire’.

What might be the applications/implications of this “encountering the unfamiliar” for the larger community of ceramic artists?  How does all this make (equal) sense for the production potter, the artist potter, the sculptor?

How we each approach the necessity of deepening, seeing with new eyes, and avoiding stagnation will likely depend on our temperaments, and the complexities of our lives, as we live them.  Each one of us, undoubtedly, already has sound intuitions about what it is that we need to do to take the next step.  The only real question is whether we will discipline ourselves to move ourselves forward in the ways that are deeply unique and intimately personal.

Dick Lehman works at the Lehman-Goertzen Pottery in Goshen, Indiana.  Dick’s web site is www.DickLehman.com  The 100 cup assignment was completed on February 23, and can be found in the “ceramics for sale” link on Dick’s web site.

This (pre-edited version) article is reprinted with expressed permission from the June/July/August 2008 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org