Acknowledging Influences

by Dick Lehman

It was with mixed emotions that I received an invitation from my alma mater, Goshen College, to prepare a one-person show for their gallery. I have always had ambivalence about the term 'one-person'. I realize that, in fact, it is a purely descriptive and benign (not to mention, accurate) term. Yet is conveys a sense of haughty autonomy which appears self-conceived, affected, and self-sufficient. My discomfort with this description may have been exacerbated by returning to the place where I received my training — the place where, more than any other, folks know that I am not self-made.

In contemplating what I might show in this exhibition, I decided against filling the gallery space solely with my own work. hoping not to reinforce the artist-myth of one's own self-making. In addition to a body of my own work, I decided to show some pieces made by others, in an attempt to acknowledge my indebtedness to some of the people and the pots which have been influential in my development over the years as a clay artist.

My graduation from Goshen College was not a degree in art — there were only a few clay classes on my transcript. It became apparent to me then that if I wished to sustain my artistic development, I would need to create my own 'continuing education' course by going to museums, subscribing to periodicals, attending shows and workshops, visiting other potters in their studios, and perhaps most importantly, by collecting the work of other clay artists. I have encircled myself with the powerful work of others, not to copy these pots but to learn from them — to try to interpret the spirit in which these pieces were made and to integrate that spirit into my own work.

I realize that the term "spirit" is a slippery one, prone to misuse, overuse, and abuse. I have difficulty garnering a working definition of this word. But as clearly as I can articulate it, the spirited pieces in my collection exhibit many of the following characteristics: they reveal a clear sense of technical competence on the part of the maker, are masterfully executed, yet while they show an awareness of the rules of clay, they often break the rules; the pieces communicate to me a clear inner vision on the part of the maker; the work is innovative, and not purely repetitive or referential; the pieces elicit some conflict within me as I sit with them, yet hold in tension that conflict with a sense of resolution; the works do not pretend to be something other than clay, and do give evidence of how they were made; the pieces show a willingness on the part of the maker to collaborate with process, and have been unalterably changed by the pyro-choices which have brought these pieces to completion; and they speak to my heart and move me in ways more emotional than rational. These were the pieces I wished to share with the audience at Goshen College.

Having decided to show my own and others' work, I needed to resolve some presentation issues so that gallery visitors would not be confused about whose work they were looking at. I attempted to disentangle the potential confusion by designing small black individual wall shelves on which all the pieces-of-influence would be shown. But as I contemplated the layout of the exhibition, I continued to wonder how gallery visitors might be helped to understand just what was the influence which a particular piece or person had on my artistic development.

My first impulse was to think that it was the responsibility of the viewers to work that out for themselves. But on more reflection it became clear to me that not only did I deed to take more responsibility for communicating clearly about these influences, I needed, for my own benefit, to make as clear an articulation as I possibly could. This led inevitably to many hours of reflecting, writing, and rethinking. In addition to each piece-of-influence having its own wall shelf, now each also had a few paragraphs of reflection, storytelling and musing.

The vision for the show became clearer. Each shelf had pot, paragraphs, and portrait. Not only was I grateful for the opportunity to publicly acknowledge many who had been generous and influential to me (admittedly, some without their ever knowing it), but the act of acknowledging influence helped me to hear more clearly the sound of my own voice. Knowing who I am carried an echo of who I am not. I came away with a clearer sense about what was really mine in my own aesthetic sensibilities, and my own clay work.

The final count for the show included 29 pieces-of-influence, and 120 of my pots: wood-fired work, saggar-fired forms, and a body of porcelain pots which utilize a side-firing method I am exploring.

Almost as an afterthought, I wrote to many of the potters, whose claywork I would be showing, and invited them to write a few paragraphs about what it is that they are trying to say with their work, and what pots and people have been influential to them in their development. I received a dozen replies. These were posted at the show, effectively showing another generation of influences and acknowledgment — a happy reinforcement of my belief that we are a lucky bunch to work in a field which is as open and generous as it is.

(The Goshen College exhibition was entitled, Influences, Development and Mystery: 20 years with Clay.)

This article is reprinted from the 1999 Issue 24 of Ceramics: Technical. Pty Ltd, 35 William Street, Paddington, NSW 2120 Australia,

© Dick Lehman, 1999. All rights reserved.