It does not matter if we are artists or those people like me who appreciate art – the greatest act of creation for all of us is the life-long attempt to create ourselves. I have always been self-conscious of this act of self-creation that comprises the essential challenge of our existence. Eccentricity and originality are highly valued in art but are often less appreciated when evident in people. I have always been willing to give up an easy respectability and acceptance for the risk of placing myself in jeopardy in attempting new experiences and daring to grow beyond my origins. Each of us is ultimately our own work of art. I want to assure you I am entirely harmless, even at times charming, in my quaint uniqueness. But being different is not an affectation or an attention-getting device for me, it requires no effort at all on my part. At some point long ago in my mid-life, I finally decided to accept myself and realized that those aspects of my personhood that made me different were really virtues and not defects after all. I have loved me ever since.
I decided that my task was to make my life a work of art and to create an immediate environment to support this effort. This might sound pretentious and somehow immodest. I have many limitations and am as fallible and incomplete as any other human being. I will modify the previous statement and try to sound less grand. I sought to devote myself to crafting a life as one would craft a beautiful ceramic teapot or magnificent jug. I would try to focus all of my energy and talent in making a life that would model my beliefs and be congruent with my visions of what really mattered. My life has been full of absurdities and mistaken ventures but I have forgiven myself in the same spirit that I would assert that the very virtues of art and craft lies within their flaws and imperfections. The great triumph of the handcrafted artifact lies in its highly developed and supremely sensitive imperfections. Machine made artifacts can achieve a surface perfection but always at the cost of any intrinsic significance and meaning.
All of our lives are handcrafted, with both pain and joy the result. I do not seek something called total happiness as a final state. We know that life does not work that way. We learn as much or more from the tragic dimensions of life as those moments of simple joy. Great art escapes from being merely entertainment because it challenges us, dares us to look at the sublime mysteries of our mortal state. I think, on occasion, ceramic art can lead us to the same kind of profound insights we can find in literature and elsewhere. Our humanity is best expressed when we can value those imperfections evident in others and ourselves. My wonderful Golden Retriever, Morris (yes, named after my mentor and hero, William Morris), who I obtained as an old dog from a rescue agency, had been abused by a previous owner. He still has a scar on his upper leg from some kind of mistreatment. He is truly a loving and sweet animal. Who would want a perfect animal when you could have Morris?
I also like rescuing chipped and cracked pottery. I often bid for marvelous antique pottery on eBay that are in less than perfect condition. They are often rather rare and precious pieces I could not otherwise afford. Purists and those only interested in pottery, as a financial investment will not bid on these items. These damaged pieces have lost much of their monetary value but they retain my own affection and respect. I place the chip or crack to the wall and fully enjoy the ceramic glories of the piece. I find most people are in the same imperfect condition, so forgiveness becomes the most important active element in extended relationships. Those of us who are married can testify to that.
There is one writer, a German Romantic poet of the last century, Rainer Maria Rilke, who greatly influenced my decision to use the literary form of letter writing as my way of expressing myself as a writer. He wrote a famous little book, “Letters to a Young Poet” in which he, as a very well known and accomplished writer, wrote letters to a young struggling poet. In my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I quoted a passage in which Rilke offered some profound advice to the novice poet. It very much fits in with my thoughts in this blog. Here it is,
“You are so young, you stand before beginnings. I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day. Perhaps you are indeed carrying within yourself the potential to visualize, to design, and to create yourself an utterly satisfying, joyful, and pure lifestyle. Discipline yourself to attain it, but accept that which comes to you with deep trust, and as long as it comes from you own will, from your own inner need, accept it, and do not hate anything.
So for the potters out there, what I am trying to say is that I have tried to do with my life what you try to do with clay at your potter’s wheel. You could be rude and retort that something must have happened to me in the kiln. You might reply to me that what I have tried to do is what all people try to do – to make a life for themselves. I suspect that too many people are so busy trying to make a living that they don’t always have the time and energy to try to make a life. They are not the same thing. Craftspeople have to discipline themselves – to observe the shapes and colors of nature, to explore and shape the possibilities of clay, to achieve a unique vision that takes shape on the wheel. They must be alive and wide-awake in the world to absorb and learn from what each day can bring them. It is that intensity of commitment and effort that finally brings the rewards of insight and wisdom. Life is all about the getting of wisdom. Life itself should be lived with the same passion and devotion as you apply to your craft and art.
You might not know it but you are performing your art each waking moment. You are performing in the world, impacting those around you, making a statement by your very behavior. Can we perform with grace and humor, modeling our behavior on those values we believe and cherish? As Shakespeare noted a few centuries ago, all the world is a state and we are the actors on that stage. Do we save all our energy for that special performance at the wheel and just endure the rest? Can we make what we do at the wheel and what we do the rest of the time one integrated work of art? Can we be of one piece – whole and consistent in living out that harmony and beauty we so earnestly seek at the wheel? Can we live the questions themselves and find the solutions in our daily experiences? The task, my dear friends, is to design and create yourself at the same time you are creating your ceramic artifacts – and be able to look at both your pottery and your life with a critical but loving eye.