As I indicated in the first blog on this topic, I seek to explore the rewards and difficulties of long life and old age. A few of you might question what does this have to do with pottery and ceramics? I would claim that the fundamental issues of the human life cycle have profound impact on human culture and creativity. One fundamental question – is the aging process inherently friendly to the process of creativity and to those individuals who craft artifacts? One might make the case that there is an accelerated learning curve in youth, continuing into middle age for the craftsperson. But does that learning falter or lessen as one’s sheer physical energy slowly diminishes? Or are there compensating qualities from come from long experience and increased mastery that more than make up for the limitations of advanced age for those involved in creative activities?
All this discussion of old age is building up to a confession. I just purchased a big pot. I mean a really big pot. Why am I at age 76 spending thousands of dollars to buy a big, beautiful pot? Shouldn’t I be at a time when I should be planning to dispose of my pottery rather than adding to it? It was shipped all the way from England in a wooden crate. The driver had to use a forklift to move the box from the truck to the interior of my garage. It took my son and a friend almost a half hour to unscrew and remove the top and side of the box and then unpack another smaller box inside to finally reach the packed pot. Gareth Mason is the British ceramic artist who created the pot. I first saw the pot at a ceramic exhibit at the Royal College of Arts in London. Gareth is one of the finest ceramic artists in Britain and has a well-deserved international reputation. He is also a friend and a very decent chap to boot. His work is stunning and quite dramatic. Look him up on his website and take a look. His pot is now safely installed in my pottery gallery. I kid my friends and family by declaring that I am now going to have to charge an admission fee to enter my pottery gallery in order to recoup some of my funds spent on the pot.
That brings me to another question? Do old people have the right to claim a future? The projected length of that future might have to be considered in moderate extensions of time. It could start with having a cause or reason to look forward to tomorrow. After that, as I scan the calendar book we keep in the pottery gallery, I can spot the concert or play we are going to attend next week or next month and feel the pleasure of anticipation. We plan our trips well into the next year. Should old people be allowed only one month/ one page of the calendar at a time so we do not disillusion ourselves with an unrealistic timeline and false hopes? Is it wrong for us to have dreams and hopes beyond the immediate presence? Is it especially silly for old people to do so? But isn’t that what creative people do? Don’t potters project their imagination beyond the givens of what already exists and into realms of fantastic visions of their future work? The great danger when old people do the same thing is that this behavior can be judged as a symptom of old age rather than the innovation of a creative personality. Sometimes I worry that my life long eccentricity will one day become defined as senility.
I want to recommend a book about an old, remarkable woman to you. I don’t want you to think that I am so self-indulgent and self-absorbed in wasting your time talking about my old age that I cannot look beyond myself. The British author Diana Athill is a best selling writer of memoirs and is still going strong at 91. A few weeks ago I finished her book, “Somewhere Towards the End”. She had a distinguished career as a brilliant editor, working with some of the finest literary figures of her time. She fits my qualifications for a positive old age, to give up formal power in the world, to relinquish the authority that defined your reputation and resume, yet to end up with a respected and deep wisdom. This wisdom enhanced not only her but also the prospects of attaining wisdom for those who knew her or know about her. Old people like her inspire in others the possibilities and hopes to achieve a unique grace and self-created peace with the world that can never attain full reconciliation and resolution of all life issues but allows one to live with incompleteness and uncertainty as essential elements of that hard-earned wisdom.
Earning a Sense of Humor
All this sounds quite grand but the one trait I admire the most in old age is the retention of a sense of humor. It is not an impressive achievement if one has not earned it. One does not earn it through a succession of happy times and easy living. No, it is the great life disappointments and tragic disasters through which one earns this particular attribute. Humor is most appreciated and its presence most praiseworthy when it has been tested and survived the most difficult events of a lifetime. A sense of proportion and informed sensitivity regarding the nonsensical absurdity and yet possible nobility of our self-conscious species forms the character and shape of a sense of humor. One does not need the promise of happiness to have it. If you don’t have it as an embedded trait evident early in life, I think it is a very difficult thing to develop later on. You most appreciate its presence in dire circumstances when there seems no immediate reason for it to exist. I think humor comprises the courage of old age.
I would like to share another quote from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” in which I further explore my attitude regarding old age.
“I do not dwell on my age. I ask no edge in any voluntary forgiveness that might reduce standards for my performance. I expect no golfer’s handicap or early start. While I enjoy the generosity of others, I do not seek allowances or compensation for my long life. I do not think I require any affirmative action to comply with those standards of excellence and principle that have always guided my behavior. I do not need generous excuses or special dispensation. I hope to remain as stimulating and provocative as in earlier years, the sting of my critique and independent views not dulled over time. I wish only that the kindness of others corresponded with the effort made, given my natural limitations, and recognizing that the aging process is an active agent that does not seek my prior approval. I might look fragile but I do not feel fragile. I am not sure what I will do when appearance and condition are in agreement and confirmed. In the meantime, to be taken seriously is a most satisfying pleasure. Old people need to feel dangerous.”
Past and Present
One ongoing anxiety of old people is their fear of becoming obsolete. My grandchildren do not understand my references or citations that come from my childhood past. They apparently are not familiar with Bette Davis or Perry Como or Rita Hayworth. They do not view Hopalong Cassidy, Ed Sullivan or Flash Gordon on their television screens. They don’t seem to remember World War II or recall where they were when President Kennedy was shot. As we grow older, those things that date us become more apparent to others. Do potters face the same challenge? Do the ceramic references of your youth still challenge the young apprentice potters coming up? Do they still read Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” nowadays? Do students still bother with Marguerite Wildenhain or does everything start now with Peter Voulkos? What is this idea of obsolescence anyway? Does it make sense? Candles are still being used for charming effect at dinnertime even though we have had electric lights for over a century. Can people or pots ever become truly obsolete? Are ceramic containers obsolete because we now have plastic Tupperware?
Old people are living links to the past. We need to examine what we want to salvage and retain from the past and what is disposable. If the past is not valued in a society, it is highly probable that old people will not be valued either. Those who wish to be ‘modern’ in every regard and deny the past any role in art and craft today have treated traditions in art and craft unkindly. Are the legacies of past civilization only there to be overthrown? As a potter and ceramic artist, do you want to be known only for what is new and modern in your work? Are you embarrassed by any residue of the past in your work? Do I value what is old because I am old? Please help me make an argument for the seamless continuity of the past, present and future. Each epoch has gifts to pass on to the next era and generation. Please consider these two blogs as well-intentioned advice from an old man who values both the old and new in equal proportion. I have to leave you now. I want to spend some time with my pottery.