Sunday, January 19, 2014

ideas and stories of tradition: are they worth it and how do we escape them?

In my college clay program we were given a lot of anecdotes and lessons about Asian ceramic traditions.  Some of them, perhaps a lot of them, bordered on legend: the origin of copper red glazes, the strictness of Japanese apprenticeships, clay being dug in pottery villages for use two generations in the future, etc.  These stories loomed large in my psyche and not only set the bar for performance and discipline very high, but also served to discredit a lot of my successes.  I felt as though my own innovations, concepts, and ultimately my pots didn't live up to the myths of the master potter gods that existed centuries ago in an austere heaven of tatami mat tea rooms and austere transcendence.  Now once again, a decade later, I'm grappling with ideas of tradition, acceptance, and artistic validation.

These stories are not true and do not represent true tradition, but they are persistent and have lasting effects that are possibly more damaging than inspiring.  I think they are like religious myths that lead whole populations to fail to recognize their own spiritual capabilities and to imagine that spiritual drama is something that happens in far off places thousands of years in the past.  To mythologize may be chalked up to be a tendency of human nature, but I believe that the quicker we can rid ourselves of these illusions about our past the sooner we may lift ourselves out of creative and spiritual stagnation.  

Besides the far off myths of Asian tradition that were passed down through the academic setting in college,  I come from a town with a rich but somewhat forgotten ceramic history.  My great-great grandfather was, in fact, a jug-maker here on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in the late 1800's.  The beaches north of Fairhope and the local museums are full of old pots, kiln sites, and shards of a time not so long ago when a potter had a place in the community that did not have to be imagined or justified by an artist's will.  Today, a potters role in the community is not so clear cut.  We can buy cheap tableware, storage containers, and even decorative ceramics almost everywhere, so what does that leave for the potter to provide? For me,  the biggest thing a potter provides isn't the pots at all.  The biggest thing a potter can provide is a way to get back in touch with one's connection to the earth and to a working community.  This is done for me through long wood-firings at my kiln.  From my perspective, the work done through the firing process is the validation for the final products, which can be seen as wasteful ornaments in many ways.  However, the pot is persistent, stays around for a few million years, and definitely commands our attention and shapes our perception of tradition. 

I'll probably be sorting all this stuff out for the rest of my life.

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