The other night I went with a friend to hear a (relatively) well-known potter talk about her work. She was exceptionally articulate about her process and vision and the small audience was very receptive.
Pottery/ceramics is one of the oldest art forms and the kiln is the tool of alchemical transformation changing what was once malleable earth into something solid and lasting. But I am not a big fan of some of the modern ceramic designs in which, to my mind, the spiritual and the beautiful has been replaced with gravity-defying cleverness or Dali-esque images.
This potter’s art pieces are massive and earthy; they are noted for their size/volume/weight and intricacy of design. There are tubes, ‘worms’, extrusions, pots, balls, gourd shapes, etc. all piled, organically twisted and turned within each other and bound in one large ceramic hill. I am tempted to say that everything is included but the kitchen sink but there were some glimpses of that too. Stop! That’s enough!
At one point she said she found the medium of painting too limiting and how she feels forced to crash through barriers. After watching a lot of slides and hearing her presentation I felt her enthusiasm and passion for what she did – and I could see flashes of interest or beauty in some of the pieces – but they were still too ‘extravagant’ for me. I felt a super abundance, a feeding frenzy of ceramic creation that left me feeling stuffed and uneasy. There was too much of everything.
During the question period I asked her “if there was a problem in knowing when to stop.” How did she know when a piece was done? This is a question I face all the time. She held out an imaginary glass and said with great authority that just as she knew when the glass was full of water, she knew when a ‘sculpture’ was done.
I must admit I felt a little foolish in the face of her certainty and confidence. Later in the evening I thought to myself, she must know what she is talking about – after all, she is very well-known and successful. I poked around the edges of the question. Was my ego smarting because her answer implied that any experienced artist knew when to stop – and that by extension because I had asked such a fundamental question I was obviously not a good artist?
Then two responses came to my attention. What is one person’s ‘just enough’ may be another person’s ‘not enough’ or ‘too much.’ And secondly, due to the nature of her art form, she could add and subtract elements of her art piece as she pleased until she found the stopping place, a point of balance.
In contrast, with ink wash art, every stroke of the brush is a final one. It cannot be changed, moved or removed. It is permanent. The most that can be done is that it can be layered by more ink. There is a great finality in ink work, a no turning back momentum. If I go a step too far in painting something, it is ruined or spoiled.
So my question to the potter was an irrelevant one for her. While she seemed driven to include as much as she could, I am driven to remove as much as I can. I find the setting of limits frees me to concentrate. By eliminating some choices my mind is not constantly weighing and judging alternatives and I can focus my energy on what is essential.
Every activity has its built-in questions. Should I add more salt? Should I round off this edge of marble? Should I cut this material on the bias? There is always a point of no return, a need to commit to a certain path, a particular focus. There is always a jumping off point into the unknown which contributes to the exhilaration of all creative activity.