As with all creative endeavors, there are times when one reaches a plateau—or valley—or at least some kind of less-than-summit experience that makes it feel like we are making no progress. This often occurs after an exciting period of productivity or discovery, when it seems nothing can stop us. These flat, low times can seem to drag on for longer than those more exciting peak times, but they are necessary (some may even say essential) to creative progress. This doesn’t necessarily lift my spirits when I’m in the middle of mixing what seem like way too many glaze tests, but I do try to tell myself that those surprising revelations that seem to spring forth from nowhere in particular and set me on top of the world actually are a direct result of having picked my way through those valleys or trudged across a seemingly endless plateau of glaze tests.
Some of this is training, like testing glazes or refining skills or throwing exercises, which often require mindful (not mindless) repetition. Some of it is explorations in subtlety, when you realize that “good enough” is just simply not good enough. This is when you start developing an individual voice, researching and discovering what you yourself actually have to say through your work. And then there is the most difficult stage of all, which is to bring that voice into reality, and that is just hard work that requires a tenacity and dedication few of us have.
This is the reality of creative work, not some lightning bolt of inspiration or a gift from the “artistic muse,” which no one seems quite able to define or summon at the desired time, but hard work in mastering materials, consistent effort in clarifying a vision, and curiosity in looking for that next surprise (trusting that it is around the next bend, even though we can see no actual proof of it).
If you look closely at this year’s Emerging Artists, you’ll see the creative successes first, and even though the artists themselves intend this, I challenge you to look further than that and look for the hard work. Imagine how many glaze tests were required to get just the right balance of colors. Think about how many pieces didn’t work out—warped or cracked in the drying or firing, dripped or stuck to the kiln shelf, perfectly glazed only to be ruined by a falling kiln shelf. These folks have had so many failures and struggles and trials—really no different from any of us. We all have these struggles in common, and it is helpful to see proof that the work and the struggle is worthwhile. If you are on a plateau or in a valley, notice that there are those on the peaks who have traveled in your very footsteps, proving that your own struggle is not wasted but promises reward in the form of creative fulfillment—perhaps only in the form of a mug whose handle fits or does not fall off, perhaps in the realization of a vision made real. Also notice that there are those below you, still climbing, perhaps not even quite sure of their legs yet. Guess what you are to them? That’s right, an example of success—maybe even a source of inspiration. This is a good thing, a humbling thing, and it reminds us of how far we’ve come. Keep climbing.