I recently went to the Columbus Zoo for the first time in a long time, and it reminded me that it’s a shame I don’t go to the zoo more often. Everything was new and different and exciting, from the aquarium to the lions to the bats to the reptiles—even the flamingos shed their cloak of kitsch and I was able to appreciate them for the amazing freaks of form and function they really are. And all of this was right here, a few miles from my own backyard, if I would just pay attention. It occurred to me then that, if I pay enough attention, it will become less amazing, more familiar, better understood, comfortable—maybe even boring (familiarity can breed boredom you know)—and I thought, “What a shame. I’ve only just rediscovered this amazing resource for learning and creative engagement with a larger world, and I’ve already found a way to be disappointed in it.” But then, emblazoned on the wall above the window looking into the pachyderm enclosure was the following quote by Baba Dioum, a well-known Senegalese conservationist and agricultural policy advocate: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” It’s a fairly obvious statement, really, but like a lot of obvious things, I hadn’t really thought about it in specific terms until I read it in someone else’s words. It made me think about the relationships between teaching, learning, and culture—and then, of course, the specific interest I have in the teaching, learning, and culture of ceramics.
There is another quote—or, more accurately, a roughly paraphrased axiom that I can’t seem to source—that goes something like, “No one likes special interests—except their own.” And my own is ceramics; it seems perfectly normal to me that ceramics has the capacity to impact lives and culture on a large scale—mainly because it has impacted my life and immediate culture on a large scale. But that’s myopic, I know. It goes back to my own direct involvement with clay as a maker, and I don’t really share the vantage point of an appreciator who may not have experience with the material. And I can’t really expect anyone outside of ceramics to value it at the level I wish they would. I mean, if someone has no actual knowledge of the subject and its potential for teaching and promoting creative thinking, then I can’t really get upset when that individual comes back at me with some trite, condescending little analogy about mud pies or how nice it must be to indulge in such a “fun” hobby (like saying the animals in the zoo really have a sweet deal). Admittedly, there is some truth to these perceptions, and they’re not necessarily all bad, but you and I know that is not the limit of clay’s potential. Now, before we get too far over the edge, let’s admit there are many issues that simply can’t be addressed through ceramics; I think most of us would rather give a hungry person food than a handmade bowl, because that’s what he or she would want, given the choice. It’s what I would choose if I were hungry—and if I’m hungry and you give me a handmade bowl I will sell it or trade it for food.
In some ways, we are, as a field, a solution looking for problems. If we can solve problems, it means we are not simply “the world’s most fascinating hobby,” as Robert Arneson so aptly observed. But in the search for those problems, we risk spiralling in on ourselves, circling around one another in a wide gray space between zealotry (where no one outside our circle will pay attention to our rants) and complacency (where no one will expect anything from our little group reinforcing our own ideas for one another). It’s comfortable here, familiar territory, where we can define our own “issues” to address. The trouble (if we want to have conversations outside of our own clique) is that our issues are exactly that—ours.
Ceramics will not cure the world of its many ills, but its the hammer I have, so I’ll go looking for nails to pound with it. When someone does not understand or appreciate ceramics, I’ll simply share what I know and what I think, and hope that it will expand their understanding just a little. Books and magazines are great for that kind of dissemination of information, but there is no substitute for looking at works in real life. And this is where galleries and museums really find an important place in our field. These institutions, whose purpose is to educate the public about ceramics, help to feed and build our next generation. They are our ceramic zoos, showing people an aspect of the world they would not otherwise be able to experience. You should pay a visit, start with the Gallery Guide.