Sometimes it is good to feel stupid—but only sometimes. A few things have been happening recently that have made me feel particularly stupid. The first is that I’ve become a father of a daughter, but since that’s really not what this magazine is about, I won’t enumerate the many ways I’ve come to know myself as a well-meaning bumbling idiot. The other is that I’ve been firing a lot of work made by other people, which is teaching me that I’m not such hot stuff. Here’s why:
We’ve been recording a lot of DVD footage recently for the Ceramic Arts Daily Presents DVD series, and that means a lot of great ceramic talent has been coming through town demonstrating techniques, making work, and making friends. For several of these projects, I’ve been firing the work that was made so we can show the finished pieces on the DVD, and while I seem to have worked out a now-almost-unconscious firing cycle that is just perfect for the thickness of the ware I make and the density of the stack, I’ve had to pay a bit more attention since I’ve been firing the work of other people in my kiln. (This may or may not have anything to do with the way I also seem to be able to maneuver half consciously through my day due to the nighttime habits of our daughter). I’m sure it’s nothing like the job of a kiln tech at a school with a large ceramics program in terms of variations in form, thickness, scale, and fragility of some pieces, not to mention sheer volume of pieces, but in some ways it’s a bit more complicated, because everyone has their own clay, slightly different firing temperatures, and each batch of work has a different tolerance for physical stress. Even the shift between a cone 04 bisque and a cone 04 glaze firing (not to mention the shift between laughing and screaming in a matter of seconds) has required me to stop and think more specifically about what I’m doing and how everything might affect the results. I have been reminded that I had only figured things out for me, my work, my clay, my glazes, and I’ve actually found it interesting to feel stupid (maybe ignorant is a better word?) about something I thought I had mastered a long time ago.
This has also made me re-assess other blind routines I’ve developed for many other studio tasks in addition to firing. I think we all do it, perhaps out of the need for reliability or a necessary component of time management in order to have a life outside the studio (or to just have one minute of peace and quiet, damn it). But for some things—like the way I make test tiles on the wheel, which takes forever and reminds me every time I do it that I meant to find a better method after the last time I threw test tiles—I really don’t have a better reason than, “That’s the way I’ve always done it.” And I know how unacceptable a reason this is—it’s a non-reason, really. It means, “I don’t want to think about it enough to find a better way.” That can be infuriating if you’re asking someone else for a reason (particularly a three month old who has no concept of your frustration—let alone the ability to communicate complex thought) or even if you’re asking yourself. Routines can be tools of self-preservation in the studio, but it’s important to shake them up sometimes as it forces you to apply your knowledge and problem solving skills in a different way. It’s a stimulating challenge, but perhaps I’ll keep it to one at a time. Right now, re-examining firing schedules is enough. Revamping the way I make test tiles will have to wait (there is a mountain of baby clothes to wash and too many diapers to change).