From the July/August 1997 issue of Clay Times
The labyrinth path to developing one's own style begins after some throwing and/or handbuilding skills have been conquered. My students and I have used the process explained below as a tool to figure out what we want our clay work to become.
To embark on this intricate pursuit of developing a style is to make a list of all the images from nature, machines, artists, buildings etc. that have resonated within you repeatedly and deeply. Are these images macro or micro nature views, political narrative images or minimalist functional pots? Are they tribal art or modern work? Start to collect and analyze your images. When you have more than enough, narrow them down to a dozen or less.
Look over your core group of images and review them repeatedly. Add drawings or variations. Post them in your work area or make a booklet. Consider having at least one-third of your chosen images from outside the world of ceramics. Broaden your sources.
Knowing now what specifically moves you, start to analyze your images.
Where do you place your visual preferences along a continuum between these opposites?
Go to your studio (this is almost always good advice and we could end here!) and make small, quick models in clay. Fast sketches in clay reflect ideas and possibilities. They are not carefully finished pieces and could almost be limited to two dimensions rather than having the complexity of three dimensions. Work, play and work some more. Don't worry about keeping everything, and especially don't dwell on models you don't like. This is idea collection and proliferation time, not evaluation time.
Look at your core images. Make a list of ten subtle ways you might change your work...Is it shape, details of handles or feet? Is it content, attachments, edges, or glaze surface? Focus on one small area and assume the attitude of giving yourself a course for two or three months in that one area. It is helpful to look at everything in the world around you with an artist's eye (trees, cars, food), while being open to discovering ideas that will relate to your particular focus.
Now to announce the most challenging part. Sustaining change! You thought you had read about the difficulties already with the work of collecting core images and developing the details of your own work. The hard part is that it takes a long time, in my experience, to develop and/or change my work. If I get an interesting idea, it takes between six months to a year for me to resolve it into something cohesive. This means that during aesthetic transition one needs: (1) massive blow-torch stamina and self-confidence and (2) charming, effusive friends who are vastly complimentary and understand the strong aesthetic future you have. I can't say I've met many artists who have both of these characteristics in rolling abundance. The endurance to keep working when the clay pieces don't look quite right has crucial positive consequences. Also of profound importance during transition periods is to love working with clay first as a process and secondarily as a product. Read that last sentence again.
This next step can be exhilarating and an opportunity to use colorful and exaggerated descriptive language. Imagine your work five to ten years from now. Assume you have resolved small and huge technical and form issues and your work is mature, solid and well-received. It is looked upon with great favor by the most significant person: you. Pause to contemplate. Prepare to write a few brilliant short sentences to four long paragraphs. Write about your work in the third person, i.e., "She makes bold architectural statements with minimalist shapes and barely textured surfaces" or perhaps, "He makes intricate multiple-part ceremonial vessels with luscious crusty glazes."
So you are going somewhere. Choose your path and keep working. That advice creeps in often, but don't forget it. Keep working.
Lana Wilson is a studio potter in Del Mar, California and the author of Ceramics: Shape and Surface. Her regular column on studio concerns, "Beneath the Surface, now appears in every issue of Clay Times. She may be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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