I’ve been reading Tim Winton’s latest collection of short stories, ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’, and apart from the odd paper cut, the life of a novelist appears to be a relatively safe one. However, for Winton, growing up the son of a cop, life has been shaped by havoc and uncertainty. Safety, he says, is a great gift ‘but to be afraid is to be awake’. And while these days he doesn’t go looking for trouble, he feels that he and his father’s careers have depended on accidents and risk, ‘…without strife the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with.’
We can play it safe and write stories or make pots each year by pulling out the same old tricks, but if we want to grow as artists, confronting a certain amount of ‘strife’ and uncertainty in the studio is required.
Last week on the blog I was sharing Dr. Brene Brown’s thoughts on the subject. Brene Brown has spent a large part of her career studying courage, and for her, an artist’s failure to embrace uncertainty and vulnerability is death for creativity.
In other words, artists need to get a little shit scared!
And today is the BIG reveal. Let me introduce Hillary Kane, woodfiring potter, Director of Gaya Ceramic and Arts Centre, and fortunately for us – our workshop/retreat host. Together we’re going to make some BIG POTS in 2017, and today we’re chatting about our juicy BIG retreat, the power of play, and the benefits of embracing uncertainty.
Feeling nervous? Then this one’s for you.
Claire Atkins: Thanks for joining me here again in the cyber studio Hillary!
Firstly, I’m hugely excited about the workshop in 2017, and it’s inspired me to think and write about how our ideas evolve and how we grow as artists. Recently, I was sharing about Shaun Tan’s thoughts on creative process, and he says it’s important for artists to keep their creative soil well fertilised and tilled. I know that horticultural imagery resonates with you, how do you keep your artist well watered and happy?
Hillary Kane: I find it amazing how little time I take to just play in clay—and yet this is the advice I would give to absolutely every artist as the ‘fertiliser’ (organic of course) for their flowers of creativity.
By Play, I mean setting aside a good chunk of hours to work with clay—throwing, hand building, mushing and mashing—with absolutely no intention: no product in mind, no judgement of what arises—even if that is nothing beyond the tactile fertility offer by the medium itself. In some ways play requires a sort of discipline—because we are all so programmed to aim toward a result and to understand productivity as something that results in a product. I look back and recall the best moments of breakthrough—the greatest fruits of creativity that I kept pursuing for years and years afterward—came out of those few pleasurable moments of real true clay play.
HK: Again, this is something we are all rather too conditioned to—and that’s why it rings everyone’s bell. For me it is this Samsaric reminder—that at moments, all those things I thought I had outgrown (like being afraid to try a new form, or go bigger, or venture in a totally new direction), come right ‘round to haunt me again.
From the outset, I think we need to remember that the very act of creating means bringing forth something completely and totally new—and that that at its very essence, means diving off into the unknown. Thus, fear is intimately tied to this free fall. Perhaps it is time to turn the feeling of fear into that of exhilaration. The ‘unbearable lightness of being’ embodied within the heaviness of an inert ball of damp earth.
One simple activity I employ to get myself out of the mind frenzy and back into the medium is to very simply throw—one single 1lb. ball of clay after the next, after the next. Same uncomplicated form over and over—a bowl or a cup— until the rhythm of muscle memory takes over and the racing thoughts relax a notch. Set those humble vessels all out on a ware board, and then mush them all up– or wire each off the wheel and throw it directly into your reclaim bin—or at the wall.
The bottom line is to not think about clay, rather to get your hands in it. Then all the tactile magic of the medium will work on re-grounding all the performance anxieties and you’ll realise the reason you got yourself into this practice in first place (and in the last place): because it just plain feels good.
HK: Absolutely. And clay embodies everything that engenders vulnerability in an artist: it cracks, it warps, it dries too fast, it doesn’t stick together, it has a memory of what it was before you came around, it reacts to the weather, it reacts to your emotional stability, it reflects you, it demands of you, and then…. it has to be fired.
Without question, firing is the absolute when it comes to letting go and accepting vulnerability as your stance in life–especially when you happen to be as addicted to anagama firing as I am. Spend months toiling on a body of work that reaches many hundreds in numbers, another three days balancing with exquisite care each of those pieces in a patchwork puzzle within the kiln—and then introduce all the eggs in the nest to the most voracious, ferocious, and consuming fiery blaze before daring to peer once again in at them—this is vulnerability.
Every anagama firing, at some point, brings me to my knees. I have realised that that is precisely why I keep coming back for more. It’s not masochism—it’s the comfort of being humbled again and again. To know that the learning has really just begun–my life’s work is still before me–and that in that space of uncertainty and unknowing, can arise the most profound and authentic talisman of who I am as an artist.
HK: Tactility, grounding, fire, humility—about in that order too. I do still consider myself a painter—as well as one who gets her hands into everything from Batik to architectural design—but even my paintings have moved toward my clay practice, as I now employ a raw paper-clay ‘primer’ thickly onto my canvases, and then enjoy watching the craquelé surface naturally appear as the clay component dries and shrinks. I guess there is something about Time and timing, spontaneity, as well as the touch-ability of clay that I can’t get enough of.
CA: Now, tell me about Birthing Big Pots! How will we spend our days?
This is a very special workshop in that I am viewing it as more of a retreat—and by that I mean an experience that goes well beyond working with clay in the studio. Many of the workshops that I am instructing, I do try to engage the participants to think wider and deeper into their intentions than just the skill-building and technical aspects of the experience—but for Birthing Big Pots, that focus will be all the more apparent. We will be digging deep—introspecting individually and as a group—plying the metaphor of creating a vessel and all that that creative journey implies. Via daily led-meditations, yoga, journaling, discussions, speaking circles, and the like, we will look way outside and way inside our studio practice to the essence of what it means to be creative, to harness the daring for creativity, to bring something to life. Get ready for some amazing transformation, ladies: this is going to ask a lot of you and give you so much in return! (Plus some enormous pots to bring back in your hand luggage☺)
CA: In many cultures, making pots is men’s business, and in the Australian ceramics community making big pots is often associated with big blokes! Neither of us are particularly physically big, how are we going to do that? Do you need to be physically strong to make big pots?
HK: The nexus of this workshop came from a long-contemplated idea that it would be a really amazing experience to explore the fallacy of the Only Big Men Make Big Pots mentality. In the ceramic world—art world—world, there are of course so many instances of masculine, ego-driven dominance and centre stage.
Sure, physical size and weight can be of assistance when throwing around a huge mass of incredibly heavy, water-laden earth—but so can technique. And that’s the point. There can be many approaches to solving any problem or intention out there—solutions beneficial for everyone—not just women. But in this workshop, I hope to share several of those techniques that will enable women of any stature (and even any level of ceramic experience) to approach making vessels as big as they might dream.
Perhaps it is not incidental that a real pivotal moment in my life—one that turned me toward clay as an essential ingredient to live by– was when I watched a tiny, old woman, as ancient and wrinkled as time itself, in the remote north of Cameroon, patiently, simply pinching an enormous water jar—no tools, no wheels, no awareness of any limitation.
HK: This is not about exclusivity—rather empowerment. Let’s just say that sometimes empowerment comes from removing a variable (this time being that of gender), creating a safe space in which to explore, nurturing a sense of belonging. An all-women’s group encourages each woman to be able to be herself supported by a circle of sisters, hopefully finding deep strength there to carry forth back into the world of men. These gatherings are so important to initiate.
HK: Although I am very deliberately not going to limit this workshop to only those who already have decent throwing skills, it may be beneficial to have sat at a wheel before. However, that said, you could come at this completely green and still potentially gain heaps technically, emotionally, transformatively…
…Ahhhh. Dear reader, are you inspired muchly? I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be shit scared with than Hillary Kane!
Are you in? You a bit shit scared? Let’s dare greatly, and suck the marrow out of this old life together.
Hit the link here for workshop details, accommodation and exclusive Early Bird rates when you book through me to create BIG POT MAGIC in Bali in 2017!
xClaire aka Pinky & Maurice