One of the things that I was most excited for prior to coming to Taiwan was the cut throat, “not good enough”, monk-type, slightly masochistic training that I was going to endure on my road to masterhood.
In preparation, I kept an Youtube video cued up on my phone of an interview with the teacher I was originally going to study with...for nearly a year (I’m all about that visualization training). There was a line in the interview where he says he smashes around 90% of the works that comes out of his kiln with a grin. I would grin as well.
Afterall, I have plenty of experience throwing works away.
For every 10 pieces I throw on the wheel I would (in the process of getting a work completed) throw away 9. Something seemed to always happen in the process of making that would result in my assured dissatisfaction with the piece. Even though others would tell me that it’s perfect, I was only ever sure that there were better things to come, better works to be made.
Over the years I had haphazardly promised a lot of people a lot of different pieces, “Sure I’ll make you a **fill in the blank**.” But because of my habit for tossing works in the recycling bin (clay is recyclable), rarely any of these promised works have been realized.
This is ultimately a lose, lose, lose situation: I would never see the works finalized, I would question my capabilities as a maker because I never saw any works finalized, I thought others doubted my capabilities as a maker because they also never saw any works finalized, I would stress about making even more perfect works just to prove myself as a maker.
All this is to say that I am very humbled by the fact that I did not end up studying with the teacher that I had idolized for the past year. The crutch that came with throwing away works is just that - a crutch. In fact the constant search for perfection is disrespectful to your work, your time, and reflects overall poor skills. My teacher said, “你有沒有辦法救一個做品回來那才是真正的功夫.” (“Your ability to save a work is what reflects your actual skills.”) If you understood the importance of the thing at hand, you should know that it is precious. And if you truly understand the meaning of preciousness, you should not so callously throw away your works.
The beauty in this train of thought is that you actually remove the stress of achieving some form of ideal. You begin to make not because you the maker can make anything “perfect”, but because the time and energy you spend with a work is inherently of value. That in and of itself is enough to validate the outcome.
Thinking back to the interview, in light of my recently learned understanding of the wood-firing process, it is not impressive that a man would so happily admit that his works yield such low returns. In the naturally low-yield process of firing an anagama kiln to a high-temperature with heavy reduction to not produce “failed” works is nearly impossible. In any given kiln, a return of 50% would be something close to a miracle. There’s a lot of sweat, money, and time that goes into coaxing the kiln god. But this is where your skills are tested, the ability to see works come out of the kiln “perfect” requires profound patience and long-term planning. If you are able to account for the day that you open the kiln while you are mixing the clay 6 months prior to the firing, you are doing it right. So, when you are pleased that so much material and time went into achieving your version of an ideal (and really when you self-sabotage good works to keep your product price point at an illusionary amount), you may very well miss the lesson that ceramics teach you.
It’s been a little over two months since I arrived on the mountains on Taiwan. While I still sometimes (constantly) stress about things, making works is not one of them. I’ve learned/relearned that making is fun mixed with the sanctity of deep history - it is not so much about masterhood but preservation. I make things because it is a natural extension of my life, and as such it keeps me grounded.
PSA - I know it’s casual to ask your ceramicist/potter friends for work, “Hey, make me a tea set. Cool, thanks”. But what you don’t understand is this is similar to asking an engineering friend, “Hey, can you work for a full week and then give me your salary. Cool, thanks”. Sure, wheel throwing videos look easy and effortless, but that is just one phase of getting the works from us to you. And to make wheel throwing look effortless takes a good chunk of time. Not to mention that wood fired works can take up to 3-6 months from start to finish to see works completed.
At some point when the ceramicist/potter has enough stock to actually just gift things away, they most likely naturally would start just giving people things. This PSA is not to say that you should never ask for works. Rather please know that if you do so without knowing roughly just how much work the is put into one cup it comes off as ignorant and possibly quite rude.