Learning to Live with Loss (in Ceramics)

The sign that you have arrived as a true ceramist is that when a piece goes wrong, you don't think twice about throwing it in the trash. Yes, sometimes items can be repaired. In fact occasionally with a re-fire you will get something far more interesting that you originally imagined. But usually it is faster to make a new piece (and improve your skills in the process) than to try to repair one that has gone bad.

Experienced potters know that clay and glaze are unpredictable. That's why test tiles are so important. That's why they never use a new glaze on a great form, especially a piece that took them a while to make. That's why they take notes, in order to make the results as predictable as possible. But still, they throw away work.

Yes, it is frustrating when a piece you worked on for a long time breaks on the way to the kiln, or the glaze turns out hideous. But the sooner you learn to look forward to the next piece rather than back, the sooner your skills will improve so most of your pieces will be great!

In a photography class many years ago, the instructor said that a photographer takes hundreds of photos to get one that is really good. Having just assumed they had a skill that made every photo great, that was an eye-opener. Have you ever looked through a photo album full of really lousy photos? Why do people keep them? Frankly we wish we had thrown out more pottery. And we threw out a lot! But some really bad pieces are still out there, taunting us when we open the cupboards at friends' houses.

Most potters for the first several years end up making very little work that is worth keeping. Hand built pieces seem to have the best potential to be keepers early on. But wheel work takes a while, lots of practice and repitition. That is why the fastest way to learn is not to keep pieces at all, but to throw, cut them up for analysis, re-wedge and throw again. We've have heard things like "when you've thrown a ton of clay, then you are not a beginner." And that seems about right.

Not everyone is cut out for working in clay, and this is one of the reasons. Not everyone can deal with throwing away a whole kiln load of work. Or having their favorite pieces ruined. When a painter paints on canvas, they know exactly what a piece will look like when it is finished. But when they paint on clay they don't know exactly what color a glaze will turn out, whether the clay will crack or warp, whether the glaze will craze or peel. (Well, the good ones test, and learn their materials and equipment so they have a pretty good idea.) But in ceramics there is always that element of chance and risk. But on the flip side, few things compare to the excitement of opening the kiln after a glaze firing!

It is not possible to become a ceramic artist without losing pieces. And it is probably not possible to become a great ceramic artist without losing a lot of pieces. So try to focus more on process than on product. If you focus on process, the great product will come. Practice, practice, practice. Test, test, test. And learn from every mistake you make. Take notes, write down what works and what doesn't. Read books to understand your materials and why they react in certain ways. This is the difference between someone who dabbles, and a true craftsperson (in the honorable, traditional sense of the word). It's not whether you sell X amount of work. But rather, how you approach the work.

Finally, when the time comes to toss that piece you really wanted to turn out, remember that it is only a piece of clay.

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