A potter's community: Mother of innovation

A potter's community: Mother of innovation
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One of the great things about being a potter is the way that experience, tools, and tips are shared by those who love the craft. At my first lesson at the potter's wheel, I was blown away by the way my peers (who were strangers at the time) invested in sharing knowledge with the newbies. The more experienced folk were always glad to lend a hand, students modeled the behavior of their teachers, and the class became less of a "follow my lead" and more of a "discover what works" session.

Even outside the traditional studio setting, potters use online resources to share glaze and clay recipes and offer firing stories—what turned out beautifully, and what spectacular failures to avoid. Potters collaborate to create new approaches or recipes.

Potters guilds create communities of like-minded individuals who shared a passion for clay. And if you've ever taken a pottery class and participated in a Raku fire, you truly understand the community pottery experience. Students and teachers center around trash cans with flaming newspaper inside to achieve a glaze effect that can't be captured inside a traditional kiln. There are a lot of questions, a lot of admiration, and a whole lot of smoke and ash.

One of the key lessons in pottery is that understanding that the process is more important than the finished piece. The act of 'letting go' in order to advance is huge. Many pottery exercises are about creating, inspecting, collaborating, learning, destroying and then starting again. One exercise we used went a little like this:

  1. Throw the largest cylinder you can.
  2. Set it aside.
  3. Admire it.
  4. Look at everyone else's work and discuss the process used to make the pot so large.
  5. Then say goodbye to the form. Slice it open to see how well you built the sides.
  6. Share tips with others.
  7. Finally, smash it down, wedge (knead) it again and create a new and improved piece based on those interactions.

Creating pottery is a process of incremental, on-going improvement—you take what worked well for your fellow artists and what you learned from looking at your own pieces and apply it to your new work.

In another exercise, we made a candlestick out of various clay elements. Candlesticks can be formed as a single shape on the wheel, but they have more dimension and interest when they are thrown and assembled from various individual forms. Our class was to create two to three bases, then a couple of middle portions, maybe a few accent forms, then some tops to hold the actual candle. When I assembled my candlestick out of my thrown pieces, it was reflective of my throwing style and sole artistic vision; it was truly mine.

Next we brought all of our individual elements to the community working table. Each of us took turns assembling a design from the entire inventory of work; a collaborative effort using individual pieces from different artists. We could then talk about how one person's round middle worked well on another's tall base, and why that round top balanced out the lines on the rest of the form. It was engaging and insightful and a true reflection of community-based effort. It brings different ideas together to create something different or better than what we'd accomplish alone and the resulting candlesticks were not just 'mine' or 'yours', but 'ours'.

My 'community' candlestick had a foundation created by me, but used someone else's work to make it complete. The design is different from my original idea—better, even--and uniquely captures the spirit of the exercise: collaboration leading to innovation. The finished product is something I never could have created on my own. Discovery, innovation, and improvement: This is why potters (and people) collaborate.

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