(This article is my original presentation to Clay Times Magazine. It was first published there in a slightly different form.)
the role of collecting in the life cycle of a producing artist
Early in my clay career I had the good fortune to visit some well-known and established potters. Each had a significant collection of other clay-artists’ works. “Surrounding myself with the excellent work of others,” said one, “nurtures my own capacity to make good works. I’m not looking for ways to make their pieces, but to gain some insight into the spirit of excellence; to translate that insight into my own work and aesthetic.”
Unknown craftsman, 200-year-old Umanome plate/Horse-eye plate, 10-inches/25.4-cm in diameter; part of my collection of others’ works.
A well-crafted collection can function as a continuing source of inspiration and learning. Living with the exceptional works of others allows one, over time, to perceive, apprehend, ingest – digest – the hundreds of small nuances that shape the difference between merely good and exceptional. These sophisticated nuances, separated out from the work itself, become lifetime-tools that can be available to one’s own aesthetic development and studio practice.
Bill Hunt, porcelain bowl, 5-inch/12.7-cm in diameter, oxidation-fired, part of my collection of others’ works.
I’ve come to believe that the extent to which I’ve purchased exceptional works from others – invested in their careers – is the extent to which I’m investing in my own career: an enabling of my own continuing education.
Robin Hopper, squared bowl, 7-inches/17.75 cm in diameter, reduction-fired, part of my collection of others’ works.
Purchasing from others very often fosters deep new friendships. And for the duration of time that we are the caretakers of the works of others, the pieces not only teach us, but often capture and represent for us, daily, the richness of relationships shared. Collecting the works of others allows us to be curators, for one brief lifetime, of someone else’s work and legacy.
Todd Leech, douible-fired-double-vase, 16-inch/41-cm tall; glazed and twice-wood-fired, part of my collection of others’ works.
We’ve all likely heard the truth/myth of the wise potter who over the course of his/her career had enough foresight to set aside the best work from each firing. Most of us learn about this too late in our careers to duplicate such a feat. Nevertheless, whenever one begins, there is always a range of positive functions which emerge from collecting and/or documenting one’s own best works.
Dick Lehman 14-inch/36-cm tall tsubo from a 15-day firing of the Dick Lehman “Minigama”; side-fired; all-natural-ash glazing: no applied glaze; eight cords of Chinese Elm were consumed in the 15-day firing; part of my collection of my own works.
Apart from simply assembling an historic overview of one’s own career, our best work can be part of our own continuing education – a teaching tool for ourselves. If clay is your life’s work, I’ll wager that you’ll not be able to remember all the ways you’ve formed, trimmed, altered, assembled; some of the finest nuances will be lost to memory. A collection of pieces or images can be a nudge to revisit a particular approach…to inject it back into our now-newer and more-recent aesthetic. Our best works, available for review, will foster and enhance a continually-developing visual literacy.
Dick Lehman, teabowl, 5-inch/12.75-cm in diameter, reduction-fired crystalline glaze; part of my collection of my own works.
And no matter how hard we work, how much attention we pay to our processes and approaches, in clay there will always be those works which astound us by being better than we ever could have imagined. We can scarcely believe that we’ve made them. They set themselves apart by virtue of the magical uncontrollability of process. These pieces, in particular, stimulate and inspire us to strive for even better work. “I wonder if I can do that again!” These we should collect. These, also, we should share and gift to others as powerful acts of encouragement. (*See sidebar #1)
Three woodfired works from Dick Lehman
Hopefully all of us will share a significant amount of our professional lives with a vibrant, lively collection. But ultimately there will come a time for us all to part with our collections, whether due to downsizing, a change of course, or our final chapters.
We’ll be wise to think carefully about how we want to dispose of such an important tool. Whether we choose to sell or donate; whether we look to museums, study collections, galleries, secondary markets, or gifting; we would all do well to contemplate the possibility and the power-to-do-good that resides in the distribution of exceptional work. Sharing and dispersing one’s collection can be an act of teaching, a way of honoring and respecting the makers, a nudge of encouragement, and act of gratitude…it could even save a life. (See Sidebar #2)
Those well-known and established potters that I visited early in my career had it right. But there is so much more: ultimately an enormous potential for beneficent service and purposeful altruism to direct the finding of new homes for the works that have meant so much to us. We have the rare opportunity of helping to create a new season of inspiration for others. With care, we can enable another generation of nurture.
SHARING AS AN ACT OF ENCOURAGEMENT
One holiday season when I was about 10 years into my career as a full-time clay artist, a package unexpectedly arrived in the mail. On the return address was the name of one of my “ceramic-heros”. We’d never met in person. What could it be?
A hand-made card read: “Dick. Thinking of you and your family at this time of gathering. May the New Year bring good tidings. Warm wishes…..”
Inside the package was his museum-quality Shino-glazed bowl: this was a pot for which the forces at work in its making process converged to bring all the goodness imaginable into a single piece.
John Glick, 6-inch/15.25-cm bowl; part of my collection of others’ works.
His unexpected gift and recognition functioned, for me, as a powerful encouragement. It’s suggested mutuality, and nurtured a confidence in myself and my work that I’d never before known: an uplifting good he likely could not have imagined. It was a positive and formative event; one that changed my life as a ceramic artist.
A LIFE-SAVING LOAN
I’d been diagnosed with stage IV follicular lymphoma; given the diagnosis none of us want to hear. The oncologist was blunt, “Some lymphomas are treatable, yours is not. You have a terminal illness.”
Amid the swirl of emotional uncertainties, the debilitating treatment, the fatigue and the depression came the inevitable questions about the meaning of life, I began to feel disdain toward my collection: no longer did I experience its power and beauty; now it was an ugly anchor, an incredibly unwanted “obligation x 1000” that I’d be leaving to my survivors.
Months later, as my emotions began to stabilize and treatments took a breather, I regained a glimpse of the collection’s goodness. But I declared that I’d never collect another single piece. I’d never add to the bulk of its obligation. In fact I’d start disassembling it.
A few more months. More clarity. I would stop collecting…..BUT…there was just one more very powerful piece that I wished to live with. I emailed the potter, explained my situation, told him about my hoped-for final purchase.
His reply: “My wife and I have never done this before, but we want to loan you the piece that you desire. You may keep it as long as you live. Your family can return it later.”
I kept it 8 years. My prognosis improved. I got stronger. I gained the courage to return it to my potter friend. We are all grateful.
My health has continued to improve. I’m aging. I’ve downsized. I continue to make work. The majority of my collection has been redistributed. I’ve enjoyed initiating a new season of inspiration for others. I’m grateful. A large portion of my collection (of both my own, and of others’ works) now resides at the Haan Museum, in Lafayette, Indiana.