Friday, January 27, 2012

Finishing Work & Running a Studio with More Students

Finishing Work

Towards the end of class today I was clearing out old work, forgotten bats and plastic sheets from the damp cabinet and shelves. I was surprised to find work I had thrown last week, before our surprise snow days. At school I often start projects then get distracted or forget them before I can finish trimming them or attaching handles. In part, this is a factor of the way I work in the school studio. Since I am not making my own work (per state ethics guidelines), I usually throw example pieces for new techniques and as students request to see new shapes. I try to stay a day or two ahead of the current projects so students can see works in progress as they are trimmed, attached and finished.

I forget the work in the damp cabinet or on shelves because students frequently ask for a new demonstration during class. They want to be reminded how to throw a narrow-necked vase but they already know how to trim it. So I have a vase from one demonstration and no reason to finish it during class. After class I need to grade papers or prepare new demonstrations so I can't finish "my own" work.

This quarter, however, I have noticed that I've been able to make and finish more work than usual. I'm in the clay studio for more hours and more days in the week. I've traded a clay class for a design class, hence I've traded that prep and class time, too. The type of classes makes a difference, too. I have 5 intermediate students, 8 beginning throwers and 16 hand-builders at this point in the quarter. A more typical mix has generally been 14 beginning throwers and a handful of intermediate or hand-building students.

The intermediate students have more complex and varied requests for demonstrations and the hand-builders work at an entirely different pace. Beginning throwers need to see bowls and do bowls. Over and over and over again. I'm not complaining, I enjoy the throwers, but the intermediates and hand-builders present a considerable departure from the normal routine. This quarter, only 4 weeks in, I've been able to try out some techniques I don't use very often. I was able to demonstrate coil throwing and building in sections. I spent almost 2 weeks on a coil built piece and I have several slab pieces and a teapot in the works.

More Students in the Studio

There is an interesting disconnect as a professional artist during the summer, and an instructor of mostly begining level clay students during the year. I make sculpture in the summer. I throw pots during the year. As a result of the classes I teach, I get a lot of practice on my bowls and my cylinders. I spend some time with handles and spouts and that's about where my pottery practice ends. When there isn't a student need, I don't find the time to try other techniques or forms. In the summer I prioritize my hand-building and sculpture.

Just last week a student was asking me what was the biggest piece I'd ever thrown. He had earlier requested that I demonstrate throwing a whole "pug" of clay (we cut extrusions from the recycling pug mill that are about as long as the bins we store them in). I explained, that was probably as big as I'd ever thrown. Then I thought, how funny, I've been teaching pottery here for almost 6 years and I've never bothered to push the scale of my pots. No student need.

I've thought and talked and written before about the importance of studio atmosphere for the development of student artists and potters. I've always believed that hard working students (who clean up after themselves) set a good tone for the studio. New students see that there is an expectation for them to practice, ask questions, plan, and take risks. A group of students in the studio who all make these sorts of assumptions about my expectations (or the expectations of the group) translates into more work, better work, more interesting work and a more rewarding experience for everyone involved.

In a studio that expects hard work and interesting discussions, not to mention responsibility and respect, the work is better and the people are happier (and, in a clay studio, healthier since the studio is kept clean). What I haven't thought much about before is the benefit of this atmosphere for me, as an instructor and as and artist.

I am happier and also more challenged in my clay studio because I have more time and I have more varied students. I have more time to plan, more time to prepare example pieces or pieces that can be used to illustrate intermediate steps in the various processes.

One example that captures part of the difference is the example of a surface decoration demonstration I do every quarter. Usually I have a leather-hard bowl and perhaps a dry or bisque fired bowl to work with. During this demonstration I try to show students how to use slip decoration, carving, sgraffito, paddles, stamps, sprigs, faceting, cutting and piercing. Since I am showing so many techniques and I have only one or two pieces on which to demonstrate, the one bowl becomes a tragedy of overabundant adornment.

This quarter, however, I was able to spread out my carving, cutting, sgraffito and sprigs on two plates, four pinch pots, a coil pot and a lidded box. Since all these things were partially made on the day of the critique, I had abundant surfaces to decorate and no hideous Meissen style extravagance as a result.

Hideous Meissen extravagance (picture from Wikipedia)
One of the disadvantages of teaching at a small community college is that I do see a great number of beginning students and I am less often able to work with groups of higher level students. I hesitate to explain, because I don't want to complain; I like what I do. I enjoy the challenge of teaching different sorts of classes. But it does mean that my attention and my time is dispersed.

Working in this quarter's iteration of the clay studio has allowed me to move more in depth into some of the forms and techniques I regularly teach and has given me more practice in working with students on higher level techniques. In fact, I find that I am excited about all the things I can still do with this quarter's classes. And I am excited to see what we as a studio, can encourage individual students in the studio to accomplish.

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