Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Sometimes an idea keeps coming at you from various angles as if the world wants you to take notice. Or maybe you've taken notice of an idea, so it just keeps coming to your attention. Anyway, this week that idea, for me, has been failure.

Wait, that sounds awful. It sounds like this has been a terrible week. And it absolutely hasn't. I'm talking about the good kind of failure.

the bad kind of failure (because it breaks my kiln)
In my throwing classes, in particular, I encourage failure. For years, I have started class by telling students they need to make mistakes to learn about the clay. This quarter I'm either saying it more, phrasing it differently or just noticing how frequently I say it. Regardless, I was feeling pretty good this weekend when, twice, my methods were supported by outside sources.

learning to throw
First, my mother-in-law sent me a link to an article, "How Failure Molded Spanx's Founder." The Business Week interview with Sarah Blakely focuses on her successful undergarment company, but her answer to the third-to-last question was what caught my mother-in-law's attention and what caused her to share it with me.
"When I was growing up, [my father] encouraged us to fail. We'd come home from school and at dinner he'd say: 'What did you fail at today?' And if there was nothing, he'd be disappointed. It was a really interesting kind of reverse psychology. I would come home and say that I tried out for something and I was just horrible and he high-fived me."
My mother-in-law must have read more than just this article because, as she explained it to me, Blakely talked about her father working with her on each failure to improve for the next attempt. The idea here isn't that she should be bad at stuff, but that she should try stuff she isn't (yet) good at. She needs to be willing to take the risk and then, later, willing to look for ways to improve so she can try again.
a bowl with beginner mistakes
Sunday morning I was listening to the TED Radio Hour via an NPR app. The interview with Sir Ken Robinson sounded interesting because it had to do with teaching creativity, or, more accurately squashing creativity in school. I started listening to hear what he had to say about encouraging creativity in school. (Another recurring class issue for another day: why do students always tell me they "just aren't creative"?)

cutting off the mistake on a beginner bowl
The interview on NPR included segments of Robinson's TED talk. Around the start of the second minute he tells a story about a girl drawing in class. He explains that kids aren't frightened to be wrong and then identifies the value of taking these sorts of risks: "If you are not prepared to be wrong" he says, "you will never come up with anything original."

the beginning of something original?
He continues to talk about valuing creative pursuits in school rather than looking at them as dead-ends, soft options, or "easy" classes. Robinson talks about the hierarchy of subjects with STEM and language at the top, humanities and bit lower and the arts in the basement. I particularly like the way he phrases this academic focus "...and then we focus on their heads, and slightly to one side."

I'm sure I'm not the only person reading who will sympathize with students being steered away from certain subjects. My high school guidance counselor told me I should take fewer art classes in my senior year because I was "smart". I reacted by asking to see a different guidance counselor. It might be funny that I reacted this way, and ironic that I ended up as an art instructor at a college (I think about going back to tell her sometime), but the incident reveals more about what a privileged kid I was--I knew I could get away with asking for a new counselor.

yuck, my mistakes
The TED Radio Hour interview and the TED talk are both interesting and worth a listen and both talk about more than just the failure I'm focused on, but I keep noticing this theme of being wrong and failing and making mistakes as paths to success later on.

I learned about the underglazes after making these mistakes

So back to my clay studio classroom: When throwing pottery on the wheel, student naturally make mistakes that lead to the clay collapsing, in sometimes dramatic fashion. Lumps of clay fail to become bowls because the wheel is spinning too fast, or too slow, because the student pushes too hard or moves her hands or leans the wrong way. There are lots of ways to fail on the potters wheel.

centering the clay is the most difficult part of the process
There are also a few ways to avoid failure on the potter's wheel. I always tell my classes about two students who took my class years and years ago. The two would sit together, chatting about everything and anything. Their wet hands would hover over the lump of clay and the lump of clay would spin and spin and spin around the wheel, never changing. The girls would use just one piece of clay the entire class period and would never break through a wall. Because they never actually touched the clay enough to make a mistake. They didn't make much. They didn't improve and they didn't "fail." (Obviously I mean their pots didn't fail. I wouldn't discuss their grades even if I could remember). They safely passed the time in my class chatting while the wheel spun.

centering the clay
On the other hand, the students who come in a throw and throw and throw and end up with a lump of broken bowls on the side of their wheel are the students who, suddenly, in the third or fourth week are making lumps of clay into shapes that look just like bowls. They know what they need to do to make a bowl stand up because they've tested all the limits. They know what it feels like to spin the wheel too fast and too slow. They know what happens if they push too hard or move their hands or lean the wrong way. Now that they've tried all the ways to fail, they can also find the space in the middle: the right speed, the right pressure, the right angle and the right position.

yea for failure!
I tell my students if they aren't making mistakes, they aren't trying hard enough. And it seems there's some other successful folks who agree with me on this method. It applies so directly to clay. I wonder how it applies to other disciplines, or if, like Robinson suggests, it applies more to the arts than to the academic "core" subjects.

*After writing about failure this weekend, I showed a DVD to my Art Appreciation class on Monday morning and realized that even it (a film I show every quarter) illustrates the value of failure for an artist. Rivers and Tides documents Andy Goldsworthy building his temporal sculptural installations in various natural locations. The segment from about minute 18 to 26 shows Goldsworthy building one of his seed forms out of stone. We watch him build it over and over again each time it collapses, while the artist talks about how, each time, he understanding the material a little better.

(sorry if the video goes bad, I can't believe the whole thing is available on YouTube right now)

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