On Education and Mentoring

October 31, 2008
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At the 2003 NCECA conference in San Diego, I was asked to be one of two “Business Doctors” with Bill Hunt. I started off my presentation with this statement: “There are many ways to pursue a career in the ceramic arts.”

Given the recent downturn in the economy and the challenges we face in every market sector (including ours), I wonder what choices BFA or MFA graduates will make in how they pursue their careers in ceramics. I also wonder what it takes to maintain the drive, the conviction, and the goal of being a practicing ceramic artist or potter.

My thinking always returns to education. While the three most important rules in real estate might be “location, location, and location,” I would seriously consider that for a career in the ceramic arts, the most important guidelines are “education, education, and education.”

And education can take many forms. Education in the ceramic arts should not just be limited to learning the skills of working with clay, focusing on the traditional methodologies of throwing and hand building. Nor should education be exclusive of industrial processes such as jiggering, hydraulic pressing and slip casting. A big picture might be an all-inclusive vision of not only how we can make pieces, but also how we can be better designers. Without enlightened design, no matter how we choose to make our work, the result would just be mundane. It has been shown over and over in the field of product design that design matters. While ceramic artists and potters are well-versed and perhaps overly preoccupied with that process of making work and those tactile qualities inherent in the process, it is equally important that we be sophisticated designers of our work as well.

We need to make educated choices in our education, whether it is choosing the right schools, programs and educators that offer what we want, or if it is outside of academia, a mentor that is willing to take you “under his/her wing” and help mold and encourage your vision.

I was quite fortunate in my ceramic education, having chosen the academic route. It worked for me. One of the instructors early in my schooling became my mentor, offering limitless guidance, encouragement and direction. This became invaluable during the beginning of my career as a production potter. After many years on both the wholesale and retail show circuit, I credit my success in the ceramic business with what I learned from Joe Zeller at The Cleveland Institute of Art.

As my career morphed into including ceramic design and manufacturing, I learned, out of necessity, the industrial processes needed to design and produce multiples. These skills included hydraulic pressing and die design, slip casting, and mold and model making. I always had a desire to learn, but I credit Joe Zeller for his unswerving guidance urging me to look at the industrial side of ceramics. These processes and skills occupy an equal place alongside those more traditional ones.

Joe’s mentoring also encouraged me to learn the chemistry and physics of clays and glazes. This knowledge, along with learning the above industrial methods and processes, has enabled me to work with clients from myriad backgrounds to design and manufacture a diversity of products.

Not every form of ceramic education works for each of us. In these very challenging economic times, it would behoove anyone seeking a career in this field to open their minds and hearts to education and learning in whatever ways speak to them.

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