Brainstorming, Limitations & Holistic Creation

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Brainstorming, one of the most fun activities that creatives engage in. We brainstorm for all kinds of reasons. What do we want for dinner? What business idea can we come up with? How can we improve upon such and such?

Taking mental input, past and present and rearranging, combining, stacking in unique ways to come up with fantastic complete ideas. It takes a lot of work to brainstorm. It takes even more work to do it well. It’s a holistic type of abstract activity and limited by, well… nothing. You take input and experiences and then when you are ready, you dive in, pull from this “collection” of ideas, feelings, preferences, habits and gut reactions, eventually coming up with something to implement. You create a strategy for action.

But that’s where a lot of us stop. We get addicted to the idea of creating ideas, but never putting in the work. There are always reasons, some very valid, as to why we cant follow through. I’m as guilty of this as anyone! Maybe even more so because I brainstorm all the time and I flake all the time! But as often as you drop something, you also create the opportunity to pick it back up.

The beginning of any adventure is sometimes focused almost exclusively on a single aspect. In pottery, I am obsessed with shape and technique and shape. Acquiring that perfect shape that is in my mind. Probably because I’m relatively new to throwing in earnest, though I am getting better with more practice.

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Last night the thought struck me. If I am only focused on the shape, then I am limited to what I can accomplish with bone dry greenware or bisqueware. I am bouncing these ideas of of my friend Jenny who has had more experience with throwing, and firing, and selling. She asks “What is wrong with focusing solely on the shape?” Wow that threw me for a loop, in a great way!

I guess that we have to start on a single aspect to get a firm foundation on which to build. If we go wild and never fully grasp the fundamentals, sure, we could come up with some unique and interesting ideas but would they have been better having had the fundamentals in place first? A good question to think about I guess.

There is nothing wrong with focusing on a single aspect at a time. In most areas I subscribe wholeheartedly to the single step approach. Life for example! There is no way to know what is going to happen tomorrow, we stress and grind our teeth over it but no matter how much time we spend, we cannot come to a real and concrete conclusion as to how tomorrow will play out. So as I write this post, I do it one sentence at a time. Seeing where it takes me. (But I have a framework, and that is key!)

In fact, I am in love with limitations (frameworks, whether existing or created to suit the task at hand). When I saw Chawan for the first time, I was thrilled. Here was a simple bowl with infinite variations, so many ways to interpret this very singular thing. The same goes for Yunomi, or Movies, or Painting, or Music, Martial Arts, all of them are limited to what they are and you work within those frameworks and limitations to create beautiful things.

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The “Kizaemon Ido” Chawan  – ‘National Treasures of Japan’

Take the task of creating a song. Picking from all available notes from all available instruments. Or even worse: “I need you to create the BEST song the world has ever heard. You can pick from every available note and every available instrument. Get going!”. I would fail before I even started. It’s not an impossible task though. If you take the task and create a framework – a genre – and within that framework you create further limitations – these instruments will be used – and further – the key of G and then further – this chord progression – and so on, eventually you have your song. As for the question if it is the best, that is highly subjective LoL!

What can I do with a single tool at the wheel when I’m throwing? What can I do with a limited number of glazes. How can I make things that are simple and elegant? No more than exactly what is needed to create something that works. Just enough and no more.

Now, although I am still focused on the foundations for each of the vast number of things one must learn to be a potter. I am going to try to broaden my framework and try to think of the totality of a form before making it. Still while working within these limitations it does not mean that they have to be completely separate from each other. A more holistic approach I think comes naturally as one develops and progresses at anything. So before a cup becomes a piece of bisqueware, I’ll try to think of how it can be modified, decorated, and glazed, based on the limitations of its shape.

Ansel Adams called this previsualization and he was, well he was Ansel frickin Adams! He was a master at what he did, and before he was a master he took many hikes in the woods, took many terrible pictures with his Brownie camera. He had doubts, setbacks and money troubles, the same as any of us. He worked within the limitations of his gear, body and mind, and eventually captured the beautiful majestic scenery that we all know and love today with a total dedication to the craft.

Ansel

So let’s keep working! Within our limitations of knowledge, time, equipment & ideas we can keep pushing and create beautiful things. Because the process is a beautiful thing. Limitations are a beautiful thing. You are a beautiful thing.

On Burnout and Transition

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– On Burnout and Transition –

As I posted on Instagram a few days ago – For the past few months, I’ve been working really hard on FireCrown Pottery and at my full time job. Basically doing my day job for 8-9 hours and about 4 hours in the studio. The two jobs equaling out to about 12 hours a day including weekends. If anyone knows me they know that I work 100% at whatever I do. If I cant do it right I won’t bother to do it at all, or if it’s important enough, I’ll delegate to someone else (I have a hard time doing that but I’m working on it).

I was following the the 4 lane highway to burnout on all fronts, ignoring the huge bright, blinking neon signs. I was forcing it. Expending all my energy and failing to recharge that energy. This obviously leads to bad things. Emotional turmoil, family problems, depression, etc…

I’ve burned out several times over the span of my corporate career. It’s not funny, it’s not fun, and it takes an enormous amount of extra energy and hard work to get out of it. Far more energy than the steps that can be taken to avoid it.

Being that if you are reading this, you probably have a day job. You probably have a side gig. Maybe your side gig is pottery. Maybe you want to turn that into a full time career. Maybe you’re struggling with the same things that I am at the moment. Here is the answer I found for myself over the past few days. It may not be perfect but it feels like a good perspective change and is certainly better than the way I have been going about it.

What I learned from the past few months is that we have to Sharpen the Saw – a reference to the classic book – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People*, which to summarize – Sharpening the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. 

I already KNEW this! We all probably know this with or without reading the book. You have to replenish yourself and make sure that you are the best that you can be otherwise you are a dull saw, destined to get stuck half way through the trunk of the very large tree that is life. We all want it NOW! From here to there instantaneously! That’s just the way our culture is. We cant escape the feedback that its supposed to be fast and easy. Pottery has taught me to slow down and to wait (patiently on occasion).

The “positivity folks” unintentionally paint the picture that everything is ok. Smile, something good will come of this. Your house is burning down? Don’t worry about it, it’s all going to turn out for the best. And in a funny way that IS true, out of my past few months of unconsciously forcing things, I came to a nice realization that took the weight right off of my shoulders. It eventually turned out good. But really, shouldn’t we try to put the fire out?

The “achieve at all costs folks” unintentionally paint the picture that you have to go hard, at all times, break down all obstacles, push all else out of your way so that you can get to the end goal. Anything else is laziness and you’re just not cut out for it. And again in a funny way, it IS true, out of the past few months I came to a nice realization that we do have to go hard and put in the work. As much work as possible without forcing it.

So in between any two extremes there is a happy medium, as there usually is. Embrace the work that feeds your soul. Embrace the work that feeds your family. Don’t expend energy hating the day job and wishing for this magical place in the future where you get to do whatever it is you want to do at any given time and the work is just so satisfying it fills your heart like a balloon. It probably, no let me take that back, it will absolutely not be like you think it will. If you have the expectation that it will unfold in exactly the way you plan and that you will end up in exactly the situation you wanted, you will most likely be disappointed.

So I learned, or rather I should say I re-learned, for the hundredth time, that flexibility is key. A goal of 1 or 5 or 10 years is great, it gives you something to shoot for. But where you land is up to the universe, a much more powerful force than we are.  Focus on the present moment and not years in the future. The present moment is ALL that we have and it is all that we will EVER have. We cannot live in the future for an extended amount of time, it leads to anxiety, because there is just no way to reconcile the infinity of variables that make up our lives. So be good to yourself, be open to change, be flexible and flow like water.

So how did I get the change in perspective? It’s sometimes the hardest thing to do, to change your perspective, but it can also be the easiest. I just took a break. My wife was home from work, we don’t get to spend an awful lot of time together because of our jobs and I enjoyed her company. I actually sat down outside, set the timer and meditated and let my brain relax. From waking in the morning until I fell asleep at night, for months, I was grinding away at this future state and how to get there and not even fully enjoying myself while in the present moment. I did a full set of breathing exercises on my lunch break. I ate two really good meals that my wife made for me. And because I took care of myself, because we took care of each other,  it just occurred to me.

During the time of transition, if you are serious about it, take it one day at a time. Maybe even better is one task at a time. Focus solely on that one task. During that task unfolds a beautiful web of new possibilities. Everything changes, therefore everything is always new. Be open to those possibilities with the end goal in mind and let your gut decide which one of the paths to take to the second task. And if the second task is a break, so be it. What is an hour or a weekend or a week here and there in the course of 5 years?

So here we are, the situation is exactly the same as it was yesterday. Except now I’m happier and more fulfilled. I’m recharged and each task is what it is and I can certainly get through a single task. The thing is, we get caught up without realizing it. Check yourself every once in awhile. Are you forcing it?

By taking care of yourself, you will be happier. Your family will be happier, creating a feedback loop of positivity. Your current job will be more fulfilling, making the people you interact with happier, and that creates a positive feedback loops as well, making a stressful job just a little better. All at the same time giving out good vibes and receiving them back. Your spirit will not feel like it’s being crushed underneath this false idea that once you make it to “over there”, THEN you will be happy.

Some people just buy pots, but I think, I cant yet prove it, that what they really buy, is YOU. Like many of the other arts out there, like martial arts, painting, singing, creating music… each of these, if they are to be any good at all,  require you to pour yourself into what you create. This is what makes them unique and hopefully that uniqueness resonates with someone and they have the same connection to this object as you do. Better stated, they resonate with you and they want to have a connection THROUGH this object.

So those are my thoughts of the day from the past few months of working hard and in earnest. Forcing it and then letting it go. It’s a place that some of us just are at in our lives. So, no, you’re not really alone at all 🙂

 

 

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Repetition, Proficiency & The Subconscious

When we get into throwing repeated forms it allows the muscle and body memory to come into play, freeing our minds to come out and play. It takes a lot of hard work to get to that place.

When we start, we throw whatever comes out. Every pot is different because we don’t have enough control to throw exactly (or as close to exactly) as we can.

Once repetitions are done enough times and we hit the limitations of what our conscious minds can come up with… that is when the subtle and sometimes tricky conditions are met where our subconscious can finally take part in the creative act.

When someone gets to the point of high proficiency  (which I have not, but I’ve watched and conversed with enough skilled creators to understand), they are eventually able to “LET GO”! And that is a beautiful thing to watch, someone who can truly let go and just play.

We praise the “masters” for being masterful. We gloss over their hard work with a montage at best and discuss with great enthusiasm the techniques that they must have used to achieve whatever masterpiece is in front of them.

People seem to ONLY show their best work. The perpetual golden sunsets of the best photographers, unintentionally making it seem like anything less is a snapshot of inferior skill. The world renowned chefs whose only real exposure is on the table and in the magazines and creating this expectation that anything less than culinary perfection is not good enough. The potters who pull that bit of vitrified magic from the kiln every time.

This is not to discount the very best at what they do, it is the highlight the drudgery of repetition, the sting of failures, the  struggles and questioning: “Is this what I should be doing with my life?” These are the things that we collectively as humans, ask ourselves.

The concept of showing our best is not intentional, its just what our ego dictates that we do. We like to show our best work, not our failures. But the only place to learn is from failures. If you get something perfect with the first try, there is no place for you to go.

There is always room for improvement which is a highlight of creation by human hands. There is a built in striving for perfection that is not there. It keeps us going. It can also be that aaaaaalmost perfection that we see in something that can really draw us in.

I dream of a place where “masters” have their place, but hard work is also praised and encouraged on a social level to bring more people towards high proficiency. Instead there is a dismissal of hard work and  nobody really wants to be on “the grind”.

So keep on throwing, keep on learning, even when you are on a plateau and not making what you might consider good progress, it still counts towards getting good.