The importance of failure
When I started making ceramics I was always disappointed with my finished work. The pieces rarely matched up with the images in my head. When I picked up my first coral inspired piece, my tutor saw me looking at the pot and asked me whether I liked it. I said I didn’t like it much. He laughed and said “That’s ok because you aren’t supposed to like it”. “Really?” I remember being astonished by this. Further down the line, I now understand that you have to critique the work for it to get better. Your job as an artist is to continually push for perfection, and to fail endlessly in that. Some people say that if you produced a perfect piece, then you would stop being an artist at all (because achieving perfection is the job of the craftsman, but not the artist).
Previously, I had regarded failure as something to avoid. The fact that you can learn something from failure was a silver lining at best. In making any kind of art, failure is an essential part of the process. If you don’t fail, you never advance. Failure comes in many forms. On the early part of the learning curve, there are countless mistakes in the craft. I have tried to throw fat pots with clay that’s too soft, I have stubbornly fought to centre clay that’s too hard (spraying clay up the walls). I have rushed and spoiled things, glazed things without testing the outcome first, carelessly knocked the heads of sculptures, ruined burnished surfaces with a fingernail and generally cut corners and regretted it. You have to pay attention to the lessons the mistakes teach you and try not to repeat them (easier said than done). All these things make you more humble and philosophical and teach you respect for the process. This is the training ground where you learn the value of lessons which come from mistakes. This leads me to the second category of failure - which is all the ways your work can become better as art. As you progress from potter to ceramic artist, you become an explorer. For your work to progress you have to be curious and brave and it means asking questions that you don’t have the answers to: Can I mix these clays? What happens if I fire this glaze on this surface? Can I replicate pit firing in my electric kiln? Is that finish even good enough? And the crucial question: In what ways can the work be ‘better’? Few, if any, answers can be looked up in books so you have to seek the answer yourself. The answers lie in producing more work.
Obviously, all this has made me a better potter but I have also discovered I am more patient and accepting than I thought I could be. I have learned not to look at each piece of work as finished, but as part of a process. Each piece contains all the questions and answers for your next piece of work. The really bad pots will never make it onto anyone’s shelves, but they are the reason that the pots that do make it exist at all.