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  • janenewaudby

Secrets of the trade

In my non-potting previous life, I spent a lot of time mentoring junior colleagues. These young people helped me to do my work and in return I tried to pass on my knowledge. In the end, it was the most rewarding part of what I did. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing your baby birds take to the wing and, if anything, to fly higher than you ever could. There were never any trade secrets in my old life, just things to pass down so the next generation can be better than the one before.

I have been learning that this is not true in the world of a ceramic artist. At the most basic level, making and glazing a pot is fairly simple. There are a few rules to follow and books which teach you the basics. After that the landscape ahead is almost pitch dark and to find possibilities, you have to explore by yourself. The problem is, it takes so long to make your little discoveries, they quickly feel proprietorial to you and your work - a little bit like a scientific formula, or the recipe for CocaCola. I have only ever spoken to two reknowned potters and reverentially (stupidly) asked them how they achieved a particular result. Both of them said they couldn't tell me. Wow. I am torn by this. On the one hand I can see how hard it is to develop your own voice, and the techniques which make that unique. I am even nervous myself about telling people what I am finding out. Its as if we are all on a secret path and that if we "give away" our discoveries, we will show others the way to our treasures. We are afraid that our hard won (oh so hard!) techniques will be copied. Maybe this will allow other potters to "compete" or "catch up" and "overtake" us in terms of producing "better" work. Maybe our own voices will no longer be so unique to us. Another part of me says we are wrong. Would it be so bad if we shared? Wouldn't it be wonderful to share? Its true that apprentices may begin by copying the "master", but the path of an apprentice who has their own talent and ambition will always be to find their own voice. What is there to fear in that? Maybe we should be more secure in our own voices. A Peter Beard pot will always be recognisably a Peter Beard pot (google it). Another person's pot that looks like a Peter Beard pot will always be a copy and therefore less worthy than the original. A person who takes Peter's technique but who makes it their own is not a threat either. A Peter Beard pot is still just that. So how can an apprentice who learns from us ever make our work obselete? What do we have to fear beyond losing the chance to help others discover their voice? My guess is, the pattern is set and we will all carry on guarding the solitary paths to our pots. What do you think?

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