The going joke during my undergrad program for all of us Fine Arts students was that we were working towards a Bachelor of F@&k-All, the BFA. This was generally mentioned in reference to how this degree could assist one in getting a job when finished, or how it would help towards making a living eventually.
I am often asked by students that are just embarking on a life with clay, Where is the best place to learn to be a potter? This question has made me realize that there isn’t necessarily an equation or formula for achieving success in our field. Such a response is daunting to many students, but it can also be exciting.
My education as a potter has been varied. The combination of post secondary institutions with varying philosophies, two formal apprenticeships, numerous workshops, residencies, and a strong network of several loosely structured mentorships have all contributed to where I am today.
If the question instead was whether to invest in a degree in ceramics or not, my response would be in the form of another question - What do you hope that piece of paper will give you?
I strongly believe in the art school degree system for two reasons. The first is that most institutions have priorities of promoting innovation and valuing quality over quantity. In school, you learn the important lesson of making something, bringing it to critique, constructive dialogue and what needs to happen to make the work better.
The second reason is by having that piece of paper or degree, I have been afforded many opportunities that I’m not sure would have been there otherwise. So many of these opportunities contributed to my growth as a ceramic artist. Developing that important network of peers and colleagues in the field through the institutional system was invaluable.
But I also strongly believe that if making pots for a living is what you want to do then there are more efficient ways of learning how to do that than in the institution.
In my own scenario, I discovered clay first through the bachelor system and immediately was really keen to learn skills that could serve me in a relatively pragmatic way. Even within the first semester, I realized I just wanted to learn to make a living as a craftsman, and at 20 years old, life was almost that simple.
I left the institution and sought out an apprenticeship with a local potter, Jim Etzkorn, to learn more directly what it took to make a living from selling pots. I recall, when delivering pots to one of Jim’s galleries one day, I had a conversation with the owner that went something like this. “Well if making a living from pottery is what you want to do then that equation is quite simple. Learn how to make the pots, listen to the market place. If they want blue butter dishes then that is what you make. It will be hard work but you will always have food on the table.” This made me realize that it wasn’t just about making a living for me, and it made me look at the potters around who’s work I was interested in. Doing this really helped me determine how or where to pursue further education. And I did return to school to finish my BFA.
I’m fortunate as part of my career in clay to both be a ceramics educator in the post-secondary environment, but also through the assistantship and workshop scenario on my property. I believe in the important value that both experiences can offer.
The truth is, being a potter in 2017 requires many diverse skills. Learning all of those skills in one place is unlikely. If you choose to pursue a career in clay, consider treating your education more like how a craftsperson would, like a journeyman period. All of your experiences will lead to discovering what kind of pots you want to make, and in the end, isn’t that really what question you should be trying to answer?