Practice and Problem Finding

Mugs, press-molded porcelain, slip-cast inclusions, fired to cone 6 in reduction, 2018.

Many professions refer to their vocation as a practice. Artists have studio practices. Surgeons are medical practitioners. We’ve all heard the adage “practice makes perfect,” and anyone working with clay certainly knows the truth in it. But practice refers to both building skill and using skill. When a surgeon cuts open a patient, we hope they are not practicing to make perfect—accepting failure with an “if at first you don’t succeed” nonchalance. Charles Limb starts his TED Talk, “Your Brain on Improv,” by saying “I am a surgeon . . . and I’ve never had a patient tell me ‘I really want you to be creative during surgery.’” Practice here means skilled execution, being able to mostly anticipate outcomes, and deliver through well-honed proficiency and a deep knowledge of one’s craft. Practice is problem solving, and having the tools to do it.

We talk about problem solving in the studio all the time, it is the lifeblood of any good how-to article. However, we rarely discuss problem finding, a term I first encountered in Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman. Artists need to be able to find problems before they can solve problems. Problem solving focuses on the end product; following steps that result in the desired outcome. The process is a means to a desired end, in service of the result. But problem finding—how we embrace the problems inherent in making and ask how they dynamically impact outcomes—flips this thinking. By allowing new problems to occur to us, and actively following their lead, the end result, our work, is destined to change.

1 Students with their finished provotype assignments. From left to right: Gabzy Rinker, Becca Low, Spencer Dewey, and Julie Schmitt. Photo: Steven Casanova.

Identifying the Goal

Identifying the goal, whether finding new problems or chasing solutions, is important in my practice. Take reading, for example. As an academic, I read in many different capacities: graduate thesis papers and students’ artist statements, craft theory that supports the assignments I give, art history that informs my studio work, and pulpy science fiction when my brain needs a break. The activity of reading is the same in all these examples, but the intention, goal, and outcomes differ greatly. I find it helpful to identify my goal when picking up a new book or article: am I reading critically or just for fun? Identifying that I am reading for content sets up a careful scrutiny, and makes me reach for my highlighter without thinking. Identifying that I’m reading for pleasure lets me off the hook when I zone out, my eyes following the text while my brain wanders elsewhere. Identifying the goal matters.

I apply this same thinking to my studio time. I actively identify what my goal is that day, not in terms of numbers or output, but in terms of how I focus my efforts. There are days for practice (careful execution of skill) and days for research (problem finding with outcomes unknown). When gallery deadlines loom, I need to practice; to be able to anticipate outcomes and know that the work will fulfill the obligation and be saleable. But when I’m feeling stuck or bored, and need to find some new problems, designating a studio day toward research and removing the pressure of production helps. On research days, I expect failure, welcome it in fact! My success is measured not in sellable objects, but in knowledge gained, risks taken, and progress promised in future work. There is no need to fear failure or wasting time on these days, as both failure and lost time are integral to and inseparable from learning.

2 Sketches show development of forms through the “what if” prompt.

3 Greenware pouring pots, made by collaging and improvising compositions.

Provocation

Prototype has many definitions, dependent on the industry. I typically think of it as a realized mock-up, with enough fruition to reveal the process and problems in making a new object. Every artist has their own unique relationship with the prototype. But what about provotyping? Provotype finds its root in the word provoke, and in design industries, it refers to a prototype that provokes a challenge to the status quo. It is a prototype for problem finding, not problem solving. Prototyping helps us solve technical and design issues in our practice, provotyping helps us find new problems and previously unimagined new outcomes.

Much to my students’ dismay, I force them to provotype from time-to-time with in-class exercises. After a class period spent throwing whatever forms they choose, I inspect the work. Not for a critique, but looking for the right place to cut. With a wire cutter, I slice their hard-earned pots in two, sometimes down the middle, sometimes askew. They are then charged with marrying the disparate parts to make new vessels. The resulting pots are provotypes, intended to challenge expectations of form, object, and utility. There is no way for my students to anticipate and plan for this challenge, no way to follow a pre-determined goal.

4 A. Blair Clemo cutting student Gabzy Rinker’s pots into two pieces. Photo: Samuel Brown.

Cutting my students’ pots up forces them to ask “what if . . . ?” About 90% of my sketchbook is filled with responses to that question. Sketching through this question is a form of rapid provotyping. I draw one pot, perhaps a cup or a teapot, and then ask a simple what if question: What if it was taller? Had an extra handle? Was more bulbous at the bottom? I draw the solution to that question. I repeat the process, asking a new what if question for each generation. I may repeat the question and solution process 50 times or 100 times. These drafted provotypes, which intentionally challenge my own formal status quo, will inevitably lead to new forms, questions, and problems to work through.

Negotiation

Just recognizing the need for activating problems doesn’t help in finding them. I must first take stock of the decisions I am making and find those places where I can challenge myself further. I need to actively negotiate change in the work.

I take a good look at my work, either a whole series or just one pot I’m fond of. Next, I make an exhaustive list of qualities found in the work. This is an objective list: just what I see, not how I feel or what I think about it. I take stock of what is there. Here is my sample list for the work pictured in figure 7.

5 Handle explorations on a studio research day.

Objective observations about this work:

  • The work is pottery that appears to be utilitarian (they are mugs).
  • The work has seven colors that appear related to the color spectrum.
  • The work is made from porcelain.
  • The work has patterns on the surface.

To make my example simple, I’ll stop with only four basic observations, but the more, the better. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a fingerprint can be a fruitful observation in this exercise. The deeper I dig into my work, the more I bring to light, and the more problems I can find!

Next, I separate each observation into two categories: negotiable and non-negotiable. Those qualities that I am willing to shift, change, or leave behind all together belong in the negotiable category. Those qualities that I am not willing to abandon or toy with too much are non-negotiable, the real core of my interest in the work. Looking at my examples above, and gauging the importance of each quality, I find the following results:

Negotiable (things I am willing to change):

  • The work is made from porcelain.
  • The work has seven colors that appear to be related to the color spectrum.

Non-negotiable (things I am not willing to change):

  • The work is pottery that appears to be utilitarian (they are mugs).
  • The work has patterns on the surface.

6 Pouring pots, press-molded, wheel-thrown, handbuilt, and slip-cast porcelain, fired to cone 6 in reduction, 2018.

Based on my lists, I can now start to find new problems. The observations in the negotiable column, in this example the clay and color palette I’m using, have been identified as places to explore. Maybe I’ll swap porcelain for a dark stoneware? Maybe I’ll change the color palette, or remove the color altogether. Both are great new problems to work through. In challenging myself to shift aspects of the work in this way, I often find a chain reaction of new information is unleashed. New decisions lead to new work, and new work leads to new questions.

The non-negotiable column is not spared from interrogation; on the contrary, the really difficult questions reside here. My example identifies that an object’s utility and a patterned surface are important to me. The most critical question then becomes why? Why are utility and pattern so integral to this work? What potency do the objects gain through utility and pattern? My questions here can help establish what I find most meaningful and valuable in the work. It is these observations, finding the parts of the work I am not willing to abandon, that often provoke deeper research for me. The non-negotiable may beg for more information about history, cultural context, or conceptual connections. These are the parts of my work where I uncover the hardest questions and find the richest answers.

7 Mugs, press-molded porcelain, slip-cast inclusions, fired to cone 6 in reduction, 2018.

With this method of inquiry, I can determine what values I hold and what is really important in the work. I can also see what may be ripe for change, those things I have stopped examining critically and taken for granted. For me, this method always helps to generate new questions and unleash new and useful problems. It has become my habit to ask this question of negotiability regularly in the studio and I no longer need pen and paper to do so. This practice has helped me consistently question my outcomes and keeps my decision-making process active and engaged.

Problems are typically something we wish to be free from in our work. As uninvited guests, they frustrate as they stand in the way of our expectations. However, problems are also a strong catalyst for change and growth, as long as we invite them in, and they don’t overstay their welcome.

the author A. Blair Clemo is an artist and the area head of ceramics at Virginia Commonwealth University. His studio is based in Charles City, Virginia. To learn more, visit www.ablairclemo.com.

Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image

Send this to a friend