Spotlight: Want Versus Need

Ceramics Monthly: What influences your creative practice most?

Mike Helke: Working in my studio is like shutting and locking a door between myself and the rest of the world. When making, I can imagine and define my own personal values, standards, and rules, then physically play them out in clay. Of course, I am influenced by the realities that exist in my everyday life and the outside world, but how I reinterpret them is entirely up to me. The personal autonomy and ownership that making offers is the greatest influence on my search for potential, possibility, and progress in my creative practice.

CM: How do you approach generating ideas for functional pottery from everyday observations?

MH: In 2012, my wife and I called on our limited carpentry and woodworking skillset to manage a DIY kitchen remodel. Using a tape measure, driving screws in, cutting drywall, and making simple cuts with a miter saw were the primary solutions we had at our disposal for the project. When the remodel was complete (eight months later), this spare skillset had translated to a visual and physical language that was efficient, pared down, and unembellished. I was curious about the straightforward results of our labor and wondered how they could translate in my studio—a place where, after a decade of using clay, I knew how to manipulate it in whatever way I could imagine. 

So, I gave myself the assignment to make pots using a limited range of skills, tools, and time. The resulting works were dramatically different than their predecessors. In hindsight, I realize attention and response to an experience sparked curiosity, which then became a question to explore in the studio, and eventually an idea in the form of finished work. In this specific case, my experience and question evolved into an idea, visually and conceptually, about the difference between want versus need.

I was shocked by how a simple shift in process had so greatly impacted my work. Furthermore, I was inspired by the way changes like this could help me see and think about clay and my life in different ways. Eventually, this approach to making developed into my current process; a source or personal experience intermixes with a preconceived vessel and greater range of subject matter to become a question, resulting in an object that presents an idea.

CM: Has your perspective on creativity changed as your career has progressed?

MH: I was taught that creativity is the product of innovation and self expression. I still believe this to be fundamentally true, but I have learned to view creativity as so much more. To me, perception and sensitivity are components of creativity.

If I am attentive and responsive to my everyday experiences and surroundings, then inherently I will be learning new things with each passing day. This growth in knowledge expands my perspective, awareness, and understanding of life. Combined, these help me consider new things and also help me reimagine those that I am already aware of.

I hope my approach to creativity continues to evolve. When it stops, it means that I am no longer being perceptive or sensitive to the changing world around me. Ultimately, this would mean that I am not adapting to and progressing with change, and that feels like a dangerous place to be.

Photo: Brooklyn Jenness.

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