The Tangible and Intangible Tools for Making Art

1 Kyle Johns’ Small Vessel, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 6, 2017. Photo: Amanda Wilkey.


Art making entails an understanding of various techniques and applied skills. Initially, this activity is uncomfortably performed—often lacking in grace, ease, and certitude. However, with a faith-like sureness, the making becomes more effective over time and the maker more secure in the routineness of executing what they do.

There are many sequences at work in the creation of art, some more complicated to grasp than others. Operationally, I have just described the craft classification of the activity: the skilled performance of work needed to achieve resolution. Even though there is more involved creatively, skill on its own is to be respected for the neutral asset that it is: a serviceable component, independent of aesthetic or spiritual empowerment. Yet the question remains: do artists become great because of their skill or because of their connection to greater truths within themselves? Let’s face it: if we don’t transfuse our physical skills with our humanness, we don’t cross the line. And if we don’t journey over, those trapped energies of who we are can remain in a self-obstructed state of being—just as if we had failed to infuse our life skills with loving feelings of self.

2 Mary Fischer’s untitled, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, stoneware, Mason stain 6600, fired to cone 5, 2016. Photo: Anson Seale.


An artist may have pragmatic justifications for the skills they currently command, but they also may have intuitive aspirations directed to meeting personal needs that have not yet been recognized. Until such desires for greater fulfillment are met face-to-face, they are less likely to expand into external confirmations. If or when, at some point during their working, they find themselves being freely transported forward to the center of their own knowingness (to a place that’s integrated with the greater fabric of their being) they will (possibly with eureka-like exuberance) experience spirit in action. The point is that any time we are interactive with the truth of who we are (our energy source) we are most capable of being genuinely creative.

A Spiritual Portal

Whenever a heightened, more enlightened, sense of self is felt in the midst of doing something–and it really doesn’t matter what that something is—one is said to be having a spiritual experience. Spirituality, in this instance, is a transferral of consciousness from the superficial and the ambiguous to a deeper, more meaningful expansion of self—a self with a more insightful feeling of awareness. It’s as if one had passed through a gateway, a portal, into the attentiveness of feeling alive and in effortless union with the energy flow of the present.

If and when such a treasured gift of liberation unfolds, the artist gains a transcendent resource: the creative energy to go beyond initial boundaries. In service to this new and exciting dimension of aliveness, they are intuitively able to embrace their joy, to extend the fluidity of their performing and to naturally put forth efforts that are authentically inspired.

Empowerment of Spirit

As a person’s artistic growth and creative production advances, it is not uncommon for technical concerns to steadily become less important to what they do or why they do it. Artistically, this transformation is a dynamic change. It may, at first, seem insignificant but it is a self-liberating process that infuses the making of art with authenticity. Metaphorically it acts as a fork in the road, where the living reality of what one is expressing unexpectedly becomes a deeper extension of wholeness: where the spirit that is in us identifies with the unity of all things. This spiritual revelation demands no less for itself than wholehearted respect for one’s self—where one truly accepts their sense of self with confidence. Without this distinctive self-knowing, a life can easily become hauntingly wearisome and creatively lifeless.

3 Steven Hill’s jar, wheel thrown, oxidation fired.


Being creative is witnessing ourselves through the eyes of spirit. We all have a gold mine of its wisdom contained as a living energy within us. The sooner we assume it, the sooner we can mine it for the fullness of our selfhood. Who we can become, we already are. Our spirit is the metamorphosis of prevailing possibilities, not the import of new data. It is the realization of existing capacities that champion strength and give personal command. Through insight and self-will, we can bring forth their riches and transfuse both work and life with the full wingspan of our humanness.

Transformational Forces

The act of making art is immensely spiritual when it is an expression of our inner life: of our values and the truthfulness of our own wisdom. Spirituality and creativity are not tangible entities, yet they have continuously supported the evolutionary ascension of mankind. Concurrently, they have also enabled us to partake in the fullness and wholeness of our own lives. In their deepest form, each is an extension of numerous yet invisible influences that crisscross and steer the emergence of artistic clarity. As the sum of their impact informs the truth of our spirit, they become a great source of innovative power. As we now visit some of those forces, you’ll have a greater understanding of how art is made with the spirit of self, and not simply materials.

Chances are that if you are having a physical relationship with an art medium you may already be experiencing the intimacy of a spiritual partnership. As our willingness to become more expressive with our creative energies increases, and our awareness moves beyond the physical challenges of working, we instinctively look to inner dimensions of identity (of self) for added guidance. As the source of our authenticity, our values best define us and offer forth the best of our creative selves. Genuine interconnection to all that we value is pivotal to how we view life and the creative process. For me, I know that my core values are integrity, love, and kindness. And, if you have never met me this revelation will go a long way towards understanding me as a human being, a citizen, a teacher, a husband, a father, and an artist.

4 Francesc Burgos’ Organic Abstraction (Albatross), 8 in. (20 cm) in height, porcelain with terra sigillata, fired to cone 6, 2010.


Values evolve from experience. They are also flexible and open to life changes. But the ones at the subjective forefront of our beliefs are the ones that provide the strongest creative guidance. Which is why it is important for artists to understand the underlying truths that contribute to their insights and actions. I just shared three primal values that are the current mainstay of my ethical and aesthetic reasoning but I could have just as easily shared my top six by adding intuition, trust, and empathy or listed my top twelve. The fact is that there are numerous values that are instrumental to how we live and make art but what remains important is for each of us to embrace those that initiate wonder and hold human purpose. To help further understand how they are connected to being creative, let me attentively focus on the sacred center of one of my more revered values.


My father told me, many times over, that if I had integrity I would always have happiness. So, exactly, what is integrity? How is it connected to spirituality and, more observantly, how does it influence the creative process—the making of art? For me, it is a reflection of self—a self-sustaining respect for who I am and how I live. It also represents character through a complex spectrum of values from truth and honesty to fairness and forgiveness. Without it I would dishonor my life and all that is a measure of it. Fully realized, it is an extension of love: a state of grace that is absent of negativity—of harm, abuse, and exploitation.

Our spirituality is the essence of our creative freedom. This creative capacity is not only the face of integrity but also the manifestation of our authenticity. As a creative force of energy spirituality transcends physical limitations. Although it may be difficult to envision at times (to go beyond knowing ourselves through physical skills and external relationships) one of the most important benefits we can bestow upon ourselves is the willingness to acknowledge and unite with the fullness of our nonphysical identity. This awakened experience of union is not only liberating but also necessary. The reality I want to stress here is that spirit, like love, is a supportive setting for the continuous blossoming of one’s self.

5 Tom Phardel’s Twin Peaks, 22 in. (56 cm) in diameter, ceramic.


Creating is a personal act; it is bound to the truths and circumstances of our life. And integrity, as a keystone of my values and behavior, gives authentic expression to my creative flow. Without its guidance and enlightened clarity, creativity could be held captive to self-deception or any number of self-repressing issues. In short, being an artist puts one’s integrity to the test. As a physical report of our non-physical self (the internal truth of who we are), art becomes the appraisal of a personal truth. If the creativity of our art making is a genuine engagement with our spirit, then our internal truth (the lifeblood of our spiritual self) is the greatest source of personal power we have as creators.

the author Robert Piepenburg is a studio artist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the author of the award-winning book The Spirit of Ceramic Design. For more information, see


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