Blank. Blank pages. Blank clay. Blank mind. Sometimes creativity can be elusive. When that happens, what can we do to generate something new? In education, researchers suggest creating multiple, frequent, low-stakes assessment opportunities to promote greater learning, improve retention, and encourage students to take risks (see resources sidebar on page 7). The thought with this practice is that students will try new things if their grades will not be negatively impacted in a dramatic way should they fail, in contrast to the consequences of failing a quiz, reflective writing, exams, etc. With this in mind as creative makers, building low-stakes opportunities in our studio practice generates new ideas for both content and physical forms, without the fear of destroying our next museum-worthy piece.
When my two oldest children were in first grade, their teacher, Mary Hepokoski, asked the students to write small-moment stories as a way to practice writing sentences and learn narrative-style writing. These stories were brief and their content was about something that happened in their lives since the last time they wrote a small-moment story. My son often wrote about his latest video game success, but eventually, with his teacher’s encouragement, he began writing about other interests in his life. My daughter wrote mostly about what we had for dinner or who she played with the previous day.
I adopted this idea of a small-moment story and asked my advanced ceramics students to write small stories in their sketchbooks on Mondays as a way to approach the week ahead and begin collecting observations about their lives.
The practice of incorporating more writing into our sketchbooks helps build a collection of content to pull from at times when we feel creatively stuck. The brevity of the stories makes them low-stakes and doesn’t require that the narratives are the most amazing work of creative writing or the most confessional journal entry, but instead a simple observation about daily life done quickly and without expectation of critique or publication.
In my own practice, I also use my sketchbooks to write small-moment stories that include my children, not only things they say, but also scenes I experience with them: what the surroundings are and what context may have led to that moment. From these notations, which also include small-moment stories about my backyard plant and wildlife observations, I think about the mood or response I hope to elicit with my artwork. If you aren’t someone who carries a sketchbook with you, you can easily keep stories in your phone instead through a note app or an audio file, and then every so often transfer the notes to your sketchbook.
Observations and Studies
One practice I’ve started in my studio is to begin each studio session by creating 15-minute observational drawings from my gardens using a range of graphite pencils as another low-stakes way to create something (1). This doesn’t need to be anything more than a sketch of the moment, it could end there and be picked up later, or not. As creatives, we always seem to weave inspiration into our works, sometimes at the moment it’s experienced and sometimes years later when thumbing back through filled sketchbooks looking for inspiration.
In 2016, I was using a low-fire satin white glaze that was very durable and hard (see recipe below). I had tried some graphic shape- and line-based designs using underglaze on top of the white satin glaze, but was never fully satisfied with the outcome (2). As my observational drawing practice continued, I started drawing images using Sakura Micron archival ink pens (3). I loved the line quality that pen produced. Eventually, I wanted to find a way to bring that same line quality into my ceramic work, and thus I began painting flowers onto some tumbler/vase forms using a manicurist’s nail brush set to achieve delicate lines. I started with coneflowers (4), queen of the prairie blooms, tulips, hydrangea, and a dried seedpod from an unknown plant.
Still today, I continue drawing my gardens, other parts of my backyard, and travel locations. On Instagram I tag these drawings #observationsandstudies as a way to remind myself they are part of a low-stakes process and are complete enough as a study, but they can also become more at later date.
Resources for Low-Stakes Assessments
Five ways to interact inclusively with students: www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_inclusive_teaching?cid=cp234#2
Frequent, Low-Stakes Grading: Assessment for Communication and Confidence, by Scott Warnock: www.facultyfocus.com/articles/educational-assessment/frequent-low-stakes-grading-assessment-for-communication-confidence
Weekly tip: low-stakes formative assessments: https://li.wsu.edu/2018/09/21/low-stakes-formative-assessments
Importance of low-stakes student feedback: www.kqed.org/mindshift/33230/the-importance-of-low-stakes-student-feedback
Rhonda is also the author of the book Terra Sigillata: Contemporary Techniques, which is available at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/shop/terra-sigillata.