How did I think she became a Master? Honestly, I thought that one could be considered a Master Ceramicist after throwing a number of pieces for about 10,000 hours, or be naturally gifted with one’s hands, or have an exceptionally strong back—but that is not the case. To officially become a Master in a trade you are generally deemed so by a current Master, or recognized by peers. The process is different in every medium, unique to different regions, and distinct in different countries.
In addition to her education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Louise also studied at the University of Regina, Sask.; Metchosin School of the Arts, B.C.; the Instituto de San Miguel, Mexico; smoke firing in Phoenix, Arizona as well as a variety of courses and workshops at NSCADU. She has traveled throughout Europe and Japan studying ceramics and particularly clay vessels as funerary containers.
Louise’s work can be found in both public and private collections throughout Canada, the U.S., and France. Her sculptural works have recently been added to the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and St. Francis Xavier University Art Gallery.
Her work has been endorsed with grants from the Canada Council, the Nova Scotia Dept. of Tourism, Culture and Heritage and she received Federal funding to travel to France to attend an opening which included her work. In 2014 her exhibition, entitled RESTRAINED, was nominated for the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Award.
Louise traded a successful, stable career producing functional pottery for creating sculptures of female figures that explore the injustices women face. After success in several shows, she is now focused on learning how to draw. A master ceramicist, her deepest knowledge is in clay.
Louise has a calm, soothing voice. Her unhurried, deliberate cadence is similar to how she bonds with her media.
LOUISE: The clay is soft when I put it on and I can only go so far each day. Then I have to let it set up and get firm. Clay is probably the most demanding of materials because it dictates what you can and cannot do, and your timeframe. I can’t pull a 24-hour session like I might in textiles. It is frustrating and also a very, very good thing. After 40 years, I just know the pace. It’s not a bad thing to stop before you’re ready. Very often you come back and realize it’s finished, whereas if I had stayed on it I would have overworked it or finessed the detail, which often kills it.
Giving in to control can be a limiting factor in our lives and our work. Craftsmen consciously let go of controlling the outcome. Relying on their skills and experience, their awareness is high and their self-judgment is low. They are willing to trust in their ability to respond to whatever comes next. In that state of readiness, they feel they are on to something. Relying on multiple kinds of intelligence, they engage risk and court surprise. This helps them invite uniqueness into their work they could never deliberately achieve on their own.
LOUISE: Especially working with faces, you want to get it real and get it right—all that left brain stuff. The imperfections don’t deny the material. That ragged edge, that unfinished, un-finessed area works very well. It’s rough looking clay, but your brain reads that as a shoulder because that is where a shoulder ought to be. Similarly, half of a face is all you need sometimes. The thing you gain with experience is the ability to edit.
We all want to ‘get it right.’ “Sometimes,” Louise says, “distance from your work is the best thing you can do.” Distance, pace, responsiveness all help keep control at arm’s length.
Call It Craftsmanship
In analyzing expertise and their approach to working—and from there, how their work reflects them as individuals—I wanted to understand an approach to working that’s possible across all fields, a way of working that helps people wrestle with the ungainliness of the beginner. I wanted to understand a way of working that helps people grapple with the uncertainty, change, external expectations, uniqueness, and complexity of organizational growth—while focusing on work that matters. I wanted to understand how people across a variety of disciplines—from blacksmiths, entrepreneurs, to teachers, even multinationals—can effectively apply their uniqueness to a problem at hand, using work as their medium for creative self-expression.
This way of working—call it craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship is rooted in certain qualities. Louise shared qualities as observance of details in the medium of clay, responsiveness toward the time constraints of her medium as she allowed her work to set; and, engagement in the dynamic of manifesting her initial vision while being open to serendipity and experimentation. She can read about technique in a book. But to move from novice to master, she needs to practice these qualities and interpret them herself. If she remains focused, she can use her increased awareness to respond effectively, increasing her skills through attention to improvement. She’s not unique in her challenge. Every student of a medium faces the same challenges as they leave templates and routine behind. They engage the struggle of tapping their innate ingenuity in order to become creative practitioners in their medium.
Louise aides her own awareness as she shifts from production work, to clay sculpture, learning to draw. Expertise from one medium guides the beginner in the new medium.
LOUISE: I loved sculpting clay. But as with the production pottery, with my last show, there was something inside that said, ‘That’s it. I have nothing more to say.’
All my clay equipment is gone, my house is for sale, and now I’m drawing. It’s like I’m in kindergarten and I’m learning a new language. Whether I will ever do anything that resonated as much with an audience as the sculpture did, I have no idea. But I’m in a place of being a learner again, and 95% of what I do is disposable and destroyed because I’m learning. I feel vulnerable and excited.
One can’t help but make a connection between the clay she is working with, and her own personal development. She has explored the practical nature of the craft of making production pottery. Wanting to bring more of herself to her work, she felt moved to create sculptures of female figures that explore the injustices women face, finding her voice of protest for the way women are treated in the world. After success in several shows, she has moved on to drawing. Louise has explored her voice from multiple stances. In many ways, she is the clay she is working.
When we give up some of what we know in order to learn, as Louise has done, we are vulnerable. Fear, anxiety, or embarrassment create a state of self-absorption. This distracts from the ultimate goal of seeing what will happen. We must hope for mistakes to teach us.
Hope for mistakes? Must we? Yes. Mistakes mean we are out of control, being risky, and dancing with fear. Mistakes give us a compelling reason to learn.
LOUISE: You have to do the work. You have to show up and put in the time. Then gradually the flow happens.
You have to make a lot of mistakes. You’re hoping for the mistakes, because that is usually where things are most exciting. Too much control and the outcome loses some of its essence. It ends up just like everyone else’s outcomes. Average. Within the norm. Mainstream.
Often when I create a piece I’ll build it and it will be good, but not very exciting. It’s good, technically, but I wonder ‘how I can give life to this piece?’
I start to break it apart. I might hit or punch the clay with a stick or I’ll rip a piece off of the side. All of those gestures make the piece stronger and better in my eyes.
Some people might think that Louise’s focus on destroying refinement extreme or merely artistic license. However, she knows giving up an attachment to perfection she will reach new thresholds in her knowledge.
Giving up some of what we know in order to risk learning something new—that is the practice. Craftsmanship is not a result; it is a process (of learning by doing). Craftsmanship is about standing apart from the mainstream, by standing out through unique, quality work.
LOUISE: They are a surprise; the audience has to participate in the finished work. I haven’t told them every single thing about this woman. They have to fill in pieces that are not there.
‘What’s the least amount of detail I need to put into this object to say what I want to say?’ The work is an old woman, ethnic. She’s thoughtful, expressive–that’s all I want to say. I don’t need to finesse it to high realism in order to give that expression or convey that information. The parts that are left out become symbolic of vulnerability, of generation and degeneration, of life’s hard blows and tough experiences. It’s the human experience in not finishing the piece, but editing it.
Our natural tendency is to be judgmental and controlling. This has two negative consequences: we are less happy and our work is mediocre.
As a master craftsman, Louise is describing to me what is important about her work. She’s telling me the what, why, and how, of the skills she has mastered and those she is learning. She is, in fact, describing opposing forces of control and openness that she needs to achieve what virtually all the craftsmen interviewed for this book referred to as a “meditative state.” It takes time to achieve and to trust, it cannot be flipped like a switch. We learn like this in a variety of disciplines, from software coding to jewelry making. Masters transfer skill, know-how, perspective, and commitment needed to achieve advanced performance, and students try to absorb the lesson.
The pursuit of this kind of learning, versus simply copying a template, isn’t a direct path. The payoff is not always obvious in practice.
Craftsmanship is often written about. Books with Craft of in the title imply the promise that they’ll explain how to achieve good craftsmanship. Yet, they tend to raise more questions than answers. No two even agree on what ‘craft of’ really means. Applicable across so many disciplines, the execution of craftsmanship is hit or miss.
When we do recognize good craftsmanship, the discussion of it is challenging for a master to communicate to a novice. This difficulty is evident in Louise’s descriptions of her work. She attempts to describe the feel she has for her work by referencing that “after 40 years she knows the pace” given the medium’s constraints. She describes her sense of immediacy by embracing the medium’s constraints and using them to assist her own self-editing. She then connects these experiences to qualities her sculptures exhibit so she can use this connection to meet a new threshold of performance. If she misses the integration of practice, perspective, feel, immediacy, and focus she can’t achieve the pace necessary to create within the constraints of the clay. Without the incorporation of these elements, the craftsmanship to which she aspires cannot emerge.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.