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Ceramics, Play-Doh and the List-Monsters

Ceramics, Play-Doh and the List-Monsters

Ask a ceramicist how they ended up doing ceramics, and many of them are likely to say something along these lines:

“I used to be a [nurse, teacher, corporate finance manager, lawyer, etc, etc], but then one day, someone put a piece of clay in my hands, and I haven’t looked back since.”

This is certainly the case with me.

For those of us who decide for whatever reason, we need to keep working with clay, there is something about the malleability of the medium that just fits. Remember playing with play doh or plasticine when you were a kid? Clay is like that, but the results are more permanent. Whenever I get together in a group to make ceramic pieces, that ‘play doh feeling’ is heightened with all of the social interaction and wonderful ideas flying around, and I love to refer to ceramics as “play doh for grown ups”.

Playing with Grown-Ups-Play-Doh is not without its challenges, however. For many of us, place a piece of Grown-Ups-Play-Doh in our hands, and we are not so good with feeling the same creative freedom that children feel with a piece of Actual-Play-Doh in their hands. Our imaginations are really great at conjuring up what we can’t do with the clay. Childrens’ imaginations are really great at allowing them to just start shaping the clay and see what happens.

“Play Doh for Grown Ups”

On a bad day, I am plagued by some or all of these feelings when I look at the clay in my hands and wonder what to do with it:

  • I’ll get it all wrong
  • What I make won’t be good enough
  • This is too easy/too hard to be good
  • This is stupid/naive/too simplistic
  • I shouldn’t be doing this, this is only for people who have been to art school
  • What I make is unimportant
  • Who would actually pay to buy this?

Quite often, when I sit in a group making work together, other participants say things like:

  • I’m not creative
  • I’ll get this wrong
  • I don’t know what to do
  • I’m not clever with this stuff like you
  • You know so much and I don’t know anything
  • Look how silly my piece looks
  • It’s so wonky/imperfect/out of proportion
  • I’m hopeless at understanding firing/glazing/types of clay/etc
Adapted from an image by  Piyapong Saydaung

When you look at these thoughts written down in a list like this, they don’t look terribly logical or reasonable. So let’s dub these imaginings the List-Monsters.

“…adult imaginations are not lost. In fact they work brilliantly!”

How do you make something with the clay without your List-Monsters shouting you down? By noticing how your imagination works!

In creative circles, we hear a lot about adults losing their imaginations as they develop out of childhood. But adult imaginations are not lost. In fact they work brilliantly! They are brilliant at imagining how terrible they are at something, especially something creative. This sounds a little flippant, but it is said quite seriously

Imagining how terrible you are at something can be a constructive and necessary thing – if your imagination can’t conjure up that if you jump off a building you will be terrible at flying, you wouldn’t be long for this world! Adults’ imaginations are also brilliant at imagining highly abstract things like what pieces of furniture might look good in their lounge room, whether a certain piece of clothing will be appropriate for a certain place, and how many groceries will get them through how many days of meals. I would like to think we can celebrate the adult imagination, and all of its amazing feats of keeping us safe, comfortable, clothed and fed!

Where the adult imagination has gotten a bit off the track and needs a little bit of re-alignment is when it comes to creative work. Enter the List-Monsters! In the field of ceramics, put a piece of clay in our hands, we might love the clay and not want to put it down, but so do our List-Monsters , and they can move in and make themselves well and truly at home very quickly.

So how do you steer your imagination back on track?

Practice being terrible. A lot.

In the field of improvised theatre, actors are taught to celebrate ordinaryness and failure. If you have ever seen the wonderful Colin Mochrie perform in Whose Line is it Anyway, you will get the idea. While celebrating failure goes against so much of what we learn in our lives, it can sounds counterintuitive, but it is a wonderful way to teach yourself how to shake up your List-Monsters a bit. (If you are interested to read more about the idea of celebrating failure and ordinariness, Impro by Keith Johnstone is a fantastic place to start.)

Celebrate failure by making things that look terrible, are wonky, that collapse, that explode in the kiln, with muddy colours, things that break during or after being made, that leak, and that are just not-very-good. Make these things A LOT. Celebrate the terribleness of each and every one of your pieces. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable with your work, and to like it anyway. The more you do this, the more you’ll find yourself constantly ‘on the way’ to something, rather than constantly at a disastrous end of something.

If you practice being terrible over and over, you will start to feel less and less stressed about the flaws in your work, and more and more focused on the parts of your work that you like and are happy with. Spend time around children and adults who will also celebrate the terribleness and encourage you to enjoy it and keep practicing with your creative imagination. Eventually the List-Monsters will get bored with not getting a reaction from you, and will pack up and move out. Mostly anyway.

“Celebrate the terribleness”

Celebrating a selection of my ‘terrible’ work. Early pieces, failed experiments, and colours that went wrong.

My own List-Monsters have their triumphant days and their quiet days elsewhere. My own adult imagination has to work pretty hard to get them to be quiet, but I am thankful for the days that they shush, and head off to the List-Monster-Pub (or wherever they go), so I can get on with my creative work.

So there, Monster-Features! Bugger off for a bit and let us have some fun!!!!!!!!