Whatever Happened to Letters to the Editor

Aug 1, 2022

During the period of my life when I was a full-time instructor at a community college, I recall a state of bemused recognition when my freshman students would come into my office, plop down, and intently express fear and concern that THE END WAS NIGH! The conversations usually occurred right after an art history, world history, or political science class. My amusement wasn’t mean spirited, and I did not tell them their fears were unfounded; but I did encourage them to look deeper and wider at the global narrative. Humanity has always taken a harrowing roller coaster ride on the journey through time and space. Was my input – that we’ve always been, “pumping a handcart to h*ll,” (as my grandmother would say) – supposed to be comforting? Was it supposed to still their momentum? No.

I hoped it would steel their momentum, preventing them from stagnating in despair.  

Over the course of the past two-and-a-half years I have had to have a similar talk with myself on more than one occasion. I think a lot of us have. Some days I spend too many hours looking up historic atrocities and how they were squelched or overcome by survivors. I try to find what positive events followed global tragedies. I google, “What was the worst time period in history.” This is not an exercise in doom-scrolling. This is where and how I find reasons to keep moving forward. This is how I remind myself that every effort counts and that thankfully, there isn’t much under the sun that is new.

And still, it has been hard to listen to the most recent generation reckon with the ills of the world. Maybe it’s because as a teacher, way back in 2003, it felt like they were running to me asking, “What should we do?” “We” was them and me. Since 2020 it often felt like the question was accusatory, “What have you done, and what are you going to do?” 

Yes, the “mirror of privilege” has felt like it was carried into my life and thrust in my face  – quite a different experience than choosing to be self-reflective. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m not tone policing retroactively. I’m being transparent about how hard it has been to focus on form, surface, utility, volume, mass, content, marketing, designing – you know, the things working studio potters want to know about. 

Of course, I’m being reductive. I have always agreed with Editor Emeritus Mary Barringer’s take, “The magazine assumed that potters were citizens, both of our particular communities and of the wider world,”[1] written in the first issue she edited in December 2004.

Not only do voices from the archive resonate to keep us moving through periods of upheaval, but the Studio Potter board is also a council of strong, divergent voices. The moment I entered, overwhelmed, into the virtual office of Studio Potter’s executive leadership, plopped down, and expressed my intent fear and despair, a board member said to me, “This is what they [the newest generation] are supposed to do.” 

The shorthandedness unfolded – the meaning of the words clarified: every generation needs to be disrupted and it is usually the newest generation who disrupts. The ground of the field needs to be tilled so the crops will be strong. Not every disruption will be fully thought out. Not every question raised will have an answer. Regardless of how the disruption is being delivered, regardless of how systems of communication hierarchy are deconstructed – if we want to reach a resolution and grow stronger, then we have to listen for the core message, the core ask, the core objective. Sometimes we are going to have to ask more questions on the road toward understanding and common ground. And the “we” doing all the asking and listening, who is this “we”? I think “we,” in this case, is comprised of those who want to hear each other and want to do better. I think “we” includes the disruptors and the disrupted. To support conversation more actively between the disrupted and the disruptors, I’d like to ask for a resurgence of an older form of dialogue.

Social media has usurped the role of “Letter to the Editor,” making the tradition of taking a slow moment to pen a reply all but obsolete. Affirmation of articles that garner approval and interest get shared in posts and stories, “Here, read this!” Articles that engender ire, either die a quiet death at the hands of the ever-updating algorithm or they get called-out and, too often, conversation stops. 

I’m asking if there is a way to bring back the exchange of the “Letter to the Editor” section, but even as I type this… 

Is my ask out of touch? 

Marina Bolotnikova, writing “In the age of social media blasts, what’s the point of letters to the editor?” for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism school and research organization in St. Petersburg, Florida, gets to a probable game plan in her May 2022 article:

Last fall, Daniel Delgado was bothered by something in a comic published in Jewish Currents, a magazine with a loyal following on the Jewish left. “When Settler Becomes Native” examines the claim that all Jewish people are native to Israel, but Delgado, who is Quechua and Jewish, thought the piece used anti-Indigenous language and erased Native Jews. “Jewish Natives are already invisibilized in the Jewish community. Yet our voices and experiences are of critical relevance to this conversation,” he wrote in a Twitter thread in November. In a Twitter direct message, Jewish Currents asked Delgado if he’d turn it into a letter to the editor. “We do that all the time,” editor-in-chief Arielle Angel said. “Our older readers will write letters, but younger folks need to be invited and told that the thing that they just published on the internet is also a letter and can be integrated into the conversation that the magazine is having.”

OK, this is the plan moving forward – we will keep an eye out for chatter on social media, and we will ask you, encourage you, to raise your voice and become part of the permanent record that is the Studio Potter archive. In 2022 Studio Potter has delivered articles calling to question our environmental impact. A decades-long conversation – yes, but what did you think when you read Chase Travaille’s “Shard Amphora” alongside Nicole Hamm’s “Raw Material Routes?” There have been gorgeous, in-depth stories from Indigenous clay artists. Did you have questions about Brad Meninga’s “Ahikaaroa - Long Ago Fire: An Interview with Lillian Pitt and Richard Rowland,” Richard Zane Smith’s “Rootedness the Power of Peace,” or Tony Pandola’s “Where Everything is Interconnected?” Did you see any connective threads between these stories that you wanted to talk about?

This summer we have been looking at the concept of retirement through various lenses. In the August issue, Harrison Levenstein carries that conversation forward with “An Unconventional Life.” He looks at the familiar and respected model Linda Christianson provides us, but he also boldly puts forward new ideas built on a model from the Civil Rights Era. Ultimately, he is asking us to release the romance of the isolate potter. 2021 National Juried Student Exhibition Merit Award recipient, eM Irvin, delivers a manifesto with, “A Gate and its Keepers.” They ask us to reexamine the binary of success and failure, breaking established formats throughout the text. Richard Nickel has collaborated with Zuzka Vaclavik to illustrate and animate a poem from Homer, “The Kiln.” The language reminds us of the precarious and fickle nature of transactional, commodified relationships. Meghen Jones introduces a new book, reviewing, Listening to Clay: Conversations with Contemporary Japanese Voices, wherein we can sit outside of a cultural evolution to witness and learn from a new generation finding their own way to respect the past and change the future. 

I hope as you read, you will have many questions and talking points you would like to share. I’m eager to plop down in your virtual room and listen. I’m eager to provide a platform for the conversations that come after the articles have been read, regardless of where they go.

In closing, I want to share more of Mary’s first letter to Studio Potter readers, if only to remind us all that the multiple generations of ceramists working today may have more in common than we think. 

In 1973 I was a young potter setting up my first studio, a working/teaching/gallery space in a small New England city. It was a hopeful time. Hierarchies of all kinds seemed poised for upending injustices about to be righted. Making pots seemed like right livelihood, a form of artmaking wholly in keeping with the idealistic and anti-authoritarian spirit of the times, and although I was clueless about running a studio, I was full of optimism about the path on which I was embarking.

…from the beginning [Studio Potter] sounded a different note from the other publications then available. It was grassroots and feisty. It presented potters in their studios rather than objects in galleries and provided technical information in an informal and seat-of-the-pants manner. It spoke up for localness, self-sufficiency, and the independent yet communitarian spirit which still characterizes American ceramics … As ideas and influences flowed into the field and the issues facing potters in and out of the studio became more complex, Studio Potter addressed them.”

A few updates, but the core values remain and, moving forward, Studio Potter will continue addressing the issues you are facing inside your studio and outside your studio. 

Be well everyone, thank you for reading, and we look forward to the coming conversations,

Jill Foote-Hutton, co-editor


Endnote:

[1] Barringer, Mary. “Starting Out,” Volume 33, Number 1, Studio Potter, December 2004, p. 2

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