My first job after undergraduate school was teaching, of sorts. I was an intern at a historical pottery, and my position entailed throwing in front of visitors while simultaneously explaining the process and answering questions. I credit this job not only with reducing my certainty that I would die from public speaking, but also with my beginning ease at standing before an audience.
For me, a career in ceramics had primarily been about making. Teaching was not the goal; I was never that interested until I really began to do it. (Someone petrified of standing before others does not usually aspire to do so). I have now been a part-time instructor at a craft center for nearly seven years, and taught ceramics in various other capacities five years prior to that. The primary reason I began teaching was to supplement my art-making income. But I continue to teach (instead of finding a different kind of job) because sharing what I love doing is gratifying, and the support and energy are reciprocal.
Five years ago, I began to teach two-to-five-day workshops around the country, in addition to my art making and part-time teaching. I both enjoy and worry over the fast pace and demands of a workshop (very different from my year-round teaching) - expectations bumping into time constraints. Each time, it's both humbling and flattering that people come short and long distances to see something new and work with me. I enjoy when someone is able to seize on one of my suggestions or techniques and incorporate it into their own work. The camaraderie of a workshop environment is rejuvenating, and I usually return home with some new ideas of my own.
A workshop schedule with gaps of a month or more between means a wait between a lesson learned and the implementation of a new plan. I try things a little differently each time, but a new place and group are always different. Demonstrating for adults at a craft center is very different from doing so for students at a university, for instance. I have learned, from others and through experience, various strategies for timing, explanation, and adaptation, the management of which is an ongoing evolution.
The length of a workshop defines the format. A two-day workshop is usually a demonstration only, while a five-day one is hands-on. The two-day format varies depending on if it's at a craft center or university (the difference between a fixed and transient audience, usually). I have a lot to fit into two days. There can be slower moments when I need to finish one part in order to move on to the next, and the audience stays before me - unlike the five-day where participants can work on their own pots - leaving me concerned at times about viewer boredom. I prefer a lively atmosphere, so while I describe my working methods, I also try to encourage conversations about larger issues: pricing, shipping, setting up a studio, health, and favorite movies. Having learned that participants enjoy receiving handouts, I have come up with a list of favorite ceramic artists and reference books to give out, along with the usual glaze recipes and John Glick's articles about back health, and these generate further discussion.
The five-day format is more relaxed for me, but hectic for the participants as they try to make as much as possible between demonstrations. Until recently, my hope for the longer workshops was to have a casual atmosphere with minimal structure. I have since learned that my desire for a relaxed environment created stress; some people prefer structure. So now I provide an outline of what we will do each day. I haven't managed to follow it yet, but having it seems to add a sense of comfort.
The inclusion of a glaze firing adds another challenge to my schedule. Form and surface from wet to leather-hard are paramount in my work; glazing is not. It's difficult to explain to a host trying to fill a workshop, and to participants eager to take home finished work, that they will probably be quite delighted without a glaze firing, and without it there will be more time to learn and make. We typically spend the whole first day just making stamps, and at day's end some students have mentioned that they could do it all week.
Workshops arouse expectations. Many participants have taken a number of them, and comparisons are inevitable. I understand the host's perspective too, having been a workshop coordinator for two years. In the workshop studio, as in real life, I am learning that I cannot please everyone. But I have developed some simple ways to establish a positive studio atmosphere and smooth expectations. For instance, I plan an evening of show and tell, and encourage everyone to participate. It's a welcome opportunity for students to show off work and ask for feedback if they wish, and makes a fun ice-breaker for the first or second evening.
I have also become conscientious about giving one-on-one time, circling around more often to speak with participants while they work. I used to feel that I had to finish most of the pieces I began in order to complete the demonstration, which meant that I spent a lot of time working. I hoped we could all work side by side at one big table - talking, sharing, and watching each other work. This rarely happens. Everyone is at a different stage and people are self-conscious, so my fantasy is not realistic. Visiting with each participant seems much more appreciated than finishing a demonstration. However, for some there can be a paradoxical divide between wanting to see more and wanting to try what I have shown. Sometimes I feel the weight of participants' hope that I am a ceramics superhero, able to deliver profound techniques at lightning speed with ironclad explanations and lifesaving tricks, smiling all the while. Wonder Woman was my idol, really, when I was a kid, and is even in my slide presentation, but that's as close as it gets. So I try tactfully to balance our differing expectations as the freckle-faced, mostly patient, ceramics instructor that I am.
I've learned a couple of lessons about workshop norms and when not to follow them. I know, for instance, that I can graciously and tactfully sell quite a few pots, from cups to big pieces, at the end of a workshop. While some hosts invite selling work as a means to offset their inability to pay more, some might suggest not bothering to bring much, thinking it won't sell. Once, I hand carried only a few pieces to a workshop instead of shipping many, and regretted it. A host always means well, and many have seen it all, but I have learned to trust my experience. Selling work at a clay workshop is not uncommon, but I have spoken with instructors in other media who feel it is either awkward or arrogant. I don't believe it's a conflict to take work to sell. It's what I do for a living; it offsets my expenses for time and travel; and participants enjoy it whether they buy work or not. I also think it's important for folks to see finished pots as part of the process.
I prefer to begin my workshops by showing slides, which is unusual. This allows me to answer the most frequently asked questions right at the start, but more importantly, it allows me to suggest how participants might form their own ideas by explaining how I develop my designs from influences. When I announce that I will do a forty-minute presentation, I sometimes get worried glances. I understand the trepidation over a workshop beginning in the dark with what sounds like a too-long slide lecture, but I know from experience that it is helpful. My slide talk has the standard timeline of my career as the backdrop, but it's ultimately about the evolution of my work and thought processes, from the perspective of two- and three-dimensional design. I rarely mention technical information. I start with my first pots as a means to show threads of form, surface, or influence that have continued, and to illustrate that I in no way began with what I make now. Since my influences aren't pots, I show paintings, magazine ads, antique objects, and images I accumulate in my sketchbooks. I also show drawings I've done paired with the resulting pots. I explain how I think as an artist. Sharing these creative underpinnings seems to be very important to most participants.
I want my workshops to be about accumulating techniques and expanding ideas, not about copying my work, so I have developed some ways to promote independent exploration. Once the lights come back on and we really begin the workshop, I explain - surprising some - that I am there to demonstrate techniques for use in their work, not to show how to make my own. A basket-making instructor and thirty-year veteran of workshop teaching recently explained to me that she only shows very specific techniques during her workshops, ones she has discontinued using in her own work. She pointedly will not show her most current techniques, because she has had instances of participants replicating her work. That I could limit what I share was a revelation. Although I agree that part of learning is imitating, there is a line. I show some techniques I don't use, and now I don't feel the need to show every one I do use. I have become more comfortable about politely and sincerely explaining that I am there to show as many techniques as I can, not to reveal all my secrets.
Another way to encourage independent making is to talk about idea development. If technique is half of the process, pairing it with one's own design idea is the rest. Where ideas come from is an interesting discussion for students. It also usually leads to style: having one, and the difference between acquiring and developing one. The explanation of why I use a specific technique to further a design idea is just as important as the demonstration of how. I often pass out my sketchbooks in order to show how my own ideas begin and evolve. It's very personal to make them available for viewing, but the appreciation I have received for sharing them has made me continue to do it. I can explain the odd and rambling way I sift together influences to form an idea, but seeing it in my sketchbook seems to be more compelling. I recently had a past workshop participant email me that she had a "Kristen moment" and had excitedly begun compiling images she had accumulated over time into a notebook. I was so proud.
The last and probably most important point I have learned to discuss is fear, because most people experience it. Throughout a workshop, I mention that fear of failure can hinder the making process. I joke about teaching a workshop titled "No Fear Clay," and most people I've mentioned it to give a smile of recognition. Many of us have had the experience of wanting to try a new technique, form, or idea, but opting instead for the safe, familiar solution. I believe that this is not out of caution, but from anxiety about destroying what we've begun. A fear of trying is really a fear of failing. While showing slides, I discuss some of my early fears: that during undergraduate school I was too scared to alter; and that it wasn't until I worked with John Glick that I felt comfortable using more than one glaze on the same pot. My acknowledgement of this common feeling seems to help participants experiment with what they've seen during the workshop.
Teaching and learning are circular. I'm looking forward to the evolution of my workshop instruction through both my observation and direct experience. Writing this reminds me of several participants who have contacted me months or years later to say they are still using something I showed them. I want workshops to remain fresh both for me and for the folks coming to take them. I have some ideas for changes already; at this point, I teach a broad range of techniques, but I can imagine devoting a whole workshop to a more focused topic (clay-making from sketch books, pots from paper templates, or mid-range electric firing, for example). This new format could define and simplify expectations, and be a whole new adventure. Coming soon to a craft center near you: "No Fear Clay!"