Saturday, July 19, 2008

the problem with pretty

There's this issue I've been struggling with for a while now in my work. Basically, making beautiful, pretty things in clay is one of the easiest things in the world for me. If I really opened the taps, there would be no end to it. There is no end to it. And one of the reasons why I put myself in the ranks of tortured artist is because I actually don't value pretty things all that much.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a girly-girl who looooves beautiful things in the world. I need cute shoes, lip gloss, and pretty dresses to function properly on this planet. But when it comes to making my own work, pretty ain't worth much. It's too easy, and I don't value my work unless it's hard-- it must challenge me on some level. I'm like that with a lot of things in my life- I'm notorious with learning lessons the hard way, which was really wore down my poor mom when I was growing up. When I first started with my work, it was all hard, but I've been working at it long enough now where the only hard part is dealing with bad firings. And annoying wholesale customers.

I've been thinking about this for a while, trying to come to some sort of settlement on the issue. Sometimes I go with full acceptance: I am blessed with this ability to make beautiful things, and I should simply receive this gift and make beautiful things. But I can't fool myself; I feel as though I'm not seeing the real gift right in front of me, but I don't know what it is. I'm blind. Then, I received an email two days ago from one of my friends, who I will call EL-ZIE. I dread Elzie's emails sometimes because I know she loves me and my work, but she also sees right through my bullshit:

Your work is so much tamer than you are. You are a wild woman. Push past the pretty girl. Please, put some of the bad words in. The intellectual and biting humor part of you that comes through in your writing. Art is all code for who we really are, presented in a way that we are ready to expose to others. I think that you have laid the ground work, and I can say that I am ready for more of you.

I immediately closed this email and tried to act like I hadn't read it, but of course thought about it all day. I can't pretend that this is all there is to my work, as easy and lovely as that would be. If I'm going to continue to call myself an artist, I have to let go of the pretty as my driving force... but how? And am I making this too hard too, this process of evolution, or is struggling so much a part of my DNA that I have no choice but to do it this way? And did I just manage to say "I, me, mine" 15 times in one paragraph?

People, I'm going on vacation now. I obviously need it!


  1. Hey Whitney, welcome the world of struggling artist, and I dont mean financially..... my pottery friend and I struggle with this and many more creative-ness dilemmas. I have an opposite struggle with my work being not refined, rather crude really and I think that we are steered into believing that to be sought after by "customers" it must be perfect... I have made a leap of faith and changed my style (for now) I guess I will find my answer one day, hope you find your way too!! Remember you dont have to throw in the towel on "prety work" completely, it is alway nice to fall back on during the less creative episodes.... Penny Burke-SC---

  2. As I read this I thought about an assignment in art school: to make something really horrible looking. People actually struggle with that. Maybe it's the whole preconceived Idea thing...I don't know...
    Then on the "what is horrible?" tangent I next thought about pbs specials Ive seen of really really super deep deep ocean (ocean) sea creatures. How they are really (really) horrible looking. Then I started to think of their phosphorescence how gorgeous that is....and how I personally find really ugly things beautiful...Wabi Sabi etc. particularly. So I'd say: find what is ugly about things that are pretty. They can have that biting angry super-shiny glint. There are alot of things that are gorgeous and terrifying (the eye of a tornado). So not to make your life more difficult or anything, but I don't think "pretty" has to be without artistic importance...
    But by all means tie both hands behind your back, and force yourself to make something using only your body...You wild woman!

  3. Ann K.10:21 AM

    As I see it, "pretty" sometimes can be empty of meaning. Maybe that is the question to ask yourself? Does what you are creating have meaning for you?

  4. What you whining about, girlfriend? You've already done some perfectly 'Whitney' pieces: very complex large vases with insane amounts of detail. However, your most quintessential work so far was the ashtray with the smoking birds on it: useful, pretty, but with an hilarious edge. Loved them!

  5. Oh, and have a great vacation!

  6. Hello! Today is my first visit to your blog and I'm sorry to hear you're going through this dilemma. I don't think it's uncommon among artists, especially material-based ones. You have to work out what is right for you, but just to add my 2 cents, I have to tell you that despite being a ceramic artist, there isn't much functional ware out there that excites me - but yours is divine, and I'd be very sad if you stopped making this beautiful stuff because you felt you "should". Maybe some theoretical reading about beauty would help clarify what you really feel about your work. Good luck! Amanda

  7. heythere10:34 AM

    Hi Whitney, I came across your blog a little while ago and I frankly find it really refreshing to read the cold hard facts about your art practice. I have been potting for 15 years but only launched full-time last year as I had a few years to take care of the kids.
    After struggling with new work and making my mark the latest work of mine that is selling is also pretty- it seems like that sells the fastest. I try to balance ceramics with painting because I need a break from the daily grind of clay and I also need an outlet to make mentally interesting work for myself. It seems to challenge me enough, hopefully so I can still make the pretty work to keep afloat financially. Thats the plan, anyways.
    Anyways, all that to say kudos to you for your willingness to really work through some of those kinds of issues in your work- you have great work and you have figured out a lot of things, you may just need a new little challenge to keep you going into the next 10 years.

  8. Anonymous6:51 PM

    I agree with Amanda. It would be a pity if you stopped working in your current style just because it's "pretty." The older I get, the more I embrace the pretty. Back in the day, as a fine arts and graphic design student, I never used to use that word to describe things. I hated the word and what it implied. Now, I find myself saying all the time, "What a pretty color. What a pretty room. What a pretty melody. What a pretty composition."

    If you're verbally tough and acerbically witty, then let the bad-ass in you come out through your writing and your conversation. But if your hands produce the pretty, let them do what they do naturally. If your style morphs into something grittier, fine, but I wouldn't force it just because a trusted friend wants to see it. I think your work is unique and the craftsmanship superb. Mother Nature herself would put some of your work on her coffee table if she could. How tough is that?