Wednesday, July 20, 2011

perfection is torture

Lately I've been noticing how much I clench my jaw. I'm not sure that this is a new habit, or something I've always done, but every time I catch myself doing it, I unclench and try to loosen up my face. Now that I'm 40 I'm starting to worry about losing my youthful freshness and I don't want to be one of those people with a permanent scowl. While I'm working on my clenching, I'm also starting to change my attitude toward perfection. Somehow these two things go together in my mind, so stay with me.

Artists are tortured souls because we torture ourselves, in very specific ways that cut us the most deeply. I have many ways of torturing myself, but one of my favorite ways is by pushing myself to create "perfect" pieces. No cracks, no glaze crawls, no pinholes, no runs, no awkward lines, no bumps, no uneveness... you get the picture. It is a severe kind of torture, punishing and unsympathetic.

When I buy pottery, I'm not looking for "perfection" in the terms I've enumerated above, I'm looking for a piece I love. The things I may consider imperfections were it my own work is stuff that I may not even notice on other people's work. One of my favorite Diana Fayt pieces in my collection is a vase where some of the glaze popped off, creating a chipped looking surface around the bottom. Do I care? Not at all, in fact I love it. It does nothing to take away from the design, or the shape of the piece, which is perfect.

A few weeks ago I had an order for one of the dreaded bird cake stands, in all white. White is the most challenging for me because I have this big piece with a large surface area, and I want it to be smooth and perfect. The piece came out with what looked like a dirty smudge on the surface. I have no idea what it was. I took images of it, sent it to the customer who shrugged it off, took 20% off, sent it out. I heard from the customer later who said he and his wife inspected the piece for a while and could not figure out what the hell I was talking about. I was like, "I'm talking about that smudge, on the surface." It blew my mind that they could not see it.

I've started running a side experiment, where I'm marking what I would usually consider "seconds" at the usual price at my studio and shows and seeing if people bite. And they do. They pick up the piece, inspect it while I sit on my hand to prevent myself from from showing them how the piece is fucked up, and they buy it. That blows my mind too.

I'm starting to think that for me to learn anything, my head has to explode so the new information can get through my shattered skull to my brain. And when I figure something out, I tend to go to extremes with it, so if you get a piece from me with a big crack through it or a chipped foot, take solace in the fact that you are helping me get over being perfect.

24 comments:

  1. we are our own worst critics!

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  2. I so identified with this post (including remembering to unclench the jaw ) that I read it to my husband who immediately responded with - "that's what I've been trying to tell you".

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  3. oh dear, yes, I have my own version of this. Nothing like having a studio sale with a big fat 'seconds' table of etsy shop rejects, that FLY off the shelves. Or when I had my b/m shop, and I would just put them out there on display along with everything else. Everything always sold--and yes, I had to clamp my mouth shut from pointing out the 'flaws'.

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  4. How amazing that you wrote this post, Whitney, as I have been struggling with the exact same issues of imperfections. I keep trying to say to myself, it's the imperfections that make things perfect, but the saying only works to alleviate the clenched jaw syndrome sometimes.

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  5. I was once told that you spend the first 20 years trying to make the perfect pot and the next 20 trying to loosen it up.
    Relax, relax after all it is only clay.
    and Breath- I am working on the breathing...

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  6. Hi there! I am a fan of your blog and am giving you the Butterfly Blogger Award. Check it out here: http://thesteadyhandblog.com/butterfly-blogger-award/.

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  8. Perfectly said! And if you think 40 is freeing...wait until 54!

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  10. I'm laughing out loud as I read your piece because it is all too familiar! You really hit the proverbial nail on the head. I, too am struggling with this issue of self-imposed artistic perfection. A good friend recently said to me, "show yourself some compassion!"
    Easier said than done, huh?

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  11. On of the best things that I did early in my career as a potter was to have show-and-tell with some artistic, non-potter friends. As a newbie, it was an ego boost, but I as my skills increased, they helped me look at my work through a customer's eyes. They didn't notice or didn't care about the imperfections that glared at me. It really helped me get over being a perfectionist about my pottery. I still try to make perfect pots, but I also try hard to differentiate between small imperfections that don't affect the overall piece, and larger problems that do. Good luck at learning this lesson. I think it is a common problem.

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  12. Whitney, even when you manage to unclench your jaw, I can't imagine you sending out a cracked piece! Those tiny imperfections are what give a piece personality just like us humans. (I'm way past 40 and am learning that now, lol).

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  13. Perfectionism in any area of endeavor really does stifle creativity and feelings of self-worth. Good to conquer it early!

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  14. good grief you so often hit the nail directly on the head. at least i've stopped pointing out the "errors" and let customers choose and enjoy the pots that speak to them. i am so critical of my own work, yet spend hundreds of dollars on other pots with very few of the same criticisms..(minus crazing on dinnerware) :) i turned 40 this year as well and am looking forward to loosening up a bit.
    thanks.

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  15. I point the flaws and they say, I don't mind that. or What? That? Who cares.
    So maybe I'll do what you do and just price them and put them out with the firsts.
    I worry about selling the so called seconds on Etsy b/c I'm not there to explain if there is a question. But there prob. wouldn't be one anyways. Well thanks for a great post. You always make me laugh with your directness...which I love.

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  16. I'm sure you have heard that native weavers weave an imperfection into each rug so as not to compete with the gods.

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  17. I tried to compete with the gods and it was driving me nuts. Now I just try to be kind.

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  18. I agree we can be our own worst critic but these 'imperfections' add character to a piece. Your making something by hand its not always going to be perfect. I think there has to be some leeway in creating works.

    I clench my teeth too sometimes!

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  19. I'm not a potter, I'm a woodwright, but long ago I embraced the imperfection. I got my start working for an antique restorationist, and one day the demands of an unrealistic client led me to coin the following saying (unfortunately too late to be used as a retort): 'Perfection is fleeting; only character endures'. The point is that things are new and perfect for only a short time; it is in how they age gracefully that their true quality shows.

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  20. Whitney:
    Soy tu fan de Argentina.
    Me encantan tus piezas y tus reflexiones sobre tu trabajo me siento identificada %100. You are an inspiration to me.

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  21. Once again, thanks for being so honest about this crazy pottery game. Ceramic artists are a nutty bunch, with impossibly high standards for ourselves, but far more inclusive attitudes toward the work of others.

    I myself try to differentiate between "minor" and "major" flaws when deciding if something is a second (because in my mind, almost every pot is a second!). A minor flaw is one I see, but no one else probably will. A major one could be pointed out by anyone, like a huge crack. I personally send the major flaws to the landfill, but the minors go out into the world with me just trying to avert my eyes!

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  22. Your opening line made me laugh -- you caught me clenching MY jaw! Thanks for sharing your (grudgingly) positive attitude! :)

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  23. I do the exactly same things: perfection and clench my teeth. There are 2 awful things. My jaw is always sore. I don't think we can change perfection habit though.

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