dickthrowingWhy Go To Workshops? By Joe Campbell

Why do we spend the time, money, energy, and brain cells to attend ceramic conferences? Take the registration fees, travel and lodging expenses, and “recreational costs,” pool them together to buy some new ceramic releases in both print and video, and you will have a mighty impressive little library there. But, you say, there’s something more to these conferences…something intangible, that can’t easily be put onto a video or printed in a text. You know, I think you’ve got something there—something we should address.

Earlier this year, while driving back from the “Functional Ceramics 1997” conference held in Wooster, Ohio, somewhere between the outskirts of town and the outskirts of the next Exxon station, it dawned on me that I had once again emptied my pocket of all legal tender. This caused me to do two things: to ponder, once again, the role that conferences and workshops play in my professional life, and to look in the console of my truck for enough change to buy another pack of Rolaids. Now to the pondering.

The first two conferences I ever attended were NCECA-sponsored, held in Toronto, Canada and Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the early 1970s. I don’t remember which of these was the first, (but then most of the early 70s are not in chronological order for me anyway!). Then there were the Super Mud events held at Penn State with Pete Voulkos, Ken Ferguson, David Shaner, and Maria Martinez…pretty heady stuff for a kid! Then there was Paul Soldner with a drum of used motor oil and an electrolux! Ah, the stuff of dreams. Fast forward now to the recent Wooster conference with Richard Aerni and Linda Arbuckle, and look for some common threads. Ignore the empty wallet syndrome. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I think it has something to do with people being alive. Not printed, not taped, not compressed into a can and sent through the mail, but alive with colds and handkerchiefs, and bad hair, and personalities. If our primary concerns at conferences are the techno-tips and seeing “just how she holds her fingers to make that special lip,” I think we need to re-tool. What we really need to take home with us is that little piece of humanity that has been graciously offered to us by the presenters and our peers—that little taste of someone else’s flesh that we evidence in the work of good potters. It has little to do with slick technique and earth-shaking glaze recipes. Great work is not the result of “putting yourself into your work”, but results when we refuse to be “removed from our work.” Wow, again pretty heady stuff, huh?

OK, enough of the heavy eastern stuff already, what really took place at this Wooster thing anyway? Well, let me see if I can summarize the high points before my memory smooths them into one nice flat point.

1. Linda Arbuckle really is the reigning Queen of Majolica.

2. Richard Aerni, then, must be the reigning King of Ash Glazes.

3. Phyllis Blair Clark, who organizes and promotes this event, reall is the Earth Mother to us all.

4. The only thing that Linda appears to do better than Majolica is teach.

5. The only thing that Richard seems to do better than ash glazes is mold making.

6. The one thing Phyllis has, that is honed sharper than her organizational skills, is her aesthetic sense.

7. Potters that carry themselves so beautifully and gracefully at the wheel should not be allowed to dance (at least not in public!).

8. New friends rapidly become old friends when deflocculated by the addition of a conference.

9. The Wooster Conference was way cool, and I will probably never miss going to it again (provided that I can find my way back).

10. And finally, a revelation that resulted from a breakfast conversation with a new friend that teaches grade school: the only real difference between her 2nd grade students and my freshman and sophomore level students is their size.

So try not to take this conference thing too seriously and you will probably find these events to be incredibly refreshing and beneficial in ways that really weren’t intended. (By the way, unintentional learning sends down deep roots.) Joe Campbell is associate professor of art at Frederick Community College in Frederick, MD. He maintains a studio and residence in Harpers Ferry, WV.