Friday, February 20, 2009


I was throwing a coffee mug the other day (on the pottery wheel, not at someone) and I began thinking the things that my mental hummingbird flits to during these meditative moments. Creating pottery bears many of the same hallmarks of writing, the strike of a key impressing a letter into a page, then a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph... drawing stories from the ethereal plane and pinning them down on a page. So too a shapeless mass of sedimentary leavings is wedged and worked into a ball, subjected to the erosive forces of water and centrifugal force, pressure from my fingers, heat in the kiln, rare earth elements and glass and then back into the fire... just to give me something to transport the coffee from the French Press to my mouth.

Because my coworkers stare at me if I suck it straight from the cauldron.

I might sell this mug. Or I could give it to my wife so she can fill it with tea or even pencils. It doesn't really matter -- for once, the coffee isn't the issue at hand, but the vessel of transport. The usefulness derived by reforming a shapeless blob of mud into a cup-shape.

'Tabula Rasa', the blank slate or the shapeless mass that Lao Tzu referred to as the 'uncarved block'. A blank page or a hunk of clay, it's all just potential yet-to-be-realized.

Most of my life has been spent making the slate less blank. I was born with an inherent and insatiable desire to fill up the blank spots. Writing and art are both borne of that impulse to scribble on the wall, the hardwood floors, or (so my mother hoped) the pages of a coloring book. For thirty-five years, I've been trying to fill the blank spaces with... something. Anything. Coherent or incoherent, it doesn't matter. Sometimes the chaos can be tamed - or at least confined - only by adding more chaos.

But as I move along in my art and my writing, I find myself all the more aware that it's not the scribbling that makes the wall pretty. It's not the ink that makes the page wise. It's the content. Both the ability of an object to accept the content and the ability of an audience to share the experience. Which brings us back to Lao Tsu...

"We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want."

In the lingua Franca of the art school, the word 'Support' was bandied about quite a bit. It's a generic bit of lingo to refer to the surface upon which art - theoretically - happens. The canvas, the clay, the pages of a sketchbook... all are supports. It's a good word. Sitting nestled among a dissonant array of jargon specifically designed to delineate insiders from outsiders, 'support' really is the best word for what the canvas does, what the clay does, what the page does.

The metaphor can be extended to all art. (Yes, I consider even studio pottery to be an artform, not a craft, deal with it.) At its very best, art it is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled by the viewer. Waiting to support their need for art... and we all need art. It's why we doodle in the margins of budget reports during meetings. It's why we convey ideas with charts and graphs and posters. Because the visual is the support for an idea which is only fully-formed in the mind of the beholder. Business statistics or a Klimt nude, the image is the support for the ideas, but ideas are useless without a mind to accept or reject them. Like a radio signal with no receiver.

It's a bit like the old "Tree falls in a forest..." argument. If no one looks at it, is it art? By my definition, the answer is yes only because art is always a support for - at least - the artist. Excepting the artist from the equation, is it still art if it goes un-viewed?

No. I'm afraid that it's just an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

The good news is that art persists -- asserts itself even in the dark places. Look no farther than cave doodles in France or fingerpainting on canyon walls in the middle of the vastness of the Sahara or the many novels unheralded in the lifetime of the writer. They have been discovered by spelunkers and desert-dwellers and later generations of book lovers because art will eventually find an audience, so take heart.

My wife and I own a boatload of original artwork or low-numbered prints from artists I know. That's typical for an artist's home as much as the walls of books are typical for a writer's. Most people will never buy an original painting or sculpture any more than they would pony up for a rare fine first edition of Moby Dick. The walls of American homes are adorned with photos of loved ones and prints that came with the frame they bought at Target and figurines from Hallmark. Which is well and good, there's an aesthetic there (for better or worse) and ultimately those count asdefacto artwork if only for the experience and joy of the beholder under the same rubric that "any books is better than none".

I currently have three mugs sitting on my desk: one is from my favorite cafe and gets me coffee for $.50 a cup; One is from NPR as thanks for my donation a few years back; and one is made from pewter and holds my pens & pencils. There are a couple dozen more in the cupboard at home, many of them handcrafted by friends and fellow potters, artists of earth and centrifuge. They are the only art that I touch every day other than my own.

That is why it doesn't matter to me that if I sell this cup, it might end up holding tea (gasp!), or even pens & pencils for that matter. Because the owner will have we still have a piece of artwork in their home or place of business. A vessel for their thoughts, their ideas of "mugness", and yes, their pencils. Books are sometimes put to some odd uses, but nonetheless people are deriving enjoyment from them and that counts for something.

In all, we're in the business of creating a support for dreams. This means this book or this mug is original art by SW Perkins which you can hold in your hands, feel the heft, trace the lines left by my fingers, marvel at the variations and contrasts and really experience. Not because of what it is, but because of what it holds.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful...and thought-provoking. Thanks, Scott!


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).