Finding Satisfaction in What We Do

An investigation into the process of creativity and how we yearn after response from the world, and where we find it

Hi Nell

Don't know if this will interest you, but something I have been working on for some time and I thought it might strike a chord.  Also, I need someone intelligent to read it and tell me if it makes sense.  No need to write a heap in reply; perhaps we can talk about it when next you phone.

Love you


This is a modified and added-to article I found on hardcopy from a lost computer file dated Monday, 23 February 1998.

Finding Satisfaction in What We Do -


Satisfying the Creative Urge

A satisfying life comes to us not from inhabiting a place of certainty, but from where we can express ourselves.  Whether we consider ourselves artists or not, whether we exercise it regularly or not, the creative urge runs deep in all of us.  It's what we tap into when we create a garden, restore an old car, educate a child, make a pot or an evening meal.  We know we are being creative when the activity seems rewarding, satisfying, fulfilling without causing harm to others.

When we engage in such an activity, notions of certainty become irrelevant.  It's true we often seek a degree of control, of the kind that comes from having "technique" or "craftsmanship", but this will not give any certainty of the outcome if we are to find the process satisfying. 
What we want is response and feed-back, whether our chosen field is gardening, car restoration, education, pottery or cooking.  Even cooking something wonderful: although we want that special result, if we are so skilled that we can do it easily and without trying, if it is not uncertain, then the process becomes boring.

A Trade-off between Responsive and Fool-proof

In certain aspects of our lives we want safety, certainty, predictability.  However when we are involved in a creative activity, in order to express ourselves we need a medium that responds to our creative inputs.  The problem is that there is a trade-off between the responsive and the certain or fool-proof.  This applies in all areas of creativity, not just art.  If I were a keen horse rider, I would prefer a beast with spirit, not some old reliable ("fool-proof") hack that never bucks and just plods along no matter what I do.  I would want a horse that responds to my every touch.  To a beginner horse rider, such an animal is usually quite dangerous.  A driving enthusiast wants a car that responds to his or her every input;  and the response should be definite and immediate, not some delayed or ambiguous response.  Press the accelerator, we want it to ACCELERATE! Press the brake, we want it to stop... in a hurry.  A normal driver like myself who is used to a "fool-proof" car should not drive a Formula 1 racer without a lot of tuition and great care.  They are dangerous, but they are the ultimate in motoring responsiveness.  For someone whose creative juices are turned on by motoring, they are a very exciting vehicle.

A Responsive Medium

The same principle applies to the medium we use to create a work of art.  In the process of expressing our creativity, we need to choose materials that respond.  If they don't respond to our inputs, we can't express ourselves with them.  The more responsive the medium is, the more the scope for self-expresson.  One of the reasons clay is so popular as a medium is that it is so responsive.  Every touch leaves a mark, so we can easily express ourselves with it. Compare this with for example steel, which is much less compliant.  But this freedom of expression always comes at the expense of reliability and control.***  As responsiveness increases, we have less and less control over an increasingly unpredictable medium.  It's a simple trade-off.  And where we choose to stand on that continuum from predictable, reliable and fool-proof on the one hand, and responsive, exciting, unreliable on the other... this is a deeply personal choice, a fundamental life decision.  In many areas of our lives we will choose safe, fool-proof, reliable.  I'd prefer to drive around in the safety of a Volvo rather than a Formula 1 racer.  But even if we are fundamentally a very cautious person in our daily life, with our day job, our family, how we spend most of our time, one of the nice things about art is that for once we can throw caution to the winds, and live dangerously!

[***By the way, there is an interesting corollary to this.  The more responsive the medium, the more relevant is "technique" to expressing ourselves.  If we lack technique, what happens is that as we work with the medium, putting energy into it, the medium uses that energy to express itself, it's properties, through us.  So the more responsive the medium, the more "out of control" it is, the more we have to compensate with our own technical control.]

An Example - Glazes

We can buy a large range of commercial glaze stains for colouring glazes, but these are usually very stable, which can be a problem when we are trying for particular qualities in our glaze - they are usually opaque colours, and though usually reliable when used as directed, often come out looking more like enamel paint than glaze.  On the other hand we can use colouring oxides e.g. cobalt oxide (or carbonate), iron oxide, copper oxide (or carbonate) and a few others.  These are far more responsive to factors under our control such as firing conditions and the base glaze we put them in.  This difference between commercial stains and colouring oxides is simply a reflection of the trade-off between reliability and responsiveness that happens whenever commercial materials are used - many users of the materials are demanding "reliability".  The manufacturer of these materials provide this reliability of the colouring agents by making them stable, usually by choosing very stable combinations that are fired very high, much higher than we fire, and therefore our firing does not change the material.  But this  reliability comes at the expense of "response".  If we wish to use our ceramic medium creatively as an artist, then we will want it to be as responsive as possible, or at least we will want to have the option of responsiveness when we want it.  As soon as we choose "foolproof" materials, we trade off some of our responsiveness options.

[The stable commercial stains will usually remain inert as a coloured suspension in the fired glaze.  This is why the glaze is opaque.  A colouring oxide like cobalt oxide for example will often be able to dissolve into the glaze like ink into water to give a transparent coloured glaze.  If however the cobalt crystallises out for some reason, the crystals will be opaque.]

Dealing with Important Unknowns

With the experiments I've been doing with the oilspot glazes, I doubt I could achieve this kind of thing with the cautious approach.  The more brilliant effects are very difficult to obtain (and therefore very rare).  There are many important variables acting in concert - sometimes variables one is not aware of, sometimes variables one is aware of, but can't separate out - for example if something happens close to a burner, is this because of temperature or some kiln atmosphere effect from the burner?
I know some of the important factors, and can only guess at some of the others.

Responsive, Unreliable, but Interesting

One thing I am reasonable confident to say is that it will be a long time before the brilliant effects that are possible are available "off the shelf".  I'm not talking about the every-day oilspot tenmoku.  I could buy that by the kilo in Japan 35 years ago.  I'm talking about the brilliant effects one can get with this glaze, and indeed with many glazes, just by working persistently and perceptively with it.  If I were to package my glaze and offer it for sale, I would go broke.  It's very unreliable, and when we are in business selling things, people expect them to work.  But one is stymied by this built-in principle: as artists or even as human beings, we tend to find boring those things that are most reliable.  Or to put it another way, the things that fascinate us are those that respond most to our creative inputs... and the most responsive media are the most unreliable, unpredictable and difficult to use.  So I'm spending lots of time and energy pursuing these elusive glazes, achieving a number of nice pots, a very few stunning results, and lots and lots of boring brown pieces. 

So Why Bother

So why does one bother?  A simple answer is that these effects when they work well are quite gorgeous, and one imagines the perfect iridescent butterfly tenmoku where the effect is actually on the pot and not on a drip of glaze that's fallen on the kiln shelf.

Some day of course the process will be understood; anyone willing to go to the trouble will be reasonably assured of success, as is the case now with many other classical glazes like celadon, kuan, copper red etc.  So how will I feel about the silver oilspots when I can buy them from my friendly pottery supplier?  Or even when I can do them reliably with my current materials?

Probably I'll feel a little bored, which seems a pity, but isn't this one of the fundamental processes of life?   We chase a dream, we catch it, we move on to another dream.  The caught dream is not discarded - it becomes part of the launching pad for the next dream.  Life moves on, or dies.

Reliable Glazes

Getting back to fool-proof vs. responsive... The grid experiments I've been using, choosing a set of fluxes and then varying alumina and silica, these grids contain both types.  In the middle the glazes are usually fairly stable and reliable.  We can make fairly large changes in glaze composition here without too great a change in the result.  Similarly with firing conditions etc.  These are the glazes chosen so often by industry to give dependable results.

Responsive Glazes

But move towards Corner A or C and to a lesser extent, across towards D, and we find glazes that are far more responsive.  They respond to small changes in composition, firing conditions, clay body etc.

Glazes for Industry

What we are seeing here is how the glaze landscape changes around this stable central area on the grid.  At a given temperature, there is a balance of fluxes alumina and silica that often occurs in the middle of a set, where we get a stable reliable transparent glaze that is not too runny, doesn't devitrify (form crystals). and is generally well behaved.  It will be great for production, where we want the work to come out reliably without significant losses.  We should be able to reliably eliminate crazing, provide a reliable surface for decoration that is not going to dissolve our pigment.  We should be able to easily set up systems so relatively unskilled labour can glaze the pots for us, because these glazes are reasonably "fool-proof".  We can see how industry is nudged towards using this kind of product, because industry is motivated by profit.

Getting to the Right Ball Park

As artists, certainly, profit is important, but our PRIME motivation is the quality of what we are doing.  This will often put us in a completely different ball park.  Some will argue that we can put profit first and still achieve quality, and to a degree this is true, but as soon as we put profit first, immediately there is a whole raft of quality possibilities that is no longer available to us.  They are now in a different ball park.  If we compromise on clay quality when making porcelain, there are certain options that are immediately lost to us.  If we decide that ball milling is out because it costs too much, and we will only do glazes that don't need milling, sure there is still a vast range of excellent glazes, but some wonderful glazes are now denied us.

Fringe Dweller

And so I find myself drawn to the fringes.  Particularly to what I call the baselines: the kaolin baseline, which is the lineblend resulting from adding kaolin to our starting point mix of flux materials, or the silica baseline, where we are adding just silica.  Along here we find matt glazes including ones that give interesting colour breaks, crystalline glazes, opalescent and milky glazes, interesting colour response from pigments, stringing (webbing) and other runny glaze effects.

B is for Boring

But not to corner B.  This is the corner which we can characterise as "low fluxes".  The glazes are sometimes underfired.  The alumina and silica are in the right proportions to give a stable glaze if fired high enough and then we should be able to get the B corner glazes to melt, giving fully matured stable and reliable glazes.  Typically they are then shiny and transparent, and usually uncrazed, but by and large, B is for "boring".

Artistry and the Medium We Choose

And yet sometimes we want to use these boring glazes too.  There was a time a hundred or so years ago when such glazes were highly prized and difficult to obtain reliably.  What was once magical is now easy and perhaps uninteresting.  I don't want to give the impression that an artist must always use interesting "responsive" materials.  A good artist can bring any material to life, even boring paint-like commercial glazes.  In this case the artistry has to come from something other than the qualities of the materials. Perhaps they are masters of decoration or form or spontaneity, and don't need the qualities I am talking about.  But wherever their artistry lies, if it is exciting and stimulating, there will be an element of risk-taking, and they will have drawn a response from the medium that we empathise with.

Ian Currie

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