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Stop Specializing

I struggled for years in the studio to figure out how and when to concentrate on drawing and painting. The solution I arrived at was deceptively simple. I stopped being a potter.

Now this doesn’t mean I’ll never make pots again. In fact I’m still taking orders from clients for bowls and dishes and sets of functional ware. But until the summer of 2016, I’m concentrating on drawing and painting.

And this brings me to my purpose for writing this article. What has happened in this weird western world that causes artists to fall in line with the idea of exclusionary specialization as a matter of protocol among artists and other creatives?

Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most influential artist of our time, was not limited in his creative output by the media through which he chose to express himself. Picasso’s sculpture, collage, poetry, tapestries, paintings, ceramics and other forms of art all expressed the same oeuvre.

The same could be said for a significant number of classically trained artists. Degas sculpted, Modigliani sculpted. Noguchi designed furniture, lamps and theatre sets.  At the turn of the last century it would have been considered surprising–even inappropriate–for an artist who sculpted to not be a capable renderer.

 What happened?

This isn’t an easy mouse to catch. My suspicion is that student artists are often trained by academic dilettantes (there are lots of these so called “artists” out there), and thereby influenced by the fact that they learn from painters who paint, printers who print, fiber artists who weave and drawing professors who draw. Let me just say that if one’s sculpture instructor is not capable of teaching a 2 level figure-drawing course with expertise, that instructor probably is not worth studying with…

 When I demand my students draw in my clay classes I often hear them say “but I can’t draw.” That’s a bit like a person walking into a restaurant and ordering soup only because of fear of using a fork and a knife.

Can’t draw???

Perhaps you haven’t drawn enough. Perhaps you only think you can’t draw well. Perhaps you haven’t been in the right class with the right professor or perhaps you’d rather be doing something else with your time. “Can’t draw” is both defeatist and belies a greater problem in the school system which has proffered far too much option and choice in the training of our young artists. This, coupled with the fact that the academic system too often rewards the demonstration of academic nonsense rather than the practical, demonstrable fact of artistic production and sales.

But back to drawing and painting…

I always figured that the essential tool for an artist was his or her ability to draw. I’ve spent lots of time drawing from life, drawing from imagination, and just plain old drawing.

In graduate school I had the opportunity to work with James Munce, who taught me about the relationship between drawing and sculpting. He taught me about composition. He especially taught me that an artist’s ability to describe space intellectually to the viewer can be more effective  than a photograph. My sensei in ceramics, Yoshiro Ikeda, worked in clay, but was a trained painter. Yoshi always encouraged me to draw and paint. I often think of my abstract forms in clay as three dimensional surfaces that I paint (rather than glaze).

So I’m determined to continue painting and drawing until summer, when I will crank up the functional pottery again. Until then I intend to produce as many drawings, paintings and mixed media pieces as possible.

 I’m confident that drawing and painting will benefit my ceramic art and expand my possibilities as I continue to explore a multitude of media.

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  • Drawing and painting by BK McCallum


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