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Learning and Labor

Route 285

The new year began early, for me. Hastily I finished what pieces I could in the studio, mixed batches of clay, packed up the truck to drive to McKinney Texas for a weekend workshop. I was looking forward to it – and as I set out, before dawn, so as to be pretty far down Route 285 by the time the sun started rising, I was also thinking: soon as I get back I need to get to work. 

These two things are always distinct for me – teaching, and working. Making work. When you’re doing that you’re working. When you’re teaching – or attending a workshop too, for that matter – when you’re learning – you’re doing something different. That is a funny distinction to make, but I do it. Despite the fact that often, when you’re teaching, demonstrating, you end up making work that you really like. Why is that?

slab-built stoneware plate with feet

Learning and Labor – this was the motto of the college I went to. There, too, a supposed separation between work and study. The learning part – in that college context – carries the connotation of being passive, sedentary, cerebral. Labor – that part is supposed to make you honest. Adding a physical dimension to the life of the mind, I guess the thinking goes, work helps you ‘earn’ what you know.  Makes your learning stick – makes it authentic.

Maybe that does happen. But the studio has always been an escape, for me, from this artificial distinction – separating the mind and body – and from the academic. For a long time I didn’t want to teach at all, and this was the reason. In the studio there are no ideas – just things that need to get done. There is a great freedom in that – even if it is a bit of an illusion.

Teaching & learning take tremendous energy – they are hard work – work on the other hand, so often, is a source of energy – you leave the studio on a day of making work and feel light, the drudgery redeemed. Also when you think about it – the work you make – the best of it – has a lot less to do with the physical, the tangible, the thingness and the labor. 

Your best work wafts out of the tangible and into the world of idea – and when you’re there at the head of the group, doing some demo you hope students might learn from, your work slides in that direction more easily than ever.