I’ve been trying to translate my thoughts into something other than excited gibberish for the past 48 hours. Each time I try to explain what I enjoyed most about my weekend, it comes out in the staccato blurting similar to that of a child who just returned from Disneyland. I had the opportunity to meet and attend a workshop featuring Ron Newsome, an accomplished potter and former instructor at ClayWays Studio and Gallery.
This was my first workshop and my first opportunity to meet Ron as he left ClayWays and Austin just before I came to the studio over 6 years ago to receive my first instruction. My first impression of him was that in spite of his enormous talent and experience, he remains wonderfully humble and approachable. The workshop felt less like formal instruction and more like a fascinating discussion. An artistic, philosophical and at times spiritual engagement while working with clay. Because the two days wandered wonderfully over and through a broad deck of topics - there’s no way for me to even outline them for you. So, I’ll just highlight the things I want to remember.
On the potter’s voice:
Ron discussed how a potter’s work is more than just a functional or decorative submission, it is an artist’s statement and revelation of who they are, personally. He spoke of how, over time, we can pick out work and identify the artist. We can learn who people are, through the work they create.
On artistic (and maybe personal) evolution:
Ron spoke of how his work has evolved over time and how it is still changing. He discussed the importance of looking back over your work, seeing how it changes as you change - that this is a good and necessary thing that happens in the development of your aesthetic. I revisited this short but sweet quote while watching some footage I recorded and I liked it so much I re-wrote it prominently in my own notebook: “If you’re not moving on, modifying, fixing a little bit then you should re-evaluate.” It served as a bit of validation that perhaps the constant “discomfort” I feel with my work is not only normal, but critical.
We spent some time on day one discussing “beauty.” What is it? Who/what defines it and is it truly definable? There were different thoughts and positions among the group on this and Ron left it open for us to consider as we work. He talked about the 7 Elements of Shibusa, the Japanese words which refer to the aesthetic of beauty in its most simple state. The elements are: simplicity, implicity, modesty, silence, naturalness, everydayness, and imperfection.
I wasn’t familiar with Shibusa, but I am familiar with a similar term, “Wabi-Sabi” used to define a state of imperfect beauty in an object. Or rather, what makes the piece beautiful IS it’s imperfection. (Recommend this book for an interesting perspective).
This one is a big deal for me as I’ve been struggling to be comfortable with “organic” work. I watched Ron blaze through six or seven bowls in a matter of minutes. Ones with a bit of wobble or sway, he played with only for an instant, before making his piece with it and allowing it to be. “Stop fussing with it,” he advised, telling us his instructors often said these words to him. I’m thinking aout having that one tattooed to my forehead.
On working in isolation:
I have to tell you, I felt such a kinship with Ron, almost immediately. It seems a fairly common personality trait among the potters I feel the most connection to. We share a thread of introversion. A preference for solitude, particularly when working. I’m not sure it was something he intended to speak about, but the topic of our throwing environment came up - and he mentioned that sometimes people don’t understand how disruptive it can be to stop and talk to someone, then resume working on the wheel. He has no idea how much I wanted to leap up and hug him.
He described his work environment, a virtually secluded studio in the middle of nowhere, not far from the Appalachian mountains in Alabama. He works for hours for hours in that space. And I immediately thought of my own fantasies of my own home studio, unplugged and cocooned away from noise, distraction and traffic. I’m not at a point where I can facilitate the home studio and kiln and shop…but as I get closer to that, Ron graciously offered to answer any questions I may have.
On being a resource to others:
In the artist community, it is not uncommon for established artists to be reticent in sharing their tips, techniques and tools. Even the most well-meaning among us can sometimes hoard away craft “secrets” to preserve what they feel is their unique stamp on the art world. I found Ron to be a complete and total breath of fresh air in his candor and willingness to share a tip, pass along a reference, share a glaze recipe or give insight based on his experience.
The rest of my thoughts are technical and instructional with loads of new reading (and viewing) material that won’t mean much to you if you’re not obsessed with clay. I’ll spare you.
Ron said several times during brief moments of pause during our two day session: “I have so many stories.” I believe him. And I don’t plan on wasting any of the ones he is kind enough to share with me. I look forward to crafting a letter of thanks to this kind and inspired artist in the next week. I am deeply grateful to have shared two awesome days learning from him and gaining a new friend, too.
Thanks Ron for allowing me to share some photos from the day!