How we learn pt.1: Neural anatomy and the 15 minute teapot test

One day last spring I sat my studio team down for our weekly meeting. We had previously been working through glaze chemistry and they had the "please don't make me do this again" look all over their faces. They instantly perked up when I switched to a hands-on clay exercise. I laid out the rules of the simple exercise. Make a teapot in fifteen minutes, no tools, no preconceived ideas. Ready... set... go! They laughed thinking I was joking until I pointed to the clock.

The first five minutes where painful to watch. Insecurity reigned as teapot bodies where pinched into form and immediately crushed back into balls of clay. This first level of idea making is very similar to fishing. Casting your line into the pool of ceramic form you hope to hook something that is at least recognizable. At the ten minute mark desperate ideas started to morph into functional volumes. The collective confidence of the group surged as spouts and handles where added. My coworkers cracked a smile as I called time and we sat back to critique our creations. With only fifteen minutes we had teapots that showed surprising clarity in design and form.

This stream of consciousness exercise recreates the naive feelings of a beginner student. As trained clay artists it is easy to lose the feeling of confusion and lack of direction that students experience. After all we know at least one answer to the questions we pose our students. Effective teachers have the ability to create empathetic links to their student's unsure state of knowing. Students need information, technique, and hope that they can push through their "not-knowing" to a sense of understanding. This is especially true of complicated subjects that do not have black and white answers. Subjects such as aesthetics and philosophy occupy the subtle grey areas of learning which can be both rewarding and frustrating for students. Behind this exercise there are many educational topics that deserve attention. In the next few posts I will highlight two specific areas- The role neural anatomy has on learning and how knowledge of this anatomy can change the way teachers communicate ideas.

Lets take a look at how the human brain grasps an idea. I am not a neuroscientist so please forgive the simplicity with which I discuss this topic. As we experience external stimulation our brain's billions of neurons record the sensations that we are experiencing. Individual neurons link together creating pathways for electrical impulses to travel through the brain. Picture an elaborate system of super highways that crisscross through your brain. Your memories, ideas, and identity are all manifestations of these connections. As we link new experiences to old information these pathways are revised. The saying "you will loose it if you don't use it" is actually true. The less a neural pathway is used the more likely it will be erased so the neurons can be used for more pressing matters. The human brain functions as a self-refreshing hard drive constantly updating with the most relevant information. 

(Click here for a video that provides a great visual for this concept.)

To understand this concept try to recall the details of a hobby you enjoyed at a previous point in your life. Do you remember specifics or the general feeling of enjoyment you had while doing the hobby? When you stop engaging in the hobby the specifics are lost, or condensed into a few enjoyable memories. My example of this is my teenage preoccupation with concerts. I spent many years going to music festivals and trading recordings of the events. In my passion for the music I filled my brain with loads of statistics that were relevant to that specific context. I could recall set lists from exciting shows off the top of my head. As I moved onto other passions the neural pathways encoding these statistics loosened leaving those memories blurry. I would have to reengage those pathways with more stimuli (other concerts, conversations with people of similar interests, etc.) to be able to recall that information again. At some point unused information completely fades as the neurons are reassigned to new information.

The process of learning is fluid, organic, and infinitely flexible. We usually aren't aware of our learning until someone challenges us to recall information and prove our understanding. My next post covers how we take ownership of learning by consciously strengthening our neural pathways through repetitious action (practice), expansion (connecting to prior knowledge), or dramatic stimuli (learning under duress). Check back later in the week for the next installment.

This is the first post in a series on how we learn. The series was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org


In the Studio: Merry Christmas Mugs

Merry Christmas! (I know I'm a few days late.) I hope the holiday was fun and relaxing for those who celebrated it. I've been basking in the glory of home cooking. I'm back in the states for the next few weeks enjoying a much needed vacation. I'm having a bit of reverse culture shock but adjusting nicely to some down time. Ill be heading to Asheville on Friday to work for a week at Black Mountain Studios. Should be a great time making work with friends.

Here are a few pics of the mugs that I finished just before I left Shanghai. They came out of the kiln and went straight into a box to the Schaller Gallery. They should arrive in the next few weeks along with new platters. (Click here to see the work currently available at the gallery.) I decided to work with a set of 30 instead of my usual 10. Handles were the focus as I added and subtracted color to emphasize the line quality of the profile. I like the direction these handles are taking with their colorful interiors. I gleamed a few new deco ideas from these cups that I'm going to take into the next set of teapots that I make.


Guest Blogger Kristen Kieffer talks about Oribe Ware

Serving dishes, Oribe-style Mino ware, Momoyama period, 16th c. Japan

When Ben asked me to choose a piece from ceramic history that has influenced my work, the choice was easy. Anyone who has heard me lecture about my process, or takes a quick trip through the influences on my blog knows I love ceramics and its history, but am more influenced by non-ceramic objects. However, over the years, pots ranging from Mexican Mimbres bowls to Nigerian Yoruba vessels and from Iranian lustreware to Illinois Haeger planters have influenced my forms and patterns. Lately though (if the last 10 years can be considered “lately”), I’m absolutely gaga over Oribe ware.

Most potters are familiar with the deep emerald, copper green glaze called “Oribe.” I don’t think it was until I worked with studio potter John Glick in the mid-90s that I became aware that it’s actually a type of Japanese pottery. And then it wasn’t until the early 00s that my fondness for Oribe ware began to evolve into adoration and influence. In 2003, I taught a workshop at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which miraculously coincided in timing with the Met’s exhibition Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of 16th century Japan. I bought the book, but am lucky to have had the luxury of seeing all those pots and shards in person.

I’ve had the picture of these five Oribe-style Mino ware serving dishes on my studio wall since that museum visit, hoping to absorb a bit of their simultaneous strength and softness into my own pots. When I find something new I love, I have two goals: figure out what I love about that object and then figure out how to apply that idea to my work. It takes me time to understand what the (often intangible) characteristic is I’d like to capture. Every object has a design lesson(s) to offer. “Is it the form, lines, attitude, texture, function…?” I ask myself. My hope is to distill a favorite object down to its design core and apply one or more of those basic elements with a combination of others. Sometimes I can’t determine what it is that I love about an object; other times, I can’t figure out how to apply that idea to my work. Some objects remain a mystery.

The surface decoration of the Oribe ware was mostly what called to me from the beginning, but it wasn’t that simple. In 2010, I began to add stripes and polka dots of color to pop out my raised, slip-trail patterns, particularly for the lighter glaze colors in my palette. It was a conscious, formal decision to add more color for fun, use the color to draw one’s eye around the form, and layer the patterns for impact. It wasn’t until after I started adding the stripes and dots that I thought again about the Mino vessels.

What strikes me most about each container, and Oribe ware in general, is how the amorphous, drippy green compliments and contrasts over the geometric form and its surface design. I have no desire to simply add drippy, dark green glaze to my pots (though I soda-fired for a decade in part because it added a similar visual softness). I tend to translate my influences for design more indirectly, rather than quoting directly. Though I love the dots and stripes and am sure those patterns filtered into my subconscious off my studio wall, I didn’t add dots and stripes to my pots because of these containers. What I really want to capture from Oribe ware (the design nugget I gleaned) is the contrast in layering: the fluid (the drippy green) over the geometric (the iron patterns). I’m a “precise” maker (thanks to Pete Pinnell for that word instead of “tight”), and while I prefer symmetry, structure and organization, I also want my work to be visually soft, joyful and elegant. So my use of fluid slip-trail lines, swirls and patterns layered over crisp stripes is my interpretation of drippy green over geometric shapes.

I don’t think anyone would look at my work and say, “I see Oribe,” nor do I expect or even want them to. As I mentioned, I’m influenced by a variety of things (Art Nouveau lines, cake fondant shapes, Elizabethan fabric textures among many others). It’s the diversity of my influences combined with my personality as a maker that results in unique work. What I want my buyers to see is me; what I hope they’ll relate to are all the bits and pieces of influence that make up “me” in my pots.

Thank you, Ben, for the invitation to think and write about these favorite vessels!

Kristen Kieffer is a studio potter, teacher, and workshop leader living in central Massachusetts. I had the opportunity to take one of her workshops in 2006. Her input helped shape the way I think about surface and texture. I highly recommend you take her workshop but if you can't make one in person Kristen's video on surface design is a great way to experience her teaching in the comfort of your own home. Click here for more information or visit her site http://kiefferceramics.com.

This post is part of a series called Turning Points where artists discuss the effect historical ceramics has had on their studio life. Check back later for more posts on this topic.


Check out my show Between the Fence Posts at the Charlie Cummings Gallery

I'm excited to see my show Between the Fence Posts up online at the Charlie Cummings Gallery. It will run until January 15th.Click here to see the show. A big thanks to Charlie who did a great job photographing the work. I look forward to hearing which pieces you guys like the best. 

Here are a few thoughts about this body of work.
"Between the Fence Posts was created as I lived outside of my own cultural landscape. My role as an outsider has imbued the decorative motifs that I use with a deeper sense of nostalgia. This body of work is the culmination of a longing for home and my personal identity as an American.
Clay is manipulated into shapes that have convex bulges that reference pillows and tufted furniture.  This overfilled aesthetic is a visual metaphor for the comfort of southern hospitality. The white picket fence, the quintessential symbol of Americana, creates a cultural context for the work. The accompanying floral patterns establish an aesthetic that relates to the casual nature of folk art. Verdant blooming flowers are captured in decorative form bringing nature into the home and reconnecting people to the beauty of their physical landscape.
My work evokes community, embodying personal times that are a counterpoint to our work-centered society. Surface decoration is used to create nostalgia for a time when communal meals were the core of communication. Well-made functional pottery calls us back to the table where the heart of our family beats."



In the Studio: Dagwood's Five Lobed Plates

I've been working on five-lobed plates for the last few weeks. This is the second incarnation of the form. The first batch will be in the show I'm having at the Charlie Cummings Gallery that opens at the end of the week. Click here for pics of the last set. I decided to take a different approach by skipping the wheel and hand building them this time. These are slab built over bisque molds. The middle insert is flat so there is no need for a foot. It also reinforces the rim and sets up a great five panel division for decorating.

I'm looking forward to seeing these finished and in the kitchen. They have a shallow profile that is great for pasta but I see them holding a huge Dagwood sandwich like this one. Kinda makes me hungry...


And the Winner is...Brett Freund

My super-secret-random-number-generator selected Brett Freund to receive the Thanksgiving give away tumbler.

I am a big fan of the dense layering Brett uses to build his images. His intricate drawings on ceramics show the influence of graffiti/street art. He states about his work "I enjoy investigating patterns of aesthetics and symbols in order to produce a mash up of form and imagery. Flash art, designer toys, and pop culture are all identifiers that inform my work." I have posted a few images of his work above. You can visit brettfreund.com to find out more about his work.

Brett's work shares many similarities to the musical mash ups that blend prerecorded music to make new songs. Check out this mashup of the Rolling Stones and the Dandy Wahols done by mashup artist Pheugoo.