I Made This and It's Good
About eight months ago, after a long pandemic shut down I finally emerged to host a two day workshop at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. I love the drive, it goes from red rock Southern Utah desert then slowly rises to the Kaibab Plateau to about 8,000. Leaving the desert heat you enter cooler Pinyon-Juniper forests then shady Ponderosa that give way to Aspen, Spruce, and Fir. I've been on this road a few times but on this trip I was alone and took the time to appreciate the road side history plaques that I'm always curious about but never stop and read.
If you're unfamiliar with what happens at a ceramic workshop at a University, the artist is in a ceramics studio demonstrating their techniques to a classroom of beginning ceramics students and ceramic majors. And in my case, I was teaching the students how to make clay look like stretched leather, or skin.
At some point, the lights are turned down and the artist shares a power point/slide show which usually consists of their influences and the meaning behind their work.
I've given a variation of this lecture multiple times over the past several years, changing it overtime as I develop new insights about my work.
Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, c. 1550-1500 B.C.E., black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl, 26 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion)
I show a lot of images including historical influences (above), to really early pieces, and then more recent work. When these seven dog head images came up, for the first time I viewed them with a detachment that was new to me. These seven pieces are the only body of work that had a beginning and an end. The idea behind this work is if you tie a dead chicken to your chicken killing dog until it rots off, your dog will never kill a chicken again. I'm not sure if this works but the idea of it seemed like a good metaphor to explore.
While the use of animals in my work existed before these seven pieces, and continues to this day, this series is distinct from the rest of my oeuvre. These seven pieces stand out as an anomaly.
It was 2014 and we were living in Toquerville, Utah. The studio was an old cockroach and termite infested pole barn, Eli was 16, Brynn 13 and Ella 10. Lori was in the midst of breast cancer treatment and the kids were hanging out by the creek, catching crawdads, getting sunburnt, and making their own kind of mischief. With the deadline looming I was self critical, full of doubt about the legitimacy of this work and my own relevance as an artist. Even so, there was the 3am anxiety wake up call that got me out of bed before the first rooster crowed. Or late nights, way past bed time, or both.
In the end, I made seven dog busts for a solo show at the Lawrence Art Center in Lawrence, Kansas. Each dog had something either strapped to their body or muzzle or something in their mouth.
I was a different person then, so when I was showing this work it was as if it was made by someone else. I was no longer emotionally tied to the work, so I could judge it on its merits and I realized that it was good, powerful work.
Since showing this work at the NAU workshop, I'm worried that my best work is behind me. Maybe it is, maybe I peaked in 2014.
Is it possible to know if your work is good when you're making it? Or does an artist need eight years, and emotional distance to appreciate the work they make?
Am I going to look back on the work I'm making today and wish I would have appreciated it the way I appreciate this work. Is it even possible to view the work objectively that has us engaged at the moment. Or is confidence the artistic death knell?
Maybe the trick is to not doubt the doubt. Maybe the doubt is the fuel an artist needs to make the best work, and maybe it's the doubt that keeps us curious and helps avoid routine.