• russell wrankle

That Time When I was a Fundementalist


I used to be embarrassed about being a Mormon missionary. I never talked about it. If you know anything about Mormonism, you know that most men(boys, really) and a lot of women go on a two-year mission. You've seen these kids, walking two by two, white shirts, ties with a black name tag. Well, that was me.


The other day, I was listening to a podcast, the psychologist Benjamin Hardy was being interviewed and I knew that he was a Mormon just by the way he used language. If you are or were a Mormon, you know it when you hear it. He started talking about being a Mormon and a missionary, his motivations for going on a mission, and some of his high school experiences, which were similar to mine. He still practices, and I don't, but his story was really interesting, so I thought, "my story is interesting too." I teach my students to be entirely themselves in who they are and what they are creating, so I should heed my own advice.


Wake up at 6 am to study scriptures for an hour, breakfast, shower, etc. Then it's out on the streets knocking on doors trying to gain converts. I was one of those missionaries that adhered to the rules. In fact, for me, the rules weren't good enough. If wake up time was 6 am, I'd get up at 5 am, or if we had to knock on doors for 5 hours a day, I'd go 8. You get the picture. I was very critical of other missionaries that didn't "obey" to the extent that I did.


In the beginning, I think strict adherence to rules is what attracted me to ceramics. Ceramics has rules that need to be obeyed, use too much water when throwing a pot, and you'll get "S" cracks, fire a bisque kiln too fast, and you will blow everything up. Lay the glaze on too thick, and it will run off the pot and destroy an expensive kiln shelf or put low temp clay body in a high fire kiln and you'll destroy a shelf or a kiln.

Once I overcame my zealotry, a holdover from my mission years, I began to see, and take serious issue with some of the fundamentalist thinking in ceramics. Some are just silly like the cone pack needs to always melt to the left when viewing through the spy hole. Every community studio has these rules that are developed over time, and maybe the original purpose had merit, but now they are just a part of the studio culture, not to be questioned.


Other rules are limiting to the field, as well. A lot of the rules found in ceramics are heavy in processes, such as atmospheric firing. Wood firing in particular seems to attract the rule followers. Again, there are legitimate rules that must be followed to have a successful firing (nothing blows up) but there are aesthetic rules that I think need to be questioned. Not that an individual artist can't have her own aesthetic vision, it's when her vision is now the rule that others need to follow, where there's a problem and it limits the field and artistic progress.


I remember a conversation I had with a wood fire aficionado who said that there should never be glazes in a wood fire. The only glaze and color should come from ash. My hackles immediately went up, because I recognized myself in that type of fundamentalist thinking. I lived it for two years.


This reminds me of a conversation I had with a community/church leader in Toquerville, Utah where we lived for 15 years. He decided that businesses, who were open on Sundays, were breaking the commandment to keep the Sabbath Day Holy. So he took it upon himself to put an ad in the local paper, listing all the businesses who were breaking the Sabbath so that the true believers could boycott them into compliance. Never mind, that folks of other faiths consider other days, besides Sunday as their Sabbath, or that there are non-believers in the area that don't conform to any particular sabbath ritual or the folks who work all week and only have one day to do their household errands.


I think it's human to sequester ourselves within a certain set of rules. It is safe and change is uncomfortable. When we make rules and assume that others need to conform is where I have a problem. We all have our biases and there are rules that we make for ourselves that we might be unaware of. Let's strive to be more open, less fundamentalist, not only in the arts but in all aspects of our lives. Progress is made when so-called rules are broken and we allow room for others to think differently than we do and celebrate these differences.


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