Musings on the Potter, Svend Bayer, and What Drives the Creative Process
The press release for the demo gave the following short bio of the artist:
"Svend Bayer was born in 1946 in Uganda to Danish parents. He attended Exeter University, was a pupil of Michael Cardew, and worked as a thrower at Brannam's Pottery. In the 1970's Svend established his own pottery facility at Sheepish in Devon with kilns based on structures he encountered during his yearlong travels in Japan, South Korea, and South East Asia. The site was chosen for the proximity to the North Devon Ball clay mines and sawmills. Since 2000 he has had solo exhibitions at Harlequin Gallery, Beardsmore, Ruffed Ceramics Centre, North Cornwall Gallery, University of Utah, Northern Clay Center, Sturt Gallery, Gallery Lykke, Slader's Yard, Goldmark Gallery, and the Craft Potter's Association, London."
Svend Bayer comes across as a quiet, humorous, knowledgeable, and intelligent man. He appears to be used to spending a great deal of time alone, throwing his pots, overseeing and participating in firing the kilns he has built with his own hands, and running the business end of things that enables his work to happen. He travels all over the world, doing demos, teaching, and installing kilns.
Svend Bayer's beginnings as a potter appears to be one of those moments in history, where people of like minds converge in one area of the world and do great things. Off the top of my head, I think of the Bloomsbury group of writers in England, to be one such place. For Svend and his associates on the panel discussion that took place the night before the demo, this convergence happened when they apprenticed with Michael Cardew. From things the panelists said when they spoke of their time with Cardew, it appears that Cardew left a mark upon them all for better, and for Svend, a bit for worse as well. There was some discussion about learning a craft in an academic environment versus learning it through an apprenticeship. The panelists who had apprenticed with Cardew felt that it's advantage was that they did not have to deal with the daily necessities of life, such as making a living to support themselves, or making meals. This enabled them to live and breathe their craft, night and day.
When I think about my experience of watching Svend Bayer create a large pot on the wheel, while listening to him talk about his life's work, a song by Laura Nyro keeps running through the background of my mind. I feel wistful hearing this song, "To a Child," especially hearing the refrain, "Kiss the sun hello, Child in the park, Make your life a lovin' thing." I think Svend Bayer's life in relation to his art, has been a "lovin thing." Watching a film that documented Svend when he was in the hay day of his youth and just starting out, in contrast to the 70 year old man he is today, added to my feeling of wistfulness.
It made me think about who we are and how we come into ourselves, to actually become ourselves. His story which reflected his single-mindedness was compelling. Svend discovered pottery during his time at university. Once that discovery was made, he was on the road of a long journey to become the potter he is today. He lived his life with an unwavering passion for his craft.
In his third act, after a whole life of becoming fully formed, so wistful and sad to hear him denigrate himself a bit, and question his work. During a panel discussion with some of his peers that was given the night before the demo, Svend said with regret, as if questioning the value of it all, "I make knick knacks for people to buy." After a whole life time, it seemed as if he was experiencing a dark night of the soul and questioning the value of the pots he crafted. If you saw his work, as I did in the gallery at Greenwich House, you would only wonder at how he could say such a thing, because his work is beautiful.
People on the panel discussion and in attendance agreed that in todays society, there is a real hunger for handmade objects. The hunger is there in the buyers of the handmade objects, who are often wealthy, and tend to be removed from nature because most of their time is spent in working and obtaining wealth. Another side of this hunger, includes those of us who are driven to learn how to make handmade objects. These handmade objects are not just knick knacks, but touchstones to the beauty that exists in life and on this earth. A touchstone to what is real, and to our inner selves.
Hearing Svend speak made me think about how everyone has a story to tell. I experience polarities knowing that we all live parallel lives during our time on this earth. My heart goes out to those whose lives are so much harder than my own. At the same time, I feel a bit of envy for those whose lives have been so much more interesting than my own.
This potter's life story is his to tell, and he was a bit diffident about telling it. At one point while talking during his demo, as an aside he said that he was thinking about his exit. Yet, for a man who may not have wanted to be there, he did a good job with his demo, during which he did open up to us with stories of his life and work. Understanding him fully, came when seeing the display of beautiful pots he had made, on view in the Jane Hartsook Gallery on the floor below. Viewing those pots was akin to looking into his soul. To quote again from the Greenwich House Press Release, quoting Svend Bayer directly:
"I think a good pot, it has to reveal something about the maker. What you find in it is actually not so different than you would hope to find in another person. You would hope to find sort of life and a kind of response - it's a rightness. I think it is important that you would want to touch it, to hold it. I used to think that there had to be evidence of good craftsmanship. I'm not sure about that anymore; in fact I don't think it really matters. I think that craftsmanship is simply a tool which enables you to express yourself." --Svend Bayer
At first Svend demonstrated building one of the large pots for which he is known. He began by centering the clay and bringing up the sides of the pot. He demonstrated this technique two times. As he collapsed the clay after finishing each one, the class gave a collective sound of dismay, to see such beautiful work destroyed. Later Svend used a wire tool to slice this collapsed clay, and proceeded to recycle it into coils. He would go on to use the coils in the next part of the demo, when he would build up the sides of two pots he had started making, earlier in the week. The half pots had dried enough to bear the weight of the coils, but were still moist enough to join with the additional clay.
In retrospect, I think we students did not ask enough questions, especially about his glazing processes. I find his employment of seashells in some of his work, most beautiful. He uses the seashells both as a device for keeping stacked work in the loaded kilns separated, as well as creating decorative, fossil like elements in his pieces. It was as if we were hypnotized, first, watching him center and raise up the walls of a big pot. Later, watching him add coils, use a torch to dry the clay quickly in order to add even more coils to raise the walls up higher, and then finish the top edge of the pot with one more coil. At one point we got sidetracked when Bayer related how he had kept hawks. Perhaps because his country life in tune with nature was so foreign to our own lives, we had to hear more of that story. For a moment we asked questions about his hawking, instead of his pottery. Tales of his life mesmerized us as much as watching him make his pots.
Svend addressed the difficulties aging brought to his craft. When one ages, one loses muscle mass. It has become difficult for him to lift the larger pots. He said that now, if he doesn't think he would be able to lift a pot he is thinking of making, he will no longer make that pot. He does enjoy making smaller, more utilitarian objects, and has always done so, along with the larger pieces.
During the demo, Svend repeatedly said many times, that he didn't know what he was doing when he started out, and even today. I think that we all are familiar with that same feeling, and can empathize. But it is also a bit surprising that he still, with all of his experience, lays claim to that feeling today. Perhaps it is more because of the wood firings he does, in the Anagama style, wherein mistakes can easily be made, and all of the pots in the loaded kiln may be destroyed because of such a mistake. Despite his misgivings, Svend Bayer persists in his work, and does it well. Sheer persistence seems to be a trait that has served him and helped make him a successful potter. Svend stressed to us his own experience, that "you don't learn when things go well and you succeed. You learn when things do not go well."
During the panel discussion with Bayer's peers, the subject of whether these potters could or would go on with what they were doing came up. Most said yes, as their passion for this craft drove their life force. One, however, brought up the subject of global warming. I don't recall exactly how many tons of wood that Svend Bayer recounted using for a kiln firing, which took place over many days time. But the sustainability of using such a technique in the service of craft was called into question. The words "global warming" hung there in the air for a moment. No one seemed to want to take this subject on, and the panel discussion moved on to another, much less disturbing point of conversation.
What drives creative beings to become who they are? What is that life force drive, that compulsion? Why do some give up, and others never give up? Svend talked about his youthful arrogance, but that was just one piece of it. Perhaps it is in our DNA, and some of us are hard wired to be creatives. Perhaps it is a mystery, like the full moon in tonight's night sky.
Ira Glass addresses the work of creativity by giving us the following advice:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass.
To a Child, song by Laura Nyro
What is life?
Did you read about it in a magazine?
Never give you what you need
Is there hope
For a mother and an elf on speed?
Kiss the sun hello
Child in the park
Make your life a lovin' thing
I'm so tired
You're so wired and I'm a poet
Without a poem and you are my child
I read about us in a magazine
Then why are we
Crying by the washing machine?
Let's run away child
And follow a dream
Kiss the sun hello
Child in the park
Make your life a lovin' thing
The park is late, the wind is strong
The trees have eyes and you are my song
My lovely song
What is love?
Child I am here to stand by you
And you will find
You own way hard and true
And I'll find mine
'Cause I'm growin' with you
Kiss the sun hello
God and Goddess
Make his life a lovin' thing
And if I smile as you reach above the climbin' bars
To see the stars
You are my love, my love
I wish you
Laura Nyro - To A Child Lyrics | MetroLyrics