“An Unexpected Change of Course(s)” - A New Balance: Hands + Body AND the Mind
This past November I had the opportunity to travel to Alfred, New York as a visiting artist/lecturer at the New York State School of Ceramics, the premier ceramic art program internationally. In a variety of ways this invitation to interact with this learning community was a touchstone in my career – but what transpired in my time at Alfred could not have been anticipated.
Alfred is led by six individuals who are at the top of our field. It was this audience of six “icons” accompanied and undergraduate and graduate student contingency that I delivered an inspired talk about the history of ceramics in relationship to service, and the potential in the 21st century of “objects” having a role far beyond the “aesthetic” or “symbolic”. Well received, the lecture was followed by a series of thoughtful questions that both supported and challenged my assertions.
At the end of the Q&A period, ceramic “legend” John Gill stood up and challenged my dedication to making. He did so in a generous and impactful manner. I can only describe this moment as a performance-critique. The message was clear – I needed to find a better balance in my “craft” practice.
In essence he spoke of my work that utilizes objects as a way to create bridges of understanding between cultures, as a kin to the Catholic Church utilizing a wafer to symbolize the “body of Christ”. With this analogy he challenged me to consider, how my concepts would change if what I created in the studio were closer to the “body of Christ” than the “proxy wafer”.
Three points are necessary to fully illuminate the value of this critique. First, he did his research and realized that I am of “faith” – and with this he utilized an analogy that would be most impactful. It was brilliant. Second, he brought to the forefront a weakness in my practice that he saw great potential for growth, that is the quality of the objects that I make. Lastly, his critique laid bare my own “guilt” about the lack of consistent effort I put into my own studio making practice. Nearly every ounce of energy goes into activating the “spaces between objects and humanity”, leaving very little energy to do more than perform the task of creating objects to fulfill my concepts. This does not mean that I did not care, or that I was not making work worthy of the ideas, rather – I was relying on 15-year-old knowledge (the last time I totally focused on the object) to complete work that was cutting edge in concept.
This was THE BEST critique I have ever received
With this critique a seed has been planted. I have slowed down, focused on my hands and have reinvigorated my making practice. In the past three months I have focused on the technical aspects of making, creating new glazes, pushed form, and I can say without a doubt that I have created a body of work that is a significant step forward in the objects that I make. Through this experience I am redirecting some of my efforts, time and resources from the fellowship toward time to simply indulge, learn and focus on the “craft” of my Craft.
About one month into my fellowship I had a phone conversation with Bush Leadership Staff member Stephanie Andrews. In talking through my progress at the early stages of my Bush experience I mentioned as a “side” that I continue to focus great effort on a significant weight loss that started six years ago. Stephanie dug deeper into this effort and challenged me to consider how this effort in self-care was part of my fellowship plan.
At first I was a bit shocked at the concept that taking care of my body was something worthy of consideration within a Bush Fellowship. In many ways I was categorizing and then ultimately creating hierarchies of importance based on old and destructive paradigms. “The mind” (concept) trumps all. The hands run a distant second, and the body – well that was something that was an effort rather than an endeavor.
I stepped away from that phone call with a revelation that I can only explain as transformative.
A bit of context:
In 2004, three days before the birth of my second son, Ian – I confronted a significant barrier between my potential and my performance, alcoholism. In a prayerful, and peaceful moment of resolve I reached out to many people for help to cease the destructive path I was on. Three months after a commitment to sobriety, I was offered a position to teach full time at Concordia University-Nebraska. This opportunity provided as significant lift to my resolve of sobriety. At the same time, I had reached a weight of 490 pounds and at 6’4 inches in height I was morbidly obese. Three years later I hovered around 470 pounds, but was sober. At this point, I could focus on losing weight through exercise and a better diet. Over the next 6 years I lost a total of 100 pounds.
Which takes me to the point of the phone call with Stephanie Andrews.
It was clear to me, I needed to find a balance. Taking care of my body is far more than an “effort”, it is a learning experience and an area of growth. I have approached it as a developmental opportunity. I have consulted a nutritionist and have worked with a personal trainer. If you were to ask me when writing the Bush Fellowship application that a focus would be consulting with and learning from a personal trainer about how to effectively treat my body, I would have laughed and scoffed… “Not intellectual enough” or “Not heady enough”.
I am now at 295 pounds, a loss of 75 pounds since learning about my Bush Fellowship and have been informed by my Doctor that I am within 50 pounds of my ideal weight and he is taking me off of high blood pressure medication. Gone are risks of diabetes, and in his words, I have saved my insurance company $100,000 in knee and hip replacement costs.
I am now considering how my own journey of 11 years of sobriety and (when at my ideal weight) 250 pounds of weight loss, may provide leadership opportunities within wellness that I could have never imagined. I stand tall in my focus on wellness and sobriety as an important part of my development, not just in the time of this fellowship, but for the rest of my life.
The impact of these two significant and surprising revelations early on in this fellowship has changed the way that I approach my day-to-day practice. I have been doing a great deal of reading lately about how we organize our time according to standards that are not conducive to maximizing our abilities. We spin our wheels with schedules that do not vary enough to maximize our focus. Knowing that I am easily distracted, I realize that I need to be more specific in how I organize my efforts. As an experiment through January, I have divided my days as closely as I can into 4 three- hour segments with the remaining twelve hours dedicated to sleep and family.
Three hours in the morning are dedicated to my body. Aerobic exercise, lifting, stretching, playing, meditating, relaxing and physical self-care. Three hours are then dedicated to my hands – working in the studio, honing my craft, experimenting and honoring the tradition of ceramic arts. Three hours for the mind – reading, writing and ruminating. Finally, three hours to complete tasks – communication, project management and administrative duties.
I am finding that the outcome of my efforts in each of these areas is more focused and effective as I am giving equal priority to all. I am now considering how to make this transition into the fall when I am back full-time at NDSU as a faculty member and administrator. The simple answer is… I can – if I continue to value each as an important part of a whole.