“You want to know the difference between a beginner and a master? The master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried.”
This is a post about my mistakes and shortcomings. Some of it will be specific, the rest about mishaps in general. I certainly have enough material to fill this post!
Failure is an integral part of life and learning, and I do not begrudge it in the slightest.
Without further ado, let’s get right into it!
The biggest recent pottery studio mishap (I wasn’t directly involved, but that’s okay) was the unfortunate burning and breaking of our kiln. One of the coils was failing, so a member of the studio ordered a full set of replacement coils from a supplier. She went to Emily Carr and has a ceramics degree, and seemed to know what needed to be done. The order was made, with all of the specifications set, and we just needed to wait. As soon as the coils arrived, she and another local potter (who has done kiln repair work before) replaced all the coils. It went very smoothly, and everything seemed to be in order. However, when the kiln was loaded and glaze fired shortly after, it went very wrong. Luckily, it was noticed and stopped before the whole firing completed. When it was cool enough to be opened, everyone was dismayed to see that the bottom coil had burned a chunk out of the firebrick, the pottery had warped, the glaze had bubbled and run all over the shelves and sides of the kiln, both which had cracked and broken. The firebrick insulation had a few burned glaze patches and was completely cracked. Pretty much everything was ruined, except the exterior of the kiln. The people who replaced the coils took responsibility, even though their replacement job didn’t seem to have any faults. I’m rather glad I didn’t have any pieces in that firing, to be quite honest. Absolutely nothing was salvaged. Here are some photographs of the kiln damage:
The shelves and pottery had already been thrown out by the time I saw it, so I didn’t get pictures of those.
Anyways, a few weeks later, we had an appliance repair man come by to look at it. He looked at the damage and the replacement coils, and concluded that the supplier had given us the wrong gauge. Oops. Actually, normal oops doesn’t do it justice. Big oops.
It was a relief for the people who did the replacement to know that they weren’t to blame. The current step that’s being taken is contacting the supplier to ask if they can provide us some sort of compensation for their mistake, because repairing/replacing kilns is expensive, and this damage is not our doing. I hope it’s resolved soon.
Lesson learned: It’s not always your fault. Step back from the situation and try to figure out what really happened. Also, remember that even experts can make mistakes. We’re all human!
The biggest mistake that I’ve made recently is having some of my work put in a communal bisque fire (this was before the kiln went sideways). Most of the pieces came out just fine, but coincidentally, the piece that I was the proudest of that did not. My poor elephant mug lost a tusk somehow. I’m still not sure if it was knocked off during loading, or if it was packed in too tightly with other pieces, or if it was broken during unloading, as the member overseeing the firing still hasn’t approached me directly. They told my mum that they broke it during the firing, and expressed remorse, but I still think it’s a bit weird that they haven’t mentioned it to me. The apology was made about a week after it happened, so I had plenty of time to wonder why no-one was saying anything. I would have appreciated it more if they had just phoned me directly and said what happened, rather than letting me discover it on my own and such. I am also a bit annoyed that they didn’t save the broken-off tusk. It was a clean break, and if it was around I would have glued it on and painted the bisqued piece with acrylic and used it decoratively, as a pencil jar or something. As it stands, I have a one-tusked elephant mug that I don’t really know what to do with. I’m not upset with the circumstances or the member who made the mistake, not in the slightest. I’m just a bit confused at their method of handling it.
Ah well, it’s of no consequence anymore. I’ll make another elephant mug. I was meaning to anyways.
Here’s a photo of the (now semi-comical) one-tusked elephant:
Lesson learned: If you are very fond of a piece, carry out all the steps yourself. That way, if something goes wrong, it’s fully your error, and there isn’t any confusion involved.
Another mishap was the apparent death of my hair-inspired mug. I came into the studio one day to see that the handle had been broken off. It hadn’t been bisqued or anything, so I suppose it’s possible that the structural integrity was never strong to begin with and it gave up, or it was bumped/mishandled. It is a shared studio, so you never know. Technically, the latter shouldn’t be the case, as it was on my shelf and it’s a general rule that you don’t touch other people’s shelves. Again, though, you never know. Here’s a photograph:
It’s funny how pieces that I’m fond of seem to be the first to break.
Ah well, it just makes room for me to keep creating, which I’m glad of.
I’ve made plenty of little blunders, such as trying to trim things that dried for too long and having this happen:
That exact mistake has happened far more times than I care to admit.
Lesson learned: Either wrap things more tightly in plastic, or come back to the studio to trim sooner! Twice a week isn’t quite sufficient.
I’ve also misjudged how thick the bottom of a piece is while trimming and had this happen:
Oooops. Easy mistake to make.
Lesson learned: Get a good feel for the thickness of the piece before trimming. Check the thickness periodically during trimming. My favourite way to do this is gently tap the bottom and listen to the sound it makes. I can generally get a good sense from that.
I’ve also made mistakes like having pieces with super thick bottoms and thin walls, and having them dry unevenly resulting in cracks. I don’t have a picture of this, but I have a picture of a piece that ended up succumbing to that fate:
Thick bottom, very thin walls. The entire base fell off.
Lesson learned: I’m not really sure. Don’t make pieces like that unless you know you’ll be able to spend the time making sure it dries evenly, I guess? I’m still definitely a beginner?
Yep, both of those are true and good things to keep in mind.
I’ve made countless other mistakes, plenty of them while throwing. Air bubble throws the entire piece off centre, over-working makes the walls collapse, too high of speed makes a piece detach and fling across the room… I’ve done it all. More than once. And I’ll continue making these mistakes, and others like them, and even more that I’ve never imagined, because that’s the nature of art and learning.
To finish this off, another bit of wisdom from Stephen McCranie:
I look forward to all the mistakes the future holds for me. Who knows, someday they may very well result in a great piece of art.
End note: To see the full comic on embracing failure by Stephen McCranie, follow this link. It’s one of my favourite motivational materials, and I hope you enjoy it as well.