Is anyone surprised that becoming a pot head made me a better designer?

My passion for pottery (oh you thought this was going to be about weed, didn’t you?) started almost overnight, when living in New York City afforded me the luxury of taking miniature meccas to the droves of home and design stores that call this city home. I meandered through “galleries” of perfectly placed objects, keenly aware that however small, these pieces held a unique power to fill spaces and shift atmospheres.

Lil Martinez’s work. Instagram @bfgf

My appreciation for these works of art — constructed of many materials but mostly of clay—carried me to The Armory Show this year, where among the many art fairs I visited, the NADA stood singular. Here I discovered the LA-based artist Lil Martinez. Despite the dizzying array of artwork on display, one of her teeny, tiny, quirky ceramic characters stopped me in my tracks—a naked, Native American woman lounging with a discarded life ring nearby. It reminded me somehow of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings—both his women and this tiny figurine managed to perfectly capture some sort of languid beauty, without appearing even the slightest bit realistic. While I wasn’t able to quite articulate that sentiment at the time, my eyes gorged on the glossy coating of this lumpy little piece of satisfaction, and I was committed to seeing if I could recreate such a creature.

After a few plucky words of encouragement from the peanut gallery at Type/Code, I signed up for my first pottery class. Much to my chagrin, no figurine sculpting was allowed for those us who haven’t yet learned to crawl. My first charge? The humble bowl.

The first pot I made from the wheel throwing.

I have an oil painter’s background; it’s easy for me to understand how the stroke of a paint brush can create form and space on canvas. Painting is an additive process, and when I moved into digital design that process (more or less) remained true. But from the start, it became obvious to me that I was in the upside down with pottery. Wedging, centering, opening, throwing, trimming—these were reductive processes—and every step required 100 precent of my concentration. Anytime my mind began to wander, the consequence was a physical mark on my piece. Unlike in painting and design, where errors are relatively easy to fix, in ceramics (and in life?), my mistakes left a scar. As a sculptor, it was my position to either accept the flaws in my work, or to start all over again.

The easy resilience that comes with the excitement of “trying something new” faded fast, and frustration ensued. One night after work (following a few weeks of moderate success), I went to the studio with the intention of making a “few” bowls. Defeat was imminent. One after one, I threw “Leaning Tower of Pisa” pieces—each floppy failure bringing with it the affirmation that a.) I had no natural talent and b.) reaching the Lil-Martinez-mastery-level of my dreams was near impossible. Doubt overwhelmed me—and I left the studio after four hours with my tail firmly tucked between my legs.

Luckily, sleep brings it own brand of tranquility. In the morning, waking up with a sort of quiet, stubborn resolve, I packed my things and headed back to the studio—determined to average out my previous night’s failures.

Trimming on wheel (left), After trimming process (right)
Pots waiting for glazing.

That next morning and the rest of the courses that succeeded it became an exercise in self reflection. What I had forgotten, and what made me so angry during my long night of failure, was that I was learning something. Living in the city and working in branding for years had unsurprisingly turned me into a multitasker and a perfectionist. Efficiency was my master, every detail counted, and there was no time (or was it money?) for trial and error. This doesn’t sound new for any one of us reading from an office with a view of the rivers. We operate like this for so long that we forget that one of the most important parts of the creative process—of the learning process—is failure. Fortunately, going back to the material basics has a way of forcing us to remember that. I count myself fortunate that my clay-wrangling days have reignited my passion for art and design again, reminding me that very rarely does meaningful art just manifest in one shot. Like any true pot head could tell you, you have to get your hands dirty before something good sticks.

Finished product