Head Spinning | Kate Plows

Recently, my friend Charlotte gave me some advice.  Her pottery was selling much better than my own, and I asked about her secrets.  When she started talking, I politely interrupted her to ask if I could take notes.  She agreed. My fellow Teaching Artists, take heed of Charlotte’s sage wisdom:

Context:  Charlotte is seven.  She has never thrown a pot, but you should see the fairy bathtubs she can pinch out of the bags of clay I leave in her parents’ shed when I visit. The pots she has been selling with such success were made on the Let’s Create Pottery iPad app, which will entertain her for however long she has access to the device.  She is much better at throwing virtual pots – using delicate motions of her fingertips and brushes she purchases with ‘coins’ earned from selling virtual work at auctions  – than I will probably ever be at making or selling the real thing.

 Charlotte is not the only young person I know who is experimenting with virtual tools for ceramics.  A few months ago, I noticed that Drew was working on this piece for an upcoming exhibit at another school, themed on Africa.  He was working from an image on his phone.

It’s not uncommon to see a student using imagery from his smart phone – it’s happening a lot these days.  Intriguingly, though, Drew was working from a design he had created on the pottery app.  This was the first time I’d ever seen a student working backwards from a pot created virtually.

When I asked him if I could take these photos, Drew, in return, asked, “Hey, Ms. P., did you get the update yet?  Did you see the print feature?”

“Um… no.”

“Oh.  You’re not going to believe this one.”

Sure enough, the app developer is now offering an option to send pots online to a 3D printer.  So you can create the pot on screen, in the app, and send it to a printer digitally, pay with a credit card, and the 3D object will come back to you in a week or so.  Of course, we had to try it.  The tiny pots arrived about a week later in a crafted wooden box.

However, Drew was not finished with the pot he had created by hand.  He still wanted to work with some digital imagery on its flat side.  Let’s get this straight.  He created a pot… painted it based on digital imagery created on a pottery app…. created a decal in Photoshop to put on the pot… and we fired that decal imagery on the surface while we waited for the near-duplicate pot ordered online to arrive in the mail.

My head was spinning.

During my first year of teaching at my current school, a student in the cafeteria showed me that he was watching a football game on the screen of his smartphone.  I distinctly remember my response. “I think I’ve reached my limit.  I hit my wall with technology.  It’s like I can’t even process what I’m seeing.”

That was a little over five years ago.  This year, I’ve projected Chris Staley’s ceramics-themed video series onto the wall from my phone, arranged a live demonstration and Q&A session with a potter friend who lives and works on the other side of the country,  linked cups to QR codes, and live-tweeted as my students ‘mugged’ a local community.  My students followed my blog while I attended a national conference, and I was able to respond to their questions remotely.  I am writing this post in Google Docs, and I will share it with a friend who will help me to edit it live, both of us typing on the same screen while he is in a different city.

It sometimes feels like teaching has turned into a hurdle race over the walls I used to hit.  Technology reshapes those walls constantly, morphing into new advantages and obstacles even as I try to keep up.  There is little time to evaluate whether applications have been advantageous or wasteful.  I consider this as I type with a 3D-printed pot next to my keyboard.  Am I staring at what the craft I teach will become soon?  What does “soon” mean?  Does hands-on, tactile learning still have a place in this fast-paced world of buzzwords and innovation?  By trying so hard to stay current, am I speeding the demise of everything I value about my craft?

And yet, I will be sharing Charlotte’s advice with my students who are still engaged in the hands-on, immersive process of making pots.  The school year has ended except for finals.  My classes are finished, but students have been returning to the studio every day to work independently.  We listen to upbeat music while we throw, clean, and pack up the year together.  I am still firing kilns, and will probably cool the last one on the morning of graduation.  Although Charlotte has not yet made a physical pot, I have a feeling she would fit right into the rhythm of our studio, a rhythm that hasn’t ceased with the end of regular classes.

One of my students just asked today if he could recycle a batch of old, dried clay to take home for personal use this summer.  When he made this request, I thought, “If you really want something, you have to earn it.”  I offered him a hammer to smash the dried clay and some plaster on which to dry out the slip.  He took it with a smile, and got right to work.

Maybe the real message between the lines of Charlotte’s seven-year-old wisdom is that I need to pay closer attention to the overlap between the virtual and the real.   It might just be that as I adjust to the crazy new pace of educational technology, the goals of digital and physical craft are actually closer than they seem.

Dan’s digital collage of working at the potters’ wheel

It’s interesting to consider that my students have been born into a touchscreen generation, but they have “wandered” into the world of pots.  Drew’s adaptive ease with using technology to enhance craft work allowed him to dream up new design considerations I could not have imagined.  The contrasts, connections, and contradictions between the physical making of objects and my students’ digital fluency might just be the start of a whole new chapter in my teaching.

Charlotte suggests, “You should also really hope.”  I may be out of breath from the hurdles of technology this year, but I’m finding hope in the innovative ways my students use it without dismissing their intrinsic love of hands-on processes.

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