Why I Teach Clay Workshops

Posted by Stan Irvin on Jul 15th 2016

Teaching three workshops over a nine day period can feel somewhat like a marathon. Luckily, my recent experiences in teaching three such workshops was instead a great reminder of just how enjoyable it is to share my many years of working with and teaching about clay. 

Clayways Gallery and Studios in Austin Texas was the venue for the workshops, which started with "Handbuilding / Printing On Clay." The first workshop had 12 students, all of whom had good skills and experience with hand building. This was the first time I had taught a workshop dealing strictly with printed patterns on clay, though I have been developing what I believe to be a rather unique approach to the process. The other two back to back workshops dealt strictly with altering wheel thrown forms, which was quite a distant stretch from printing patterns on clay. We focused on throwing upside down pots, forms without bottoms, and other methods of alteration of circular forms.

Reflecting back at my "marathon like" series of workshops, I have to ask myself exactly why I do them.Workshops are hard work, they often require lots of preparation and planning ahead about what series of things I will make and in what order, how to avoid shooting over the participants heads or avoid doing something they may have seen already.You can never be sure that the plan will have relevance for everyone, or anyone, given that they will have different levels of prior experience and skill levels and varying sensibilities on aesthetics.

My approach is generally to be over prepared with lots of ideas that when put together offer a kind of general theme, or focus.It might be as simple as the use of certain tools that the students are likely not to be familiar with. Or it might go a step further and involve using tools in an unusual way. Or, ideally, it might involve taking an approach that turns an idea around in one's head, revealing new ways of seeing.

At times I feel rather schizophrenic in my own work, in that I try to do too many different things, without being clear on how it all connects.Though forty plus years of teaching ceramics and doing workshops has provided me with a wealth of techniques, processes, and ideas to draw from, it can be as hard to decide the right direction for a workshop as it is to decide on what direction to take my personal work.

As it turns out, the biggest challenge to me is deciding what I am most "inspired" to do and having faith that pursuing that will reveal connections. A kind of "self discovery," if you will. Frequently such realizations occur in workshops when I am forced to describe to students what I do and why. That's also when I am reminded of why I do workshops.It is because I gain as much from teaching them as my students gain from attending them.