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Stealing Ideas

by Dick Lehman

Byron Temple threw an 8-inch-diameter cylinder with nearly straight, 3-inch sides. He then slid a cut-off wire about 1-inch into opposite sides of the piece, inch up from the bottom, just managing to separate wall and bottom. The two walls were then repositioned by moving them in toward the center, forming squared-off sides. The resulting rectangular piece received quick handle pinches on opposite sides of the rim. And, voila, it was a handled, squared baking dish.

Right in the middle of Temple's demonstration, I decided: "I'm going to steal that idea." Even after he told the story of a former student who had copied it, then publicly claimed it as her own, I was still ready to steal it for myself.

I went straight back to my studio to try it out. But, not surprisingly, my pots didn't look much like Temple's. Instead of separating the bottom with a cut-off wire, I used a needle tool to undercut the wall, creating a "repositioning flap" to seal the inside of the joint after the wall was moved. And, rather than making a vertical cut when removing the extra bottom that remained after repositioning, I undercut the pot, creating a flap of clay to seal the outside of the new joint. Finally, my squared dishes had arching walls - I had designed several templates to enable me to cut a fluted dancing wall, almost baroque in its orientation.

During my first ceramics class with Marvin Bartel, I was startled when he said: "If you are going to take someone else's idea, don't borrow it. Steal it!" (I learned 15 years later that Bartel had stolen this very concept from poet Nick Linsey.)

The "startle value" of Bartel's comment was not wasted on me..as evidenced by the fact that I still remember it. With time, I have come to understand at least part of what he was attempting to teach. If I may paraphrase (or steal): Don't just borrow someone else's idea. If it is a borrowed idea, it still belongs to the owner. It still looks like it is his/her idea or property. Borrowing, thus defined, is plagiarism. If you are going to take someone else's idea or be influenced by another's inspiration, steal it - make it your own. If you take inspiration from another, have the integrity, courage and courtesy to develop the idea, to invest in it, to reinvent it, to make it more than it was.

So I stole the idea from Byron Temple. Would anyone confuse my pots with his? Not likely. Do I owe a debt of gratitude and recognition to Temple (and Bartel)? Of course!

As you may have guessed, later conversations with Temple revealed that the idea did not originate with him. While he is not positive, he thinks it may have been an English potter who passed the idea along to him.

And there are others in the English milieu who have come up with their own interpretations: John Leach currently uses a similar technique to create his "kidney pie" dishes; and he acknowledges getting the idea from Richard Batterham. In fact, both are equally indebted to others who went before them.

Truly, we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us (to steal an idea from photographer Arthur Lazar). Indebted indeed!

If, as some have suggested, there are no new ideas in the ceramics world - only discoveries of new ways to develop or assemble the old ideas - then may we all discover much and be indebted more. Of all our artistic vices, "stealing" is among the least. A more telling character flaw is the laziness associated with "borrowing." May we all pledge to borrow less and steal more.

The act that precipitated my "Templetonian theft" was the demonstration. It was an offering Temple made freely, not under duress (but probably also not without compensation). He had evidently decided he was willing to share the information/technique/procedure, or he wouldn't have demonstrated it. And herein lies the heart of all good thievery - honest, generous, good-willed sharing.

Another example of such sharing stands out in my mind: I recall my first visit to the studio of Richard and Marj Peeler, long-time studio potters and educators in central Indiana. The occasion was a studio tour (hosted by the Potters Guild of Indiana).

At the time, I was a student and avocational potter. I was, at best, inexperienced and impressionable. My connection to potters and clay was largely limited to the college studio and a few magazines. But even with such a limited exposure, I had a sense that, with respect to other potters, certain questions were off limits (despite the overall generosity and openness of most of the ceramics community).

I learned in the course of my brief introduction to clay (maybe you learned it too) never to ask for a glaze recipe from a potter I didn't know well. An equally important sub-rule was never to ask for a copper red recipe from anyone. (Ah, yes, those mythical copper reds!)

It was this peculiar sense of propriety that I took with me to the Peeler's studio that day. So I was astonished when, just as we entered the Peeler showroom with a dozen admiring folks, one of the members of the group blurted out, "Oh, Mr. Peeler! What a beautiful copper red! Will you share the recipe with us?"

The entire group fell silent in an instant, not because we were all expecting the recipe, pencils in hand (although it was likely a question for which we all would have appreciated an answer). Rather, the room chilled out of a sense of embarrassment, out of anguish for this poor foolish hobbyist who had blundered into proprietary never-never land. I think each of us was silently sizing up the scope of this incredible faux pas, calculating how severe or how properly tactful Peeler's rebuff would be to this obvious blunder. Onlookers nervously caught one another's eyes, shaking heads in that minimal jerky way we do when an absolutely pitiable situation is before us. Peeler and the questioner seemed to be the only ones oblivious to the tension of the moment.

The silence was broken with a one-word answer: "Sure," Peeler said. Then he added, "The recipe is in the notebook, under the phone. It is called.."

The silence continued, but now for a different reason. Finally someone gathered enough courage to ask, with an air of incredulity, "You mean you'll share the recipe? Why?"

Peeler offered a lengthy but gentle lesson, one that addressed an eminently teachable moment. In a nutshell, he said: "It's really not what you know, what recipe you possess, that is important. It is what you do with what you know. In the case of glaze recipes, it's what kind of pot you use it on.

"Evaluating the appropriateness of a glaze for a given form is where the important and differentiating decision-making takes place. For example, I use copper reds only on porcelain, and only on refined, simple, formal shapes. And I have developed the same aesthetic for celedons. But this is my aesthetic. Glazes don't exist by themselves. They exist in the context of a particular pot, a particular piece or a body of work.

"I can give each of you this recipe and it will work differently for each of you. A glaze recipe is a little like a recipe for a cake. You might try someone else's recipe, and it might be a flop.

"We are here to learn from each other. Marj and I will share recipes, what we do, and how we do it with anyone. There are no secrets, nor do there need to be. As we share, we will learn from each other, and we will all benefit."

Impressionable as I was, this lesson is one that has sustained a prominent position in my memory, and one that has served me well. The confidence that Richard and Marj Peeler exhibited is a strength upon which we can all draw: to share with others always has its own rich reward. Moreover, such sharing and generosity are among the activities of life that ultimately make us most human.

Should we offer to tell everything we know at the slightest provocation? Propriety, at the very least, would suggest not. But to realize that we do indeed stand on the shoulders of all who came before us, and all who are beside us, should be a lesson in humility. At the same time, we should be encouraged to continue the tradition of openness, generosity and inclusiveness that has, in large part, been at the heart of the ceramics community and that points the way to the future (past copper red glaze reservations notwithstanding).

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the June/July/August 1993 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1993. All rights reserved.