The Human Element, How I Broke From the Mold

Art and Photo by Wayne Beck

My second lesson in the art of imperfection:

Mentors: Arthur Janov, Edvard Munch, Twin Dad, Unidentified School Teacher, Chunks of Clay

“Rule 1: Do not throw clay!”

It was my first day in high school ceramics class. The room looked like a disaster! As the instructor read off the rules for the class, I was taking in the physical environment. Chunks of clay were stuck all over the ceiling. There had to have been at least a hundred, maybe many more. I wasn’t much of a math guy so I didn’t count.

…“Rule 1: Do not throw clay!” Being a post WWII order and rules kind of kid, this contradictory environment threw me off balance from my own very structured and orderly world. “Perhaps this was a new teacher with new rules and the classroom was a remnant of the past. Or, maybe, it was a requirement just to read the rule, but it didn’t really matter. Maybe it was a sort of dry sarcasm.” My brain got tired, so I just let it go. I simply labelled it a contradiction to my understanding of the world. I re-anchored my conditioned reality to the security that I felt in the next set of rules. These were labelled as emphatic rules. They determined proper preparation of clay ware for the kiln. This was to prevent bursting of your product during firing. I got that! It neatly fit the reality of my world.

Then my feeling of security in an orderly world with point by point rules burst apart. I don’t remember the name of this master teacher, nor what he looked like, or how he dressed. Yet a part of him is an integral and evolving part of my existence.

He explained how the art we were learning to create would not appear like it came from a factory mold. It would not be exactly symmetrical or “perfect.” He warned not to overtly try to correct an imperfection, rather to incorporate it into the work. Your human mark on a piece of art is a sacred extension of yourself. The clay globs had accumulated on the ceiling for years. Nobody had bothered to remove them. Instead, they were incorporated into that reality.

I proved the teacher right when I made six coffee mugs on the potter’s wheel. Each was recognizable as part of the same set. A description of each individual mug in isolation would be identical. But when presented together it was apparent that each had unique characteristics, some obvious and others discernible only by intuition or close examination. This is similar to siblings that share characteristics. In the case of my father and his identical twin, I could distinguish, though not describe how I could instantly recognize which was which. My large coil pot is imperfect and completely unique to all other clay pots in the world .

The great sculptors Of stone certainly deal not only with their own imperfections, but also in the stone they are working. The stone is also imperfect in ways that the the artists don’t know about until they intimately get into it. Those imperfections become a part of the work as the artists accept the imperfect stone for what it is and allow it to influence their work. This can be better understood when we consider how adept we are at accepting and adapting to one another’s human “imperfections” and becoming better because of them.

Distinctly human art is recognized in the rustic Japanese aesthetic known as wabi sabi which represents the acceptance and value of a progression through imperfect states and the concept that our work is never complete. Let’s say your work, could be your life’s work, is put on permanent display. It continues to evolve as it influences others. The mark we leave touches others now and for generations to come.

You likely have an image in your mind of Edvard Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream.’ If you happen to have missed this one, take a look. It will in some way, or many ways, impact your life and become part of your being. The work reflects a very distressful time in Munch’s life, when out for a walk he could think of no other way to manage his emotions. The companions on his walk left the area. It was comparable to primal scream therapy as later described by 20th century psychologist, Arthur Janov in his work, The Primal Scream. After completing the painting, in some ways, Munch felt remiss for making himself so vulnerable. Because of it he changed his artistic style to reflect his new reality. Sharing his imperfect life continues to influence my life and that of each individual who sees the work. His imperfect, human state created an imperfect work of art that we all relate to. Its impact will continue to evolve throughout all our phases of life.

The human element leaves an imprint on everything and everyone we touch throughout our lives. Every encounter builds perspective. Every experience increases understanding.