I’ve been teaching a lot more than I have been producing, which is ok for now, but I really enjoy spending my days being physically present and silent with clay. I’ve talked with other teachers, mostly teachers of Yoga, who also say they do not get the same sense of personal progress within their practice while teaching. The book Quiet, by Susan Cain describes a state called Deliberate Practice. It’s my understanding that this is when we are in the flow, unaffected by the presence of others. Cain sites a study by Anders Ericsson* describing the differences in ability of a set of violinists at the Music Academy in West Berlin (pp. 80). They all practiced the same amount, but some were way better than the others. Why? Ericsson found the best group spent a greater proportion of their practice time alone. It is when we are alone doing our thing that we can most readily confront our own weaknesses and grow. At first I couldn’t see exactly why, because other people’s issues with the same trade/medium are instructive. But something about group thinking prevents some people from going fully into their flow (I call it ‘the zone’). It could be fear of judgment, could be overwhelming curiosity about others, and it could just be the distraction of the presence of another human.

Melinda Sheehan took this while helping with the kiln

Melinda Sheehan took this while helping with the kiln

Clay books by St. Mach's kids, prefiring.

Clay books by St. Mach’s kids, prefiring.

At the moment I am in three classes (one is French) at St. Malachy’s High School through March – with the ‘Artsmarts’ program – thanks to Cara Cole’s work and for inviting me to be a part of it. We’ve been teaching grade ten students how to embellish clay book covers with relief sculpture and ceramic stains. Their books will contain answers to reality therapy based journal questions such as: Show a time you felt free to be yourself; show a time you felt loved and respected; show a time you felt powerful and strong; show a time you had a lot of fun; and finally: which of these is most important to your future and why?

None of these topics is definitively more important than any other, so there’s such a variety of answers. When asked to show a time they felt free to be themselves, some kids listed friends they hang with, others described the awesomeness of being all alone.

I ask the same questions to the 5 and 8 years old kids in my Art with Alison class. The things that are fun when you’re 7 are a little different than when you’re 15 or when you’re 35. The openness with which people provide this information depends on their relationship to the person who presented the question and whether they have to share that information with others.  In every case, I consider sharing optional. I do not wish to know anything about people that they do not wish to tell me. The point of the exercise is to self reflect deliberately in a way that one can refer to at a later time.

Say you’re 15 and you’re bored. If you were to look back at the ‘show a time you had fun’ sheet I gave you when you were 7, you might see that you drew a picture of yourself building a snowman, then do something about it. Say you’re 35 and feeling confined by all the pressures of your life and family and don’t remember the last time you felt free. You could look back at your journal and be reminded of what made you feel free in the past, then make it work for your present.

*Anders Ericsson’s work is used as a launching point for  Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. 

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