Pottery Instructor Michael McCarthy Presents at NCECA Conference
by Michael McCarthy
I was invited to give a talk at the 74th annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Conference (NCECA). Held this year in Providence, RI, NCECA drew over 5000 attendees who work in the medium of clay including artists, teachers, students and clay enthusiasts of all kinds.
In addition to teaching ceramics at the Shop, which is part of the activities program at the Austen Riggs Center, I have an active studio practice. Teaching influences my art, and vice versa. Three identifiers of clay are: material, process and object – all provide the structure to how I teach at Riggs and how I approach my studio work. Each identifier has a focus and value, and each has a lesson to be taught and learned.
In preparing for my talk I was confronted with the question of whether or not teaching ceramics at Riggs has given me a different perspective or any unique insights about creativity or the value of making art. I teach at Riggs as I would anywhere else to anyone else. However, I know that teaching at Riggs has allowed me to confront stereotypes of mental illness as they relate to art in ways I might not otherwise have encountered. It was my hope that my talk would provide a discussion that extended beyond the private walls where I teach.
I disagree with the notion that mental illness somehow creates purity in the creative process; and for expression. In other words, my experience has been that, it is a false stereotype that mental illness helps the creative capacity.
Mental illness does not dissolve a filter that influences our artistic expression; it does not keep us from our true creative potential; it does not magically provide a talent for a yet unlearned skill. As an illness, it provides a very large obstacle for those trying to learn something new or perform a task. It can more commonly create fatigue rather than inspiration.
What continues to inspire me, however, and what I shared with the attendees at NCECA, is what I see every day working with the students of the Shop. I continue to be impressed by the capabilities we all have within us. It is common for my students to begin by telling me what they perceive as their weaknesses. What I see, however, and what my students soon realize about themselves is not what they are unable to do, but what they actually can do. This is not something I set out to teach them; I teach them how to work with clay. What students learn by working at the Shop, regardless of the medium, helps them discover their actual capabilities.