The Nod

Originally posted at Teaching/Craft

Sometimes a song pulls me through a week, and this week, it’s Radiate, from Jack Johnson’s album From Here to Now to You.

I know that we can attribute just about anything into music, but I’m reading this song as a making song.  One verse:

I see you lost in what you create
All of time in this one single day
You take it in and you

Every time I hear this song – which has admittedly been stuck on repeat – I find myself nodding.  And then laughing.  Because, apparently, the potter’s nod is really a thing – not just a thing in our studio, but a real experience for a many potters.

It happens when we get lost in what we create.  The wheel is spinning, our hands are in sync with the clay, our sense of time changes, and we take it in… and then we nod.  Without being aware of it, the potter’s head is nodding in time with the wheel’s rhythm.

Here’s the great Bernard Leach, demonstrating (in a tie, nonetheless) –

Staley demonstrates it subtly in the first few seconds of this video.  And then, I think he hints at why the nod might happen.

And – let’s face it, Peter Voulkos was just too badass to nod – but check out the movements of his whole body as he throws.  His shoulders, body, arms.  This video is just a gem.

I do a secret, interior yelp of joy when I see a student start to nod at the wheel.  When I see it, I read this as signifying some level of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow experience.

One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.  This feature of flow is an important by-product of the fact that enjoyable activities require a complete focusing of attention on the task at hand – thus leaving no room in the mind for irrelevant information.

Because, really, why else would a teenage potter sit at the wheel, involuntarily nodding?   (It’s not the music – my students would assure you, the studio music is never that good.)  It’s a joyful expression of full immersion.  It’s also usually the mark of a decent student potter.  The novices aren’t nodding; they aren’t fully immersed yet, because they still have to think hard about every step of the process.  When I see a student nodding while throwing successfully, I know he’s both fully comfortable and fully absorbed.  All learning should be so good.

Another line from Radiate:

You walk into
The world you make
You lose yourself
But you find your way

Lose yourself, find your way.  Find what fully immerses you, what makes you lose your self-consciousness – and use this experience as a guide towards what really matters to you.  Make your world.  I’m not sure there could be better advice in such simple lyrics – for the students I teach, or for me.

This afternoon, making teabowls in the studio after a long day, I was thinking that the whole concept of flow is really a nod towards self-honesty.  But then again, I was probably nodding – physically and involuntarily – while throwing.   In our studio, no one noticed.


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