Flow in Michigan

Installed at the Faculty Art ShowIn early June, I packed up the remaining forty-odd cups from FLOW in a large box, loaded them in my trunk, and headed for Interlochen, Michigan.  I’d been invited to spend this summer teaching ceramics at Interlochen Center for the Arts Summer Arts Camp, and it felt right to share this project at the faculty art show.  

The camp runs in two three-week sessions, and my first session ceramics majors jumped right into the project with only a brief introduction and one quick session of practice.  On Thursday, July 3, seven students did over forty interviews at the opening, in less than an hour and a half.  Interviewees were campers in grades six through twelve and adult faculty, staff, and guests.  

At the end of the evening, only two cups remained on the pedestal.  Those disappeared the next day.  To our amazement, two additional participants wrote their answers to the questions in a clipboard we had left behind in the gallery. 

I’ve seen the QR-coded cups around Interlochen’s campus – cupped in hands, in the cafeteria, in the Writing House, warming tea.  By the end of three weeks of great work in the studio, my ceramics majors understood the meaning of ‘flow.’  Kate B. wrote this thoughtful and honest post to share her perspective on the interview experience.  


Selecting cupsIn complete honesty, interviewing strangers about a concept known as “FLOW” – which we were told little about prior – was not how I wanted to spend my evening.

We were asked – no, closer to requested  – to present ourselves, donning clay-splattered aprons, with recording devices and notebooks, pens and agreement forms. Kate commanded we merely interview the strangers about what caused them to lose track of time, have them sign the agreement form (so that the interviews could be posted on cups), and bestow upon them one of the many leftover cups from Kate’s previous installment of the piece.

Soon we were garbed and punctually prepared, standing stoically by the pedestal that held, oh, say 50 of these speckled porcelain vessels. By this time, we had grown in enthusiasm, and everyone wanted to do the first interview.

But when a young girl from the High School Girls division approached, it was I who first excitedly asked, “Are you interested in being interviewed for a cup?”

The answer was yes. I took my patron to the hallway, still empty and quiet what with the earliness of the opening, and commenced the oral questionnaire after receiving, in turn, a signature of agreement. I was ready, so very ready, to hear this young lady pour every inch of her feelings into this little battery-powered box.

What I got was possibly the blandest nonsense I’d ever heard. And then there was the next one, and the next one – by this time my coworkers had also begun interviews – and even more after that. No matter how I worded the questions, no matter how I smiled and tried to seem fascinated as I was pelted with bullet-like one-word answers, no one cared to elaborate, to lose themselves in describing their passion as Kate had promised.

How disappointing, I thought, snapping out of a daze as a confused young Intermediate asked, “Can I have my cup yet?” These people were not interested in FLOW, they were not interested in opening up to a complete stranger as much as myself. And for what? A rock-hard hunk of clay that someone else had put their time into, had lost themselves in?

InterviewingI thought about the interviews as I walked back to my division. There were some gems, of course, but for the most part all I got in accordance to passion was sand – dry and numerous. These people only wanted cups; they didn’t want to lose themselves in some pointless interview. They had places to be, but by God, they wanted their cups, and they’d go through the motions just to get one of those smooth, white clay vessels.

It was then that I realized I was in the wrong. There I was, expecting people to ramble about their passion and being thoroughly disappointed, while I only had to look at their motives for tolerating me and my cohorts. These people didn’t care to elaborate on their FLOW – they wanted to experience that of others in a physical form.

Of course.

Interviews in uniformIn the cups, Kate and her students had created a physical embodiment of losing track of time – they’d spent hours, days, weeks, at wheels, spinning and spinning and throwing and throwing. Over and over again. The interviewees did not want to talk, they wanted to look. Even subconsciously, they were more interested in the passion of others over their own. Isn’t that why people go to art shows, anyways? To see the interests of others take on literal shapes in our plain plane?

Anyone can go out and buy a cup, I remember thinking, but to have to sit through an interview just to get one – by golly, that’s dedication. It was inspiring in that people cared more to own a labor of love than to prattle on to a teenage girl about their own.

Well, good for them!  At least someone here is honest with themselves, I thought, embarrassingly recalling how ceaselessly I had spoken about art for my own interview.  Enjoy those cups, you uninteresting folk. Enjoy them, because if you simply don’t have a FLOW, you might as well lose yourself in someone else’s.

Would I install FLOW again at a traditional art opening?  I’m not so sure.  Kate raises some interesting questions to consider here.  But it seems I’m going to have to figure this out – because we have a new batch of interviews to share, and so I’ve been making some new cups whenever I have a few minutes to spare in the studio.  

Grateful to my ceramics students, all interviewees (willing to talk and eager for cups), Kate B. and her parents, and especially the Interlochen Visual Arts department for the support.  And always to the original collaborators.  





Only three broken cups!

It has now been over a whirlwind week since we returned from Boston.

Reality hit all of us pretty hard when we got back.  I’m not sure that any of the students would describe the common app, finalizing the first quarter, or catching up on tests as ‘flow’ experiences.  Nor would I categorize my gradebooks that needed to be tidied or catch-up work as immersive or enjoyable.

(The recommendation letters I had to finish writing for several of the Flow participants, however, were an absolute joy.)

We have quickly moved into our next project, with loose ends from this one still to finish.  Such is the way a school year goes.  But I can’t let this weekend go by without noting a few important thanks.

Christian Talbot for reviewing the proposal in advance of submission, giving the thumbs-up, rallying the financial support, tweeting and sharing our experience, and – in advance – helping us with the wrap-up.  We are deeply grateful, and we hope that we can share this project in a way that has community impact for our school.

Dave Griffith for insisting that I finish the proposal, sharing yours with me, and seriously being my favorite collaborator in the universe.  I cannot wait for the next book.  Also, to Brandon Som for the concept in the first place, awhile back, with summer crickets in the background.

Aliza Greenberg & the organizers of the Harvard AiE CtC Conference for accepting our proposal, answering all of our questions in advance, providing wisdom and advice, and your warm reception.  We hope that you were able to enjoy the entire event as much as we did!

Jackie White for humoring yet another of my crazy ideas, stocking us with clay and glaze, navigating a crazy van ride, and helping to keep a watchful eye over the whole experience.

Jamie Wasson for making the time to join us at the conference and helping us to document, while our hands were muddy and our minds busy.

John McGlinn for wisdom, finding the best Italian restaurant within walking distance of our hotel, guiding the boys around the city (and getting everywhere we needed to be on-time), thoughtful advice, and all of your warm support.  You can co-chaperone an arts department trip anytime!

Everyone we interviewed… thank you for making the time to have a meaningful conversation with us.  I think all of us can echo Drew’s comment: “I feel like I’ve become wiser with every interview I do.”  We learned so much from you, and we are grateful for the ongoing conversations sparked by our dialogues with you.

Parents… thank you for trusting in an unusual idea, for your overwhelming support of your sons along this journey, and especially for helping them to find balance along the way.  Also, thank you for overloading our van with snacks – even a couple of healthy ones!

And most importantly – Thank you to the student collaborators on this project.  Your trust, willingness to step outside of your (our) comfort zones, advice, flexibility, and open minds made this whole experience a joy.  I hope Flow was a thought-provoking boost for you, throughout the process and through sharing the product.  I’d collaborate with any or all of you, anytime.

There’s still more to come, but as we consider the wrap-up and sharing of this project, we will do so in a spirit of gratitude.

Advocacy and Evolution

IMG_3176“What if a math teacher had to advocate as much, or as hard, for the math program as we have to for the arts?” I looked around the table, and made eye contact with a few of the other teachers in the room.  “What sort of magic would happen in math?”

I nervously asked this question in a breakout session this morning. My heart had sunk a few minutes earlier, when the session’s participants introduced themselves and their credentials. An overwhelming array of education, expertise, and mover-and-shaker-ness was in this room. Harvard grad students, teaching artists, mid-career professionals, people responsible for causes I follow and believe in. I felt humbled. When it was my turn, I mumbled something about teaching at a private school, and turned to the next person to deflect the focus.

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Flow in Teaching

While interviewing people at the conference yesterday and today, I really enjoyed hearing what they had to say. With most of the people at the conference being educators, there was a recurring theme in a lot of my interviews. For about half of the people, they said that their passion, their sense of flow, comes from their work. Hearing this was great – that people that teach find that they truly feel concentrated, and completely immersed while they are passing along knowledge to others.

In my opinion – I talked about in my interview – having a teacher be in flow is half of the winning recipe when it comes to education. The other half is the students.  Without them being fully into a lesson, then the efficiency of the teacher is lessened, and vice versa.  Taking a brief look at this microcosm, the teachers are fully involved and ready to give their all.  As a student the choice comes down to us whether or not to meet the teachers halfway.

Almost there

IMG_3249It’s Thursday, the eve of our installation at the Continuing the Conversation Conference at Harvard University. If any one of us told you we weren’t nervous, we’d be lying. The last of our cups were thrown after school on Monday and were loaded into the kiln on Tuesday. By Wednesday, all of our cups had been glazed; and those that had their QR codes were placed in the Art Gallery for viewing by those that walked by before they will be ultimately packed up to come with us to Harvard Friday morning.

The whole experience has been great. All the hard work we have put into this including throwing, interviewing, waxing, or glazing has lead us to where we are now. The bonds among our team  have strengthened from countless hours spent together after school working on our project, drinking tea, and having a good time.  In the future, we will look back at this and realize that the experience was invaluable, and worth more than we could ever imagine.

Seeing all of our work come to fruition has been amazing, but we are still not done yet. The real fun has yet to begin because Friday, October 25th, our show hits the road. Look out Harvard, here we come!



The best thing I’ve done.

Probably my greatest attribute is the fact that I can convince young people that they can do this, and they get involved with it, and I keep impressing on them that every time they pick a brush up, they get better. And I think that’s probably the best thing I’ve done with my life. That’s what’s probably going to be on my tombstone: That he taught me to pick up a brush.

Pete W. – October of his 42nd year teaching high school art

Ebbs and Flows

While I’m doing something, I’m immersed. Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t get distracted – because I like shiny things and noisy stuff as much as anybody – but I try to come back to where I was.  And to me, even the distractions – the shiny stuff and the noisy things – become part of the whole process…

It’s all stream of experience as you go through the day… which makes living, first of all, and a job that you enjoy, a lot more bearable, because you see the ebbs and flows…

Rich R.

What IS flow?

Interviewing people about “flow” can sometimes be difficult. The first couple minutes involves explaining what flow is. Well, flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what someone does.

Most people have that one sport or one game they love. Some others even seemed stumped by the question. It’s scary to think our body functions and we “lose track of time” and have a sense of timelessness.

You may see a person in flow and not even realize it. I’m sure most teachers love what they do so much they get into a sense of flow. You never know if the mailman is fully absorbed in his job. Everybody has their own “flow” and some people do not even realize they have a “flow.”  Gardeners, sanitation workers, artists, scholars, poets, athletes, and businessmen all may have different flows, and all have found one thing in their life that they simply could not live without it.

Personally, I get into a flow sitting down at the potter’s wheel.  Three-hour open studios go by in a blink of an eye, and after school from 3-5 is even faster. I zone out everything around me and focus on the clay ball spinning in front of me.

It is almost funny to think that I put this much effort into making a drinking vessel or a pitcher when I own so many of these at home. I’m not sure that I enjoy the finished product and using my pieces as much as I enjoy the atmosphere of the studio and the relaxation of throwing a bowl. There isn’t a word to describe the feeling of putting a piece into the kiln to glaze it and seeing it come out. You can predict glazes, but there is nothing for certain. These are the things I enjoy so much that I could do without an end.


The Tryers

Originally posted at Teaching/Craft

“I don’t think I even know how to stand still and not try,” one student says.

Several students and I are in the studio after school, creating cups.  The topic of conversation is ‘senior slide,’ and how yesterday might have been the perfect ‘senior skip day,’ but, really, isn’t October too early in the year for such shenanigans?

Another student adds, “I don’t know if I’d be able to look a teacher in the eye if I skipped, or did the slide.”  They agree that it’s an issue of mutual respect.

“Some of my friends, though, that’s what they’re living for – as soon as they’re accepted to college, that’s when they will quit.  And they can’t wait.”

All the while during this conversation, they are throwing, trimming, sanding cups.  We are well on our way to the two hundred we committed for an upcoming installation – but not there yet.  There are less than two weeks to go, so the energy has escalated.  We are all closing out each day with ruined khakis, the iron in the red clay producing stains that never quite go away.

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