The following is a conversation with Mark Burns, Stuart Gair, and Seth Rainville, the Harvard Ceramics Studio Artists-in-Residence, 2017-2018. This panel was organized, moderated, and recorded by Kathy King at the Falmouth Arts Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts, November 19, 2017, then transcribed and edited for print by Studio Potter. The panel began with an invitation for the artists to discuss what brought them to the residency at Harvard; Burns spoke first:
There weren’t these residencies like there are now. They’ve become a way of life, for a lot of people. I was in a very aggressive program: you made art, and you showed it, and you became famous. But also, you should get a job that will allow you to make your work three months out of the year, academically. And I did that, and I followed all the steps, and then, one day, I woke up and I was running a huge program all by myself in Nevada, and I was the chair of the art department.
You can’t serve two masters, let alone three, so the very first thing to go was my studio. I just couldn’t get anything done. And it dragged on and on and on and on and on. I was exhausted by doing the same thing that Seth was talking about, which was writing incessant letters to promote other people into things. I had turned down many things over the years, as my reputation—or dis-reputation, sort of—grew, and I thought, I can’t do this anymore. So I retired out, an emeritus, and sold everything I owned. I thought, I need to go find out what this thing is about. I can’t reinvent myself if I don’t do this thing. Going to Harvard was a godsend because it was a destination, a worthy destination and I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here.
Audience Member: How long were you doing regular work, compared to your creative work?
Burns: You mean regular work, like teaching? I would say sixty percent of my time was running that shop. I had a huge program of grad students, and I did it alone. I had no colleagues. Then, they made me the chair, basically because I was the onsite chair for the ’96 NCECA in Las Vegas. I’m the guy that made that happen. So the president went, “Oh, get him to be the chair. He’s pretty organized.” I begged not to be made the chair, and the last thing the dean said to me was, “I can appoint.” I knew I was doomed.
Audience Member: Do you guys think that doing those jobs helped you? At least, maybe not artistically, but your name was out there?
Burns: Yeah, and you develop a skill set that, perhaps you didn’t even know you were capable of. You can ask this lady over here [points to Kathy King] about it. But it’s hard to watch the passion that you would use for your studio work, which really defines all of us, evaporate in service to something else. So I finally just sucked it up and said: This is my lot in life right now, and I’ll come back to this later. Coming to this residency was a way to try to recoup some of that lost time.
Audience Member: And you’re at the top of your game.
Burns: I think I’m near the top of it, but—once upon a time I was. But I disappeared for almost a decade, and a lot of people had no idea that’s where I’d gone. I was writing reports that no one would read, trying to keep the department from going bankrupt—all of that other kind of stuff. And so the creative part of it—I kept my hand in.
Audience Member: Well, that’s still creative.
Burns: It was, but like I said, it’s a different kind of creative.
I saw him in a workshop in college, and the idea [for me at the time] was, you have space, and you attack a space, and you develop it. For me, that turned into the idea of curating. My mom was an interior decorator, and my dad was a photographer, so I [was influenced by] these things… Curating and owning a gallery and being in that mode, for years, gave birth to a ton of other stuff. I’ll never do it again, but I’ll never regret any of that time. I wasn’t in any magazines anymore, I wasn’t doing any books anymore, but I was doing enough major shows every year that I felt I was still part of the community. And I was helping to promote other people, which I appreciate, too.
Audience Member: Stuart, you said you were doing it a little bit more traditionally.
Stuart Gair: Yeah, I’d say so.
Audience Member: You’re lucky.
Gair: First of all, I love the fact that it’s a teaching residency. I went to [the University of] Nebraska because it offered opportunities to teach. I would like to eventually teach, one day, like these guys. I think the energy around teaching, and having all these students around rather than working in solitude, is just amazing. And I’ve been learning from my students, some who have been doing it for fifty-plus years. So it’s been a really good, reciprocal relationship. It’s taken a little while to get used to hundreds of people moving around and hundreds of people to interact with.
Audience Member: Stuart! Stuart! Stuart! Stuart!
Rainville: I came a little bit early and was asking about studio space, and Kathy very graciously was giving up her space for one of us, because the studio hadn’t had three residents at the same time before. So Kathy gave up her space—
King: Yeah. [laughs]
Rainville: But it was facing the hallway where everyone comes in and out. She was like, “If you want to hide, you need to go take that other space, way at the end. Stuart’s not coming for a while, so whatever you take, he’ll have to deal with whatever else.”
King: I did not say that.
Rainville: Well, kind of, a little bit.
King: A little bit. [laughs]
Rainville: But I wanted to be in the mix of everything that was going on, because why am I there otherwise? Plus, all the ceilings are open, so I get to hear Mark teaching his mold class, and I’m thinking, Oh, I’m catching a lifetime’s worth of information from my seat. As I’m pinch, pinch, pinch, scrape, scrape, scrape, Mark’s like, “And then you do…” I’m, like, sweet. And then, Stuart, same thing.
I also have the luxury of going to the Peabody Museum [of Archaeology & Ethnology] on campus—going through the annex and looking at all these amazing objects. The curators and the staff there have this breadth of information that you’re like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” You take that information back [to the studio], and then we’re doing these crazy firings, and everyone’s working together, and it’s all these wonderful puzzle pieces that you have to put together. That’s what makes it a truly breathtaking experience. I’m only teaching two classes there, and the main reason I feel like I belong in that environment is that the students drive the narrative.
King: Is that pulling you away from having time for your own work, though?
King: Mark, how has it been for you? [laughs]
Burns: You want an honest answer?
King: Yeah, of course.
Burns: I didn’t like it at first, because I’m basically a lone wolf. I’m a solitary creature when I work, because much of—there’s so much head play. Also, the engineering of my work doesn’t come easy, and so, it all has to be worked out. In the beginning, everyone was, “Mark! Mark!” One day, I said to Kathy, “How much do I owe these people?”
She said, “Well, well, I know. I’ll make you a sign.” Now I have this little sign in my space that says, “Artist on duty. Do not disturb”—to which they pay absolutely no attention.
But I’ve grown. I spent a lot of time alone, especially the last two years, so having all this bustle around me is pretty good. It’s energetic. I get cookies, and I know who’s sick and how many grandchildren, and nobody’s yet given me the other half of that banana bread recipe…
I think that the kindness and the interest they show is genuine. It reaffirmed my faith in working in larger groups of people. They’ve learned, too. If I just say to them, “I really need this time,” then they turn around and go bother Stuart.
I think, in my own strange way, I was born to teach. I like teaching. I like the vibe that’s down here—free from academic constraints, in which grades are used as weapons. People come and get what they want from you. If they only want a small thing, that’s OK; if they want the whole enchilada, they’ll get it.
King: I talked to each of you before you entered in, and I’m always very careful to explain that we’re not a ceramics department. [The studio] is, in its ultimate sense, a community studio. We happen to do this other academic stuff, but when it comes down to it, we’re a community studio. And you said something very interesting, Mark, like, “People come and go and take what they need.” Stuart, you said, “Well, how much homework can I give them?” And I’m like, “Well, you can give them all you want, but…
…they may not do it.” I’m joking, but in a community environment, people are not students, living on a campus, going to their dorm rooms. They’re people with lives and spouses and kids and pets and all these other responsibilities. So when I went from [teaching in] academia to a community studio, I thought, Well, this is actually a bigger challenge. Would you agree with that?
Gair: Definitely, because there’s something expected in the university setting. There’s grades. There’s formal critiques. I’d never worked in a community studio before, and there’s just so many different levels of skill and experience. Some people in my beginners’ class have been throwing on the wheel for thirty years; then there are students who are just starting. I’m learning how to deal with each individual person, and like Mark said, letting them find their own way. I can offer individual critiques—that’s something I’ve found really helpful—some people take it; some people don’t. I give them information, send them articles and videos, things like that, and they can choose to watch those or read those, or not. That’s how I’ve dealt with [teaching here].
King: In teaching, whether it’s a community or a traditional academic setting, there’s an overload [of information]. I teach a class at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and everyone is like, “Well, I watched a video on throwing on the wheel, so I’m ready for class. I’m way ahead of you people.” And I’m like, aww… [laughs] So all the access to videos and tips and techniques and whatnot—we’ll start with Mark—how does that affect teaching in the classroom?
Burns: Well, I had to make a big adjustment, because I’m an old dog. Or, as a friend of mine says, “Old fire horses run when they hear the bell.” I’m an old fire horse, too. Academically, I’d done everything imaginable, and maybe in some ways, I had been indoctrinated by academia. So I get to this place, where I have to reconfigure what I’m doing. I’m free of the pain of grading, I’m free of having to chase people down if they don’t show up for anything, but I still want to give the students something, because they have a right to expect something, because Harvard brought me in and pays me to do something. My way of dealing with all that was [to offer a] kind of smorgasbord: I can give you these things, and if you want them, you can have them.
The plaster class is a really, really great example of this. I teach it as a tool-making class, I don’t teach it as an art class. The results were like the difference between night and day. No longer are [students] afraid that this person they’ve read about or they saw in books is gonna come in and say rude things to them about what they’re doing. I simply ask them to learn to make a tool, and if they have this tool, I never tell them what to cast. The students in the class all sort of blossom under this approach; it takes the fear out.
My job is to take the fear out and give students what they want. A lot of them get up to two-part molds, and that’s as far as they want to go. They don’t understand the mechanics or the physics or the math to multi-parts. They don’t want to do it, they’ve gotten what they wanted. Then I say, “Great, make a couple more, now do something with them, and that’s up to you.” I think it has softened me up as a human being, to put myself in their shoes and simply say, “Look, I can facilitate any number of things for you. I’ll lay them on the table, and just take whatever you need.” And if that’s enough, then, that’s enough.
Rainville: Everyone here from Falmouth that’s taken my class [will tell you], “Seth doesn’t allow you to do videos.” But at Harvard, it’s a different thing. The reason I don’t allow them here is because I have ten weeks to give you a snapshot of success. And if you don’t follow this ten-week, little bit of info I can give you and put all of your blood and guts into it, you’re not gonna learn anything. If all you do is watch these snapshots of videos, you’re learning from 100 different people from all over the country, and they could’ve skipped and edited out, you know, “preparing a doughnut,” which I talk about all the time [in teaching wheel throwing]. No one talks about that step, and it’s hugely important. And then [students] are not learning anything, because they’re like, “Well, I watched this Hopper video…” Oh, come on, don’t do that!
At Harvard, you’re talking about looking at tons of amazing videos and doing research at the museum, and you’re like, “Oh, my god, I can’t get enough of it!” But then, when we get back to the classroom, what do you do with that? So, rather than allowing the whole class to get carried away with everyone’s doing their own thing, we decided as a group, that this semester we’re gonna focus on two objects from all those hundreds of objects we looked at. So now we go to the videos. We go to the books. We go to wherever we need to go to find out about these two objects. And it has been fascinating. Technology helps in that way, but certainly in beginning classes, for me, it’s not a great idea.
King: (To Gair) What do you think?
Gair: I think [videos] can be really helpful. Everyone learns differently. I center differently than some other people may center, and going online and looking at that and figuring it out a different way could be really helpful, especially for lefties. But I think there is a danger if you’re a beginner in looking at online videos by someone who’s highly skilled and doing really advanced things with ease. And then you go to do it, and you might get a similar effect, but you don’t have the basics down, and that really shows through in that pot.
King: I think what’s unique in what we get to do in the [Harvard] ceramics program through the academic [connection] is to [take note of] the students’ psychology as they learn here. It really is moving to watch people who are not coming from a place of a desire to work with clay, but they’re being made to, in this little lab, because they’re taking an anthropology or art history or humanities course. And I do see some people’s high anxiety. There’s a lot of “this isn’t perfect!” after a fifteen-minute try on the wheel. But I do think all these things give you a different perspective of how to approach [teaching], especially with [various experience] levels in one class.
So, can we open it up to the room? Do we have any questions, either for the group or for individuals?
Audience Member: How often are you all there together, at the same time?
King: When the noise level goes up. [laughs]
Rainville: I travel from New Bedford four days a week up to the studio. I have to deal with my two kids’ school schedules, so my time is regimented. I blow in, do four hours of work, then leave, or teach. As I’m driving up, I wonder what has gone on in the three days I wasn’t there, over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And it’s always amazing to me, how much more life has happened when I’m not there. It drives me nuts [to miss it], but it is what it is.
Audience Member: Do you have a chance to exchange ideas?
Rainville: Yeah. Stuart just gave me a piece to decorate, so we’re gonna do our first collaboration. I love doing collaborations. Mark’s gonna give me something, too, at some point.
[Rainville and Burns trade glances.]
[To Burns] All my love.
Burns: Yeah, we’ll make that happen. I think that’s important. All the work I have in the show up [in the gallery now] is generated out of every single thing that the place offers. And people were dumbfounded [when they saw it], because I did this terrible thing: I didn’t let them look at anything—I hid everything [I was working on]. In the old days, it used to be this really palpable thing: “So-and-so made new work.” You couldn’t go on Instagram or social media and see it [in progress].
So I was asked to speak about making my work in public, and I said, “You need to understand, I made everything here with what this place offers. There’s no magic clay. There’s no magic glaze. There’s no magic plaster. The only magic is in here.” And I said, “So these things are available to you. They’ve been in front of you all this time.” My gift is—as any of these three other amazing individuals can give, too—is look what you can do with this if you just look to the side.
That’s one thing that the [Harvard] program does: it brings in really great, diverse people who can, through gentle persuasion, we might say, get people to look to the side and figure there might be something that will push their work a little further. It’s amazing how often [students], once they got comfortable with me, would say, “I don’t know what to do next.” And I’d say, “Just move a little. You don’t have to be centrist about everything. If you don’t know how to throw, go and learn how to throw. If you don’t know how to plaster, learn plaster. These are all tools in your toolbox.” And the program has been really great about that. They have so many things in front of them that, I think, sometimes they’re overstimulated; they can’t figure out which one of the three of us they want to be.
King: It’s really true.
Burns: So it’s really funny. You go by student work, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s something I didn’t make, but it looks like I made it,” or Stuart made it, or Seth made it. The students are trying their shoes on. That’s to be expected; all students do that till they find their own bliss and how to figure those things out. That’s been really [interesting] to watch. They’re hungry for things.
King: [Referring to Burns’s residency exhibition, From the Cerebral Dimestore, at the Harvard ceramics program Gallery 224, October 7 – December 1, 2017] It really was mind-bending that [Mark] decided not to show any of his work [before his exhibition], because again, it’s a community environment; everybody’s sharing. Even academic environments, you can always peek in somebody’s space, and you want to see what your fellow classmate’s working on. [Mark] made a really conscious choice to act against what we see a lot on Facebook and Instagram: the piece is still hot, coming from the kiln, and it’s like, “Look at this! Look at this!” So you know what people are making, and you could almost piece together the whole show by the time the artist has the show. To put importance back into exhibiting a body of work made over a period of time—that’s really amazing. That needs to be given respect.
Burns: Well, the big Godzilla piece was the funny one, because it’s big. Somebody who works right directly adjacent to me said, “Where did that come from?” I said, “I took it out of here every night in a plastic bag. I carried this past you, dozens of times…
… and you never bothered to ask me what was in that plastic bag.”
I’m really big right now on history, that we can’t forget our communal history, our collective history. That’s why I talk about Howard [Kottler] a lot, I talk about Patti [Warashina] a lot, these amazing, groundbreaking people. We can’t lose sight of where we came from and where we’re going. I just wanted to bring some of that back, that kind of magic, that you’ve worked really hard on this thing. It’s like seeing a brand-new baby. It’s like, wow.
I was surprised how many people said, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “I understand why you did that now.” But I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think there would’ve been some use in it. There was a kind of energy about it that was really amazing, I think. And it doesn’t cut down the hallway conversations, like, “Oh, that’s cute. How’d you make that?” And then there’s a forty-five-minute conversation about strontium, and then somebody runs back and says, “I’m gonna do that too.” So, I thought, Here, this is a slice of old-school. This is how it used to be. There’s something to be said for that passion that is in a big burst, all at once. I’m really happy it worked out.