Category Archives: NCECA Critical Santa Fe

Betsy Williams on Critical Santa Fe

Betsy Williams throwing pottery

The Critical Santa Fe conference at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe last fall was an ambitious undertaking, bringing in presenters and audience members from across the country for three full days of lectures and panel discussions.  As is to be expected with close to 200 participants, “mostly professors and their earnest graduate students, with a smattering of ‘real’ studio artists” (according to Kathryn Davis in the December 2010 issue of THE Magazine) there were many tentacles to this three-day conference.  Given the breadth of the event paired with the space limitations of this article, a ‘play-by-play’ of the weekend is not possible, so instead I have chosen to focus on some essential points and recurring themes that seem relevant to Slip Trail readers.

Jim Romberg and his organizing committee not only conceived of this conference, but carried it through in a relatively well-organized manner.  Quite a feat!  With no benchmark for direct comparison, it is safe to say that this event merits repeating, perhaps with some modifications like a different format for questions, some smaller discussion groups, and more preparation time and advance review for the individual lectures.

Following the introductory remarks and welcome by Jim Romberg, a panel discussion in which the difference between an academic and a non-academic approach was voiced by Garth Clark, with Donald Kuspit perhaps best representing academia, and Clark and Dave Hickey supposedly representing Everyman.  As important as the dichotomy may be, even more important was the argumentative undertone of this first conversation, which seemed to set the tone for the entire weekend.  Over the course of the next three days, lectures, panel discussions and slide presentations followed one after another, with some time after each for questions (and a fair dose of grandstanding) from audience members.

Some of the most compelling questions of the weekend included the basics, like “What is ceramics?” and “What is criticism?”

Here are a few highlights:

Dave Hickey, while managing in a quick few minutes to insult almost everyone in academia in the audience (and to amuse – or not – the rest of us), also got right to the heart of the matter in his trademark barroom style.  “Some things are better than others, and criticism means talking about why.”  Like many of the subsequent presenters, he described art criticism as a service position, a worthy point given the intimidation that many artists feel in the face of words like ‘critic’ and ‘criticism.’

Donald Kuspit, reading a lecture that was far too long, spoke of the critic as disentangling technique and creativity.  Though somewhat tedious, his insights were helpful, since a somewhat out-of-balance emphasis on ‘technique’ has long been the bane of ceramists who do not want to be included in the hobbyist camp targeted by certain ceramics magazines.

Howard Risatti spoke of craft as always having been about multi-culturalism and universalism in a way that fine art has not.  I recommend his book A Theory of Craft to those interested in a careful and logical consideration of the craft/art discussion.  Risatti’s book explores the meaning of ‘craft’ in an insightful and clear manner, and defines its relationship to both ‘fine art’ and ‘design.’

Janet Koplos presented an excellent study of the ‘jargon’ of ceramics through an historical survey of ceramics publications since the mid-20th century and argued that everyday language is adequate in describing ceramics.  In fact, her examination of this topic was one of the most well-considered lectures of the event, grounded as it was in clear examples.

Paul Mathieu held that not ‘clay’ but ‘time’ is the material of pottery – which I note as an indefensibly ridiculous notion that he seemed willing to defend to the death, but perhaps it is not an unworthy means of opening up the argument and helping us understand the importance of material and what joins and distinguishes mediums.

Roberta Smith spoke of ‘being willing to be betrayed by your own taste,’ and her unpretentious manner, respect for ceramics, and quick-on-her-feet insights instantly won over many in the audience.  (I had a different impression of Roberta Smith than the one described by Cristin Zimmer in her October 2010 Slip Trail article.) Smith spoke convincingly in a natural and conversant style of our innate human desire ‘not to do something that’s been done before.’  (To quote Kathryn Davis again, “She (Smith) is the poster girl for art criticism as inspirational, humbling, and difficult – that is, a real-life endeavor.”)  Smith emphasized the importance of looking at everything.   The directness and clarity of what she had to say, backed by her clout as NY Times art critic, drove home the pronouncement that when criticism is intelligible and simple, it cannot hide – like a simple pot.

The opportunity to meet and listen to some of today’s most important thinkers on the topics of craft and ceramics spurred me on to read more and more about these topics.  There were many other speakers, and details can be found at

While the complexity of concepts of art and criticism and the definition of ceramics and its role in the larger debate are not questions admitting readily of answers, this conference was an important building block in the furthering of our own understanding of why and how we do what we do.  I recommend Judy Nelson-Moore’s blog for those of you interested in taking part in the ongoing discussion.  Also check out an awesome website curated by faculty at Lewis & Clark College,  It’s better than HBO.

I leave you with a quote from an article entitled “Ceramics and the Art World” by Peter Schjeldahl (art critic for the New Yorker) in Studio Potter December 2005, Volume 34, Number 1, which I recently read upon a friend’s recommendation:

“About being an artist, a true artist – what is an artist?  An artist is an unusually gifted man or woman with an attitude problem.  They’re unhappy.  Artists are unhappy people because they want something to be in the world that isn’t there….You’re setting out to do all this in a world that has never heard of your existence.  You are taking a big chance, betting that enough people in the world will recognize what you’re doing as somehow necessary.  Odds are that you’re wrong, in which case you may end up teaching hobbycraft at Dripwater State.  But you will be a winner in life.  You will know something about yourself that 99.99 percent of the people in the world will never find out about themselves.  So, no whining, okay?”

Betsy Williams was a recipient of the NMPCA scholarship to attend Critical Santa Fe in October 2010.  She is a professional potter and co-owner of Rift Gallery Contemporary Art, and will show her work at the Smithsonian Craft Show in April 2011.  For more information, visit

More Critical Santa Fe Conversation

NMPCA member and Santa Fe studio potter, Theo Helmstadter has a lovely website for his Green River Pottery studio and showroom.  Always somewhat of a philosopher, he publishes his musings in his “potter’s notebook” on  He wrote recently about his experience of attending the Critical Santa Fe symposium.  See his notebook at

The Critical Santa Fe Conversation

The conversation about issues raised at Critical Santa Fe continues.

Betsy Williams made this comment in response to my post about Criticism in the Studio.  I think it’s a good comment and I’m repeating it here since it is hard to find in the small “comment” link.

She said:  “Leaving aside the idea of ‘criticism’ per se for just a moment, do you think you make ‘aesthetic judgments’ as you work in your studio? I do, and I like the idea that this is – perhaps an embryonic form of -criticism. For example, when is the piece finished? It may be a matter of terminology, but these ‘mini-decisions’ all along the way of making a piece have a huge impact on how the piece as a whole turns out. As an artist, it is definitely not easy to verbalize these decisions as they are being made. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to verbalize them, in fact. But somehow this notion that I am my first critic does make criticism less of an invader and more of an illuminator.”

My reply:  Yes, I do make aesthetic judgments as I’m working in the studio.  Does this work; why doesn’t this work; how could I make this work better? I suppose these are some questions a critic might ask.  However, the critic is also relating what I have done to other expressions they find evoked from my expression.  Even though I undoubtedly have many antecedents and inspirations for my work, if I think about those too much while I am making the work, I find it interferes with my originality.  I think the critic approaches a criticism of the art work from a far different standpoint than the artist, and appropriately so.  That does not make the judgments I make in the studio less important, nor does it mean that I can’t stand back from the work when it is done an engage in some art-critic-like criticism.

Judy Nelson-Moore

Ellen Berkovitch on Critical Santa Fe

In following up on links and organizations I learned about at Critical Santa Fe, I pulled up, tag line “The Comporary Southwest WEbzine for Arts and Culture.”  This is an interesting site.  I put ceramics into the search and found this article written by Ellen Berkovitch about the conference.  It’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure it really adds anything meaningful.

Criticism in the Studio and Art Criticism’s Best Role

During the Critical Santa Fe symposium, I often heard the comment from writers and teachers (some of whom were also makers):  Don’t you make critical decisions everyday in the studio when you are making your work?  Their argument is that every artist is also a critic.  As if to say, hey, don’t get mad at the art critics…they are just helping you do your job.

The truth is when I am in the studio I am not making critical decisions.  When I am out of my studio, looking at other art, in other people’s studios, going to museums and galleries then, yes, there I am analyzing and thinking.  This goes into the big hopper of my mind.  When I go into the studio to make work, I work intuitively…I am expressing what spontaneously comes forth, my fingers dancing with the clay, mixed with my experiences, and the work is born.  The next time my own critical analysis gets applied to the work is when it is close to being finished, is finished or after.  Then, I may consign it to the trash heap as my final judgment.  Sometimes that judgment occurs when the work is made.  Sometimes, I know it will get to that point, but I keep it around for a while to remind me of something I did like about it or of an aspect I want to remember to avoid. Sometimes the piece is either kept and promoted or trashed only after careful analysis and judgement…i.e. critical thinking…is applied to the finished piece.

I think the art critic’s role is something totally different.  They are bringing to the work a different viewpoint and set of experiences.   Here are some notes from the symposium of the best role of art criticism:

Criticism should address issues and ideas brought into mind from the art work.  The critic enlarges the conversation that the art work starts.

From Roberta Smith:  The critic tells what is worth looking at and why.

Judy Nelson-Moore, reflecting on Critical Santa Fe symposium.

I welcome your comments and dialogue.

Sculpture or Pottery

Both Garth Clark and Howard Risatti made a distinction yesterday between Pottery and Sculpture.  I hesitate to put their names in the same sentence since they did not agree on many things.  Garth Clark said that sculptors and potters are trained separately and that the impulse and criteria for evaluating are totally different.  Howard Risatti said that he considers an object to be either a sculpture or a pot and that defines how it would be evaluated.  We had quite a conversation about it at the Patina Gallery while considering the work of Nicholas Bernard, who makes pot forms, some of which are large and sculptural, and not functional, and others are smaller and might be considered functional.  I asked how it can be that one must consider his pieces one or the other when they contained aspects of both.  Howard ultimately said he feels it is necessary to make this distinction in order to avoid being wishy-washy (my term) about the object. One of the distinctions he seemed to be saying is that pottery you would pick up and hold and sculpture you would not.  However, I feel there are many sculptures that are designed to be picked up and held (see picture of one of mine above).  My piece is obviously a sculptural shape, but is 12″ in longest dimension and designed to be picked up and held (the glaze is very tactile) and turned over and can sit on different sides.  Howard said he thought perhaps I make sculpture, not pottery, which is true, but I believe some aspects of the piece need to be evaluated on basic ceramic criteria.

I think Garth Clark is completely wrong about sculptural ceramics and pottery being trained differently…I can cite many, many artists who started in pottery and moved to sculpture and many, many artists who continue to make both. Someone said perhaps this is different now in Universities, but I don’t think so.  I see schools still combining pottery and sculptural pursuits in the same classes and same studios.

At some times during the lecture or discussion, I felt like these two men were talking from a different planet!  Then, I realized, they actually are.  Their distinction comes from a type of thinking that is categorical in nature.   My need to consider an object as both comes from my tendency toward integrative thinking.  I didn’t make these things up…they come out of left/right hemisphere research on the brain.  I don’t know whether Risatti and Clark tend to be categorical thinkers or whether they believe that is the appropriate mode of thinking for criticism, or both.  The reason I feel it is important is because I believe something may be lost of only one aspect of a piece or a body of work is considered.  Of course, we really haven’t gotten into the actual criteria that would be applied to either category of work during a critical exercise, so I don’t know whether my issue would be resolved on more detailed consideration.

This brings me to an aspect of the symposium that I find troubling.  It seems the most time is being spent on justifying criticism, does it exist, it’s problems, explaining what role it plays and defining it in respect to other roles.  We have never really talked that much (Janet Koplos exception) about what are the techniques and practices of criticism as applied to ceramic art.  I would like to know from the critics when writing about a body of work or an individual piece, what criteria, topics or considerations do they use?  How do they analyze the work?  Perhaps their process is so integrated into their thinking that they have a hard time describing it.  The only person I have ever heard engage in this type of discussion is Jim Romberg…at the NMPCA Ghost Ranch workshop in 2008.  I found it very valuable.