On a windy frigid Wednesday this week, Jer and I visited the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. The visit was frigid, fascinating, and raised some internal questions for me.
The Archie Bray is a ceramics workshop, foundation, and clay business, started by a brick manufacturer who was fascinated by art ceramics. According the website, the Archie Bray was founded “in 1951 by brickmaker Archie Bray, who intended it to be ‘a place to make available, for all who are seriously and sincerely interested in any of the branches of the ceramic arts, a fine place to work.’ Its primary mission is to provide an environment that stimulates creative work in ceramics.”
The Foundation consists of a compound containing the old brick works, a large house, various outbuildings and offices, the clay business, classroom buildings, a gallery building-in-progress, and new buildings and kilns for resident artists. And large grounds full of ceramic work.
But this isn’t about the Archie Bray, but about my thoughts in visiting there. If I were a ceramic artist, the wildly varied, fascinating, and accomplished ceramic works placed about the grounds would have been enormously intimidating. I have no trouble imagining myself turning and running away if faced with this evidence of the skill of those who came before me.
Luckily, I am working in an environment, the Montana Artists Refuge, where the keepers of the flame conscientiously remove any evidence of prior artists’ work. Even the line drawing of a Tibetan Buddhist Tanka that faced me when I first entered the studio was whisked away to the bathroom behind the bank vault so it wouldn’t interfere with my artistic insights.
I know that I am susceptible to feeling inadequate when faced with the fine work of others. This is particularly true in the area of stitching and quilting, where eons of workers have so perfected the craft that one can’t hope to imitate, let alone achieve, what the fine sewers accomplish. I am not intimidated by the art that is done by the fine stitchers (or not much, anyway) nor do I feel my enthusiasms quelled by seeing Rembrandts and Van Goghs.
I’m not sure why I find the craft side of stitching so intimidating (except that I started late and always was a bit awkward with my hands). But I can only imagine that ceramic workers, faced with the Archie Bray compound, might flee in despair before they even began.
So I’m wondering if any of you all feel some areas you tend to avoid because of the feeling of inadequacy that overwhelms you. If the photographers here were to be working in the darkroom with gelatin printing techniques, would that be almost unbearable, given the work of previous photographers? Is there an area of sculpture that Jay stays away from because he’s intimidated by his predecessors? Does McFawn find she can’t read some authors because of le mot juste? Does Sunil shy away from watercolor because the whites are too scary? Or are there other kinds of areas,not just the craft of your art, that you try to avoid because they might stop your art in its tracks.
A couple of other observations: I have a new appreciation of the effort that goes into photographing under adverse conditions (i.e. Steve’s frozen waterfalls, also photographed in frigid Montana). I don’t think i got frost bit.
And I heartily recommend, provided you are not a timid wannabe ceramicist, visiting the Archie Bray Foundation, although you might want to choose a less windy day with a somewhat higher temperature for your visit. The grounds of the compound are worth a day’s stroll and the artists’ studios look to be heaven for those that work in clay.