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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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ASPERGER SYNDROME - ART OR ARTIFICE?

Observations on the Clash between Aesthetics, Craft and AS Logic

Roger N. Meyer Copyright 2002

All Rights Reserved

 

 

     I dropped by our local Gresham Farmers Market today and ran across a stunning example of unappreciated Aspie art and failed commerce.

 

     A local potter with a great grasp of shape and magnificently creative, original glazing has his work on display every Saturday.  His adult daughter is the "salesperson."

 

     I know something about pots and the art of throwing.  At the same time I started to study cabinetmaking as an adult student in a vocational high school, I also experimented with throwing pots for half a year at our local art institute and museum in San Francisco.  I gave up pottery early, thinking that in order to master one craft I couldn't "multitask" or develop competence in two eye-hand intensive crafts at the same time.  (I realize now that such a decision reflected tunnel vision thinking typical to many persons with Asperger Syndrome.)

 

     As a kid, I was blessed by a mom who had great appreciation for the plastic arts.  She was an autodidact, meaning, simply, that without external prompting, she taught herself many things.  Our family bookshelves were filled with great works of literature and a few coffee table sized books of art.  Mom trotted my twin sister and I around the local art museums and galleries in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul).  I can't remember whether my sister had art lessons--she was too busy with her friends at our new grade school--but I sure did.

 

     My mother was heavily into the personal side of the local art and artisan community.  While searching out local talent for her television show, she met a husband and wife team of potters, Warren and Alex McKenzie.  This young artisan couple had set up house and their studio and kilns on the St. Croix River, twenty miles from our home in St. Paul.  They were blazing the trail in the Midwest by introducing unusual techniques in stoneware.  They learned their craft as students of a master English potter, Bernard Leach.  As young art students, they met one another at Leach's studio in the late 1940's.  Leach taught them design and glazing, and also some techniques he had imported from the Japanese during his studies in the Orient before the Second World War.

 

     Warren and Alex brought this combination of cultural influences back to the Midwest and began their careers teaching at the University of Minnesota and the Walker Art Gallery.  By the end of the 1950's, they had established a national reputation as teachers and artisans.  Our family shared Warren's sadness at the early death of Alex from cancer in the early 1960's. Warren remained a professor at the University of Minnesota and carried on the McKenzie tradition.  Today, their work is prized and is in museums and galleries around the world.

 

     What I learned from this background was an appreciation of the balance between living life and living art that both of these artisans brought to the medium.  I learned how design, throwing and glazing were integrated components of the craft.  If one of these components of the triad is weak or missing altogether in an artisan's hands, that person remains, essentially, a "wannabe" rather than a full member of the tradition.  With any one of the three elements weak or missing, a person is likely never to make it beyond a yard sale or similar local setting.  In such settings, customers buy perfectly good looking, good handling, or well designed works without recognizing deficiencies in the other aesthetic components of the pieces, and they are happy.  However, what they buy isn't "art" in the collector's sense or in the eye of professionals in the field.

 

Undiscovered talent?  A Diversion.

 

     Here we must distinguish between an acknowledged but limited local workman, and an undiscovered, local treasure.  The art world occasionally experiences the discovery of an unknown whose works vault to lasting fame and fortune.  Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol were such figures.  Other artists and artisans often make a lasting local or regional impression by virtue of the media or their subject matter.  Their work becomes identified with period art of the time, or as a material contribution to a local cultural tradition.  In a lesser category are artists whose fame is driven by fad and the popular media of the day.  In this group are figures like Grandma Moses whose American primitive works were discovered, celebrated for two decades, and have now faded to the status of an historical blip on the twentieth century art scene.  As such, her work may continue to enjoy collector status, but only for a limited number of the faithful.

 

Back to the Gresham Farmers Market.

 

         As I handled these beautifully glazed, tastefully designed pieces, I noticed one thing missing.  In fact, it was "so missing" that its absence was noticeable in each and every piece that I handled (over one hundred bowls, casseroles, cups, utility pieces, art pieces).  The "heft" of the pieces was all wrong.  They were incredibly "bottom-heavy."  Anyone who has ever thrown clay on a pottery wheel knows that in the craft, one of the first things to overcome is a natural tendency to allow the mass of the clay on the wheel to remain at the bottom of a turned piece.  Learning how to manage clay as you pull it up from the wheel is a basic skill.  The artisan's skill in this medium is reflected in the physical distribution of clay appropriate for the balance and delicacy of each piece.  In fact, if a piece has two elements and lacks the third, one can call it interesting, but not true art.  The workman's demand that customers accept such a flawed piece as art will fall on deaf ears and, more importantly, on closed change purses.

 

      But here's the interesting thing.  As I tipped and pulled at the top of each piece discovering each to be overly bottom-heavy, I sensed that there was more at stake in this public display of bad craft than met the eye.  In fact, every piece, "failed the test of hand."  Completing my circuit of all of the pieces-- I must add that they were stunning in appearance -- I turned to the thirties-something woman sitting in the folding director's chair under the tent and commented about the bottom-heaviness of every piece.

 

 

       "That's my father," she explained.  "He's tried lots of combinations, but he prefers to not have things tip."

 

      Perfectly logical, I thought.  How clearly an example of Aspie logic.

 

      When I learned about pottery, the one thing that Alex and Warren McKenzie taught us was that "Pottery is to break."  This notion sounds simple enough.  From their rich tradition of delicate Japanese design and English functionality, the one thing Bernard Leach impressed upon his talented young students was that this art form was functional human art much in the same manner as jewelry must meet more than a test of beauty. 

 

      What do we often first discover in an archeological site?  We often see potsherds, the very signature of ancient or lost cultures.  If we find jewelry, we expect that it was worn.

 

      "Pottery is to break," their mentor taught them.   It is a measure of this craft that the same piece serves the noblest as well as the humblest human needs of its customers.  As we come and go, traversing our daily paths and performing our daily rituals of eating, making decorative arrangements with nature's more delicate offerings in our containers and storing our food and our wealth, so the very containers of our culture bespeak the strength and fragility of humans as its users.  Historically, culturally, pottery is to use.  Functionally, that means, "Pottery is to break."

 

      "He's tried lots of combinations, but he prefers to not have things tip."

 

      This man with the wonderful eye for design and color and shape understood only two of the three parts of his craft.  With his preference for stability, he thought to defy gravity at the same time he designed a piece to defy time.  In a sense, understanding only two of the three elements of one's craft leaves one with two legs to a three-legged stool.  "It will not balance" although, with its mass located so low, it does, ironically "stand" very well.  But the moment the piece is lifted, its fault is known.

 

      Here, the potter has taken "balance" literally.  The clarity of his logic comes through in every piece he fashions.  And, as pottery, every piece is a failure.

 

      Very Aspie.

 

      Rather than the full aesthetic, this man is blinded by a crabbed notion of function.  His autistic line of logic is impeccable.  It is also "all wrong."  With autistic preservation frozen not only in time, but also in each and every piece he produces, his work cannot be considered art, except to a naif.

 

      At his marketplace of choice -- an open-air Farmers' Market -- customers pass by who buy their cookware and containers everywhere.  Their shopping sites vary from art galleries to the local Dollar Store to Goodwill.  These merchants sell artful pieces, which, though mostly mass-produced, generally satisfy all three requirements of the craft.  They are attractive to the eye, they "work well," and they feel good in the hands of their buyers.

 

      I asked his daughter how her father's sales were. 

 

      Her voice dropped to a hush.

 

      "Well, you know," she said.  "People are very careful with their money.  He doesn't come much to the farmer's market.  I'm selling for him."

 

      She didn't need to say much more, and I didn't press her.  Between the two of us, why belabor what, unspoken between us, was obvious?

 

      Her father's works do not sell.  They do not sell because in the hands of an inexperienced buyer, they do not "feel right."

 

      I noted to myself that her father's prices were very reasonable.  I asked this question about his sales in all honesty, because there are other potters at the Gresham Farmer's Market.  Their works are uglier, far less creative in color and design than her father's.  It was late in the day.  Their display shelves were half empty.  The time was 2:45 PM.  The market closes at three, and each place on the potter's daughter's knockdown multiple-level display racks was occupied by a "perfect piece."

 

      When I was a cabinetmaker, it took me nearly my entire time in the trade working for others, to recognize that in order to make money for my employer I "had to let things go."  That meant that I couldn't afford to indulge my perfectionist notions of what was acceptable interfere with my employer's need to make a profit from my labor.  I also had different notions than my employer and my co-workers about what was "good enough" and "what sells this piece."

 

      In my early apprenticeship and initial journeyman days, I had a business of my own--in the trade--and I failed.  I failed not because I wasn't "good enough," but because I was too good.  I also had no business sense.  It was, essentially, a "toy business."  A toy business is a business that to the untrained observer has all the apparent elements of a business enterprise.  It just "lacks business volume."  I didn't even break even with the jobs I ran for a half dozen customers, several of whom were repeat customers.  I managed to pay for part of my equipment from the proceeds of sales, but I also had a safe income of a regular check from the US Government on the GI Bill.  My living expenses were minimal and I "invested" all of the GI Bill money into capital equipment and rent.  When that money dried up after four years, so did my "business."

 

      It was not a "hobby business."  The reason it wasn't a "hobby business" was that outside of making things for others--or on the rare occasion for myself--I didn't like puttering around in my own shop.  I was a neat freak.  My shop looked impeccable.  The only problem with a place that clean was that it reflected a lack of production.  All of my machines and tools were too shiny, too sharp, and too clean.  I ran "a museum," not a going business.

 

      I don't dare characterize what kind of a business this potter is running.  I'm not competent to do that, and besides, I don't have the facts upon which to base any label.

 

      I do know that businesses fail for all kinds of reasons.  In my own case, I had many among which to choose, but the one that stands out the most was my not understanding my market.  I didn't have a special aesthetic creativity that justified a higher price for my products.  All I could sell was "quality."  But to people purchasing cabinetry--especially nowadays in this throwaway economy that was just starting back then--they wanted price first, appearance second, and quality...?  Well, to them quality wasn't as much of an issue as it was to me.  Yet my dogged insistence on something I felt so important drew me out and dragged me under.

 

     This potter is not a Jackson Pollock or an Andy Warhol awaiting discovery.  He is not a "secret find."  He is, according to the discipline of his own craft, a failure as an artisan.  Because his work is not functional, because it does not "handle well" even in the hands of a completely untrained consumer, it will continue to sit on his display racks.  It is and will remain a personal statement, a statement defying the obvious.

 

      Yet to this potter, the logic of "one side of utility"--of physical balance--and his return to the theme that a pot should not tip, a turn of logic in disregard of the principle utility aesthetic of pottery, that "Pots are to Break," will leave him forever oblivious to the larger connection which pottery makes in human relationships.  In the hand, his pots defy use.  His works are not a gift to others, neither his customers nor persons admiring them for their design and finish.  Even to those who admire the color and the shape of the pieces -- as I did -- these pieces meet one definition very well.  They are "eye candy."

 

      Each piece is a stark personal statement of his fundamental disconnection with his community.  Each piece is an unmistakable statement of autistic logic.

 

      For all such creative autistic people, until they discover the common coin of meaning to others missing from their work, until our society finds a way of according a different valuation to their work, they will remain in backwater markets making their statements but unable to sell their wares.

 

      In this potter's case, his skills are unmatched to his craft.  He may know--intellectually--of the third leg to his "milking stool," but he has chosen to honor only his limited understanding of gravity and defy common sense and public acceptance by producing two-legged milking stools in each piece cut from his potter's wheel.

 

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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