Last week, while tidying up my house, I came across an artifact that looks pretty ordinary, but reminds me of an important idea. It’s one that we hear all the time, and one that all too often falls by the wayside. We’re in a hurry, we’re distracted, we’re frustrated, we aren’t thinking of being gentle.
The artifact is this: a small lidded vessel made of clay. It’s a lovely blue-green glazed piece, only a few inches tall. It has a pattern that reminds me a little of fish scales. I remember the day that I got it, and why, and why I very nearly gave it away.
A few years ago, I taught an eight-week letterpress printing class at the incredible Penland School of Crafts. I was so excited to be there, teaching a skill that I love to students so eager and delightful. My students came from all different skill levels—some had been printing for years, and some had never carved a block or set a single line of type. They were creative, energetic, and determined to make the most of their experience at the school. They created ambitious projects, learned how to make books from the prints they made from these behemoth printing presses, and in short, crushed it every day.
Near the end of sessions at Penland, it’s tradition to have a “show and tell” day, where lots of artists swap their wares. For seven weeks, over a hundred students had been experimenting in metal, clay, painting, and print, and had made new friends, collaborated on projects, and worked out trades for pieces their new friends had made.
On the day of the show and tell, I made my rounds, and a few artists asked to trade their work for mine. When this happens, I always accept. One, because I like collecting art, and two, because if someone likes my work enough to trade me something that they have made with love, then I want to trade, too. I traded my work for earrings, prints, and a small ceramic bowl.
After the show and tell was over, I went back to my classroom to find one of my students, C., in tears. She was one of my most talented, energetic students. She’d always been excited to be in the studio, had a contagious laugh—and always had a huge grin on her face, like her heart was overflowing.
And y’all, this young woman was sobbing while another student whispered to her, her hand on C.’s shoulder. When I walked over and asked C. what had happened, was she all right, she told me.
“I asked R. to trade something,” she said. “And R. said no, because my piece wasn’t an equal value to hers.”
My heart broke for her. C., just out of college, so excited to have found a craft that she loved, had just had another artist tell her that her work wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t valuable enough. And isn’t this the fear that so many artists have? Deep down, we worry that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t creative enough, we aren’t valuable enough.
And this woman, R., maybe not intentionally (I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment) made that fear realized.
Here’s the thing: that lidded bowl that I’d liked so much and traded a print for? It was made by R. After C. told me her story, and after we’d talked for a while, and her smile had come back, I didn’t want that bowl anymore. It would just remind me of R. and how she had chosen her words so carelessly in that moment, when a young student, in awe of her work, asked to trade only to be hurt. I didn’t want to have something of R.’s anymore, regardless of how much I liked her work.
I finished out my class, and we all traded prints and books. And I kept that bowl, instead of giving it away. For a while, every time I looked at it, I thought of R. and her hurtful words, but then I thought this: I’ll keep that bowl for one reason.
It will help me to remember, first and foremost, always to be kind.
P.S. In case you were wondering, C. went on to become an even more inspiring artist. She went to grad school, and did some exhibitions, and continues to be brave and beautiful and amazing.