Friday, August 19, 2016

The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts by Edmund de Waal

At some point during our time in Ballinrobe I discovered a series on you tube called 'What Do Artists Do All Day?' I love it and check back for new episodes regularly. I am always intrigued about people's creative processes and in how they discover the things in their lives that they are passionate about. Around 10 years ago Bill and I were working at a museum in south central Oregon and we did a life story project with 10 local artists. The division of labour was pretty much me doing the interviewing and Bill doing the recording and audio processing, though he would ask questions sometimes too. I learned a lot doing that project. Some of what I learned was about the kinds of things Bill and I notice and are interested in--when he would ask a question it always involved how someone did something. My interviews, which I structured as very open-ended, unstructured conversations, were about the why questions. When the project was done, some of the artists told me they learned a lot about themselves in the process. One woman told me, 'For the first time in my life, I understand why I do what I do.' I was glad about that!

In this book, Edmund de Waal seems like he might be on that sort of a quest--to discover some of the reasons why he has been obsessed with white pots for over four decades. I'd heard about the book somewhere, but the description of the book and my experience with his first book, Hare with Amber Eyes, which I thought was choppy and uneven, combined to discourage me from finding this book at that time. Then a couple of months ago I watched the episode of What Do Artists Do All Day? that was about him. I was intrigued by his description of his pottery work as poetry. You tube put some suggestions on the side of the page and one of them was a link to a talk he gave about this book, so I clicked on that. Listening to that made me want to read the book, so I found it and requested it. It came recently and I finished it the other day.

Overall, I liked the book, but once again, it felt choppy. That is just his writing style, I guess. Now that I think of it, it may well be his speaking style as well, but I only have a talk and an interview to base that on.

He is doing several things in this book--it is part history, part self-reflection, part autobiography, part travelogue, and part art process discussion. These things go back and forth throughout the book. One sentence is a description of a Chinese village and the next one is about an email he sent to his daughter. It took me a little while to settle in with the book, but once I did, I enjoyed it.

He tells the reader early on that when he was 5, he convinced his father to take him to a pottery class where he made his very first pot. The next week, the instructor asked him which of the many amazing colours he would like to choose for the glaze. He chose white then and has been choosing white ever since. He is obsessed with white and the qualities of different whites. He wants to know more about the history of porcelain. He travels to places where porcelain was made to see for himself and to bring back pots, clay, shards, and information. He wants to see these places for himself, all the while reflecting on his own life, his process as an artist, and why the white speaks to him in such a powerful way.

There is a lot of concrete information in here about the history of porcelain in various places, the culture of the times and places where and how it was produced, the economics of porcelain, its use as a status symbol, and the personal stories of some of the people who worked out how to produce it. These ideas are interspersed with his personal reflections on his life and work and on what he is learning. He covers both the 'how' and the 'why' questions surrounding porcelain and himself.

It was a fascinating book and I am glad I read it. The artist talk on you tube is worth watching for a sort of abridged version of the material he covers in the book.

 He never really gets an answer to why he was drawn to white pots in the first place and why he is still obsessed with them. I do not think any of us can ever really know why we are passionate about certain things, but in the process of thinking about it, we can learn a lot about ourselves. I will never know why it was that yarn/thread grabbed me over 30 years ago (!!!!!) and has not loosened its grip yet. I do not know why my heart leaps with excitement when I see yarn or thread in a shop or even in a painting or photograph. It is a mystery to me why I can look at yarn and thread and have ideas colliding with each other in my mind, yet a tube of paint or lump of clay does not spark the same thought process. I have no idea why making things with strings is something I have to do or be grumpy, antsy, unhappy, and a little bit agitated. Knowing what is important to us is crucial to creating a peaceful and contented life for those of us lucky enough to be able to do that. For Edmund de Waal, white pots are part of the foundation upon which he is building his life. Yarn and thread are my white pots--what are yours?

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