Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An Apprentice

An apprentice is someone seeking to learn their calling by practical experience from a skilled worker already established in that trade. An apprentice by ancient standards was actually bound, like a slave, to the master. You may recognize this from certain movies; the father and mother "giving" their son away, almost signing him off, to be completely at the mercy of the master. Often, though, an apprenticeship is found within a family. A father would apprentice his sons in the family trade, most likely passed down for generations.

Both master and apprentice alike took this very seriously. Some cultures were more strict than others (and still are!). Read the following few lines from an ancient Hindu text at a pottery in India:

"The apprentice looked at the artisans ... as the ones who will open inner doors so that precise skill begins to come and unfold within them. Therefore, each of the apprentices approached his artisan or executive in a very humble and open way, being careful never to relate to him as a physical person or to seek special favors from him that the others did not receive. The artisans and executives were very careful also that they did not show any favoritism among their apprentices. This allowed each one to qualify himself only by his skills. Each artisan and executive ... distinguished themselves by their skills and abilities to pass them on in a transparent and humble way to others. For there was only one reward, that of excellence and precision in what they did produce..."

When I began work today, I told my "artisan" about the excerpt above. She told me a little more about the tradition in Japan; they don't explain. The apprentice must learn almost primarily by observation. But an apprentice does not just sit and watch. If you imagine an office where you have to start out "in the mail room". You copy papers, get people coffee and lunch, clean the office microwave, answer phones, and regularly ship things via UPS. The CEO rarely even sees you and you don't do anything directly relating to business. At the large potteries, that's the way it works. The apprentices must work their way up, not by time but by proving their skill. They clean the studio, dig clay, process the clay, make and clean tools, wedge the clay, and before electric wheels they actually turned the wheel for the master (I will hopefully get a chance to explain all of these things). An apprentice didn't get to throw (the verb for turning the clay on the wheel) until much later in the process. Towards the end of their apprenticeship, many were required to submit their "masterpiece" to a group of masters. It would be inspected and, hopefully, approved. Once they pass this last test, they would be considered freemen.

Today, there are standards, legislation, and committees regarding apprenticeships. People are no longer indentured. Industry and modern technology drastically changed the apprentice's place in a trade. But the apprentice is still alive and well through all of these changes.

My grandmother was a potter, my mother is a potter, and I am a potter. I love being able to work in our small family tradition! But you know, I didn't really have a choice ... not because I am indentured (!), but because I have art going back many generations on both sides of my family and it is coursing through my veins.

So, at the end of the day today, my mom turned to me and said, "I wonder how its going to be when I stop looking at you and talking to you...", as if we were going to embark on the old style of master and apprentice, "being careful never to relate to [each other] as a physical person." Ha! Thank goodness for a little modernity!


  1. Sarah, I'm sure this obvious, but what do you mean by your last comment about what your Mom said to you?


  2. I should probably explain that a little bit more. Thanks, Lisa! Read the end again!

  3. Makes Perfect Sense. Thanks Sarah. I have to laugh, I didn't read the section under your picture saying you were an apprentice to Jennifer Coffin. And, so when you said you were apprenticing with someone, I was wondering why you weren't doing it with "Jennifer Coffin." I couldn't be happier for you both, What an unbelievably useful time with your Mom and Artisan! Now that I know she is your Artisan her comment makes perfect sense. Thanks for clearing it up and I wish you both great success in your endeavor!

    Warmly, Lisa

  4. Perhaps the way of the " Apprenticeship" has passed because It has largely been associated with the trades. If you want to be a carpenter, you apprentice. It seems the modern art student is more concerned with being expressive in the way they swing the hammer, even if they cant find the nail. Perhaps pottery has maintained the apprenticeship for the mere fact that it might be more obvious when a pot doesn't function as it should, as opposed to say a painting. Which if it doesn't function as it out too, we just say we don't like it.

  5. Chris, that's an interesting way to put it...and I think you're right. I think expression has a place, it comes out naturally as soon as you act, but expression as the sole aim in a work of art, before honing the skill, ruins it.

  6. Chris, succinct explanation of things. I think it also stems from the breakdown of community ties and loyalties--with the more transient nature of society today.

    sjc--can you explain what you are going to be doing specifically as an apprentice? since you have already done one, I suppose this is like an "advanced apprenticeship". So you are out of the mail room, where do you go now?

  7. Good idea, Rebecca! I'll do that in a later post.

    (and don't you think the break down of community ties started with the break down of the family?)

  8. And thus we can link the loss of the apprenticeship back to the original sin. Lol.