Mark Shapiro

Why are we seeing this second wave of interest in apprenticeship? Perhaps the rise of wood-firing, with its labor-intensive demand for team work and association with tradition plays a role, in addition to the previously mentioned dismay about student debt, inflated tuitions, and scant academic job prospects. Perhaps the critique of corporate structures and capitalism resulting from perceived injustice of the extreme inequality of wealth and income distribution into also come into play. (See, for example, the success of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.) Once again, interest is growing in alternative modes of experience, grassroots collective action around arts education (see www.BFAMFAPHD.com), ethical and smaller-scale economies, and meaningful work. The interest in locally produced artisanal foods is part of a wider return to an emphasis on place and quality. The availability of information and connectivity made possible by the internet must also be a factor.

Any reconsideration of apprenticeship must address three issues. One is practical. For apprenticeship to have a greater role it needs to become more accessible and widely practiced. Information for both studios and for apprentices should be more easily available. There needs to be a place to go—website, or organization—that is a repository for apprenticeship resources, sorting out and keeping current the details of the various models that are in place, and mapping the contractual, legal, and liability issues around this non-standard form of employment. (The latter is a particular matter of concern as informal surveys of colleagues and participants at a 2012 think tank on apprenticeship sponsored by the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design (CCCD) and at our NCECA panel and sessions reveal inadequate understandings of the legal, contractual, an tax issues that come with apprenticeship. Where wages are paid, workers are usually accounted for as independent contractors, which can be problematic, as Attorney Steve Aceto made clear in his presentation at the CCCD think tank. It is possible, Aceto believes, to create legal structures that protect the relationship and fulfill tax and labor regulations, but this will require further work, (http://www.newapprenticeshipproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ pgs 15-17).

Secondly, we need to make the case for more studios to embrace apprenticeship, advocating for its benefits on both sides of the relationship. If the youthful overflow crowds at the apprenticeship breakout sessions at the 2015 NCECA are any indication, many young people are interested in exploring apprenticeship opportunities. From established professionals, I hear that many more people seek apprenticeships than they can accommodate. I know of a dozen or so established potters who are thinking about taking on apprentices in the near future or who have recently have done so, but many are not clear on best ways to structure the relationship. So while part of the problem is a clearer mapping of “best practices,” advocating that apprenticeship is a two-way street, that studio heads glean something of value both in terms of labor and in less tangible currency: support, creative energy, and the input of younger perspectives on life and work has to be part of the effort. Professionals, like apprentices, need to understand that the relationship requires investment and that benefits accrue over time. It takes patience to bring someone green into the flow of a studio. The apprentice’s contribution—assisting in making an environment where the things that need doing get done without interruption, explanation, or mistakes—comes only after time spent. Methods and standards need to be understood and mastered, and it takes practice to establish a rhythm working together. Once the rhythm is in sync, it can foster ease, productivity, and creative growth for all involved.

A third issue to consider going forward is about how to open apprenticeship up to embrace some of the broadness, innovation, and inclusion of multiple perspectives that characterize other excellent learning environments. Might there be some room for diverse input, discussion, critical reading, and peer-to-peer exchange without diminishing the focus of the sustained intensive encounter between one established artist and one student?

 Also, related to this issue is the question of what is the role for exploring self-expression within the apprenticeship term? The theme of submission and deferral runs counter to deeply held western and modernist ideologies that privilege individuality, self-invention, and the overturning of tradition. Is there a way to support these impulses in a positive way that doesn’t undermine the undertaking? Current apprenticeships seem to run from one to three years. Perhaps longer-term arrangements offer more space to explore this issue.
 Naturally, as with the question of broadening influences and augmenting input, the question of the development of an apprentices’s own creative voice will seem more relevant to some studios than to others. Some will feel that this is completely beside the point of their set up, others, such as Silvie Granatelli—and I myself embrace this approach—attempt to address the development of self-expression directly and incrementally within the apprenticeship term.

 In any case, there could be at the very least resources online for those apprentices inclined to seek broader input and peer support. Some ways of augmenting the experience for apprentices for example, could be: reading and study components (undertaken either independently or under studio supervision) that focus on theoretical and technical issues, such as foundational writings and science of materials, using social media and online meetings to gather apprentices in diverse locations for discussions. Perhaps a consortium of like-minded studios might participate in some form of apprentice exchange. Apprentices might switch places and travel to work at a partner studio, where and when it makes sense in the apprentices term and the studio’s production cycle. (After all, the Grand Tour traditionally followed upon the completion of apprenticeship when the journeyman traveled to work in different workshops on the way to  “master” status.) Finally, how could such programming minimize the burdens it would certainly place on host studios? Clearly any such programs would require administration, organization, and leadership. How could this be implemented and funded, and how might host studios be compensated for any additional burdens?                           

Apprenticeship is a delicate and intimate cyclic relationship between two people who are at very different stages of life, professional development, commitment, and maturity. No matter how much a person starting out thinks they want to become a potter, it is very different to actually live that commitment. Engaging in an apprenticeship is a unique way to experience firsthand what a potter’s life entails, and begin to make decisions about what parts of a particular set of studio practices are right for the apprentice to carry forward, what parts will have to be invented, what parts sought out elsewhere. Making a decision to submit to the rigors of working in a professional studio, for minimal pay while putting off one’s own work, requires belief in the long-term goal of gaining skill while deferring self-expression. Of course, the question remains of how the transition to independence and personal voice will take place. The journey from reproducing a learned style to expressing an individual creative voice remains mysterious. Some apples roll farther from the tree than others—there are apprentices whose work remains well within the style in which they trained, and others who technically and aesthetically leap into completely different worlds. These are choices that play out over time; individual style and personal voice develop for different artists along different timelines and there are valid disagreements about the value or usefulness of privileging originality in the first place. Like their early American counterparts, contemporary apprentices graduate to become “journeymen.” They go off to work for other potters, to be studio techs at community studios and colleges, artists at residencies, or students in MFA programs—all on the way to becoming “masters” in their own right. Many have established their own independent studios and some in turn are training the next generation of apprentices. The clearer both parties can be about what they are looking for, their needs, expectations, and ambitions as artists and economic actors and the better chance the relationship has for success. As Mark Hewitt puts it:

The outcome of an apprenticeship is dependent upon the character, talent, and expectations of the apprentice and the master, respectively. As such, the outcome often seems set before it even begins. It is a one-on-one, on-the-job training that ideally helps both the master and the apprentice. At its best, a mutual respect between the protagonists propels both parties forward economically, aesthetically, and personally. Like any teaching model, there is no guarantee of success. Apprenticeship can flower into something beautiful, or descend into an unworkable fiasco.

By laying out successful models and clarifying how apprenticeship works best for different actors on both sides of the realtionship, we can hope to minimize those “unworkable fiascos.” By making apprenticeship more accessible and widely practiced, creating structures that facilitate peer-to-peer support, and perhaps even expanding it into a more comprehensive learning experience, we can build something enduring and beautiful: a sustainable structure for educating the next generation of studio potters.