The Case For Apprenticeship

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.

Mark Shapiro and Michael McCarthy at Stonepool Pottery

Mark Shapiro and Michael McCarthy at Stonepool Pottery

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.