What does "mastery" mean to you? This was a question asked of artists whose work is featured in Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft and Traditional Art, a traveling exhibit sponsored under the auspices of the Southern Arts Federation, and supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Following are 12 of the responses:
Alice R. Ballard, Ceramic Artist
"For me this means knowing your medium so well that you have a working relationship with it. In a sense you become "at one" with your medium. In other words, you allow the medium to have a life of its own. As the artist, you direct and guide the work process but all the time you are listening and learning from the experience and process. This is especially true when working with clay I think."
Clay Burnett, Basketmaker
"Mastery is acquired wisdom. Mastery cannot be obtained without first having put years of diligence into your craft. Mastery is what sets you apart from your other contemporaries. Mastery is an inner driven force."
Douglas Harling, Goldsmith
"What is it that makes an artist exceptional and an object extraordinary? True mastery is the kind of skill that looks deceptively effortless. It is not just the knowledge of how to make an object; it's the ability to exploit the very essence of the material that gives it form. A master can imbue their work with a physical presence, that quality that enables a person, place, or thing to hold the space around it … to stand alone in a crowd. There is an understanding of the artist's own time and place. The work may fit within a long tradition but could exist at no other time. It understands the past, exists firmly in the present, and anticipates the future. Last but certainly not least is the artist's sense of self, their ability to impart their own uniqueness upon the pieces they create, whatever the format or material. This is a deeper quality than just visual style. It is the ability to project ones personality into the object, to bring it to life by giving of one's self."
Richard Jolley, Glass Artist
"It is a very small step from mediocre to great. Many times just one or two small things make the difference. Eighty hour weeks lead to mastery in the development of the touch of the hand. Concentration is extremely important."
Glen Kaufman, Fiber Artist
"Mastery is being able to apply oneself with confidence and convey the idea that the work is well made. It includes doing the best one can."
Virgil Ledford, Woodcarver
"You can't carve like somebody else...You have to have your own feeling of what the animal or bird looks like."
Gwendolyn A. Magee, Textile Artist
"To me, 'mastery' is a combination of technical skill, artistry, and vision that coalesce to produce work that evokes a sense of wonder, depth of thought, and/or a deep emotional response in the viewer."
Tom McCarthy, Jeweler
"I'm seduced by the materials first and then try to find the technique for them. Technique is a grammar. I'm interested in the essay."
Steve Miller, Book Artist
"A nearly unlimited willingness to stay with a problem until it is solved. In his world, problems continually arise, a part of the complex process. It is a question of grabbing hold and not letting go."
Craig Nutt, Furniture Maker/Sculptor
"To me 'mastery' means assimilating technique to a point that it is no longer an issue. Technique becomes invisible. Anyone who has taken dancing lessons remembers having to count each step; mastery is like not having to think about your feet."
Vernon Owens, Potter
"I really believe that you have to have the ability to make your hands do what your eye tells them to. The next thing is being able to be critical of your own work."
Mark Peiser, Composer of Glass
"Mastery is the ability to materialize dreams. To realize vision, concepts and ideas so that they are recognizable to others."
Richard Prisco, Furniture Maker/Designer
"Being the best you can be at what you do."
Harvey Sadow, Clay Artist
"What it means to me is being in possession of a body of knowledge and a set of skills that allows one to actualize what one visualizes without compromise. It indicates that one has developed a high degree of control and or knowledge, which allows one to manipulate his/her medium with extreme confidence. One thing I have always liked about flash firing (raku), is that I can orchestrate a set of probabilities, but the ultimate surrender of control allows the pot the opportunity to be better than the potter. That is as close as I can come to understanding the concept of grace. Grace might be just as important to me as mastery."
Billie Ruth Sudduth, Basketmaker
"Mastery means being grounded in the history of the craft, understanding the range of artistic expressions in my craft, and finding a 'style' that is uniquely my own."
Sunkoo Yuh, Ceramic Artist
"When young, one masters the technology, and as one grows older, one begins to see the conceptual aspect of work and as one grows older, one balances the two."
How will you respond when this question is asked of you?