Lesson learned: A story from ceramic artist Dick Lehman

The word "Failure" comes with such ugly associations. Everybody has experienced failure but yet nobody wants to talk about it. We all know that failure is an unavoidable part of the learning process. We all love to talk about what we have learned but we rarely talk about how, why and when we have failed. 

A similar albeit not quite as intense effect has the word "Mistake". We all have made mistakes and most of us will gladly admit that we have. I believe that we are all more or less OK with making mistakes because of the conception that mistakes can generally be corrected. But failure? No, failures are much more severe, they are final!

I would like to tell you a bit about an artist that has had his fair share of failures and has absolutely no problem talking about it. For Dick Lehman his success as an artist was directly tied to his failures. He is a terrific example to demonstrate that epic failures, if handled appropriately, are often followed by epic success.

I know that the critics here are now asking: “Well what is successful in your opinion?”.  Dick opened his first ceramic studio at the age of 24. At that time, working with clay was still just a hobby. But just a few years later, he began working full time as a potter in his very own studio, Dick Lehman, Potter, Inc, in Goshen Indiana. Not only was he working full time as a potter himself, he also employed other artists, mentored apprentices and taught students. His studio produced and sold on-site close to 20,000 pieces every year. His work is published in a variety of magazines and books, a list way too long for this post. He exhibited all over the world in over 300 invitational exhibitions. He is known for his significant advancements to saggar-firing, side-firing and wood-firing techniques. But none of this happened without him failing and learning.

The following is a story that Dick recently shared in another interview. He kindly gave me permission to use it as an example of how big you can sometimes fail. The key is, what you do with the information later.

“I was taking an introductory class in clay.  Most all of us were not art majors.  I think that we were not educated as art majors – rather the idea was to introduce us to the many wonders that make up clay, and then to step aside and see what we students would do with that introduction.

When we asked professor Marvin Bartel…..”So, what do you think would happen if we tried to …..?”  He’d always respond, “Well, why don’t you try it and see what happens.”  I think that we grew into clay with the idea that there were few limitations, that failure was also learning.   We could try/sample/investigate in as many directions as we wanted.

This approach, as you might imagine, led to some wonderful discoveries, but also to some (literally) monumental failures – not the least of which was the brick-making fiasco that Bob Smoker and I ventured into.  Bob and I, with Marvin’s support, decided to make bricks to build a kiln.  Instead of making either hard/high-duty bricks, or soft/insulating fire bricks, with Marvin’s nudging we decided to make a single brick that would be both:  the hot face was made up of a dense mixture and toward the middle, the consistency of the brick material was filled with sawdust and became more insulated in nature.  We prototyped and test-fired with great results.  Then we made the fatal error:  instead of using, for the final brick production, the silica sand that we’d used from the clay lab, we ordered our sand from a local gravel pit.  Several tons of the stuff was unceremoniously dumped outside the back door of the ceramics lab.  We proceeded to make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these bricks using (as we learned later) an untested material.

The local sand had some calcium in it…..probably little pieces of aquatic shells….not much….but it was there.  After all the bricks were made, we began firing them.  The first load – an ungodly-long firing – cooled and all looked just fine.  But then…..little by little…..as the days passed….little pieces of the bricks began popping off (just like a plaster pop-out on a studio pot).  Before we knew it, the bricks came entirely undone!  They completely disintegrated into dust, right before our eyes, as we watched all our labor and vision and youthful naive energy come crashing down in a pile of dust.  

What had been the norm:  Bob and Dick working away at the studio at every available hour, turned into a complete absence from the studio and we licked our wounds, wondered, “what had we been thinking?”, and tried to learn from the experience.   Marvin took pity on us and simply called the college groundskeepers who with front-loader and dump truck, hauled away all the contaminated materials, the decomposing fired bricks, and the bricks waiting to be fired.  Hauled them away, along with our invested energy and emerging clarity.

Hard lesson.  But one that was great preparation for a life in clay. It’s ok to fail. What did you learn?  That lesson in consistency between prototypes, tests, and small batches and consistency with the final product, production, and large batches, likely saved me far, far more time over the course of my career than it cost me in the brick project.  And there at school, the materials were free, and the haul-away complimentary.  Not the case in ‘real life and work’.

So that early lesson gave me permission to try and fail.  To explore and investigate.  And ultimately, I set aside 15% of my time each year to investigate, start over, explore and develop.  I budgeted my time and production so that if the 15% of time committed to development yielded nothing of value ($$$), my 85% of efficient production time had me covered.  Budgeting for failure led to my most important developments over the years:  side-firing; fast-fossils-saggar-firing, unconventional ultra-long 15-day near-solo wood firings. “