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The adventures of a potter

“I would do anything to promote Paragon Industries.” --Mel Jacobson


Mel Jacobson is the author of “Pottery: A Life, a Lifetime.” Arnold Howard of Paragon Industries interviewed Mel for this website. Click here to read about his book.

Q. What made you decide to write your book?

A. The book was the idea of Ruth Butler of Ceramics Monthly magazine. She had seen my stories of Japan on Clayart and felt that it was a book waiting to happen.

Q. What was your lifestyle in Japan?

A. We had a two-room apartment in Kyoto for one year. Four of us slept on the floor on tatami mats. We cooked on a single hot plate. But it was very comfortable.

Life in Japan for us was so simple. There were no parties, no holidays. At 6:30 a.m. I left the apartment for the pottery and came back around 5:30 p.m. We didn’t have a car or insurance. All we had were the clothes on our backs.

Q. What is the main theme of your book?

The book begins and ends with the theme that if a high school teacher from Minneapolis, Minnesota with minimal education can travel across the world and spend a successful year in a Japanese pottery studio, then you can, too.

Most people feel that they need permission to succeed. They will find every excuse available to fail. But I think everyone has an innate ability to succeed at something. If you have hand-eye coordination and the desire to succeed, and if you just keep your mouth shut and go forward, you can succeed in most pottery programs.

Far too many people have romanticized the Far East. They believe great potters such as Hamada are way beyond us, and the Orientals are all geniuses, and they have better art sense than we do. But most of them are just struggling to make a living. It’s no different there than it is here. The master potters of Japan are just folks trying to get on with what they do.

Another theme in the book is self-reliance. Make it yourself. Do your own research. You don’t have to be a chemist or a physicist. You don’t have to be a famous artist. You just have to get on with the task at hand. You’re dealing with clay, the oldest material known to humankind, the oldest craft in the world, so we’re almost all innately capable of working with it. Clay is very sophisticated, interesting, noble, and well worth pursuing.

Q. You write about humorous experiences in your book. How important was humor to you as a high school pottery teacher?

A. The most important aspect of teaching in high school is humor and not taking yourself too seriously. Every day was fun, and watching kids do hands-on, brains-on tasks was a delight.

Q. As a teacher, when did you discover the importance of humor?

A. From the first day. In over 35 years as a teacher, I never had discipline problems, because I gave students unconditional love. The most devastating punishment is withdrawal of love. I don’t care if you are man, woman, or child, if someone tells you, “I don’t love you anymore, get the hell out of my life,” you feel awful. You get sick to your stomach. So I always gave unconditional love, and if a kid gave me trouble I would say, “We don’t care about you anymore. You’re going to have to leave.”

They’d say, “But this is my favorite place.”

“Yeah, but you’re breaking other people’s pots.”

“You can’t make me leave.”

“Yes I can.”

Grown up kids would start to cry.

“Then you’re going to have to make adjustments in how you treat people.”

“I will.”

Then I wouldn’t have another problem from that kid.

Withdrawal and then rejection works 100% of the time. Punishment, never. I’ll bet if I tried to punish you, you’d get angry. You’d resist. But it would be more effective if I told you I don’t care about you anymore, Arnold, get the hell out of my life, don’t call, don’t write, don’t email me.

I watched bad teachers always punishing people. It never works. And I realized it would never work for me, because I’m not into the business of punishment, which is a way of throwing people out of your life.

According to every study since 1920 on learning, trust is everything. The more quickly you can get that group of young people to trust you and to know that you will never abuse that trust, the more rapidly they will learn from you. It just works. There’s no evidence that trust isn’t the most important thing in human learning.

That’s why children learn so much from their mothers, because they totally trust their mothers. They trust that she cares about them, she loves them. In the family unit you learn from babyhood on. Well, you don’t suddenly lose the need to trust when you are 17 years old. The need for trust is then even more heavily reinforced in you. And the same thing happens in grad school and the military. Why do certain squads or companies bring back 90 percent of their men alive from combat? Because the men trusted their officers and sergeants. If you don’t trust your captain and sergeants, you’re all going to get killed.

Q. Do you apply those ideas to the pottery workshops you teach?

A. The first thing I do in workshops is stand up in front of the classroom and shake hands with everyone, make personal contact with them. Then I say, “First of all, most importantly, you may trust me.” When I say that, all heads snap up and all eyes make contact with me. “I will not physically or emotionally abuse you in any way. Everything I say is the truth as I believe it to be. I will never lie or do anything to break that trust this weekend, and if I do and you catch me at it, you will all get your money back. I will take no fee for the weekend.”

Suddenly people are saying, “I can throw better.” “I don’t know how the hell he taught me, but I couldn’t tap center, and now I can.”

Q. You said that your book is also about self-reliance. How did you teach that in high school?

A. When I taught pottery in high school, I had a red Sears toolbox filled with car repair tools. A kid would ask, “Do you have a timing light?”

“Yeah, I have a timing light.”

“Can you teach me how to use it?”

This was back in the 60s and 70s in my pottery class. Suddenly you’d be running a short workshop on tuning up a car out in the parking lot during the teaching day. There would be 12 boys and a couple of girls leaning over the car, and I’d have the spark plug out, and I’d say, “This is the spark plug, and this goes here. And don’t ever take all the spark plug wires off at one time, or you’ll never get them back in the right spot.”

This was typical repair stuff that I had learned on my own. “Now let’s all take a tire off the car,” and I’d teach everybody how to do that. We’d jack up the car and have the girls change the tire. It would happen in the parking lot during the teaching day. Some teacher would walk by and say, “What the hell’s going on?”

“Oh, we’re just having a little clinic here.”

As you can imagine, teachers thought, “This guy is nuts. He’s got the car jacked up in the parking lot. The girls are underneath it looking at it.”

Or a student would ask, “What’s that box on the kiln?”

I’d say, “Let’s unplug the kiln and take the switch box off. When you replace a switch, label those wires with colored tape. Don’t ever undo anything without colored tape.”

If you were sitting at a wheel in my classroom and the wheel malfunctioned, you had to fix it. Take the wheel out, get it upside down, get the red toolbox. “Oh, it’s only a belt. Sarah and Nancy over there, would you two girls put a new belt on this wheel?”

“Oh my God, we don’t know how to do that.”

“Well, I’ll walk you through it. Come on. Let’s go.”

And in 15 minutes the wheel is back in its space and running. You don’t send it back to the factory to get it fixed.

Q. Do you still enjoy pottery?

A. I love making pots. I still love opening kilns. I absolutely love the whole process.

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