Zero-Sum Confidential

Aaron Kleinhelter
Aaron Kleinhelter Will Create for Good Vibes, 2019           Photo by Sean Reagan


This journal entry finds us continuing one of the threads from last post about having handy words to describe one’s Methods, as well as deciding how much of them to disclose and to whom. We’ll dive deeper into when it’s advisable and when it’s not and how to tell the difference.  Even though I lean towards the Tell All Camp, to start things out I have a story which speaks to the extremer side of When Not to Share.

I sat in my high school first period Freshman English class taking a grammar test. As a word nerd, I found wrangling with the multiple choice and T/F questions about parts of speech and usage rules a good challenge. The proximal friend-of-convenience who sat in front of me – our last names both started with Ha – sneaked a paper to me which was numbered to match the quiz with a note on top instructing me to just fill in my answers and pass it back. I was as shocked and conflicted as any 14-year-old A-student could be. While I sensed refusing would mean the end of my tentative social climb into her groovier less-principled world, mostly I was offended and hurt. And indignant. How dare she think I would just hand my earned wisdom to her like some sniveling sycophant? How dare she not do her own learning and test-taking? How dare she compromise us both? Beyond the obvious breach of expected test-taking behavior, it might have precipitated my first personal ethical stand. But stand I did, and I passed that paper right back to her like it was covered in cooties with my written reply: “NO.” And, straight-edge that I was, when everyone had bolted to second period, I even told the teacher in case we had been observed.

Revealing your precious knowledge, whether it’s test answers or your creative philosophies and methods, comes down to two criteria.  Number One: Don’t share when you don’t want to.  And, Number Two: Share confidently only when you understand why you don’t.  You need the internal clarity and confidence to name those reasons for yourself – a few of mine are listed below – and you’ll also need some ratifying words of refusal on tap in order to make an elegant bloodless deflecting segue which leaves everyone still friends. “If I told you, then I’d have to kill you,” works for some.

Name Your Reasons:

  • Your work is too new to you and you’re not ready to describe your hellishly inefficient hunt-and-peck process.
  • You’re feeling a tad proprietary about your original whiz-bang artistry right now.
  • You’re reluctant to just hand over the keys to the mansion you built with your blood, sweat and fears. This is essentially writing “NO” on that paper and handing it back to the bitch, but doing it with grown-up class – see next reason.
  • You decide that the person who’s asking doesn’t deserve it.  Dilettante? Real sniveling sycophant? Cheater? Pirate? Trust your gut and possibly your prior experience with them.
  • You’d rather play coy, acknowledging the obvious and letting them guess at the rest. This stance can transform over time  – The Case in Point is below.
  • If you explain it all, the magic will leave for both of you. Sometimes the secrets you treasure in what can be perceived as a Zero-Sum Game are not about tangibles, but about mystery and belief. Keep the wondering alive.
  • Walking through only the factual steps to your faits accomplis is as mistaken as thinking you understand history because you can recite the dates of wars.  With just the facts, one misses what drove the decision-making and comes away with only tone-deaf Manifest Destinies. Missing are the unique and sometimes random factors relative to time, temperament and talent – the conversations, the false starts, the doubts, the wild hairs, the challenges, the lucky breaks and the pertinacity in the face of it all.
  • You don’t want to hold the responsibility of being The Expert Source, or even a topical Socrates.
  • Anything you want to add? It will be good to examine it in the light.

And here’s the “Confidential” part regarding the To Share or Not To Share conundrum: It’s not a Zero-Sum thing at all! I invite you to read the list again, especially if you feel drawn or impelled to the Must Tell All end of the spectrum and don’t quite know why. This time through, though, instead of a cautionary manifesto, see it as reminders to be wise and to hold your center lightly until you know your truth. In my stumbling blabbing wordy mangling over the years, I’ve violated this list of reasons from both directions. It will be fine.

The Case In Point

Enter Aaron Kleinhelter – #kleintimeceramics – who’s seen in that evocative photo with his ceramic work above. In a cold email a few weeks ago, he said he found me while searching for recipes for creating rusty ceramic surfaces and asked me if I would share a few bits of info. Truth be told, I used to feel pretty proprietary about that and only shared some of the more obvious parts of it and only when asked. “That reddish surface is Red Iron Oxide lightly dry-brushed in random places…blah blah blah…and, remember,  Iron Oxide is RUST!…blah blah…and I fire in an “oxidizing” kiln atmosphere, which basically “rusts” the Iron Oxide further…” Yet in playing coy, I noticed I was feeling one way but acting in another, and I experienced ALL those reasons on the list to hold back even more, even though my truest natural tendencies are towards utter disclosure and transparency. That duplicity hurt and, projecting that conflict onto others, I felt misplaced irritation with those who outright stated that their glazes and finishes were theirs alone.

Since I no longer work with faux rust surfaces, I notice I am relieved of all my reluctancies to discuss it in detail, partly because I no longer have the illusion of losing if I choose to share. And, along with my natural creative passage to new methods, I have also worked through the Zero-Sum Fallacy at play and can now easily share or not share any and all of my methods with utter fearlessness either way.

Aaron wound up getting quite the detailed discussion about rusty ceramics as I know it. And, because the channels were wide open, that led to trading ideas about clay bodies, drying, avoiding and mending cracks, and firing, and, and, and. And Life. Dear Aaron, I am super glad you found me now and not then…and I so look forward to seeing what you do next. I have so many questions for you…

–Liz Crain, who also has been known to create for good vibes.


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7 thoughts on “Zero-Sum Confidential

  1. Dear Liz! Thank you for always so eloquently putting into words so many feelings I’ve had over the years. Although I must admit, that I can always sling the line, “You’ll just have to sign up for my upcoming workshop!” after giving them details of how it’s made. This is my favorite line however, really made me laugh! “This is essentially writing “NO” on that paper and handing it back to the bitch, but doing it with grown-up class.” Many chuckles. I envy those that have it and I strive toward showing grown-up class, but inevitably regress to my goofy clown self in an effort to convey to students to just give themselves a break and try it again instead of laboring over the first one. And in the privacy of my own studio I can agonize over the tiniest details and just take FOREVER to make one f’ing mug. And then text my friend Liz that I actually succeeded in not decorating every square inch of the pot and that it was darn uncomfortable. Then doing it again and texting my friend Liz about the agony it was. And again. It made me realize I had some really good juice with that discomfort . Thanks for being such a funny and wise sounding board. You’ve obviously embraced the challenge on this round of pots. Bravo!

    1. You’re a funny and wise sounding board for me, ya know, you dear knowledgeable clown! The more we recognize each other and share, warts and all, the more we actually help each other see – hopefully in great detail – the value in the searching and discomfort, the sharing and the holding back. And the fact that ultimately they’re pretty much the same and riding the whole dragon is always worth it.

  2. My favorite in you list of reasons is “keep the magic.” That element of mystery that causes people to ask “How did she do that?” gives artwork a spark that lives forever.

    1. Yes, that’s the one that gets me the most too! It seems protective in a bigger mind sort of way and I still aim to hold it dear.

  3. That was beautifully said!

    I think I was lucky that as soon as I was good enough to make things on the wheel I discovered that I could help others learn too, offer them advice. What I had was earned mostly by myself, but I wish I had had someone to help steer me through some mistakes and bad mythology. The very least I could do was share what I had learned so others wouldn’t need to make the same mistakes or suffer the bad mythologies. I have always felt compelled to share, if it can make a difference for others. If our art can make the world a better place, our being artists should as well.

    I also never felt that I owned my work. I was too conscious of the influences on how I saw what I was doing, but also that there was a role played by the clay itself. I was learning from the clay, and that meant whatever got made was a collaboration between us. When my teacher told me I had to sign my work I felt it was something wrong. I had no right. Eventually under pressure I made a stamp that meant nothing and used that. It was as impersonal as I could make it, and it often functioned more decoratively than as an identity marker.

    Knowing my own small place in the history of ceramics I know there is nothing special about my uniqueness as an artist. It has a history. That uniqueness was a gift from many sources. The influences are too many to count. And what happens after me is also out of my hands. If I’m lucky some of my work will be a gift to others who see what I have done and add that bit of perspective along with all their other influences to their own practice.

    1. Thank you Carter! Yes, we are conduits for that bigger force, and, the dance of ego trying to glom onto it, which still must be dealt with by some like me, has no relevance ultimately, except when it’s shucked. Your giving nature took the driver’s seat for you and mine rumbled around in the far back, feeling it had nothing to share for the longest time. To give or not to give, that is the cagey ego’s question! And hopefully, it answers itself over time. As the ancients said, we are NOT geniuses, we HAVE them to guide us. I had a coach one time who admonished me to “Go back in your studio and apologize to that clay!” and it was the first glimmer I had of a greater process at work.

      I also want to tell you again how much your words exploring creativity and art-making, your endearingly long-winded but never boring ponderings about meaning and the way it all seems, have been a lighthouse for me in the roiling seas of creative process. I can better write my truths and give it all away, physically, intellectually and spiritually, because you set the most precious examples. I love you.

      1. <3

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