Calhoun’s Cannons, The Bay News, Tolusa Press, SLO, CA, for August 15, 08
The Ignorance of Bliss
The documentary playing at the Palm Theatre in SLOTown, “A Man Called Pearl,” is priceless. Pearl Fryar, a sharecropper’s son living in Bishopville, S.C., first decided he wanted to get the community’s “Garden of the Month” award – first time ever for a black man. Then, undeterred by “facts,” he continued working for years, his vision growing and expanding to become an extraordinary garden of amazing abstract topiaries that has become world-famous and is now a destination for tour buses.
It was a miracle of ignorance. As Mr. Fryar recounts, a horticulturalist came to see his garden to inform him that he thought it was impossible to do what he’d done with those trees, and Mr. Fryer fessed up to the camera that he likely made his trees do what he made them do because he didn’t know it couldn’t be done.
That observation reminded me of a similar encounter in my own life. Though I had been trained in painting and drawing, I had received no instruction in ceramic sculpture. Blissfully ignorant, I got what few books there were on the subject out of the library, plus a few general books on pottery. Then I set to work.
Several years later, I was teaching a summer Adult Ed class on ceramic figure sculpture at a local recreation center. As was the custom, I brought some of my work to put into the display case in the hallway as examples for the students to see what I was doing. One student, like the horticulturalist in the film, stared for a long time at a large bull and rider caught in a horrendous fall, the rider, legs and arm akimbo, flying off the bull while attached only by his one hand on the bull’s riding harness. The student asked what kind of armature I had used to create this highly improbable piece and I replied, “Didn’t use an armature. I just sculpted it then hollowed it out for firing.”
“You can’t do something like that without using an armature,” came the adamant reply. “Well, there it is,” I answered, and then proceeded to pick it up to turn it over for her inspection. She peered carefully into the hollowed out piece. Nope, no armature.
“It can’t be done,” she repeated.
At first I could tell she thought I was lying. But even after inspecting it, she was still convinced – despite the evidence of her eyes and hands – that the piece couldn’t be done.
Like the horticulturist in the film, so strong was her grip on her received wisdom that it was impossible for her to believe what she was seeing in front of her face. And for me, as for Mr. Fryar, I was lucky I had no paradigm when I started that piece, otherwise I would never have done it, because someone would have told me, It can’t be done. And I likely would have believed his reality, not my own blissful ignorance.
And, in truth, the fact the thing survived the kiln at all was also testimony to master potter Jerry Patrick, who supervised the firing. That, and sheer dumb luck.
And so it goes with so many of our human endeavors. The dreamers and fools among us don’t bother with such made up nonsense as paradigms. Since they don’t see the box they’re supposed to be thinking inside of, they are always thinking outside the box. And with sheer dumb luck, they create something improbable, even “impossible.”
For every person locked inside some slogan-created reality – global climate change is a myth, Iraq’s oil will pay for the war, offshore drilling will give us energy independence – there are a few people already operating outside any boxes of received wisdom or even received “facts.”
And thank goodness for it. Mr. Fryar’s life was hemmed round with societal chains forged long before he was born but still firmly, if subtly, in place. Free from “facts,” he created his own reality. I didn’t know any better and so was free to create an improbable sculpture. And as for that annoying kid in the classroom who refuses to color inside the lines? The one you’re convinced will end up in jail or on the streets? With luck, he will change the world.
Dreamers and fools always do.