Critique vs Coaching

At its very best, an art critique is a very high-level and personal conversation with professional(s) who care about your work and development as an artist. As an artist and an educator I have been present at many critiques, both as participant and facilitator. In a traditional art critique the goal is to more deeply understand the artwork in question. This deeper understanding helps art instructors evaluate the artwork, often for a grade. Critiques in art departments are frequently scheduled in advance and serve as a deadline for the completion, or near completion, of an artwork or series. Participants include the artist and the instructor. There may also be other professors, invited guests, and other artists in the class or program. Usually, everyone present at the critique is invited to ask questions and contribute to the conversation.

Ideally the artist presenting work at the critique will come away satisfied that he/she was able to adequately explain the artwork and that it was evaluated fairly. Even if this is true, critique seldom gives an artist the kind of feedback useful in improving and moving forward with a body of work. It is not the goal of academic critique to help an artist to overcome obstacles, find meaning, or to hone ideas for future work. The formal critique process ends when formal schooling ends.

Hoarder, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media.

Hoarder, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media.

Traditionally a coach helps an individual player and/or a team to succeed at a sport. Coaches work to improve the performance of athletes and push athletes to achieve at high levels. There is more of a focus on developing the athlete and preparing for and maintaining a productive career. Artists could benefit from the sports coaching paradigm. Here’s what I envision a coaching-based critique to do. Since coaching discovers useful and meaningful strategies for improving output, sustaining production, overcoming obstacles, and growing as a human being, and critiques evaluate the work,

I propose combining elements of critique with insightful coaching to better serve the artist. The word critique is useful, and lends an air of academic legitimacy to the conversation so I suggest we continue to use the word critique moving forward.

We could now define critique as a thoughtful analysis of an artwork or series with the goal of improving understanding of the artwork and encouraging artists towards their best, most authentic and mature work. As artistic practice is a continuum, regularly scheduled critique keeps artists going and growing, while providing benchmarks and deadlines along the way.



This gallery contains 8 photos.

Every once in a while a friend will give me an object saying “I thought you could use this in your work.” Of course I am grateful for the gift. I am flattered by the thoughtfulness and validated that my … Continue reading



This gallery contains 16 photos.

  By default we think of drawing, both noun and verb, as dragging pencil across paper or the evidence of that action. That is not untrue. If we also consider drawing as anything that works in parallel to, or in … Continue reading


Exhibition poster for Intervention featuring Lee Puffer. Image by John Chwekin

Exhibition poster for Intervention featuring Lee Puffer. Image by John Chwekun

What Fun Is That?

Intensive Care, by Lee Puffer Ceramic and mixed media.

Intensive Care, by Lee Puffer Ceramic and mixed media.

Is there any room for humor in the arts, among artists? Why are we so reluctant to laugh at ourselves? Here we are, a group of people who, if given the choice, would spend all day playing in the mud or slathering paint, yet we seem to take ourselves so seriously.

Ceramic artists, WE know how to have fun. Right? We drink good beer and bourbon and host pot-luck dinners. We love to watch things burn. Ceramic art itself can be hilarious, but the artists have a serious (pun intended) problem. We, as a group, are not funny.

Just the other night at a gallery opening for a beloved colleague, amid albeit serious work, successful artists gathered to exchange pleasantries and to eye one-another suspiciously. No laughter, just somber, guarded chitchat.

Everyone agrees that art world is very competitive. It seems that there exists a finite amount of opportunities, glaze recipes, letters of recommendations, web-site designers – whatever it is we decide we need. Not enough to share. We must be afraid that if we let down our guard, we may loose our edge. I’m not sure I agree.

Money is another consideration. If we are lucky we are teaching. Even in these coveted jobs we are underpaid, our programs underfunded and often undervalued by administrators. Maybe money has never been a priority for us. Yet we need it. So is it financial insecurity that keeps us cranky?

Ceramic art still resides in a ghetto of the larger art world, something that irks many of us, but not all (remember the tired art v/s craft debate?) Maybe we have a chip on our shoulder or an inferiority complex because of all this. Even within our ranks we are divided.

Competition, money problems, inferiority complexes, and vulnerability all cause stress. Laughter is a proven stress reliever. Even my very minor research into this topic provided claim from various sources that laughter reduces stress, relives pain, strengthens immune function, aids in overcoming fear and (!) triggers creativity.

My work as an artist has always been based on my own experiences; self-referential. I criticize social conventions through the lens of my own experience. More often than not, I am criticizing myself in the process. I try not to shy away from difficult or unpopular concepts. Hopefully there is enough pathos and humor in the work for viewers to empathize with what they see. During an exhibition, I am delighted if my work provokes laughter.  It is supposed to be funny, but only the bold dare to laugh. Because my work is personal, I do feel somewhat exposed and vulnerable when it is on display. Laughter diffuses that.

I think many of us would consider our work to be personal, even private manifestations of our most essential selves. Is it because we are so exposed that we are so serious? Are we so afraid of being laughed at, that we will not laugh at ourselves?

Many of us do not take conscious inventory of how our thinking habits affect our happiness and success. When we inhabit a world we perceive as competitive and with limited resources, “we become defensive, self-serving, short sighted and simplistic.  We react rather than create as our better aspirations give way to survival behavior.  Stress accentuates our natural biases.” *

Obviously, if we keep thinking and behaving the same way (a negative response to the stresses of our lives) things will not improve. I think we need to evaluate our thinking.

We should open ourselves to the possibility that it is not a threat to share fun and information. We could laugh together and help each other out. If we change the way we think about ourselves, our peers, and the availability of resources, we might be able to improve our lives and our world. We can start by laughing.



The Joker, by Lee Puffer

The Joker, by Lee Puffer

One of the most baffling mysteries about artists is that when we want to do something, when we really want to, it takes so long to get started. We stall, even when we know exactly what we need to do.

We stall even when we have done all our research. We have carved out the time for artmaking and justified it to everyone who might care, including ourselves. We’ve analyzed. We have prioritized. The sink is clean, laundry done. We know that this activity, this step in the process is the thing to do at this moment.

Furthermore, we’re convinced that making art is our soul’s calling, that it is important work.

Why then, do we still stall?

There is that myth that making art is always pleasurable, and although it may be good for your soul, it is really kind of a luxury. Like getting a massage.

This is not an idea I buy into for two reasons. First, making art is not always pleasurable. Like any work, it can be challenging. It can be drudgery. Secondly, art is not a luxury. If art is important to us, if our practice adds meaning to our lives and helps us contribute to the world, it is not a luxury. For me, and perhaps for all of us, this is a necessity. Sometimes doing important work is fun, sometimes it is not.

This is a tricky position to be in. We have to find and justify the time to do an activity that, while critically important to us, might be difficult. Additionally, with art, there’s no guarantee your time spend making it will produce a favorable result. So much of what we do is experimental, problem solving, and speculative. And sometimes the problem doesn’t get solved right away. Sometimes the problem gets worse.

This is a lot of pressure. This is why we stall.

The Campus Art Gallery

Kundalini, Ceramic wall piece, life size.

Kundalini, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic wall piece, life size.

It is flattering and exciting to be invited to exhibit artwork at a gallery, especially a gallery at a college or university. College and university galleries are funded by their affiliated institutions. This allows the curators to focus on presenting challenging work that is useful to their student body, instead of focusing on sales of artwork in order to support themselves. Some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in recent years was at college art galleries. Often the curators are young energetic faculty from the college itself. These highly educated academic thought-leaders find cutting-edge art that is fresh and interesting. Exhibiting in the company of these artists can be beneficial. You may be invited to lecture during the exhibition, further expanding your visibility. The gallery will also produce a postcard and promote your exhibition to their community. Networking potential is good. College and university art galleries are great places to meet interesting, like-minded artists, in the form of faculty, staff and student body.

There are several downsides to showing your work in these spaces. Because the galleries do not rely on sales in order to survive, they will make no effort to sell your work. College art galleries are usually staffed by students and faculty, and although they may be enthusiastic and educated, they are not professional salespeople. Colleges and universities are always in a financial crisis. You will not be compensated for your efforts in delivering or installing your work. You may not be insured. You may be asked to lecture for free. Another drawback is that these galleries have terrible hours. They serve their student body primarily, as they should, and are therefore only open when school is in session. Most are not open weekends or evenings. This can be frustrating for the professional artist. Many art enthusiasts, buyers, and regular folk are only able to go visit art galleries on weekends and evenings. Also, these galleries often have terrible accessibility and are hard to find. Campuses are notoriously unfriendly to outsiders. Parking is often impossible. Signage is limited. Maps are incomprehensible. This may be why arts writers and critics rarely review campus exhibitions. Lastly, the postcard for your show could be either awful or terrific, depending on the skill of the design student chosen to create it.

Despite the negative factors, I find it worthwhile to exhibit at college and university galleries when I am asked. This may not be true for everyone. I think of myself as an artist and an educator. I believe in education for everyone as the best path to improving our world. It may be the only path. Too many college students have never been in an art gallery or museum. Very few have ever been exposed to contemporary art at all. Because of this, I gladly shoulder the burden of making, delivering, installing, and speaking about my artwork at educational institutions.

A Snake Eating its Own Tail


This gallery contains 4 photos.

I was asked to participate in a fundraiser for the Sugar Museum, which involved creating new work and donating it for an exhibition and sale. The work was to be enclosed in a jar, and artists were asked to use … Continue reading

Jars Exhibition

A crowdsourced fundraiser featuring 100+ artists, including Lee Puffer.

A crowdsourced fundraiser featuring 100+ artists, including Lee Puffer.

If you are in San Diego this weekend, check out this fun event. There’s more information in this CityBeat article here, that mentions me by name.  I have donated 3 pieces I made just for this exhibition.


"Sanctimony" by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media, life size.

“Sanctimony” by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media, life size.

There are qualities inherent to each art media. We call these qualities Material Properties. These days, when artists are not bound to one medium alone, material selection for completing and artwork is challenging and important. We can choose a material because it is the one most suited to fulfill the physical demands of our vision or we can choose a material because of its inherent conceptual implications.

When I was in graduate school a fellow classmate returned to the studio after a walk in the hills with an armful of fallen eucalyptus bark she had picked up on the hiking trail. This artist had recently moved to Southern California and was unfamiliar and with this tree. She began to sew the bark pieces together with wire to form large boat-like platters. The bark was already curved to imply this form. This artist’s work has always been about nature and community. This idea; the boat form implying her recent voyage, the platter signifying togetherness, the bark connecting with nature, was in keeping with her process. Almost right away, however, the bark began to dry and turn very brittle. Within a couple of days it could no longer be handled without breaking into shards. There was no way to sew it and doing so would be an exercise in futility. The material properties of this tree bark were not suited for the project this artist had in mind.

I choose clay for the construction of human faces because to me, clay is like human flesh. When wet, clay is malleable and moist to the touch. It warms when we manipulate it. Clay gives to gentle pressure while holding its overall form. What better choice for creating the expressions made by skin and muscle over bone?