Posted on

Aya Oki: Learning from Mistakes

This video caught the moment.

Glass instructor Aya Oki had a heart-stopping moment near the end of her recent, six-week fall workshop. It was, she told us later, the second time she had screamed in the Penland glass studio. The first time was in 2019, and it involved a large spider. Aya’s second scream came when a large glass sculpture she and her students had been working on for many hours fell off the pipe and hit the concrete floor.

“The piece was large and heavy,” she said, “and it rolled around causing scratches and cracks. One of my students and I put a wooden paddle under it to protect it from thermal shock as we waited for another student in a heat-resistant suit and gloves to grab it to put it in the annealing oven.”

Seeing the piece fall was a shock, but she added, “it gave me, my students, and the audience watching an opportunity to think a bit about what is important in education, learning, and life.” She explained that she had planned this demonstration as a way to bring the eight students in her workshop together as a team, working  with each other to create a large, complex piece under her direction.

Aya and some of her crew, about four hours earlier

“It’s physically demanding, and it’s different from working solo or with one or two assistants,” she explained. “There are things you can only learn by working on a team. Despite the difficulty, the work went so smoothly that it was hard to believe that we were a new team.” Then, just before the piece was to be moved into the annealer (a heated box that slowly cools the glass to room temperature), it fell off the pipe. “The fall added an unexpected dimension and more learning for us.”

There were a number of factors that led to this moment. The first was that the finished piece was at the outer limit of what the punty would hold—the punty being the piece of glass that bridges the piece and the pipe. There’s a lot of heating that has to happen just before the piece is finished. The timing on this is tricky, Aya explained, and the piece got a little off center, creating additional stress on the punty. And, as part of the teaching, she had the students trade roles throughout the process rather than having each person specialize. “Working with a new team,” she said, “I should have been more careful in everything I did as a supervisor. It was a great learning experience for me in that area.”

“It also helped me understand the frustration students feel when things don’t go well, and I believe that taking care of their feelings is an important role for an instructor. This kind of accident also teaches us that it’s OK to make mistakes. We can face them without fear, learn from them, and try not to make the same mistake twice. This is how we grow. And we always thank everyone for their hard work and praise their unity. So I hugged each person after the piece was in the oven.”

Failure Teaches Success

As Aya was hugging everyone in the room, the final outcome was unknown. Remarkably, the piece survived, although she had to spend several days polishing out the scratches. “There is a Japanese proverb that says, ‘Failure teaches success.’ I think this is an essential aspect of human nature. What remains as a result of failure is accumulated skills and wisdom, which are great assets that you cannot buy. Penland encourages us to learn from our mistakes in this way, and so people want to come back again to to learn and to teach.”

Aya was a warm and welcoming presence during her two months in the Penland glass studio. We are grateful to her for her teaching and for sharing this story. Our program is built on learning by doing, and we couldn’t do this without generous instructors who show our students what it looks like to succeed and also how to pick up and move on (sometimes literally) when things go wrong.

–Special thanks to metals instructor Hiroko Yamada for the video.