Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like - Thanksgiving . . .

              From Where I'm Sitting.

It’s a good day in the studio when I can work non-stop for less than an hour and find I’ve moved a piece along to a point where I can almost see the final vision emerging.  It was one of those days last week.

Knowing I had less than an hour between meetings, doing errands and taking the dog to the dog park before dark descended, I rushed over to my studio, put on my coveralls, got out my acrylic paints, oil paint sticks, brushes, water and went at it.  45 minutes later, I stood back and took photos to share with Jim.

Here is a short slide show of the progression of the third panel of his commission. You can stop at any point by clicking on the pause button.

This preliminary sketching is all done on very cheap white butcher paper. The real piece will be done on sturdy Ampersand Claybord where I can layer, scrape, paint, scrape again, layer again and not worry about the undercoating disintegrating. Because they are oversized panels, 24”x36”, I couldn’t find them in any of my local art supply stores.  So I ordered them online from Dick Blick’s and hope they’ll arrive next week.

It’s beginning to look a lot like . . .well, no, not Christmas . . . more like Thanksgiving.  I have so much to be thankful for this year  – all the new art associations made via Leah Virsik/Alyson Stanfield's Art Marketing Salon, especially Egmont van Dyck, my blog mentor; my new artist buddy at the studio, Tyrell Collins who is part cheerleader, part mother confessor; the new collectors and admirers of my work who keep me both buoyed and motivated; my new cyberspace connections via friend @fritinancy (a.k.a. Nancy Friedman) who keep me smiling and involved in this amazing new world; and most importantly, my dearest partner in life, my husband who continues to have faith and supports me in my artistic endeavors, and who can smooth over the worst day with the best homemade tuna tartare and the most loving, empathetic listening.  

At the moment, however, I am most grateful for the growing anticipation of getting to work on new, clean, smooth, all white surfaces, which always has a way of stirring my creative juices. 

So here's to Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, and the coming week, when life will be all about the continued appreciation of good friends, good food and more good days in the studio. And if all goes as planned, I'll be giving thanks well into 2010. Here's hoping you will, too.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Studio of One's Own . . .

Or What Happens When You Come Down with 'Commission-itis' . . .

It was not one of my best days in the studio. No client and a client I unwittingly stood up. Still, when I left for the day and looked back, I saw the space was mine once again. My work table was cleared of all the materials which covered it since the middle of August – materials I had put there to work with my client Jim.

I closed the door and smiled.  Tomorrow will be a better day.

As of last Thursday, our collaboration moved from one on one in the studio to checking in once a week via phone or email.  Jim called me last Wednesday to say he wouldn’t be coming to our regular meeting the next day as he had a doctor’s appointment. He was going in to schedule another minor surgery sometime this week to repair a malfunctioning wire, which is inserted in his back to alleviate pain.

It was obvious, at least to me, his studio visits had come to an end.

We spoke about the next steps, the images I needed for him to send me to complete the 3rd section of the triptych; the pictures of my preliminary sketches which I would send him for his perusal; and the type of artists’ wood panels I plan to use.  I promised to email all the information and call him to let him know I’ve emailed.  He doesn’t check his email all that often I found out.

I sent the email Friday.  I called yesterday. No reply yet. 

Now, knowing Jim’s as I do, his MO so to speak, I won’t worry or take this personally.  I’m prepared to get on with the project, hoping to have it completed before the first of the year. 

OK - so I have to admit it (although not news – see August’s post ‘The Shades Are Up Here in the Cyberstudio’): No matter what the project, it helps to have the studio all to myself to do the work.

In the mean time, I think I’ve come down with a serious case of  ‘commission-itis’.  After working non-stop on ceramic and now 2D commissions since June, (for which, I am totally grateful, don’t get me wrong) I think unconsciously, I must be yearning for a B. Altman Art fix – ideas, images, forms, content, all pumped up from my own creative well. Even though my husband sometimes mocks my attempt to ‘multitask’ at home, I can’t seem to do this in the studio. I have to work one project at a time. Jim’s piece first. Next, the lovely little two-dimensional piece I’ll be doing for a friend, using her and her husband’s dear grandmothers’ photos. This will take me into 2010 for sure.

So in my ‘commission-itis’ frame of mind yesterday, I completely forgot I had made an appointment to meet a possible client at the studio.  He wanted a ceramic artist to create a base for his tabletop fountain.  I only remembered this after I arrived at the studio over an hour and a half late. I was briefly mortified. Then, somehow relieved. I realized I really didn’t want to do this project. Still, feeling fairly guilty, I called and apologized, left the message that I was in the studio and told him he could come by. But to be honest, I was secretly glad that he hadn’t by the time I closed the door to leave - when I looked back and smiled . . .

once again, knowing the blessing of having a studio of one’s own.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

One Gal's Brush Off is Another Gal's Kick in the Butt . . .

After my last session with Jim two weeks ago, I was so encouraged, I continued working on the preliminary sketch, trying to flesh it out with color, adding a few of the images and the words so it would be ready for his collage once he completed it.

But Jim didn’t show up at our schedule meeting this week, even after I called to make sure he was going to make it and even after he said absolutely he was.  And then he didn’t. (See previous post:  Maybe He Just Isn’t That Into Me . . .)

In the past, when I’ve been ‘stood up’ by Jim, I’ve been so deflated, I’ve either just stayed there in the studio puttering around doing a lot of nothing, feeling sorry for myself; or I’ve taken photos of old work to remind myself that I am a successful artist and have been creative in the past; or I’ve organized the mess which sometimes but not often makes me feel better; or as a last resort, I’ve munched on stale energy bars waiting to see if that would get my creative engine revved up. Mostly, that never happens.

Yesterday, surprisingly, I spent only five minutes feeling like crap – feeling rejected once again. I went to that psychological place for only five minutes and then I just said to myself, “F--- it. I don’t need this guy to get this project going. I have enough to work with right here.”

And that’s exactly what I did.  For three hours.  Uninterrupted.

It was creative bliss.

Instead of waiting for Jim to make his collage, I took the images he would have used and put them in the preliminary sketch as I saw fit.

I don’t know if this will be the final configuration, but I’m beginning to like how it’s shaping up.  To be honest, when I do my own 2D work, I rarely if ever do preliminary sketches.  I take images I want to use and begin working right there on the good paper or canvas, creating as I go. But this project seems to need a first draft, so to speak.

What I did in the studio yesterday may not be anything like the final draft.  But today, it feels like a good start.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Maybe He's Just Not That Into Me . . .

Yesterday, after trying since August to get this project up and running with energy, enthusiasm, and genuine interest from my client, Jim, I was brushed off the second week in a row.  Jim called the studio five minutes before he was to arrive to say that he had tripped over something on his way out the door and now his knee was hurting and he didn’t think he could make it.  OK, does that sound like a legitimate excuse or one you would make up if you really didn’t want to be somewhere you promised to be?  He didn’t show up a week ago either because he had a bad night with no sleep.  That’s an excuse he’s used before and one I can certainly understand, being that he’s still going through physical therapy and does have residual pain.

Maybe I should have read the book “He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys” before I started this collaboration? Maybe I could have bypassed all the emotional ups and downs I’ve had in the past couple of weeks if I had realized from the start, I needed to understand this, in fact, may not be just a client/student relationship. Maybe this is a guy/gal relationship with all its vagaries?

Or maybe not.

The beginning of October was truly exciting for me as the project began to take shape.  Jim came that first week with more images for us to use and seemed to be really taking great interest, after not showing up the week before due to physical problems. I commended him on how well he looked, using only his cane and not the crutches he had used the last time I saw him.

But since our meetings were not as regular as I had hoped they would be (we hadn’t met twice in a row yet), I was wondering if maybe he had just lost interest in being so involved in the project? Or even though he was four and a half years out from the accident, maybe all of this reliving his life –what he was, what he’s lost and what he’s gained - was becoming too psychologically painful for him? Maybe his sleepless nights before our meetings were more about this than his physical pain? 

So I asked him point blank if he really wanted to continue working toward creating his own personal collages to be used in the piece. I assured him that I didn’t want him to feel pressured into doing this and that I felt confident enough to work with the images he’d collected to finish this on my own. He assured me this was a wonderful project for him and absolutely, he wanted to continue.

Taking that at face value, I decided to try and hook him even further by starting work on a compositional preliminary sketch of the ideas we had bantered about verbally. That was a wonderful day in the studio for me - getting out my prisma colors, acrylic paints and just having at it on a 6’ x 3’ piece of white butcher paper. It always gets my creative juices flowing to start drawing and especially drawing large.

When Jim arrived the next week and saw this sketch up on the wall he seemed not just pleased but even more enthused. We talked about my vision and how it would manifest into a finished piece. We looked again at the pictures and words he had collected, the ones I had put on the handmade paper I plan to use to, in order to imagine how we'll place them in this new composition. 

And as he was leaving, I said to him, “OK, next week we’re going to start on your collage.  I think we’ll only need a couple more sessions to get your part done.”  He agreed, with a smile and a handshake. As he left, I was already looking forward to our meeting the next week.

I haven't seen him since.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Good, The Bad and the Iffy About Commissions . . .

It’s not that I’ve never been commissioned to do work before. After all, I just finished a number of clay commissions recently, the biggest being the porcelain vessel for Scarlett. One of my first was when my dear neighbor who had 6 kids asked me to do a set of bowls for her family. I was delighted to oblige. She picked the clay body – porcelain - and left it up to me to do my signature glazing. She was so pleased she then asked for plates and then mugs. No problem, especially when I explained she shouldn’t expect them to be exactly the same. My favorite line has always been, “If you want perfect, you can buy it at K-Mart.” To me, the beauty of being ‘handmade’ is being able to see the hand of the artist.

This is also not my first 2D commission. One of my favorites was when I was given an old photo of my friend Deborah Harding’s grandparents and created a very beautiful, somewhat mysterious piece, which she loved. Then, I made two different pieces and let her choose the one she like the best. Of course, the piece was only 10” x 12” so this was not a problem. And because I was left to create the work using my own aesthetic sensibilities, again this project was never riddle with anxieties I’m feeling now.

This is a new ballgame. And it seems like I’m making up the rules as we go along. I’m working with Jim on a very large piece – a triptych which will end up being 6’ w x 3’ h – and not only using his images but also trying to work with his limited visual concepts. He is certain he wants to have a phoenix as a symbol in this piece, not once but twice. Can I manage to take two phoenixes, one spilling out his old life into a horrific motorcycle accident and then the other, rising up into his new life holding all that is and might be, without it seeming too cliché? I certainly hope so.

My idea of having him create collages to be used in the piece at first seemed like a good one. And I have to admit the time we're spending together, sitting side-by-side, collecting images and words and talking about this life that we’re working to visualize into a cohesive art piece, is incredibly important for each of us. I’m learning so much about this young man and what it means for him to be alive after being given little chance to live out the night when they brought him into the hospital after scraping him off the highway. And each time he comes to the studio with other pictures from “before” and tells me the stories behind the pictures, I can see him relaxing into the process and getting more and more comfortable with me.

But this comfort comes with a price. The price is his becoming more involved and little by little taking ownership in the making of the piece.  So where do I draw the line between his vision and mine? I’m in uncharted waters now and can only hope in time, I’ll find a compass.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When words are worth more than a thousand pictures. . .

This may be the one time words are worth more than a thousand pictures.

It came to me after I hung the three pieces of handmade paper I plan to use for Jim’s triptych and then began to tack on the images and the words he and I have been collecting in our sessions in the studio.

It was the first truly inspired moment I’ve had in weeks.

After Scarlett’s porcelain vessel was completed, I cleaned up the studio getting ready to jump right into my next two commissions, both mixed media works on paper.  The first and more involved of the two is the triptych I am doing with the input from Jim (see previous August post “And So It Begins. . .")  At the beginning of any project, there is usually all kinds of energy, excitement, free flowing exchange of ideas between artist and client.  But this can be easily derailed if one or the other is not ‘present’ – that can be either physically or psychically. . . or both.

That first August meeting in my studio where we began to discuss and then collect images for this piece was a good beginning. I felt very encouraged and was looking forward to our weekly meetings. By the end of five or six weeks, I was hoping to help Jim take those images which are most significant for him and create one or more small collages which would then be incorporated into the final piece. 

That was the hope and the plan.

But the next week, Jim didn’t show up.  Apparently, he totally forgot, which could actually have been a consequence of the residual memory loss from his accident. So I decided to both email and call before our next meeting as a reminder.  He called me the morning of that meeting and apologized but couldn’t make it because he hadn’t slept much the night before and had some pain in his legs.  What could I say?  Whatever air had been filling my creative balloon for this project was escaping . . . fast.

Between Jim missing for whatever reasons, and my missing a week being in Los Angeles, we’ve only had 3 sessions since August 13. It felt to me that Jim was coming when he could but wasn’t really invested or engaged.  That left me feeling at a loss. What was happening to this project? Just before our session last week, not being really sure he would show up, I decided maybe I’d just better get going on my own; take what we had done so far and start.

That’s when, after putting up the paper, the images and the words, I had my epiphany.

On the blue paper for Jim’s life before the accident – the one when he was a policeman, the job of his dreams - I tacked on mostly images he had brought in and a few words we collected.  On the silver/gray paper, which will depict the accident, I put just the series of words he and I had found.  And for the last piece of bronze paper, where he wants a phoenix to symbolize his life today, I put a few phrases.  But as I looked at the whole, it became very clear to me that perhaps the center piece shouldn’t have any images at all, but be a series of layered words, words that describe what it was like for Jim to be in this horrific accident, 3 months in a coma, with a number of major surgeries and years of rehabilitation behind him.

When I told Jim my idea last week in the studio and asked him what he thought about this ‘imageless’ word-filled center piece, he sat there almost speechless.  And then he said, almost not able to get the words out fast enough, “Oh, my gosh, that’s perfect. . . that’s it.  The whole time I was in a coma I had no images.  Even when I came out of the coma, and I could speak, I had no recollection of what was visually going on around me.” 

My inspiration had hooked him. And no surprise, then I was hooked as well.  This was the first real creative connection of our collaboration.  I think I’ll be seeing him this week in the studio.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Unintended Drip. . .

or the Kiln Kiss as Life Lesson.

If you plan to work in clay, you better be prepared to accept the ‘slap-yourself-upside-the-head’ life lesson – “You are NOT in control.” The lesson can come at any one of the many steps you take as a potter. To get the piece that you’ve imagined in your mind, through your hands, from the wheel or work table, and into and out of the kiln to be exactly what you imagined when you began is never a given. Ever.

And really, when I think about it, this life lesson which is always with me in my studio, is life’s main lesson, one of the hardest to learn and one I end up learning over and over again not just in my studio.

That said, these days, I rarely approach an unopened kiln with anything other than enthusiastic anticipation. Will the pieces I carefully stacked the day before, come out as I envisioned? Since I am so familiar with the clays and the glazes I’m using, I’m rarely astonished. Still, there is always one brief moment when I open the lid, where I think – OK, where’s the Kiln Kiss? The Kiln Kiss is what I call the one place on a piece that is unexpected – unintended – always carrying along with it a life lesson I’m not necessarily wanting to learn. The Kiss can be a beautiful surprise, something that I wish I had done intentionally, wish I knew how to reproduce such as a soft ‘bleed’ from an interior glaze to the outside wall. 

Or the Kiss can be the ‘Kiss of Death’ – a crack not seen before firing, a glob of glaze stuck to the bottom of the piece, a hard bleed that renders the entire outside an ugly drab mess. These pieces invariably end up thrown into the bottom of the garbage bin.

So when I opened the kiln the other day to see how Scarlett’s big, delicate, carefully glazed porcelain vessel had survived the fire, I literally gasped. All I could see was this most amazing floating, shimmering, sky/ocean blue – looking all the while like waves - like clouds - covering the interior. Had I planned this glaze to look exactly as it looked, it couldn’t have been more perfect. This was a Kiln Kiss extraordinaire!

But then I pulled the piece out and saw the ‘drip.’ The unintended blue drip, a drip right there where it should have been pure soft matt white. It was the not so nice, not so planned Kiln Kiss. Not the ‘Kiss of Death,’ mind you, but a Kiss I didn’t ask for and just for that moment, my heart sank a little. This wasn’t what I had envisioned – a blue drip right there. The ‘perfect’ piece was now somehow no longer 'perfect.' Here was the Kiln Kiss passing along the life lesson of acceptance, of going with what is and not with what was hoped for or planned. The larger lesson: We are not in control.

But now the worry, would this 'imperfect' pot be acceptable to its new owner, Scarlett?

When I took it out of the packing box, I was secretly hoping the drip had somehow transformed itself into a pleasing drip, a drip that could be almost intended, a drip we could all happily live with.

Scarlett’s reaction to the piece when she saw it said it all – “Breathtaking! I’m at a loss for words it’s so beautiful. And when I saw the ‘dot’ (she had already given the drip a new name – taking it on as her own),” she said almost hesitantly, “ it spoke to me and to a moment in my life which was so unexpected – but one I knew would be a part of me and I would have to accept.” She choked up and couldn’t say much more except that she loved her new piece.

Life lessons are presented to us in many guises. And maybe that old saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is one to keep in mind, especially when opening a kiln, looking for a Kiss.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Shades are Up Here in the Cyberstudio . . .

I wasn’t going to do this. . . keep such a regular journal about my work in the studio. But I have to admit, I am so excited to see this piece progress that I’m bursting to share it outside the walls of the studio.

Being an artist is, for most, a very solitary endeavor. I could never be a performance artist although I love to sing and have performed on stage. But that's a different life altogether. No, my studio is my sanctuary, the place I enter alone, spend hours on my own. The only sounds breaking the creative moments come from the radio – either classical music or an Oakland A’s baseball game.

One of the first conversations about my life in the studio with the man who would become my husband was about just this. We were sitting at dinner, discussing the possibility of moving in together and he began imagining aloud what he thought it would be like living with me. “Oh, I’m looking forward to coming in to your studio, sitting down on a sofa or other soft seat with a beer and watching you work.”

I can’t remember my exact words but it was some version of “over my dead body.”

It was then and there I made it known, NO ONE watches me work. OK, for awhile I had a studio mate but the studio was in my garage; she came and left and I could work hours into the night on my own. No, I burst this man’s dream bubble early on. After we married, we built a studio on our property in Berkeley. I had specific orders that if the shades on the French doors were down, no matter if the doors were open, do NOT enter.

This cybersharing, this opening up of my solitary world to a world I’m not even sure is looking, is quite a new experience for me. But here I am giving you another peek of a piece in progress - a view of Scarlett's porcelain piece partially dressed with Oasis blue glaze covering the inside. More will be done before the final fire.

But don’t look for an invitation to pull up a chair with a beer and watch me work in my studio. The shades there are down.

Monday, August 24, 2009

An Invitation to 'Cop a Feel' . . .

For me, one of the benefits of working in clay is the wide range of tactile experiences it allows, from squeezing soft butter-like porcelain between your figures when you take it right out of the bag, to forming it as it begins to harden but is still malleable, to carving it when it’s already ‘leather hard’ and still keeps its shape. There’s a point when it’s been carved, is leather hard but hasn’t yet been bisque fired when it’s so fine to just take the piece in your hands and ‘cop a feel.’ Since it still has some residual moisture in the body of the clay, it’s almost always cool to the touch. And so very smooth. And if you have sensitive fingertips, you can feel the slightly raised, almost imperceptible ripples from the carving. Yes, I’ll admit it’s a very sensual pleasure.

So when I mentioned to Scarlett that she might like to ‘cop a feel’ of the piece I’m working on for her, she didn’t hesitate. She and her partner, Marilyn, came by the studio to do just that. To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve ever issued an invitation to ‘cop a feel.’ And to be perfectly honest, Scarlett and Marilyn were the perfect ‘feelers.’

The piece has been bisque fired so it didn’t have the coolness that a greenware piece would. But what makes feeling it ‘naked’ or without any glaze so special is just that – it’s naked. It is just the clay, its form and only its form – the wall and the void that the wall describes – is what’s you have. There is nothing to distract you from the delicate feel of the wall of the bowl, how it gently curves, how it comes up and greets the first of the coils, which sit so unconsciously on its rim and then moves on upward, unevenly to the ragged edged lip. There is no color – no shiny texture – to disturb the immediacy of the form’s beauty.

I remember an instructor once saying to me that if the piece I’d thrown didn’t have ‘life’ right off the wheel, no matter with what or how I glazed it, the surface treatment wouldn’t breathe life into that piece. I spend a lot of time carving and ‘altering’ the pieces I throw. But I understand this statement. I think it’s why I tend not to glaze the outside walls of my work these days – I want the clay to stand for itself – it’s unglazed, inherently beautiful self.

I think Marilyn and Scarlett both enjoyed having an intimate ‘feel’ of their piece in its naked glory. It was Scarlett who said, “There’s something musical in touching this. It’s so delicate, so fragile . . .” And then there were no more words, just hands taking in the wall and the void the wall described as a sightless person might.

Tomorrow, it will be glazed inside with Oasis Blue chosen by Scarlett and this piece of porcelain will be transformed once again. I hope it will still hold its unglazed, ‘cop a feel’ appeal.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taste - Can YOU Account for it? . . .

Can ‘taste’ change? What IS ‘taste’ anyway? And is it really true, as I was brought up to believe – ‘there’s no accounting for taste' - ?

I’m not sure I can answer any but the first question because clearly my own aesthetic taste has changed over the years. It hit me recently when I stopped to look a display shelf, which holds ‘special items’ – photos, books, baskets collected from travels, etc. - and I saw this particular pot, one of the first thrown in my only college ceramics class and one that I have come not to just like, but to cherish.

That isn’t how I felt about it at the time it was made.

I had for the first time, managed to pull a lump of white stoneware up to almost 5 inches tall, and I was thrilled. When I went to show it to the instructor hoping he would be pleased at my creation, he looked at it, smiled and then took it. And then, along with other student pieces, put it in a raku kiln while still wet. Much to our horror, he lighted the gas burner and turned it up. Fast.

Before we could muster a protest, he assured us this was a great idea. But hadn’t he already told us any piece fired in a kiln before it was totally dry had the potential to explode?

Explode? My smooth walled, 5 inch pot came out a pocked, cracked, smoked at the bottom ragged mess of a piece. I was sick that it was so ugly, especially since I had spent so much time on the exterior, trying to make it ‘perfect.’ To this day, even though I can’t remember his name, I remember him saying to me, “One day you are going to love this piece,” as he handed me what looked like something found at the bottom of rubble left by a bomb blast.

I’ve packed and moved this piece from home to home, all across the country. I never thought to throw it out although for years, I didn’t really see it as one of my treasures. And I can’t really tell you when that happened or why – when or why my taste changed. All I know is that today, this piece sits prominently on the shelf. I see it every day when I get up. And it makes me smile.

Friday, August 14, 2009

And So It Begins. . .

He didn’t exactly show up on time. Jim, my newest client, got lost driving to my studio from Dublin yesterday, and we had to do the “Where are you now?” “Can you find your way to 880 and then 980 from E.14th?” “Now turn right onto W. Grand.” connecting via cell phones, Jim, hands free, of course.

Eventually, he pulled into the off-street parking lot of my building in West Oakland. We were both smiling as he maneuvered himself out of the driver’s seat, first placing his newfangled cane against his new black Audi, then swinging his legs out in order to gain balance and then up he stood, putting on his back pack and walking with only that cane up to the freight entrance of 2200 Adeline.

I was stunned.

The last time we saw each other, not even a month ago, he came to my studio to discuss our working together on a 2 D project to depict his life, and he was on two crutches, walking very slowly and deliberately - what most would label ‘disabled.’ After his life threatening motorcycle accident when his leg was almost completely torn off, the doctors who reattached it weren’t sure he’d ever walk again. But Jim apparently is out to prove them wrong. Now he walks with a slight limp using this new cane – a huge stride ahead in his recovery.

Yesterday we began our work together – looking through old magazines to find images that somehow resonate with Jim, illustrate something about his life before the accident, about the accident itself and his life as it is now. This will be the theme of the 2D triptych I plan to create for him, which will eventually hang in his bedroom. He said at our first meeting several months ago, he wanted a piece of art he would see first thing when he woke up which would remind him of where he’d been and how far he’s come.

By the way, Jim was a police officer before the accident.


Having worked and taught in so many varied settings over the years, from an all male secondary school in Uganda, East Africa to art centers for disabled adults in Stockton and Richmond, CA, to inside the state prison in San Quentin, nothing much surprises me these days about how art can nourish, can nurture, can inspire, can heal a wounded body or soul.

And me? I am all at once jazzed, humbled, excited, delighted, and inspired about this new project – and not surprisingly. More as it happens.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Life as a Vessel. . .

It was a bit of a shock, really, when I recently hung this older two dimensional work of mine, Protector/Betrayer: The Myth of the Cure, and took a closer look.

There it was – the torn paper – showing all too graphically how I felt after my first bout with breast cancer. I honestly didn’t remember using the ‘tear’ as an expressive technique much before my newest clay series.

But then, much to my surprise, I saw torn clay in an even earlier piece, Bridal Veil Mirage, which I made well before my diagnosis but after what was an idyllic trip to Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite. The tears were used more literally here – water falling into an uneven end.

So what is it about the tearing of paper, of clay that apparently has always been part of my creative tool bag but all of a sudden has become such an integral part of my work in clay?

This is how I explained it a few months ago when I had to write a statement about my most recent work which can be seen in the slide show on the right:

I began to create these new works in clay after what seemed to be a very long, fallow time. It took moving my studio from the one we built at our house on 8th Street in Berkeley to one half the size in a commercial building in Oakland to shake the cobwebs from my hands and get my creative juices flowing once again.

These pieces seemed to explode from an unconscious place, without much effort or thought. One finished vessel implored me to begin the next, trying to go beyond what I had just done aesthetically – make the pinch pots thinner, larger, smaller. Start tearing the clay. Now carve into the clay. Now throw and alter the clay. Tear. Carve. Throw. Alter. It became a physical mantra for me, and before I knew it, my shelves were bulging with this new work.

It wasn’t until I began to look at the pieces as a “body of work” that I saw what I had created – it was my life as a vessel. These were manifestations of my bout with breast cancer – the body torn, scarred, but still aching to be sensual. Then the train trip two summer’s ago, back to Iowa – the landscape of my youth so indelibly seared into my soul, worked its way out onto the clay’s surface. And of course, some of the pieces so very delicately balanced remind me just how unsteady life can be unless I let myself find that sweet spot of stability.

Many think potters are “craftsmen” and forming the clay is a craft. I think when you have something to say, when you have found your voice, you can speak through your hands by working in the mud.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An Artistic Balancing Act Attempted Without a Net. . .

or a Reasonable Explanation of the Media Dichotomy Seen Here.

From the beginning, my focus as an artist was in two dimensional media. I studied drawing, painting and printmaking almost exclusively while in college. I loved all three and enjoyed each for what the process allowed me to express. But one semester while in graduate school, I had no classes on Fridays so I signed up for a ceramics class at the Student Union. I spent endless hours on Fridays along with mostly professors’ wives, trying to get a lumpy ball of clay centered on a kick wheel. I vividly remember the day I spent 10 hours bent over that lump, refusing to let it get the better of me. I still have the very first ‘pot’ I made on that kick wheel, a pot which has fairly even walls all the way around even though it’s only 3” tall, a real success at the time.

It was that semester in that clay class when I got hooked on working in the mud. I think partly it was because I was free of being graded, of being labeled a ‘potter’ and I could just make whatever I wanted, no outside or inside critic telling me ‘not good enough’, which kept me coming back to the clay, especially when inspiration had run its course in my two dimensional work.

At one point I began to combine my two seemingly divergent creative media by drawing on porcelain slabs. It turned out to be a very successful series of wall pieces. This is one of the few remaining - part of a larger work which met its unfortunate demise from an encounter with an unwieldy broom handle unconsciously wielded by an unobservant house cleaner (sheepishly) - me!

Then came a series of slabs evocative of my travels; large thrown and altered vessels glazed only on the inside; larger coiled vessels stained with oxides to emphasize the coil patterns; intricately carved mirror frames both glazed and drawn into - my Zanzibar Door series - and so on.

But when I think about my relationship with clay, I realize how clay affords me a place to just do ‘zen’ work. I almost always start with the pinch pot, so effortless, but so fulfilling, seeing just how thin and round I can make it before the clay says ‘enough’ and cracks or implodes in my hands. Up till the final fire, clay consistently has the last word, which is “you are not in control”, as if I have to be reminded.

Recently I became aware that the clay work I’ve done over the years and especially the work just recently finished is all part of a continuum. Just as my two dimensional series have always reflected my own personal story, so too has my work in clay – now torn, altered, carved and delicately balanced - which I can say truly reflect my life as a vessel. More on this theme later.

Friday, July 24, 2009

My Work as Meditation. . .

It has just occurred to me, after all these years doing of doing art in the studio, that my work is like a meditation. It makes sense now why I never took to doing production pottery. Not that I couldn’t sit down at the wheel and throw a set of bowls or plates or almost identical cups for someone. But it was never all that satisfying. Maybe it was too easy for me – throwing bowls or cups off the hump (taking a larger piece of clay and only centering the top part to make a bowl or cup) went pretty fast –too fast.

My MO is (and has always been) that I like to take my time with a piece. The piece I recently threw as a base for Scarlett’s towel/cloth holder (see my earlier post -Porcelain, the Diva of Clays) took about an hour total from wedging to forming on the wheel. But that was just the beginning. I spent the next couple of days shaping the foot and then carving the outside of the bowl to get just the right curvature and then carving my signature design onto one side.

Why it’s taking longer than usual is the size of the bowl. I’ve been working on much smaller diameter bowls – thrown or pinched – which I could just hand hold for carving. But this piece needs to be turned not in hand but sandwiched between two bats, and then flipped over. Then I have to have it placed at just the right height and angle for carving. A piece that can be held in hand is much easier.

I go to the studio almost daily, usually after noon, and after three hours, I’m just getting into the rhythm – carve, look from all angles, flip, look again, then carve again. It’s a rhythm, which, in its own way, is the meditation. Time has stopped and time seems to fly by. I’m rarely ready to leave when I must. But there’s always tomorrow when I can begin again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Note on My Banner. . .

I want to write a few words about the image I’ve chosen for my banner. It’s a piece I created a few years ago when I was finishing one series and wanted to begin anew. I thought it would be perfect for this blog as it speaks not only to my process but also to the image I’d like to think I project - with a wink and a nod. . .

The Palimpsest series started with my penchant for recycling, using what I had at hand to inspire new work. At one point, I had done a series of abstract watercolors with intense, saturated watercolor inks on very expensive hot press watercolor paper. Some had sold. Others were languishing in frames waiting for what - new home? . . . a possible new exhibit? . . . a chance at being rotated onto a prominent place on one of my walls when I decided to re-hang my work? None of that was happening.

This piece, Studio Reverie, came at a time when I needed a push to move in a new direction. I took a few of the old watercolors out of the frames and decided to work with what was on the page to create something new, not by just covering over it, but using what was there, the colors, the shapes, the lines, to inspire new visions, new images, a new story.

I was doing a lot of collage work at the time, and this was a chance to use it in a new way, taking the collage, making a color Xerox copy which could then be placed strategically onto the watercolor, then blending it into the background with prisma color pencils, craypas and oil pastels. Here I actually took another watercolor, cut it and collaged in onto the first watercolor and then continued its patterns by drawing them into the background watercolor.

This is one of my favorites in the Palimpsest Series – it’s a little joke about just how an artist spends her time in the studio. . . lying naked on a chaise lounge, eating Godiva chocolates and dreaming of armadillos with a lucky gecko as her muse. . . well, we can always dream.