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.