Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Back In the Saddle Again . . .

Or How the New Normal Is Just Like the Old Normal . . . Almost.

It’s so good to be back in the studio with regularity. Not that I’m in there daily, but certainly enough to feel like I’m in a bit of a flow. I’ve adjusted my chair so that I’m not constantly looking down as I’m working at the table (what the docs thought might be the reason for my herniated disc – that repetitive downward bending motion). And I try and take breaks to stay loose, walk around, visit my other artist friends who have studios just down the hall.

My MO when I try to start up the creative engine is to get out the clay, pull a small piece out of the 25 lb block in the bag and begin to pinch. I can’t tell you what it does actually, this methodical pinching, this pressing evenly around the wall, then a soft sliding of the thumb up the inside, pulling a bit more of the clay to the lip of the bowl which is being made slowly, ever so slowly, and then beginning another round of pinching.

A palm full of clay
Beginning to pinch
Starting to form the walls

Thinning begins by mostly pinching

It’s like a zen meditation. 

Pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch...pull.    Pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch...pull.
Pulling on the inside brings walls up
I used to be very careful to smooth both the inside and the outside of these pinch pots as I went along. And when they got leather hard, I might carve into the smooth outside walls, leaving an evocative linear pattern.

Nowadays, I push out on the clay wall from the inside, which then makes a randomly cracked surface on the outside. I’m beginning to like this randomness. A lot.

Smooth and scrape the inside.

Push to get the cracks to form on the outside.

There is something very visceral about doing this work. Getting the walls as thin as possible without breaking through. Seeing the cracks form. Scraping the insides to almost thrown smoothness. I let go of any preconceived thoughts about what I “should be” making and just go with the pinch pot where it takes me.

Sometimes I bite off a bit more than I can chew when I’ve started a pinch pot with a wedge of clay larger than a small palm full. Then I actually have to stop before the walls start to collapse. I have to turn the pot upside down on its still even and a bit wide lip so it can dry out just a tad, usually just overnight covered lightly with plastic – not at all to leather hard but rather still pinchable, still where I can pull up a bit on the sides and so forth. But doing these large pinch pots can be a delicate proposition. Too soft and you can’t keep the shape. Too hard and you can’t change the shape.

There is something philosophical in that last statement if you ponder it for a bit. Something about the fine balance we have to find in life (and the patience we must muster) in order for things not to collapse around us.

That’s why, when I’ve successfully finished a large pinch pot, I feel so self congratulatory. I’ve DONE it! Whoo whoo!

One of my larger pinch pots 

Meanwhile, my good friend and young, talented playwright, Jennifer visited me in the studio last week, wanting to “pick my brain” about being a potter for a character in her new play, “Finding Alice”. I was happy to oblige. We talked about a variety of issues for those of us working in clay. As we talked I pinched, of course. And then, as I picked up certain tools, she had the temerity to ask me their names! I mean REALLY?? OK, let’s see. This is a . . . a . . . scraping tool. This is a wire cutter. This is a . . . I use it for trimming so . . .right, it’s a trimming tool. Oh and the scraping tool? – no, it’s called a rib. Whew! It’s embarrassing when you’ve been doing something for years and can’t remember the proper names of the tools you use every day.
My everyday tools
Anyway, as we were winding down the interview, I asked Jennifer if she would like to see me throw something on the wheel. Of course, I asked this without thinking. I hadn’t been on the wheel for what was it – a couple of years? I wrote about envisioning this as I was recuperating from the herniated disc in June 2010 (Viewing Life Through My Mind's Eye . .) when I felt I might never “get back to normal” or that, inevitably, there would be a “new normal”. This is what I wrote:
Wedged clay slapped on the bat ready to throw
“…I see myself effortlessly wedging clay into conical shapes. I take one and slap onto the center of the wheel. With wet hands and a water-filled sponge held lightly in the right, I bend over and with my elbows pressed down onto my thighs for stability, I put all the weight of my upper body into my arms and hands which are cupped around the clay as the wheel turns at top speed.  Very soon, I pressure this lump of clay into the beginnings of one of my lovingly crafted vessels.”

And just as I envisioned it then, I got on the wheel, and in a few minutes, had fashioned this vessel.

Thrown piece - first in almost 2 years
I’ve gone back to reshape it a bit and plan to do some other things to it. But more than just being a vessel thrown as an example, for me it now stands as a testament to my body’s resilience.

When I look at it I am reminded that I am back to my old self. Well, no, not really my old self.

I’m back to my new self. Each and every day is a “new normal” and for that, how can I be anything but eternally grateful?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Enough With the Life Lessons . . .

Or It's Good To Be Out Of Commissions.

Life Lessons Pictures, Images and Photos

As I posted in October 2011 (see Clay as Life’s Guru . . .), we are not in control of what happens to our clayware once it’s been put in the kiln to be fired. Yes, we can plead to the kiln gods for a good fire, but really, it’s up to the people who are doing the firing, the kilns, and how the pieces are stacked in those kilns.  I thought I had it covered relying on the good folks at the Potter’s Studio where I’ve been taking my work to be fired for years.

Unfortunately, I thought wrong.

My heart dropped into my shoes when I saw the platters coming out of the kiln that warm day last October. 

Under fired platters with Desert Blue Glaze - too much desert, not enough blue!

They had been placed on the lower shelves of the kiln (usually the coolest part, especially in older kilns) even though, knowing this, I expressly asked they be put toward the top. When Bob lifted  them out, still hot to the touch, I knew at once they had been under fired. When I questioned this, Bob showed me the bent cone he took from inside the kiln wall, trying to assure me it was a correct firing.
You see, kilns are not fired just to a temperature.  They are fired to a "cone" level, which accounts for time as well as temperature.  Think of it as heat absorption rather than just temperature.
This cone, which normally should have been bent at an almost 90 degree angle, was barely curved – more like 65 degrees. But because I had glazed the platters with a new batch of a glaze I hadn’t used that often, I dejectedly took the platters home thinking maybe the glaze was off.  If that was the case, what the hell could I do about it?

Off to Leslie Ceramics I went, where I had bought the glaze. They should know what had gone wrong. They took one look at the platters and confirmed what I suspected all along – the platters had been under fired.

Undersides of the platters - even the clay body looked under fired to me.

So back to the Potter’s Studio I went, armed with this discovery. Oh, no problem. They would be glad to refire the pieces for me.  But because of their large sizes and the fact that they don’t do cone 5 glaze firings all that often, if I wanted them anytime soon, I would have to pay for firing a whole kiln load even though it would be less than half full.

Pay again for what was certainly a firing mistake?

After all this time using them as my go to people to fire my work over the years, they weren’t willing to take responsibility for this error and give me a break.

So that’s how I found the ClayPeople in Richmond. I packed up my platters and took them there in hopes these platters could be salvaged. I also brought along a couple other pieces I felt might not have been totally fired to temp. Here were people who saw the problem and asked me how long a “soak” I might want. Soaking is when the kiln comes to temp and you hold it at that temp for some minutes, sometimes up to an hour to get the best glaze results. A SOAK!?! I had never been asked about doing a soak at the Potter’s Studio.

Well, what did they suggest? They said at least 20 minutes. 20 minutes it was then.

For the anxiety riddled week I spent waiting to hear the work was ready to be picked up, I was afraid to even THINK about praying to the kiln gods. I was just thinking, please, please, please let these platters come out OK so I don’t have to start over. I don’t know who I was pleading to but apparently whoever it was, heard me.

Another lesson learned - sometimes it pays to plead.

The platters came out perfect. The other pieces whose glazes after the first fire, were at best OK, were now gorgeous. I have found my new go-to-glaze firing people – aptly named - The ClayPeople.

The underfired platter

Same platter, now fired to the right temp.

Now the most important test would be how my friend Tina, who had commissioned them, would like them? I placed them on our dining room table and invited her to come over and pick them up. Holding my breath as she saw them displayed there, I immediately let out a huge sigh of relief when she pronounced them “stunning” and reiterated she was “thrilled” with them as we packed them up.

Finished platters on display for Tina

OK, the first lesson learned – we are not in control.

Second lesson – sometimes it pays to plead.

And last, but certainly not least – commissions are NEVER easy.

So just in case your thinking about asking me to do a commissioned piece, fuggedaboutit!  I have done my last commission. I will continue to make the work. If you like what I make, and want to live with it – terrific! But I am not interested in making a painting to match your couch or a set of exactly the same cereal bowls, one for each of your seven kids, or a vase like the one on my shelf but with a different glaze.

After working on the “Unfinished Triptych” for months and a set of 3 platters for over a year and a half, I’m out of the commission business.

But I’m still in the business of making work from the heart.

I’ll be posting more of them here as they happen. Come back and take a look.

And then check in to see if, really, lessons have been learned.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I Have A Man Who Looks Up . . .

Or How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

View as we hiked at Point Lobos in December 2011

Today I was reminded big time just how fortunate I am to be with the man I married 22 years ago. Yes, we just celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary in and around Carmel, CA. And today, as we were walking along the many varied trails of Point Lobos State Park, my dear husband, looking up, spotted this beautiful tree and commented on the striking formation of the branches, “almost looking like a bird resting on top of pelican.” This was only one of many visuals that caught his eye as we hiked and which he shared with me.

Looking up and spotting a bird . . .

. . . only to find it was a fantastic, dead branch formation.

But after this particular “pointing out” I thought to myself, “I have a man who looks up” and couldn’t help but smile and then feel a little sad.

Let me explain.

I have a dear friend about my age who has been married to her husband for much less time than I. But as she tells it, he is completely smitten by her, is consistently attentive, loving, affectionate, adoring, takes very good care of her and allows her to do pretty much anything she wants when she wants to do it . . . as long as he isn’t pressed into doing it with her.

You see, they really are polar opposites. She is the ultimate social animal, thriving on being with people she enjoys, and doing things, mostly physical -things like biking, tai chi, qi gong, hiking, etc. And traveling. She loves to travel. She considers herself the ultimate adventurer. You get the picture.

Her husband, on the other hand, is a thinker and a writer and is happiest when he’s home just writing or thinking or being. He’s the ultimate introvert, happiest not going anywhere or doing anything out of the ordinary.

Oh, they do have things they share and do together – reading, cooking (and eating), watching a good movie. But she is always trying to find something they can do together which will pull him out of the house and his cocoon and into the wide, wonderful world which inspires her. So far she hasn’t been too successful in that regard.

We were having a conversation just recently and she told me, “You know, he never looks up.”  What? “No, really. When he’s walking, he always looks down. So even when we went to Yosemite, (a trip that wasn’t what she had hoped it would be for the two of them) he really didn’t. . . really couldn’t take in the grandeur of the place because he’s always looking down. We joke about it sometimes because he prides himself on finding a lot of loose change that way. Once I offered him a twenty if he’d stop looking down for a week. He didn’t take it.”

I have to tell you, this conversation really saddened me. These are two good people. I love them both. And I know they love each other deeply. I just wish they could find a way to be with each other that would satisfy each of their primal ways of being. It’s what Harville Hendrix called “stretching” in his book, “Getting the Love You Want”. In order to get the love we want from our partner, we, more often than not, will have to stretch beyond our own comfort level to meet the other, and vise versa.

It wasn’t only today, standing in front of that tree when my husband looked up and had me see the tree through his eyes which made me feel blessed to be with this man, but it’s when I think about our 22 years together – the travels we’ve made to Fiji, Africa, Italy, France, Poland, Germany, England, Mexico, Belize, the Galapagos and Ecuador, as well as all over the U. S.  and Vancouver, Canada, taking ferries, trains, planes, small motor boats, going hiking at Pt. Reyes, skiing in Austria, sleeping on down feather beds in a posh hotel in St. Moritz, or in sleeping bags out on a wooden deck in the wet Amazon jungle, spending a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC or an evening at an opera premiere at the Met, visiting friends in Wales, or making new ones in places we’d never been before and probably would never be again. It’s the shared sense of adventure that has so enriched our life together.

This is what I wish for my friend and her husband, but seems so out of reach as things are. This is what makes me realize just what I have in the man who walks through the world by my side.

And why I feel so very fortunate to have a man who looks up.

romance love Pictures, Images and Photos

Where Oh Where Has the Time Gone?

Or I Blinked and It's 2012!


I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get back to writing for this blog. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I have. The above musing was written in December but for whatever reason I never posted it.

I also wanted to write about the conclusion of the platter commission. That will come as will more thoughts about life, work in the studio, health issues, and whatever else seems relevant at the time.

What keeps coming up for me these days is the importance of living the moment. I find myself in that stage in life when dear ones, not just my parents generation, but people my age and younger, are dying. It brings me more often to the question of how I am using my time. At the end of the day, what has made that day, those irretrievable hours, minutes, meaningful? There are times when I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. Unfortunately, this rarely has much to do with my failing memory.

So now, with a third of the year 2012 over, I intend to rearrange my life. Instead of hanging around the computer into the afternoon, I’m giving myself a deadline. I’ll be out of my emails, Facebook and any other “links” by 11 AM. I will give myself an hour to write. I will be in the studio daily working on new pieces and organizing a new strategy for getting the work out into the world. And at the end of each day, I hope to be able to fall asleep feeling good about how I used my time. 

That’s the plan.

So look for me here more often. See how my plan is working.

Or not.

Whichever way it goes, I do plan to write about it.