It starts with the intention to make molded clay animal cracker pins to raise money for Cabrillo College’s Ceramics program and ends with….ceramic animal cracker pins that do just that.
But the journey is the interesting part. Not the noun what, but the verb how.
Let’s enjoy the fascinating loop-de-loops, curious sidetracks and obtuse angles to get there, learning a thousand things that don’t work on the way.
At first, testing to find the best approach:Which clay? Body stain or not? Oxide washes? Underglazes? Glaze? Testing, testing, testing. Always comparing the results to a real sample, which is surprisingly ORANGE toned. Important, too, are the molding methods and whether or not to add any clear glaze. (In this case, no, unless you want frosted animal crackers!) What you see above are the first efforts, which admit a bunch of possibilities, most of which prove unsuitable. Next slide, please!
After a few more trial runs and notes, the Final Four Finishes (ignoring the clear glaze on some of them) sit alongside a real cookie and ask for comparison. The crowd-sourcing group preferred #4 without the glaze, and so did I, so that finish was the emphasis in the next round:
The Final Four Finishes Favorite with an added toasty edging. Could anyone guess the real ones from a random grouping of clay? In this shot the real ones are turned over, but most could not distinguish among the lot beforehand. The closest guesser noticed the excess material at the mold’s edge, not the applied colors. The job ahead was clear: make neat moldings and color them well.
And that’s what I did. Nearly four hundred crackers, pressed and molded neatly. Over twenty of each kind!
And bisque fired in several tumble-stacked layers.
Most of the animal cracker shapes were clear: Lion, Giraffe, Gorilla, Koala. But there was one Mystery Animal. That’s the cracker at the bottom of this photo. Was it a pig? A big dog? A lactating mammal with gills? It provoked a lot of feedback and speculation to my Facebook query. But the definitive list of official Nabisco Animal Crackers appeared from a Friend, identifying it as….. a hyena. Really? Ah so. We also learned that the older molds from older crackers were larger and more detailed than the fresh-out-of-the-box-this-week cracker molds. Ah, profitability.
The task at hand: to color and glaze fire the collection. The sheer volume is daunting. Time to put tailbone on the stool and just get it done.
And the first fired round turned out too dark and blotchy! At least with low-fire clay and underglazes, an artist can just re-apply the lighter color treatment and refire. A burnt cookie is a burnt cookie, but a burnt clay cookie mostly just needs color adjusting and refiring. That’s what you see in the shot above, lightening each one to send back into the kiln once again.
With a successful RE-firing, it’s time to glue on the pin-backs. Long live E6000, or at least its smell.
A few fully formed, fired, re-fired and fitted animal cracker pins for fabulous fund-raising.
–Liz Crain, who thinks a curiously tenacious work ethic, a few laughs, and raising funds for Cabrillo College’s Ceramics Program are definitely worth the kink in her neck from hours in the same intent position.
Last week my ceramics compatriot Karen Hansen posted about a workshop we recently attended. She titled her post “Generosity” and it was a goodie because she observed the same scenario I did in the workshop and then went on to express appreciation for how some of the artists in the audience had freely enriched her ceramics life – perhaps more than the presenter had.
I knew seven other folks in attendance that day as well. I had carpooled with three of them. On the ride home, it was clear the overall impressions we independently arrived at were similar, some kinder than others. (There was some high dudgeon hooting and hollering from the backseat.) I remember saying I got one or two new tips and felt OK in spite of the more challenging aspects to the day.
Our unquestionably fabulously skilled presenter had begun the session by issuing a few cautionary remarks about photo-taking, re-copying the handout and about online sharing of her methods. It was a bit off-putting. OK fine, I thought, she’s from a larger playing field and has had problems with this. She even mentioned something about being under contract. Respect.
But then she stinted on her whole presentation, both in time use and content. We spent most of the four hours of active demo-time watching her waver over design decisions, handbuild with wet clay (s-l-o-w) and then brush on layers and layers of underglazes, drying each one with a heat gun (s-l-o-w-e-r.) For you non-clay readers, this would be like asking cooking show viewers to watch menu-planning, ingredient assembling and the dough rise. There were a few stories and questions during these excruciating procedures, but not enough to divert us from that Waiting Around Sensation – in a chilly studio with hard chairs, to boot. In the final half hour or so, she hurriedly dug into what most of us had come to learn and ask questions about, and yet did not dish much beyond the obvious. Using stains, underglazes and carving are Ceramics 101 topics, and the techniques she shared, while skilled, are not remarkable.
One of the van riders called it stingy. Ouch!
I have to admit it was a first for me to watch a ceramics expert apply the brakes to not only how they showed their process, but to attempt to control how their audience could or could not discuss it with others later. One of the things I love dearly about the clay community the world over is the genial willingness to share special secrets and explain how-tos, knowing that those who hear and see them will:
A. Perhaps not be any further interested in working like that. Thank you very much.
B. Maybe not understand them clearly enough to do them because it’s blowing their minds.
C. Be more interested in cherry-picking and adapting those methods to their own way with clay.
Or, D. Try to replicate the style and techniques which will just never, ever come out the same.
Outright rip-offs are another kind of hacking issue entirely. But if you don’t want to risk being copied, don’t give demonstrations!
Karen quoted Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist. He encourages us to Share Like An Artist too, because everything is a mash-up.
Let me add some generosity encouragement from Seth Godin: “Do the (extra) work…The habit of doing more than is necessary…is priceless.” This means to freely give your enthusiasts more than they came for. Explain it all. Throw in the 13th donut! Tuck in a free notecard. Offer dessert on the house. (The link for Seth goes to his Free Stuff page.) The idea of giving more for good measure is so engrained in some cultures they have a word for it. My favorite is the Creole word lagniappe: the extra lil something that sweetens everyone’s part of the deal.
Abundance. Good Will. Buzz. Leo Babauta calls it “psychitude”, the stoke from giving generously that adds meaning and warmth to our days. I would have enjoyed sharing the unique and quirky things I learned in that workshop with you, illustrated with interesting photos, but I quickly put my camera away that morning and haven’t yet looked at my notes or the handout.
~Liz Crain, who seems to have the song “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” by Dave Mason stuck in her head.
I just spent a small fortune on some clay carving tools. They are stainless steel, nicely shaped, and noticeably weighty, so maybe their price per pound compared to garden variety aluminum/wood tools is the same, or even cheaper. I don’t know. I don’t care.
Sexy-Expensive-Designer tools are a relatively new thing in the clay world – new as in this millennium, really - because clay is such a primal activity and often just as easily managed with your hands and maybe a stick and a shell. I have a couple of older books devoted to the ancient practice of making your own brushes and tools. I’ve done this. I think as a group, clay folks are pretty opportunistic and will have fun making a tool out of pert near any ol’ thang.
OK, now I’m getting silly. Yet I do mean to contrast the down and often dirty home-grown self-sufficiencies of much ceramic work – especially functional pottery - with an ever-growing arena of High Artistry featuring the precious piece – now considered sculptural – on a well-lit pedestal in a hushed gallery. Could this paradigm-shift extend to the tools as well?
As usual, I sit somewhere in between and am not above cutting an expired plastic card into a shape I need to texture my clay. Yet I am equally amenable to paying $30 for four sassy-orange, very nicely engineered and name-branded cutting tools.
And why is that? To my mind, tactility rules, not aesthetics. How does it feel? Does the extra heft improve my performance? Do the insanely precise loop shapes cause me to take more care when I make a cut? Do I clean these tools more often because I respect not only their excellence but their cost? Maybe that’s all true, and yet…
Am I buying mystique? What or who is the maker/seller Xiem? I know it’s a clay center/gallery in Pasadena where a few years back I was rejected for a show by the mythic Paulus Berensohn. I figure he gazed upon the slides – yes, slides! – of my pathetically unevolved work for a few seconds, and then sent the loveliest personally hand-written rejection email an artist is ever likely to receive. Other than that, Xiem has a certain panache and stretches like a heirloom sunflower towards a stylistic sensibility I’m not quite sure I fully share, having one foot as I do on the opposite bank of that crik, being a homemade tool-maker and all.
Am I buying Xiem’s tools because I’m a sorry-ass toady wannabe? Nope. At least I’m sure of that! I bought these tools because they felt right in my hands. I hoisted their remarkable heft, noticed the eight cutting shapes and their sharp beveled ribbon edges and knew I held excellence. Excellence I could extend into my work. These babies are just gonna HUG the road!
I have a lot of tools, but like my first Cabrillo SummerArts instructor, Una Mjurka, I return to the ones that do their jobs simply and well. Una had reduced her tools to mainly an all-purpose wooden stick and a favorite brush. She’s good like that. I’m almost there. It’s a practice, sort of a ceramics studio version of the Zero Waste Home. I have my personal stick and brush, and I know purpose and supreme function wherever I encounter it. Why bother with gizmos?
So the Better Tools Search comes with a caveat: what’s better for you? What do you need to make? What will facilitate that? What do you need to jettison? Will this new tool facilitate your crafting more than any tool you already possess? How will you justify the cost, of either your time spent making it, or your cash spent buying it? I can both recommend and un-recommend these Orange Beauties. Depends on what you want. But if you ever get to test-drive one, do it!
~Liz Crain, a ceramic artist who – up til now - swore her Amaco T-9 Sgraffito Tool was the supreme instrument.
This post doesn’t have 101 items, but it talks about about someone else’s 101.
Involved here are three writers who continue to tighten the chinstrap on my creative process thinking cap: Seth Godin, Austin Kleon and Kit White.
Seth advocates imagining possible new worlds. Austin dishes on how to trick out our idiosyncratic creative arenas. Kit gets down with the 101 ways we need to pay homage, dues and attention to our art .
If I could make a Venn Diagram of Seth/Austin/Kit I would get the kernel that is this post, the seminal coalescence that resonates and feeds me.
Let’s work backwards, because you might not know what a paracosm is, any more than I did before I first read about it. Just understand that it’s a fantasy world, detailed and believable, at least to the fantasizer. The most fundamental example is a kid with an imaginary friend, but whole genres in literature and film are devoted to this dynamic. Think Oz, Neverland, Avatar.
Seth Godin expands the concept of a paracosm from child’s play, sci-fi, or magic realism, to include all conceptualizing outside of our comfortable world view. It’s a detailed answer to What If______?, which is the lead-in question vital to invention, creation, even survival. He goes on to say it’s a disloyalty to yourself and your future to NOT employ this kind of exploration and hypothesizing. If our current cosmos also easily admits alternate or evolved versions as a paracosmos, we are more informed and more resilient. Plan B in 4D!
Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative actually includes 34 Sub-Things and 27 Deleted Scenes Things. So that’s 71 Things he shares. I especially liked:
New ideas are mash-ups of other ideas: Yup.
School yourself: Google everything. Go deeper.
Use Your Hands: Duh, I’m a clay artist!
Don’t Throw Any of Yourself Away: Find out about everything that calls you. (It’s for the art historians to find the unity in all you do.)
Be Boring: But only in your habits and life, so you may break loose in your art.
Choose What to Leave Out: Self-editing helps you get to the heart of what you want to say.
Kit White’s 101 Things to Learn in Art School, another squarish little black book, recalls Austin’s in that it makes points and holds brief discussions about them. Yet the points Kit makes fan out in a different quadrant. I’d put them in the School Yourself area of Austin’s book, but they go much deeper than that. Sometimes in studio classes there just isn’t the time and inclination to cover theory and a person could leave art school without much more than a whiff of it. While Kit may echo Austin (or vice versa) with things like #89 Eliminate the nonessential, he captures my fancy with these:
#2 Learn to draw. So glad I did! You too.
#16 Words are images. I’ve always loved fonts. Words add meaning and form.
#28 An idea is only as good as its execution. If you think nobody will notice where you fudged your detailing, you’re wrong.
#53 Sculpture occupies the same space as our bodies. Working in clay, this is crucial. Human-sized is my new middle name.
What to make of these three? The takeaway always involves the personal. You will read these books and blogs and extract meaning all your own. But you will extract meaning, no doubt. If I were to boil it all down to one sentence as it pertains to me: Your personal paracosm is the prime mover and you owe it to your best creative self to cultivate and understand it deeply and to foster it in any medium you’re attracted to in the best way you and your hands know how.
~Liz Crain, is a ceramic artist who tries to make simple meaning out of complex input.
There’s a creative pause in ceramic art-making I call “The Bisque Freeze,” and I’d had a nearly two year case of it after beginning the portrait sculpture pictured above. Any manner of hesitancies can feed The Freeze, but they all are sourced from the fear of farking up your precious work with your rotten and unsure decorating choices once you’ve gotten it safely through that first bisque firing.
This piece was not only the biggest thing I’d made to date, she was both fearsome and delicate. Here’s a side-view showing the thin porous ponytail in the back. Lots could go wrong, but it can with any piece. With this it would just go wrong in a bigger way. I spent those paused years making other things and occasionally wondering how and when I would get back to the baby elephant in the clay studio.
While I had learned the Big Head construction methods in a two-week summer workshop with the energetic, affable and very clear instructor, Stan Welsh, he understandably did not cover finishing techniques, as the works needed at least a month to dry afterwards. Two summers later, under the surefooted guidance of the energetic, affable and very clear instructor, Tiffany Schmierer, I learned the underglaze wash and dry-brush methods that matched what I’d had in mind for the piece all along. Or more to the point, I learned about being bold and fearless once again in the face of The Bisque Freeze.
Two related asides before I continue this saga.
First, a lot of my ceramic faces are caricature portraits. To me that means that something about the very real countenance of a very real person catches me up and I find myself portraying that response in a face jug (a la my Local Talker jugs) or a portrait bust. Usually I work from a photo and only have the one view, but that’s enough and I am free to interpret the other attributes. Sometimes I go Classical Greek style and emphasize the ideal, but mostly I go Roman Republic realism, showing the gritty detail to reveal the unique character.
In that summer workshop with Stan I made two big heads, one a rather repulsive stuffed-cheeks hot dog contest eating champ, nearly ready to spew. The other, this compelling wistful anorexic woman, proudly sitting for her formal portrait because she was getting healthier. I don’t recall noticing the name or other info with the photo I found back then, just this: “She’s in recovery and gaining weight.” It’s the reason I could bear to explore her pained, skeletal features, because she was hopeful and proudly representin’!
Second, when I finally felt I could approach adding color to this Major Work, I stood it on a wooden table outside, hosed it off well, let it dry in the sun and covered it with thin washes of color, happily building up the surface information and modulating areas for values, tones and interest, deep in relationship with the persona. I was lost to my work, unaware of the handyman who’d been around a few days helping to dig a trench for new gas and drainage lines down the whole side of our house. Later that evening my hubby reported that after seeing my piece and watching me work, he had exclaimed with a bit of incredulousness, “Geez, when you told me your wife was an artist, I didn’t think you meant a real one!”
I’ve chuckled over that unvarnished Emperor-has-no-clothes honesty ever after; without question the finest validation out there. It’s about being deeply, undeniably real in all ways possible, even when real is still a completely squidgy interpretation. Me. The Subject. The Art. The Viewer. Real as real can be. So real, even the handyman acknowledges it.
Even though I’ve drifted away from making faces and figures for the time being, I still heartily enjoy them. Recently I’ve rekindled the dialogues with my portrait work as I gathered my collection of Ugly Jugs, Skull Jugs, Character Face Jugs, Local Talkers and Portrait Busts in order to display them from now until the end of April, 2013 at the Scotts Valley Library in an Art at the Library group exhibit entitled – of course – “About Face.”
As part of the renewed conversations with these pieces, I wondered if after 5+ years I could re-locate the source photo for “She’s in Recovery” and went googling around. It’s all so much easier now and I not only found it many times over, I learned her name, I learned her fate. Her name was Kate Chilver and she lost her 19-year battle with anorexia at the age of 31 in 2011.
~Liz Crain, who is profoundly glad she made this portrait bust of Kate Chilver, who’s name and struggle are fondly and respectfully acknowledged.
Sometimes an activity you encounter meshes with your essence and you melt away into it. A friend explains the basic golf swing and just like that you’re sailing the ball 350 yards at the driving range and they’re saying, “It’s not supposed to be that easy!”
You find your bliss in the swimming pool, the computer lab, a knitting circle: all wonderful fascinations. You sync with what you already know and scaffold from there, unstoppable in your heedless avidity.
It’s precisely what happened after I spent a Saturday early last November at the Richmond Art Center with ceramics maven Lana Wilson as she demonstrated her method for coloring and collaging clay slabs and then making stuff out of them. It’s fresh and fabulous and lets the clay be clay and me be me.
When I returned to my studio and fooled around, working from my woefully unreadable notes and her handout, I was simultaneously back in Ceramics 101 trying to wrangle wet-out-of-the-bag clay and was also thrust forward into the freshest color and design possibilities I’ve seen in years. It was unadulterated infatuation and I could not stop my hands.
A bag and a half of clay later (37.5 pounds!) I’ve come up for air. Wow.
This method is clearly about staying in the moment. Loosely intentional. Intentionally loose. Don’t be fooled, though, it’s not necessarily easy. Even though Lana calls herself “The Queen of Low Standards, ” I will explain why that’s a canny ruse in the Part Two post. In the meanwhile, Part One will cover the slab-making.
The Black Side
Take a bag of clay -a white clay is used here, but there are no rules, you get to decide what you like – slice off thick 1″ or so slabs from the long end and throw them down on your working surface sideways to stretch and thin them, some or a lot, you decide. Or alternatively roll them out on the slab roller. Paint with 1-3 coats Black underglaze, letting each coat get ‘unshiny’ before applying the next and brushing in alternating directions for evenness.
I need to tell you black is not required! Feel free to use any color(s) you enjoy!
When you’ve got enough coats and they’ve nearly dried, try a bunch o’ textures. You know what you like. My favorite from this array was the squares/alligator roller tool (a tenderizer?) but all of them were pretty wonderful, because they retain their character when they’re manipulated, which is coming.
The Colors Side
When your Black Side has set up enough, (or even not…..random markings and unmarkings are most welcome) flip everything over and pick out some underglaze colors to play with. One to three coats again, maybe not all the same, depending on what you think you might do for patterning in the next step. You don’t necessarily need to know anything about where you’re headed, though. Adventures for everyone!
I want to speak to the Controlling Ceramics Perfectionists in the audience – and you KNOW who you are: this process is worth the price of being messy and unclear. (What you might think is evidence of Low Standards is actually a wicked plan for unexpected beauty.) There is no possible way to make a mistake here, so own it: goofs are in your head. You are officially freed from your need to get it right because there is no wrong. OK, end of message.
Now, add more colors, thickly or thinly, with or without patterns. Know that they will change mightily as you work, so you don’t need to commit or invest or even pay exact attention. On this slab, I was playing with round, target-like circles and complementary colors, that’s all.
You can also do more texturing and carving as in the black side….I just didn’t here.
Tossing and Rolling
Yes, this is the same slab as the last photo! Gone are my precious quasi-intentional markings. I threw it out more on the work surface, and it got abraded and messy, even a little more smeary than I expected. (My next batch of slabs was thinner to start with….so there was less smearing as I thinned them. Good to know.)
You also can use a rolling pin to thin your slab. Lana used newspaper between roller and slab. I did a little and then did not. The transfer of colors with both the newspaper and roller is interesting. See what you come up with. You still are doing great.
Cutting and Recombining
Now it’s time to cut the slab apart and flip some of the pieces. Cut any old way…this just happens to be pizza wedges, because I’m a radial symmetry aficionado. Try stripes or puzzle pieces. Flip, overlap and roll together again, creating an entirely new collaged slab. The clay itself is still floppy wet and takes to this technique without any resistance. If it got a little dry, just brush each seam with clear water before rolling.
The parallel scratched looking area on the lower left is from inadvertent markings from my smaller roller and/or handling. if you don’t want that, roll lightly.
Cutting and Recombining Again
You can stay with the above pizza-like slab, but you are also free to cut/tear and recombine at will. And it only gets better in my book. Here is a variant, including thin twists rolled flat at a few of the seam areas. It makes the slab absolutely unique each and every time.
This is the first post about this process. Look for a second post on how to form work from these amazing slabs sometime after the new year!
~Liz Crain, who was as surprised as she could be about this new ceramics method and the freedom it afforded her to reinvent herself and her ceramic process, once again.
Mugs have tons of specifics to execute in order to do their job well: handle, rim, foot, balance, containment, usability. Beauty.
But mugs get no respect. Teapots - especially if they don’t actually work - currently have the corner on cache’ and collectability. Even the simple teabowl can garner more acclaim.
Yup. Mugs have to fight for every ounce of approbation they receive and I know why.
Let me hate on mugs in six ways and then tell you about my new line of work: mugs.
Six Bad Things About Mugs
1. Every coffee shop, roadside attraction and public radio fundraiser has custom logo mugs. Slip-cast decaled restaurant-ware Made in China, they’re common as a cold.
2. Every local Potter’s Sale has mugs. They’re a handmade staple, but often poorly crafted: too heavy and lumpy, with ungrippable handles, wobbly feet, lip-slicing top rims, poorly-applied glazes. It’s amazing to me how bad of a mug even a fairly competent potter will offer for sale. Crude is not wabi sabi!
3. They cost too much. If you buy a $5 handmade mug and it underperforms, well you maybe got exactly what you bought. But there are $50 and up art mugs out there. They begin to approach the unusable teapots and ineffable teabowls, but still make a bid for your daily use. What’s it gonna be? Can you justify your love?
4. If you use them, they will break. If you feel too precious about something, the OOh OOh Tremors will kick in and you will break it sooner rather than later. Or you will be aware of the Tremors, do an end run and use the mug only for posies or, worse, pencils. I’ve tried gluing a broken handle back on and it broke again, mid-sip, spilling hot coffee in my lap and on my keyboard.
5. They cost too much for the artist to make. Mugs take a lot of fiddling to get right. More than one expert ceramics artist has told me they just can’t recoup their time costs on mugs. They’d have to price them beyond a comfortable range, so why do them at all? Vases afford respectable returns. Even pitchers or platters. Wallhangings.
But everyone wants mugs. Even me….witness my Open Studios Mug Tour last October.
6. I don’t really have a sixth point, I just like six as a number. If it did, it would be about the utter irrationality of loving mugs anyway, because it’s a good lead-in to the next section.
How I Found A Way to Love Mug-Making
Over the years, I’ve been asked and asked and asked to make mugs. I’ve come to think it’s because mugs are understandable and useful. It’s a way to have a little something from the artist. Giftable. Defensible. Enjoyable. Nothing wrong with all of that!
Mugs with faces (Tobys) were logical and appealing for my requesters at one time, but not to me, so I stuck with the Ugly and Character Face Jugs.
And now I get requests for miniature gas and oil can mugs, paint can mugs, tobacco can mugs, beer and soda can mugs, fruit and veggie can mugs. As nifty as these ideas might seem, so far I have resisted. I only can say I’m more interested in the pure form of the can than the can-as-mug form. And I’m well aware of all the extra fiddling and the woeful reports on cost-effectiveness. Mugs have been a no-go artistically and business-wise for me for a long time. I had no inclination to circumvent the obvious.
Until now. I promise to post a How-to pictorial soon, as I’ve encountered a mesmerizing layering process. But all I want to do presently is lift the curtain on a new way of being with the clay that begs me to make nothing but freshly formed, excellently crafted and sassy mugs. Very little fussing, great usability, lots of artiness. Just barely in my control yet still very functional and I like that.
And for all the fun, they’re even cost effective enough to keep the prices down. Everyone wins!
So, meet the new Strata Mugs! Here are three, still experimental, not even bisque-fired, but all they will need after bisquing is a translucent matte glaze and off they will go to the cupboards of American Ceramic Mug Lovers everywhere.
~Liz Crain, who’s new ceramic process lets her synthesize form and function, process and product, pure play and productivity.
The top photo is of the endearingly local coffeehouse, The Ugly Mug, in Soquel, who gladly takes ANY donated mugs and uses them!
After all, the deep and true story of any Open Studio is the people. Oh, it might seem like it’s about the unique art on display and available for purchase (My job is to make that true.) Or about the goodies to munch. (Up to my helpers, really.) Or about clarity and support for the whole shebang. (I pin that on the trendsetting Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.)
All that obvious stuff aside, what it actually comes down to is moment by unscripted moment, person by personal person. You do the artwork, make the signs, buy the flowers, fly the balloons, hang up the process storyboard and the ‘interpretive messages’ and open your doors at the appointed hour. And who comes is…. who comes. And it’s always people: to see you and your art….or maybe just you or maybe just your art. And it could be anyone.
HERE COMES ANYONE!
It’s a similar meet and greet as your wedding reception, graduation, or retirement: that quasi-awkward and soulful roustabout that includes maybe everyone you ever knew and some you didn’t. It takes a special stance and presence to pull off, especially for an avowed introvert like me who needs time and space to recharge from even a supportive tide of humanity. And generally I don’t get that!
This year, opening day was also my birthday. I passed out faux diamonds to the delight of my visitors and I went out to eat afterwards with my family at a pretty wonderful place. I was an overwrought birthday girl who still needed to pull it together and manage 11-5 on Sunday, too. I swear, the voices did not leave my head for a week. At least I had time between first weekend and Encore Weekend, but of course I spent that time making more work and visiting other ceramics artists.
Yet, now that a week or more has passed since the closing Encore Weekend of the Tour, I’m able to describe in small vignettes who extra unexpectedly dropped by this year.
We love Pete. He’s 94 – as he is quick to tell you – and still full of vinegar and gab. He met my son Roger and his girlfriend Cassandra on the sidewalk when they were returning from placing my green directional signs at the corner. He regaled them with (um…repeated from last year) stories of World War II and the young men he trained to fly, saying he still gets birthday cards from them. It’s a juicy memory for Pete and he came up the driveway and into the Open Studio gallery at least twice more that day to tell anyone and everyone in the room of his fond escapades. His lively blue eyes and peppery gestures delight, and it’s fun to manage his excitement with as much love and enthusiasm as he generates.
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
I can easily tell the local high school ceramics students who come to dash a few notes and check off another artist visit. I jokingly ask them “Got homework?” and proceed from there. My mission: become ‘real’ and defy the Artist on a Pedestal mystique. It’s just me, Lizzy-From-the-Block, who happens to make some awesome shit. Yeah, take photos! Yeah, I’ll pose. Yeah, say hi to your instructor because I KNOW him and we’re passionate about the same thing. May they come to see how this is not mysterious, just fueled by love of expression, the curious artistic “What if?” and an excellent work ethic.
THE NO-PRESSURE BUS TOUR
About 48 hours before opening day, I got an email from the Cultural Council alerting me to the arrival on Sunday of the 24-seater bus full of major donors to the Cultural Council. I was the last stop. I could have opted out of the visit, but why would I? It proved to have an unforeseen impact. First, the bus arrived 20 minutes earlier than targeted! Son Max, the professional bartender, scrambled to grab the wines and glasses on the front table and also serve up the husband-made foccacia and olive tapenade. The bus tour completely filled my small old-house spaces with bodies! They’d already had lunch and enough wine and appetizers at the five other studios they’d taken in earlier, so they were tuckered out and had seen enough.
One of the tour leaders mentioned to me in the milling onslaught that I could speak to the group if I was so inclined. I hadn’t considered that, but taking it as my only chance to make friends – seeing as how some were beginning to leave after only about 15 minutes - I decided on the fly to address them. Many were already outside headed back out to the bus, so I found myself on my front porch delivering a heartfelt and choked-up impromptu speech about the Full Circle. It went some thing like this: Thank you deeply for being here. We all count in this artsy endeavor. Even when you are not here, I carry your enjoyment and support back into my studio. The learners you also support in the schools matter. I’ve seen the 2nd graders I taught as a SPECTRA artist in the 90s arrive at Cabrillo College Ceramics or here in my studio, still on fire for the arts. All hail Arts Education, your vision and your presence!
What I said – I wish I had a video – felt genuine and true. I was SO glad the bus tour came here, but not for the reasons I thought I would be.
HOMECOMING TIMES FOUR
Some of my visitors walked unannounced up my front path after decades of no communication. I was relieved to recognize them AND remember their names. Seriously. That is one of the greatest skills an Open Studios artist can cultivate: name and place retention. Of course you have your mailing list to help jog your cognition, but these folks, well, I’m talking OUT OF THE BLUE and good luck with it!
Mom of Young Son’s Playmates: Stunningly beautiful, with her new husband in tow, after moving out of the country and back and then to at least three other states before returning to CA, was the mom of two grown boys, friends of my sons back in the day. I remember all four kids perching in the almond tree out back when the branch her boys were on gave way and dumped them on the ground, with only a few scrapes and lots of tears. The almond tree has never looked right since. A joy to see her now, though.
Former Co-Worker Buddy: What’s special about the smiling face of a fellow Intel adventurer from the 70s? I left, he stayed and retired comfortably at 50. It’s been a long time, and we have Facebook to thank for the initial reunion, but there he was, smiling the same and sharing some of his current interests that also happen to be mine and my hubby’s. I sense another confab real soon. No time lost and what a pleasure to reconnect.
Very Special Auntie: She was frail and tentative. And before I knew she was here, the bus-tour had overwhelmed her like a tidal wave. When they left, she was still there, aiming to make herself known. We chatted a little and then I re-introduced her to my now-grown sons that she’d doted on. An honor for her to visit.
Longtime Missing Clay Colleague: She had moved and moved again, I’d heard. It’d been over seven years, yet I’d never heard from her, even with a few notecards of inquiry sent. But the soulfulness of our formative years in clay classes and open labs was not to be denied. She came with her gracious grown daughter and I’ve forged a reconnection for which I have hungered and hungered.
As it turns out, the Art and the Open Studios format is the bait. It’s the human connection that binds and lasts. My artwork, as passionate as I am about it, is merely a backdrop to those connections. Yet without the Open in Open Studios, without the Full Service presentation and a certain formality, without the serious and true family backup, the postcards to my mailing list, the consistent Facebook postings, the rest would not take place. Of that I am convinced.
Last post I talked about the chunk of my Clay Tribe I could visit during Open Studios. That tribal group really extends to all the neighbors, students, bus tourists, former acquaintances, appreciators and visitors. After five years of Open Studios I finally get how the reception is for everyone and I expect and welcome all comers. Because that’s who matters.
~Liz Crain, who struggles to maintain her harmony and equilibrium all year long, not just during Open Studios.
Today I spent visiting a few other local ceramic artists in their cleaned up, Ready for Prime Time 2012 Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour habitats, gleaning the fruits of the passion we hold in common. Since I hardly get out of my paddock, it was a deliciously freeing promenade and I came home with treasures and photos from most of my stops. Up top you see my new wardrobe of mugs, my personal theme this year. At the end of this post you’ll see the tumbler, bowl, vases and grenade.
What follows are short illustrated vignettes about each these folks…three of whom were participating in Open Studios for the very first time and ALL of whom are open Encore Weekend and of course would be willing to share their work by appointment all year long. (I didn’t ask them, I just know this.)
I had only this one day to get out there, since I participate in this 3-weekend Tour myself and this wasn’t my weekend to be on. I mapped out a strategic travel itinerary like a seasoned Road Warrior for Art. I also announced to associated family and friends I was going it alone. May I recommend that? It makes for agile quality: timing, conversations and all the other decisions: Eat? Pee? See Everything on Every Shelf or Just Enjoy the Overview? It’s my own personal Artist Date, and dang if I ain’t good company to me!!!
The real trick is getting out there as early as possible. Studios are open 11-5; be at the first one as soon after 11 as you can! (But, too early can be awkward.) Happy Hour everywhere is 1-3, so see if you can get to most places before then, or be prepared to swim upstream through the crowds and maybe not have that intimate artist chat. I did the best I could with the timing because I had a 50 mile loop to execute. I only got mildly lost twice, no, three times, the downside of no-one riding Navigator/Shotgun, I guess.
First stop: Andrea Dana-McCullough, Artist # 265 ( she’s on the left in the photo.) Her love of carving through colored layers onto her pieces (sgraffito) is augmented nicely by her love of insects. I was on a personal quest for a Bug/Beetle Mug, which I found in snappy blue on white. It’s the upper right mug in my lead-off photo. When I got home I washed and began drinking from each vessel in the order I’d acquired it today. Andrea’s was first and I was sorely tempted to just stay put. I have one other piece of hers, a small tray, and these won’t be the last!
At the farthest reaches of my loop was Travis Adams, Artist # 279. He has the entire back work area and yard of the fabulous Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center STUFFED with his amazing range of work. It was a massive effort and looked wonderful. I had to have one of his grenades – see last photo – and then a dangerously drooly crawl-glazed bowl (also below) caught my eye and a sweet little teadust mug – middle left up top. Travis has also SO generously displayed not only my own OS postcard, but the conetop Travis Beer can I traded him for one of his rat sculptures earlier this year. That’s what he’s holding in the photo. My Tribe…I think I’ll keep them!
Looking happily occupied with visitors (back to the camera) is Mattie Leeds, who along with wife Melissa, are Artist Studio #289. There is no shortage of things to see here on this Bonny Doon land, the penultimate lifelong ceramic artist habitat. From slightly unbelievable shard-pile mosaic installations, to a formal display room, to the working rooms and kilns, it’s huge and worth the trip. It’s lovely that you can wander the cavernous multi-level inside and outside as long as you like. I didn’t buy a Mattie Mug…I have in the past. Instead we spoke of his recently child-proofed studio (!) and of the piece I REALLY want….
My heart has an all-or-nothing thing for this big – as in five feet tall – lidded vase which Mattie created as a demo at Cabrillo College. The size and form are phenomenal, but the Asian bird and bamboo painting is even better. Such intimacy and skill on such a huge work! Yep, it’s all I wanted to take home. How? Where? *SIGH*
Another lovely artist habitat up by the wilds of UCSC and Pogonip is that of Jeannine Niehaus, Artist #240. The yard, the teahouse and her sure-handed thrown and slip-decorated pieces all play well together. Since I have a fall birthday, I was thinking of her bright maple leaf decorations on a little sumpin’ sumpin’….I know….a mug!!!! How about TWO? (Middle right and back in the top photo.) Jeannine never stopped long enough to pose; her yard was full of aficionados. (I waited until they briefly cleared from her teahouse deck to take this shot.) She was cheerfully watering her bedding plants and chatting the while and setting a fine example of how to genuinely represent.
Just look at the smiling Hank Scott, Artist #235 at Saltwater Pottery! He’s a first-timer to Open Studios, but obviously NOT to pottery and decorating. With a clear palette and style, I think he’s found a lively following. I bought one vase for me (short with red dots) and one for my mom (creamy with bamboo), both seen below. His late 1800s home is a well-restored Santa Cruz original and it was SRO by the time I was there. I think he might feel encouraged!
So….the one photo op I did not get to take was with Geof Nicastro, Artist #163 and Rocky Lewycky, Artist #162. They both are showing in the expansive space behind Clay Creation on Soquel Avenue and have a wide and sympatico offering. I was just settling in for a spell and selecting a blue impressed cylinder mug of Geof’s (seen at the top left) when a huge crowd descended upon the two – I’m talking a couple dozen folks on a bus tour! Lucky Geof and Rocky! - I held my mug close, pressed money into Geof’s hands and left through the back path in the hedge. Sometimes it’s like that! Love you two, and here’s to a fruitful Encore Weekend! I toast your creativity. SO wanted a panoramic shot….take one and send it to me….I’ll include it here.
Last stop: the engaging Jasper Marino, Artist #149, holding the two pieces I bought from him, both variants of his dense, graffiti-influenced calligraphy. The mug is up front in the top shot and the tumbler on the left rear down below. (Oh, and time to switch to drinking out of my Jasper mug.) We had a few moments in his very personal space to talk about self-perceptions and what next-level functioning might entail. “Thoughts become things, baby!”
So, that’s a full day touring the environs of eight ceramic artists in my tribe on the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County’s annual Open Studios Art Tour. We are rich beyond belief here in the Fifth Most Artistic Locale in the US.
~Liz Crain, who is proud to be associated with these fellow ceramic artists and the many more she couldn’t get to either because there is still only one of her (dang it!) or because they are holding Open Studios at the same time she is. Tribe, just the same! Oh, and notice everything hunted and gathered today – even the grenade - was thrown on a potter’s wheel, which Liz does not do herself, but profoundly appreciates.
So, how is it that I didn’t learn this early on in my clay career? And, even curiouser, once I did learn it, why did I not practice it until 2012?
It was clearly due to the Perfect Storm of Sloth, involving
1. A very handy and dirt-cheap (pun intended!) source for clay,
2. An all-too-convenient method of dumping the unwanted bits into a group recycling process,
3. A strong streak of fastidiously-fed laziness cloaked in an utter lack of interest.
I had not one compelling need! Being a slow-working hand-builder, I also just don’t create the glop like those wheel-throwing potters do, therefore I am not forced to deal with it.
Odd unusable stiff scraps, begone! Let me open a nice fresh bag of just-right clay, use all I can and ignore the rest when it gets too dry or too wet. It was that way for a decade.
In the past year, however, Reasons and Needs have come to town:
I pay retail for my clay now.
It’s a hassle to get all those heavy buckets of dried chunks over to the college to feed to their recycle stream, and they take up a lot of room while they wait. (Plus the dog will eat them if left uncovered at his nose level!)
I got curious about how much more work I could get out of a bag of clay if I did this.
I also practice my reclaiming method in small batches, as you shall see. It keeps the whole process manageable and pleasant.
Let’s take a look at what’s involved.
As I work, I toss my scraps into a bucket. When it’s full, I chunk them up into even-ish pieces, as in the photo up top.
Scraps get dunked and bagged
At the end of a studio day, in preparation for the next morning, I dip those chunks – all ranges of wet to dry – handful by handful in water for a few seconds and then into an empty clay bag.
Wetted scraps sit overnight
I wrap the bag well and let the scraps absorb the water at least overnight, but they will keep for a long time until I’m ready to reclaim.
- The really messy part that I avoided until now
Usually the clay scraps have turned into a slippery-sticky-lumpy goo. I take this out of the bag and spread it as best as I can on a flat rectangular plaster bat. The plaster is a really absorbent surface which will suck the water out of the clay in a matter of hours, but a piece of drywall or wood could work….even canvas or a towel, just change it out if it gets too damp before the clay is workable. (Newspaper or paper towels NOT recommended!)
Did I say it was gooey sticky and messy?
The plaster soaks up the water fairly quickly
Plaster works great. When the clay pulls away, it’s time to flop it over to the other side for awhile.
gather the now-manageable clay and wedge it
When both sides aren’t sticky, it’s time to ball up the scraps completely and wedge to create as even a texture as possible, in both wetness and consistency. You can throw the lumpy balls onto your wedging surface to compact and condense even further.
Pound it into a thickish slab
Use your fists or something like this firm-squishy bouncy bonker, and flatten your wedged lumps of clay to pancakes about 2 inches thick.
roll the slab thinner
Then using a slab roller or a rolling pin and gauge sticks, roll the thick slabs into thinner ones. Alternatively, you can skid the thick slab along a surface to thin and stretch it by tossing it slightly sideways.
poke holes in the inevitable air bubbles
Air bubbles aren’t the bane for hand-building that they are for wheel-throwing, but it’s still nice to remove the obvious ones.
a few fresh new slabs from spare parts
Continue to roll out as thin as you need for your project. I always feel rich to get this much more usable clay out of a bucket of scraps.
And that’s the Easy Illustrated Why and How of getting the most out of your bag of clay! Do it and revel in your own bumper crop.
~Liz Crain is a ceramic artist actively engaged in learning the craft of her art.