Broken Cup, WHY??? Artwork and Photo by Yumiko Aso
Last post I was talking about my love of reference books…and about liking to read dictionaries. A few posts before that I was discussing the mysteries of cracked work and Failure. Wellnowdonchaknow, both issues came up when my clay buddy, Yumi asked for help understanding why this one cup of hers split in half in an otherwise beautiful glaze load of her lovely – and whole – pieces. Here’s a story of connections made.
No matter how chill I might seem about cracks, don’t you buy it!!! Sure, I might write about Zen Acceptance and Metaphor, sounding all philosophical and detached. That’s me trying write myself some peace. Ultimately, though, I’m still upset because I just don’t understand what happens when works seem to fail so randomly. If I don’t understand it, how can I avoid it?
I had one clue from my Cracks Gone Sproing experiences: the pieces all had thicker than usual inside glaze applications. It made me seriously wonder about inside and outside surface tensions, but that’s as far as I got.
I kept on the alert, and often certain words, concepts, examples around my particular cracking problem repeated: Quartz Inversion, Cristobalite Inversion, Cooling Dunting. Tell me more!
It took years though, and in the face of No Ready Answers, one turns it over to the whimsy of the Kiln Goddesses, shrugs her shoulders and says, “Mama said there’d be days like this.”
And yet it turns out my one clue - uneven interior/exterior glazing - was actually a valid lead.
In true clay nerd fashion, one day I followed up on this lead by once again reading a dictionary: The Potter’s Dictionary of Materials and Techniques. A gotta have on the bookshelf!
I started with the 9-page extensively illustrated entry CRACK.
Which led me to Cracks D and E in Glazed Ware.
Which led me to DUNTING and specifically to Cooling Dunts due to the cristobalite inversion
Which led to understanding a key expanding/shrinking change clay and glazes go through differently as the kiln heats and cools. I think I pegged my problems, which are a Perfect Storm of firing situations: Uneven clay walls compounded by uneven glaze/non-glaze applications compounded by uneven heating and cooling compounded by physical location in the kiln compounded by Luck of the Kiln Goddesses. That covers it.
Have I lost all you non-clay readers? Sorry. A clay nerd’s gotta do what a clay nerd’s gotta do.
To bring it back round, when I saw Yumi’s nearly textbook photo of the dictionary descriptions and heard her questions, it all came clear. I chimed in with my thoughts on her casualty. Hope it helps
So, as I was just saying, problems are good, so is reading up, and so is taking them to the next level!
~Liz Crain, who will certainly have more to say about this as she applies her new-found understanding to her new works and refires.
I love a wall of books. It unfailingly rightens and reassures my weary, distracted world.
Not just anyone’s wall will do, though. I need my hand-selected wall: that mish-moshed reflection of personal passions and meaning, in which each volume has survived at least one of my annual-ish purges, if not decades of them.
While I gather new books often, I let go of plenty. Some go to the local library, some to trade at Logo’s, the local used book buyer/seller. (Where I easily spend my cash and trade-in credits on more.)
Novels and pop culture bestsellers – if I don’t request them from the library – tend to come in and go out.
My keepers? Vintage tomes, family works (yes, I’m related to more than one published author) and Art: history, artists, philosophy, creative process and technique, i.e. reference books.
I’ve always preferred Non-Fiction. As a slightly-bored pre-teen, I would page through the authoritative-but-obviously-dated-even-to a-kid 1944 Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. Sometimes I scanned Webster’s Third, usually looking for naughty slang. I also delved into Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, Science in Your Own Backyard, Lost in the Horse Latitudes, or anything with “How to” in the title. I often did not understand what I read, but my folks had an Open Book Policy so I knew I could always go back and re-read.
And that’s the beauty of keeping books handy, as far as I know. They are there when you need to read all or parts of them again. (This goes for works of fiction as well.) The wall of books I have kept has developed a definite cant towards Ceramic Art. One of those shelves, pictured at the top, contains every Lark 500 Series volume on Clay/Ceramics published since 2002, plus 500 Handmade Dolls and 500 Baskets. (If they ever announce plans to publish 500 Ceramic Cans, I will be submitting my work on opening day.) These 500 Series books go deep and wide for me. They provide encouragement, inspiration, reminders, even gentle prods towards excellence. Any one of them serves perfectly well as a pictured encyclopedia to wander in and wonder over when I need a recharge.
I have even outgrown and released some of my ceramics books. The basic intro cookbooks written for beginners have departed. Gone, too, are those exotic books about specific techniques and materials I no longer am interested in.
There are still plenty of dozens to make my shelves groan. Works by Daniel Rhodes, Marguerite Wildenhain, Robin Hopper, Robert Piepenburg, Mattias Ostermann: each goes deep into the vortex of his or her subject, telling stories, imparting wisdom and sharing great examples. I revisit them with new questions and leave with new enjoyment. I even like puttering around in Hamer’s The Potter’s Dictionary of Materials and Techniques. No surprise there, I guess.
Beyond those favorites, I consider two as Books for the Ages. When I’m fleeing the Zombie Apocalypse to the safety of The Proverbial Desert Island, these are the two I would grab:
A Potter’s Workbook by Clary Illian and Finding One’s Way with Clay by Paulus Berensohn.
What yin and yang at work in these works! An independent female wheel-throwing potter who apprenticed at Leach Pottery, and a pinch pot making dancing male “deep ecologist” (as he later described himself.) What they share are calm engaging voices and uber-personal points of view. They venture cleanly and clearly into and beyond their crafting advice, delving into the fine points of aesthetics, function, history and, above all for me, the meaning they found in taking their paths expressed through their ceramic art.
Paths near enough to mine for me to consider them clay gurus. I will continue to need their guidance even if no clay is around, so they will be great company on my desert isle.
~Liz Crain, who admits to keeping a few favorite novels too. The best of those is one she’s mentioned here before. That’s because the central character finds solace and sanity in clay, a fact which she connected with on about the 6th reading: Norma Jean the Termite Queen by Sheila Ballantyne. Get it out of the library, enjoy it and return it before it’s due.
After six years, I’m stepping away from the Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour for at bit. I won’t even apply again until 2015 at the earliest. Good for me!
Like eating peanuts, I made sure I ended on a good one. This year’s effort was my best showing ever, in both artwork and presentation. It had the most attendance (over 400 visitors) and satisfying sales numbers in all categories.
I know other local artists who create a on-off Open Studio schedule, some as an every-other-year practice, some sporadically, as other projects and interests allow. Might it work for me?
Once upon a time, being an Open Studios Artist was my Holy Grail. I felt it would mean I had arrived as a professional in every way.
The Dream was challenged by nearly a decade of rejections with the associated ebb and flow of crippling doubt and unreasoned bravado. I now am thankful for those rejections because they forced me to assess and improve. Did I really mean it? My actions said yes, regardless of outcomes. Being accepted at last did not mean I was a professional, though, because in my ever-evolving Dream I already was one. Go figure!
If I had been too concerned with what everyone else was doing and getting, I might not have persevered, The Competition being too overwhelming, the Dream too nebulous. Yeah, I’m not immune to professional comparisons and jealousies: because it’s what I want too! I pay attention to the activities of others, but they absolutely do not direct my efforts. I am neither stymied nor goaded, waylaid nor propelled by them.
If one is too fascinated by the Dream to heed the Competition, there is no competition!
My Dream is taking me new directions with unknown outcomes, as Dreams should. I can’t wait to see what arises.
~ Liz Crain, who almost – teasingly – titled this post, “The Hell With It” but that would give the exact wrong impression. It’s not about rejections, frustrations or damnations – mine or theirs – but about focus. Not about shoving off, but about creating intelligent space and time.
Stepping away from the incessant work at hand in the studio often seems nearly impossible, if not clearly mad. If I’m not doing “it,” for sure no-one else will be! Yet, step away I did for a week to a cabin at Mono Hot Springs Resort, a place dear to my soul. Getting Out and Away relieves the ego of those false impressions of indispensibility. Done properly and long enough, time spent in different places with different folks allows the senses to fill with newness, the brain’s counters to return to zero and, as a side-blessing, a BUNCH of new impressions to fill the creative tank. Here are a few ways my five senses were re-activated by NOT showing up in the studio the last week of September.
At first, smells are compromised. It is cold in the autumn shade and the air is thin at 6500 feet elevation. Gone are the fat, fully-oxygenated breaths of ocean fog, valley agriculture, fast food grills. Instead the limbic system experiences crushed juniper berries from the tree by the cabin, the really-dry wood fire roasting assorted delicacies: S’mores and Jiffy Pop. Later come whiffs of rain, damp picnic tables, snow flurries, mineral hot springs, and the entrenched aromas of an old, dark and end-of-season sparsely-stocked resort store.
No doubt about it, granite IS the High Sierra. Jumbled and tumbled, those boulders determine the shape and direction of the single-lane-road-with-turn-outs to get into the place, as well as the nature of the “sand” (not dirt) surrounding our cabin. That sand is DG: decomposed granite. Boulder-hopping across the river to the vintage hot pools is fine, until you lose your footing and land awkwardly on a jagged edge, trying to avoid a dunking. You have been touched by the mountains and HARD! Time to get a massage from Cherrie at the Bath House. Time for a few hours’ swing in the hammock in the afternoon sun, reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, being touched in a different way because you have the time to be.
For me, the Root Sound of a Vacation is that of a wooden screen door creaking and slamming shut. There’s plainly nothing else like it. It’s a primal imprint. Wherever my childhood vacations took place, if they were not in tents they involved that sound. From the Feather River to Clear Lake, Burney Falls or Guerneville to Beaver Dam Lake in Cumberland Wisconsin, I associate a wooden screen door’s creak/slam with adventure, leisure, lots of family time, chilly nights, daytrips to interesting places. SO not home – yet the home of a different kind of knowing. Cabin 20 at Mono Hot Springs has the quintessential wooden screen door, nearly a character from Central Casting, and I have to admit to making it work its magic over and over on purpose this time around. Distant Second But Still Special Sounds: Thunder, the Immense Quiet With Breezes, Max’s Honda Trail 90 across the Horse Meadow.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to tasting a freshly-caught rainbow trout dinner. We enjoyed both grilled and pan-fried. We also had enough leftovers to take home, which made the most exquisite trout/tuna salad in the next week. Thank you fishermen and thank you trout. The above-mentioned S’mores and Jiffy Pop were pretty good as well, but not as special as fresh-that-day rainbow trout!
As a visual artist, I am constantly framing my world and extrapolating content and meaning from it. Although I was tempted, I purposely left the clay behind this trip. What else would strike my artist’s eyes? I took a sketch pad and colored pens and decided to just let what happened inform my visual experience and what I felt moved to capture of it. Here are the same trees from the first photo in a different context and the one I sought the most: poetic, metaphoric, epic.
Thank you trees, wind, sky and clouds. I return to my studio changed by everyday yet eternal grandeur.
~Liz Crain, who expects to get back to Mono Hot Springs sooner than the five years it took her from the first time to the one described here.
You might tend to think a ceramic artist pulls her work hot out of the kiln, lets it cool and plops it on the sales table, done. And there ARE tales of potters doing just that at their kiln openings. Ah, were it that simple for me! What follows are a few illustrated reasons why, in my world, there’s a slight cha cha interlude from kiln to market.
The particular firing illustrated here was the most recent I unloaded. I photographed the steps I usually take with my pieces. From waiting for the right time to unload to putting a sticker on the bottom, there are lots of hoops.
The Kiln – with Thumb Genie and Humorous Caution Sticker. I double-crossed my fingers with this giant and varied load. Firing my biggest kiln, Tsunami, always feels like I have too many eggs in one basket. To add to the apprehension, the last couple of firings revealed some serious cracking issues which might reappear. Still, there is no way out but through, so I loaded, left it on low to preheat the work slowly, closed the lid on a slow firing cycle, thinking I would just sneak up on it all.
Next morning, I am almost happy when the kiln is too hot to open yet. Saves me the knowledge of certain success or certain failure and lets me stew longer. Here’s the pyrometer saying it’s WAY too hot to even peek. Ahhh.
At under 300 degrees, it’s only sort of OK to peek briefly because it shocks and cracks the glazes. Lower than 200 degrees, I can prop the lid and help it cool faster. My first brave and nervous glimpse says all is well from the long view. I cannot stress how much of a relief this is after a night of cracked-up and distressing dreams. I wear my well-used Ove Gloves when I unload just in case I hit a hot bottom or something.
After the long view (nothing blown up or majorly cracked apart at first sight) there is the not-s0-small matter of whether the lids release. I build my lids with a bit of ease (aka “shuffle”) around the spouts/flanges, but everything gets so soft in the heatwork of the kiln, it’s not uncommon for random spots to stick together, especially if gravity and proximity are involved. Before firing I paint on generous coats of wax-with-added-alumina and even so, stick happens. A completely stuck-on lid means a lost piece, so I’ve learned to breathe deeply and tap a wooden stick with gentle authority on a stuck lid. Too much force and something breaks off. Not enough, and the glassy connector-spots don’t separate. Always nerve-wracking. This was the only stuck on lid in the load and gave up after 20 or so gingerly assertive taps.
I inspect each piece as I take it out of the kiln. Top, bottom, sides, handles, spouts, seams, attachments. Anything come undone? Anything displaying movement or warping? I also test each piece for water-tightness. I put a bit of water in each one and let it sit on a paper towel for a few minutes, which is what you see here. It’s pretty clear when I’ve got a leaker and sometimes it is from the least visible places. After the close inspectiion and the water testing, I can let myself start to believe I have a viable piece.
Next comes sanding. I don’t generally glaze my exteriors, but I’ve learned they LOVE being sanded. Just a quick pass with a fine grit and we have a silky smooth surface to touch. If more is needed, there is the alumina stick or the piece of broken silicon carbide kiln shelf to knock chunks off. Every piece gets lightly sanded at the minimum. Every now and then there is a sharp edge to amend.
Let’s measure! Height x Width x Depth….Cannot do this before the final high temp firing because things shrink just that much more. That info gets entered on the individual studio log sheet I keep detailing the forming and decorating.
Here’s a studio log sheet for one piece: Title/Description, Inventory/Category Number, Sketch, Clay Body, Underpainting, Liner Glaze, Surface Design, Firing Notes, Refiring Notes, Dimensions, Price, Show Record, Purchase Notes. This page has evolved over the years and I need to make some updates, but the idea has served me well since my student Glaze Logs. I keep several binders of these pages, filed for the different types of work I do. Some similar groups have spread sheets instead of individual pages. I also have binders for Sold or otherwise GONE work. It’s a LOT of maintenance and worth it.
In the past year, I have added this digital way to keep track of my work. Artwork Archive is a great adjunct to my written studio notes. I don’t add every single piece, just the ones that have gone out into the world to galleries or exhibits. After the completely tedious data entry part, all I have to do is click and I can see what work is where. Helps me stay sane and feel competent.
Every piece gets photographed. This actually has to happen before the digital Artwork Archive can be completed, but the photo set-up, the shots, the editing, resizing and organizing will go on with or without that. I have several sizes of light tents, backdrops and lights, but I tend to use the simplest version of everything. Digital cameras and all are so good, I just don’t stress over the photo documentation like I did say ten years ago.
An inventory sticker goes on the bottom of each piece and the whole scene is connected. I will add a separate price sticker sometime in the future, which means I will return to the Studio Log and Artwork Archive. Before pricing, I usually set out all my work and physically move it around trying to understand goodness, value, artistic merit, improved design, market rates and past sales in a holistic way before I price anything. It’s probably the hardest part.
The upshot of this whole process is I intimately know each of my pieces, start to beyond the finish firing before they fly away into the hands and hearts of my collectors.
-Liz Crain, who, if she had been told ahead of time about the After the Firing ministrations needed, might have not gotten so deep into this clay thing. But then again, it’s pretty much a moot point now, right?
The Workshop Art and Spirit led by the venerable Coeleen Kiebert, is a way to access and define one’s creative vocabulary, personal imagery, art-making process and style. Held at her stunning sea-view ceramic studio in Rio Del Mar – which also manages to be intimate and comforting – we found sharing, guidance and time for insights. While I’d taken this course in a longer format over a decade ago, it simply can’t be called a repeat; I am just not the same artist as when I first learned these methods. My goal was to arrive with as few expectations as possible, stay in the moment and tell the truth. Oh, and to circle back around to the intelligent, protective energy that Coeleen provides. What a week!
Day One: Re-steeping myself in Coeleen’s descriptive creative process and beginning again with the making of a found imagery collage on a huge 18×24 paper support. We are silent and it takes hours finding the pictures and words to select, where to place and interrelate each piece. The collage-making proved intuitive and I did not over-think it. Coeleen suggested we pause and look for evidence of the four elements in our imagery and colors. I found tons of Earth (natch), reasonable amounts of Fire and Water, but almost NO Air. When the seabreeze kept lifting my unattached piles of papers and blowing them upside down and into different arrangements, I decided that Air was playfully present and I did not need to try to represent it with imagery. I dreamt of my images that night and returned in the morning to attach the last ones before we gathered to share and respond.
Day Two: Collage completed, Coeleen introduces The Map, a conceptual grid of thirds which aids in interpreting our images by where in the rectangle they have been placed. The grid includes a continuum from unconscious to conscious, higher and lower realms, fears, undeveloped concepts, dreams, outward and inward movements, archetypal and Shadow areas. What images and colors did I repeat or put in prominent positions? What meanings can I pull from them, literal, analogic and metaphoric? These represent a language I think in: a glimpse of my image vocabulary. She suggested we pick three images and fashion them in clay, recommending that one of them be an image we don’t quite understand or are disturbed by. I started with the piano-playing hands and the seed image from the lower left, then went to the straight-forward ceramic pitcher, the vessel near the center. Side pieces appeared, but it was great to work with clay independently of needing it to have any sort of outcome: just be there and be attentive and responsive to what comes up. I could not decide on a third piece, but slept on it.
Day Three: In the morning I quickly made two clay pieces from collage imagery I did not understand. They were curvilinear and abstract, and I wound up liking both really well, even if I still didn’t quite get them.
In the late morning Coeleen guides us to The Doodle as way to access a personal style. We have a few warm-up doodles and we’re off for an uninterrupted time, moving the oil pastels silently and goal-lessly over the page however we like. And, yes, it IS touchy-feely in just the right way: a supremely visceral and kinesthetic experience for me. Outcome is not important, but I do find myself wondering what the page “needs” to express itself: Another color? Another series of marks in this corner? It was a dialogue. We hung our doodles next to our collages and began to notice similarities of colors and patterns, the division of space, the energy expressed. The collage and doodle processes are so different, and yet the results are clearly cousins!
Day Four: Time to doodle with the clay! Grab a grapefruit-sized lump of clay, work with eyes closed doodling in 3D for at least 15-20 minutes, open your eyes and continue working. Out came this giganto spiky pod thing! What is similar here to my previous collage and doodle imagery? What has evolved? Insights? I’m beginning to think I enjoy seed pods and potential growth more than I thought I did.
Day Five: This last day is dedicated to refining the clay pieces and making one last foray into something we each wanted to understand better. I found myself making another collage. In this one I specifically was asking to understand what the concept of vessel means to me. The night before I had looked up all the meanings of the word, so I let myself find the right imagery for ships and veins and containers, even metaphoric ones as in, “He was a vessel of the Lord.” I placed the new collage next to the old one, with my doodles and clay work alongside. I find only a few connections, and only the ones I had intentionally put there; I’m spent. But the other workshop folks pointed to one similarity after another, the unity being obvious to them. And obviously I have tons more to apprehend, which I take as a Very Good Thing.
Coda: I took my wet clay pieces home, finished and fired several. The one I still don’t quite understand – the screw-like piece taken from the first collage – got a coat of black underglaze and after firing it, I covered it unevenly with thin gold leaf. The aim is to have it look more like the mysterious gold object (originally an artifact in a National Geographic.) It’s hanging on the wall a glance away, just to the upper left of my monitor, the spot on The Map where dreams reside.
- Liz Crain, who is so happy to be working this way again, she signed on for six more weeks at Coeleen’s studio starting in late October!
On a recent July weekend, I packed my artwork along with the shelter and accessories needed to create an event booth, and got over to the Palo Alto Art Center for the annual ACGA Clay and Glass Festival.
Me: Artist #17 in a brilliantly located and lightly shaded spot along one of the main lanes, one of nearly 160 others.
Them: The collectors, students and assorted aficionados arriving in nice steady streams all day both days, the weather in the high 70s with a light breeze.
Here are some Tales:
Tales of Gladness
Rusty McBucket – I taught Beginning Ceramics to Joanie K. at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center for precisely twelve weeks over a year ago. She was on fire for clay in a way I recognized….reading everything in sight, buying nifty tools, signing up for Every. Single. Ceramics Opportunity. She still is. Joanie came by my booth with a small treasure she had collected for me many months before. On a beach in Ireland – Balbriggan to be exact – she encountered an incredible piece of romantically rusted metal and brought it home. She lovingly watched me unwrap it from its long travels. I was astounded and consider it a work of art in its own right. If only rust could talk.
The Sounds of The Silencer - My conetop beer and soda cans are usually prominently displayed in the front of my booth. That way they constantly provoke curiosity and comment. (One visitor this year even sort of yelled at me when I explained that everything she was looking at was 100% ceramic. “Get OUT!!!!” she exclaimed… and I took it as a compliment.) In an afternoon lull, a pensive younger man was enjoying and picking up many of the cans. After a bit of time, he looked up at me and I mentioned to him some feature or benefit, I can’t quite recall. He smiled and then gestured that he could not hear and could not speak. But he still wanted to ask me something. I don’t know why I kept talking as I was finding some paper and pen, but he was quicker. Out came a letter to explain his admiration which was also a request to donate to his organization, of which he was the President: The Association of Parents, Teachers and Counselors (APTC) at California School for the Deaf in Fremont for their first annual “Sip, Savor & Support” fundraiser to be held in San Francisco this November. In an instinctive move, I nodded my head and plucked the donation paperwork out of his hands, indicating YES! I will be sending him and the APTC the shot-up beer can he favored, The Silencer. Gives me chills.
Tales of Suffering
Breakage – Nothing was broken outright during the Festival, but I have to admit to a learned apprehension when folks innocently mis-handle my work. It’s not particularly delicate, any more, as I’ve learned to bolster clay’s weaknesses when being made to look like metal. But, it’s still ceramic and not metal and the fool-the-eye aspects quite often fool the handler so well that… You can read about how I learned this lesson the hard way in “Hey This Handle’s Stuck.” No matter what I do – and I use Quake Hold on every lid and even “Hi I’m Not a Real Handle” hangtags on the sculptural affairs - there are folks who just Go There: twisting and turning, bumping and grinding, tipping and toppling. It was enough that last May a wind gust luffed my booth sidewall and tumbled some heavier pieces down onto the handles of my pitchers and watering cans, ultimately taking out four of them. I discovered the last one’s subtle but fatal crack during this Festival and set it aside. Disheartening. So when someone comes along and grasps, flips or clunks a tad too offhandedly, I break out in hives. Hey, they’re vessels but not crockery!
Not that Cool Chick – OK this one stung. But I think it’s also hilarious. So here goes: When I had stepped away from my booth for less than ten minutes, a quirky guy swooped in and asked my husband, “Hey! Where’s that Cool Chick? The one that makes all these?! I talked to her before. She’s SO COOL!” He was still there poking around when I returned. Now, when you are in the middle of a Clay and Glass Festival, you talk to all comers, and while most are delightful, there are some who merely pass for rational. With animated bullshit he proceeded to philosophize and elucidate. (It’s hard to get out of a buttonholer’s grasp when no-one else is coming around and you’ve just returned from a break.) He pontificated about What is Art and why he wouldn’t buy the “lonely” work in the booth directly across from me, but he would buy mine – which unsurprisingly he made no move to do. With another dollop of social cluelessness – possibly tinged with the bluntness of Asperger’s - he also said, “Last year I couldn’t believe what a Cool Chick you were, but right now, you’ve just got a Mom Vibe.” Must be my feet of clay. I excused myself and got out of the Maggie May morning sun,
Tales of Serendipity
The Trading Agent – Turns out the kid has been coming to art festivals since he was nine-months old, but I didn’t know that. He looked to be somewhere around 12 and had visited my booth at least twice, digging on the shot-up beer cans each time, all smiles. His enthusiasm was guilelessly genuine and when I remembered I had a stash of animal cracker pins with me, I offered him a choice of one. He took a tiger. Soon he came back – tiger pinned to his shirt – with his dad, who, as it turns out, was another festival artist. And we spoke of working out a trade to foster Ethan’s budding ceramics collection. I said I would come look when things wrapped for the day. Before then, Ethan returned once more, this time with his mom, to cement the plan. Way to work the ‘rents, kid! I asked what he was really interested in and when I walked over to the booth of Gerald Arrington, I carried those pieces with me. I’m enamored of how this trade transpired. I met a wonderful family and we both left the festival with treasures. Here’s mine, a very Zen-like indented thrown sphere, complete with hand-applied striations and an engaging rough/smooth surface. I love rocks and Gerry’s are perfection:
Unexpected Invitations If I don’t leave my studio and go where the enthusiasts are, I’ll likely never meet them…and they me! A premium quality festival like this affords premium opportunities, but they are still mostly related to chance. After two such serendipitous encounters, I am still shaking off the elated wonderment like a Golden Retriever after a swim in the pond. I will be acting upon them soon.
Derik Van Beers, whose work I’ve appreciated in the past at the Ceramics Annual of America, walked by, introduced himself and we talked a bit about his Roscoe Ceramic Gallery in Oakland, where he felt my beer cans would be a big hit in his front display cases. YES!!!!! He later returned and bought one and then showed it round the Festival. I just need to box a variety of them up and get there on a Saturday afternoon sometime soon. In my personal campaign to blanket the SF Bay Area with my ceramic cans, I’m tiptoeing up on the East Bay.
And if that was not enough wonder, right after Derik departed, here stood an open-eyed and lovely couple, speaking enthusiastically of their love of all kinds of teapots and how they collect them and, by the way, they have this museum to house them all. A tiny flicker went off in my brain… might this be…? They continued with how they enjoyed my work, saw some of my larger gas cans as teapots (requisite spout/lid/handle/body) and wondered if, when I made more, since they didn’t quite see The One right then, would I be so kind as to email them some photos? And, oh, since they “get a lot of emails” if I don’t get a reply to just continue sending. At that point he handed me his card with the email address, and yup, it was Sonny and Gloria Kamm of the Kamm Teapot Foundation. To be honest, the sculptural teapot tradition is SO strong and well done, I’ve never felt like a candidate, but if Gloria and Sonny say so….
–Liz Crain, who took a week and a half to absorb these Tales and balance them against the fact that she very nearly cancelled on this Festival this year – twice. Yes, there were extenuating circumstances she could point to, but at root was the fear of not being All That – The Cool Chick – and she managed to talk herself away from the ledge by getting her Inner Critic Scylla to agree to show up this one time as A Good Enough Artist. She’s happy to relate that she felt like her most genuine artist-self the entire time.
This post wanted to be a list and ONLY a list. It has graciously let me write a short explanatory intro.
This was going to be short little prose jaunt through the highlights of what I do, start to finish, to pull off a live in-person show and sale of my artwork. As with nearly all my posts, I began by jotting down talking points and a sketchy outline of my main ideas. Typically I free write and then edit heavily. I add images and links, read the preview, make a few more tweaks and… publish!
This post didn’t want to do that much – it became a terrorist demanding I look straight into the camera and stick to its minimalist script. It begrudgingly let me post an image.
Without further annotations – any one of which could be a separate post - here it is.
The Decision to Participate and Apply
The Meeting of the Application Specifications
The Acceptance E-Mail or Letter
The Event’s Further Instructions
The Planning of the Work to Make
The Making of the Work
The Culling of the Work Made
The Paperwork! Oh, the Paperwork!
The Photographing of the Work
The Inventorying of the Work
The Pricing of the Work
The Display Space and Props
The Purchasing of New Supplies, Signs and Props
The Defining of the Expected Visitors
The Designing and Ordering of the Postcards
The Social Media Promotion Support and Sharing
The Mailing of the Postcards
The Countdown and the Packing
The Portage of Work and Displays
The Arranging for the Artist’s Clothes and Comfort
The Care and Feeding of Artist and Her Support Team
The Obtaining of the Swag and the Goodies
The Setting Up of the Display Space
The Interacting with Actual Visitors
The Talk Talk TALK TALKing
The Needed Stamina
The Display Freshening
The Pick-up and Re-packing
The Bookkeeping and the Banking
The Thank-you Note Writing and Posting
The Email Answering
The Mailing List Updating
The Postmortem Assessment
The Pre-Planning for Next Time
–Liz Crain, a hard-working ceramic artist who now understands why she might get tired sometimes.
I live and work at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. A half a mile inland from a sheltering bay, I sometimes have the pleasant experience of days which are not wholly foggy, but are surely not sunny. Coastal weather.
A recent day was Neither-Nor, switching camps several times. I lunched with some creative clay friends and the conversation returned like the perennially teasing fog bank to the subject of how to find selling opportunities which suited our artistic styles, our out-of-pocketbooks and, most importantly, our temperaments. The rub was how to not waste time and money on the false starts: the places where we and our creations are not loved and understood and consequently don’t tend to sell at any price. The questions and answers were as nebulous as fog.
It got me thinking about the Circle of Artmaking, of which I consider active selling one of the more puzzling arc segments . For one thing, it’s crucial to the circle only if an artist chooses it to be – all sorts of wonderful and profound art is never offered for sale. So what changes if the Circle is widened to include the marketplace? Pretty much everything and nothing.
Over the past five years I have constantly narrowed my scope of endeavor and rigorously back-edited my inventory in order to concentrate on the stuff that my Muses keep chattering on and on and on about. I did not do that primarily in order to sell more (even if I hoped I would,) because it’s clear that I’ve created a niche collection that absolutely NO-ONE is out there looking for. And yet, when I step into the right selling arena, when the right tribe encounters my works, they admire, want and often buy them with a knowing smile. (And welcome to my Secret Collector’s Club!)
My clay colleagues and their snappy works happily share similar slivers of uniqueness: nobody really wants what we have….until they see it somewhere right. We’re not for everyone and truly don’t want to be. We just want to complete the circle, cover our costs and get that bone of validation for our efforts.
And when it works, it’s easy as ABC 123
ABC rests with the artist:
A - Make the The Right Work
B - Offer it for sale – at the Right Price - in The Right Arena
C – To the The Right Person(s)
We could stop Right Here and call it a lifetime’s quest to define our ABCs adequately. We could sigh that it’s too foggy to pin down, a moving target and so on, but actually it helps to forge onward to the parts not in our control: 123.
123 describes the Right Person(s) as having:
1 – the ability to resonate with my Point of View and Voice in Clay, especially with Humor and Irony
2 – the capacity to purchase my work; as in having the Space and the Budget for it, or a Reason/Intent to Buy
3 – a Developing Connection to me, whether real or imagined.
My first buyers were family (Thanks, Mom!) and friends, then clay colleagues. Then a complete stranger bought something, which is always a turning point. Then some of those strangers actually returned and bought more, a nearly shocking development. This made them Collectors and often, friends. This is also when I could begin to see who was resonating with what I was doing and in what way. THAT’S who I want to put my work in front of, not everybody!
Must I always throw my art into the general and aimless marketplace like so much spaghetti against the wall? NO! It’s better to get clear on who buys what, when and how and where is their natural habitat? I’m still defining that and sense that I always will be, but I have some important clues I’m following up on. Sometimes the habitat is online, and I suspect there are other emerging realms in this fast-evolving world. Agility and awareness, as fluid as the fog bank.
Up top is a photo of what I want more of in terms of Artist-Customer satisfaction. This man was in my booth, all smiles the whole time. He asked about and appreciated nearly everything. It seemed the more I answered his questions, the happier he got. We both lit up. Playfully and easily he selected two pieces and took them home. Continuing to play he sent me the photo below. Thank you Eric Cummins for being the Poster Child for my Secret Collector’s Club and helping me understand what we both want more of!
-Liz Crain, who takes heart in the fact that this nebulous marketing arc of the Circle of Artmaking is a hot topic for many, from her lunch partners to such deep-thinking writers as Roy Harris in his book The Great Debate About Art (tangentially, to get the party started) and, to one of my favorites, Seth Godin who exhorts us to “make a list of the differences and the extremes [of your "brand"] and start with that. A brand that stands for what all brands stand for stands for nothing much.”
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.