• Come to Our Senses Bench: A Group Art Saga

    On: October 1, 2009
    In: Community, Creativity, Studio Journal
    Views: 1103
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    What you’re seeing in the photo above is the result of a powerful public art odyssey. It’s a free-form handmade mosaic bench that I ended up coordinating the tile work for. I am so thrilled to see it in position to be permanently installed in the new Visual and Performing Arts Complex at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA, that all the descriptions of its making and meaning want to come tumbling out of me together.

    What if I start with the inscription tile: “Come to our 5 Senses Bench, Created by over 375 students and staff of Cabrillo College between 2003 and 2007.”

    Yes, you read right: 375+ artists contributed to this major oeuvre! And yes, it took four years to complete. And yes, it took 2+ years to move it to its ultimate site this week. Gather close, kiddies, and I’ll tell you the tale.

    Early Years: Inspiration/Collaboration
    In the Spring Semester of 2003, Sculpture instructor Jamie Abbott and Ceramics instructor Kathryn McBride cooked up a plan for their students to design, build and make tiles for what was originally a three-piece bench grouping with the theme of The Five Senses. The framework and smooth coating for one main part was what actually got built by the Sculpture students and then passed to Ceramics students.

    The semester ended soon after, and this gray baby elephant of a bench still needed lots of continuing effort to design, make, glaze, fire and attach tiles, not to mention to sort, store and edit the tiles in all stages of completion. Many a summer work party that year spent most of its time attempting to define and refine the Five Senses theme and to reconcile specific tile images and shapes with the curves of the bench surface. The project seem to loom larger and become more complicated the more it was worked on.

    In time, the original bench enthusiasts took different classes, graduated, transferred to other schools, got jobs, moved on. Work on The Bench languished. By 2005 the tarp we had carefully kept over it had gone away and the palette it sat on was showing signs of sagging. The work “parties” had dwindled to me and Kathryn applying a tile or two and wringing our hands over the vastness and confusion of it all. Here’s an early shot in which the bench looks more like the granite expansiveness of Half Dome and the tiles look like lichen growths.

    Car Crash Epiphany
    This is where the plot takes an unexpected turn, pun intended. One early morning in July, 2005, my 20-year-old son Roger crashed our Honda Civic sideways into a tree on Highway 1 near downtown Santa Cruz. No drugs or alcohol, just a bit too much downhill speed, some faulty brake work done only a day or two before, and a lot of OC donut spinning because of losing traction crossing the railroad tracks. He was mildly scratched; the car was clearly totaled. Gives me the willies to think of it even now because there was a bit of a Sleeping-Beauty-pricks-her-finger-on-a-spindle curse fulfillment surrounding that crash. Sleeping Beauty did not die, because the original spell was amended, she just fell into a deep sleep…and Roger just got a wake up call from the Universe.

    And so did I. I was moved to eliminate all extraneous activities from my life. The idle-chatter coffees, the stray civic involvements, the leftover obligations: all gone! I told Kathryn I only wanted to do what had the most heart for me: ceramics and finishing that bench. She said yes! and thereby graciously provided the conduit to the willing hands of her three classes of students for what turned out to be a couple of years.

    The Middle Mash-Up Years
    Over the next four semesters I introduced the bench project to 13 Beginning Handbuilding Ceramics classes and invited enthusiastic students to brainstorm image ideas and to make tiles for each of the Five Senses. The inventiveness of such a large, changing group of all ages and sensibilities contributed mightily to the wonderful wildness evident in the whole piece. There are stories to go with each one. Some of them I know: that realistic cigarette in the Smell area? The maker, a former smoker, told me he would always know where his last smoke was.

    This one, also from the Smell section, is by a repeat ceramic student who prided herself on having a tile in each Sense, all involving fingers. And it was only after her hand image tile was placed in Touch did we all discover it had six fingers!

    While the first crowds worked, I set about clarifying the imagery on the bench and found myself reluctantly chipping off and patching up some irrelevant and damaged tiles from the very early time when we were applying every tile we could get our hands on regardless of whether it served the overall themes in any way. Man, I hated creating MORE gray places to fill, but I can send up a silent thank you prayer for that now as it completely aided in the clarification of the project.

    Bringing it Into the Station
    After all those semesters of massive tile production by so many willing hands, including addressing the dividers between the Senses areas (what I call the River Tiles) and groveling around on our sides tiling the bottom edge in what I think is a rather orderly and upholstery-like border, it finally seemed to be getting covered. There were more tiles than grayness!

    In the final semester, a whole new level of tile generation arose. Up until this point, all the tiles made fit somewhere in the correct area, but this was no longer so. What was needed now were tiles of very specific shapes and curvatures. It was also clear that in lots of places the gaps between tiles were too large, so we began to make and sprinkle in repetitive filler tiles: tiny candies for Taste, musical notes for Hearing and so on. At this point we were bringing the wet clay out to the bench and cutting and shaping all the tiles to fit a custom location, including allowing for shrinkage! The last gaps were closed by some special luster-fired tiles and finally I attached what was clearly the last one. It was grouted and sealed the week after Spring ’07 finals.

    The Behemoth Stays Behind
    The whole time the bench was being created, so was the grand new Visual and Performing Arts Complex. We knew we would wait for The Move, scheduled for sometime in 2008, in order to place it in the new digs somewhere. Well, moves are tough, calling up major doses of the unexpected as they do. We were 30 years in the old location and the new location was not quite done, so you might begin to imagine what came up in transition. Selecting a place for The Bench was ‘way down on the To Do list for a long, long time. Occasionally someone would ask me about it; occasionally I would go back to that part of campus, sit on it and pat it and thank it for its patience (and gather my own up again.)

    But, now that The 5 Senses Bench is right here in our Art Village, around us again in our day-to-day, it is particularly fun to watch new crops of students discovering this very wild mosaic sculpture because these are the folks who never saw it under construction and never saw it sitting around, uninstalled. They are encountering it as it was always intended to be encountered: as a wondrous, marvelous, engaging, the-more-you-look-the-more-you-see piece of public art. That is so true, that I plan to post a Tile Of the Week here on the blog for awhile, to let me get to know it anew. A Tile and A Story, should keep me busy all over again.

    Coda
    In order to write this very l-o-n-g blog post, I have been looking at all the photos taken from the beginning in 2003 to this week. This last one, posted below, I had utterly forgotten. It’s me on the left and Kathryn’s hands holding the tool, in the first Ceramics Department Bench Work Party. We are placing the first tiles, which also happened to be mine. What I love about this photo is the group’s intensity of focus and the active working hands, because those two things symbolize the whole wonderful mess.

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  • Fairy God Cub

    On: September 18, 2009
    In: Art Biz, Artmaking, Community, Studio Journal
    Views: 963
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    Here’s the bookend to my last post about Ratty Got Her Wings, a second sculpture of mine accepted into the Santa Cruz Art League’s upcoming exhibit entitled Beasts on Broadway: Animals Galore. (The SCAL is located on Broadway in Santa Cruz, hence the show title.)
    Introducing the Fairy God Cub! It’s another animal sculpture “with a twist” completed under the tutelage of Tiffany Schmierer of Skyline College last summer.
    What I love about this one is the vulnerable (sheepish?) expression of the baby lion and of course those strap-on costume fairy wings. All fantasy protectors should engage us like this. Here’s another shot of the wings:
    The interesting thing about wings¬† is,¬† as far as I can tell, angels have feathered bird wings and fairies have diaphanous insect wings. So, am I right? Any of you out there really informed about this? It’s the sort of detail that makes a huge difference between a general interpretation and getting a sculpture that reads in all the right ways.
    What ever did we do before Google Image searches? I remember using picture encyclopedias, but even they could fall short at times. Or maybe I am just a lot more specific and picky than I used to be. Yeah, that’s it!
    All I wanted today was a short and sweet post about the short and sweet Fairy God Cub.
    May you glimpse your own inner kid-self playing dress-up and donning, along with the wings or the cape or the mask, magical powers in spite of very real doubts… and for the time being becoming protected and fantastic.
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  • "Dear Artist, Congratulations…"

    On: September 13, 2009
    In: Art Biz, Artmaking, Creativity, Studio Journal
    Views: 1346
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    Thus began the letter from the Santa Cruz Art League. It said that my work was accepted into their upcoming Beasts On Broadway, Animals Galore exhibit, which was juried by George Rivera, Executive Director of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA.

    Well, triple yippee to that! This letter is also heaps sweeter in ways beyond its YES! to my art and my efforts to take it into the world for Show and Sell. It says YES! to rats and YES! to pertinacity.

    Here’s one piece that will soon be a Beast on Broadway. It’s titled Ratty Got Her Wings. I made it this past summer while studying at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA with the inspiring and wise Tiffany Schmierer. (I put 2,500 worthwhile miles on my car in order to receive her inspiration, guidance and feedback! I can’t wait to share this good news with her.)

    Rats are one animal that get a bad rap over their historically, and admittedly not undeserved, bad rep. Yet to categorically reject all rats is, well, Rattism. You can find lots of positive action websites dedicated to easing that prejudice. Look, there goes one now.

    My piece is more personal than political, though. Rats, even pet ones, just don’t live very long. Two-three years. This life-size rat sculpture is for all the gentle females that came to be cared for and then leave my sons: Zelda, Kiwi, Latte, GL (short for Greased Lightning,) the One-Who-We-Can’t-Quite-Remember-Her-Name-Right-Now, and dear Moose. They are buried in a group in our redwood grove with a sign, RaT pAcK, posted on a nearby trunk.

    Ratty Got Her Wings is my way of saying a heartfelt thank you to those animals. I’m certain that the intimate knowledge of their bodies and movements allowed me to fold that love into the sculptural form I had in mind. Here are two more detail shots of the piece: Oh my, that dreaded snaky tail and a perky face because a rat knows you,just like a dog does.

    So, what about that acceptance letter’s ratification of pertinacity (a $2 word for doggedness)?

    Like Weight Watchers, I have joined the Santa Cruz Art League at least four times since I moved here in 1989. I’d join for a year, desultorily put something in the everyone’s-included Annual Members’ Exhibit, never quite figure out what else I could do to become involved there, feel awful artistic angst and let the membership lapse. In a common case of sour grapes, I mentally thought of it as The Fart League, which surely is neither clever NOR original. Last year, however, I joined with some goals in mind and I knew that if I did not see them realized, I would understand why, not feel bad and move on to other venues for my work.

    I think that a more professional grade of doggedness led me to both better art and better ways to present it and it is what ultimately got me into the animal show at SCAL. To my way of thinking, it is decidedly all connected

    In one way or another, though, I have been perfecting my art my whole adult life. But I have been effectively perfecting how I package and present that art less than a year. (Read my last post about my business card saga, just to hear one story about this.) One of my undeniable artbiz mentors is Alyson Stanfield. And now, as I wind up an online blogging class with her and Cynthia Morris, I can say a personal but public thank you to them. And to the other students I have struggled alongside, who I have come to know through their questions, humor and writing: Dear Artists, Congratulations!

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  • MOOve Over, Old Biz Cards

    On: September 8, 2009
    In: Art Biz, Studio Journal
    Views: 1992
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    Back in the day, when I first started thinking of myself as an artist, I ordered some business cards. They were black on white and not any more useful than the social calling cards I ordered as part of my High School Grad Package: Elizabeth Ann Hawes, engraved in a treacle-y script. (Who’s she?)

    I remember fully believing that the business cards themselves proved my legitimacy. And, sadly, I have done this at least 5 to 555 times. New endeavor? New box of cards! Change of medium? More new cards! They mean I really mean it, right?

    I handmade my cards in the 70s, each one lovingly inked and water-colored. Personal. Artsy. So labor-intensive I did not really get to the art.

    In the 80s, I scaled the corporate ladder and was issued new cards for every promotion and different bank I represented. Commercial-Loan-Officer-Wannabe-Artist, at your service.

    In the 90s, I drew a crane graphic (last name Crain!) and printed them on ivory Avery tear-apart bizcard sheets. Cheap, but rough-edged and flimsy. Fortunately only seen by a few.

    I also had boys to raise. Need flash cards for your times tables? Use the backs of those old cards! How about a bookmark? A glue holder? A flip book? Something to clothespin on your bike to make your spokes rat-a-tat? A House of Cards? Here…use these.

    Yet it finally has worked the other way round: I am an artist because I make art. Oh, and I guess I could probably use a biz card instead of writing on paper scraps and trying to accurately recall all the ways you can contact me or see my work/words online now. Never mind the phone and street address.

    For the past few years, I have printed a small run of cards to match my annual Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour postcard. That felt right: it featured fun recent art and my name, phone and email, all on the front. And last year’s card, as you can see, even had a ‘halftone screen’ of my studio on the reverse, which I used for titling/pricing in my exhibit. I thought it was pretty innovative at the time.

    So much has changed in the past year, I feel like an adolescent who has grown two inches in two months. Last July I added a sticker to the back of my old cards (better than using them for flash cards) but even it was out of date sooner than I planned. The “website” will now be this blog migrating to (shhh!) WordPress…and the Etsy Shop is now open with even a few sales… and you can click from this blog to there, if you’re curious.

    Enter MOO Minicards, snappy graphic snippets of your own works, which I first saw in February at Alyson Stanfield’s Hollister Workshop with the delicious art of Princess Simpson Rashid on them. I envied them mightily and bookmarked the MOO.com site.

    It took six months, but I have my own delightful group of 100 MOO Minicards now and they are a joy to give out. Last weekend I hosted “Art on Bay Avenue” at my house with my work, Connie Williams’ watercolors and Annie MacHale’s weavings. (They both use MOOminis and differently than I do.)

    I had a small wooden bowl of MOOcards for my visitors and it felt like offering everyone their favorite candy. No sales pushiness, just an outright gift from me to them, given and taken with love and delight.

    I had also bought, assembled and displayed the MOO Mosaic Frame. It is a compelling way for visitors to take in your body of work at an informing glance. It functions quite well as a visual Interpretive Message. We just can’t expect even those who have made the effort to come to your exhibit, to ‘grok’ the totality of what you’re puttin’ out, never mind hoping they have the time to page through your portfolio or stand in front of your digital picture frame as the images glide by. All-at-Once Eye-Bites are in order and the MOO Mosaic Frame does that well.

    When a dear collector bought an elegant face jug I was really proud of, I tucked both a photo greeting card AND a MOOminicard of it in the bag. It felt better than right. It felt natural: as natural as hand-lettering and watercolor-washing my cards in the 70s, but with five ways to continue the conversation with me on the back. (And S, if you’re lurking here…I dare you to leave a Comment.) Now that’s a two-way gift!

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  • Requiem for Purple Music

    On: August 28, 2009
    In: Artmaking, Community, Creativity, Studio Journal
    Views: 717
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    It is with torn-asunder reverence that I am writing this.

    Reverence for creative curiosity and bravery, the unknown and the unmet, and for the crazy wild-hair day that led Karen Koch and me to send each other a piece of our artwork to make into something else by any means we could concoct…in the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased DeKooning, which RR considered “poetry.”

    I think we were expecting to make some meaningful poetry as well. And it sounded so madcap adventurous. Dare we? If you want the whole tale, you are invited to read my immediately previous post of two days ago, “Channeling Willem and Karen” which will take you to all the other links, hers and mine, you might want to follow. (I’m too drained to do all that explanatory reference writing and linking again.)

    But, if you’re starting in on the story of this Art Swap right here, you most likely don’t need to do that, because **!SPOILER ALERT!** this is The End.

    And the end is bittersweet and leaves me caught up, thoughtful and seeking solace.

    The photos show how I destroyed Karen’s creation. I’m not sure I need to describe the steps in much detail, just know that the inside of the lid is inscribed: “Bubble Soap Reliquary for Purple Music.”

    All along I have been making a funerary urn. All along, as some may have conjectured, I intended to burn Purple Music in my kiln. All along I wanted to capture its decorative essence on the clay’s surface and send the original up in smoke to Cone 04, or about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

    I am amazed at that big ol’ piece of ash left because it means there is an actual relic in the Reliquary. I crack a tiny wry grin over that.

    The heroine in the novel Norma Jean the Termite Queen by Sheila Ballantyne saves her 1970s married-with-three-children sanity by turning to ceramics, in particular Egyptian-style canopic jars. Now, I must have read this book 6-7 times, twice a decade, since I first discovered it. I quote it frequently and I have searched out a lot of her references (Verdi’s Requiem, for one.) I am floored to realize I have wound up with a parallel existence to Norma Jean, death and afterlife jars included.

    Why create? Why destroy? What comes to me in this limnal period of Afterwards is to feel: connected, thrilled, daunted, grateful, poetic and broken open with a slight grin.

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  • Channeling Willem and Karen

    On: August 26, 2009
    In: Artmaking, Community, Creativity, How To's, Studio Journal
    Views: 732
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    So The Plan was this: trade a piece of my art for one of Karen Koch’s and alter it mightily as in Erased DeKooning by Robert Rauschenberg. (You who need the thrilling and informative backstory are encouraged to see Karen’s blog and my previous post, the one just before this one, which will connect you to the other two previous posts…so just scroll down…as always, I’ll be right here when you get back!)

    I have concocted this lidded ceramic container recalling some of the shapes and textures of both my work (the Soap Bubble bottle) and Karen’s. It has been bisque-fired and is ready for more decoration. My plan was to add colors and patterns not to exactly replicate Karen’s lovely little piece, but to riff off of it in 3D. Could I do that with the decidedly less-wieldy underglazes?

    Apparently not. My first brushings were tentative AND pretty ham-handed, if that is possible! I hated them. But the hate was well-utilized because, all of a sudden, I remembered that DeKooning spent eons scraping his paint off of his surfaces, painting more and applying absorbent newspapers, and scraping and applying, scraping and applying. Thank You, Willem! I just got creative permission to do less than rinsing it all off and starting over, but to do more than piling on more colors in hopes it would get better.

    Enter the sanding screen as seen in the first photo up top. I LOVE this thing! It makes Instant Old surfaces. Off I went outside with a mask (because you don’t want to breathe ceramic-anything dust) and ever so lightly and randomly scraped and altered the surface I had thickly painted.

    It got better! I started to feel the rhythms of Karen’s piece, titled Purple Music. I thought about music. I wondered what Karen was listening to when she made it. (Karen?) I put the Real Jazz station on the satellite radio, literally caught the vibes, and painted and scraped and scraped and painted.

    Eventually I broke out the underglaze chalks and pencils. Betchadidntknow they had those, right? For we who love that dry, calligraphic surface, they are heaven. AND they smudge good, too! The bottom photo shows the piece nearly done. It is altogether more playful and rhythmic and totally has the effect I was wanting. Whew!

    So, I leave us right here with just a few more steps to go: clear glaze wash and the final firing, with an important twist in the works. Stay tuned, kids!

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  • Shhhhh! Creative Radio Silence

    On: August 23, 2009
    In: Artmaking, Community, How To's, Studio Journal
    Views: 738
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    It is pretty much true for all of us with Right and Left Brains: I find I can’t talk and create at the same time. I can talk before (What’s the Plan?), on breaks (How’s it Goin’?), and afterwards (Here’s the Deal), just not during. As a matter of fact, I enjoy watching the demos of creative instructors because there is often a point where I can almost see them switch brain hemispheres and pause their verbal instructing in order to get the demo piece to the right artistic place. Makes me glow inside with recognition.

    For the past week I have been in the silent During phase with the DeKooning/Rauschenberg-inspired art exchange which I am involved in with Karen Koch. (I have described the swap’s progress and premise in my previous posts of 8-17-09 , “Creative Timing” and 8-12-09 “Art Swap, What If?”) I have been quietly and happily deploying my Big Idea, step-by-achin’-step, and have been unable to make words about it. Yet, I also know I need to come up for air in order to document this fantastic experiment for me, for Karen, and for every other interested soul out there. I’m currently on a creative break, so I will recount the tale as it has unfolded so far.

    As of today: the first bisque-firing is cooling down! I lifted the kiln lid and peeked and the piece made it through without self-destruction, always a positive sign. Now it can never revert to earth again, having passed the point of no return in order to become a delicious, absorbent ceramic canvas for the rest of the decorations I have planned for it. I am relieved and blessed to create another day.

    So let’s take those photos up top, have ourselves a pictorial, and see what silent changes happened last week.

    Top: The wet signature on the bottom of the work, a ceramic tradition. The idea is that if the piece is inscribed while it is still unfired, the artist was actually present. While there is no problem with other types of signatures being authentic, this wet signing is just one kind and I happen to prefer it. Sometimes you will see an artist’s chop/stamp pressed in the wet clay, sometimes a painted underglaze signing, all perfectly wonderful. This one includes a date and an inscription which might be the first in the world to include a Twitter hashmark address!

    Middle: One thing I love to do is give a piece some color before that first bisque firing. It helps ease the stultifying transition from forming to decorating. There is so much waiting around in ceramics, it is a common problem to lose one’s stoke between the making, drying and bisque-firing steps and consequently to be neither in one’s right OR left brain when re-encountering it. I painted some amethyst and white underglazes, only partially mixed, on the whole piece. This serves as an underpainting and helps me regain my place quickly after that first firing. I chose those colors because they are common to both the pieces Karen and I traded, as she so skillfully observed.

    Bottom: Off to the kiln! This morning’s photo shows the piece loaded in the kiln. And, surprise!!! It has a lid, formed from memory to recall the top of the piece I sent Karen! It has been painted with chartreuse underglaze as well as the amethyst/white mix, neither of which look at all like they will when fully fired, part of the flying-blind fun of ceramic decorating. (Oh, and don’t worry, all you energy efficiency sensates, I did not run the whole kiln with just this one piece….about 20 other works were loaded in after this shot, and they survived just fine.)

    So, after today’s firing success, I am charged up and ready to do the decorating work in the coming days. Until then, I will maintain creative radio silence on this project. Over and out.

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