2009 Local Talkers Fourth Quarter Group!

Oh my, the final fourteen weeks of the 2009 Local Talkers project were wild! There was the woman half hiding behind a wall and the guy with the sunglasses and face mask. Unbelievable!!! If I were making up a face a week, I would never have gotten as out there as these real life respondents to the Good Times Local Talk column did.

And that is the nutshell reason I even attempted this: Truth adds more unanticipated detail and surprise augmentation than Fiction. One almost just needs to provide a well-orchestrated capturing mechanism, whether it is the photograph, videocamera, written word, painted impression, or in my case, the small handformed face jug.

Almost. I know my Genius walks the streets, though.

This was the last sub-group to be formed and successfully bisque-fired. It is delicious to have gotten to this point, so let’s take a moment to gaze at the first collective shot of them all.

I am wincingly aware that I am nowhere near being done. The real problem-solving starts with beginning to think of all 53 individuals as a unified group and of how to go about finishing them and displaying them to emphasize that. (And I am definitely NOT displaying them like these casual shots!)

I have taken a few stabs at this unifying need over the past year, but now I am calling in some experts. I have a set of fellow ceramic artists whose aesthetic senses I revere who I will consult. I will do a lot of testing. I will take it slow.

Maybe I first need to be clear on how I will display them before I know how to unify the decorating. One long shelf? Four shelves? Individual shadowbox cubbies? Risers? Wall? Table/pedestal? Frontal? 3D? Pyramid? Wood? Black velvet? Bamboo?

I am in another Gathering Phase of the Creative Process. I did not work this hard for more than a year to rush through, either. I am savoring this part: letting the right surface treatment present itself as I run my options. I know I will feel its goodness when it arrives, just like I let the right face come to me each week and I let my formal response to it come around as I worked the clay.

It’s that well-orchestrated capturing mechanism being developed, spliced, edited, restated and glazed in order to turn it into art and I am good for the breadth and the distance.

A Year’s Journey, One Local Talker at a Time

I want to walk you through making one small face jug, which, times 53, comprises what I have been doing all of 2009 in my Local Talkers series. Each one is unique, but there is a unifying rhythm to making them and it goes like this.

Nearly every one starts out as a hand pinched and closed sphere about 2-3 inches across.

I can barely explain how I choose The Subject Face from the 4 or 5 in each week’s column, and I have been known to drift from one face to another mid-making. I look for some expression or attribute that intrigues or amuses me. I am not making a portrait so much as an echo or an interpretation. Sometimes I read the names, occupations and responses, mostly I do not until after I have chosen and started in.

Here’s the choice for Week 43:

One thing in David Baker’s favor was I had not had anyone in a headband all year and his face is elongated with that great center part in his hair. I started by paddling the sphere into a long capsule, then pinched it to form a base, neck, chin and that scalp part, as you can see.

To my artist’s brain, it’s exactly like a rough sketch in charcoal. Add in a tiny bit of pressure to work while the clay is at an ideal wetness at every stage — although even that can be controlled. (I could work for months and years on this if I needed to.) I want it done in a few days and will control the drying with brushed/sprayed on water and plastic.

Here are the basic Mount Roughmore features in a mix of a lively but stoic face:

I am pleased with this profile and demeanor. It has a classic feel: Egyptian? George Washington?

Next comes details and rough hair.

The clay’s perfectly malleable but too sticky to finalize things, so I am relaxed about burrs and fingerprints. All in good time. I have delineated the headband position before I commit to much more hair. Oh, and I have made peace with a certain androgynous quality I find in nearly every face.

Now the headband is on and I am starting to think about where I will add on a spout, perhaps a handle and other decoration and where exactly I will press on this week’s number.

All those additions need to be in place before final touches, otherwise I will be fighting with myself and my tools. I want something rather organic and abstract for a spout, suggestive of a feather or an antler, but not actually recognizable. Not sure about a handle…there’s plenty going on with the knot in the headband.

And here’s what arose in response: An open-ended spout-structure, surrounded by another supporting loop and a pressed-in 43 in the hair.

The newer additions glisten due to the clear water brushed on to both help attach them and to provide a unified smoother surface.

One more shot from the front. Is that a pipe? A blossom? I am glad it is not specific! And I like that it is subtly resting in back, not taking anything away from the face in shape, subject or placement.

And that’s that for now. It’s too wet to attempt much more today on it. It is good to wrap it up in plastic and let it sit at least overnight, exchanging moisture levels, drying slightly on the outside and letting me see it anew on the morrow.

If things go at all like they have with countless other small face jugs, when I work on this piece again I will need to restate hair and refine facial lines, “disappear” some seam lines and edges, clean up those burrs and fingerprints, and maybe even patch a crack or a thin spot. Once that is done, I will make sure the piece sits level, sign and date the bottom and begin drying it ever so slowly, gradually loosening and removing the plastic, for the next week or so, until it is bone dry and ready for the bisque firing.

I have said to countless people over the years that clay taught me patience and I can see once again how true that is in describing what I do without thinking for one small face jug. Times that by 53 and I see I am really working on Mount Rushless, and I guess I can claim some sort of bonafide Clay Abiding Award, knowing as I do, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

Catching Up with the Local Talkers of 2009

This time last year I embarked on a project I knew for certain would take a minimum of a year to complete, which was part of its appeal: to make one small jug a week inspired by the expressions of the respondents to the Local Talk column in the weekly entertainment tabloid called the Good Times.

I shared my quarterly progress with you and last wrote in October, noting the fact that, while I had faithfully gathered the weekly columns and made lots of other ceramic art, I was OK with the fact that I had finished only one of the 13 jugs in the Third Quarter…and the hands-on studio time for the project in the Fourth Quarter was not looking promising.

You can find the other posts in order here, here, here, here, here and here. I truly recommend reading the first and the last ones, for the original set up and the “we left off here” aspects.

But up top and just below are photos of the still-green evidence of my earnest studio time in the past week, when I returned at long last to Weeks 28-39!

I was concerned that after such a long time away from these faces, my “hand” would be different and it would reflect in an observable and unwanted difference from July to January’s product. Not so! While I felt differently inside and held some completely different mental conversations — many of which were based on the powerful learning I did last summer at Skyline College with Tiffany Schmierer and last fall with Cynthia Siegel — what came out was pretty seamless. Whew!

I have an opportunity to work in my studio at least this much in the coming weeks and would love to get all these lovelies, current and future (Weeks 40-52), into the bisque kiln by month’s end. I am rarin’ to solve the puzzle of how to decorate this body of work and also how to display it to best effect. I have some tantalizing ideas on both fronts.

After a year’s practice, it has been odd to not set out each Thursday morning in search of the current week’s copy of the Good Times, but it has taken one tiny bit of pressure off my days, allowing me to absorb the fact that I really did collect the whole year and now just can enjoy the heck out of making good on my promise to myself.

More on this real soon!

Outside Adjustments, Inside Surprise

A few posts ago I showed ya’ll the results of my figure sculpture studies with Cynthia Siegel this past semester. I wrote that post before Cynthia reviewed my work and,  following our brief but thoughtful discussion, there is a bit more to share with you concerning the Two Hour Challenge sculpture of runner Maggie Vessey. Up top is a shot as close to the angle of the source photo (below) as I could get.

Here’s why it’s great to have instruction: Cynthia pointed out aspects of this pose that, given a bit more time, I might have addressed, but one never knows! I will just list these points and you can see for yourself:
1. Maggie has thrown herself down, and is maybe still a little bit in motion. She may have even been rocking slightly. Her butt does not rest on her shoes, as I have modeled it! And even if she was completely still, a runner’s muscled thighs and calves probably wouldn’t let her fold up into a compact Child’s Pose. What I have made is resonant with wet clay not quite being able to stand up in the air AND with the strong emotional folding in of the figure.
2. Maggie’s back is arched. I have modeled a sway back! I kept trying to keep the clay up in the torso, but did not get this all-important line. I feel pretty sure, given more time,  I would have restated this until it was fairly accurate. After all, it is the one view I did have!
3. The proportions of the negative space and angles of limbs needs compacting. I have elongated things. Arching the back correctly will help this problem too. The lower leg shin needs to curve upward more.
4. The arms are pretty well done, but they aren’t inserting into the back correctly. There is more of a transition that includes the shoulder blade and that web of muscles….that alone would help with a better back/shoulder curve.
5. Muscles are convex. My thigh muscle on this side is concave…I got it strong on the other side, though!
Now for the Inside Surprise! What drew me to this photo was the memorable and compelling emotion. That’s why I saved it for over nine years, wanting to align with and honor it in a piece of art. Far more than realistic replication, for me, that emotion was the most important aspect to capture, even in a short academic exercise.
Every item I still need to adjust to make the figure’s Outside more true arrived because I was paying more attention to the felt narrative I wanted to express. I got into this position while sculpting and so did Cynthia in our talk! Cynthia even put the whole pose into motion in her discussion of movement and musculature.
If I draw, I craft one view, with many others implied, if I’m lucky. If I sculpt, like it or not, I must address all views, even the ones not easily seen.
At one point in our talk, Cynthia and I picked up this smallish sculpture and discovered the Inner Truth of this pose. I treasure this unrealized, expressive, protective, intimate inside view!
Here is the fearsome power of misery, anger, defeat and the active defiance of all of it too! This is what arises in me when I look at that photo and what my hands wanted to make.
Ultimately getting the figure accurate, in my personal view, is meant to support the message of the work. Like a musician bending notes or playing ahead or behind the beat, a sculptor can choose to simplify, abstract, or distort, too. And if they know where academic, even photographic, realism lies, they are that much more agile in expressing their intentions.
Ultimately, keeping the Inside alive while Adjusting the Outside, sounds like a life skill as well as an artistic one, and in that case, I’m signing on for the duration.

Bony Proportions and The Two Hour Challenge

This past year I have sought out the teachers who can tell me what I want to learn in ceramics, a practice I definitely want to continue! Sometimes they are wise colleagues, but more often it has been certain college instructors. Last Summer it was Tiffany Schmierer at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA. This Fall it has been Cynthia Siegel at Cabrillo College in Aptos, my regular haunt.

Cynthia is an exacting master. When she communicates, she expects attentiveness, responsiveness, engagement and active execution. I revel in that! She means what she says and has scads of expertise to share. So, without writing a chapter and a half about this semester, let me show you, mostly in photos, what transpired.

The photo up top contains the digest version of weeks and weeks of exploring reference material for the skeleton. Rather than just making figure sculpture(s) all semester, Cynthia recommended that I delve into the human bony proportion canon of Robert Beverly Hale, and then set about carving a skull, ribcage and pelvis set on an armature in order to have that learning ‘go deep.’

Folks, I was daunted! What the hell kind of shape is a pelvis? I must have made three of them, each stinking on ice. How to translate 2D drawings into proportionate blocks of clay and then ‘find’ the pelvis or ribcage or skull in each one? How to make a temporary armature? How to keep the soft clay from stretching out of its boundaries? How to breathe any kind of life into such an attempt, even if I never plan to fire or keep it? (Hint: find those S curves!!!!)

The photos here show how far I got…..hours of searching for those shapes, consulting with Cynthia and adjusting. It was grand. I am not done, but it is just possible I can’t be. Here’s the work in infinite progress. Skull looks a little too round in the photo, too much like Jack Skellington. (Not done!)

What can never show is what went deep inside my mind and sense of touch and form in space from this exercise. It is forevermore beyond cognitive because it lives in my muscle memory too.

That could be the end of our story. It certainly was the end of the semester as next week is Finals. Bony Proportions Skeleton: Check! But, Noooooooooo, Cynthia wanted more from me. She issued this Throwdown: Take two hours and make a figure, any position. Don’t worry about finishing, just bring it Monday to the Final.

What a genius assignment! It allowed me to translate my newfound skeleton framework knowledge into a narrative and to use that knowledge while it was still fresh.

I chose an old newspaper clipping of a local high school runner, Maggie Vessey. She had just lost a race badly and apparently had thrown herself down in the Agony of Defeat. I had kept it because it was so evocative. Here was my Two Hour Throwdown subject! (Pun intended.)

The challenge was to find the skull, ribcage and pelvis positions underneath the clothing and the muscles, to add the appendages and breathe life and gesture into it. At least that is what I wanted out of my two hours. Not getting lost in the details or perfectionism were other factors.

More challenges came from making a 3D piece from a 2D shot. Just what might her left side be doing? I crouched into this position and my own body gave me suggestions. Staying on task, lively and attentive is sometimes a problem for me, so I was proud when I did not stray from my task for more than 4 minutes the whole time.

Here are shots of the result:

Wow, is what I have to say…not because the piece is so stellar, but because it is evidence of a whole new way of understanding the figure. I am so glad I got to experience my skeleton knowledge while it was vivid. One less vague area with light shed on it. Thanks, Cynthia!
P.S. Since 2000, when this photo of Maggie Vessey was taken, she has gone on to be 2009 World Champion in the 800M. Go Maggie!

Ceramic Yoga

Sometimes it’s just necessary to see how far you can push it. I call it finding the Edge of My Stretch, after some yoga instructor’s encouragement to go further,  but just the right amount of further and no more. Making the Hot P Oil Can above involved the fun challenge of asking wet clay to behave in yoga-like ways, both gesturally AND structurally, and to look beautiful while doing it.

Clay has great compressive strength. Downward pressure is generally not a problem, especially if it is allowed to stiffen slightly before piling on another layer.  But stretching it out in unsupported gravity-defying lengths is just asking it to sag and crack and misbehave: clay does not have very good tensile strength!

So, let the stretchy fun begin! One kind of vessel form that continues to interest me is utilitarian and industrial, but old and beat up. Watering cans, buckets, spice tins, old wastebaskets and all kinds of commercial – many from the petroleum industry – containers. My fondness is for early 20th century pre-plastic forms, some made of glass, but most made of metal, a material that has exactly the opposite compressive and tensile strength properties of clay.

It becomes an interesting proposition, then, to fashion a semi-eye-fooling version of one of these containers, soldering, rivets and all, AND to push it even farther than the original to the ceramic asana which makes it art.
Here’s one source photo (but not the main one I used, which I cannot locate now) for the Hot P Oil Can:

Some of the other photos reveal much bigger handles and longer spouts, and much less readable labels. It was easy enough to form the ovoid body with its splash guard on top. It was even pretty easy to add the particular horizontal welts along the bottom and top edges and  to make the crimped smaller foot.

The challenges were in making that outrageously loopy handle and that long-necked spout with those particular angles, all while the clay was still wet enough to curve, but dry enough to stay put. A few times I needed three hands and I definitely needed to delicately prop things up until firm.

Aesthetics-wise, I usually intend to make objects that look “real enough.” By that I mean that they highly recall the originals but are still clearly NOT them. If you want uber-realism, buy the actual thing or take a photo! Otherwise, let’s see evidence of the hand at work. Same goes for the decoration.

I applied pale blue underglaze “primer” color to the leatherhard clay, bisque-fired it and then added many layers of mixed underglazes for the old label. When they had all dried, I lightly sanded and scratched those layers to suggest the wear and tear on old painted-label cans. I ‘greeked’ in the body lettering, something I really enjoy doing.

The metal parts have a glaze called Ming Gunmetal, a useful low-fire glaze which is a satiny silver breaking to green, as you can see in this close-up.

Sometimes I position my body in the ‘pose’ of my pieces. It’s another way of understanding them and is surprisingly helpful. I guess the yoga reference goes beyond creative stretching and problem solving, then, all the way to the actual thing. This vessel suggests balancing with big outward movement: Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose, which I find easier to do in clay!

Phrygian Phreedom

Here’s another work from my Tiffany Schmierer Skyline College 2009 Summer Session: Phrygian (the cap’s style) Phreedom (because it is based on the face of Statue of Freedom on top of the US Capitol Building.)

Anyhoo….I have a thing for these sorts of classical faces, both the originals from Ancient Greece and Rome and the Neo-classical interpretations down through the ages.  I have worked with the fearsome face of the Statue of Liberty, and while it is inspiring, it has a certain stern quality. Take a look at some close ups. There’s a straight-ahead no nonsense eagle-like stare to this statue.

Contrast this with the sweet face of the Statue of Freedom! Still inspiring, but perhaps more egalitarian than eagle-like. The more I looked at this face, the more I wanted to make a larger than life-sized head based on it. So, using the techniques I learned a few summers ago from Stan Welsh, I built the basic Big Head shape.  I so appreciated conferring with Tiffany over the technical and aesthetic fine points as sometimes it comes down to millimeters and the fine dance between darks and lights….it really does. We proved it.

What a nice face, but what to do about all that fancy headgear on the original statue? Yes, I suppose it could be made of clay, but it would not only be a dicey proposition to execute and forever vulnerable to breakage, it was also a complete aside to my inspiration: that face.

If one is making a 3D sculpture and is not working from a 3D model, live or otherwise, it is useful to have lots of resource photos, from as many angles as possible. I love the internet for that function alone. In my Statue of Freedom visual travels, I read this whole wiki article of its history, and simultaneously answered my question about what to do about the headdress: The Phrygian cap, aka the Freedom Cap! It was the sculptor’s original choice….and it would be mine because I loved it and it was a tiny way of thumbing my nose at Jefferson Davis’ wrong-headed policies. I would give her the headdress she was supposed to have.

Yes, this hat has appeared in many guises throughout history, and yes, it is a Smurf hat shape too. So???? I love all of it, the sacred and the profane. And, did I say I love this face? I imagine making other versions of it. In the meantime, some of you may recognize it from my Facebook and Twitter avatars.  As I said, I have a thing for this kind of face, so ultimately it is a reflection of me and I am comfortable with that. Phreedom, indeed.