Claiming A Character in a Plain Clay Cylinder

Each face is unique; it has to be

A new series of face jugs has begun! Similar to the Local Talkers 2009 in that they are based on the faces appearing in the 2011 Local Talk column of the Santa Cruz Good Times, but different because each one is full-sized and meant to be a stand alone work.

I’ve lifted some of the limits I placed on myself in 2009, in that I can choose one or more faces/respondents a week, or none. And I can base my choice on expression and/or on what the person says.

Each jug is stamped with that person’s first name, last initial and one word of their reply to the question of the week. In the top photo are, left to right, Cecil U. Stopped, Kate K. Y and what eventually became Nicole B. Amphitheatre.

Here she is at leatherhard before being cleaned up and getting the base coat of underglazing.

Love the headband and the earrings!

And just for fun, here’s a close up of the source face.

Facing the camera and smiling slightly

For me it’s not about creating a photographic likeness, but an energetic and gestural one. The clay jug form has its own demands that must be served. The cylinder needs to balance in all ways. It can only stretch so far. It can’t get too heavy with add-ons. (Hair!!!!) It needs to function as a vessel, although I’m finding I care less and less about that as I go deeper into sculptural expression. I just might be getting to the same place as sculptural teapots which are generally full of narrative and SO not meant to be used for serving tea!

I am keeping better studio records this time too. Here’s the page so far for Cecil U. Stopped.

SO much better than binder paper!

So, that’s my Studio Report at the outset of one thematic series I will be exploring this year. The face jugs provide a looser more organic foil to the other works I’ve got going and I like that I get to find my way from the plain cylinder to the character waiting to take form.

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Time and Gravity Fall Down Go Boom

Fallen Sphinx Totem

It happens several times daily: the dog pushes open the back door to get in and I am too pre-occupied to get up and shut it. Besides, we are having weeks upon weeks of the best Summer-in-the-Winter ever here on the Monterey Bay and there is no need to batten the hatches. The daffodils are blooming and the bugs are still asleep, a sweet time.

Last week Zorro, our sly XL Mini Schnauzer, pushed himself inside and disappeared around a corner. Shortly, I heard an emphatic crash which ended with semi-tinkling flourishes. Well, that got me up! I wasn’t sure where the sound came from and found no obvious broken dog messes anywhere in the house. Nothing jiggled off the dryer, no artwork detached from the walls, my studio remained quietly waiting for me. The dog was unconcerned. I concluded that because of the open door I must have heard one of our (nine – but that’s another story) neighbors, or the roofers three doors down. Back to my pre-occupations.

What fell is pictured above. It has been a fixture in the side yard for years and it fell over behind plants, a wooden cart and the fence so I didn’t notice it until days later. I called it the Sphinx Totem and it is still one of the most wildly complicated things I have ever pulled-off in hand-building ceramics class.

Each of its parts were soulful references to ancient and classical imagery, the entirety crafted to resonate with the sacred geometry of the Golden Mean as explored and diagrammed in the commanding book The Power of Limits by Gyorgy Doczi.

I can’t locate a photo of the completed piece in its former wholeness. Instead, I found my concept drawings:

Sphinx Totem Sketch with Golden Mean Harmonics

Starting at the bottom, a ring of roots surrounding a Greek column – a column being a formalized tree as well as an axis mundi. On top of the column a sphere within a cube frame. Then a large shallow bowl windrose with symbols for the eight winds of the Mediterranean around its rim. Above the windrose, an s-ribbed wind turbine which I had designed to spin at the slightest puff, but inertia and friction have long-proved to be fearsome contenders.

Guarding the whole piece at eye level, the Sphinx, one of my first figures in clay. She’s magnificently capable of issuing a perplexing riddle. She rendered the top pieces – a fairly graceful Lamp of Learning and a lumpy Rub ‘n’ Buff-colored Chakra Tower – mere finials of denouement.

The interior support for this four foot high twelve-part affair was a metal pipe which went about half way up, with a longer wooden dowel inserted into it running the entire height. As predicted for Someday, the dowel rotted and broke at the exact top of the metal pipe, toppling everything higher than the axis mundi onto the marble, bricks, and Mexican river rocks below. Teetering Empyrean! Someday’s arrived!

Years of ceramics have left me with little resistance to the shardy reality of a broken Opus. This might be an oxymoron, but I felt rather Vulcan: it was fascinating! I photographed it, swept up the pieces and noted that my favorites survived whole: the roots ring, the column, the Sphinx.

What's meant to remain

I take this as a sign of necessary evolution and simplification, of putting away childish things, of movement and progress, crossing the bridge, fording the river, sailing to the New World. I am blessedly released from a certain kind of past and this crash reinforces it.

With a new studio, the new year, new associations and the ACGA Exhibiting Member acceptance, fresh vistas have appeared. And while a few somethings, even significant ones, are lost, Time is currently sending more fascination than lack. Gravity is just not all that grave right now.

Fall seven times, rise eight as the saying goes. But maybe it’s easier than that; maybe falling is like autumn leaves, utterly natural… and if we trust and allow, don’t mope and protest, and stay fascinated, we see that rising up and leafy renewal are already written within Fall Down Go Boom.

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Anti-Goals 2011

You can't have one without the other!

It’s January. It’s time to light a candle and seek resolved renewal in the cold, dark and wet. Time to aim the mind’s sextant out into the chill, clear soulnight at one’s personal North Star and set a course. Time to clear away, focus and make lists of goals. Timeframes. Working Plans. Mission Statements. Tasks. All that. Or not.

I’m workin’ on it, sorta. I belong to a few formal and informal circles where this is a daily discussion item. Some of the participants have pages and pages of S.M.A.R.T. goals. Some wish they did too. I’m not convinced.

I think I want Goals. I think I hate them because they’re too constricting and ultimately I become mulish or openly rebel or I change them drastically, so what’s the use of getting so officially worked up in the first place? I’m not the Boss of Me!

Even when I actually craft a juicy, heartfelt, authentic list of things to do and be, I notice I’m good at mistaking Goal Setting for actual achievement. Like walking through a stage set flat of a house and not a real house.

Still I feel the need to periodically choose a few directions and some supporting behaviors, both personal and professional. I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.” Be afraid of that! That way lies the abyss, the labyrinth, the black hole of meaninglessness. Honest. Or maybe it’s a Zen thing.

So, this January, to help me call my own bluff…to harness my Inner Mule and and amuse my Wild Child: Anti-Goals.

Just think of things you think, do, and are that seem to prevent you from living that Best Life. Write ’em down. Start seeing the What Not To Wear version of your Goals. What gets revealed might just be the very thing you needed to know to start wearing your true colors.

Anti-Goals for 2011

1. Wake up daily with a sense of overwhelming dread.

2. Let perfectionism and fear of success lead to entrenched procrastination.

3. Say Yes to nearly all requests from others.

4. Remain sedentary.

5. Eat and drink nervously and unconsciously.

6. Discount all money matters; spend anyway.

7. Believe that gathering lots of artistic ideas is just as good as making art.

8. Wait to be discovered.

9. Lurk online.

10. When discouraged, do nothing. OK, whine about it and let The Voice berate your spinelessness.

11. Harbor professional jealousy and keep score.

12. Bemoan how far behind you’ve gotten.

So, there’s a dozen for you. They come easier and easier and they humor, soothe and direct me in ways my Good-Girl-You-Get-An-A+ Puritan Workaholic Get ‘er Done Checklist Self never knew. Auspicious…

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Local Talkers 2009: The Complete Version

All of last year I gathered the weekly Santa Cruz Good Times and tore out the Local Talk column, selected one smiling respondent to respond to and made a small face jug inspired by it. Most have a sculptural spout and handle(s) and all are functional in that they really could be containers.

It was a daunting process with lots of pauses and I blogged about it fairly regularly: quarterly progress reports, procedural essays, thoughts on completion conundrums.

I did not hurry myself other than with the urgency borne of a curiosity to see how it would resolve, since I did not know either!

After all the pieces were formed and safely bisque fired, I still wasn’t sure how to finish them in order to unify their differing expressions, attributes and even slight size ranges. I also needed to have a display concept, and I felt I needed a glimmer of how they would be formally viewed before I chose the finish glaze treatment. It took time to feel this out.

Simplicity ruled. What you see is a black wash over each piece to bring out the planes and textures as in a drawing. A touch of Radiant Red underglaze was brushed over the week’s number which had been impressed into each piece and at its spout opening. That’s it. Black and White and Red (read) all over.

As for the display, even with a clear concept it was only after much searching that I located this commercial shelf which came with just the right amount and size of cubbies AND numbers too! I brushed red on the numbers and stained the interior with a black wash to pump up the Shabby Chic-ness, thereby unifying both Local Talkers and their habitat.

There is no particular way the faces need to be placed in this shelf, although a few on top and mostly two to a cubbie works easily. Certainly they do not need to be in numerical order!

A year becomes a jumble anyhow, and having the face jugs free to intermingle at last and create a sense of their own relationship and conversation is such delicious fun. A dollhouse for adults in a way.

I am assembling a book of the Local Talk columns alongside individual photos of that week’s finished jug. While I could still pick out the weekly person whose face I used, I have been surprised at how far afield I went from the source photo. It was a complete surprise to me to see how often the gesture and even the hair part of the artwork are a mirror image of the original. And very, very often the gender is interpreted more androgynously, if not exactly opposite, which seems to be “something I do.”

I am including my blogs about the process in this book too, sprinkling them into the rhythm of the year’s making…and it is gotten on to be a year and a half. This post will be included as well. The book-making has even nudged me to write it!

So, what happens next? I have entered the piece into a local juried exhibit and have not heard back yet if it has been accepted. If it is, that creates a path. If it is not, that creates another. Both paths will lead to letting the Good Times know about this work, but each will create a method.

This piece is a unit…all the tiny jugs go together in their display as one sculpture and I am completely happy with that. But I yearn for a series of similar pieces that can fly individually free. I am noticing that I want to do this yearly practice again, making bigger face jugs still based on this Local Talk weekly cavalcade of expression. So here comes 2011, and I am getting ready.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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