Thursday’s Tile: Not Just Plain Vanilla

As a kid did you ever take a nip from the bottle of Vanilla Extract, quickly finding out that its alcoholic bitterness in no way resonates with its unbelievably enticing aroma? Well, I did, anyhow. Decades later I got a similar vanilla shock: vanilla beans actually come from an orchid??? Wild. Wacky. I did not know that.

When SR suggested that she fashion a Vanilla Orchid for the Taste area “knee” of the Five Senses Bench,  I thought she and her capable hands were just going to make something creamy and wonderful to solve the very real problems associated with making custom curve-specific tiles. My previous post about the Octopus tile on the Touch knee area explores these challenges and one solution in detail.

She was incommunicado for several months on this, working mostly in her own studio.  When I had nearly given up on receiving anything for the area, she happily delivered this whole lovely assembly of orchid flower, leaves and the most wonderful vanilla beans to go with. If I remember right, it was in four or five specifically overlapping pieces: another way to solve the fitting-a-curve problem.

The biggest form had curved just a tad too much in the firing, but had not cracked. And it was not too curved as to be un-attachable. We solved the installation problem by adding a fatter layer of thinset underneath each of the layers to make up the difference and protect the various points of leaves and petals. The vanilla beans were separate, so that made attaching their delicacy doable too. The whole assembly did not quite go where intended, but who’s the wiser? (Shhhh.)

The TakeAway here is about surprise endings: getting something surprisingly different than you expected: maybe shocking, maybe relevatory, maybe just exquisite and audacious and bar-raising. Thanks, SR.

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Thursday’s Tile: Taste on Hooves

It’s Thanksgiving Day with lots of family and food to enjoy, so here’s a short and sweet post about one of the most unusual tiles on the Five Senses Bench at Cabrillo College. Its source is an old drawing of a Native American horseback rider just about to shoot a wide-eyed and galloping buffalo with a fully drawn bow and arrow.

AB was a young man of tentative speech and Deep Thoughts and he went ‘way outside the box for a tile which is down low on the Taste area.

I have more questions about this tile than answers, but I am still glad it is there, evoking a separate reality in a sea of candy corn, pizza and gummi fish.

Did he mean to suggest a taste for blood?
Was he referencing food for pure survival instead of entertainment?
Did he want us to think of a more direct way to hunt and gather our sustenance?
Is he offering any chastisement of modern food gathering, especially of our meat?
Is this a nostalgic historical scenario?
Is there any political/cultural commentary here?
Did he just want a narrative verb-like tile instead of a static noun-like one?

I don’t know! I never got an opportunity to ask him because after he made the tile he dropped out – but not before he sweetly asked me to promise to finish the tile’s glazing and attaching.

Even though he still comes and goes on campus, I would never be so bold as to put him on the spot with all my unanswered questions. I would have to be very oblique and casual, and since so many years have gone by, he may not even remember what he intended.

Do you have other questions? Do you have some answers? I personally love the mysteriousness here and the fact that I don’t get it is just fine. Back to family and feast!

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Thursday’s Tile: Help, There’s an Octopus on My Knee!

The octopus is a highly intelligent eight-armed bag, capable of taking just about any shape it needs to. What a great choice it was for the rounded corner of the Five Senses Bench in the Touch area. I call these four places the “knees” of the bench and if you go to the FSB link you will be able to see this octo-tile on the closest corner in the whole-bench shot. Oh, and you can read the backstory too, if this is your first time encounter with it.

The woman who made this tile, NB, was quite a meticulous artist who was also studying for her single subject teaching credential in Art. (Which she later accomplished.) Of the time she spent at Cabrillo Ceramics, she made wonderful pieces, very realistic in both form and decoration. Lots of animals: cougars and giraffes, dogs and deer, all expertly executed.

She originally modeled this octo-tile in one curving piece, but clay has an interesting memory for how it has been handled, and when it necessarily shrinks – first in the initial drying and then later in the heat of the kiln – it can very easily curve more or crack apart, or both. Her damp one-piece tile fit so artfully in place, and, even allowing for shrinkage, it was nearly a certain-sure thing that it would NOT fit after a 2000+ degree firing. Too big, too oddly shaped, too site-specific.

What to do? The obvious: cut it apart thoughtfully and intentionally into true mosaic pieces which would give it the ease to round that knee curve. Let them warp and crack! We would still be able to make adjustments in how we attached the pieces in order to make it all fit in the area mapped out for it.

NB balked some because her vision was to have that tile be mind-blowingly whole. How much was she willing to risk the outcome in order to show off that skill? Did she have the time or resolve to re-make it if she failed? Or did she want the greater assurance of a successfully finished piece the first go?

There was some hand-wringing involved, such was her personal creative process, but you can see her choice, fitting like an orange suction cup around that knee, right next to the TOUCH label. This octopus is loud and proud, not hiding in the least bit, still showing off.

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Thursday’s Tile(s): Please Touch

There are really two tiles to explore today. The one above is on the back of Touch area of the Five Senses Bench. While it looks like those old-fashioned candy dots you would peel off of some paper, it is actually Braille, meant to be touched to be understood! And it spells out, “PLEASE TOUCH.” That alone makes it a wonderful addition to Touch, and it we could leave it right there.

But we won’t, because there is a similar tile on the Sight area of the bench, as you can see below.

More candy dots, spelling out something you need to touch to understand…unless of course you can sight read Braille. (Oh, and you can see a few other tiles nearby that all seem to be referencing Inner Sight, a wonderful adjunct in this section, similar to KB’s insistence on tiles expressing feelings in the Touch area.)

So this tile in the Sight area is a visual/touch/Braille prank, meant for the unsuspecting blind person. And I got to play it on my blind friend MJ!

It was several years after the tile was applied that MJ and I were exploring the unfinished bench at his request, because he is – besides being a great teacher, a runner, a musician and storyteller – a consummate ceramics artist.

He touched and I described. After a time, I directed his hands to the PLEASE TOUCH tile. Normally Braille is so tiny, he had a bit of trouble deciphering such Brobdingnagian dots, but he did and liked it a lot.

I had done the set-up….Tee Hee.

MJ likes to laugh and is achingly corny. I could not wait for my next move. I casually said something like, “Well, if you liked that one, try this…” and moved him and his hands around the corner…..

His long fingers carefully felt each letter in order. D…….O…………N….O…T……….T..O..U.C.H!!!!!!! He started giggling by the U in TOUCH. He knew it was a joke. It was a fine moment.

I wonder, because these tiles have such a special audience, who else has gotten this joke. And, for that matter, who else just thinks they are half-eaten candy dots. Either way.

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Thursday’s Tile: Can You Hear Me Now?

Sometimes the tiles on the Five Senses Bench were arranged on purpose (see the last Thursday’s Tile post) and sometimes they found each other. This particular arrangement is an opportunistic sight gag. It’s on the seat of the Hearing Area and includes the gold-lettered labeling tiles that were suggested for each section by the ever-dedicated bench supporter and worker,  DP. (DP, if you ever read this, know that you rock for eternity, and here’s why.)
DP has strong aesthetic and conceptual opinions and they are usually spot on. She said each area of the bench needed a word label and she even made the tiles and directed their placement. So, as a result, we have a “ringing” old school cell phone, next to the the Hearing Area title tiles, making a subtle visual ring-ring line-up, for those who noticed it. (And for those who didn’t, well, you see it now because I am pointing your head at it.)
This placement is funny because, first off, do cell phones even *RING* anymore, as in One RingyDingy? All the electronic beeps and tweets and downloaded ringtones suggest they do not. Any sound can be a cellphone’s alert now. We know that squawking parrot is just a cute call coming in and do not stir ourselves to find the wayward birdie.
Back in the day (five years ago) cell phones pretty much all warbled annoyingly. Yes, we call it ringing (just like we call it dialing) but it decidedly is not. That’s how old this cell phone tile is. And it does not even fold up or access the internet. Even has a broken antenna. Dang. Funny.
How OLD is that cell phone, you ask? So old, it has “RING” on it’s screen, fergoshsakes, spelling out its possible sound and not its GPS locationor your horoscope, or even that old Seinfeld episode.
HOW OLD? So old it only has the standard issue buttons and not a pantheon of things to press or swipe a finger across. And it isn’t hot pink and we know it can’t even take a photo.
OK, enough with the jokes at an old cell phone tile’s expense. There is another phone in Hearing: a super-super-super-old black one with a dial and a heavy receiver and cord….its sound is only inferred, not spelled out. We know for sure it could be nothing but a phone.
What is clear is that after an unspecified time, all these early 21st century objects will become like that corded dial phone: vintage and collectible and even Artsy. This old Can-You-Hear-Me-Now-Era cell phone is really only ahead of its time, and, as it sits permanently attached to the Hearing Area of the Five Senses Bench, it will attain a certain appeal and beauty all of its own. And we sense, too, that the ring-ring sight gag will continue to age well and provide its secret giggle, just as DP knew it would.
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Thursday’s Tile: Petrichor

This intriguing array, one of the oldest intentional groupings of tiles on the Five Senses Bench, was not only a fantastic attempt to cover a lot of square footage, but also a fun way to play with word shapes enough to evoke their meaning visually. (A new kind of font, I guess.) Even though it’s huge and on the back area of SMELL, I truly wonder how many folks miss it, thinking it is just a fun pattern.

C (I’m not remembering his last initial right now) took a lot of pains to develop, cut, glaze and arrange his two words. Can you read them? Maybe you can make out “AFTER” pretty easily, but the word below it is harder to get because he changes to lower case and that third letter looks like a Y or a W. Those four “splashes” attached to its top create the diversion,  but it is the letter “I.” Now can you read it? AFTER RAIN! What a great smell that can be!

I have heard that smell is our most primal sense, brain-wise, bypassing everything and directly engaging the Lizard Brain, meaning there is strong emotion/memory tangled with it. See if you can recall your own version of After Rain right now. I get a wet asphalt playground smell, but I hope you get something more woodsy-earthy.

Did you know there is actually a name for what C wants us to olfactorially recall: petrichor. What a lovely ancient-sounding word, but apparently only coined in the late 20th century. When I ran into this word, months and months after C had moved on from Ceramics to his other transfer course requirements, I wrote it on a piece of paper, and kept it with all my bench-making supplies. C and his girlfriend happened by one afternoon to check on things and we had a sweet little petrichor party!

As a matter of fact, I now never smell the world After Rain without thinking “petrichor-C-bench” so I guess that is in my Lizard Brain now, too.

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Thursday’s Tile: A Small But Symbolic Effort

This week’s tile remains a permanent testament to the era of its making. It’s located on the vertical back right of the Taste area of the Five Senses Bench, next to the long tongue licking the fire, which is another interesting story to be told another time.

Do you remember “Freedom Fries” from early 2003? When our ally France refused to support US intentions to invade Iraq, the elected legislators in charge of the US House of Representatives restaurants, cafeterias and snack bars, following the lead of some uber-patriotic restaurant owners, renamed French Fries and French Toast on all the House menus, removing the word French and substituting Freedom.

Oh la la, that must have stung those recalcitrant Frenchies and made them reconsider! Nothing like petty playground bickering to foster important international alliances and aid in war-mongering. Those were the times, though, lest we forget.

I remember some TV and online news squawkings about it, and on SNL’s Weekend Update Tina Fey reported, “In a related story, in France, American Cheese is now referred to as “Idiot Cheese.” Indeed.

You can read all you never knew about Freedom Fries in this fascinating Wikipedia entry. I especially enjoyed learning that the renaming was (quietly) reversed in 2006. Oh, and the Historical Parallels are enlightening: Apparently, if we human tribes refuse to name something, then it doesn’t exist, or at least we give it no additional energy, just like in Harry Potter.

But, let’s get back to this super-sized clutch of turmeric-colored beauties in their tricolor container. The Bench had its guardians, folks who took a special interest in its progress, and GN was one of them. He was in on many spontaneous brainstorming sessions, proudly explained all about it to passersby, yet never seemed too keen on actually decorating a tile of his own. I goaded him! When he finally came up with this personal French twist, he was chuckling and whistling the whole time he worked.

There are other versions of fries on the Bench, but these were the first and they reflect the artist in an oddly subtle yet garish way. He declared freedom from Freedom, made the fries and their container French again, and his “small but symbolic effort” (which is the exact phrase those menu legislators used) provides an everlasting foil to the follies of governments and their battles.

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