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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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.
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Channeling Willem and Karen


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



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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The Focus Pull

In the world of filmmaking, when the camera changes focus during a single shot, (say from Mrs. Robinson’s half-stockinged leg to Benjamin in the background, conflicted and staring) it directs the viewer’s attention in a powerful narrative manner. I want to borrow this focus pull concept and play with it a little in the realm of this blog. Let me steer our collective attention beyond the deliciousness of thinking, making, showing and blathering about ceramics and creative process for just a bit.

You see, I went and signed up for another of Alyson Stanfield’s oh-so-valuable online classes: Blog Triage, and it started today. This class is different for at least two reasons right from the start: One is Cynthia Morris, the co-instructor, who adds another mindful mother lode of experience to the work at hand, and Two is the fact that the class assignments will, like as not, play out here with all of you, dear readers, and not just in my private office or studio.

Case in point: the first assignment asks for me to essentially pull focus and blog about what I expect to get from blogging and just who I would like to be reading my posts. This request creates a heady funhouse mirror effect on me, but I know the point of looking at things from other perspectives is to be more than self-referencing, that the meta-awareness generated is gold for the narrative comprehension.

I have read and followed some blogs for years…I just did not know they were blogs! I guess I thought they were highly entertaining, active and personal websites, which, after a fashion, they were. As a blog consumer, I enjoy warmth, humor, community and an artful turn of phrase, even profundity, in the writing. I usually want to think or learn something too. I want to connect and feel moved, to sense the passion and pulse of that living human on the other end. Even if I never comment! Please don’t ask me to separate the trivia from the minutiae: if I read about your capricious kid, your trip Down Mexico Way or your braided body hair, I want to be invited along with you and not merely asked to stand and admire! P.S. You are allowed, nay, encouraged in, your detailed techie-nerdy passions, though. Su embebecimiento es mi embebecimiento.

Now that I have a blog of my own, I’m expecting myself to generate at least the level of excellence I find engaging as a blog-sumer. I need to keep me entertained! It is harder than I thought, too, but not because I bore easily. I figured my understanding and meaning-making would come in the doing, and it has.

Here’s what I like so far about SoulCeramics:
~I am gaining a much clearer and confident artistic voice! I prefer to play with words and ideas, layering many concepts and kinda quirky references into my writing, and, funny thing, I like doing that with my art too. Neat!
~Love, LOVE, LOVE being able to make hyperlinks to some of my obscure observations…..it fosters greater understanding all round. (Thanks to my phenom-son Roger!)
~I am forging a powerful community of readers and commenters who tell me in many specific ways how they enjoy and benefit from my musings. I am meeting like-minded folks, not all artists, a lot of them bloggers about hiking or beer brewing or Silicon Valley in the Early Days.
~I am proud to invite others to my blog…and I had not thought that was the case until today.

But, who do I want to attract here? Can I even describe this micro-demographic? Starters are starters, so here is a first, impromptu attempt:
~Family, friends, colleagues….everyone I already know.
~Ceramic artists, heck, all artists, really. I love cross-pollination.
~Thinkers and readers.
~Lurkers and Laughers (having been one at times.)
~Pranksters and Cosmic Thieves (put these in to wake you up….if you’re still reading… I know this is a long post….)
~Folks who can give me good support and professional connections, whoever and wherever they are now.

So, some things once seen cannot be unseen, and pulling focus has revealed a plot twist. Blogging about blogging has changed my blogging. Good for us!

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Creative Timing


One of the absolutely, positively, hyperbole-intensified, hardest things for me to learn and retain in ceramics is to wait for the right time to do the right thing to the right amount of clay at the right moisture content. There are delicious names that potters give to describe the stages of clay wetness, and here are some common “cheese names”: brie, mozzarella, cheddar, and parmesan. (Hungry?) If you just think of how relatively wet these cheeses are and how they might behave when modeled a la ceramique, you get the idea a teensy bit. For years now, I have come up crying when I tried to get clay to stand and behave when it is brie or even fresh mozz consistency OR when I try too zealously to shape or bend it when it is cheddar or, heavens, parmesan hard. You see those cracks?

So Creative Timing in ceramics not only includes when the Muse/Genius arrives and tells you NOW!!!! but also includes where your clay piece is at when that alpenhorn sounds. Riding this magic carpet of Creative Timing is part of avoiding the ultimate frustration and embarassment of know-better failure as well as grabbing the soaring, roaring upwelling of spirit and plain ol’ fun that nailing it gives. And I suspect that speaks true in any sport or creative endeavor. Probably even poker.

That said, I am full of ceramic pertinacity, so slowly, slowly, slowly I have gotten better at the Waiting Game. Yes, it is possible to rewet dry clay and to dry out wetter stuff, but it is totally sweet to have the rhythm in place, because then it matches the creative surges that might be accompanying the reason I am in the studio in the first place!

So, this directly applies to what I am doing in my Art Swap with Karen Koch. There is that Big Idea: take the art she has sent me and rework it in some way so that it becomes new art in the loosely interpreted spirit of “Erased DeKooning” by Robert Rauschenberg. (And see my last post for the most interesting particulars and links.)

Yet, as I have heard someone who eschews vacations say, it’s because, “Wherever I travel, I take me along,” the bald fact is I am just me, livin’ my day-to-day. Some days I have good ideas and energy, some days I am dull, distracted and dissident. But I really have not survived this long as an artist to mind any of it. I just know to go in the studio regardless of what the finger-to-the-winds of my creative mood reads… and it generally is the right thing to do.

I stalled in addressing this project today, for familiar, but ultimately dismissible, reasons. Karen and I have agreed to a deadline and deadlines are conducive to showing up, at least to me. Also, the clay was ready for my next impulse. Deadline + clay readiness = dismissible reasons for creative avoidance.

I wanted to apply a subtle nubbly texture to the bottle form I am working on because Karen, in her note to me, mentioned that she made her art with “colored pencil, paint, and Sharpie marker on patterned paper.” I can’t replicate the pencil, paint or marker, directly, because they would burn out in the kiln, but, hey, I can do texture! So the first shot above is of the homespun fabric that I applied to the perfectly-ready (mozzarella-hard) clay and then rubbed a bit with a nice rounded wooden tool. Second shot is what that left the clay bottle looking like: happily it is reminiscent of patterned paper!

So it was a few hours well-spent. All in good time, especially in clay.

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Art Reception Food

June is a good month for outdoor arts events and receptions and I have been to plenty of them in only the past few weeks: First Friday in Santa Cruz, The Santa Cruz Art League’s 90th Anniversary weekend, Capitola’s Art at the Beach, and two sponsored by the Pajaro Valley Art Council of Watsonville, both devoted to sculpture: one in the gallery and one of garden sculpture at nearby Sierra Azul Nursery. (And I am honored to be included in both of their exhibits.)

I am not a veteran of the art opening reception circuit, because they were always an acquired skill in my book; one I just had no compelling need for. First off, an artist makes art, and I have been way too distracted by that alone for decades now. And, while I have looked at plenty of art in plenty of cities, visited artists, attended salons and dutifully read my art history and biography books, I kept forgetting to get to the Openings.

What I have learned by steeling myself and actually showing up at these functions (rather than taking the introvert’s way out and being ‘busy’) is they are only very subtly about the Art. HA! I knew it! They are really about people getting slicked up and celebrating themselves. Food, Drink and Music are always involved. The Art attends and then just sits mutely in the corner, avoiding the crush and watching the avocado dip turn black (as Dick Cavett once said he generally did.)

Depending on the venue, the reception food and drink can either be for purchase, totally or partially catered, sponsored by varying donors/advertisers, or even consist of a potluck brought by the artists themselves. Sometimes it is a combination of them.

Well, when I signed up to bring sushi to last Sunday’s mostly-potluck reception, I really intended to bring honest-to-goodness California Rolls. They are not expensive and it’s possible to whip out a huge trayful in no time. But it is so done. So when I Stumbled Upon (and it looks like you’re getting lots of sites to click over to in this post) a blog about a kid’s birthday party where both the activity and the party favors were faux sushi made from Kellogg’s Rice Krispie Treats (and I probably should add “TM” after that and all the rest of the ingredients) which are then rolled around Pull-n-Peel Twizzlers, Rainbow Twists, Gummi Worms and wrapped in Tropical Tie-Dye Fruit Roll-ups, I was enchanted and immediately changed my offering. It was still “sushi” right?

Be honest, were you fooled by the photo up top? Or did it look a little garishly photoshopped, even though it is not? (And you should see it when it is posterized, highly saturated, extremely hued and contrasted! Positively bilious.)

A platter of Faux Sushi is a sticky sticky sticky affair to manage, but pretty in a Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 6 and Yellow 5 sort of way. If you have extra lumps of RKT mix you can make the nigiri with Swedish Fish wrapped to the top, as in the foreground. Not surprisingly, they tasted really sweet, too. One almost needs to wash them down with Fruit Punch, for the full kid’s birthday party effect.

So, how did they go over? I thought they were an artsy party funfood offering, but I don’t really know. I arrived with the early crowd, set them on the dessert table and never went back. I spent more time looking at the art, talking to friends and associates, and moving away from the too-piercing flute of the live jazz band to find out.

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