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digesting penland

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penland-glove.jpgI am home again after teaching at Penland School of Crafts. My class was working in the upper clay studio and its goal was to fire the wood kiln. The pace of a two week session is very intense. We had to make all the work in the first week so that we had time to dry, fire, and cool the kiln before the end of the session. My concept was that we would make enough work to fill the kiln, fire it and get into a rhythm of producing drawings, collages, and notes. I hoped to give the students a recipe for working and a process for digesting and developing their own ideas.

penland-pots-for-kiln.jpgBack in my studio, unpacking tools, pots, and notebooks, I am trying to assemble my experience of the session into some kind of order. For me that means drawing and collaging. While collating the paper shards into one notebook I am drawing not only what I made, but also what I imagined making and what my students attempted.

Roosting in my own house where my husband and I--as well as the dog--walk and talk in small circles, it is a stark contrast to Penland's variety of studios and the large circular tables of the Pines dining hall. While we are also in rolling hills, the vistas of the North Carolina valleys are steeper and mountains feel deeper; the momentum of such varied studios making disparate objects was energizing.

At one dinner I asked Chris Benfey, the session bridging writer-in-residence, what he was working on. Chris said he had been re-reading The Jungle Book by Kipling and was tussling with the difference between when Mowgli is kidnapped by the monkeys versus his adoption in the wolf family. He was curious as to how Kipling manipulated our allegiance to the wolves and our agitated antipathy to the more human-like primates. On my drive back to Virginia I thought about how the Japanese had invaded Korea in the very late 1500s and kidnapped whole villages of Korean potters. The Japanese have had a long history of adapting Chinese ideas and making them their own, but in this instance the so-called pottery wars led to a Korean infusion into Japanese aesthetics, the discovery of porcelain and fundamental alterations to various ceramic traditions.

I wasn't totally sure what to make of these conflicting concepts, but somehow it also resonated with another contrast discussed by Rachel Miller, the teacher of wearable sculpture. In her slide talk she contrasted the idea of a treadmill versus the labyrinth. Do we keep our hands making because we need the exercise or do we do it with thought and meditation? Does an external influence enhance our practice or do we just tramp along in our same old rut, stomping out new potentials without thought.

penalnd-idea-thief.jpgIn my process of digesting my experience of teaching and firing, I ran across a note captured during one night of instructor images: "Idea thief."  Often when I look at the work in a teaching studio after a well known artist visits, the pieces that students subsequently make seem like they have been generated from kidnapped tricks applied to their own materials and firing techniques. It occurred to me that what I want is for my students is to adopt ideas, not to kidnap them. I hope they have imbibed inspirations that motivate their own aesthetic path. Returning to their own studios I urge them to nurture new approaches to their materials, to cultivate their concepts for making and using objects, to reinvigorate their perceptions of form and perhaps to apply new theories for stacking and firing their kilns.

penland-quartet.jpg "For Benfey, ceramics also possesses the explanatory power of metaphor, standing in for all artistic creation. It represents what people make of places, literally and otherwise. Transitory wayfarers pause, grasp what lies beneath their feet and form it into creations both utilitarian and beautiful. The handle of a pot, he writes, 'marks the journey from one world to the other; it is the suspension bridge from the world of art to the world of use.' "
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#18 winter solstice 2011

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18 bolws.jpgA year ago today we left to visit our daughter in Florence Italy. Due to snow we got stuck in Paris for 24 hours. I made endless drawings of luggage, weary travelers, morning coffee and evening espresso. A year later I am happy to walk my same old circles at dusk, racing to get out before it is completely dark, content to return for warm bowls of leek and potato soup.

travel journal.jpg

#13 winter solstice 2011

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This evening, while handing a cup to a friend, she asked, "how do you make this work?" I said I like working within tight boundaries so when I wake up most days I don't have to question which direction to go to feel fruitful once I'm in the studio. I step into my field of clay as if words were shapes waiting to be made. The goal is that they look as if they descended from nowhere, effortless and timeless.

13 cup gesture.jpg"But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere,

and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds
with the wooden spoon, I remembered,

this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety

or of fruitfulness?"

--Marie Howe, from From Nowhere in The Good Thief

#7 winter solstice 2011

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In October I went to the memorial for my parents' wonderful friend Irene Towbin. Irene's brother spoke of how every object in Irene's life had a story--the grocery cart chair, the photo my Dad shot of her on Prince Street, and her art works that were puns on toast, cake, combs and hangers.

On this gloomy Wednesday afternoon, I took the dog for a sodden walk around the pond. The ground is completely saturated and a muddy field intersecting with a rainy sky reminds me of the inspiration for the plates I made this firing. Every pot I make has a visual story, its state transformed by fire. When embedded in a meal the pot--at its heart--becomes a poem clothed in the food we serve.

07 long field plate.jpg"--a poem needs to have at its heart a transformation, a fire where whatever story within you is burned into something else."
--Marie Howe from an interview in Bomb

#6 winter solstice 2011

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"We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss -- we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you."

From 'What The Living Do' by Marie Howe

#4 winter solstice 2011

My father told me that he dreamed that Mom came back to the living. She could stay with him for the day but in the night she had to go back to the land of the dead. It made me think one version of the myth of Demeter where winter represents her sorrow for the abduction of her daughter to Hades. The dark and cold night is hard and long.

In the dark cold of my house with our heat pump humming I dreamed of my mother. I was holding her by the elbow and we were walking through the snow talking about making prints in Maine during the summer. She told me about a poem she had lost, left on the dirty dessert dishes.

In the light of the morning I talked on the phone to my daughter. We spoke of the poems she wrote, collected and printed for her class.  I am amazed by this triangular pattern of influences from daughter to mother back to daughter. My mother wrote poems, but was reluctant to share them with us. Now, years after her death, when I visit my father I find her voice again as  poems surface in her papers or drawers. Zoe is writing a poem about my parents' New York City loft and over Thanksgiving she photographed it for visual clues. I looked over her shoulder as if through her lens and learned to articulate the details of my own childhood and young adulthood with new clarity.  Recently I listened to an interview with Marie Howe on Fresh Air. She read poems about grief and the death of her brother and mother.  Howe teaches at Sarah Lawrence College where my mother went and where my daughter now goes--both with an intense connection to the education. The poems, the school, the child, the mother, are all so intertwined in my history and in my present; they shift the focus on the dawn of a winter day.

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"I called her name into the fold between night and day I called it without expecting to hear an answer."
--from the poem Questions by Marie Howe in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

#1 winter solstice 2011

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This is the first of the 2011 winter solstice series. The first image in a series leading up to the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year on December 21.

I have recently fired my wood kiln so this series will also provide a preview of a selection of the new work.


Recent warm up experiments in pattern first with paint on paper and then with slip on bats.

iron- paper patterns.jpg
"you should not create pattern from pattern." Tomimoto Kenkichi 

white-slip-patterns.jpg"Art is Pattern informed by sensibility" Herbert Read

circles of march

small-circle-1.jpgI remember when I was a student at Antioch University in Columbia Maryland  I would tape newspaper to my wheel head and paint perfect circles as I turned my wheel on and off and held my hand steady. I was chasing an idea of perfection.

Recently I was pursuing the question of how to express an idea visually.  At the end of my day in the studio I cleaned off the plywood table,mixed up my black glaze and  I dipped my fat skunk tail brush in  black glaze and let it run until the drips slowed down and ran my hand across the bowl so that I got a line of drips  and an asymmetrical circle on a series of white bowls.

When I revisited painting circles it was a moment of re-examining an old idea. I think of my work as being like traveling along a gentle upward spiraling path. I make a loop and revisit ideas and by the time I come back to them I have traversed a big circle and I am looking at the idea from a slightly different angle. It is not pure repetition but readdressing old ideas with new vision experience and hopefully insight. I am not just documenting answers but always chasing a more interesting question.

visual clues

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I have been working on panels to exhibit my landscape plates.When I focus on an individual plate it's like I am laying in the grass with a macro lens looking at each blade. When I laid the plates out on the panel it was as if I began to see through a window onto a field. The plates have drawings behind them so that when the plates are in use there is still something visual for attention. The drawing also serves as a visual clue as to where each plate belongs. I have a photo series of these plates on evidence, my tumblr site, and they cycle into a cool animation.

I have updated my website this week with  galleries of woodfired, earthenware, and whiteware -- all listed under <pottery> on the main page

grass-plate-close-up.jpg Above is a close-up of  the drawing; below is the inspiration for this series of plates & drawings.