A cold front blew in last night so this morning the puddles were frozen with long ice crystals. The brisk morning walk to retrieve some dead bamboo from a fence line allowed me to see the Blue Ridge Mountains crystal clear and covered in snow. Each semester I have a session in my introductory wheel class where we make brushes using bamboo handles with hair, fur, grass or feathers. Using handmade brushes with pigment forces me to slow down and let the mix of hand and brush make the mark.
"I did know that the brush itself and the act of writing with a brush
changed the content of the work immediately--suddenly I was writing an
entirely different story from the one I planned to write and one I'd
been trying to write for ten years on a computer. I finished the manuscript in 9 months writing it with a paintbrush.
This made me start to think of the sentence, 'The slowest way is the
fastest way.' "
--from an interview with Lynda Barry discussing writing her book Cruddy with a brush
My exhibit at St Andrew's school in Delaware explores the physical connection and visual links between multiple objects. It is a large beautiful gallery and it is a thrill to spread out and see my landscape plates speaking with vases and large coiled jars.
On Friday I gave a demonstration for the ceramics students and then attended an informal talk with the author Junot Diaz and the senior english students. Diaz was inspiring in his discussions of why he makes art and inspired everyone in the room to read more. I am always struck when I am in the room with an articulate artist that their thoughts make me want to make more art and be more eloquent about the process.
The students asked great questions about permanence, value and use and woodfiring. When I make pots I reach out with a bowl, cup or a plate and I
through the use of these objects a person can be transformed. some times these objects require attention and creativity in order to be used. A user
will hold a cup
and feel that it was once flexible and holds the impressions of
fingers and now
it is hard like a rock. As I walked around the gallery I took plates
off the racks
on the wall and talked about how I want people to use these plates
and see the
beauty and roughness at the same time. I want my pottery to be several
things at once.
I want it to be useful and I want it to be something to look at
and at times
it will make you reflect on the idea of creation.
Diaz challenged the students to read. He said its not about writing all the time. I would challenge potters in the same way to look at pots and use them in their daily life. And if you can't write or make pots? Good. Go read and buy pots and find interesting ways to use them.
Even though the summer / fall issue of studio potter got mailed out in late July, I still want to jump up and down and wave the flag and say read it.
My essay is called instructions for failure.
"Success is nothing to sneeze at but failure, too, offers great possibilities.... We have all sorts of negative notions about failure and so the hidden message is don't risk anything. Don't take chances. Be a good boy. Stay within the limits.... But of course in the arts and virtually anything else that leads a satisfactory life, failure is implicit. You try things, you fall on your face, you figure out what went wrong, you go back and try them." -- Jules Feiffer (as interviewed by Jesse Rhodes; Smithsonian, September 2010))
I realize that part of why I like writing on the computer is
that I am certain it can be read. I have the luxury of spell-check and the
potentially rich pool of web resources. I can quote and link with the click of
a finger. When I write by hand it is fast and a direct link to my mind, but it
is illegible for most. My handwriting is a form of hieroglyphic chicken
scratch. It holds the risk of misspelling and incomplete letters. My loopy
shorthand, substituting for the careful penmanship that I was taught in third grade,
is perhaps the purest form of irregular communication.
I have started teaching two classes in the last few weeks
that are at either end of a spectrum. One is an introduction to the potter's wheel
and the other is a graduate class called asymmetrical wheel. In the beginning
class I am teaching about structure and the students are hoping for the certainty
of a useful small bowl. In the other, I am asking them to take risks, to step outside
of the habits of their usual modes of work. In both cases I have asked the
students to think about why they want to make things by hand.
this semester's curricula, I have reread David Pye's 1960's thoughts on the nature
of workmanship of risk versus certainty. At any stage of making things an artist
shifts back and forth between the two poles of the workmanship: that of risk and that
of certainty. The range of the spectrum goes from free to regulated depending
on how we use our tools and hands and skill. In my asymmetrical class I have asked the students to let go
of the idea of centering in order to throw. I have asked them to slow down and
respond to the clay to change their expectations and bring their experience to
the clayas if they were rank
During class I
was reminded of meeting Koie Rjoji in Iowa in 2004. Koie has a way with both
clay and tools that produces work with wonderful freshness and physical energy.
Whether Koie was throwing on a traditional kick wheel or an electric wheel he
had an organic sensitivity to the use of tools and clay. He brings a material
thinking to the clay that is intuitive, tactile and asymmetrical. He approaches
clay that others might find unusable and finds stimulation and solutions in the
way one might find inspiration from a very difficult individual.
on the other hand manages to use the forces of clay, centrifugal force
and gravity to convey the freshness of touch and a distilled view of
pottery form. As I revisit my own work and the work of artists that have provided inspiration, it seems whether we come from a modernist sense of design or an organic attraction to material there is still room to explore experimental paths of pottery, to find an intriguing balance between risk and certainty.
In May I installed a series of my sketchbooks as part of an exhibit called Sculpting Time at VisArts in Rockville, Maryland. These notebooks represent images and writing that have accumulated over the last several years. I try to write five days a week as part of my process of finding direction and clarifying ideas in my work and life. I write three pages and then paint a page with color which later gets an added collaged drawing. Some notebooks are only visual records of what I am pursing in the clay realm and some are collages of the varied streams of life. They are like the lining of my mind.
This week one of the notebooks was stolen from the gallery. I am stunned. Suddenly the memory of what those pages held gains importance. From each volume I have selected one single page or spread to exhibit, but the whole book lost represents a month or more of personal reflection.
The report that the notebook is gone comes on the heels of the news that my parents' summer cottage has had a major fire. The fire began in the kitchen which is now destroyed. Over the years my mother had brought many of my pots to use there. I am struck by how those objects held snapshots in time. Particular moments are captured in the clay when I experimented with texture, color and simplicity. I may revisit those ideas but I will not be able to make those pots again.
I really liked the notebook that was stolen and so luckily I had scanned many of the images. I had used several of the pages of writing as the basis for other projects, so I know the gist of what the pages held. I plan to recreate a book called The Lost Notebook; rather than mourn its loss, there is the hope that I will come up with something better than the pages that are gone.
"Barn's burnt down ...Now I can see the moon" Masahide
The structure of my life is centered
on making things weather it making pots
or the bed, the garden or a batch of clay, the disparate activates are sewn together
like a quilt. The pattern of dog walks, weeding, throwing, photographing or
cooking fit together with uneven lengths.When I walk
with the dog I set out down a mowed path. On the walks I follow where the path leads,I live for the views
where the grass and sky draw a line across the expanse of vision. Today was the
kind of June day when the humidity had been blown away with a night time storm
and every blade of grass had been washed and each view seems incredibly fresh.
"When you write, you lay out a line of words.
The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe.
You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new
territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.
You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. "
Annie Dillard The Writing Life
At the start of the New Year I find myself looking back in order to step forward. My college-age daughter sat on the couch and looked through her notebooks starting from first grade, reading out loud choice bits. It reminded me of all the stages in her path of learning to write and read, as well as how I companionably tussled with documenting her growth, transforming these experiences into artistic fodder. One result was a set of stamps based on some scribbles that she had done of imagined script.
While my daughter was learning to read words, I thought about learning to "read" pottery, an often slighted visual skill. I made several stamps on this theme, some of which I used in a 2004 essay titled, "consider the postage stamp."
Recently, Jennifer New asked me to contribute to her nascent blog-entry about lists, lists being a common New Year endeavor. As I read through the list I had made for my 50th birthday, there it was, "design a postage stamp." My end of the year clean-up retrieved last year's Christmas gift
card for making a page of stamps. So on New Year's Day I
used one of my collages for a new postage stamp.
Sunday, Jennifer sent me her
blog post atMothers of Invention where she used some of my collages and an essay I had written which features my stamp "can creativity thrive on distraction." Today I looked through sketchbooks and postcards from the early 90s
to find some more postage.
I consider the postage stamp whether it's on a love note or a bill, a tiny piece of art stuck to the mundane artifacts of snail mail. I love postage stamps and I have wanted them to reflect a handmade aesthetic. When I left home (for school) at the age of sixteen my mother sent me a postcard each week. Her handwriting was hieroglyphic-like. When I wrote her back, the placement and selection of stamps was a carefully considered choice. I had a friend when I lived in France who would go to the post office to buy the smallest, most varied postage to cover her letters sent home. I was envious of her efforts, but found myself intimidated by the French postal workers. My tentative artistic desire and simple French could not withstand their glare. I would save postage from international letters and make tiny drawings that represented my imagined portals into a greater form of communication. Years later, I discovered boxes of old stamps in my father-in-law's basement. He gave me boxes of canceled foreign stamps from a boyhood friend once he found out how much I enjoyed their variety and wanted to use them for collage.
At times, as I practiced brushwork for my pottery, I cut
up discarded pages and made stamps out of the lively brush-stroke tails and
expressive drips. These were then added to my collages as if the stamp sealed
the image. [If you're interested in more variety, Cabinet Magazine published a book of artist stamps in 2006. Their original pre-publication description includes PDF's with artist and regular stamps.]
This summer has not included much formal clay/studio time. Instead I feel like the character Frederick The Mouse from a book by Leo Lionni.This book is a great antidote to narrow thinking and is a wonderful allegory for the role of the artist. While all the other mice are collecting seeds and supplies for the winter, Frederick, who has the heart of a poet, collects images to get all the mice through the winter.
I have been collecting images all summer. I spent five days at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY taking a class with Lynda Barry. It felt like a combination of five days with a stand-up comic and deep exploration of my childhood through the cultivation of images and finally words that add up to breathing stories. Our days were filled with making lists and visualizations of images from our lists and then, expanding them into seven-minute timed writes. If we lost the image and
didn't know what came next, we switched to the piece of paper next to us and
drew spirals or the alphabet--always keeping our pens moving . It felt like fishing with a pen in the sea of images that make up the ocean of my childhood and the origins of my imagination.
We read out loud with no comment or eye contact. While I listened I drew
I loved listening and drawing. It is a very fertile way of
working. While I listen my brain is turned off and I am just there. My pen is
moving and I can trust my gut. In this case we weren't looking at anything but
the page with intense consideration. By hearing other voices I was reminded
of the kind of image that is alive. I remembered friends' names that have been lost to me for years. I invented a
character based on my experience with just facts no emotion and I got some
profound laughs when I read it aloud. We did not re-read our work all week. We
did not talk about the work outside of class. We watched movies and took naps
together. It was exhausting, inspiring, and exhilarating all in one breath.
The important thing I took away had to do with working by hand. In my normal process I write with a pen in a notebook and draw with pens and pencil, later adding water and collage. Then I type up my words and email them to myself. When I see them again as a separate image (legible and spell-checked) I can continue to expand and elaborate. This always seems insane but somehow Lynda's approach added depth and validation to what I have been building upon since I was a kid.