Archives for the month of: November, 2006

Last night after class, by the time Patrick and I crossed campus to Diana’s house (and a cold beer, soba noodles and tomatoes with feta) I was so tired I could hardly wait to crawl into “my” bed. (The big brass bed in the guest room she offers for my weekly overnight, with a fat down comforter and Clary Ilian’s book on the bedstand.)

As usual, these days, I woke up at about 4:30 in the morning and laid there, counting my worries, reliving bad mommy moments I could have handled better, remembering in the still of pre-dawn the overdue thank you notes, unanswered emails, and bills we need to pay before the holidays.

Every once in a while I’d catch myself making up absurd things to worry about, and redirect my thoughts: planning cups to match my bowls to match my plates, how to glaze my big beetle platter, and what I want to make next semester.

Lee, who will teach us Winter semester, has been asking interesting questions. He is already preparing us for class, and has asked us each to give a 15 minute presentation at the start of class with 20 or 30 slides of our work. He expects the MFAs to choose a focus, and then get after it, producing prolific numbers of pots. He asks me, “If you had a lump of clay in front of you, and could make anything you want, what would you make?” He wants to know what potters I like best. He wants to know what painters I prefer, and why. He’s making me think about where “my” body of work will come from. So in the wee hours of the morning I lie awake and ponder that, as well.

When my alarm finally went off, I headed for the studio early as always, to stake out my parking space for the day. I opened the damper on the gas kiln the MFAs had filled with our own work and fired on our own (yesterday) for the first time.  This is the week that our seminar class– (taught by an idealistic young photography prof with a postmodernist perspective) —  was touring the various studios to see and critique student work, so Patrick, Reem and I decided we should have a “kiln opening” for our turn, and have seminar students pass our warm pots from hand to hand to the tables. None of them had ever been in the ceramic studio before, much less unloaded a kiln.

It got even more interesting when Diana proposed to our documentary guy (who usually comes on Tuesday mornings) that he could show her how to use his camera, and she could attend our seminar “showing” to document the kiln opening. She also asked Lee, who would have a class in the adjoining studio, to come by and critique our work.

It was a really weird feeling. On the one hand, we have the seminar class full of painters, photographers, printmakers and graphic artists, students in several (mostly 2D) media, where we have spent long hours this semester talking about art theory, getting to know each other quite well – including all the psychological quirks and personal details that come up in discussing our work.

On the other hand, we have Diana and Lee, our mentors/teachers/senseis/coaches in the ceramics department, the people whose ideas we have internalized and whose voices we have come to hear even in their absence. Profs who are about form, and skill, and mastery. Profs who pretty much think ethereal artist’s statements and concept-heavy contemporary art are… well, “nonsense” would be the polite word.

It was like inviting the new in laws to dinner with your parents for the first time… two very different families whose only common denominator was us, all gathered in one place and looking oddly out of context. On the one side, the prof who is grading me based on my ability to talk about the meaning of my work… on the other side, the prof who has hammered into me (her words) that function and beauty are meaning enough. Oh yeah, and she had a video camera running. And we had no idea whether the kiln was full of great pots or total disasters. No pressure.

Actually it went pretty well. Like the family dinner, there were a few moments when we held our breath because the grown ups starting debating politics (or in this case, the relative merits of non-functional pots as sculpture) — but in the end, the turkey — I mean the shinos — were toasty and nice right out of the oven, everybody had a lovely time and the groups parted vowing to keep in touch, build some bridges, get together more often.

Reem’s sculptures were lovely and textured, all in a row; they are almost a yard tall, and began with the idea of the abayah (sp?)- the black dress women wear in some Arab countries. There are two in the upper right hand side of the kiln photo above. My Anatolian jugs are on the bottom shelves, left and right, and more were in the back. I had sprinkled one with wood ash and it looks wonderful. The rest of the kiln held some big bowls — mine and Patrick’s — and a lot of Patrick’s shinos and Bellarmine jugs. Like everything we do, we talked about the firing and decided how we would improve on it next time, but overall, it was a thrill to see a whole kilnload of our own work unloaded, finished and lovely.

Tomorrow night in class when the adrenaline wears off, I will take a closer look at my seven jugs. The first ones were attempts to exactly replicate the one in the photograph from a few thousand years ago.That was lesson one — how hard it is to really see something well enough to recreate it. The later versions were attempts to make the jug more functional (the original was maybe a funerary pot, and didn’t pour liquid in any practical way) without losing whatever it was that made it so charming to begin with. That struggle between aesthetics (making it look right) and function (making it work right) was something I tried to express, though it almost started another debate among the in-laws ;0)

I need to look at the grouping of pots, now — maybe with the input of the other students — and make decisions about this handle or that, this glaze combo, that angle of shoulder, this foot and that lip.

For now, I have to get myself to sleep. Chances are I will be awake at 4 am again, trying to think of something to worry about. I’m thinking I need to get back on the treadmill every day. Sitting clenched at the wheel and driving clenched down the highway haven’t been a particularly aerobic experience thus far. Besides, I have a TV interview thursday night about homeschooling. How many pounds can I lose in two days?

 

 

 

 

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Reasons the clay studio is really NOT like the intense kitchen of a famous chef:

Pace. I might have several “orders” being made at once, but it’s over a period of hours, days, weeks. There is no intensity of being “hammered”. It’s meditational, almost. Calm. It’s instructive to have to time yourself according to when the pot is dry enough to trim, still wet enough to alter, ready for the next step. It’s what my mom used to call “character building”.

Territory. While people carve out their own spaces, grumble over shelves, find hidey-holes, stash clay, and race to the best wheels, it’s a much larger space than a crowded kitchen. People drift in and out over a period of days. On Tuesdays I am the only one there for most of the day.

Leadership. In HEAT, Mario Batali sounds a lot like an ego-motivated, self-promoting tyrant. Diana is seemingly without ego, and values our work and our learnign experiences over any notion of “her” studio.

Comraderie. The students in the current classes are always happy to see each other. We make jokes, keep up a banter despite Diana’s assertion that it’s distracting, and form friendships that carry over into kiln stoking time, cell phone connections and beers at Side Track. While we always size up each other’s work, there’s not a lot of cutthroat competitiveness going on. In fact, among the MFAs there is none at all. Lee suggested that we might like to cordon off our shared studio with curtains or partitions, but I can’t imagine why.

One woman who is making large, lovely sculptures joked once over beers that she wanted to trip me whenever she saw me bringing in board after box of the work I made at home… but it was a joke, and a compliment, and I was honored by it.

Connor rode with me yesterday (sunday) to key into the closed-for-the-holidays studio and glaze anatolian pots, make cone packs, and load the kiln. Reem is finishing the surfaces of the last two of four large sculptures with a stain that exposes a marvelous landscape of surface crackle and driftwood-like striations. The kiln is in mid-firing now, and I am packing my bags to make that drive once again. Diana’s guest bed has become a familiar place, and fills a secret fantasy I had all through the baby-raising years about having “a room of one’s own” — thinking space away from all my busy, noisy loved ones, at least briefly.

I can decompress in the 45 minutes it takes me to get there — no radio, no distractions, just the transition from thinking about home/kids to having my head back in studio mode.

Next blog will be about the pots.

 

 

 

On the advice of my prof, Diana Pancioli, I bought Jeff a wonderful book for his birthday. I know it is wonderful because as soon as he is out of bed in the morning, or when he falls asleep before I do, I sneak a read. I’m halfway through.

The book is “HEAT” by Bill Buford. The subtitle is, “An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany”. Basically, it’s a writer working in chef Mario Batali’s kitchen.

The parallel to what goes on in the grad ceramics studio is, as Diana told me, remarkable.

I guess I can identify with the author, in this case; I suspect the ability to write landed the author in that kitchen, rather than his genius as a cook… just as I suspect my on line blather caught my prof’s attention, rather than the glory of my pots.

Diana would have to be the chef in our particular kitchen, which raises another issue. I can’t help but wonder how Chef Mario feels about some of the stark honesty in this book, and whether he’s reading more personal details than he bargained for. I have been blogging about my experience in the studio at EMU, these past months, but admit that when I get frustrated with my teachers or peers, I vent over  beer at the Side Track. Not here. It’s a tricky thing, when you put your life in a blog “window”, not to over-share about others without their consent.

Like some of the chefs described in the book, Diana is driven, colorful, mercurial, no-bullshit, and focused on good pots almost to the point of obsession.  She gives us credit for being able to take it straight. We take a lot for granted — like the knowledge that she cares very much about us and our pots — and the rest is just pushing, hard, to work our way toward mastery. Outside the studio, she is a rare and generous soul. Two of her MFAs have keys to her house. Patrick lives there, I stay there weekly, and we help ourselves to her books, her wine and coffee, the leftovers in her fridge and her knowledge and advice. She is someone we can confide in. But in the studio, it’s about good work, not about hand-holding or pumping up our self esteem. And like in the chef’s kitchen, everything that comes out of there is a reflection on the chef, so the pressure is on.

The book title itself is a connection. The place where all the action happens in the kitchen, the place where what is created is transformed and ready to offer the world — is the grill, the stoves, the steam, the ovens. In our studio it’s the row of bisque kilns, the big gas kiln, the wood and soda. When the author talks about singeing the hair off his forearms I know just what that smells like. The heat, the little territorial struggles for space, the several-projects-going-at-once effect happens in the studio, too, just on a larger scale and in slower motion.

Then there’s the learning curve. Chefs know when something is done by the sound and smell, not by the timer. Diana fires a kiln that way. A new cook is told that you can tell whether meat is medium-rare just by touching it and feeling whether it is “just right” in firmness… the way veteran potters can tell how thin is too thin to keep trimming, how hard is too hard to attach a handle, how thick is just the right thickness of this glaze or that. The sound of a thump, the way it coats the finger.

The only way for students and apprentices to learn is by what the author of HEAT calls, ” the miraculous pedagogy of relentless repetition”. He figured out how to bone a duck after doing it for three days. Mel Jacobson , my potter friend who learned under a hard task master in Japan, learned to throw forms by the hundreds. “Make a series”, Diana tells me. The first time she told me what was wrong with my pot, I dumped it in the slop and abandoned the idea. She was annoyed. I came to see that she was telling me what to do with the NEXT version, and the next.

The ability to see keeps surfacing in the book, the struggle to develop your senses — whether it’s the ability to tell that this lard was from a pig fed on walnuts and cream, or the ability to see how a pot wraps itself around volume, or stands in relation to the table.

In three months time I have become accustomed to certain routines and rituals, the feel of a clay batch, the quirks of this glaze, that brush, that spot in the kiln. I know I have just begun and that there won’t be time, in two years, for me to reach anything like mastery. But I have to agree with Patrick. He mused that, despite what eyerolling he might have done in the past, he now has a certain level of respect for anyone who has earned an MFA.  Now that he has seen the kind of commitment required of us, he’s not easily able to dismiss the work of anyone who survived this process.

I am headed for the bath with Jeff’s book, right this minute. It’s fascinating to consider how much time, effort and money go into fine cuisine, and how many people have made it a calling to sharpen their skills of creativity and conniseurship, when after all, “it’s only food”. And there are days when I drive a hundred miles, struggle over designing and making the right forms, and lie awake at night reworkign problems and formulating solutions, when “it’s only a pot”. 99 cent boxed mac and cheese keeps us alive just as well as quail with truffles, and a 99 cent coffee mug from Walmart would hold my coffee just as well as Richard Aerni’s ash-patterned mug. But it matters. Sometimes I think it’s the finest aspect of our human spirit, the one that drives us to use our gifts, and develop an appreciation for the variety, the beauty and the artistry of life.

Two days of mom’s turkey and stuffing, midnight snacks of unaccustomed and decadent carbs, pumpkin pie for breakfast and lying in bed all morning reading HEAT while Molly snuggles beside me reading Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Somewhere in there my stomach un-knotted, my jaw unclenched and my momentum ground to a halt. I’ll probably pay for that tomorrow, when I hit the highway again and head to school to glaze and load, the first solo firing of the gas kiln for the three MFAsketeers. Reem’s big sculptures, Patrick’s shino-glazed pots and my big Anatolian jugs are already on the shelves.

Somewhere in there I need to dust off my own kilns, and make some Christmas presents. Weeks fly by since school started, and I am already fantasizing about what it will be like to have the whole summer (relatively) off.

 

The week is over, all the running around and classes and appointments and errands are done. Homeschool is done, my last Potters Guild class for the semester is done (we finish up with a potluck-critique). All my students signed up for next session again.

Jeff’s in Connecticut. He got three deer, which is good news for our freezer and our meat budget for the year. They’re playing poker tonight.

Connor is out with his grandparents and uncle at real Seafood, for his annual belated birthday dinner (My folks are usually in Florida for his actual birthday.) Tyler is somewhere drawing, and I just walked through the living room to find Molly playing piano, with Miss Bianca watching from her shoulder. We never hug Molly without checking first to be sure Miss B isn’t in her sleeve, pocket or collar.

I am working on some pots on the kitchen table… a series that involves one upper pot that has to fit into a lower one. The physical fit isn’t the hard part, it’s the visual fit that’s making me nuts. When the kids go to bed I plan to do some throwing, but boy, it’s cozy in here by the fire…

 

Yesterday morning we unloaded the wood kiln. The video guy was there. (Diana is documenting the process of our MFA experience. It felt weird, at first, to have a camera running every Tuesday morning, but after a while it’s easy to forget he’s there.)

It was pretty exciting. I have spent a lot of years trying to make happy accidents in an otherwise pretty predictable electric kiln, and I likely will return to that once I graduate, so the new kilns available to me now are quite a ride.

I have always sighed over wood and salt fired pots, carbon trap and lustery shinos, and other effects I couldn’t produce at home. I half assumed that if I had access to those magical methods, my pots would be glorious too. Eh, not so much. It’s clear that a dorky pot fired in a reduction atmosphere just becomes a dorky pot with an interesting surface.

I didn’t have much in either kiln, though I am happy with two Anatolian-inspired jugs — one with temmoku glaze from the salt kiln, and from the wood, the bulbous form with the handle in the photo above. I left the kiln site feeling like I needed to make more work worthy of the kiln. The labor and judgement calls involved with long firings create a different level of commitment to results than I get from pushing the buttons on my electric kilns.

We’re starting to think in terms of throwing for specific kilns… tall, shouldery things for ash to land on, forms that ask for the pale marks from kiln wadding on the rims and feet, a clay body that will do something spectacular in salt.

We’re running out of semester, which is a little distressing. Wet work for the rest of the class has to be done by thanksgiving, though the grads can keep making stuff for next session.

I like the long quiet Tuesday alone in the studio. I am still grateful for the camraderie of my fellow grad students, but as we all get to know each other, things shift. I find myself driving home worried that Patrick seemed sad… Lonesome for home? Disgusted by the postmodern artist discussed in seminar who gets millions of dollars to climb around naked, squirting vaseline into his orifices? Or just tired, from loading and unloading kilns?

Then Jay was disappointed that his pots didn’t get much ash… I suppose it’s just the beginning of the inevitable jockeying for the sweet spot in the kiln, weighing of who puts in more pots, more shifts stoking, who loads and who decides. Reem seems frustrated and stalled with her work, and Diana has worked herself to exhaustion and needs to take a few days off to recharge her batteries. I find myself worrying over everybody, listening to conversations when I should be paying attention to my work… and I somehow always end up trying to fix things for everybody, mediating, negotiating, counseling. People can just wear you out sometimes, y’know?  Especially the ones you care about. I find myself wishing for the quiet of my own studio space, but once I am home, there are three kids who need my attention, new homeschoolers on the phone with questions, and my own extended family and friends to worry over.

When I am very old, if I find myself alone (women outlive men, generally) — remind me that there was a time when I wondered what I could create if so much of my energy didn’t go to other people. Trying to read moods, cheering folks who are down or seeking my own morale boosts, giving and asking for advice, negotiating egoes and tempers, trying to fix everything and mother the world.

Now, too, there’s the constant play between what I want to make (what DO I want to make?) and the new parameters within which I need to work. Once in a while Diana gets me back on track when my work heads off in too many directions, or reminds me that I need to find “my work” and focus in time for my MFA show… yesterday she said I needed to consider my “life plan”. No pressure.

My biggest job for now is becoming more visually aware. In her last meeting with the MFAs she told the story of the Zen student who studied and worried over his final test. When he came to be tested, there was only one question: “On which side of the door did you leave your shoes?”

Being aware of the world, the details, is a big challenge for anyone. For a woman with ADD tendencies and a habit of wrapping everything in words, it’s damn near impossible. Add three very verbal children home all day, and a college clay studio full of students as talky as I am, and it seems like a lost cause. I am thinking it would be an interesting homeschool experience to have a day of silence, maybe once a month, and see if it helps us see and be aware. I lived alone from the time I left the college dorms in 1980 until I married in 1990, and I swear I used to have the inner calm to see more fully, in a way I can’t anymore. I used to camp alone in oregon wilderness for a week at a time, not speaking a word. There was a clarity there that I haven’t felt in a long time.

I wouldn’t want to do this grad program without the social connection with other students and profs. In fact, the program would be incomplete without the occasional after class gathering at Side Track, a restaurant/bar in an old building in Depot town where the trains rattle by the big windows. Still, when Jeff left this morning at 5 to drive to Connecticut to deer hunt, I laid awake worrying over everybody’s worries, frustrations and disappointments.  I am not sure how to back up a step and reclaim that energy to put into my work.

With Jeff out of town, I’ll likely stay up late this week in the studio. That quiet place after midnight, I have always had to myself.

This was the view into the stoke holes on the wood kiln this morning. Swirling flame, and once in a while it would be just a clear deep calm yellow and you could make out the shoulder of a pot in the middle chamber of the kiln…

This whole thing is just way cool.

The whole fam-damily loaded up this morning to accompany me on a trip to EMU, to help out with the wood firing.

It was a grey day but not too chilly, and most of the trees stripped bare along my now familiar expanse of highway. We arrived to find Diana and a student stoking the wood kiln, and she said I could go ahead and unstack the salt kiln which had been fired off the day before. Connor put on some kid-sized work gloves and helped me unstack the door.

This was the first salting of the kiln we build last summer, in that weekend workshop and gourmet eating marathon at Diana’s. It was really exciting to see what the salt had done, which spots had the best reduction, and how Diana’s million glaze tests came out. I had a big Anatolian jug in there with a temmoku on the top half, and a small “carrot amphora”. The best little bowl in the kiln was the one that fell off the shelf and landed behind the bag wall between the burner and the salt port. ;0)

The big fun was stoking the train kiln. Jeff said on the way home that it’s amazing how much he learned today just watching (though in fact he was put to work, hauling kiln shelves, stoking in the big side door, pulling out bricks for Patrick to empty the ashes, and whatever else needed doing.)

I have been intimidated in the past by this kind of firing because, while my electric/oxidation kilns seem so straightforward, I didn’t feel like I knew the “right” way to fire wood (or salt, or gas) no matter how many books and clayart posts I read.

I’m beginning to learn, though, that there’s not one right way, and there are so many variables that even the old hands are relying on instinct, guesswork, experiment and luck. Patrick, Mary, Jay and Jonathan had theories and advice… Reem brought baklava. (gotta love Reem.) The pyrometer goes up, stalls, loses, goes up… the kiln sucks, then blows, the damper tweaks in and out, but mostly we had a wonderful time trying to make the temp numbers do what we wanted them to. I would give anything to know how the firing ended after we left, but I’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Even longer to see the pots.

Right now I smell like a campfire, and I need to go to bed. Jeff leaves early for work and I’ll be gone to school when he gets back… I’ll see him late Tuesday night, and then he leaves early Wednesday to deer hunt in Connecticut with his family for the rest of the week. I miss him when he’s gone but I also stay up late on line, rearrange furniture, and otherwise shake up the normal daily routine while he’s away.

“OK, kids, it’s Cheerios for supper again, mom’s gotta make some pots!”

Connor turned 11 this week. He’s a foodie, and wanted to have an “Iron Chef” party.

Like most things, it turned out to be a compromise between the elaborate affair he had pictured, and the reality check that mom imposed. Still, it was a lot of fun. The redhead in the picture is Tyler, and Connor and Molly are in front with their names on their aprons.

The kids all had paper chef hats and personalized aprons. They used the dough hook in my kitchenaid stand mixer to make pizza crust, then flattened their own crusts and selected toppings. Everybody decorated a mini birthday cake, and their party favors were bundles of bright red measuring spoons and cups, a few kitchen utensils, and some potholders.

Connor would have preferred more exotic fare, but his guests were happy withpizza, cake and ice cream. When Jeff came home from work, we all went out for sushi and the family birthday party.

I missed my first class ever for Con’s birthday. I’m going tomorrow (Sunday) though, to help stoke the wood kiln and unload the salt kiln.

I’ll take pictures to post here.