Archives for the month of: January, 2007

Winter has finally arrived, with the first lasting snow we’ve seen all year. The roads so far have not been too treacherous, and the kids have finally pulled out the snow pants and are enjoying snowball fights. For the first time, this year, they’re all old enough to really enjoy a good snowball battle, instead of coming to the door whining about the snow down their necks whenever somebody actually lands one.

This has been a pretty good Monday. I got up and pulled yet another spout off of yet another teapot (one I had declared finished, yesterday) because it still wasn’t quite right, and then spent my morning trying handles and feet and spouts on various pots. while the kids did their homeschooling. It reminded me of my mom trying different hats and scarves on the sledders in her applique quilt: “like playing with paper dolls!” I never understood the whole shoe-shopping-and-accessories thing connected with womanhood, but I can get into trying on handles and spouts.

Tyler had set his alarm to start on his lessons before the rest of us got up, and once we had breakfast and coffee, everyone stayed pretty focused. (At least until “Shout” came on the radio and we had to crank it up and dance around the room in our pajamas…) “Throw your hands up and… shout! Come on now… don’t forget to say you will…”

This afternoon I drove to EMU through the highway-and-semi-trucks version of winter wonderland, headed for my printmaking class. I had etched a 2″X3″ zinc plate with a beetle design last Sunday, sitting in a pew in church. (Hey, the lady next to me was knitting…) Tyler is in the UU coming-of-age youth group now, so we’re back in church for a while, and find we have missed a lot of the friends and faces we’ve seen there over the years. (My now-teen was baby Jesus one year in the UU nativity play.) Jeff and I attended a discussion session on “Cooking as a spiritual practice” and then I sat through the sermon etching with a dry point tool. I’m pretty sure Unitarians don’t go to hell for leaving zinc shavings in the pews.

The part that kills me is that there is no way to see how the etched plate works without driving 50 miles, inking the plate, wiping it, soaking the paper and running the whole works through the enormous printing press. Oops, that back leg is too light! Scratch it deeper, ink, wipe, soak, pull a print, and oops, that antenna is too dark…

Meanwhile the plate is deteriorating slightly with every print, so while I fix one part, another part is fading. I can see how this process can keep artists engaged for a lifetime, never quite perfecting the next step and the next.

I am in a similar dance with ceramics. Both involve being able to open my clenched, detail-crunching little fist at some point and just let it be what it is, take some risks, and accept that nothing lives up to its possibilities, ever. It’s the striving that makes it worthwhile, after all. I’m learning to be open to some of the happy accidents that happen when things don’t go according to my overly-perfectionistic, control-freakish plans. Accepting that a lot of what is beautiful in life happens on its own, with a plan mysterious to me, helps me relax and breathe a bit about whether I am doing everything right.

I remember once when the potter Polly Ann Martin, listening to me obsess over some detail, raised her hand in a tight fist and then opened it slowly, palm up. That visual image for “let it go” has come in handy for me, kind of a silent mantra when I’m clenched over worries and plans.

It’s probably a skill I need to master before my kids get too far into the teen years…

Tomorrow we read about the Greeks and Homer, do some math and some laundry, and around the time Jeff comes home, I pack my bags for my night class and overnight at EMU. Wednesday I will demo trimming for Lee’s class, spend the day in the studio, and then go to printmaking to drop my beetle-collection hard ground etching into the acid bath for the first time. It’s both exciting, and my worst fear: committing, in an un-erasable, irreversible way, to a decision. I can always add more to the plate once it’s etched, but I never can remove the marks already made there.

I’m going to bed before I give in to the temptation to drag THAT metaphor out into some heady philosophy of life…

It’s January 20th, two weeks into winter semester.

Diana doesn’t teach winter session, but will return from Florida every few weeks to offer critiques and see what we’re making. (She’s traveling to present at the “Extrudaganza” in Texas in a month or so.)

Lee is teaching now, and while he has the same straightforward style of critiquing, he offers a new way of working, as well. For the first few weeks of this semester, he has challenged the grads to “make whatever we want” — saying that he will offer no comments unless asked to do so, at least during this “grace period”. His goal is to get us thinking about making the work our own, and finding our voices.

Ironically, a lot of the things I had missed doing when I was working on assigned forms, no longer seem very interesting, or useful, or appropriate for the university studio. My old ideas had been clever, in a marketable sort of way — but that’s no longer my goal, at least not for the MFA. As a result, I have no idea what I want to make, or how to go about it.

I seem to be stuck on teapots, because I can make rows of them, each different, each an experiment. Every teapot requires me to make several decisions about spouts, handles, lids, bodies, feet and how they go together. I can facet with springs, slip-paint and expand, hand build some parts, try on ten spouts until I find the right one. Some I’ll wood fire, some salt, some gas, and each needs to be designed for that kiln. It almost seems like an impossible number of combinations, and I suspect I should get more organized in my approach. For now I just keep making more.

Lee has been asking me to help do demos for beginning throwers, which has been a lot of fun. I never know what he’s going to ask me to make, and am always a bit nervous about whether I am up to it. I’m typical firstborn, though, so I do my best under pressure and in front of an audience. I like the challenge, and also enjoy helping newbies figure out how to center. They can be so frustrated when it isn’t working, and so thrilled when suddenly it is…

Meanwhile I have begun my first printmaking class. The prof is a nice man with a good sense of humor, and was willing to let me take the class at grad level based on some background with @D design and lino cuts and such.

That meant I checked out a stack of textbooks (EMU has a lovely new library) and spent several late nights teaching myself the steps of lithography, the tools for etching, the difference between dry point and soft ground. I bought my supplies on line ($pendy!) and was so eager to get started that I designed and completed most of a wood cut on a square of birch plywood, at home, on the Monday when class was cancelled for Martin Luther King day.

When I went back to class, I showed the prof my sketch for the etching I am planning (rows of beetles on pins, as in the old collections) and he thought that was fine. Then (with some misgivings) I pulled out my woodcut. He looked it over carefully before handing it back and saying, “You know, you can flip this over and start the new one on the back…”

(Wow, that good, huh?)

I stay in Diana’s guest room on Tuesday nights, now, and on Wednesday mornings the kids pack lunches and go to work with their dad. He’s teaching a hands-on science lab for 15 homeschooled kids on Wednesdays, and the kids are having a great time doing short and long term projects with their lab partners. It’s nice for me, too, because they are getting old enough that a fully equipped science lab provides more than the “kitchen science” homeschool stuff they loved when they were littler. Like, we don’t have a tissue grinder or spectrophotometry equipment to measure chlorophyll in a leaf, or several aquaria to set up experiments with earthworms, fish, plants, molds and mini ecosystems.

I’ve been battling a case of the midwinter blues since the holidays, and the grey rainy skies we’ve had for weeks have not been helpful. I walk a mile a day on the treadmill while reading a book about managing stress and worries. I work under full spectrum lights, and have supplemented my diet with extra B vitamins and fish oil. Someone suggested St. John’s Wort tea as well. Frankly, I don’t know good science from voodoo, when it comes to mood-stuff, but as long as it can’t hurt me, I’ll try it. Every day I’m doing a little better, but I don’t know if it’s the supplements, the days getting longer, the busy routine of being back in school or just my normal optimistic perspective growing back.

The fam had a good time last weekend, driving to Chicago to spend the entire day at the Field Museum of Natural History. It was like time travel, walking with my kids past the same dioramas my parents had taken my brother and I to see when we were kids. Molly and I talked, on the drive home, about how some of the exhibits were beautiful and a little creepy at the same time. The taxidermy animal specimens were both a whirlwind tour of wildlife in their varied ecosystems, artful and unique — and kind of a morgue, full of glass eyes and stuffed skins, dead trophies from safaris, collected fifty years ago.

The Egypt exhibit was the same. We walked quietly past the mummified babies, children, cats, falcons, and the gorgeous tomb art, pots and jewelry in cases (collected back before it occurred to colonial minds that it was looting, and these were human remains.) I found Connor standing wide-eyed over an unwrapped mummy. It was brown and leathery with teeth showing through dried lips… I leaned over and whispered, “people jerky” to make him laugh.

Gorgeous Maori war clubs (called “skull crushers”), carved and polished and decorated with designs, were the same kind of lovely and gruesome. Molly told me she had read in a book that the beautiful, fragrant Lotus flower grows from a slimy, ugly root under the swamp. “It means you have to have the ugly with the beautiful”, she explained. (Someday I hope to have the wisdom of an eight year old.)

My favorite was the walk through evolution, from the fossil sea-lilies and trilobytes (90% of earth’s history was the precambrian era!) through the early crawlers, to dinos. I love the yards-long fossils of fishy and gatory things, and the towering dinosaurs like Sue the T-Rex, but my favorites have always been the amazing early mammals: towering prehistoric elk, impossible sloth skeletons the size of small houses, and the round bony armadillo-shelled thing as big as a volkswagen. Eohippus was there with all its ancestors, plus the mammoths, and early lizard-birds (which I still think look pretty reptilian).

I could look at fossils forever, and sea life as well. Sea cucumbers and jellyfish amaze me. My kids will tell you that mom’s favorite animal is a leafy sea dragon. If we’d had another day and the budget for a Chicago hotel, we’d have gone to the Shedd aquarium as well, but that will wait for another trip.

As it was, we’d arrived at the Field at opening time and stayed until closing, and still had to make choices. On my own I would likely have spent hours in the Asian artifacts and pottery, but I was just as happy to follow the kids through Innuit art, whistles and rattles, a Native American earth lodge, Pacific Island exhibits and varieties of bats. It’s a marvelous, diverse creation we live in, isn’t it? We left feeling like our heads were on overload, and it would take days to process all we had seen.

Things bubble up later in weird ways. My etching will be rows of beetles, and my pot handles have started looking like trilobites…

When we drove home from Chicago we started to see salt trucks, and the weather predicted that it would finally drop below freezing for a while.

On Tuesday when I headed for class, crossed into Michigan, and got maybe half an hour North, I saw a remarkable sight: every twig, branch, trunk, bush and fence-wire was coated in a perfect layer of
ice. The sun was setting behind me like one of those absurdly Max-Parrish-colored paintings, and the light reflected off every icicle in a sparkle of color. It was lovely. The roads were salted and dry, and there didn’t seem to be branches broken or ice storm damage –just that thin coating over everything. Walking around campus those two days was just remarkable: I wish I had taken a camera along.

Off to bed with me. My husband said to a friend about my blog, “Kelly writes well”… the friend said, “It looks like she writes well into the night!” It’s almost midnight now, and we have to get up in the morning to go pick up my eldest, who is at an overnight retreat with his youth group at the UU…

I’ll try to put up photos of class work soon. I have to give a slide show for Lee’s class next week and will see what I can find worth showing off.

It seems there’s a formula to the new-years-update letters we get around the holidays, usually from friends we only hear from once a year.

There are the photos of kids who can’t possibly be that grown up already, and the news of everybody’s milestones and victories. It seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of bragging. I’m OK with it, really… considering how much of our daily conversation is spent complaining about the boss, the idiot in traffic, or competing in the who-had-a-more-frustrating-day contest, it’s probably OK at year’s end to climb up somewhere tall and look down at the bigger picture, taking stock of our blessings and what went well this year.

2006 will be remembered, in my kids’ journals and our family history, as The Year Mom Went Back To School. Against all rules of timing, finances and common sense, I began an MFA last September, at a school 50 miles away. The artist’s way credo is “Leap, and the net will appear” — but to be honest, I would never have jumped without a couple of hands in the small of my back, pushing. (My teacher’s, my husband’s, and a couple of friends who didn’t think I’d lost my mind.)

I have learned that I was not as good a potter as I thought I was, and that I was a better student and harder worker than I had given myself credit for. I learned that the bonding experience of being grad students together bridged any age gap between my twenty-something peers and my own middle aged perspective.

I learned that I DO remember who I was and what I wanted before I was mommy, honey, mommy, mommy. I remember what it was like to be a student, again, which has made me a better teacher for my own kids. I pay more attention to the details, deciding when to step in and micromanage, when to step back and give them some autonomy… when I need to critique their progress, and when I need to reassure them that they are good kids with good minds and good hearts, doing a good job.

This was the year I started writing for Clay Times. It was the year I backed away from commitments and committees all over town, to free up my time for school. For the first time in 15 years, I had no vegetable garden, and I gave away my hens and tore down the coop. I do sigh over the pallid, flat yolks of store bought eggs, and I don’t think I can handle another summer without at least tomatoes, basil and eggplants, but I had to get rid of everything to see what I really needed to take back. My bees require a lot less attention than the hens did.

I built my woodfired clay bread oven this summer. I also fell in love with my husband all over again. The time we spend apart while I am at school gives me a whole new appreciation for the time we spend together, and the stress of my schedule and nights alone out of town make me appreciate the comfort of his company, even if he is sound asleep by the time I get off the highway and crawl into our bed. He is patient with my eccentricities, supportive, funny, creative, hard working and willing to try anything.

Jeff has mastered more woodworking skills this year, despite the fact that we missed our annual summer workshop trek to Appalachian Center for Craft. He has been working with segmented blocks of wood, which he glues together and turns. I’ll be putting some images on my website soon.

He went to Montana this year for the Organization of Biological Field Station Managers meeting, which he always enjoys. Next year he’ll be leading a panel about environmental outreach programs with homeschooled and school groups. His homeschoolers’ science class for this semester begins next week. In fact, the day that I am at school in Michigan all day, my kids will be going to work with their dad, to do experiments and research projects with their fellow “homies”.

Jeff has been the “kid taxi” since I started school, running kids to tae kwon do, gymnastics and scout meetings every week. His hair and short trimmed beard are very salt-and-pepper grey, and after a sales clerk made a comment about his charming “grandkids”, my kids have started to tease him by calling him “grandpa” in public. (He’s a pretty good sport about it.)

He went to Connecticut again this year to deer hunt with his brother-in-law and nephew, and came home with three deer! So our freezer is full for the year, and we’re grateful. (All that cutting, grinding and packaging is a big job, but a full freezer feels like money in the bank.)

What else can I tell you about my Jeff? He likes to kayak, likes good restaurants and cooking shows and enjoys cooking with my mom during the holidays — especially “fancy stuff”. He and Connor enjoyed taking some cooking classes together this year. He also ended up being the coach for the boys’lego robotics team, and camping out in the snow (without a tent) with Tyler’s scout troop for “Camp Alaska”.

Tyler turned 13 this year, and declared that he wanted to grow his thick red hair long, “like Ron Weasley in the third Harry Potter movie”. He has moments of looking alarmingly like a young man, and it has begun to dawn on us all that our babies are marching toward puberty at an alarming pace.

He loves Tae Kwon Do, draws elaborate cartoons, says he’s not really a “team sports kind of guy” but he seems to enjoy all the sports at the local recreation program. He’s still a bookworm, and has to be discouraged from sleeping in a pile of library books, and he grew an inch in the month of June. He spent his second week away at Boy Scout camp this last summer, and is ranked First Class as a scout, with merit badges in art, reading, space exploration, mammal study, swimming and rifle shooting. He also wheels and deals in pokemon cards with all the seriousness of a wall street day trader.

Tyler does pretty well in his lessons, especially when he applies himself. He tied for first in the last spelling bee, and the second of three is tomorrow, between sports and a saxophone lesson. He’s thinking he’d like to go to high school in two years, for that fine academic reason common to many homeschoolers: “to meet girls”. We may choose an on-line charter school for 8th grade, to get him used to deadlines, testing and grades in a more structured learning environment. He tested at a 12th grade level in his California Acheivement tests last spring, and scored “post high school” in so many areas that we’ve kind of stopped worrying about what public school will mean for him academically.

Connor is 11 this year, and still enjoys reading, fishing, and all things related to cooking and food. He can eat his weight in seafood at the local Chinese buffet/mongolian barbecue, but he has a lot of physical energy and keeps in good shape. He and his dad are definitely “foodies”, watching Iron Chef, and trying every odd treat from weird moldy cheeses to sushi. My parents took him out for his birthday and told him he could order whatever he liked… my dad’s jaw dropped when he asked for calamari, live lobster, and creme brulee for dessert.

Connor was on the robotics team as well this year, has his Arrow of Light as a cub scout and is a green belt in Tae Kwon Do (just ahead of his dad). He also tested at twice his current grade level, and likes decimals, history, fractions and science. He went on a fishing charter this year at Islamorada with my brother, my dad, and Jeff, and caught yellow snapper, king mackerel and a big barracuda. He has photos of them on his wall, next to his new BB Gun and his fishing rods. He likes campfire cooking and did a great job on our pop-up trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes, during the Perseid meteor showers last August.

Molly is 8 this year, and it seems official that there are no more “little kids” at our house. She is barely 50 pounds, but has a big vocabulary and seems wise beyond her years. She says her favorite subjects for homeschool are geometry and folk tales. She loves reading, fishing and riding her new sparkly pink bike. She’s looking forward to horseback riding lessons, but she’s still too little this year. She also tested at twice her grade level last spring.

Molly’s in a brownie troop, adores her pet mouse, Miss Bianca, and has clever little hands for crafts. Her grandma taught her how to knit this year. She is good friends with another homeschooler in our neighborhood, a little girl named Hedyeh whose family is from Iran. (in fact, we’re all going there for dinner tonight!) Molly likes dresses and all things pink and sparkly, but can also shoot a BB gun, clean a fish, trade pokemon cards and stand her ground with the big brothers.

She is very good at piano, and has a habit of drifting by the piano on her way somewhere (she has inherited her mom’s ADD tendencies) and playing “cool breeze waltz” several times a day until it has almost become a mantra for everyone in the house. Molly’s getting very grown up, but she’s still cuddly. When her dad leaves for work early in the morning she usually finds her way to our bed to curl up and go back to sleep with mom, and many evenings when the guys are watching “Lord of the Rings” or something too scary for Molly, we find a thick blanket and a couple of books, make a nest and read all evening.

My parents are well and happy, living five miles from us for most of the year. Their annual new year’s migration to Florida has been delayed this week, since my dad’s last check up found a blocked carotid and he’ll have to stay here until he has surgery to clear it, but he has been through this before, and after his major bypass two years ago, it seems more like an inconvenience than a crisis. We spend lots of time with my folks at the cottage in Michigan during the summer, where dad is often out in the rowboat with Connor or Molly by sunrise, catching pan fish.

My brother lives maybe 15 miles from us, and is in love with a woman in Bogota, Columbia. He travels back and forth to spend time with her, and the visa is finally clear for her to come to the states for the first time. In the interim, they stay connected by the daily miracle of webcams and the internet. He can project her on the wall, when he gets home from work, and they spend the evening talking together.

His high definition video, “Out of the Shadows”, won an award in Hollywood this year, and he’s working on two more. His band continues to play once in a while at clubs or the local rib-off, but between his job, travel, hunting and fishing trips and new romance, he doesn’t have much time anymore.

Grandma is 91 this year, still driving, and living on her own. She’s in Michigan in the summer and Florida in the winters. We look forward to spending time with her when we visit in february.

OK, that’s all I can think to crow about for this year. I have students coming for private lessons in an hour and my studio is a mess, so I am off to make order out of chaos.