There is something magical in the way clay objects are literally transformed into ceramic objects, especially in the wood kiln. You can see that in these before (left) and after (right) pictures of the front stack of first firing we did this summer.
It was another rewarding two weeks teaching Wood-Fired Ceramics at Honeyrock this year. It is always a time that is both very intense and yet somehow reenergizing. It is both mentally and physically demanding, and yet I return refreshed. There is something about being at Honeyrock, surrounded by al that natural beauty, and it's "a place apart" mission, that gives me room to breathe, even when I have to squeeze 96 hours of teaching (!) into two weeks.
This year I had a rather large group of undergraduate students (7) and two alumni in the class. The class really bonded, and really got into the spirit of what I was trying to show them. I was particularly impressed with the way they shared ideas, encouraged and inspired each other, and their willingness to do the dirty work—the cleaning and grinding and heavy lifting—that has to be done but nobody really wants to do (especially in the rain, and it rained almost every day). I wish I had a photo of the group to share, but I was so busy working I forgot. I was reminded, as I was so often during the past school year, how much I really enjoy teaching. That may sound like an obvious thing for me to say, seeing as I have been in the profession almost all of my adult life, but it still surprises me.
Like many ambitious grad students, I went to grad school with one eye on teaching and one eye on becoming established enough to stop teaching. In my case the dream was to make enough to settle into a property somewhere in the Carolina mountains, build a beautiful house, studio, and kiln, and ship my work to all the best galleries and museums. No more teaching, just endless time and space for making work. Ok, if I'm honest this is still largely my dream. Except now included in that dream are (at least a few) students. I'm not sure exactly when they became a part of my vision, but I recognize now how much satisfaction I get from passing on some of what I have learned, both to people just starting their artistic journey and to those who are committing themselves to the vocation. A few years ago I realized that I owed it to my work to do all I can to get it out into the world. I think I am also becoming aware that I also have a responsibility to my discipline to do all I can to pass along what I have learned.
I also had time to reflect on how obscenely fortunate I am to do what I do and have what I have.. Along with my ambition comes a all-too-quick-to-surface jealousy, which both sees what others have and accuses me of not achieving more. This, again, is something that I find has been shifting throughout the past year, but there were certainly moments at Honeyrock, even after a long day working in the rain, when I would find myself so grateful for my colleagues and the time we could spend together, or for time alone watching the sunset on the lake from a canoe, or for time just reading a mystery book in front of a fire, or mostly for time spent missing my family.and thinking about how awesome they are. I had many "It's a Wonderful Life" moments during my two weeks, and those moments help silence the "more, better, faster" voices that often dominate my thoughts.
There was also an article that came out that says people generally become happier after 50, and since I had my 50th birthday while at Honeyrock maybe that had something to do with it. :)
At one point near the end of the second firing my colleague and friend Ryan Kemp remarked, "I never knew how much work went into this." So true. He had just witnessed the flurry of activity at the end of the firing, when all the ports have to be sealed, and the pressure inside the kiln (at that point at around 2400 degrees F) causes flames to escape out of every crack it can find, which all have to be "chinked" with slop clay. This after a day of loading and bricking up the door, and another 14 hour day of nursing the fire, chopping and hauling wood, and stoking every four minutes. (This is a small kiln so the firing is quick, not the 3-5 day ordeal it is with larger kilns). I recognize now how tired I am after it's all done, and how much more sore my back is, in spite of my relatively good health and strength. I don't want to overplay this card, but I am at least on the fringes of understanding that while I have some amazing friends, like Steve Driver, who have been able to sustain a career in wood firing well beyond into retirement, I probably have a limited amount of time to continue to work in that fashion. It is important that I recognize my limitations, that they are changing, and adjust accordingly. Also to appreciate what I can do while I can do it!
A few pots from the latest firing...
My artistic practice feels like a mess right now. I've been thinking so much about what's next, how to get there, how to present it, how to pay for it, how to make up that cost...etc, that I've not spent much time just being in the present.
Yesterday. though, I opened a kiln and had a moment of clarity.
The mug on the left came from that kiln. It's a pot that I have now reglazed and fired three times. The tea bowl on the right is from the wood kiln at Honeyrock. For about three years now I have been on a quest to see if I could get the richness of what happens in the wood-kiln at Honeyrock to happen in the gas kiln I use at the college. At first I was trying to mimic the wood kiln, but I finally realized that if I succeeded the pots would be disingenuous. So I started to think about ways that the nature of the gas kiln could contribute to the aesthetic.
After much trial and error, I think I finally have something that feels right.
It's a small victory in a way. I haven't put tons of energy into this search for a while; it's become more of a side project while I've been pursuing more "serious" work. But now I'm not so sure which is the more serious work. What I love about these new pots is that they feel more organic, less forced, than some of the other work I've been making. They seem to know what they are, what they are about, and in little need of my justification. They are reminding me that what I need to focus on is what is right in front of me, right here, today, and not in the future.
"Today's grace is enough for today," they tell me, "why don't you sit down and have some some tea?"
I was out shoveling the driveway yesterday in this extremely cold Chicago winter weather and had a little "flashback" to the time I made this video. Going back and seeing it again I am reminded how much I like this little piece, the way it both contrasts and compliments, the way it suggests a connection between two people half a world away, and the way it dignifies simple hard work.
Plus it is somewhat meditative to watch, and oddly beautiful. (In my humble opinion, anyways.)
Here's a short clip. You can see a longer version here.
It's a new year, and I'm feeling reflective. And generous. Sort of.
For the past few months I have found myself in a small acting class with a few of my colleagues (we jokingly refer to this class as "faculty workout") taught by my friend Mark Lewis. I have never taken an actual acting class, in spite of my penchant for performance art and my history as a cartoon character at Carowinds theme park (see picture below). The class has been a remarkable experience.
Mark has a remarkable way of dropping little pearls of wisdom.
"The most generous thing an actor can do for us is to get more interested in what she is doing than the fact that they are doing it for the audience."
This particular one keeps coming back to me. When I first heard it I recognized that it was what I needed to hear in terms of my artistic practice. It's always a potential trap for me to become too focussed on audience, and I feel I planted my foot firmly in that trap this year- in spite of some warning signs.
So, for 2018 I plan to be more generous to you- by thinking about you less. That didn't quite come out right. I'm going to be more generous to you by spending more time letting the work lead wherever it will. I suspect that means I'm going to do/make some things differently. I want to revisit some past works, and revive some ideas for new works I haven't yet made because they aren't "practical:" they either are too big for me to store in my studio, or too expensive to make, or both. Maybe I can find some funding for them, and a museum to exhibit them. Who knows?
In any case I invite you to join me on the journey.
the studio chair
A place for me to ramble on when I need to take a break.