A few weekends ago I spent the morning with Elaine preparing the garden for the winter. As I was working, I noticed a butterfly weed seed pod that had broken open from the overnight chill, exposing the silky fluff attached to the seeds. I happened to be there just at the time the pod had opened but before the wind had started to scatter the seeds all throughout the neighborhood.
As I took a photo, I began to realize what an apropos metaphor this little seed pod was for how we are feeling as a family this November. It turns out every one of us is in some state of significant transition, and we are heading into the winter waiting to see which way the wind will blow. In some cases, the waiting brings with it eager anticipation (Sam applying for college), and in others it creates anxiety (major budget cuts, including faculty layoffs, are going to be announced this week at my college.)
So, uncertainty abounds, and with it some anxiety and fear. But also hopefulness. And optimism. I have put a lot of thought into what role my little pottery and art business might have in all this. What would it look like to go full time? Wholesale or retail? What role might teaching, or mentoring, have in my future business? Online, or brick and mortar location? SO many possibilities, so many “seeds.” When do I know it’s the right time to go for it? Is there a right time to go for it?
As I thought about those little butterfly weed seeds, I remembered something else. Like most of the plants native to this area, those seeds need the cold winter months in order to germinate. If you collect the seeds, bring them inside, and plant them in the Spring, you don’t get plants- at least for a year. The seeds are not just designed to survive the winter, they actually need it.
And maybe that’s the case with all of my little “seeds” for future possibilities. As tempting as it is to make a decision just to relieve the stress of the uncertainty, maybe living in the uncertainty is my “winter,” which will allow the right seeds to sprout. Maybe what’s needed more than a decision is patience.
As we head into the Christmas season, I am reminded that Advent is designed to be a season of anticipatory and even anxious waiting. Then Christmas arrives: the light of the world arriving in the darkest of winter. I have a feeling that this year those two seasons are going to have more meaning for me than usual.
For those of you who don't know me yet, I've prepared a little game of Four Truths and a Lie (a classic icebreaker). Four of the statements about me below are true, and one is not. See if you can spot the lie. Answers below the photo.
1.I once had a job as a cartoon character
2.I was once in a Christian rock band.
3.I make a mean BBQ pulled pork
4.I speak Mandarin fluently
5.I do not have a “green thumb”
1. I once had a job as a cartoon character: TRUE
My first “real” job, actually. I worked as a cartoon character at Carowinds Theme Park. I would put on the suit, usually Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear, or Hong Kong Phooey (does anyone else remember Hong Kong Phooey?). Although most of my artwork has a meditative/ contemplative quality, I do have a have a zany, rather animated side which comes out from time to time.
2. I was once in a Christian rock band: TRUE
This one is a little embarrassing, but true. My first band, while I was in high school. I have a photo. We were not particularly good, largely because I was not good at keyboards. But it was one of my first experiences taking art making seriously, and it whet my appetite for a life of creative practice. And it highlights two things that have continued to be important to me: faith and music. Plus, it was a great way to spend time with good friends.
Here I am in the band Alliance. Guess which one is me. Not pictured: the wildly talented Doug Davis
3. I make a mean BBQ pulled pork: TRUE
Although I live in the Midwest, my roots go back to the Carolinas for several generations. So when we moved here 17 years ago, I realized I was going to have to learn how to make my favorite Southern comfort foods, including good BBQ. I enjoy cooking, a trait I seem to share with many potters. Which has always made me wonder: do potters like to cook because they make pots, or do they make pots because they like to cook?
4. I speak Mandarin fluently: FALSE
I wish this were true. Even after two summers in China as an artist-in-residence at the Dunhuang Creative Center, I can’t get the hang of Mandarin. But I really loved my time there, and the friendships I have from that experience.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate that my artistic practice has taken me to other countries: China, Indonesia, and Switzerland, to name a few. As a kid I stayed almost entirely in the Carolinas, so I never dreamed I would have the kind of experiences I have had as an adult.
You can read more about my time in China here and here.
5. I do not have a “green thumb”: TRUE
If you have followed me on social media you may already know that I am pretty passionate about gardening, so you would think that I’ve got a natural talent for making things grow. I assure you that I do not. Many, many plants have died under my care over the years. I have made all the mistakes in the book, and a few that no one ever thought to write down. Any success I have as a gardener is the result of research, trial and error, and sheer stubbornness. The same is true for my artwork. I have never been the most naturally talented person in the room: as a student, as an artist, or as a professor. What I do have is loads of curiosity, a love of process, and a little patience. Turns out those traits are pretty good for making art and growing plants.
My backyard garden in 2021.
Yesterday I spent some time taking some photos of individual works in preparation for my Spring Pop-Up sale on April 30th.
The images turned out great- often I feel like the images I take, while ok, don’t really show the pots how I see them. With these photos, the images are not only showing the pots how I see them, they are actually helping me see and understand my own work.There's no special photography tricks involved with these photos, they are just standard documentary shots with very little editing. But there is something about how these photos allow me to focus on the qualities of the pots without distractions that is helping me put my aspirations into words
You can get a sense in these bowls of the complex dance between the glaze surface and the form. When I make these bowls I stretch the rims fairly aggressively, which creates a fair amount of tension. When the pot fires, it “unscrews” itself slightly (think of how your muscles relax in a sauna), and in that relaxing of tension there is a slight undulation in the form. You can see that undulation in the first photo, and how it is reflected in the flowing interplay of the glazes.
There is an element of serendipity in the pots I am making. It is not about “chance” exactly; it’s about setting up conditions that invite the kiln and the glazes to collaborate in the determination of the finished pieces. That collaboration; that kind of listening and responding to the materials, is a major motivation for me to keep making.
While many of you in different parts of the country (I'm looking at you, Carolinas) have been basking in Spring temperatures for a month or more, we are still eagerly anticipating the true start of Spring. We have the occasional teasing sunny days with highs in the 60s, but they are interspersed with cold rainy days in the low 40s. This is April in the Midwest, and to be honest it has been more difficult for this Southern-born boy to adjust to these weather conditions than to winter's extreme cold. I am embarrassed to discover how much my mood is affected by the daily changes in the weather. Every warm/ sunny day I’m bright, cheery, and optimistic. Every day I wake up to overcast skies and frost on the windshield I’m grumpy and miserable. This is a bit of an over-simplification, but the impulse towards those two poles is there and is surprisingly powerful. I can look at the forecast and know what’s coming, and try to brace myself for it, but it happens nonetheless.
I have lived here for seventeen years now, seventeen years, and I certainly know what to expect in April. Yet I always find myself on this emotional roller coaster. I guess I have some version of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), where my mood is affected less by a season than by the day-to-day variations within a season: I’m just as likely to be happy as sad.
This April, in reflecting on this crazy condition, I’ve come to think of it as oddly comforting (although still annoying). So much of what I do with my artistic practice is to seek to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, which is to say I’m seeking the intersection of the physical and the spiritual. If the two are inter-connected, as I believe they are, then it is only natural that changes in my physical environment are going to affect my state of being. If l I am more sensitive to these changes than the average person (I suspect I am, although I don’t know for sure), perhaps that is less an indication of a problem and more an indication that I am learning how to be truly present in the world. If that is the case, then instead of telling myself to “just get over it," I can allow myself to affirm those feelings, to let them flow through me, and even be a little grateful for them, even in the midst of my occasional grumpiness.
February has been a month of reflecting and planning, prompted by a post-tenure review at work. Part fo the review is to look back over the past five years of teaching and scholarship.
While putting together the dossier for the review is a bit of a hassle, I must admit the process has been both challenging and rewarding. At times I get so focussed on my immediate projects that I forget to both celebrate past accomplishments. So consider this a celebration. Here's a few of my favorite projects from the past five years.
1. Dunhuang Artist Residency. Summer 2016 and Summer 2017
I've written about this experience a few times on my blog, but it remains one of the most powerful artistic and cultural experiences in my life. I am incredibly thankful I was able to go twice and for all the people I met from both China and the US. And for the challenge of making a body of work in reaction to a new place and culture in the moment. That has really informed my art practice.
2. American Craft Show: Baltimore 2020.
This is a show that I had long desired to be in. I made the wait list back in 1998, but never quite made it in several years of trying. After not applying for 20 years I decided to give it a go (I had a sabbatical which made it possible to attend) and was selected. The show was February of 2020, so it was the last show I did before quarantine.
3. Consider installation. Two-person show Bees: an exhibition with Craig Goodworth. Calvin College, 2019
This was a wonderful show to be a part of. Not only was I able to show with Craig, but the exhibit was curated by friend and former colleague Brent Williams. For me the show represented the completion of Consider, which I feel was the most successful installation of the bee projects.
4. Writing and Presenting at Conferences.
I am surprised to see how much writing and presenting I've done in the past few years. I wouldn't say either are my strong suit, but I'm interested in exploring these areas more. Most recently I was a keynote speaker at the CIVA conference in Austin and contributed to The Everlasting People by my brilliant friend Matt Milliner.
5. Wait. Repeat. Two-person exhibition with Krista Brand. Wheaton College, 2021.
The exhibition was a delight on many levels. I was able to collaborate and exhibit with a former student of mine who is now both an amazing artist and professor. In the process I learned a lot that was helpful in my own practice. Plus I used the deadline as motivation to complete a few works that had sat unfinished in the studio for years.
It’s been an up-and-down week, in an up-and-down month, in an up-and-down year. And we’re just getting started.
Anyone else feeling it?
In January, I fired some new work, both pottery and sculpture, and I was really excited about the results (see below). But when I entered the work into juried shows, it was rejected. (I guess it was more officially “not accepted,” but it felt more like “rejected.”) I started some new larger vessel forms, which at first were coming out great, but recently they are collapsing before I get them completed.
I feel like just as I start to get a little momentum, a roadblock appears. Perhaps I’ve had my expectations too high, or my ego was a little too inflated. Or maybe I’m just trying too hard. Perhaps it’s just the “yet-another-winter-in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic blahs.” Whatever it is, the experience has surprised me. I am having to fight the urge to throw up my hands and give in to the frustration.
I won’t do that, of course. I have had enough experience to know that rejection and frustration are part of the process, and that I need to step back, to see the bigger picture, and to focus on the long-term goals as opposed to the short-term obstacles. I also know that for me, the periods where I feel most unsure often signal the beginning of a period of growth. Even so, I’m tired. I have been aware that many of my students have been on edge over the past year, but maybe I haven’t been quite as aware that I, too, am a little on edge. I probably need to slow down a little, do a little more self-care, and let a few things go.
So, yeah, if you are feeling any piece of that “up-and-down-ness” at the beginning of 2022 as well, know that you are not alone. I think we could all use a win, even a little one. Which has me thinking…
When does Spring start, again?
Views of our vegetable garden: early Spring, early Summer, early Fall, and early Winter
I will remember 2021 was the year that our garden took over.
Perhaps it’s no accident that this was also a very difficult year for me personally. I will not deny that the garden provided a kind of escape for me, a sanctuary; a place I could go and lose myself for an hour or a day. But it was so much more than that. There is a lot of wisdom in a garden, wisdom that comes mostly through one’s hands and not through one’s head. The wisdom I found there goes well beyond knowledge of how to grow plants successfully. I believe most of these lessons apply to my art practice, and probably the rest of my life as well. Here’s some of the lessons the garden taught me this year:
I took a break from making pots for two months. Part of that was of my choosing, part of that was due to other demands on my time. In any case it was the first time I had had that kind of break from making for as long as I can remember- I suspect I've never been away from the wheel for that long since I started making pots 30+ years ago!
I finally got back to the wheel and thought I'd start out just by making some simple bowls. It's an easy form for me, and I can approach them like sketches: I can explore ideas without much investment of time or energy. I had a general idea of what I wanted these to look like, and decided to approach them in a slightly different way than I typically approach making bowls.
From the very first bowl these forms felt special. I was getting a fluid broad curve off of a narrow base the felt very natural, like a flower opening from a bud. There was an easy rhythm to my throwing that was controlled but allowed the clay's voice to come through. So much of what I want my work to do was coming out in these forms, and without me having to force it to happen.
I have now trimmed all these bowls and they are waiting for their first firing. I am really excited about the direction these are taking, and I'm hoping to be able to recreate some of the fluidity of that session of working on the wheel in coming weeks. In the meantime I think there is a really important lesson for me, so I thought I'd better put it in the blog so I would remember it. Here it is:
Dave, take time off every once in a while. Make other stuff, go find things that inspire you and spend time with them, or just sit and ponder. It all makes your work better.
The first "real" day of winter arrived this week in Chicagoland. As a person who grow up in the Southern states, it's easy for me to get discouraged by cold temperatures and lack of sun. There are days in this season when the high temperature will be in the single digits. The wind chill drops that temperature by 10 degrees or more. The sun currently sets around 4:30pm, which means it's dark before I even get off work. For years the first thought I had when winter came was, "Ugh- how can I get out of here."
The season of Advent has also arrived in Chicagoland, as it has everywhere. Advent is a time in the Christian liturgical year which is marked by waiting, anticipating, and preparing. As I was growing up I mainly remember Advent as a time of eager anticipation. Christmas was coming- the lighting of candles in the Advent wreath was like a countdown timer, or like the ball dropping in Times Square to mark the New Year.
I've come to understand that Advent is a much more complicated season than that. There is eagerness, sure, in Advent, but there is also reflection, stillness, and recognition that all is not as it should be, or as it could be. There is a kind of mourning in Advent, which seems especially poignant and necessary in our world today. If the thought of Christmas makes you feel "less than," sad, or depressed, Advent is a season that recognizes and affirms those feelings. It makes room for sadness, even as it anticipates the promise of hope and love entering the world.
Perhaps you can see how this relates to the winter garden. It's easy to look at a garden in winter and see only dead plants: to mourn the lost summer splendor, or long for the Spring that is yet to come. Those feelings are only natural, and we naturally don't want to spend time in that place, physically or emotionally, for very long. But I'm slowly learning to be present in the garden as it is in this season. It is reminding me how necessary this season is to the life-cycle in the garden. The soil is resting and rejuvenating, storing up energy that will feed next year's growth. Many of the plants are not dead, but hibernating; it is as if the plants have turned inward, collecting their energy into their cores and roots. Other plants have died, but also gone to seed, and those seeds are abundant!
There is a beauty to be found in the garden in winter that is unlike the beauty to be found here in other seasons. It is a quiet beauty, seen in the starkness of the structures that are there, seen in the promise in the seeds, heard in the rustle of the grasses. These are small moments of beauty, to be sure, and I have to look for them. I have to lean in. But they are there, they are real, and they speak to me of hope. It is really the beauty and hope of Advent, and I think I need it now more than ever.
My friend Paul Matheny had a great exhibition of new work during October at Hampton III Gallery in Greenville, SC. I was both honored and surprised when Paul and gallery owner extraordinaire Sandra Rupp asked me to write a piece about the show. (I don't get asked to write articles, much less show reviews, that often. So. much. fun.)
You can see the show online, read the article, and see a recorded artist talk on the galleries website here: .www.hamptoniiigallery.com/paul-matheny-2020
the studio chair
A place for me to ramble on when I need to take a break.