Thursday, March 29, 2012

Porcelain: thrown vs. rolled

No, I'm not committing violence upon my pottery as I make it. I'm examining the behavior of a new clay as it goes through my two basic forming processes.

Standard Porcelain 551, a new venture in fine white clay, threw well on the wheel, and trimmed well (that's where you use tools to refine the forms after they have been thrown on the wheel and firmed up). Goblets in various stages of trim:

But slab work (rolled between canvas sheets, textured and draped into a form) cracked as it dried. It does not want to be bent and manipulated. It probably wants to be covered and dried verrrry sloooowly. I didn't treat it to the right tender care, apparently, and it misbehaved afterward as it dried.

Well, this project is experimental just now, so anything could have happened. Different clays behave differently. Porcelain has a very fine particle size and this one has a large shrinkage rate. I lost all three of my sample projects, two 17" long by 12.5" wide platters and one square, textured bowl. The bowl, which I handled more in the raw, flexible state, cracked in four places. Here's a platter, in the process of objecting to my handling. It has two cracks forming, one at the top and one at the bottom. They will be much larger before they are done spreading:

The cracks from this one are mostly from settling under its own weight as it dried unevenly. You can see that the middle is damper (darker) than the edges. In short, it has poor standup when it's taken from the form it's draped into before it has dried completely. It can't support itself unless it's dried slowly and evenly. I can try that next, but I won't spend too much time on it. I prefer a clay for slab work that doesn't need so much pampering. It might only be worth the extra effort if glazes show up very beautifully on it. Even then, a high rate of loss of product isn't very good business.

At least I know I can throw with Porcelain 551, and I like it! It responded very well to the wheel process and felt mighty nice and non-gritty in my hands. The thrown forms seemed to survive much better. I am going to dry them slowly, and see if they want to crack too! Hope not. More tests to follow after Passover.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Visit to the Mingei Museum, San Diego

Mingei is the Japanese concept-word for art made by hand by ordinary people. As a formal movement, Mingei is only about 50 years old. But it is retroactive. It gives a name to works both ancient and recent, work that fits into this idea.

If you go to the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, you will find art made by hand and art not made by hand, a few pieces by people whose names were never recorded and more by people who are known. It is all supposed to be Mingei.

When I learned about Mingei, as a ceramics student in college, I learned that earlier Mingei potters tended not to sign their work. They regarded themselves and their pottery as part of the art of life, above ego. Their pots were their signatures. Ego eventually wins out most of the time, though, and contemporary potters usually sign their work. I do.

At the museum (all photos are from the museum's beautiful website): Jean Balmer’s garden forms.

Forms? These are like big hollow pebbles with holes in the top. Could in theory catch a little rain for a critter with a long thin nose or beak to drink from. Could certainly catch your eyes and take them around and around the shapes. Real function? Visual interest. Environment enhancement. Could a “regular” potter make these? Yes.

Jack Rogers Hopkins’s Mirror Chairs

I wanted to sit in these. They were so curvaceous and sinuous. Function? Certainly. Unusual, but functional. Form? Wowee. Could a regular chair maker make something like these? If one dreamed of this form, or copied Hopkins’s, one could.

Tim Crowder’s Chair:

A rocker made of leather and wood, this had a medieval sort of feeling. Unusual? Yes. Functional? Yes. Repeatable if someone took it into his head to do so? Yes.

Being in a museum, these were not touchable, only viewable. But. Want. To. Touch. (If I may point out the obvious, potters are into the tactile.) And in my own way, that is my definition of Mingei: Can Be Touched. Yes, if we are to see examples of beautiful, usually functional objects made by hand by art-inclined ordinary folks, we have to save some of these things in a collection and metaphorically rope them off. But this roping off always makes me feel subversively inclined. However, law abidement prevailing, I did not touch. Instead, I made a note and decided to sort of touch them with my thoughts later.

A smaller part of the museum is devoted to mass-produced wares, also designed to function well and be attractive or interesting at the same time. I won't agree that machine made objects can be as imbued with individuality as handmade; it is antithetical. But I guess they can be Mingei if you stretch the term a little to mean well designed objects that function artfully. There's where "Mingei" becomes a bit too fuzzy an idea.

But still. Taking "Mingei" to mean art for the people by the people that's also reproducible, machine reproduction has to be figured into the idea. In the gift shop, a set of cast teabowls caught my eye. Four smallish, handleless cups, each glazed in a different color for variety, these were packaged in an elongated rectangular box with a perfectly sized section for each teabowl. The box was part of the presentation. Against my aesthetic will (call it kickwheel potter's snobbery), I found these manufactured cups very appealing, and the whole package satisfying arranged. In Japan, master potters traditionally sold (and still sell) their best pots packaged in individual, handmade wooden boxes, made to order for each size and shape. Mass manufacturers still consider the box as part of the presentation of an object.

Plenty for a potter to think about, after a subversive "touching trip" through the museum in my head.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Necessary Serendipity, or an Un-Chance Encounter

When my gym closed for good locally, I found another one I liked about 20 minutes’ drive from home. Many friends from the old gym relocated there, but there were also plenty of faces new to me. One of them seemed kind of familiar. It was only when I heard her speak that her Midwest accent jogged my memory hard, and I remembered.

I think I was supposed to meet Patricia again. She was a terrific teacher. I took one 10-week course with her. I was at a temporary stopping point in my clay career. Call it potter's block. But much has happened since I studied drawing in her class at the Visual Arts Center. In the 9 years since then, I went back to work in the studio, and grew quite a lot as a potter. My work made the transition to professional. My website became reality. I am only lacking some marketing know-how to make my cottage industry into a better business.

Patricia is a passionate artist. She has lots to say, both with spoken words and with materials like paper, metal, wood, charcoal, paint, ink and more. When she taught, she rarely stopped talking, teaching every moment as her students drew. She is as focused as a laser. It is Patricia’s passion for her art that struck me afresh as I stood in the new gym chatting with her.

We gave one another our business cards, the ones with our website URL’s.

Patricia began telling me that her work is now in museums, galleries, private collections, and public outdoor installations. It is traveling around the United States, with its theme of endangered regional birds.

I've been selling nice pieces here and there, enough to keep me motivated. But I haven't been, shall we say, buying steak on my earnings.

She launched into advice about finding your target audience and focusing on bringing your work to it however you can. She doesn’t make art that goes over somebody’s couch, she said. She has to find and bring her work to serious art collectors.

I made as if to snatch my card back from Patricia, because I really have my work cut out for me at the moment, learning how to improve my marketing skills. But the card-grab was pretend. I was glad to send her to my site. I welcome her genuine interest in clay and the techniques of pottery-making, and something further: what is art when we talk about clay? I know I will have lots to talk about and plenty to learn from Patricia. There may be some thoughts I can offer her in return. She was, in fact, excited to run into a fellow artist. I was excited to re-meet an artist I once knew, one with great drive, who has thought hard and worked hard to find a niche in the art world.

Recently, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. This is a book about what makes one person succeed while another does not, though they might have equal abilities. He writes about times, places, special opportunities and birth dates, and how they play a part in a person’s success or lack of it. He posits that having the right factors in place gives even a less qualified person an edge over a technically better-qualified one.

I read Patricia’s bio on her website today and pondered whether the premise of Outliers applies. I made inevitable comparisons. Patricia was encouraged at home to choose art above other professions. I was actively discouraged. (Artists cut off their ears, I was told.) Patricia traveled with her parents around the country and parts of Europe in her youth. I stayed in our little neighborhood and played in the woods near our house, a small world, though admittedly interesting. She was an only child, with choices made possible by an economic and educational boost. I was one of many children, with extremely few economic advantages and less than optimal cultural access. Patricia read extensively, with parental advice and encouragement. I read whatever I could get my hands on, whenever there was space and quiet (limited commodities then).

I focused on positives as I mused about Patricia’s path and mine.

This is my conclusion: in the absence of money or culturally rich education, I did not flourish in my profession till quite late. I read, took courses, learned my craft, and began putting my own personality into what I created. I began to recognize that my situation had changed. There's moral support from friends and siblings, who have seen me grow and concluded that I really mean it, and who want me to make great pots, and sell them. My husband and kids want that, too. Friends are willing to listen to me when I think over what to do next, and I've got associates in the clay world to mull technical and artistic subjects over with. I’ve learned to ignore those snobs who sneer at the “little woman painting pots,” who are totally clueless about what I do. (They had a fun time at a paint-your-own place once.) And last week, I had the fine fortune to bump into Patricia, and to start some good straight talk about the business of art.