Thursday, January 31, 2013

I (Heart) Curtis Benzle's Message

Tuesday and Wednesday I went to a workshop taught by porcelain artist Curtis Benzle (BENZ-lee) at the 92nd St Y in NYC.

Right now I hold in my hand a little porcelain heart that Curtis made and signed.

He gave each of the 17 of us a small velvet drawstring pouch at close of the last day. A surprise! I have been to workshops led by other wonderful potter-teachers, and always come away with the gift of their teaching, but I have never come away with a physical gift from teacher to students to thank us for our contribution to the experience. We found a beautiful nerikomi-patterned heart inside each pouch, with a small card that read “Follow your heart.”

Half a second later, I realized that sticking out of the side of the heart was a tiny scroll of paper. It was like a suddenly-realized secret, -a gift experience with still further discovery! Curtis had stuck a note into a passage bored through each heart. Mine read, "Make something wonderful-" and was signed.  Oh, the possibility of wonder! It is always there when you work with your hands, head and heart in unison.

 Curtis said to us, "Do not turn it into a necklace! It is not a necklace!" and told us to note that in the velvet pouch was another, blank bit of paper, so that we can write a note of our own if we desire, and give it to someone else in turn. I might.

The workshop was mostly about nerikomi. Nerikomi is a technique that uses colored clays to create patterns. The colored clay patterns are formed in rolls or loaves, that you then slice to reveal the same pattern throughout. 

A very simple, non-clay analogy to explain nerikomi is pinwheel cookies. 
image from

You make basic brown-and-white pinwheel cookies from two rolled-out sheets of dough, one plain and one chocolate. You stack the sheet of chocolate dough on top of the sheet of plain dough, roll up the stacked sheets of dough into a log, and then you can slice many identical cookies one by one off the end of the log, lay them on a cookie sheet and bake them. 

 If, before you started, you were to add food colors to the dough, you could make much more colorful cookies. 
image from

Now- stay with me!- if you were to take those patterned cookie dough slices you've just sliced off the roll of raw dough, and placed them together touching end to end on one cookie sheet, you could make a whole patterned cookie–slab full of colorful circles. If you had laid out some chocolate-and-white and some colorful ones in a design, your pattern would be that much more complex.

Well, you can do the same with clay and call it, as the Japanese do, "nerikomi".  You can be more inventive, and press the colored and patterned clay slab into a form to support it (say, a bowl form), and fire it in the kiln to get a  complexly patterned and vividly colored vessel. And you can get ever so complicated with the design!

In glass and in polymer clay, this technique is called millefiori. This pendant is found on the Wikipedia page for millefiori: 
It is just one slice of patterned glass off a glass cane, but the cane itself was made from many smaller canes that were fused together. (This is a perfect example, because millefiori means "a thousand flowers" in Italian.)  
This much more complicated vase is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London: 

You can see many millefiori slices that have been fused together very beautifully at high heat. I don't know how this piece was made exactly, but I feel very safe in assuming it was a combination of the latest molds, heat source and hand tools available to glassblowers in 1872. Forming this piece would still be an excellent technical coup for a glass artist today.

Curtis Benzle's work, originally influenced by the color and pattern qualities available in glass, is made with pure porcelain instead, infused with colors and utilizing nerikomi and other techniques in a very beautiful way quite personal to Curtis.

You can see Curtis’s work and some of his influences in this terrific short video:

As for me- I have to think about how to incorporate not just the methods but especially the feeling behind this technique into my own work. I have been glazing pots for the last 28 years or so, and I still don't much like that part of the job. And I am not satisfied with the glaze results I usually get in my electric kiln. But I am looking ahead as ever, embarking on a long-planned course of spraying my glazes (in layers) for the first time in order to achieve more surface complexity. And now, I have learned the rudiments of something special from a master; how to incorporate color right into my clay vessels- and how to consider wonder while doing so. Who knows where it will lead? An artisan’s life is very interesting. The years to live and work are short, but the ideas are long.

"Make something wonderful!"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Germ of an Idea

Germs. One sort brings you colds. I was visited by this sort quite a lot this winter, and been kept out of the studio far more than I've been in it. But things are on the upswing for a healthy spring. And I may have been down, but not out. I have some new ideas of where to go next.

 So I'll share some of those efforts involving a different germ; the germ of an idea, and how it grows.

This is a bowl on a stand, Korean, 900 years old.  (It is celadon-glazed, Ru-style ware from the Ganjin kilns of the Goryeo period. I saw it at the Freer Gallery last week.)
Korean Ru-style bowl and stand, 12th century, at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

What I like most about this piece is the raised foot on the stand. A simple in-curving bowl, functional but not assertive, is nonetheless "presented" on the flowerlike stand. The effect is to make you pause just a beat extra to consider it. I find the subtle presentation of this piece harmonic. 'Shy?' it asks. 'A bowl among other bowls? Dare to lift yourself.'

You may remember that I've been pondering havdalah sets, the practicality of making them in the first place, who the heck (if anyone) buys a whole havdalah set, and what wonderful design would justify going to the trouble and expense at all. I put a drawing or two on my Facebook pottery page.  (Please feel free to click that link, and Like my pottery FB page, a very easy way to stay in the loop of a basement potter's life in very short bursts.)

It all started (but really, I ask you, who knows when it really, really starts??) with a rudimentary sketch before I went to Washington D.C. early last week.
A candleholder, spice jar and goblet- aka havdalah set.

The three components were there, but no tray to hold them. So I redrew, still keeping those funky little brass-stud-like things, and adding a tray.
Playing with width of candleholder base; also, giving tray a shape relationship with the parts.
Still, there is nothing I loved about the design.
Then we went to D.C. and looked at Korean ceramics from the 12th century. The bowl on a stand-!
Home again, I drew this.
Presenting...drumroll...Havdalah! (Brass-studlike things & goblet stem are history.)

The son of a gun needed to be presented. Introduced. Harmonized. Asserted.

This design is also beginning to put out roots...

It is spreading to tableware. Love that "presentation" raised foot, and trying it on other designs.
Beating back bronchitis and raising the presentation level on the pottery.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Looking at Clay Art- So Much to Absorb!

A family wedding took us to Virginia. On our way back up north toward home, we took part of a day in Washington D.C. to visit the Sackler and Greer Galleries of the Smithsonian Museum. With so little time to spend, I wanted to see as much ceramics as possible, particularly Asian.

Struck as ever by the wonderful freshness from the hands of long-gone craftspeople, the artists of their times, I was also struck by a particular dichotomy. Ornate and expensively colored objects were for the rich, of course, yet these things tended toward utility for milennia. In the medium of clay, only religious objects, and objects reflecting long held traditions or recounting daily activities, or deeply functional objects were made. Today, objects made of clay can be pure decoration or pure self expression. Yet these older things resonated within my imagination, with their brilliant craftsmanship and assertiveness.

Within the framework of functional clay, imagination lent sway. Spouts of pouring vessels became, say, the beaks of birds. Bowls and drinking vessels might be incised with flowers, birds and vines, and inlaid with colors before firing. Workmanship was breathtaking and at its freshest, representing a range of influences from the natural world in form and decoration.

Forms sparked my imagination. A small bowl atop a high-footed saucer was like a simple lotus center on a many-lobed open leaf. One small thing like that- moved me!

In an tiny exhibition of Japanese ceramics 1930-2000, I saw a Shoji Hamada tall teapot, potted thinly from fairly coarse clay, not like the pieces on somewhat smoother clay with his strong, famous brushwork that I am used to seeing in books, but rather a soft and a little droopy shape. Very pleasingly showing the marks of the master (Japanese National Treasure) that Hamada was, this teapot was like a very fine, upright shar-pei dog, ever so friendly and a bit slumpy looking. I could see that Hamada had been happy with it! Like the older vessels, this modern one was all about usefulness, and also like them, encapsulated the obvious vitality of the hands of the maker.

Works in clay! How varied they can be! The day before, we had stopped at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Among the noteworthy and large collection of American folk art at The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum there, we found surprising exhibition notes along the railings that were porcelain pages of children's book drawings. What a wonderful idea! There are so many ways to set up notes for a display. These got me thinking about my children's book illustrations from a decade ago (for a book that did not get picked up by a publisher), and I wonder whether I should make wall art out of them instead of written narration on paper or e-book!
porcelain children's book pages as exhibition notes
I can see a "wall bookpage" of the rabbit on the backhoe loader in the clay pit in Bunville!