Saturday, August 27, 2011

Icarus Revisited

drawing by Stephen Bauman

He looked off to his right wing -- that’s where he felt something give. A bit of wire mesh showing through. Bared of feathers, the glue had fatigued from furious flapping.

Flight never came easy. It was about to get a lot harder. Like the fast approaching ground. Real hard.

It was pretty clear from the start. He was no bird. But he was resolute: The only way he’d never fly is if he’d never try. And he was full of try. And that heart-pounding second when his feet first felt nothing beneath them but air, and his homespun wings found purchase through the morning mist – rising, rising – was a beginning.

It was borrowed glory. A stolen gift. He need only witness the avian spectrum from hummingbird to hawk to know that neither and none of their grace would be his. He’d neither be capable of the craft of the acrobatic industry that is the hummingbird’s mystery, nor the artful mile-high effortless soaring of the red tail. But he would fly. For a long way and a long time. Not high, but higher than groundlubbers. Not fast, but ever forward.

The birds thought he was crazy. His friends knew he was. And now, with the feathers falling away, leaving him holding fistfuls of handles and little else, and a fast approaching Earth, he was maybe seeing their point. But the thing about cheating nature is that funny little paradox into which we’re born: It is our nature to cheat nature.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craftsman's Conversation Continued

GREG: I look at my own work and it's overwhelming and quite often frustrating at how much craft I have to learn to create something that may approach art. In lutherie I see things in my mind which I am not yet capable of getting out of the wood. And we haven't even touched on the idea of making the instrument work well as a tool for the artist who's using it. There's an incredible amount of crafty skills and knowledge to get an instrument to sound wonderful.

But in other things, song writing comes to mind, I'm the exact opposite. I think I have the technical ability (the craft) to play other people's music well but writing songs is incredibly tough for me. It's an art to which I can't even begin to apply any craft.

And then there are times when I have a bunch of wood scraps and notice a shape in them which makes me think "That's cool. I should glue it up just like that." If the piece looks good is it art because I noticed the shape and form? Where was the craft?

I DON'T KNOW! But the engineer part of my brain really wants a formula into which I can plug my variables and the output is art. I don't think it works that way.

ME: Just to muddy the water further...

I remember years ago there was a letter to the editor of Ceramics Monthly Magazine (I think it was during the Bill Hunt we’ll-die-trying-to-be-called-art era). The sentiment of this letter is pretty common and widespread and I’ve heard it voiced many times since, but it stuck in my twenty-something-year-old mind as one of the first times I'd remembered someone brave enough to ask the naive question.

Essentially the letter was from a clay "sculptor" (I never saw the work in question, but from her description of her process, she was clearly not making pots) and she was asking what's "fair" about an art world wherein she pours herself -- heart and soul -- into a piece that takes her up to a week to complete (not to mention the additional firing time, etc).....and yet she entered a clay exhibition in which, as she described it, a bowl that most likely took the potter no more than five minutes to throw and then slap some glaze on, won the top award of the exhibition?

There are at least two good answers to her question:

1. (and my favorite) Every single time I demonstrate at a show I will have at least one man (it's never a woman for some reason) ask me how long it takes to do a series of the pot I'm working on (“How many of those can you make in a day?”). I can see the wheels turning in his head as he watches me finish a piece in five minutes, walks over to my display and sees a similar but finished piece, checks the price of the finished piece, glances back and forth a few times between the finished and the process....

...essentially he's adding up what seems to him like my ability to print myself money. It seems too easy for such a price tag, as he adds it up in his mind.

Ultimately, when I see those wheels turning, and I thus know the motive behind the question, when that someone then asks me how long it takes me to make a piece, I answer, "35 years and 5 minutes"

2. The value of art is not to be found entirely in its degree of difficulty. Nor is it to be found in its complexity. The arts are about content.....and content is arrived at by the artist's life experience. The work of an artist is the culmination of his experiences AND his expertise. So, if we must compare value on some apples to apples scale -- the sculptor (in my anecdote) is failing to see that her week spent creating her work of art that was ultimately found to be comparatively vacuous in content, was trumped by that potter's lifetime of experience that informed the content of his five minute bowl. The potter's bowl was 35 years and 5 minutes in the making.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Craftsman's Conversation With Greg

My friend, Greg, is a brilliant musician who also builds fine musical instruments from lap dulcimers to the telecaster he’s playing in this video (which will give you an idea of just what wonderful musician he is).

Upon my showing some friends the following video of the process an artist went through in creating a sculpture installation for a California airport, Greg and I began a conversation I’ll share here.

John, what's your opinion on artists who design the art and then have others build it for them? Being a hands on guy with your clay (and me to a much lesser extent with wood) I wonder how you feel about it.

It seems odd to me to think that the artist's output is the idea, not the process of creating the idea. I can't imagine designing a cool looking guitar and then having somebody else build it for me and then saying that the guitar is MY art.
Then again, your pottery and my lutherie produce items that can be created by a single person. I'm not sure it would be possible to create the floating tree sculpture with just one person.

But where's the line?
I don't know. It's probably as fuzzy a line as "What is art?"

I could write for a very long time, circle back, cover the same ground from a different angle, and still not answer that question to even my own satisfaction.

One thing I can say for almost certain. Maybe. Probably. And that is: The greatest share of your question (and a question I, too, often ask) revolves around the confusion of "art" and "craft".

To that issue at least, art has for centuries accepted that the artist is the conceiver of the idea -- with the finished product executed either by himself OR others.

Whether discussing visual art (The famous artists of the Renaissance were all studio heads -- Rubens, Michelangelo, DaVinci were the designers and the work that was executed by the craftsmen of their studios), or discussing music (Mozart, Bach , et al were composers but the art was the work of many craftsmen), the artist-as-designer has been the accepted, legitimate model. All the while (curiously, and ironically when perceived by our 21st century sensibilities), the craftsmen of that model remained anonymous.

When viewed from the perspective down a long timeline of art history, the confusion of art and craft that we are discussing is a rather recent -- Romantic Era -- re-definition of something that had been accepted as the norm for art for centuries before. Until that recently, for the most part the art world accepted that art was the concept and craft was the execution....and it didn't matter who did the executin'.

But I think those once tauter lines started a-tangling up in a growing sense of American self-reliance and inherent and equal admiration for not just ingenuity, but also skill. I think that that changing sense of values got us Americans thinking about the confusing line between art and craft in different terms.

Add to that the fact that several of the most influential American Art movements (Arts & Crafts/Prairie) rose at least in part as direct reactions to the burgeoning industrial revolution. Against that impersonal, machine-driven, industrial background, the American Artist began to see himself as a bit of a John Henry trying to beat back this cultural steam drill that was overtaking our psyche.
In the end, all I can conclude is this: I care about craftsmanship.

And I don't particularly care to participate in the art world -- nor can I even keep up with it anymore.

I do know that when 99% of the people I know talk about art-- even those people in my "art" world of art fairs and artist friends -- they are actually talking about craft. They don't think they are, but they are. Those art fair "artists" don't even want to think of themselves as talking about craft because "craft" has taken on implications of macramé, dried flower arranging, basket weaving, theorem painting, country crafts. See, just as art's definition shifted a did craft's.

Still, those who think they are talking about art are most definitely talking about craft. Especially as compared to the manner in which the art world defines itself.

There's another whole branch of this discussion that revolves around ethics and marketing. For instance, is what is being marketed being portrayed accurately to the patron? (for example, it is doubtful that Kinkade's market is fully aware of just how little value is contained in what they are buying....much less that they are not buying PRINTS {they are buying "reproductions" -- a whole different animal in the art world}).

I market mostly through art fairs that demand that the artist also be the craftsman. I like it that way for any number of reasons. First and foremost is the abject honesty in the value of the work offered. Traditionally, what is rarest is of greatest value. The notion of the artist-craftsman almost GUARANTEES an inherently small inventory that should, therefore, also imply greater value.

An interesting aside: In some cases the "figurine" and "collectible" world has seen some of their market implode because of the internet. The illusion of value implied by those charlatan's use of the language of "limited edition" was exposed in real time by hundreds of eager sellers glutting a suddenly international market with merchandise they had been led to believe was limited in number (and therefore and thereby valuable) ...only to find out that the stuff they were collecting, they could get any time they wanted it.....and cheaply.

Do I still think the art/craft line is pretty blurry? Yes. And I think that just maybe if there is ultimate justice in this world, what the art museums of the 22nd and 23rd centuries will find themselves curating from the 20th and 21st century will be our craft.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


When I'm faced with hundreds of pieces to glaze, even a limited palette of glazes can create an overwhelming -- even paralyzing -- number of glaze combinations from which to choose.

I've often spent literally hours deciding how to glaze what actually only took me that same amount of hours to glaze. Just deciding how to glaze the pieces was (and always is) half the battle.

Here's a nifty trick I came up with.

First, I photographed the piece(s) against a strongly contrasting backdrop that would be easy to make disappear in photoshop. Next, I do the photoshopping -- erase the background and bring up the contrast and maybe tone down any color saturation so that I'm left with just the basic shadows and shape of the piece.

Next, I copy the photo multiple times per sheet to give me plenty of blanks to experiment with, and I print those sheets on white paper.

Finally, with transparent watercolor pens, I can color the pieces and give myself a really good idea of what the finished pieces will look like. The transparent watercolor pens allow the shadows in the photographs to still show through so that the 3-D effect of the pot is not lost in the coloring. That shadowing also keeps the color from appearing as flat paint, thereby giving a more true preview of the fired end result.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Old Pots

Some time ago I posted this image of the bookcase that holds some of my favorite pots from collecting over the years (If you click on the small image you will get an enlargement that has each of the pieces labeled).

This year we've been trying to get rid of stuff. We've been married for coming up on 35 years and have lived in the same house now for 20 of those years. Between living in one place and running a business out of the same piece of real estate, we've just accumulated too much. It has dawned on us just how immobilized we've become.

Well, going through all that stuff to decide what we no longer need to live with has some side pleasures...

...I've found some pots that I remember well, but haven't seen nor held in years.

This salt-fired cup has always been one of my favorite pieces. I call it a "cup" because, at only about 10 oz, it's a bit small to fit the "mug" description. My friend, Doug, bought it for me back in 1979, shortly after he moved to Oregon. It's done by a potter from the Pacific Northwest named "Procter" who, if I understand correctly, isn't making pots anymore.

The fellow who made this set of bowls (below) is still making pots, but unless I told you, you'd probably never guess who made them. If you asked me to name my very favorite pots in the collection, these four small bowls would likely be at the top of the list. Maybe you'd have to hold them to fully appreciate how well they are crafted -- from their perfect weight, to their extremely clean and graceful lines and wonderfully trimmed feet, the rounded square of the rims, the subtle slip-trailed decoration. More has gone into these four small bowls than I usually see in big, expensive "showy" pieces.

And, yes, if you've been around pottery for over thirty years, maybe you do remember when Satian Leksrisawat was making functional stoneware instead of the fine crystaline-glazed porcelain he's become associated with in the past 20 years.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pottery Posters

Who ever said that time spent doing repetitious work on the wheel doesn't open the mind to wander down avenues of great, even awesome (<---where's that "rolling eyes" emoticon when you need it?) creativity?

Here are three posters only a potter would understand. And I challenge the blogging world to come up with some more "Pottery Posters".

Me & The Kid

Monday, August 1, 2011

Crooknecks Explained

Barbara Rogers said...

I usually can visualize things that are described, but am missing how a donut, thrown and quartered, becomes part of - what? The stack of pumkin/gourd shaped pots perhaps, somehow? I'm making pitchers with the gourd fold in them these days, so am very interested.

Hi Barbara,

In an attempt to make the blog post look more interesting, I added other photos (the gourd patch, last year's pottery gourds, the dogs, etc). But the new crookneck gourds I'm making are pictured in the two sorta sepia-toned photos in the middle.

And the way I make those is to make the crookneck by throwing a hollow donut and then quartering that donut. When I started out with the idea, I didn't know how much of the donut I'd need to make the neck -- I wasn't sure of my targeted final size. As it turns out, one quarter of the donut was just about perfect. Additionally, that gave me 4 gourds out of each thrown donut. Pretty efficient, it turns out.

Two years ago I made crooknecks by simply throwing a long cylinders and attaching them and then worrying them into a bend. Of course, when I did that the cylinders wanted to fold and flatten each time I tried to bend them. That's why I decided to try the donut idea. That way I'd be starting with a bent cylinder.

And when I say that I attached them to one of my pumpkins thrown upside down, I mean that my pumpkins are usually like this...

...with the top (relative to the potter's wheel) being where I attach the vine/handle. But with the new crookneck gourds, as you can see, the top (relative to the potter's wheel while throwing) is now the bottom -- making for a very convincing gourd bottom. That was an important change because I intend the crooknecks to lay on their sides.