Sunday, February 27, 2011

Staging & Glazing

Those tables full of pottery in my last post? ...every last pot found a home in Kalamazoo yesterday. It was a good day of meeting pottery lovers and catching up with my fellow potters -- Brian Beam, Jim Reinert, Jeff Unzicker, Mike Taylor, Michael Kifer, Eric Strader...and an added treat to have David and June Otis stop by the show on their way South.

Today I got up bright and early, ran Breeze downtown in the slush and fog, got home and after rubbing the worst of the road grime off of Breeze's underside with handfuls of snow, started right in staging for a few marathon days of glazing.

I've always found that if I'll just take a little extra time to stage the whole process of glazing
-- arrange the pieces by glaze as I wax them, screen the long-dormant glazes, get the tables and ware carts cleared to accept wet-glazed pots -- I can save myself lots of frustration throughout the process, and spare myself unnecessary goofs as I glaze.

I had a weird thing happen. As I was getting things ready for the garage sale, I came across a painting that was done by my Uncle Irving (actually, my great uncle). I've had this painting on the wall and I've alternated it on that wall space with another painting that I inherited from that uncle. Irving, Walter, and Elmer were brothers whose dad came from Germany. The brothers stayed here in the States, though their dad returned to Germany. Elmer is my grandfather. Actually, I was born the year Elmer "EJ" died, and I am named for him. Thankfully, my parents chose his MIDDLE name for mine.

Back to Uncle Irving and this painting....

My Uncle Irving's paintings -- at least the ones that got passed down through the family -- were either landscapes, or they were somewhat playful portraits he painted of his friend Geraldine Farrar in various costumes -- Victorian, Indian, etc. And when I received the portrait above, I just assumed it was another of Geraldine.

Well, this time (going through the artwork as I was) when I looked at the painting, I suddenly saw something different. See, in the time since I last saw the painting, I have been working on a project to digitize old family photos and do my best to photoshop them into some better shape -- clean them up, restore color, erase ugly relatives, etc.

And in all those family photos I ran across this photo of my grandmother, Helen "Gabby" Millring...

Suddenly that painting took on a new meaning. It seems obvious (to me anyway) that my Uncle Irving did one of his playful portraits of his sister-in-law, my grandmother, Helen.

Here's a photo I love of EJ and Helen...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Kalamazoo, Here I Come

Today I head up to Kalamazoo for the Garage Sale Art Fair -- an event invented by a couple of art fair artists -- Bonnie Blandford and Michael Kifer.

I can't overstate how important I think it is that this is run by touring art fair artists. I don't think that anyone not familiar with our lives and concerns could have pulled it off even half as well. But they do pull it off. Year after year. I think this will be my fourth GSAF.

Bonnie and Michael have made the event fun without detracting from the respect and high regard for the artists and craftsman's work. Though they play up the bargain aspect, it never came at the appearance of anything but an exceptionally good value on something that the patrons may, otherwise, not be as likely to afford.

In fact, there is much buzz among the patrons along the lines of ......."oh my gosh! ....he's/she's ("famous" artist in their view) here!". The buzz I get from the patrons is not just the deals they are getting -- it is the deals they are getting from these particular artists!

The bargain aspect never plays up the "seconds" nature of much of the work there. Sure, that is an understood aspect underlying the whole event, but it just never comes across as the artists unloading junk. It always leaves the impression of a great opportunity for the buyer. Because it is.

And they've made it easy for the artist. If the artist wishes to put more time into presentation, I suppose that is possible. But it isn't the nature of the beast. Art work can be displayed however you wished to display it. This was one aspect I have loved about the event. It reminds me so much of those days 25-30 years ago when we all went to art fairs with our own invented, sometimes crazy ways to display. And as odd as this sounds -- that sort of "ramshackle" sense of display is so dadgum inviting to the patrons. I can't remember the last time I saw a more engaged patronage. They love it. All the intimidation that we as artists subconsciously build into our displays to make us seem more erudite, more esoteric, more "gallery", are absent. Those walls down, patrons feel more at ease to approach artists.

I can't do this event every year. I usually don't have enough seconds to make it worthwhile. But I consider it an important event. It is an interesting reality check. When we artists begin wondering where the art fair patrons have gone.... seems they're probably as crazy about our work as they ever were. They just may not be able to afford our work as it is now priced -- not as reflects the market, but as reflects our (artists) desire for an easier middle class lifestyle to match our age peers. We were never promised that. We were never promised that we could have BOTH the joy of working with our hands AND not have to work hard. Very hard.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Day In The Life

Up in the morning
Just about four
I pour me some coffee
And I'm out the door
Life is never a bore
See, I'm a potter

Loadin' the kiln
With my dog, Breeze
Well, I should say "I load"
He does what he please
I light the burners so's I don't freeze
See, I'm a potter

Got two kilns loaded...
some in the old kiln

Some in the new

...and an idea borrowed for playing the blues...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Slip-Slidin' Away

The Bauman Stoneware studio is under the supervision of a temporary new manager. We are again dog-sitting Rawley the energetic Brittany Spaniel.

WatcH, JoHn! IF I do my eyes aNd eArs jUst sO, I cAn mAke iT loOk liKE I'm fAcINg iNto a sTroNg hEADwiNd.

WHo iS hEre?

haT aRE we doiNg?
IS tHiS fuN?

Hat's cLAy? dOEs it TAStE likE mEat? WHy nOT? Is iT gooD For you? WiLL iT HOLD mEat pRoDuCtS eVENtuaLLy?


ARf ?

BArK !

Meanwhile, I've taken on a different project. I'm making some porcelain guitar slides for my friend, John Bushouse. John and I met through our mutual interest in guitars. Here's a picture of John and me back when we first met.

We had no idea who the dog was. He seemed friendly, and he just crawled up in our laps that way. We didn't have the heart to shoo him off.

I've made guitar slides before. I made a whole mess of them about ten years ago. But I don't play that way (slide) so I didn't know what the heck I was doing at the time. The ones I made were so big that they could have sleeved right over a normal size slide. They fired beautifully -- I glazed them in a carbon trap shino and they came out with leopard spots and tiger stripes. They LOOKED beautiful, even if they were too big to function. I only ended up saving one of them for myself (pictured left). It wasn't the prettiest. It does have a little stripe to it -- mostly it's just carbon black.

I only have two friends with hands big enough to even consider using the slides, big as those slides were. I have big hands myself. When I'm explaining to people just how big my hands are, I tell them that I can palm a basketball. That means I can grip and hold a basketball in one hand. One of those huge porcelain slides went to my friend Paul Kucharski. Paul can palm a Volkswagen. Here is Paul (and I think he's using one of the slides I gave him)... other friend who could use one of those old XXXL slides is Steve Morris. Steve lives out West and if you want to find him, look for the roadhouse with the big blue ox tied outside.

Noticing his huge hands, I once asked Steve what his ring size was.

"225/60 R15."

"Isn't that a truck tire size?" I asked.

He just got this "well, duh" look on his face.

Anyway, here are the slides as they came off the wheel last night in all there fingermarked and just cut-off, messy glory...

They're cleaning off nicely this morning...

I made some for slipping over the finger and playing the guitar upright (like Paul's doing in the video). Others I made like a bullet and they'll be used to play lap-style. I hope I didn't go overboard and make them too small this time. If so, maybe I can palm them off on the Vienna Boys Blues Guitar Choir.

Meanwhile, I have also been making some actual, honest-to-goodness pottery. Here are a few bowls I decorated yesterday...

Finally, Breeze says to let him know when the bossy, brassy, loudmouth Brittany is gone...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Influential Potter Series -- Potter #5

Since I spent much of the week discussing the challenges and the joys of being willing to change -- to move on -- this seems like a good time to resurrect my "Influential Potter Series" and add a #5 to #1, #2, #3, and #4.

Steve Kostyshyn, a modern day Renaissance man is, to my mind, a model for both how the art fairs became what they are (or once were – if you buy the notion that their heyday is past), and what they might continue to be. He is just the kind of craftsman/artist who has brought patrons out to art fairs by the tens and even hundreds of thousands to meet us artist/craftsmen – the creative, SKILLED people that most of them desperately wish that they themselves were.

In the short fifteen or so years that I’ve known Steve, I’ve seen him re-invent himself and his work COMPLETELY no less than four times -- each time coming up with ideas and work that were and are
excellent. In his fifties – when so many craftsmen continue to “phone it in” with the same work (or nearly so) that they’ve been schlepping to the same shows for decades now – Steve did his latest personal re-invention and catapulted himself to award-winning status at almost every major show in the country.

When so many artists and craftsmen are looking toward technology for an easy out from the craftsman’s life that they chose for themselves (but now somehow seem to see as a drudgery) Steve is diving even deeper into craftsmanship and exploring new ways to make it interesting – not easier.

Whether as a potter, a basket maker, a guitar player, a web designer, or a thinker, Steve shows his energetic, over-drive passion for being creative. And he’s as successful as anyone I know at his creative endeavors because (I’m convinced by knowing him) his creative “horse” is in place well ahead of his marketing “cart”.

It’s artist/craftsmen like Steve (and David Greenbaum, and Jerry Smith and a few others) who inspire me to not sit still -- to water and watch grow (and maybe add a little Miracle-Gro) what remains of that soul of a twenty-year-old who still lives deep within – that twenty-year-old who lived for the excitement of the creative life.

You can find more about Steve's work at his website and his Etsy site.



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's A Goldmine

I've been hitting the pottery posts pretty hard lately. Time for a musical interlude, says me.

I noticed this morning that the Goldmine Pickers just uploaded some new youtubes overnight. You'll be among the first to see 'em right here. The Goldmine Pickers have changed personnel a bit over the years, but at their core are some guys I've had the privilege of having met through the Goshen music scene (of which I'm a small part). I've also had the joy of sitting in and playing with a few of them -- Lukas, Sean, and Adam. I mentioned Lukas and Adam in this post from two years ago.

An additional connection -- Lukas and I both have guitars built by our mutual friend, Jim Shenk. The two dreadnoughts are serially numbered very close to each other -- the tops are almost identical.

Anyway, the Goldmine Pickers spin a kinda new take on old-timey music. Most of the guys in the band play several instruments and their ability to mix it up in that way only makes their shows more entertaining.

To wind the post down a bit, here's an old fiddle tune called "The Spotted Pony" played on my Jim Shenk guitar while sitting out in the pottery shop this morning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Carter, I agree with you. I didn't so much mean to be minimizing the importance of making pottery with my "humility" comment so much as I was groping to find a contrast to that urge we sometimes feel to suppose that what we've made at any one time is so important -- so perfect -- that we need not move on.

We tend to learn that lesson pretty early on as we look back on our first pots from the vantage point of a few years advancement in the craft. Time passing helps us see our once precious work from a new perspective, and suddenly we realize that those pieces we poured our beginner selves into aren't what we thought they were.

But curiously, I think we tend to forget it again when the pieces we make really do start to meet our expectations AND stand the scrutiny of time.

I am big on the little things. But I didn't say that very clearly. I tend to ramble. Heh. And I really like your post. Wonderful.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Conversation With Cheney, Continued

In yesterday's post I started a conversation prompted by a series of questions from my friend, Cheney. I'll continue the conversation here in today's post. The Thomas Hart Benton images are here because you can't have a blog post without pictures. It's a rule.

Cheney: So all this made me think of you for some reason. What if you decide some day to make a line of bowls in dayglow colors with geometric shapes on them? Not that you would, but what if your muse took some PCP and told you to? How easy is it for an established artist to shift gears and hope his fan base follows him? The same questions can be applied to musicians. When Michael Hedges started singing, a lot of his fans (like me) said, "Shut up and play." Then again, when Genesis left Progressive rock and started pumping out power ballads and dance tunes they got more popular, not less (well less popular with me but more popular with the rest of the world).

Me: Funny thing in that regard. It can and often does go either way.

At the end of the 1980s I was just about to pack it in. I was making pottery that looked almost completely different from what I do now -- different inspiration, different method, different market (as it turned out)

...and curiously, I was still busy as a one-armed paper hanger trying to keep up. So....why wasn't it working?

Because I failed to see that playing only to the same audience had painted me into a corner of ever-less-cost-effective item making.

When I finally came to my senses....beaten over the head by a more forward-thinking Dar....I was made to realize that I had to change and hope that if there was something essentially "ME" about the work, maybe some of my past customers would follow me into my new adventures. But even if they didn't (follow me), me quitting pottery didn't supply their demand either, right?

So, overnight I simply quit doing what I had been doing for a decade. And I changed. I did several hundred glaze experiments and came up with something that, in retrospect, was awkward, inferior, and demanded its own learning curve.

But I also learned that the novelty of change was a stronger public draw than the safe stagnancy I had unwittingly come to rely on. I actually started selling better.

And as that change freed my mind and my expectations, the next change created what turned out to be the best demand for my work in my life (best selling potter at three of the biggest art fairs in the country).

So, thick-headed as I am, I do learn some things every once in a while.

Incidentally, I find myself knocking on that door right now -- working toward change again.

Cheney: The other part of the question was more along the lines of why change if it isn't broken. This isn't from a marketing point of view but an artistic satisfaction pov. What if making the things you do right now are the height of artistic expression re your career? What if you look at what you do and think, "This is it. This is what has been in my mind's eye for 30 years and I am finally able to make it real." At that point why change? I'm sure there are successful artists that have been cranking out the same stuff over and over again forever. Their fans love it, the critics may get bored but they don't pay retail anyway and the artist may be fine with it. Part of the question in there, if there is one, is where do you see yourself in that scale? How much do you want to or are open to drastic or even subtle changes in your artistic direction at this stage in your career?

Me: Why change if it isn't broken?

1. Boredom.

2. Sufficient humility (enforced by enough casual dismissal from peer and public alike) to realize that what I do at any one time is not earth-shaking stuff. I’m making pottery, not changing the world.

3. The muse knocks and creative people answer. I don't know how to not be creative. I know my word games, punnery, and endless stories may be tiresome. But my mind doesn't simply shut down. I never stop thinking about connectivity and creativity.

4. And this one is the real insidious one. As I hinted above, we aren't always aware when something is "broke" and needs fixing. Market demand rarely ever shuts off immediately like a faucet. There are SO MANY factors that play into demand...and so many forces that settle a man toward inertia. We don't always read the times well....we don't always know when it's time to move on. We often tell ourselves that we're doing fine....the market will turn around....that show was bad but this one is good (and so the next one will be good). All kinds of rationalizations. Sometimes we wait too long.

These are just a few of my favorite potters (I showed Cheney images of each of the following).

Cathi Jefferson
Ellen Shankin
Tom Clarkson
Pete Pinnell
Jane Hamlyn
Richard Aerni
John Peterson
Shirl & Jim Parmentier
Pat Horsley
Tom Coleman
Elaine Coleman
Dick Lehman
John Tilton
Dan Finnegan
John Leach
Paul Morris
Tim Sullivan
Adam Spector
David Greenbaum
Mark Hewitt

Cheney: Now that you have posted all of those, I can see some of your work in a few of them (which ones came first?) and others that are pretty distant from you. What do you see in each that draws you to them? What about what they do are you drawn to? Is there some of what they do that you wish you did? Some of it seems to have influenced you (some a little, some greatly) but others are nothing like your work at all.

Me: What do I like about most of them? What do I think I similarly strive for (whether I hit it or not)?

Probably their strong shapes.

Possibly a sort of "timelessness" to most of them (Horsley's being the most obvious exception).

Definitely what is referred to as "transparent craftsmanship" -- that notion of a craftsmanship so comfortably competent that the HOW of the making takes a back seat to the WHAT of the finished product....yet still utterly "human" in the execution. The perfection of execution that is still stopping WAY short of an erasure of the human hand that would put the end result into that "It's so perfect that it looks like it was machine-made" realm.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Road Less Traveled

Mr friend, Cheney, asks the best questions. This morning he asked:

John, I've got a question about inspiration and artistic freedom within one's own style.

If I look at your work (minus the snowmen), I can pretty much see a consistent style for most of it. The nature themes -- leaves, acorns, glazes, swirls, etc. So the question isn't where do you get your inspiration, but what do you do when your inspiration doesn't look anything at all like everything you have done before? How easy is it for an artist to shift gears and produce something unlike the work that made him moderately famous or at least profitable?

Do you allow yourself to break out and try new looks from time to time or do you feel either completely fulfilled within the artistic style you have developed or limited by the same style?


That's a good question. You ask really good questions.

I'll have to think about it some.

I think breaking free from one way of doing things is very important. At my age, and at this point in my pottery career, I've seen more potters stumble and struggle because of the comfort they found in a style with which they either had success or found easy to do, or both. They got in a rut. It's easy to do.

The first thing that comes to mind though, is that there are two major barriers (though there are obviously many minor ones) that seem to define most potters in the expression of a style. They're both on a sliding scale, and though they both seem to allow for breakthroughs, those breakthroughs are usually inconsistent. They seem to be spurred by exceptional moments and acts.

But the two are:

1. inspiration -- what currently or always seems to "float our boat"
2. limitations -- what we seem incapable of, either by virtue of lacking the skill (sometimes can be overcome, other times not), or lacking proper materials to pull off that something new.

My friend, Tim, and I have discussed this at length. One conclusion we share is that we both try to be open-minded and analytical about our mistakes -- mistakes in firing, mistakes in execution. We both even invite such evolution by the processes we chose.

For instance, the inherent lack of control that comes with firing in a gas kiln invites a MUCH higher degree of unpredictability to the results. That unpredictability can be a terrible frustration when a consistent set of results are desired or required (like, for instance, to make a living). But those unpredictable results -- those mistakes -- are a window into possibilities that we'd probably be blind to if we took the safe road. By going with safer production methods, we just might be sacrificing a chance at better outcomes for results that might be merely "suitably good".

But changing direction is something that I believe should be built into the processes one chooses (as, for instance, Tim and I do by implementing "imperfect methods" as a tool). This is because the alternative -- stagnation -- is a worse fate than the occasional bad firing. Trying to move on and grow/change may SEEM like a chancy/dangerous road compared to sticking with only the tried-and-true, but if you've been in pottery as long as I have, you begin to notice the slow death-by-stagnation that occurs to your safe-road traveling contemporaries.

There are other means of moving on besides allowing methods that bring a variable->appraisal->adjustment method into the process. Many potters attend workshops. I think workshops are especially great for potters who are imaginative but lack the skill at the time to pull off their best ideas. Sometimes sharing problem solving with other potters is the best way to get off the bubble.

Of course, the downside with the workshop idea is the same thing that happens in kindergarten "art" class. The first kid to draw something inspires an entire class of copycats. In contemporary ceramics right now it's pretty easy in lots of cases to sus out exactly where most potters get their ideas. There's a "Penland" look. There's a "look" connected to most every workshop, and maybe even every successful potter. It's often easy to deduce the inspirational foundations from which/whom others derive their work. Workshops don't always inspire creativity as much as they inspire imitation.

I've rambled on and probably haven't even addressed the original question. I do think that in some ways -- as counter intuitive as this may sound -- it's easier to be creative within the framework of a style. But that's just a whole nuther post.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pardon Me, But Your Slip Is Showing

Scott from the "Createniks" tells me that they're experimenting with the vertical feathering that I illustrated in video form in this post. So I thought I'd expand a bit on the idea.

It's been a while (20 years) since I did the technique in production. I only saved a couple of pieces for myself, so I don't have lots of photographic examples. But here's a fairly large (14" tall) lamp done this way.

In this case, what I refer to as the "ground line" -- the first color drip I send down the side -- was the red iron slip. The second line I created with the black slip -- 2% cobalt ox, 3% red iron ox. Finally, I finished by chasing a line of porcelain slip right down the same channel as the black slip.

I discovered early on that the ground slip will dictate how heavy the whole pattern appears. And because the second line needs to be thinner (meaning: "more liquid/more fluid"), you really need to start with a ground that has some body.

The idea is to create parallel vertical lines with the ground slip. The second color of slip should then be able to chase down between two lines, clinging to BOTH lines, and creating a now-unbroken, slip-covered surface to the face of the pot.

If the slip you use for the second line is thicker than the ground line, the second drip will simply cling to one line instead of dripping down evenly between two lines.

The third and final color of slip should be somewhere between the thicknesses of the other two colors, but it can be as thick as the ground. It's most important that it be at least slightly thicker than the second color. If it is, it will chase that second color straight down, leaving a pencil-thin line of the second color on both sides of the third color.

Finally, after making sure that gravity had had it way with all the drips and their downward drift was more or less finished, I created the horizontal lines with a tool I created by taking the needle out of a needle tool and replacing it with a length of B string from my guitar. I created one set of lines with the wheel spinning as it does when I throw, and then I reversed the wheel to create the alternate horizontal lines.

In these feathered pots I used both high-contrast colors (black and porcelain on the same piece), and no-contrast (body colored slip of varying thicknesses with a glaze that emphasizes texture over them). I also quite often left the lines alone -- did not feather through them. The possibilities are nearly endless.

The examples I've shown so far are all under a semi-matte glaze that pleasantly mutes the colors. But if you want the colors and patterns to really POP, they really come alive under transparent and celadon glazes. I don't have any photo examples of vertical feathering under transparent, but I do have these plates that are the same colors of slip -- feathered in a ground -- and under a cone 10 transparent glaze.

Under the transparent, obviously the slip that creates "black" under the matte glaze, appears as midnight blue.

Decorating with colored slip is just plain ol' fun.