Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tools, You Want them? I Have Them

Ok, so first I said you can have too many tools. But there is another side.
There is delight in owning good tools and a lot of tools. Having the right tool for the right job, we all know can be wonderful. And, quality tools are important and extra tools are good to so you don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for the tools you cannot find.

I think about tools that have given me the most joy, I remember my first professional twirling baton growing up. Shiny stainless steel with bright white rubber ends. The funky red wooden ones from the farmer’s fair with the cheap glittery ball on the end got me started. It did not last. The stainless steel baton lingered in my life for years. Having the quality baton always gave me feeling of joy and success as I flipped it in the air.
Both worked but the steal one felt good in my fingers. It was the beginning of thinking about quality tools and making a job easier.
Ceramic tools are that way too. I have some tools from my original working days. They still make me feel good and I might even be able to make that perfect pot with some of my better tools.

Making your own tools can be fun when you remember form follows function. My favorite brush was one I hand made, never to be replaced or recreated.

I don’t know any ambitious potter who does not take pride in collecting tools and we covet our favorite tools. Maybe it has to do with efficiency or maybe it is a hopes and dreams and the potential for making new fun pots.
The more tools you have the more fun and creative you can feel. You don’t have to clean them as often and you can keep moving forward.
Ask a tool collector if they have a certain tool and look at their glowing faces as they show you those drawers and drawers of collected tools from years gone by or maybe those new ones they have not yet used. Just having those tools makes them feel fine.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bugs and Mugs

Texture of bug pressed in side of bowl. Looks like an age old symbol.

Just a little quick gesture of Tom's beautiful full sized poodle, Willy.

Yes I am making more mugs and these mugs are waiting for handles.

No bug is safe unless it is on the endangered list. I love the spiral circle symbol. It is from so many cultures and seems to generally mean. Jouney, travel, continuous path eternity etc. You get the gist. So we are playing with clay and Ron spots a funny little rough texture catepillar. Rubbing his scales backwards feels like metal. We pick him up and decide to press him in the pot. Well I confess after holding him in my hand a few seconds I got the heepie jeepies and tossed him unwantingly onto the table. Tom however picked him up and continued pressing him in the clay. And, there it was the spiral. We felt a little guilty having sacrificed the bug for art but later when we returned to the bowl he had walked or ran out. We searched for him, being the neat little "impressionist" that he was and did not find him until the next morning by the front door. Nice impression. So we will probably launch a bug series this week using a white cloth at night with a light shining on it to catch our inocent victums. Tom says there are some very interesting bugs around her. Textures are all around us and this one looked fun after a day of mug making.

Downtown San Ramon, Gringos find Ice Cream

Costa Rican's know how to live. They walk and they don't appear to be rushing. They smile and are obviously peace loving people. It looks like a nice place to grow up. Mom's hold their children's hands and everyone knows everyone, mostly.
Ron and I were waiting for Tom to finish his business in the ever so interesting hardware store and we kept noticing ice cream cones passing by. Ron headed to tell Tom we were going to find the source of these slightly melting ice cream cones and in a matter of minutes we found it as well. And, it was really good ice cream. Just a typical day in San Ramon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kiss an Egg

How difficult is it to keep things simple stupid?
Here in Costa Rica we saw the chickens who laid the eggs and bought them from the owner. The eggs are fresh and tasty. I cannot check the date on the end of the carton. There is no carton. They come hand delivered in a recycled large tray. I have not seen a Styrofoam egg carton since I arrived.
So what happened? Did we need more eggs than we could supply without the big stinky chicken farms? Is it simpler to run to the store and buy them? I think the answer is very complicated. We changed. And, I think the word quality was lost.
I am guilty. Just one egg is not enough. I bought to much stuff for my studio thinking it would make it easier. When you visit the potters in the pueblos of New Mexico there is proof the number of tools we think we need is a bit much. I love my tools. I am a tool monger. I like handmade, commercial, new fangled and traditional Chinese tools as well. I sell tools. But the truth is it is how you use the ones you have.
I am guilty. I have a lot of eggs from all kinds of cartons. I have too many tools and that takes more space and more organization. I even have sentimental tools from a friend who died. It is hard to give them away. Life could be more simple if I had fewer tools. I don’t even know what I own. I am trying to look at some and realize I have had my turn, now let someone else play with them. It helps when I donate them to worthy causes. But I have to keep several handfuls to stay secure. At least I have taken them all out of the boxes they came in and used them.
Our ideas, our projects our lives are easiest to enjoy when they are kept simple and maybe a bit organized.
I look in the depths of my dark clothing closet and I panic when I try and find shoes. 30 shoes? 20 pairs? I don’t know. I get the flashlight and search desperately for 2, only 2 good shoes. And, I cannot give them up even if they are too tight or stinky. Maybe I should throw a couple of chickens in my closet.
In grad school we all loved firing with cone 10 gas in that giant kiln. It took several of us to fire it, load it, and mess with all the air, gas, thermocouples and dampers. Then the gas crisis of the 70s hit and they turned the gas off. This caused a panic. We were not considered necessary gas users.
That is when I looked back again to the simple way of life. What is basic? Native Americans, Africans and Mexicans do not have the latest super L&L kiln, like I own and sell, and the pots are gorgeous. I started studying their ways, combined their ideas and fired the most simple way possible. I used sawdust, grass, dung, wood whatever material was most available. I confess I did bisque fire for permanence. Feeling the clay and using the most simple techniques, I learned primitive techniques that are neither unsophisticated nor inferior. I could also see how tradition in crafts would have been helpful.
When I attended the Hopi Indian workshop in the 80’s I asked Fawn Navasie where she got her ideas. She said, “I just close my eyes and see them.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bamboo wow

The bamboo on Ron's property is enormous. It would make quite a paint brush.

Costa Rican Dreams and Adventure to the Woods

"Do you like an Adventure?" Ron asked. I said. "Sure." and we hopped in his newly acquired land rover.
Ron is from Templeton CA and bought 50 acres here where he plans to build a few houses and live. Barely off the plane we headed for his new land. He had not driven this old land rover before but it is his now and in 20 minutes he new how to drive it and we soon found ourselves on crazy dirt sort of roads on his property.
It was a pleasure to see his eyes light up as he described his project. "The guest house will be here. That is an artesian well. That is where Michele and I will have our main house." And, just like Tom's place, it has a great view of the ocean below. One of the joys of this trip was to meet Jeimy and her family. She is supervising his project and lives in a house he built for her with her family. After we ran around in his land rover following roads unknown and always finding a turn space we joined her at her table for coffee and cake. The kids showed us their new baby chicks and the husband showed us his new drainage and water supplies from town and the river. Ron has the sense to not overbuild and enjoy the Costa Rican land as is.

Do Not Worry Annisarily

While working in Feats of Clay pottery shop in Austin, we spent days and nights together and tried to figure out the world and its problems. Ceramics being the “world’s most fascinating hobby” and the world’s most time consuming art, we were almost always there, together in the same work space.
Judy, who owned the shop, told me when she and her friends were in elementary school and had their club house, they posted a sign over the door. “Do not worry annisarily.” Easy words but hard to pull off even as a child.
Last night, my new friend Ron and I were waiting for Tom to come back from town. The big garage door was open and Ron spotted a big fat toad sneaking into the main room of the house. What to do? Catch him of course. What if? What if he landed on your face in the middle of the night? What if he is some poison frog version and the dog eats him or he squirts poison juice on my hand and I rub my eyes and go blind?But what if he left a poison trail? What if? Eventually we chased him out with Tom’s assistance and our worries were gone. I wanted to just reach down and pick him up pee and all but Tom warned me against it. What if he just ate bugs, belched and left when he was full?
I jumped to my feet and ran to my computer two nights before I left for Costa Rica. What if I had the date wrong for my flight? It was correct and I snuggled back down in my pillow.
Me worry? There are times to worry like when you forgot to check the kiln and if it turned off? Or did you really lock the door?
Worrying is kind of weird thing. Knowing when to worry is an art. It would take an uncaring idiot to never worry. And it takes a nervous ninny to worry about everything.
So figure it out and be conscious of when the right time to worry is but don’t “worry annisarily."

Monday, January 26, 2009

There is a Goat in the Road

How fun, just another day in Costa Rica and there is a goat in the road and here comes the milk man. My friend, the young girl, is 11 and the housekeeper"s daughter and fun to try and talk to in Spanish. We giggled and had a good time as I showed her photo booth on my computer. I have a feeling we will talk again and maybe my Spanish will be a little better next time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

You are who you are and where you are (book draft)

“Do you mind if I copy you?” That is a question I am asked a lot by students. I consider it a compliment so be my guest. It is my job to stay a few steps ahead and not be threatened. If you are not a stagnant artist this is usually not a problem.
I used to try and be as original as possible. I did not want to make anything anyone else had ever made. And then I learned no matter how hard I tried that was impossible. There are too many other people on the planet of similar culture of similar influence doing the same thing at the same time. That is our culture and you cannot really jump out of it.
In graduate school, I wanted to be different. I wanted to be the only one making what I was making. It was the late 70’s with hanging baskets and teapots and lot more utilitarian ware. Then the energy crisis hit and they turned our natural gas off. So much for firing in that big gas kiln.
I turned to history. I went back to the basics. I studied Native American, African and Mexican pots and sculpture. No one else was doing it or so I thought. At last, originality!
And then, the bubble burst. I had traveled all the way across the country to study with a Hopi Indian woman named Fawn Navasie. She had never been off the reservation and had no idea how big the country was by car. All the way from Keems Canyon Arizona to Peter’s Valley New Jersey by invitation. When they reached Ohio the two Native American artists traveling in the car asked the driver. “Aren’t we there yet?”
As I headed toward the admissions desk I stepped into a show of a resident artist’s most recent work. It could have been mine. Pop, the originality bubble was gone again.
I now recognize this is not a problem and we don’t have a choice anyway. You just have to be who you are and where you are. You cannot force stages of your work as you find your voice so you may as well sit back and enjoy the journey.

In a Fog and Expectations (book chapter, draft)

Stand on a hillside over the ocean and the port and village and watch the lights at night twinkle. Look at the sky and see Orion and the seven sisters.
It is magical. It gives me a sense of being special and powerful. It was the first time I came out all day. I did not know the fog, present for several days except an occasional sunset, had cleared.

We need to keep our eyes open to inspiration. When I feel good, I feel more creative. The power of the night sky and the magical mystical feelings give me energy. Travel gives me energy and inspiration.

Listen to your dreams, both your daydreams and your night dreams.
And remember to keep a notebook of ideas and things that inspire you. It is so easy to think great thoughts and them forget them. It can be very hard to know where those ideas are leading and which ones are important. So just dream, write them down and hold on to them until they don’t interest you or you have used the idea.
Just do it.

Hands (draft book chapter)

The Costa Rican laborer’s hands may be the roughest hand I have ever shook. The second roughest had was my friend Mikey’s daughter. Her hand was an American cowgirl hand.
My husband is a professor and writer and he has very soft hands. My son is an artist with very long thin fingers. My daughters hands are like a princesses hands, tiny soft and small, waiting for white lacy gloves.
Hands lead our way to the senses. We shake hands, we feed ourselves sometimes with a fork and sometimes we hold onto a slippery mango.
I explain to my pottery students that their hands are their finest tools. The most expensive tool will not necessarily produce the finest pot. You see this as the aspiring young to the clay student asks, “So what kind of wheel or kiln do you use? Or what kind of camera should I buy?”
Through your hands you feel and make artistic decisions with clay. Pinch pots are the essence of all clay making and the feeling, pinching and moving the clay makes it happen whether you are throwing on the potters wheel or pushing the clay around making a figure.

Hands. They tell us a lot about each other. Do you sit on your hands? Do you extend your hands easily? Do you stick them in your armpits? Do you decorate your fingernails and protect them? Can you resist rubbing a babies head? Can you squeeze meat to make meatloaf? Do you point accusingly?

Sensitivity connects through your hands. We find our way through our hands.

Think about a babies chubby new undirected hands before they learn to get what they reach for. The strength of a strong persons hands. And, of course, there are the jokes about the size of a man’s thumb indicating similar matching body parts. Old peoples thin skinned worn hands from years of work becoming more delicate again, telling us to slow down.
Hands show agreement and confidence when we shake. Hands show the clay who is in charge

Awakening the Senses ( a chapter draft)

Eyes rule. We naturally miss a lot of sounds and a lot of smells. As we get more and more sophisticated using more electronic tools and I am afraid we become less and less aware of our senses.
Walking through the market in Costa Rica I smell the fresh fruit and flowers. It is a very tactile experience and I seldom see anyone buying their
food that does not first feel it and smell it. Yes, first you must see it but that is only a part of the experience.
My friends agree we need this. We try to recreate it to some degree with our farmers markets. Ours is small and not such an intricate part of the society.
Here in Costa Rica this is the main food source, not something you might find time to go to. Cars are lined up and it is a social event as well as grocery buying. The senses are alive there. Fresh chicken, the best bacon I have ever tasted and fresh homemade cheese.
My friend and I stop and have a cheese pancake from a grill while we shop. I have seen nothing like this since Hawaii.
Why do our groceries have no smells and very little variation. There will be most likey only 2 or 3 types of potatoes. How did we let this part of our culture go? Did we get to busy to shop and enjoy our food?
Seeing, hearing touching smelling savoring this is how we begin to feel the world, to awaken our senses. When we waken our senses we awaken our creativity.
I had not worked in clay for a bit, between moves, and just the smell of the rain hitting the ground, stirs up the memory of clay. It makes me want to create.
I see Orion in the sky and I want to travel. He kept me company in Greece when I first married and was out of the country for the first time and he is in tonight’s sky in Costa Rica.
The smell of fresh brewed coffee takes me to my Grandmother’s house as a young child.
I have always felt, clay and cooking go hand in hand. Potters generally speaking are good cooks and we usually like a good glass of wine while we cook. We work hard. We are strong. We lift a lot. And we are strong.
Watching a fellow graduate student work, I saw Michael bite off the side of one of his pots look over and say, “Why did I do that?” and laugh.
The sensuousness of the clay keeps us excited. The tactile quality of creating goes into our souls. It is easy that way if you listen to your senses. But, it is probably not a good idea to bite it these days.

The Pleasure of Doing Nothing, Well, another chapter in progress in my book

I am thinking. I am reading. I am searching for more questions to think about and more answers as well.

Originally this chapter was The Pleasure of Doing Nothing or Too Much. I talked with Tom who retired early and added his ideas to mine as well. He is smart, figured out the system and was retired at 40 and figuring out how to live from that point. Sounds like a dream, retire at 40, what do you want to do when you grow up? When you have the creative spirit and energy you better figure it out. He started with flying airplanes and I think his spirit still soars. As he said, "I wanted to figure out how to do nothing, well." As in doing things well, taking time and doing things right or with care.

I remember hearing about Jimmy Carter's wife writing. He saw her laying across the bed, eyes closed and said, "You are writing?" Yes. If you cannot stop and listen how can we write.

In the third grade, Miss Exler, made us set upright, no legs crossed, new shiney plastic pens to be held correctly and then write. Correctly. No talking, either. I don't think I could teach that way. We did not question or we stood in the trash can. We had stay busy, be quiet and always productive. It takes a while to undo that kind of thinking.

Zen, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and Satchel Paige keep me in good company. A writer named Jill Badonsky thinks in a similar way and had these significant quotes on her site:

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” — Zen Proverb quotes

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein

“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth comes to the top.” — Virginia Woolf

“By slowing down, taking a break, releasing the process, and diverting our attention, we fill our souls, body and mind with the nutrients for the next step in the creative cycle. Ideas, inspiration, and motivation fulfill the creative cycle’s promise of the return to spring. Aha-phrodite shows up again, you resume your Marge efforts and continue from a place of plentiful readiness. We don’t need to fill every space of silence with stimuli. Silence and stillness can be quite medicinal” —Lull, Jill Badonsky’s Modern Day Muse of Pause, Diversion and Gratitude.

“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” — Satchel Paige

So if it feels so good to do nothing how come we don’t feel good and productive when we do nothing? It is a cultural thing and sometimes we need to get over it.
As a typical American I take pride in working hard and accomplishing something significant every day. Even in the relaxing environment of a friends home in Costa Rica, I still find some way of trying to do too much. I was sitting on the couch with legs propped up, good start, computer on lap, be careful, and a language book and inspiring reading material. How many things can we do at the same time? Well, I can learn Spanish while I facebook while I read my sources for my book while I post travel pictures on my blog, while I think I should be exercising and not just sitting there. That is all quite telling for us all and I think my daughter’s generation is going to have it even worse. No haiku poems for them!

Those words like pleasure and joy, happiness and success, work and tradition all rest precariously together. (more here)

We come from perhaps grumpy old forefathers with a bible in one hand and attitude for hard work equals success in the other. Sometimes I think we should have stayed in France.

Stay calm America. You are going to give yourselves a heart attack. Put the bible down and take a nap. And have a glass of wine while you are at it.

And then we have reality. Ceramics is one of the most time consuming of the arts. We are never ever finished. Something is drying, something is firing, something still needs to be made. Always, it is never finished. It is late

My son says, If you want to date someone in college and you need to study a lot, date a ceramics major. You will never see them. We visited him at a serious competitive art school and there in the studios late night Fridays and Saturdays you will see the art students working until midnight. The teachers walk through to see who is present and who is not.

Is May West correct? Too much of a good thing is wonderful? (Or terrible?)

Usually, pacing oneself is a good idea. It leads to better work habits, staying uninjured and a bit more mentally sane. Late night studio works well for me because it is usually my only uninterrupted time. Being alone with clay is wonderful.

I learned from Hal Rieger to blindfold students and pass around objects to feel in silence. Then make pinch pots while still wearing the blind fold. Some are uncomfortable and giggle as their senses wake up. Some students have even been afraid to be blind folded and I let them squeeze their eyes shut and promise not to peek. Often, these pinch pots turn out to be some of their finest coming from a quiet moment.

MORE SOON, got to think.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Farmer's Market in San Ramon on Friday

Luscious experience. And oh that pancake filled with cheese. Cannot think of the real name for it. It is like a cross between huraches and pancakes. This fruit tastes unbelievable. Smooth and sweet with no acidic undertones. Yum.