Sunday, April 24, 2011

Kiss an Egg, a book chapter written in Costa Rica

How difficult is it to keep things simple stupid? 
Here in Costa Rica we saw the chickens that 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.  And then there is that industrial revolution thing.
I am guilty.  Just one egg is not enough.  I bought too 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, newfangled 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 simpler 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 and the pots are gorgeous.  I started studying their ways, combined their ideas and fired the simplest way possible.  I used sawdust, grass, and dung, wood whatever material was most available.  I confess I did bisque fire for permanence.  Feeling the clay using the simplest techniques.  I learned primitive techniques 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.” 
Most likely, she only had the tools she needed, and probably a real chicken pecking in the yard. The kiss of simplicity.

Putting your eggs in one Basket

What kind of potter or artist do you want to be?  Can you force your style?  Do you want to learn just one thing or lots and everything?
Do you want to make functional ware or make a very pure form of art?
Can you tell what kind of potter you are? Is it important to be only one kind of potter/sculpture?

Generally, I have found the more I learn about different techniques and ways to fire etc., the better.  When you open up to new ideas and maybe a different way to build or fire you begin to have more choices.  Sometimes I wish I did not know so many ways to do things.  It would be easier and with tunnel vision you can make more progress faster and possibly become an expert in some area.  Ceramics is full of so many directions as are most of the arts that it is hard to know which way to turn.  Experimenting even when the experiment does not work is a learning process and adds so much to your knowledge.
Put your eggs in one basket and you limit yourself.  Sometimes it is just more difficult to carry a lot of baskets.  Remember you can always set a few baskets down after a while and get more specialized in your knowledge. Knowledge, learning and listening.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On being Grounded

A dear sweet friend who had been through a very intense experience of a dying father, finally had to let go.  The father had lingered and held on to her and finally when friends forced her to leave the room and take a short break, he died.  She had to let go as well.  Her friends took her outside and sat her in a lawn chair, removed her shoes and put her bare feet in the grass.  This experience did in fact ground her.  She found the strength to continue with her life.
Planting and flipping dirt may help many of us get grounded.  Whenever I lose a friend I want to plant something to prove life continues and to see things grow.

Those feelings also happen while working in clay, dirt.  A friend of mine whose beautiful young daughter died “grounded” herself by learning to make pots.  The pain never totally left but it did significantly ease the pain.

My students get their hands busy and all of a sudden they relax and with the sensuousness of the pliable clay in their hands they go into the zone.  They will work through the stress of the day as they slam the clay down on the worktable to remove its air bubbles and begin to tell me their life stories as well.  “Clay talks.”
The creative experience grows as the hands work the clay.  You just can’t help it.  Grounded.

"Did you hear what I really said?" Chapter 46 of Getting There

Talking to a friend, he said.” So what is your book about?  “  I started to laugh a little being embarrassed trying to sum up about 45 unedited chapters.  He knew what I meant immediately.  He is an old friend and a retired preacher I knew in Knoxville when I taught middle school.
“So it is just like when people used to ask me on Tuesday what Sunday’s sermon would be about.”
It goes something like this in my own interpretation.  There is the book I plan to write.  There is the presentation you hear.  There is what I actually write and the book you remember me writing.  Sounds like a good explanation to me!
I have been writing this book off and on for about 10 years.
  I started scribbling it on paper rapidly in outline form when I was at a conference with my husband. A conference offers me a nice clean quiet hotel room where I can think with no interruptions.  A first I could not write fast enough and I knew exactly what I wanted, an almost how to kind of pottery book.  Next, I looked at my bookshelves stuffed with how to books and thought, “No, that is not quite what I want to write.  There are way to many already.  Writing another book about how to make a coil pot really is not necessary.”
I want to write a book about the essentials of living an artistic life and how to make that possible. 
Books that have been meaningful to my life are, Gift from the Sea, it helped me through hard times, Like Water for Chocolate, because of the adventures and they way she added recipes between chapters, not playing by the rules, and Eat Pray Love, the search for meaning in a woman’s life, and the humor of Nora Ephron’s, Heartburn and I Hate My Neck, which remind me not to take myself too seriously.
I wish I could turn to my husband to help me edit these 45 or so chapters.  He is a terrific writer but a bit to analytic for my style writing.  My book is more about feelings and surviving as an artist and his is facts and history.
Maybe writing this “life” book is all about being a baby boomer in my 50’s.  Another friend said, “Oh yes, my husband is in his 50’s so he is writing a book too.”  I can’t let that pop my bubble or maybe it is true and just take it from there.
    My most meaningful life book about pottery now is Centering, not about centering clay but about centering your life and Bernard Leach’s book the Potter’s Mark.  I must confess, I have never made it entirely through either one.  And, I hope to design my book in a way that if you don’t have time to read it all at once, you can pick out chapters to read individually that might be inspiring one at a time.  And, I want chapters in between that offer fun projects and yes, food recipes as well.
    I am not sure where this book belongs on the shelf.  I talked to the editors of Ceramic’s Monthly and they are more into the how to books in a tight economy.  They have tried the more philosophical books and have not been able to sell them.  And it may be that Clay Times would read and accept a chapter as an article, I am not sure.  It is kind of biographical and probably a little more new age spiritual than I want to admit. 
  I have a friend who has been through the self publishing, print it as they buy it and with her help it might all fall into place given enough time to work on it.
But I do know I can only write when I am not home and can not feel obligated to go to the shop and make a living with my hands.  I have written several chapters in the hotel room while my husband attends his academic conferences, about 20 chapters in hotel rooms in Hawaii, and several more chapters while staying with friends with great feed back on ideas in Costa Rica.  I still need more time and a little help with formatting etc on my computer.
Writing is as rewarding as making pottery and certainly does give my tired arms a well deserved rest.  I have always loved teaching and helping my students of all age to find their way through art and life. 
  How about, “Finding your way, an adventure through the essentials of art and life?”  or “Getting there, the essentials of life and clay.”   Well, maybe.  Just write and edit and put the icing on the cake later.  

Hands, Chapter 31 "Getting There"

The following is a chapter from my book, Getting There, This was written while staying with a friend in Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican laborer’s hands may be the roughest hand I have ever shook.  The second roughest hand 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 daughter’s hands are like princess’s 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 baby’s chubby new undirected hand before they learn to get what they reach for.  The strength of strong persons hands can be impressive.  And, of course, there are the jokes about the size of a man’s thumb indicating similar matching body parts.  Old people’s        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.