Archive for the ‘Ceramics’ Category

Good Lesson

April 4, 2014

Chang 1
A few weeks ago I accompanied my potter wife to the NCECA* convention in Milwaukee. I’m not an artist, but am always interested, sometimes enthralled, listening to experts describe their enterprise -whatever it might be. At the very least it can be invigorating to watch the approach of truth and beauty at the hands of a mere mortal. Occasionally, with attention and luck there will be a flight of transcendence and such was the case with Ching-Yuan Chang who you see on stage above.

Mr. Chang makes his delicate pots by first scoring (like this: /////) several smallish slabs of clay an inch or so thick and then gently throwing the slabs against the floor till they are so thin that the spaces between the lines have become linear protrusions. He then trims them and assembles the pieces into a vessel of one sort or another; a cup, a pot, a vase. It was fascinating to watch him work while slides of his fired and finished pieces flashed on the screen to the right along with photos of the landscape around Taipei.
Chang 4

There were two sessions. The first was from 1:00 to 4:00 PM on a Thursday and the second from 9:00 AM to noon the next day. I was there transfixed for the whole six hours. He made many different vessels, talked about his career path, related his take on the life of an artist, and with a serenity unavailable to me answered many questions, some repeated many times. “I like to keep things simple” was a frequent refrain.

Toward the end of the second session a petite and elderly Asian woman approached the microphone and asked: “Mr. Chang, I would like to know why you choose to make functional pots and not something sculpture or figure.” I’ve listened to enough related conversations between ceramicists to know that the response to that question will range from a polite demure to inane verbosity.

Mr. Chang said “Something happened to me many years ago that I remember to this day. I was staying with friends in Japan and they asked me to walk their young child down the block to kindergarten. I did so and watched in wonder at snack time when each child was given a drink in a small handmade ceramic cup. One was dropped and it shattered. My Japanese is not very good (my friends speak English), but I finally figured out how to ask ‘why not unbreakable?’ ”. Teacher smile and ask if I speak English.

I nod, she answer: “Well, they are each unique individual pieces made especially for us. Very delicate. The children usually develop favorites and return for the same one every day. But also almost every day one or two are dropped and become shards on the floor. Even in kindergarten there is realization that something special is gone forever never to be seen on this earth again. Like friend. Good lesson.” A hush fell over the room and I thought of those small faces looking down and then up. Ya, good lesson.
Chang 5

* (National Council for Education in Ceramic Arts – the acronym is better than the mouthful, isn’t it?)

No Neighbors No Electricity No Running Water

September 7, 2012


  In about 300 AD Lu Chi wrote in his Wen Fu(The Art of Writing): “The poet stands at the centre of the universe contemplating The Enigma”.  Well, that’s usually where my mind is.  Thinking big thoughts, asking the big questions.

  Not here.  I’d like to think that here I’m less of a stick in the mud.  Here it’s more like Louis Armstrong’s famous “If you have to ask the question you’ll never know the answer”.  Or, as poet Michael Carey put it: “Nature speaks to those who listen and those who listen when nature speaks rarely speak at all”.  (Seen that before?)

  Sitting in yonder house of the crescent moon, – door wide – watching the waves and whales and gulls and seals you realize that you’re not so very different, alimentary on down.  And who’s to say about relative emotional tone?  The feeling part is one of the brain’s oldest.  Hmm…  An outhouse experience here is far more edifying than the Sunday Times on the throne at home.

  After thirty-five years of figuring stuff out together, where better to celebrate than the shack you see up top and below?  We sorta wonder how the kids are doing at their four cornered points of remove and how the folks are faring back home, but what could we do from here?

  We do speak and listen and eat and walk the beach and two in a bunk when it feels right; draw water from the well, and solar shower out back to wash the salt off after a cold swim in the sea.  It’s been incredible.

  Hey Sally, look, Thar she blows!


Hudson Bay

August 17, 2012


  Broke out laughing on the subway deep in the bowels of Philadelphia a week or so ago.  Kids had finally convinced me to load music into my Iphone and I was listening to Beethoven’s Sixth as it ended and “shuffled” into Jimi Hendrix and All Along The Watchtower.  Yep, life in the big city fer sure. 

  I was there with great purpose toward which was made significant progress along with interesting new friends.  I enjoyed myself immensely as perhaps you could tell.  Nonetheless it was good to get home and empty my suitcase even though roommate and little black angel had made north.

  To Marine on St. Croix, MN they’d traveled for the latest in an incredible succession of artist-in-residencies.  Plan was for me to join them just a few days later, but I didn’t relish the thought of more time in the saddle so soon.  Reports were very good however, and I lonely, so en route I went.

  Seven hour traffic jam.  Last two miles took one hour.  I was furious and could only barely tone down my requests for directions to the off grid destination.  “Jeesh, I’m going to have to do this again day after tomorrow to get home.”  “Don’t worry, she chuckled, you’re going to love it!”    

  Finally there they were by the side of the highway on an unsigned barely perceptible path through the woods.  Drove the mile in to a modest dwelling at the edge of a cliff looking over the St Croix River.  No sounds but us, the birds, and the bees.  Been record hot at home, but got so cold that night we had to pull up the Hudson Bay.  It was glorious.

In the middle of the night, when we get up
……we look at each other in
complete friendship, we know so fully
what the other has been doing.  Bound to each other
like mountaineers coming down a mountain,
bound with the tie of the delivery room…
surely this is the most blessed time of my life*

* From True Love by Sharon Olds

How To Feel Good About Yourself

October 22, 2010

  Majolica is a type of earthenware ceramics characterized by rich design, broad and bright pallet, and glossy surface.  These attributes arise due to the presence of tin as the flux in the glaze.  The resulting relatively high viscosity restricts flow during firing and thus enables a sharpness of detail unusual in the surface treatment of fired clay.

  This ceramic style originated in the Middle East and accompanied the spread of Islam across Northern Africa and into Spain.  It got to Italy via the island of Majorca from whence the name.  Similarly Faenza, Italy was eponymized after sending examples to France where vessels of that nature to be called faience.  The Dutch waited for proficient differentiation and felt ok calling it Delftware.

  These centuries later, after mastering the requisite considerable skill, artists take the technique wherever their hearts might lead.  Well, my favorite artist has a huge heart and as you see here above and below, her work exudes joy and exuberance in uncommon measure. 

  The pieces are clearly functional and meant – no, yearn – to be used.  They engender the sort of feeling with which one finds him/herself imbued after a leisurely stroll through a fine farmer’s market lush with produce still sparkling with morning dew.

  That it is of a special nature I learned anew while reading an article* about, of all things, prosopagnosia – the impairment (slight to severe) of face perception.  Oliver Sacks wrote about an extreme case in his Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  While for that man the cause had to do with Alzheimer’s, in many it is simply a part of their neurological constitution.  

  I think my artist would agree that I have much greater facility with names and faces than does she though she can nonetheless quickly (and enthusiastically!) pick loved ones out of any crowd and that’s the point.  Observation and research suggests that emotion plays a large and discrete role in face recognition and in my artist emotion flows like the Amazon.

    Jane Goodall has the condition and is unable to put a name with a face (human or chimp) before some degree of a relationship has had a chance to evolve.  It’s no news flash that her heart and mind are well connected and it’s tough now not to speculate about the extraordinary manifestations of her particular constellation of synaptic connections.    

  Most interestingly, for the purpose herewith, is that well known portrait artist Chuck Close is severely prosopagnosic.  He believes that the condition “has played a crucial role in driving his unique artistic vision” which amplifies an initial visual impact into something just this side of a wonderful hallucination.

  I think that my artist is wired up in such a way that her manners of perception interweave with her ebullience to create a constantly evolving yet unmistakable body of work – from kids, to dogs, to food, and yes, to pots.  Look at her stuff, doesn’t it make you feel better about yourself?

*”Face-Blind”, by Oliver Sacks in the 8/30/10 New Yorker. 

Hot Springs

July 19, 2010


  Native Americans must have been amazed when they first came across the 143 degree hot springs in what is now south central Arkansas.  Should be no surprise that they imputed therapeutic properties thereto.  Choctaw introduced French trappers to the area in the 1700s and word spread.  After the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson sent the (subsequently unheralded and overshadowed) Dunbar and Hunter expedition to investigate.

  Their reports were widely circulated and the purported healing properties catalyzed great interest.  The Hot Springs’ reputation grew so that in 1832 the federal government set aside four sections of land as its first act in protection of a natural resource.  Luxurious bathhouses arose to rival Europe’s finest.  In 1921 the Hot Springs National Park was established.

  Popularity peaked during the war years when 1 million baths were given annually.  It was ironic therefore that advancements in medicine born of wartime necessity led to a rapid decline visits during the fifties.  The rise of the motor vacation and its attendant flexibility also carried away many erstwhile bathers.

  Today two bathhouses remain in operation and others have been similarly carefully refurbished and are in the process of being repurposed.  Bathhouse Row now imbues one with a magical sense of place and time.  My first view down its length immediately brought to mind the first panning shot of the Grand Ballroom of the Titanic in the eponymous film*.

  The Fordyce Bathhouse has become Park Headquarters and museum.  The Quapaw and Buckstaff remain in operation.  The Ozark reopened as the Hot Springs Museum of Contemporary Art.  Nearby burgeoning retirement communities and proximity of potential weekend vacationers from Houston, Dallas, and other major metro areas virtually guarantee that it is only a matter of time till Bathhouse Row assumes even greater new splendor.


  Hot Springs National Park is one of about half of America’s best ideas to host artist-in-residency programs, hence our visit.  My artist took up hers several weeks ago a Gulpha Gorge stone bungalow.  As expected, by the time I arrived, she had befriended nearly everyone, had explored nearly every corner, created a prodigious amount of work – pottery and watercolors, and provided children with the benefits of her talent and warm enthusiasm***.

*I was thus induced to attempt to pick out the theme of the movie on the guitar I’d brought along.  Thought I’d figured it out and asked family members to guess (wife in person and others via Skype).  Closest anyone guessed was son: “Mission Impossible?”  Me very talented.

**Photo at bottom is of the A-I-R with HSNP Superintendant Josie Fernandez.   

***She sent home an in situ self portrait which developed an ever greater Klimptian aura as my bachelorhood bore on.


October 17, 2009


The huge dunes in the foreground were formed by the interaction of wind, water, and stone over the course of many eons.  They are the largest and most extensive (330 square miles) in North American and comprise the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south central Colorado.


  Most of the sand came from the San Juan Mountains to the west, but the larger grains were shed from the Sangre de Christos on the east such as Kit Carson and Crestone (pictured below) – two of Colorado’s fourteeners.


  The dunes loom some 700 feet above the sand sheet and sabkha just to their west.  The visual effect of the afternoon sun upon them is unforgettable.  Why should the sun on a big pile of sand have such an impact?  Well, not long (in cosmic terms) after life evolved beyond a simple unicellular state, as ability to discern between light and less so developed.


  Billions of years later we see in 3-D and Technicolor, but the pre-primal legacy still influences our perceptions.  The incredible lights and shadows of the dunes mediated by the undulating ridges transfix one’s gaze.

  All visitors thus moved, if only for a moment, what better place for an artist to imbue and convey?  Wife is artist-in-residence here and as usual has made the most of the situation.  Observations from many points of vantage have inflected her current work while observers, young and old alike, have added tactile impressions to their experience of this unique bit of terra firma NA.



  Bonus for this here strong back is that the location of the park, far far removed from the nearest town makes for a similarly prehistoric level of noise and light pollution.  Have seen more falling stars than I’ve fingers and toes.  Me lucky boy.

Canvas Cover for a Soul

July 10, 2009

 Yurt door 010

   The aforementioned yurt serves as divine studio space for my potter wife.  It replaces a cold wet cryptish corner off our basement which made a cell at Guantanamo something for which to yearn.

  Development of that transmigration required more than a few days and much ideation.  First thought was a familiar exercise in rectilinearity set akimbo in our front yard.  Then an appendage also in front.  Then she considered the expansion of the existing dingy cellar.

  Somehow the tent-like structure more common on the steppes of Central Asia came into her consciousness and she quickly concluded that yurt it would be.  (Well, she and the dog…)

  It is wonderful, even from this visitor’s perspective.  Its shape and nature fit organically on the side of the ravine in back of our house.  It looks almost to have grown there.

  We’re in the middle of town and abut an interstate.  Even so, from within looking out, all that can be seen is green.  Work started after woods leafed out, and thus I’ll bet neighbors (not far) across the way won’t have seen it till fall.

  It really is neat, made all the more special by being a few paces away from the house.  Going from one to the other in the rain you’ll get a bit wet.  Perfect.  Forces awareness of one’s place in the universe.

  To this philistine, it seems also perfect for the artist. Entering, it’s like stepping into a cloud with the world left far behind.*  I can’t wait to see where it takes her.

  Reminds me of some of Tadao Ando’s work in which sun, wind, and clouds are design elements.  His Azuma house, with which he first gained recognition similarly forced residents to interact with nature. 

  Contrast these to the emphasis on surface gloss found all too often in new additions to the built environment both public and private.  Lipstick might look nice, but it doesn’t necessarily tell much about the pucker.  Know what I mean?

  Anyway, this arrangement of site, structures, and stuff combine at night to make a softly glowing spot for wife to consider what another potter called “The Mud-Pie Dilema”**.

Yurt door 005

  More later. 

*Speaking of which – you should hear what heavy rain sounds like therein.  No need for thunder!

**The Mud-Pie Dilemma: A Master Potter’s Struggle to Make Art and Ends Meet by John Nance

Very, Very, Very Fine House

November 28, 2008
Our house, is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard,
Now everything is easy ’cause of you. 

      Graham Nash wrote “Our House” in 1969 when Sally and I were in high school dating (though she in Massachusetts and I in Iowa).  While certainly a CSN fan, I was not particularly fond of that song. It thus came as quite a surprise when its lyrics began to run through my mind some thirty-five years later.

      We were on Cape Cod in an isolated one-room shack that was perched upon a sand dune.  It looked as in and out of place as a piece of driftwood – one that had been part of a tree, gone through the hands of man, and back to those of nature over the course of many many years.

      While not exactly alone, it was hundreds of yards from its closest neighbor, which was similarly bereft of electricity or running water.

      My wife was one of several, out of hundreds of artist applicants, to have an opportunity to live in the cabin for two weeks alone (or almost) with their thoughts and work.  I was only able to visit for three days, but even so they were several of the best of my life.

      The shacks were originally built in the 1800s to serve as life saving stations offering aid to the victims of shipwrecks just off the coast.  Thousands have occurred since the Mayflower first furled her sails nearby.  They fell into disuse after 1914 with the construction of a strategic canal that obviated the dangerous passage.

      The then empty gray boxes were discovered by those who had already made nearby Provincetown a dynamic and vibrant artists community.  Maybe America’s first.  Thoreau spent time there.  Eugene O’Neil was living in one when he learned of his first Pulitzer Prize.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote Player Piano there. Norman Mailer had a place.  Painters such as Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler have lived and worked in these parts.

      Jackson Pollack visited the area several times and apparently had even stayed in the shack in which we found ourselves. He was thereabouts heard to have said that “he fucked Mrs Benton” (Mrs Thomas Hart…) which episode though must have taken place in town – not in the shack.  It’s too far from anywhere for an illicit tryst.  Not the place for a quickie.  Wrong juju.

      The hike in sets the tone emotionally and otherwise.  You park your car just outside of Ptown at the intersection of Snail Road and US Highway 6, pack your things and enter a natural archway through a thick wood. 

The trees end suddenly though, leaving one to face the steep slope of a fifty-foot sand dune.  A one-hour trudge up down over and across hot sand leads to the north coast. The two steps forward and one back routine make it much tougher going than most mountain trails. 

      And a horse of a different color at night.  Once, after a wild time in Ptown we made it back to a quiet fogbound trailhead at 10:00 PM.  We nonchalantly chattered about the evening for an hour or so until we realized that we’d lost our way.  Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I always carry a compass and with a few course corrections soon found ourselves home.

      Upon awakening the first morning there, I turned slightly to look through the screen door to watch Sally on the deck intent upon her clay.  The ocean rolled in the distance and fishing vessels bobbed about.  She hadn’t always worn glasses, but looked great in them.  Her long honed mode of concentration was at its peak. 


      Other mornings were similar.  After watching her work a bit, I’d make a pot of filtered coffee, we’d eat a bit of breakfast, and then walk on the beach.  Sometimes for hours without seeing another soul.  Only twenty miles from Boston and the whole eastern seaboard! 

     We were lucky though.  During most of the year vehicular traffic is apparently allowed on the shore, but through the course of our sojourn the endangered piping plovers were breeding.  The National Park Service makes certain that their relationships are allowed to flower.

      Ya, during our walks over those few days we did talk about our kids, folks, work, world events, etc, but they somehow seemed far away and ok.  Life used to be so hard.

      Upon conclusion of our strolls we’d disrobe and swim.  Not an original thought. Thomas Hart Benton wrote in 1937 “once or twice I’ve seen a young Venus come naked out of the Martha’s Vineyard sea, but generally it’s something to make you wish you hadn’t lived so long.”  Well, I’m still aiming for 100.

      Then lunch, after which Sally would put in several more hours of work at her clay or watercolors.  I’d usually take a well-deserved nap.  Just before dinner we’d bathe in water we’d drawn from the well several hours before and allowed to warm in a galvanized tub out front.

      Once home – without her – the song continued to play in my head and I was somehow compelled to locate and read letters that Sally had written to me back in high school.  The nature of the relationship manifest therein was, well, syncopated, but the tone, the sparkle of their author was clearly recognizable and fresh.

      Déjà vu.

Spiritual Fecundity in Chicago

April 4, 2008

  Be interesting to know what were like the childhoods of architect Tadao Ando and ceramicist Toshiko Takaezu.  The installation of a selection from the oeuvre of the latter in a gallery designed by the former together create an experience far beyond corporeal beauty. 

  If there can be a soul of a building, one such numinous sanctuary is Ando’s space in Chicago’s Art Institute. Commissioned in 1989 to exhibit from the Institute’s Japanese screens, the small room is unforgettable.

  Upon entering, through the center of the short end of the dimly lit rectangular room, one looks through four rows of one foot square oak columns.  The vitrine is arranged along the long wall on the right and continues across the back wall straight ahead.  It is illuminated.  The view through the oak and cast shadows is to be as if, upon the porch of a traditional Japanese house, one looks inside.

  Ando says: “Not everything can be accounted for reasonably…there are things in society that cannot be explained just in functional terms. I have provided functionless columns and walls…I feel this irrational quality is important. The modernism of the past became insipid because it rejected such irrationalism”.

  Takaezu’s pots draw from the range of her career and are interspersed with several from important mentors and contemporaries.  Well represented in the twenty or so are examples of her vertical closed vessels.  She says of these: “The most important part of a piece is the dark, black air space that you can’t see.  Just as what’s inside each person is also the key to humanity”.

  Some of her pieces are indeed human scale and elsewhere stand outside in fields or gardens.  Some, holding small ceramic balls, sound when gently shaken.  Visitors here might be disappointed at their inability to move around and touch her work.

  Like a compassionate abbess, Takaezu must be fine with it.  “When I was a small girl in Hawaii, I was fascinated by my shadow because it was taller than I.”  Here her pots are stroked by even taller shadows.  Her fertile dark spaces are clearly manifest behind the glass, but reserved.

  She knows that if, on the opposite benches perhaps, you linger long enough with an open heart, with her invitation, and with Ando’s generosity, you just might get a glimpse inside.

  An audience with the screens too is very fine, but different – for the historicity.  Come back in a few months and see them if you have yet not.  But don’t miss this.     

  At the Art Institute of Chicago through June 8, 2008.