English painter Harold Speed described the goal of the artist as developing command over both representation and expression, in order to create something worthy. This resonates with me. Take for example, this lovely basket by studio potter and artist Joy Tanner:
Joy clearly has command over both representation (we know it’s a basket) and expression, which is what makes me exclaim, “How lovely!” when I look at it. It is her particular expression of the form (basket) that draws me. Though, obviously, in order to create the artistic expression, she also had to have command over creating the form itself.
Though Speed was primarily a painter, he also wrote instructional materials for developing artists. In 1913, he wrote “The Practice and Science of Drawing,” now available in the public domain. In the text, he beautifully describes those invisible things surrounding good art. Like this: “The strength of appeal in artistic work will depend much on the power the artist possesses of expressing himself through representations that arrest everyone by their truth and naturalness.” Right?? So right! Here’s another basket by a different artist, Adrina Richard:
Adrina also has command of representation of form, and a very different expression of creativity than Joy. Same representative form–a basket; two artistic expressions, both of which are highly appealing in their truth and naturalness.
Speed also encouraged the artist to look for the “hidden rhythm” and “emotional significance” in the appearance of any object. By doing so, the artist can capture what moves her (or him) and then express it with their own creative passion. Both Joy and Adrina have clearly done so with their baskets.
So let’s challenge ourselves to look this week for hidden rhythms and for emotional significance as we notice nature, our surroundings, or whatever it is we are looking at. Let’s study form and think about how that form we are admiring might transform into a work of art with our particular creative expression.
I have decided to chronicle my journey of fear and insecurity as a developing artist in the hope that it will encourage and inspire someone else–maybe you. It’s scary! But, you might be scared, too. So … I figured we’d just go along together!
For starters, here are my fear-based confessions: When I come across a potter whose style impresses me (and there are many!), I will often think, “Well, that’s it. This person has created the pottery I would have created had I been good enough. It’s now time to throw in the towel.” As if they’ve used up all the potter talent in the world, and there’s a possibility there isn’t any left for me to find. Or that I’ve started to late in life (about halfway, if I live to 100). Or that if I can’t make something jaw-droppingly stellar in my first few attempts, I never will.
When I watch the wonderful DVDs that Ceramic Arts Daily produces, or the YouTube videos so many share, or read various potter’s blogs, I am so impressed with their vision for creativity … but mostly what I see right now when I look at my lovely rolled out slab of clay is a scary blank canvas that I likely don’t have the wherewithal to transform.
I’ve been obsessed with clay for about 3 years now (today is July 19, 2014.) But in real time — between family, job, other interests, life’s drama, and what-have-you, the total number of hours spent/clay worked is more like 6 months/a handful of boxes of clay from Trinity Ceramic Supply. Any studio potter would tell me to get over myself and throw a few hundred more pots before whining. That is one reason I love John Britt’s fabulous YouTube videos! He always ends them with something like, “Now go make 25 of those and we’ll see you in the morning.” A great reminder that effortlessness requires hours upon hours of effort.
Though clay is a very inexpensive material compared to many other art supplies, it can still add up as a material cost. The good news is that the clay bits, leftovers and other odds and ends that you don’t use can be completely recycled very easily in just a few steps with some basic tools. The first panel below shows the Steps 1-4.
Step 1: Keep a bucket with a lid near your workspace. Whenever you have scraps and bits, toss them in the bucket. You can also add objects you’ve thrown on the wheel or handbuilt that you don’t like, or didn’t turn out the way you imagined. But don’t include any pieces on which you’ve already added underglaze or stains, unless you don’t mind it contaminating the clay. Keeping a lid on the bucket is really important to make sure the clay stays clean of bugs, dust, dirt, etc.This will ensure your reclaimed clay is easily workable and you won’t have foreign objects to remove!
Step 2: When the bucket is full, and all of the bits and pieces have dried thoroughly (also called bone dry), cover the clay pieces in water, and watch the magic!
Step 3: All the dried clay needs is water to cause it to disintegrate (also called slake).
Step 4: Once the bits are returned to mud and fully disintegrated, it can be remixed.
Step 5: Use a blender of some sort to thoroughly mix the clay. You could do this by hand, but these blenders are cheap (I got this one for under $30 on Amazon), and it does the job quickly and thoroughly.
Step 6: Now you have a bucket of clean and lovely mud! Obviously, it is too wet to use. So we have to dry it out enough so we can handle it again. The best surface to use for this step is plaster. I just recently learned how to make plaster forms, and it is very easy, so don’t let this step intimidate you! Big Ceramic Store has a great tutorial on the subject, and there are videos on YouTube as well that teach you how to mix up plaster.
Step 7: I made these two forms by mixing the plaster and pouring it into the bottoms of two large plastic bins. Once the plaster cured, I set these two forms on a small table, and with both hands, “spooned” the wet clay onto the surface and smoothed it out like icing. The temperature in your area is the thing that determines how quickly the clay dries — we are having an unusual cool spell here in Texas. It would normally take only a few hours for the clay to dry, but this week it has taken 2 days!
Step 8: When the clay is dry enough to work, it will easily peel off the plaster forms. Then you simply wedge it up into a workable ball, and you are ready to start again!
My mistake was in trying to make sense of a phrase by assuming it has always meant the same thing throughout history – Angus would say I had been applying a form of presentism when wondering about “throwing pottery.”
Is it called throwing because you slam the clay down onto the wheel head to secure it? Or because as a beginner you end up throwing away more pots than you keep? Or because the frustration of not producing a good pot on the wheel can cause you to throw the malformed objects across the studio?
Nope. Not any of those. I finally decided to look up the origins of “throw” in the dictionary, and lo and behold, my presentism was revealed. While our current definition and usage of the word does involve flinging and hurling objects in a sudden forward motion, the original definition (according to Dictionary.com) and usage of the Old English word thrawen means “to twist or turn.” This, of course, makes perfect sense! The potter’s wheel turns!
This exercise is a good reminder not to attach our current viewpoints onto events or objects of the past, especially the distant past–because we tend to Make Stuff Up.
I’ve discovered some research material published by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago on ancient pottery found around Mesopotamia dating to 3000 B.C. How big of a weirdo am I that this is exciting to me because I can now add pottery to my Textile Timeline for Ancient History?
I have inherited the investigative gene in my family, and while mostly just useful, it can sometimes get out of hand. Basically it means that when I find myself interested in a subject, I am like a dog with a bone, and can’t let it go until I am satisfied that I understand it. Right now, I have an endless curiosity about the natural world and its ability to provide for and sustain humanity—specifically, in two areas–with fiber spun into yarn and made into fabrics, and clay formed into vessels for use.
So I thought I’d just take you along with me as I try to satisfy this curiosity in my clay journey, just in case you were wondering about it, too.
This all started with my own increasing amazement of our natural resources. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I deeply appreciate clean water, available food, antibiotics and other advances that have freed us—at least some of us, looking at the world in its entirety—from ills that have plagued humanity through the ages. But, I am fascinated by the dual nature of the natural world. I say “the dual nature” because the natural world is both beautiful in its simplicity to provide, and amazingly complex within that provision.
Take fibers, for example. Linen, flax, wool, cotton, silk—all of these various fibers grow and reproduce, and did so and would do so without any intervention from us. Because of their natural properties—the way a fiber is constructed so that when it is spun, because of its natural design, the fibers interlock, become stronger, and can be made into the myriads of articles we need.
Clay is much the same—abundant in nature, and of such a specific construction in its nature that it is the perfect material for creating vessels—pots, dishes, water jugs, insulators, and even panels on the space shuttle. Clay is another natural material with astonishing properties.
I started this blog 4 years ago to chronicle a journey though the spinning universe … my first post said this:
“Everything in our universe spins, from the tiniest of atoms to the mightiest of planets. Everything spins. Is this why there is so much peace to be found in spinning wool into yarn? In the act of spinning, are we emulating the Almighty’s act of creating and sustaining?”
I suppose, having had those intense feelings about spinning yarn, it is no surprise that I have now found even more peace and contentment in another act of spinning … making pots from clay on a potter’s wheel.
Clay is yet another natural substance, like wool, that demonstrates the glory and grandeur of our Creator. It’s very nature and molecular structure (more about that later) makes it the perfect raw material for constructing pots and vessels–just like wool contains within its structure the perfect characteristics for making yarn and fabrics.
First pots are much like first yarns — uneven and somewhat wobbly, with lots of room for improvement! Arabella’s sage advice about spinning wool — “Good, you understand the basics. Now all you need is time at the wheel. Nothing else can teach you what you need” — also holds true for the potter’s wheel. The only thing that improves first pots is the continuous act of making second pots, third pots, fourth pots and so on.
The journey continues!