February 5, 2016

The Trouble with Large Ceramic Horses

I completed and framed five drawings for an upcoming exhibition of horses at Gallery West in North Columbia.  The gallery owner liked my small clay sculptural whistles as well so I offered to make horse  statuettes from the same caramel colored local clay.  I came up with  a small collection of horse statuettes in various lively positions; grazing, leaping, stretching.  I then decided to offer my agent two larger horse sculptures.  I was fascinated by the ceramic sculptures of horses from the Chinese Han and Tang dynasties and wanted to make something stylistically similar - a horse with a small, narrow head, a stout body, a large saddle and legs smaller at the back than the front. 
The idea of making larger horses was fine, but the execution was problematic.  How to make a large, heavy body on long legs using a plastic medium like clay?  It was not easy.  Even though I followed archeaological examples I found of ancient ceramic horses made with hollow bodies and solid legs, I could never time the drying time on the legs well enough so that they would support the heavy body.  Hence they would break off when I turned the horse right side up.  Not wanting to melt the clay horses down again, I would re-attach the legs, sometimes using clay melting vinegar, patch it up and wait.  It took a few weeks of carving, drying, re-hydrating then carving some more but they were finally roughed out.  Now the test will be to see if they remain intact through the final drying, sanding, burnishing, firing and pit firing. 
To get an idea of scale, I have photographed the original horse statuette underneath the larger version of the ceramic horse.  These larger horses might survive the tooling around yet to come. Given the trouble they were to create, however, I most definitely do not plan to make them again.

January 22, 2016

Horsing Around

An exciting exhibition devoted to artistic interpretations of the equine form will open at Gallery West in Columbia, South Carolina on March 26, 2016.  I was graciously offered an opportunity to take part.  I’ll have a number of works on paper at the show and thought that I would create some small sculptures out of local clay as well. Although the exhibition does not open for another two months, my ceramic pit fired sculptures require so many steps that getting started early is a must.  Generally, I model a very roughed out form at first.  I then let these ceramic statuettes dry until leather hard ( too hard to bend but still soft enough to carve).  These are carved to better define a form and to add details.  For these forms I studied the horse sculptures from the Chinese Tang and Han dynasties as well as the horses of Persian miniatures.  Both of these tend to emphasize the most aesthetic parts of a horse; the long slender neck, the well muscled body, and the long legs.  Making the legs long and thin, the head small, and the tail stylized was a challenge in clay.  So many thin projecting parts just beg to separate or break off.  For this reason I’ll probably do a collection of eight to ten statuettes and two larger sculptures just to ensure having a set of at least five statuettes and one larger sculpture.
The images I’ve posted here are the semi-carved roughed out forms.  I will be adding to these during the upcoming weeks.  Sanding and polishing will follow, a bisque firing, then a final pit-firing.  God willing, they will be ready by March. 

January 21, 2016

Japanese Drawings Hidden in an Impossible Storage Room

Whatever happened, I wondered, to that notebook from 2006 that enclosed my studies of Japanese paintings from the Peabody Essex Museum?  The beginning of this year saw a thorough cleaning of my utility room and the unearthing of that notebook was a byproduct of the effort to pare down and reorganize.  I was pleased to find it and happy as well to have finally thrown away seven bags of materials that  I would most likely never use and give away three more bags of material that other artists still might use.
I had put off clearing out the utility room since 2011, in part because of prolonged illness, and also because this meant confronting piles of teaching materials that I would probably no longer use on account of disability.  This was the stuff of 2011 and before, just sitting there like a time capsule awaiting the same bravery to physically discard as the bravery to realistically relinquish the lifestyle that the materials represented.   Although I can now physically manage to drive very short distances, create art work from my home, and manage symptoms just long enough to go on short visits, the wear and tear of a teaching schedule is out of the question and most likely will remain so.  The first thing to toss out were materials related to teaching mosaics.  No, I won’t be hauling buckets of rocks around for a hundred or so kids a day to make crafts with.  Nor will I be driving about five hundred miles or so to teach the craft in Maryland, like I used to do every summer.  Who knew that the teaching summer of 2011 would be my last?
My new utility room has less cluttered shelves with labeled boxes.  It amazes me how little time it takes to find something.  But whatever happened to my box of copper carbonate?  Maybe that will be revealed, too, when my unused studio is cleared out.  In the mean time, I took my line drawing of a Japanese enamel and made a black and white illustration from it.  A rodent in a kimono sings to the moon about still being alive and in the world.

January 13, 2016

An Unusual Perspective on the Exhibition of Persian Miniatures, "The Book of Kings" at Princeton University Art Museum

The Princeton University Art Museum is exhibiting an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime view of Persian miniatures.  The Peck Shanameh, or Book of Kings, is on view until January 24.  My husband and I were fortunate to be able to see this on our trip to New Jersey this winter.  Our intention was to take in this exhibition,  the exhibition of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Museum of German Art, and everything else we could feast our eyes on in one week.
I mentioned in my previous post that illness cut my ambitious museum going plans to two museum visits instead of three or four.  But there were other reasons for going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and nowhere else.  The Peck Shanameh simply required two visits.  One reason for my second visit was the fact that there would be no future opportunities to study this manuscript.  The recently restored pages will be bound again in a carefully preserved volume after the exhibition closes.  I wanted to make use of the available fleeting opportunity and take my time to study these manuscript pages, making notes and a few sketches.
I only made two drawings at the museum because the original paintings in the Peck Shanameh were so detailed and refined that getting the gist of that in my notebooks took a long time.  Using an overlay of hard graphite on soft graphite, I tried to capture some of the qualities of ink line drawing and a gradation of ink washes.  To make these drawings my own, however, I revised compositions, leaving out details and inserting others.  The additions and subtractions are where a peculiar notion occurred to me. 
My revisionist plan came to me while making a study drawing of Rustam killing the White Div.  My love for illustrations of exotic monsters attracted me to this painting.  Everything about it was exquisite; the calligraphic lines, the precise textures, the tonal gradations.  But as I worked my way down the figure I came across Div’s severed leg.  My artistic license allowed me to give Div back his leg in my own rendering.  It had not escaped my notice that Div sported a costume that allowed for exposure to a rather impressive appendage of male prowess, or demon prowess as the case may have been to the Persian artist of a thousand years ago.  All the more reason, I concluded, to give Div back his leg.
The Book of Kings was forty-eight large format pages of brave escapades, exotic lands, and many hunting scenes.  Beautifully rendered heros rode equally lovely horses.  The problem became, to my twenty-first century sentiments, that these horses were mounted by men bent on severing body parts and shooting arrows in to hapless creatures.  So I selected my favorite horse from this collection of paintings, booted the rider off of it, and made a drawing of the horse alone.  This required inventing a design for the saddle as the rider in the Persian miniature was hiding those details in the painting by sitting in said saddle.   No problem.  Artists generally aren’t constrained by art history anyway and this artist has a long streak of irreverence running down her spine.  I call this drawing, “Persian Steed Awaiting His Vegetarian Rider.”

January 12, 2016

Father of Summer and Winter

Last summer, while visiting my father, I made sketches of him as he snoozed in a chair on his front porch.  After finishing the first sketch, I changed my position to start the second from a different point of view.  Halfway through the second sketch, my father got up to use the restroom and did not return to modeling.  Being 90 years of age earns one the right to refuse any task at hand, even sitting, so I did not press him to sit any longer.
   My husband and I had to return to South Carolina shortly thereafter so the second drawing remained incomplete...until this winter.  While visiting with my father again, I managed to complete this second drawing by sitting near him at a distance and angle similar to where I was when I made the summer drawing.  I had to change the chair to an indoor chair and add a long sleeve jacket.  With these minor adjustments I had my delayed second drawing finished.
Both of these sketches were the result of my  having been forcibly slowed down.  Last summer my husband and I were staying with my father but going out during the day for forays in to Philadelphia or New York to see the kind of art exhibitions not readily available in South Carolina, or even the Southeast in general to be truthful.  Those day trips ended for me when I sprained my ankle.  Homebound, I sketched an exotic tree in my father’s front yard and began to make drawings of him resting in his chair. 
This winter we stayed in New Jersey with my father once again and my husband and I made trips out to see friends,  visit New York museums and the Princeton University Art Museum.  That all went well until I caught bronchitis.  Then it was a stay at home trip again for me, spent chatting with my dad during his waking hours and repairing to the little guest bedroom to read and finish drawings.  Despite the bronchitis, I was more alert while completing my second drawing than I was when I made the first one.  There was a model of a wooden house on the table next to the chair in which my father was sitting.  It made for a poignant inclusion into the composition, as my father's profession was building and renovating houses.
In reviewing these drawings, it becomes clear to me that I should take some more time to be with my father.  It would probably be wise to schedule more  rest time  and take care to see the beautiful in the every day; a tree that evokes an image of a cyclops, a man at rest.   One should do these things before a body is relegated to do so by getting orthopedic injuries. 

January 9, 2016

Arranging the Lives of the Sonic Hedgehogs

For most of 2015, I traded art work for skills.  The most valuable of these was the editing and formatting of my illustrated manuscripts.  2015 saw the completion of four illustrated books, one for a client’s sonnets, and three of my own.  These are now at the ready for submitting to potential publishers. 
All this while, I did double duty; polishing and revising the text and illustrations while creating art work to pay for the graphic design and PDF formatting.  Payment began with paintings and collages but ended at the brink of entering 2016 with a series of small sculptural rattles that I had named “sonic hedgehogs.”  My graphic designer became quite enamored with them - in particular as a grouping.  She made the salient observation that I should consider always exhibiting them as a group, as they made more of an impact that way.  So we agreed that my final payment for her services would be a group of these zoomorphic rattles. 
I had fun with the project, making creatures with overly large gaping mouths so that the clicking sound of the bead placed inside would be clear.  I placed them in a variety of positions so that they would make a dynamic group.
When I finally made the trip up north to see family, friends, relatives and colleagues, I had a substantial group of sonic hedgehogs in tow.   My friend and graphic design specialist had a tough time choosing just 15 of them (my rough calculation of a trade) so we agreed that she would take some extras and we would work out the difference later.  After her picks, her husband started playing with the rattles like little toy soldiers.  Each compilation told a different story.  I discovered the same story telling potential when I had earlier played with different configurations of the statues myself earlier - usually in a parade arrangement and always with the standing cat at the head of the parade.   My friend began to arrange them almost as chess pieces.   But my friend’s husband was particularly creative with arrangements.  The final arrangement was a choral group with a standing cat as a conductor, a small frog in a lily pad like bowl as a counter tenor, hippo-like creatures as bases and baritones.  The extra cats became an audience.  My friend and her husband were right.  These things made much more sense as an interactive group than stand alone miniature sculptures. 
Perhaps I am reading too much in to how different people arranged these little sculptures.  But I do wonder what our preference for arrangements reveals about the way our minds work.  My parades with a lead animal might be a clue to my plodding way of doing things and a linear way of thinking.  I’m not very good at multi-tasking.  Am I boring?  My friend’s chess piece approach with symmetrical arrangements might be a clue to her mathematical approach to thinking through designs - which is why she is so good at graphic design, editing, quilting and generally  getting things done in an organized manner.   I am not sure what to conclude about arranging the animals in sections by tribal anatomy but I could certainly see the logic of it.  The way different people chose to make arrangements almost inspires me to make a few more sets of these things just to do more experiments.
What was particularly impressive, however, about the creative use my friend had for my sculptures, was a series of children’s stories that they engendered.  My friend surprised me with a complete manuscript of nicely written stories about just about every rattle - making each one come alive with a distinct personality.  Impressive that the sculptures of an artist with a rather dull-witted approach to their use could inspire such creativity in others...the ex-teacher lives on.

December 20, 2015

Sonic Hedgehogs with Pearly Eyes

My last batch of zoomorphic ceramic clicking instruments, which I am still calling sonic hedgehogs, emerged from the kiln on the dark side.  I was hoping that the reduction firing would turn them black, but instead many of them became a dark burned cookie shade of brown.  Searching for a way to brighten them up, I found that I had on hand a package of seed pearls and green stones just small enough to put into the eye sockets to create a bright focal point. 
The size and carving of these instruments is small - about the size and feel of Japanese netsuke figures.  The mouth part is proportionately oversized to
 I have yet to hear them all played at once.  They would sound like a field of crickets or cicadas.  But to make that happen someone would have to collect a bunch of them and invite guests to each rattle one.  Perhaps that will happen as I do have someone collecting between ten and fifteen of them.  A good idiophone orchestra might need to be comprised of about a hundred.  One day.
the body to emphasize its function as a noise maker.

December 17, 2015

Sonic Hedgehogs Versus Sonic The Hedgehog

Everyone knows about the video game that features Sonic the Hedgehog.  Everyone but me.  I thought that I had found a good name for  my small ceramic zoomorphic sculptures that made clicking noises when shaken when I read about a molecule called sonic hedgehog.  It turns out that I was influenced by a rather obscure term which had been named after the popular video character.   Every now and then someone would tell me that my name for my idiophones was a video game.  But I didn’t actually look that up until my friend started writing little stories about my sonic hedgehogs.  Looks like we might need a name change before officially going public.  Too bad.  I enjoyed calling my invention sonic hedgehogs.  It seemed so apt.  And I could not  come up with a satisfactory alternative: clicking critters, sonic salamanders, atonal animals....they all fell short.  It seems the best names are always taken!
The second batch of sonic hedgehogs came out of my kiln recently.  This time the substantially reduced atmosphere made most of them quite dark.  But they still make a good clicking noise when shaken, whatever I might eventually name them.

December 16, 2015

Metallic Sheen from a Pit Firing

All of the pottery that comes from my pit fires are experiments.  I try different combinations of organic substances and different levels of oxidation and reduction with each firing.  This yields unexpected surprises.  In my last firing I used  cedar chips, a pile of twigs, and a lot of Spanish Moss.  I kept the atmosphere very reduced with a stopped up kiln for several hours.  The results surprised me.  Although the very dark pots that emerged could be expected from the black sooty atmosphere, everything was covered with an iridescent sheen.  My natural caramel colored clay udu drums turned platinum, copper and silver.  Usually I don’t get too emotional when I open my kiln but I found myself tearing up at the sheer beauty of these surfaces.  The results were almost like a raku firing.  Beautiful!
The waxing and buffing I did to protect the surface of the pit fired vessels took some of the metallic look out but there was still enough preserved to please.  This at least helped compensate for the earlier loss of three udu drums due to premature firing and some clay instability. 
I should try to emulate this effect for the next firing, but I’ve determined to oxidize more and add different organic materials for a more traditional saggar fire.  More experiments yet to come.

December 14, 2015

Cats in Distress

In an effort to salvage work that has gone awry, I sometimes ruin it.  I sometimes try to save an art object that probably should be discarded.  Such was the case with a large rattle in the shape of a feline sculpture.  I put an experimental terra sigillata surface on the piece which crazed in the bisque firing.  Another sculpture with a similar glaze on it also crazed.  I kept one piece, a sculpture in the shape of a possum, with the glaze intact on it.  But I was not satisfied with the extent of the crazing in the cat sculpture because it appeared to be delaminating in places.  So I carefully sanded most of it off.  I should have sealed this and left good enough as it was by sealing the raw clay and quitting.  But I could not resist trying out yet another terra sigillata over the bisqued ware to see what would happen.  And I could not resist throwing the whole thing in a fire without sealing the terra sigillata in a bisque firing first.  The results were interesting, but the terra sigillata glaze began to delaminate again after it cooled.  I started sanding it off once again, but got so tired that I just decided to trash the piece.  But taking a hammer to bowls and whistles is one thing, and smashing a sculpture staring back at me with wide open eyes was another.  I could not quite bring myself to do it after this descent in to animistic sentiment.  Fortunately a friend agreed to take the piece off my hands.  The distressed feline is en route to her now.
A second rattle also did not make it through the bisque firing as it separated into two pieces at the juncture where it had been originally fitted together.  What to do to save it?  I almost threw the piece away.  Then I thought that I might sand down the edges and call the small sculpture “two cats caught in quicksand.”  Finally I resolved to put kitty humpty dumpty together again with a bead stuck inside so that it would make a rattle noise when shaken.  I covered the cracks with silver acrylic for yet another experimental effect.  I don’t think I’ll go this far to attempt to save work again!