August 20, 2010

The Art of Reconstitution

Recycling time in the artist's studio is restorative to body, soul and budget. Much of this, however, requires some tedious labor - especially when it comes to recycling clay. I had been wanting to acquire some stoneware and porcelain clay with which to create stronger sculptures and musical instruments but had put off purchasing it because I didn't have an appropriate kiln for the higher temperatures required to fire those fine clays.

As is often the case, however, that wish sent out into the metaphysical space of yearning yeilded a cache of clay - but for a price in time and effort. I found that I was not the only one doing end of the season studio cleaning. A fellow artist was getting rid of hardened stoneware and porcelain that she decided was not really worth the effort to reconstitute. So I eagerly I accepted her offer of the "free" clay - thus reducing the clutter in her studio and adding to mine - at least until I managed to reconstitute and repackage the stuff.

Reconstituting clay is a time-consuming process and must be weighed against the cost of purchasing new material outright. After the time it took to pulverize the hardened blocks, soak them, mix the slurry, spread the slurry on to drying bats, knead it, and then package it (yes into newly purchased buckets) it was probably not what one would call cost effective. But the process of recycling materials has a benefit beyond material cost. It is this physical work that settles the mind and soothes the spirit.

Coincidentally, as I was doing the recycling work, I was reading about some interesting research on the positive effects of vacations in the wilderness far away from internet connections. It appeared that downsizing the amount of information bombardment on the brain actually stimulated and enhanced creative problem solving. Who, of course, has not perhaps already noticed this during long distance driving with the car radio turned off? Processing materials for me is my wilderness, the vats of soaking porcelain my Walden Pond.

While pulverizing the blocks of clay I mentally wrote two or more essays. Soaking the clay in trays and buckets of water yielded thoughts for a painting design. The slurry spreading across bats of plaster drained the distractions from my mind and paved the way for another collage design. While folding the drying clay slab into a coil, then a shell, then a cone, I realized that I had recently made a small judgement error during a telephone conversation. Kneading the clay like bread dough I was able to work out a plan for a diplomatic solution. While the relaxed mind wedged clay and packaged it neatly, ideas for how the clay might be used in the future flowed seamlessly. I recalled the meditation of Chinese painting masters as they ground their ink onto a stone. (I recalled as well with some amusement a lecture given by a young American artist that began with a display of such an ink stone to illustrate the point that a felt tip pen is cheaper, easier and more efficient). Paul Resika, a painter in New York, once told me that what he enjoyed the most about grinding his own pigments into paint was not the cost saving but the sheer joy of meditation upon a luxurious color and imagining all the paintings that the color would fill.

The sections of reconstituted clay were wrapped in plastic bags then sealed in plastic tubs to ensure workability. The processing of this clay brought to mind the stories I had read about Japanese ceramic artists who would work clay then bury it in the ground - not to be touched in their lifetimes. The clay stayed in the ground until their sons inherited it - just as they had inherited their clay from their fathers. The best reserves of porcelain clay were purportedly worth more than gold. Recalling this story made me wonder if our American culture of immediate gratification has lost a sense of patience and the concept of planning for the long term. It is sometimes difficult to imagine us making materials for our own future use let alone for the use of a following generation.

I should explain here perhaps that clay becomes more plastic the longer it is aged by bacteria - something like cheese I suppose. I have experienced a definite difference in aged clay slips that slide onto a vessel like butter on a hot pancake versus the freshly made stuff that pulls and leaves brush streaks. Needless to say, the reconstituted clay is now aging gracefully in containers and awaiting the arrival of winter. Blessed winter after the harvest of ideas.

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