February 25, 2011

Clicking and Clacking the Time Away

A few years of work on developing ceramic ocarinas brought me to the book From Mud to Music by Barry Hall. I found it to be an excellent book and richly illustrated with examples of both ancient as well as contemporary musical instruments made from ceramic. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the book was that it also came with a CD featuring music produced from these illustrated instruments. I unfortunately damaged this book in an accident but might replace it. It is one of the few books that I have that I would actually buy twice.

Although my interest was in the aerophones, (ocarinas, flutes, horns etc) a small rattle illustrated in From Mud to Music in the chapter on idiophones caught my eye. The rattle was produced during the Song dynasty in China (960 -1279) and made from a simple spherical ball which encapsulated a pellet. The ball was opened in the front with a long wide slit that ran halfway around the diameter of the ball. A small handle perforated , ostensibly to be strung, was extruded from the opposite end. There was no information on this particular item as to how it was played, why it was made or what it sounded like. The simplicity of design made it feasible for someone with a short attention span such as myself to reproduce a facsimile of the instrument to satisfy my curiosity as to the sound.

The first attempts to make this simple bell or rattle design met with limited success. For one thing, I tried to “improve upon” the design by making two slits and leaving a center bridge. This center bridge proved to be unstable and tended to crack in the rapid rising heat of the pit firing I was then engaged in. So I eventually made my designs closer to the original, with a single wide smile of a slit in one side. These fired well and remained intact for musical use.

The other hurdle to overcome in making an idiophone such as a bell or clacker in ceramic was the temptation to test the sound out too much before the item was fired. Of course one does have to test these things to a limited extent because generally what doesn’t sound before it is fired will not sound after coming out of a kiln. But too much force of movement on the delicacy that is unfired (greenware) clay will cause a stress fracture to form or even a hole from the internal pellet knocking against the casing. But the dry clacking noise of the greenware ratlle was seductive. It reminded me of the percussion instruments of the Beijing opera. So I would clack it a little bit. Then I would wait and clack it just a bit more. Then it would break. I then had what could perhaps be described as an idiotphone rather than an idiophone. I now have three idiotphones and counting.

I did resist the temptation to click and clack my latest ceramic rattles while they were still in the unfired greenware stage so they have made it through the fire unscathed. The ones pictured to the above right were made with volcanic ash clay with a surface of burnished slip. I discovered that the higher firing created a bell like sound the pitch of which can be modified by moving an index finger backwards or forwards along the front opening. The shape of these disk rattles was still modified from the fuller spherical forms of the Song dynasty rattles. But the upcoming weeks will see another firing and more experimentations with shapes closer to that model.

February 21, 2011

Reduction Pit Firing Seminar

This weekend marked the culmination of our first team taught seminar at Radcliffe Street studios in Eutawville, South Carolina. The seminar consisted of two all day Saturday classes in the production of volcanic ash pinched and coiled vessels, tile carving, slip burnishing, surface decoration and a reduction pit firing. All materials were supplied along with a free lunch and a coffee break with a vast array of home-made desserts thrown in as well. Students could partake of everything for the very generous bargain price of $135.00. I do believe that it was quite generous. But we really wanted to do this.

Because this was a new venture for my colleague and I, there were successes, wonderful discoveries and... well...learning curves to navigate around. The carving of the vessels and tiles in Santa Clara style was a great discovery for me and a joy for our students. The heavy, non-plastic clay was highly suited to carving - with effects that looked like sculpted sandstone. The sandy quality of the clay also left clean well defined cuts. So we counted a merit point for carving and a must do for the next seminar.

Jeri Burdick provided a variety of traditional slips to cover the pottery with as well as terra sigillata. One of the slips, a red iron oxide slip that was made from a recipe that I got from the Pueblo Tewa potters, unfortunately didn’t “take” and tended to flake off in the burnishing process (which should have been a strong hint for me to dispense with it altogether) then delaminated completely after the firing. The most successful slips were the two terra sigillata ones - a white and a yellow ochre. The yellow ochre had been freshly mixed but the white was Jeri’s very big-hearted donation of a vintage slip that had been aged ten years. Aged slip to a potter is like a rare vintage wine to a connoisseur. It was a good thing that Jeri had discovered this because if it had been me I probably would have hidden and hoarded it - maybe even put it into a safety deposit box. The slip was really like butter and it burnished to a sheen just by rubbing it by hand on the vessel. We did the traditional thing, however, and burnished the slip covered vessels with polished rocks. ( I still have not discovered the quintessential burnishing rock for my pots yet. The rocks have to be truly smooth and free of flaws. These are difficult to find among commercially prepared polished pebbles so I sometimes resort to polishing with a spoon ).

The kiln we prepared this past weekend was most definitely the prettiest one yet but there were some spaces that caused the flames to oxidize a significant number of wares despite our valiant efforts to reduce everything with a ton of cow manure - also Jeri’s contribution (Should our next seminar be a bring your own bag lunch and box of manure?) We didn’t find this out, of course, until our Sunday morning opening of the kiln.

There is nothing quite like an early Sunday morning opening of a pit-fired kiln full of lovingly produced goods. The photograph above shows the pottery contents in the kiln with the metal lid just removed There were about four explosions - two of them my own tiles. Under any other circumstance I would have been disappointed. But when teaching a class, better your own work doesn’t make it through the fire than your students’.

Unlike our earlier test firings, the burnished wares were for the most part just barely reduced - as evidenced by very little blackening. The brilliant thoroughly blackened exceptions however were the small solid pieces placed inside the upside down cans that were used as shelf legs in the kiln. (Obviously there was all smoke and heat with no fire in those.) Hiding small animalitos figures in the cans was a technique used by the Santa Clara Indians to blacken the highly burnished slip. The biggest surprise from beneath a can and one which caused me world class covetous envy was a hand modeled shark tooth sculpture that Jeri had made and burnished with the aged terra sigillata mixed with a secret ingredient in her portion - copper oxide. The copper caused the perfect hints of iridescent colors to bounce off the polished black tooth. Though forged in a can, the shark’s tooth looked uncannily like the real thing and we joked that Jeri could now have a fossil shark tooth forgery business. ( From the point of the can discovery onwards I have been looking at canned goods differently - not by the contents but by the size and shape of the can. I imagine a tile in a tuna can and perhaps several statues neatly tucked inside a cafeteria size can of fruit cocktail. It doesn’t matter what’s actually in the can. I might have to eat it just to get the can. Even if its Boehner’s Baked Beans and Wieners economy size I might have to eat it. So be it).

Another pleasant surprise for me was that although the firing didn’t reduce as well as earlier ones, we believe that the temperature climbed higher than in our previous firings. The w idiophone musical instruments that went through this fire developed a higher pitched ring than my previously fired ones. This better vitrification was more suitable, too, for instruments that had parts that rattle or click against each other.

Although we didn’t plan to extend our seminar into Sunday afternoon, we had a few people who had bunked down in Eutawville join us in cleaning the vessels and applying butcher’s wax to those that were more porous. The photograph to the left shows one of my small pit-fired vessels after it has been cleaned and polished. And wouldn’t you know it? I discovered the unfired lid in the bottom of a box after the firing. I guess this means a second firing of goods so I can toss in the lid.

February 16, 2011

Buddy the Snake Finds a New Home

“...educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality.”
- Martha Nussbaum Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Buddy the Bias Constrictor has found a new home. My colleague and I decided to donate him to the South Carolina State Arts Commission in Columbia. He is definitely happy resting underneath the large painting of swamp scene by Mike Williams. With amazing synchronicity, the colors matched perfectly - as if Buddy had been made for this painting. The bright greens and yellows echoed the colors of the flora and fauna of the painting. Even the ultramarine blue letters of the snake’s body were repeated in the blue lines of Mike William’s painting. I had seen this painting often so it is possible that I had subconsciously recalled the color palette. But for now I will consider it one of life’s happy coincidences.

Buddy may appear again in more capable hands. And there may be some more Freedom Snakes in the works.

February 9, 2011

New Snake in Town

Meet Buddy. Buddy the Bias Constrictor. In the picture above he is posing in front of the Portfolio Gallery in Five Points, Columbia SC with his creators Janet Kozachek and Julia Culler Wolfe and their new violinist friend. The photo was taken downtown after our snake made his debut at the State House earlier that morning.

The idea for this snake emblazoned with the words “Don’t Tread on the Arts” came to me as a creative way to make a sign for the Arts Advocacy Day rally organized by the South Carolina Arts Alliance on February 8 at the South Carolina State House. An annual event, this year’s rally took on a certain urgency on account of the governor’s recent call to end funding for the South Carolina State Arts Commission and Educational Television. . As I understand by reading the allocations in the State Budget, these institutions receive only a very small portion of state funding. By far the lesser funded of these two institutions, The South Carolina State Arts Commission ( counting in at four one hundredths of 1% of total FY2011 state appropriation) is in fact an income generating body due to its affiliations with small businesses and the tourism industry - the major source of revenue for this state.

The worrisome thing about a call to abolish institutions which serve the economic well being of the artists, intellectuals, and educators who serve this state as well as the call to dissolve the vehicles for their expression is that it represents a disproportionate social and economic burden on them as well as on their representative voices in government. An action based on such a call would reflect neither good financial stewardship nor would it reflect a fair and democratic call for sacrifice in the face of fiscal austerity. In fact it is not only artists and educators who will suffer but everyone whose lives are enriched by their presence, their knowledge, and their creativity. It is troublesome, too, that this sets an unhealthy precedent for citing fiscal conservatism as a pretense for making decisions probably motivated more by political agenda or bias rather than financial austerity. The latter would be more believable if the Arts Commission and ETV were called upon to make a financial sacrifice (indeed the Arts Commission’s budget was already cut nearly in half two years ago) on a scale equivalent to other branches of government taking budget cuts. But if other institutions are pared down yet these two are eliminated then the bias is obvious. Hence the appearance of Buddy the Bias Constrictor, snaking his way to the State House to demonstrate so much unfairness.

Buddy is an art snake through and through. His exterior was made with left over muslin that once graced the walls of a retired crafter’s booth. His eyes were made from my one-of-a-kind ceramic buttons. Buddy’s stuffing was made with all the bubble wrap that came in packages of returned paintings and mosaics. At ten and a half feet that was a lot of stuffing. The octagonal bubbles in the wrapping served a dual aesthetic and practical purpose - making Buddy a lightweight snake sign to carry and creating a snake skin like texture in the surface when painted. The tongue was made from one of the red plastic plates I used as a makeshift paint palette for acrylics. Julia and I put Buddy together at her studio in Bamberg - my own unheated one being not quite hospitable these days. In between the gesso coat and the final acrylic painting we watched Episode One of the PBS series on the history of New York City. (I had missed these first few episodes on account of being on the road for my job back when it originally aired and thought that now would be as good a time as any to fill in the blanks. Loved that early New Amsterdam peg-legged governor.) When it came to painting the words on the snake, I was at the ready to paint the line “Don’t Tread on the Arts.” Julia came up with a slight variation which was by far better - substituting “our” for “the” making the phrase truly democratic. Julia then added the perfect finishing touch - a Swiss cow bell to Buddy’s tail that could ring in optimism and determination in the face of nay sayers.

Back home in Orangeburg, Buddy had to be sewn up by hand. But it was a labor of love - or at least a quiet and relaxing experience. Nothing like slow tedious work to sooth the ruffled soul. There wasn’t much time between the exhortation to attend the Arts Advocacy Rally and the making of this snake sign so Buddy was a little rough around the edges. I was concerned that he would make a poor showing among other artist’s signs that were sure to be creative. I could not have been more mistaken. When we entered the great hall of the State House with our snake, we were greeted with smiles, thanks, laughter and numerous requests to have photographs taken underneath our Buddy’s long form.

Then a spontaneous and incredible thing happened. There was a corridor through which the state legislators walked that was between two elevated platforms where the audience could see them walk by. With the head of Buddy held securely by my friend and myself, we threw his tail over the other side of the aisle. This created a giant snake arch. The legislators then proceeded to parade underneath the belly of the snake - a belly which read “Don’t Tread on Our Arts.” Some of them laughed, some only smirked. Others batted their eyes in amusement and disbelief. One legislator looked at Buddy with disdain or loathing - I’m not sure which but it was most certainly disfavor.

Some time later, Governor Haley made an appearance at the concomitant Red Dress rally to raise awareness of vascular and heart disease in women. Many of the gatherers chanted “Have a Heart Save the Arts” at that time, hopefully not aware that there were women with coronary disease present. (I didn't know myself what this second rally was all about until I read about it in The State this morning) Thankfully, I was too sick at the time to participate in chants but I did pass Buddy the Bias Constrictor along through the crowds.

The Governor herself was stunning. Despite the fact that I was painfully aware of being on opposite sides of the political spectrum I could not help but feel a slight wellspring of joy at having an excellent looking woman as governor of this state. Score one point for South Carolina, I thought, for having the best looking governor in the Union. I only hope that she will retain the best looking parts of South Carolina - our arts!

February 3, 2011

Happy Birthday Income Tax

On February 3, 1913 the 16th amendment was ratified establishing the right of congress to impose a federal income tax. Income tax has been feeling blue for a number of decades now due to bad press so I thought that I would make a birthday cake and say “Happy Birthday.”

One of the reasons for establishing an income tax was to pay back government debt. Unfortunately as we are all now painfully aware, debt on both the federal and state level has become so high that income tax alone will not pay it down. But neither will resorting to cuts alone. From my readings in recent history, it appears that the most effective way of paying down debt is by taking a three-pronged approach; curbing waste, by making budget cuts and by raising taxes. That is how the budget was balanced before and it can be done again.

Talk of raising income tax has been so persistently taboo for so long that it would be difficult indeed to elect a conscientious leader who can be frank about taxes and how we won’t be able to get ourselves out of debt without raising them. This is probably because in the public forum, the link between taxes and the common good has been disconnected by public figures seeking short term gains for themselves over long term gains for the public. It has been these figures that promulgate the notion that a good portion of taxation is nothing more than the work of pick pockets - justifying their point of view by the presentation of half truths. If I say to a voter, for instance, “would you like to keep all the money in your pocket or give it to the government?” of course the answer will be “no thanks.” But if the question is phrased more realistically as “Would you like to keep all the money in your pocket or would you like to contribute one dollar of it so that your children can go to public school and you can have a public library, a police force and emergency services?” then the answer might be different. Yet on account of propagandizing, the latter more rational connection between income tax and public services is lost. Truly, it often seems that a call for the “common good” is met with a vituperative voice or two ringing out the words “communists” or “socialists.”

One popular way self described fiscal conservatives turn the public against taxes is by instilling the idea that taxes are wrong if someone other than oneself benefits. By this logic I should take umbrage at the fact that although I have no children I must still pay taxes to educate the children of others. I don’t take offence at that. In fact, the county where I live built a children’s water park by means of a penny sales tax that I contributed to as a retailer. I am happy that they have their park. I don’t hunt and prefer cat ownership to dog ownership. But part of my tax dollars support an annual Coon Dog Hunt. I am happy that they have their Coon Dog Hunt.

Everyone feels ambivalent about income taxes. It can feel unsettling to hand over hard earned money and not have a clear idea about how well it is being spent. But it is wrong to manipulate such feelings for political gain and to fuel unrealistic expectations of service without pay. I would rather see vital state jobs preserved even if it means that my taxes will go up - provided that this burden is shared equitably and that other methods of generating revenue are pursued as well. Better that we all pay a little more (albeit on a sliding scale depending upon income) in order to build ourselves back up, have our health care, and to generate more taxpayers rather than swell the ranks of the unemployed and uninsured.

Needless to say, the tax codes need to be reformed and taxes need to be made more equitable. And of course there needs to be more transparency and accountability in government spending. But this should be done with responsible conversation and public debate rather than by courting tax payer rage and hiding the obvious.

You make us groan and argue amongst ourselves, but you give us education, protect us from downturns, help us in our old age, give us our libraries, our military servicemen and women, our roads, bridges and hopefully one day - our health care. So Happy Birthday to you Income Tax and many Happy Returns.