May 25, 2015

Possessed by Small Sculptures

Inspiration for art work can come from unusual sources. I recently created a small group of ceramic pit fired baubles after watching a scene from the popular film, Possession, starring Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The film itself was not particularly well done, being a pale imitation of the 1970's film The Exorcist. In this unfortunate remake the evil spirit came from a dybbuk box with mysterious Hebrew writing on it that the father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) purchased for his daughter from a garage sale.

It was the end of my day and I was feeling too tired to get up and switch the channel on the television but not quite tired enough to sleep. Fortunately my interest in The Possession picked up a bit when the evil box was opened and various well carved objects were discovered inside. Spooky music, upturned eyes, night scenes with unearthly windiness and wicked whispering, notwithstanding, I liked how the box of goods looked. The carving was nicely done, like sophisticated pieces of folk art. Therefore the film’s crucial message that these objects were evil was completely lost on me. I wanted a box of small carvings too.

The very next day I set about making small sculptures out of my locally mined clay. I made them all about one or two inches tall so that a good many could fit in a box should I desire making a box for them at some point. They were rather labor intensive, as they required carving in the leather hard stage, sanding in the greenware stage and burnishing to maintain the natural clay color. I drilled holes in a number of these so that they can function as ornamental focal beads and one can be worn as a ring. Or they can just sit on a shelf and make mysterious noises.

May 16, 2015

Every now and then, life gets too chaotic. The garden gets overgrown. The art work piles up without being catalogued and put into binders or secured in files. Generally when I put things back in to order again I make joyful little discoveries - gratuitously growing ferns that can be placed in a garden, art work that I thought I had lost, reference material that I thought I had lost. Clearing the way makes things appear. The two most recent unearthed finds are some monoprints of daffodils and butterflies that I had completed this spring. They are actually part print part painting with a lot of textural additions. Enjoying cleaning house.

May 15, 2015

Building a Moss and Fern Garden

The weather has been great. Not too cold, not too dry and not yet too hot. A recent lessening of the symptoms of a chronic illness meant that I could take advantage of the mild climate to tackle the neglected gardens around our home. Temporarily putting aside the creation of art work, I substituted works of greenery, rocks and earth.

There was nothing quite like obtaining free plants in the pursuit of gardening. This has been a great benefit of living in a small rural community of avid gardeners - availing myself of the garden spill over from a friend’s or neighbor’s yard. That is how I collected hydrangeas, a confederate rose, a swamp hibiscus, rose of sharon bushes and most recently ginger lilies, spider lilies, century plants and Japanese ferns. The lilies, spider lilies, century plants and ferns come from Lee Malerich, an artist friend who blogs about art, the art of creative salvaging and gardening:

The ferns inspired some renovations. I selected an area around a tree that had overgrown its cement and rock boundary for the placement of the ferns. The overgrown ivy around the tree and azaleas competed with the ferns so I tore that out. The torn out ivy and tilled up soil revealed buried rocks. I used these to re-establish a border for my new fern garden. But what to use for a green replacement for the ivy that would not compete with the delicate ferns? Going on line I saw some very nice gardens using ferns and moss for shady areas. I was smitten by the tropical rainforest look. There was already gratuitous moss growing in the area so I knew that more of it could probably be accommodated.

The more I looked at mosses and lichens the more I liked them. Low maintenance and good for shaded areas with ferns. And what beautiful colors and textures. I learned about sheet moss, cushion moss, haircap moss, rock cap moss and reindeer moss (which is actually a lichen).

I readied myself to order moss carpets in a pleasant variety of greens. But then I looked at price on line. Reindeer moss was about $20 for two square feet. About $10.00 a square foot for the other varieties of moss seemed about standard. So I resolved to find my own moss from around my yard and discreet areas in the neighborhood.

Looking in my own back yard I found about three varieties of moss. The neighbor had a fourth tall and bushy growing variety which I begged a sample of. Not being moss savy at first, I pulled the long stem like structures out of the clumps of moss I was transferring thinking that these were invasive weeds. Turns out these were spores from the moss that were best preserved.

As I slowly pieced together a quilt of mosses for around the ferns and down the bank of earth around the garden I thought of money saved. Ten dollars for every painstakingly pieced together square foot of moss. (I later heard that Lowes sells the moss more cheaply than that so will check out shortly).

Funny how setting a monetary value on something changed everything. I began to see not moss but fifty cents growing on a rock. Five dollars growing on my sidewalk. Waking up in the morning I did not wish for a sunny day but rather an overcast cool day of rain so that ten dollars might grow on the dark side of my back porch. I recalled a few years ago coming across reindeer moss growing on its own on a forest edge. At the time I considered taking a sample because it was so beautiful but I did not know what I would do with it. Too bad. There was probably about a hundred dollars on that bank!

As luck would have it, my search for money-conserving soil conserving moss also turned up some small volunteer ferns growing around the periphery of our house. These I put in to my moss and fern garden to complete the circle. I added a potted fern in the center where I will eventually place a large autumn fern that a neighbor just offered!

May 11, 2015

From Hand to Foot

For my last revised detail picture for my illustrated book of women monsters, I decided to switch from hands to feet. Again, this was not my idea but came about from my graphic designer’s pointing out that in the case of this illustration for the poem Mother Puffer, the feet were more interesting than the hands. As with any exception to the rule, this illustration will be placed at the end of the book. Hand, hand, hand, then foot.

When revising the details in this drawing,
 I made the barbs in the background even more pointy and treacherous looking. What were dots in the original became small triangles in the revised version of the poem. I felt that this was more in keeping with the general tenor of the poem. The complete illustration is above and the revised detail at right.

May 8, 2015

A New Tattoo on a Fairy's Hand

The illustration I made for the poem Tinsel Twinkle Toe Fairy belies the rather cynical nature of the poem. The poem satirized the cult of optimism in the United States which informs people that they may have their hearts desire just by wishing for it. The idea is rather deeply rooted in the American psyche. Recall the film The Wizard of Oz...the scene at the end of the film when the good witch Glenda tells Dorothy that she always had the power to go home. "She just didn’t want it badly enough." the good witch tells us. At least that is what I recall. And even watching the film as a child, I always felt that this line flew in the face of logic and how life actually worked.

Despite the fact that I don’t adhere to national proclivities when it comes to a way of looking at life, I am influenced by the opinions of others. It was the opinion of my graphic designer that the tattoos I placed on the hands of the Lioness in my revised detail of that illustration were a good addition. So I dittoed that and made a tattoo on the hand of the Fairy and added a ring as well in my revised detail. Perhaps adding changes to what should be an enlarged portion of the illustration flies in the face of logic.

The detail revisions give me plenty of opportunity to embellish on an original idea, sharpen the graphics, and generally get creative. I have reproduced the original illustration above along with the revised detail portion at right for comparison.

May 7, 2015

From Feline to Canine

Despite my work on illustrations of cats, or perhaps in an odd way on account of these illustrations, I have attracted the attention of dog writers. No, I don’t mean dogs who write, but rather people who have been writing odes and stories to or about dogs. It could mean a job making illustrations of dogs. One can only make a bid and leave the rest up to fate and willing clients.

In my last pit firing I included a small group of figurines that were distinctly canine in nature so perhaps these were a harbinger of things to come. Most of them were purely fanciful and imaginary but one, the terrier form in the foreground of the photograph above, was based upon a friend’s Bouvier terriers. I liked their shapes.  They seemed to made up of a series of squares and rectangles. All of these dogs, save one, were made from burnished local South Carolina Midlands clay. I preserved the natural purples and reds of these clays.

The exception to this group was the small figure in cobalt blue. He was made with local Maryland clay and salt fired in a wood firing kiln.  I retained her as a reminder about how to pace activities. I created her in a class I took a number of years ago in Maryland. The instructor was a young, gifted artist who was a treasure trove of knowledge about local salt fired cobalt glazed pottery but who was new to teaching. The course was ambitious - perhaps too ambitious for the time allotment of just one week. We would have to make pottery, dry it, bisque fire it, then burn it all night in a wood firing kiln. I would not have attempted to teach such a course in five days. A seasoned instructor would know that the time crunch would mean that students would have to create their pots the first day, dry them the second, fire them the third, and salt fire them the fourth day, open the kiln the fifth. 

The newly minted instructor perhaps had not anticipated the tight schedule, as we spent the first day playing "get to know you" games and learning the history of salt firing in the northeast. Then we played "get to know the clay" games as the instructor passed around a minuscule bit of clay for us to play with. When the fragment got to me I decided that I would conscript it into my service and made a tiny dog out of it. I was allowed to keep it. I knew that it would be dry by the next day. Another student potter with a keen sense of self preservation that matched my own and I snuck back in to the studio that evening and made a few more things. They were the only things to survive the bisque firing as moist clay vessels made the second day by the rest of the class, sadly, exploded in the kiln. Duty bound, the men teaching the course put these fragments in to the wood kiln along with my intact little dog and kept the kiln burning all night long. A lot of work for a two inch dog, a whistle, a pot and an ocarina. It was awkward to say the least.
 I sometimes look back on this event and wonder if I should have stepped up and encouraged the new teacher to have his students make their vessels on day one.  But I was a painter and not a potter and wasn't completely certain that the work could not have been completed in four days instead of five.

I do hope that the potter was hired back again in subsequent years and given another chance, most certainly having figured out how to pace the pottery making.  I keep the little blue dog to remind myself about budgeting time.

May 6, 2015

Detail Revisions for the Lioness

have been turning once again to work on the detail cut outs for my book of female monsters. The Lioness was based upon based upon a real artifact - a three thousand year old proto-Elamite stone carving that I had studied some years ago. In the illustration for my poem I rather crudely added legs that were not there in the original sculpture. It was practically sacrilegious - like adding arms on the Venus De Milo or a head on the Winged Victory. Not leaving well enough alone in my revision of the focal detail I added tattoos to the statue’s folded fists. I hope that there was some logic in all of this.

May 5, 2015

Sonic Hedgehogs...A Small Army of Ceramic Bells

For my recent pit firing I created an entourage of small ceramic bells. I called them "sonic hedgehogs," so named for a molecule affecting the development of the autonomic nervous system. Of late I have been told that the term has also been used for video games. Perhaps a scientist who liked video games named the molecule.

My sonic hedgehogs were created by making a hollow sphere around a solid ball, called a katel. When the clay of the outside sphere had stiffened up enough to carve I created a long slit around half of its circumference. This opening functioned like the holes in a round bell. The sound was made by shaking the katel against the sound hole. Since I knew from past experience that low fired ceramic makes a clicking noise instead of a ring, I added attachments to the ball that made them look like beasts with open mouths. Many of these had rows of teeth to emphasize the gnawing sound that shook out of its opened mouth.

I was instantly intrigued by the idea of making a small army of such small monsters with tail handles and over-sized mouths that emitted clicks. I envisioned about a hundred or so people each clicking one so that the group would emanate the sounds of so many crickets or cicadas. Perhaps they could even be synchronized by pitch. I would name the performance piece "Disturbing Peace," after a line from an ancient Chinese poem I translated years ago...."Who says rats don’t have teeth. They can bore through my wall and disturb my peace." Just a thought. But performance art notwithstanding, friends of mine agreed that these little things belonged together as a group. The more the merrier as the old adage goes.

I burnished the raw clay to keep the natural colors of rose, red and buff on most of my sonic hedgehogs. On others I used terra sigillata glazes made from aged painting terra sigillata mixed with Amaco velvet underglaze. These were blues, greens and deep reds. I posed them for a group portrait.

May 3, 2015

A Pit Fired Toad Rattle

Years of perusing museums and books of antiquities have had their influence. Without looking at any particular piece of art, I spent a day carving clay additions on a hollow rattle, with the results being something that reminded me of some of the Han bronzes I had been so attracted to. I did have in mind, at least from the outset, a magic three legged good luck toad from Chinese myth. The toad-like shape came through in this sculpture but with the requisite four limbs instead of only three. I suppose this means he is not as lucky - at least for the one who owns him.

The pit fire in which this sculpture was smoked after the bisque created an almost patina like finish to the ceramic, helped along by the natural mica or feldspar in the clay. The clay was from the lot that was mined locally in the Santee area of South Carolina.

The details on this sculpture were painstakingly carved out of a thick clay body, Native American style. I decided to articulate the details this way because the sudden shift to high temperatures in the pit kiln can break clay attachments added to a piece. The carving took most of a day, as did the sanding, wet ragging and burnishing. I put no glaze or terra sigillata on this piece. The color was made with fire and smoke upon the natural clay body. I have been experimenting of late with color using just the naturally occurring variations in found clay. Thus far I have been getting a fairly large range from buff to black, but mostly yellow to red ochres.

May 1, 2015

A Better Pit Firing

The results of my last pit firing exceeded my expectations. I was not expecting such great variations in tonality from the deepest black to touches of light white and pink. Nor was I expecting the reduction firing to convert the greens into great reds.

The previous pit firing, which I did not write about, had reoxidized so that all the ceramic sculptures emerged with a bland monochromatic greyish purple color. I waxed some of the ones from this batch that I wished to keep and put the rest aside for a second try at a smoke firing. Over time I came to regret having put a wax coating on the monochromatic works because they began to look increasingly boring resting on my shelf. I checked the contents of the microcrystalline wax that I had buffed the surfaces of these ceramic pieces with and found that it was indeed flammable. Would I create an explosion in my electric kiln if I tried to heat the coating off so that I could smoke fire it? I sought the advice of a more seasoned potter on how to best burn off the wax coating and she recommended just sticking the pieces back into the outdoor pit where the coating would burn off and I would not fill my home with a noxious odor.

Back into the pit firing went two waxed pieces along with the unwaxed pieces from the previous failed smoke firing. I added to that all of my new sculptures; small rattles, ocarinas, bells and whistles. This meant for a jam packed pit firing - generally a good thing for a reduction atmosphere.

The pit firing from last week was the first one that did not completely flatten me since the onset of my disability four years ago. I account for this because my neighbor graciously volunteered to relieve some of the effort by helping me keep the fire stoked. A low dose beta-blocker also helped keep my heart rate in a reasonable range. But nothing does a heart more good than a kiln full of pottery with swirls of lovely patterns made by smoke and flames.