Friday, February 25, 2011

A Clay Film Festival in the Works?

I'm finally down in Florida taking a little vacation this week.  It's really beautiful here in St. Augustine right now, but as luck would have it, we're not escaping any winter weather back home.  It is spring-like back in the mountains and I hear all my friends are outside getting those gardens ready.  Still, to be laying on a warm beach in's divine.

The only clay news I have this week is a discussion I had online with Ayumi Horie on Facebook relating to the idea of  hosting an online Clay Film Festival.  This idea is merely in the germination phase, but the more I think about it, the better it sounds.  I mean,  there is so much creative documentation being done in clay studios these days, I think an annual people's showcase for this work complete with sponsored prizes and such would be awesome.  When it comes to making films on craft, my personal preference are those that go beyond documenting process and somehow capture an artist's spirit behind a process. My best example for this is a film that my Nova Scotian friend, Catherine Busierre, made recently about Rug Hooking.  If you never thought you could be moved to tears by a film on rug hooking (and inspired to get back in that pottery studio to create), you've got to watch this film.  We showed it during set break at a Duckpond concert last year and it was a big hit with potters and non-potters alike.  Also, be sure to check out Ayumi's very artfully done short film documenting her process of "dry throwing".  In the First Annual North American Clay Film Festival's "process" category, I think she's got a real contender.

......Here's Catherine's Film:


......And don't forget Ayumi's Film:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pricks on Sticks: Finding a Satirical Voice in Clay

Yesterday some beautiful spring like weather came up into the mountains making it a perfect time to get a little early evening photography done out on the back deck at my shop.  Pictured here is my patio torch collection "pricks on Sticks." This series is a satire of the leaders of finance and their collusion with the federal government(please check out my short silent film). I'd finished this work just before the Christmas season, but decided its vibe wasn't exactly helping the holiday cheer in my showroom, and so shelved it until the new year.  Now that it's been over a month into 2011, I've had some time to ponder the series and the direction it will take.  I've decided "Pricks on Sticks" will live on as more than just a one time satirical piece and instead will find new life 

as an activist blog at  Once a week or so, I will feature a sculpted portrait of the week's standout "prick on a stick" and 
Bernie Madoff and Friends
explain in a word or two how they achieved "the honor." To be eligible someone must demonstrate a psychopathic willingness to place their personal greed before the needs of the planet and its inhabitants.  Unfortunately, these days the competition for the award is very stiff indeed.

The Back Story

What Prompted you to make this series? 

Well, since 2008 I had become increasingly outraged with Wall Street's reckless behavior and the government's apparent complicity, if not out right assistance.  As a simple (and poor) potter, however, I felt powerless to vent my frustration.  It eventually occurred to me, however, that through my clay caricatures I might find a constructive voice of dissent.       

How is Satire constructive and not destructive?
To be honest, I've been asking myself this same question, and have had occasional bouts of apprehension about continuing the series.  The question of whether negative karma was attached to doing this kind of work definitely occurred to me.  Recently, however, I had a transforming conversation with an activist friend of mine, Dana Smith, attorney and Founder of the Dogwood Alliance.  Dana is in the trenches full time working to change unsustainable forestry practices in the South (see video below).  She makes a career out of leveraging pressure against corporations whose actions are motivated only by the dollar.  In our discussion she assured me that gaining public support for their cause is a key to making corporations re-shape harmful practices and that satire is one valuable tool for helping this happen.  We talked about different ways my clay work could help bolster their message and that of other activist organizations all over the world.

What Other Ceramicists have inspired this work?

Well Robert Arneson is definitely first to cross my mind.  Much of the political work he did through his career was insanely bold and 
Robert Arneson sculpture
memorable.....and often so funny Kathy King is another potter I'd mention.  I actually was around her in the studio at the University of Florida.  I believe she was an Associate Professor there back when I was taking my first clay class.  I still remember her humorous tackling of gender issues through the most amazing porcelain scraffito you could ever expect to see. In my opinion, there is a whole lot more room for satirical ceramics.  
Plate by Kathy King
What a great idea for the next Lark Books  publication.

Describe the torches and how they're made.

All the patio torches are initially wheel thrown bottomless stoneware domes.  I add facial features to the outside and then shape them mainly by pushing out from the inside.  It's actually a very fluid process for sculpting and ideal for caricature.  The torches are then decorated with a range of washes and glazes before being fired to 2300 degrees in a heavy reduction atmosphere.         


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Morning Head: Tom Waits

Tom Waits
I took up one of my first sculpture commissions of the year yesterday.  Just a few days after pulling Jerry Garcia out of the kiln,  A local woman wanted me to make a Tom Waits patio torch  for her son, a musician down in Athens, Georgia.  Now this is my kind of order.  At the close of last year, I sculpted quite a few musicians from the Jazz, Bluegrass, and
Rock and Roll worlds and I had hoped the trend would continue. Beyond just clay work, sculpting is for me an opportunity to commune with some very interesting folk.  Before getting into the clay,  I usually do a little research on the person, 
check out their career, watch a few of their videos, etc.  For that reason, having Tom Waits on the order board was pure pleasure (not to mention, he's got a great face!).

     The video I posted is a live performance of his "What is he building in there?"  Even in a concert hall with thousands of people, this tune still has the power to spook.    

A Little Back Story

What's with the name of this post, "The Morning Head"

Portrait Sculpting is usually something I only do early in the morning.  You could say it's my pre-dawn ritual.  By the time I finish my morning coffee, I'm usually done for the day.  I do this work in my little home studio before heading off to my "real" pottery shop down the road. 

 You sculpt a whole head in the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee?  No way.
Pretty much.  But you have to understand, this is not the kind of formal sculpture you would learn in art school. This 
is more street level, gypsy wagon stuff.  One motto for my work might be, "I may not be good, but at least I'm quick."(note to self:  good t-shirt idea.).  Anyway, there is some truth there that explains a lot about this work and what it means to me.

Ok,so how do you do it?

Unlike traditional sculpting where an image is rendered from a solid block of clay, I sculpt from the inside out starting with a wheel thrown clay dome.  Working this way I'm able to render an expressive caricature of a person in an hour or so. The process itself is very fluid.

So what's so important about speed?

Well, just as with pen and ink caricature work, the brevity of the process makes it possible for me to be prolific.....and topical with my subject.  I find that as the sculpture process becomes rhythmic, my creative voice more strongly emerges.  With this process, I'm going after expressive portraits that capture the essence of somebody.  Static realism is not my thing. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Going Ghetto: Firing Cone 10 Reduction in an Electric/Gas Hybrid Kiln

This week I've been scrambling to get the month's orders finished in my shop so that my family can get down to Florida for  some much needed kayaking, fishing and general loafing around on sand.  My oldest boy, Jack, is already 3 and he's never spent an hour out of the mountains--the poor kid.  So, while working around the clock these last few days, I decided to make a little video documenting the firing of what I call my "Ghetto Kiln," an electric kiln modified into a gas/electric reduction kiln.  

Here's the Back Story
carbon trap shinos fired in ghetto kiln
When I had first bought my shop 10 or so years ago, I was making my living mostly selling a mid-range production line of marbled earthenware. Though that work sold very well, I saw the establishment of a retail shop as an opportunity to jump beyond the rigid "production line approach" to pot making.  I wanted to return more to exploring new ways of creating and firing clay.  I fired mostly wood back in my college days and definitely longed to get back to that process.  Unfortunately, the acquisition of my shop and a new 30 year home mortgage put any ambitious kiln building projects WAY on the back burner.  Right around that time, I read about Nils Lou's early tinkering with electric reduction in his Art of Firing, and decided to give that a whirl.  For his electric reduction trials, Nils was using ITC refractory coatings to protect the elements in little test kilns and then he would introduce a tiny buzz burner through a side hole in order to reduce the oxygen in the chamber.  I decided to scale that same idea to larger kilns.   But in my mind, this wacky electric reduction stuff was only a provisional situation that would buy me some time until I could build some "real" kilns out in my yard. 
carbon trap shinos fired in ghetto kiln
And that would have been true.........if the firings hadn't been so good.  And reliable.  And CHEAP!  Ten years later I am finally focusing on building that big 'ol ground hog kiln I've always wanted.  I can't wait to be off the grid and have more of the communal aspects that are part of firing with wood. But I'm still hanging on to that versatile little hybrid of mine.  It's just been too great of a kiln to give up.  If you're interested in a more technical conversation about this process, feel free to drop me a line.

I've tagged on a short clip here that was part of a documentary about one of my fellow "Ghetto Kiln Voyagers," the great Beatrice Wood.  She fired low fire lusters and got her reduction by inserting pieces of wood through the spy hole.