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It’s a New Year and several new projects to carry through to 2020

This is the post excerpt.

Several ongoing projects will be finished in the next month and then two new ones.  Cris and I are finishing the revisions to the second edition of The Traditional and Religious Arts of Asia and, at the same time, I am updating two online introductory art courses for the School of Art.  Those will be finished this month.  If you have been reading this blog, you will also know that I am set to arrive at Hospitalfield in Arbrough, Scotland for March.  For the past six or so years, the amount of ceramics that are fired has disturbed me.  My beginning class of wheel throwers makes hundreds of cylinders, 15 cm high and 9 cm wide, to finally get the 40 they submit.  The goal has been to get them to see these as being ‘not precious’ and to recycle the cylinders that are ‘unworthy’.  It is difficult to imagine an archaeologist digging up our material culture in 1000 years and finding this ceramic work.  My last group of students really embraced this, and I was so proud of them.  In keeping with that and the theme of transience, the work that I will make and leave along the coast of the North Sea will not be fired. These are studies of the changing light during the day for the time I am at Hospitalfield.  The works will disintegrate over time, a metaphor for the passage of time, birth and death.  I will be using textile dyes, watercolours, and stains.  This is very exciting.  And in the spring a new studio will appear on our property in Winnipeg, a transition from my reduction of duties at the School of Art, to once again just being a studio ceramist.  So looking forward.

Han Dynasty Tomb figures at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BCE to 220 CE. During this time China was a country at peace with its neighbours. With secure borders and trade along the two Silk Roads, one overland and the other maritime, the economy prospered. Silk was traded along with spices, teas, and ceramics. While contemporary literature talks about the growth of cities and domestic architecture, there are no extant examples. Archaeologists study the ceramics that have been discovered in tombs to understand what the local buildings and lives of the Han were like. The Chinese believed in an afterlife, and they provided for this by placing burial goods in with the deceased. By the time of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was well in place, and the former practice of burying living family members and entire armies with the dead is replaced by ceramic objects. Most of you are probably familiar with the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin. Here life-size (a few larger than life) clay statues wear their armour in all its detail ready to defend their emperor. More than 8000 have been unearthed including charioteers and horses. They were masterfully created.

The burial figures of the Han are smaller, contain more variety, and are more animated. To date, no life-size figures made during the Han dynasty have been found. The range that has been found include palace or courtyard style dwellings along with farm animals such as pigs and oxen. There are dancers and musicians, small armies along with a myriad of non-military statues. There are tall towers with high walls. It is believed that the animals lived on the ground floor while the family lived in the upper stories. Roofs made of bamboo covered with clay tiles are supported by brackets, wooden beams that project from the wall. The tombs unearthed in Sichuan province have even more variety in terms of small figurines representing the daily life of the deceased. These included farming scenes, people working with farm animals, doghouses, dancers, acrobats, women spinning, and people dancing. The figures were painted and arranged to form a narrative.

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It is during this time that we fully see the emergence of low fired lead-glazed earthenware. The temperature of the firing was between 750-900 degrees C. From the evidence, it appears that the pieces were single fired as opposed to the clay drying, having a bisque firing at a lower temperate, and then a final glaze firing. The potters had, by the Han dynasty, discovered the difference between a reducing atmosphere and an oxidising one. If they wanted bright lead colours, an oxidation firing, where there is sufficient oxygen introduced into the kiln for the fire to burn clean, was used. To obtain the green colour seen on the Han dynasty figures in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the artists used copper. To get brown or a red-brown, they would use iron. Lapis lazuli or cobalt was used to obtain blue. The only colours used by the Han dynasty potters appear to be a range of greens and brown, russet to an almost espresso. The glazed earthenware pieces use red clay although a number appear to use a grey clay body. These pieces are fired so low that they are relatively soft and as a consequence the rubbing of their surface causes the glaze and the clay to disintegrate.

The collection of tomb figurines in the ROM show a funeral parade, large courtyard style compounds, chairs known as Horsehoof style, elaborate family altars, and medicine cabinets.

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Mesoamerican Ceramics at the Gardiner

The collection of Mesoamerican pottery at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto is impressive.  The arrangement of the ceramics with their information panels and maps is clearly meant to educate.  The range of pottery includes vessels and figurines, all made by hand, as well as pieces produced by moulds.  The decorative elements range simple incised lines and applique to elaborate techniques such as polychrome slipware.

Small female figurines were made in Guanajuato or Michoacan Mexico from 300 BCE to 100 CE.  These female statuettes made entirely by modelling the clay by hand (and mostly solid), with their oversized heads and headdresses. While many were made out of flat slabs, a number are three-dimensional like the ones at the Gardiner.  Notice the eyes.  Most are coffee-bean shaped and slanted as in the second image below.  Most figurines were left unpainted, but occasionally some were decorated with bright colours. Ceramics serve as historical records and here we can see the hairstyles and clothing that were prominent during this period of time.  Many of you may be aware of other female figurines created out of clay in the Indus Valley civilization or carved out of stone like those in Europe and the Aegean.    Archaeologists believe that these figurines served various purposes.  They may have been used as amulets for crop fertility rites, for healing, or as part of a narrative of an important event.  Others believe they could have been part of grave offerings, companions, as such, for the afterlife.

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Close by are a group of oversized ‘baby-like’ androgynous figures.  Androgynous simply means containing both male and female parts.  These hollow statues with their slip decoration were made by the Olmec, a culture that lived in what is now the Tabasco and Veracruz areas of Mexico.  What do they represent?  The Olmec had eight deities that were androgynous. Are they associated with any of those?  The vast majority of these chubby youth have their legs splayed with their hands on their thighs.  They look up to the viewer as if they are ready to jump off their display.  Many of the oversized heads appear to be covered with some kind of cap.  They are not smiling but, rather, all of the mouths seem to have the same expression.  They are open and downturned.  No one is certain of their function.  Some believe they represent the rain deity while others believe that they could have been a portrait of an extraordinary individual when they were an infant.  Many have been found in or near burial sites.  Were they part of a ceremonial burial perhaps?  Scholars have suggested that they could have been actual stand-ins for infant sacrifices.

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It is impossible to miss the skills of these early clay artists and, as I wandered through the galleries, other visitors commented on the quality of the crafting, unable to believe that people living so long ago could be so accomplished.

In comparison, the Maya who lived in Guatemala and parts of Mexico created some extraordinary earthenware vessels with polychrome slip.

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In the cylinder above, a noblewoman carries a jug of cocoa to two men seated with a plate of tamales (out of the scene, sorry), participants in what appears to be a feast with lavish food and drink.  Cocoa is bitter chocolate made by pressing roasted cocoa kernels.  It is still a popular drink, often with cinnamon, in Guatemala and Mexico.  The lines are animated and the colours remain bright.  Below are two dishes with bird effigy lids.  Made during the Early Classical period of the Maya, these deep earthenware burnished dishes were used to serve tamales (wah).  The middle images contain the plates that foods would be served on during feasts.  The large bowls held a type of corn gruel, ul.  Cylinders, such as the one above, used for drinking, always held a chocolate-based beverage, kakaw.

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The Maya believed in many gods that controlled all aspects of their life.  In their creation myth, the Mayas believe that the gods separated the heavens from the earth.  The Maize god, Hun Hun Ajaw, erected an enormous ceiba tree in the centre of the universe.  That tree was a conduit between the gods and humans.  The gods formed the first humans out of a dough made of both yellow and white maize when their clay figurines failed.  As such, the foodstuff was not just important for the survival of the community but was a part of their creation stories as well as being associated with the seasons and growth of crops.  One of Maya’s sacred books, the Popol Vuh, tells about the creation myth as well as discussing how images of the maize gods were decapitated once the harvesting of the maize had begun.  New effigies were made at the beginning of the new growing season.

During times of drought – and the Maya experienced many of these – the people turned to the gods of food, rain, and fertility to ward off starvation.  Blood sacrifices made by the nobles were performed at shrines.  Elaborate temple complexes were sites of more public ceremonies with music, dancing, ball games as well as ritual prayers and sacrifices.

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The Maya culture grew from small villages into great city-states.  It became one of the most dominant cultures in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.  The Maya excelled not only in their pottery making but also in mathematics, agriculture, calendar-making, astronomy, and architecture and, in particular, the pyramid building of the early classical era.  The height of their culture, the ‘Golden Age’ occurred around 250 CE.  At that time there are believed to have been fifty major cities each with a population of between 5000 and 50,000 people.  No one knows for certain what started the decline of this magnificent culture.  By the late 9th century CE, their culture had collapsed completely.  Some scholars believe that they had exhausted their once fertile environment while others contend that it was warring factions between the various city-states that caused the demise.  developed several competing theories. Some feel that a catastrophic climate change with a long and intense period of drought caused the abandonment of the cities.

We are left with great works of architecture and pottery.  The Gardiner Museum has a reasonable collection and it is a must see if you are visiting Toronto.  Free guided tours normally take place at 2pm.

 

 

Edouard Jasmin, Quebec folk ceramist

Every time I travel to Toronto, it means at least one trip to the Gardiner Museum.  They have an enormous permanent collection and a small area of contemporary ceramics.  To the curators and staff who change these exhibitions regularly, I am most grateful.  You keep us coming back discovering new artists that we did not know.  And that is the case today with Edouard Jasmin (1905-87).  I had never seen the work of Jasmin and it is fascinating.  Jasmin lived in Montreal.  It was only in his later years, long after his retirement, that he began to work with clay creating what some have called ‘sentimental memories’ of his childhood (Matthieu, ‘Speaking Volumes:  Pottery and the Word’, Studio Potter).

Jasmin’s work was included in an exhibition curated by Sandra Alfoldy, ‘Folk/Funk,‘ at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2018.  Here Alfoldy juxtaposed the work of trained ceramic artists against those untrained.  The show was hailed as a whimsical look at the connections both in subject and methodology by these two very distinct groups of individuals.

Folk art is not new to the Maritimes.  In the time that I lived there, six wonderful years, I came to appreciate the work of those around me more and more.  My neighbour, Margaret Chubb, used to bring over the boxes of Christmas cards and painted scallop shells that Maud Lewis had given her.  By the time I had moved to Nova Scotia, the work of Lewis was in high demand as was that of the folk artists that lived in the hills around Wolfville.  Buses would come in the summer and fall loaded with enthusiastic collectors.  Of course, the early years for Lewis were difficult.  She would paint the scallop shells for Margaret’s father who would sell them in exchange for giving her food to eat.  She lived in a tiny house covered with her work that is now part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Jasmin worked with red earthenware clay and made images complete with ever-growing text that amused him.  Some captured significant events in the history of Quebec while others recall scenes of his childhood.  The featured image is General Store of 1982.  For many in Canada, it is nostalgia.  Every small village had a general store where they could get their mail, buy a few groceries, get gas, and order chicks in the spring that would be killed for food in the fall.  Ada and Howard Stephenson owned the general store in Graysville, Manitoba.  It was the heart of the village outside of the local school and the church.  Usually stacked high or under some counter, almost anything you could ever want could be found.  If not, there was always an alternative.  This was the centre of community gossip.  For me, they would know when I had gone into the ditch during the first winter store almost before I did.  It was also the site of helpful advice and ice creams during the long hot days of summer.  Most of these general stores have disappeared along with many of the local schools.   The railway line from Winnipeg that ran through Graysville on its way to Snow Valley Ski Resort is now grown over and the general store at Roseisle, another treasure, is now ‘fancy and bright’.

Patenteaux a la Recherche du Mouvement Perpetuel or The Inventor in Search of Petual Motion (1983) shows a man in his workshop full of bits and bobs, wheels, cabinets full of curiosities. The man reaches out as if he is trying to speak to us, a sign at the back providing the title of the piece.

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Spinner in the Attic was completed in 1982.  A child holding a toy looks on as their mother (?) spins yarn at the wheel.  The scene is framed by the contours of many Canadian attics, small windows fixed at the gable ends.  An old trunk with leather straps is the only treasure to be seen.  Indeed, Jasmin’s attic is quite different than most which were chock full the history of the families that lived in them.  Jasmin abandons in this work the crowded scenes such as those of the inventor and focuses on the central activity of the wheel.

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The last work of Jasmin’s included in the contemporary section of the Gardiner is Ecole St. Conveyon (St. Conveyon School) of 1982.

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Like the general stores, the spinners of yarn, and the inventors, the one-room schoolhouse is a part of Canadian history.  Many had closed by the time that Jasmin created this work in the early 1980s.  The teacher wearing a striped dress has written on the board a question in her attempts to find out who in the class had been messing with the cuckoo clock and overturned it on its shelf.  An old pot belly stove separates the teacher behind her desk and the children laughing in their seats as she attempts to quiet them.

While many of the facial features are the same in Jasmin’s work – often a limitation of someone not trained – there remains a sense of naiveness in capturing a moment in these tableaus.  They are joyful and freer.  Jasmin has no hesitation in trying to smooth the clay out or make the lines precise.  It is this that gives them their charm.  Each tells a story, and in the instance of the works held by the Gardiner, they are reminders of things in the past, gone forever in a world everchanging by technology.

Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken is coming to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum

The Gardiner Museum in Toronto will be hosting Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken this spring.  The exhibition opens on 28 February and continues until 9 June. Today, all that was visible was a sign saying ‘Installation in Progress’.

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This is not the first time that Ai’s work has been shown in Toronto.  In 2013, the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited Ai WeiWei:  According to What? .  For me, the most moving section of this large exhibition was Remembering.  If you did not know the work of Ai, you might just walk past the stack of children’s backpacks.  For Ai, this was the singular work that landed him in trouble with the Chinese authorities.  The story is one of unnecessary tragedy.  In 2008, a earthquake destroyed a school in Sichuan Province.  Parents asked why the relative new building should collapse so easily.  The answer that they came to was that it was due to government negligence, a lack of building codes and regulations.  Ai could not shake the scenes of devastation from his mind and he searched for information on how many had been killed.  Months and months he spent collecting the names of the 5219 children who died that day.  A year later, Remembering opened in Munich.  Ai covered the  facade of Haus der Kunst’s with a quote from one of the children’s mothers spelled out using children’s backpacks.  The design he used and the colours were inspired by the Toys R Us logo. On his return to PRC, Ai was jailed for being a dissident for eighty-one days.  In 2015 he was allowed to leave China.  Ai does not know if he will ever return.  The authorities tell him that he is free but he doesn’t trust them.  He first relocated to Berlin with his family; he has his studio there.  Today, he still works at his studio in Munich but lives in Connecticut.  One of the biggest questions I have is:  Will Ai take on the humanitarian issues related to immigration and the United States now that he is living in that country again?

Unbroken contains elements of several previous shows.  In fact, his performance, caught in photographs, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, is probably one of his most iconic.  Others included at the Gardiner will be Sunflower Seeds and Coca Cola.  Sunflowers was first shown at the Tate Modern in 2010.  It was part of the Unilever Series and consisted of  100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seed husks spread over the floor of Turbine Hall.  Viewers were initially invited to walk across the installation but the ensuing amount of dust laden with silica caused the Tate Modern to rope off the exhibition for the health and safety of its staff and those coming to view the work.  Much of the significance of the piece was, thus, lost.

Porcelain is synonymous with China.  Indeed, many of you might have used the term ‘China’ to refer to the porcelain dinnerware belonging to your grandmothers.  The 100 million husks were made by hand and painted individually by individuals working in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China.  Many saw the work as a comment on the global politicsl of cultural and economic exchange while others look to the significance of the symbolism of the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Sunflower’ in reference to Mao and his followers. Others see this as a comment on the individual within mass society; each of the individual seeds is part of the greater whole.  For those working within the field of ceramics, it is easy to ponder the working conditions of masses of individuals producing porcelain that boasts the economy of the country while all make very little income.

In 1995, Ai began painting Han Dynasty urns with the recognizable emblem of the American soft drink maker, Coca-Cola.  It should be noted that he has not stopped painting them since he began.  Sotheby’s has the occasional one in a sale.  These pieces are terribly subversive.  They immediately imply the destruction of China’s traditional culture!   At their first showings, visitors wondered if the vases that Ai had so boldly painted with the bright red lettering, Coca Cola, were actually fakes.  Anyone who has visited the Saturday Dirt Market in Beijing knows precisely how well ceramic fakes are constructed in PRC.  Han vases and tiny clay figurines from the same era are offered alongside ‘original’ Song dynasty yellow porcelain cups for a few dollars.  On the one hand, the act of defacing the Han vase is an iconoclasm no different than when the Muslims capturing Constantinople destroyed the mosaics in the Haiga Sophia.  Ai assures everyone that the vases are authentic and so plentiful that their monetary and cultural value is negligible.  Still, for those who do not know this, the act of dropping an ancient piece of art is unthinkable and, as with any other art work, raises both alarm and questions.  It is interesting to note that Coke was being sold in China in 1920.  It is one of the oldest American firms trading in the country and in 2009 accounted for half of the soft drink sales in the country.  Some argue that the shared imagery – that of a traditional ceramic urn made by anyone covered with a bright red American logo, is a fitting allegory for twenty-first century Chinese culture as the country grows into the number one consumer culture in the world (set in 2019 to be the leading purchaser of luxury goods).

It is an exciting time for anyone interested in the work of this contemporary artist.  And a big round of applause goes to the Gardiner.  Their director and curators have worked hard to keep ceramics relevant.  As such, they have brought world-class speakers and exhibitions to Toronto.  Not long ago there was a conversation with Garth Clarke, another was the co-sponsorship with the AGO of Edmund de Waal’s talk on the history of porcelain coinciding with the launch of his book, The White Road.  Last year, Yoko Ono’s Riverbed came to the City.  I only wish I lived closer……

 

 

Transience, Transition, Time off, Time for…

Everything that is happening lately seems to be starting with the letter ‘T’.  How interesting.

Things are in place for me to head to Hospitalfield in Arbroath, Scotland for March.  There is a -37 degree mummy sleeping bag that was delivered by Santa’s dwarfs just in case those North Sea gales get a little too much for this amazing medieval building to handle.  The theme of my work on this interdisciplinary residency is transience.  Now, originally, I wanted to find a potter’s wheel that I could rent (‘let’ in the UK – while it is still the UK).  Well, that didn’t work out quite like I had hoped.  So what to do?  A meeting over coffee with Grace Han solved the issue!  All of the bottles will be slip cast.   The Scottish supplier will ship the casting slip for my arrival to Hospitalfield.  And Grace Han will be infinitely patient as she refreshes my 25 year old memory of how to make moulds.  Today – another ‘T’ word was set aside for selecting three bottles that could be cast.  I am so excited.  This takes a great worry off my mind.  The theme of the work in Scotland is transience and it really does take into account how fast time seems to be passing for me.  The bottles will be cast with porcelain slip and coloured using natural dyes that would normally be reserved for weavers.  The bottles will not be fired.  They will be placed in the landscape around Hospitalfield and up the North Sea coast to Aberdeen.  Video and photographs will document their return to the earth.  More and more I am questioning why so much ceramic work is fired.  The amount of energy is enormous and who wants the archaeologists of the future to look back and wonder why on earth our makers were so less skilled than those working four thousand years ago!  I am thrilled to be working with Grace Han.  She will be an amazing teacher.

Some people know that I am now in transition from being a full time academic, an academic with administrative duties, to a sometimes academic working full time in my studio.  When I return to the University of Manitoba it will be in a very reduced role beginning January 2020.  At that time, most people will be able to find me in my new tandem container studio.  Yes, you read that right.  After careful consideration over a period of about ten months, a decision was made.  Originally I was going to build a single car garage and use it as a studio.  Then one of my former students who graduated with his MA in Architecture from UBC, Hossam Maewad, offered to design my studio for me.  Well, that really excited me.  It would have been fabulous to have worked in a specially designed building but then….my concerns with whether or not I would continue to live in Winnipeg, after complete retirement, began to haunt me.  So, there it was on Dwell….pages full of containers that had been repurposed as garden sheds and studios.  I will have one for the kiln, glazing, and storage and another for making and selling.  My children have done nothing but scratch their heads and laugh.  I am back to where I was when I left ceramics for an academic career but back then I had a huge salt kiln, several electric kilns and Soldner wheels, a raku kiln, a building for making and a building for selling.  There are no plans for a big salt kiln – wonder if that would get the thumbs up from Winnipeg City Planning Department?  But I will have a wood kiln on a trolley!  My friend, Gunda Stewart, queried me, ‘Aren’t you going to make anything besides bottles’?  My answer was that I would leave the making of the mugs, the bowls, the teapots and the casseroles to her.  After making thousands of these bottles, I am still learning about them.  And it does seem to me that if you really want to get to know a form that you have to repeatedly make the same one just like many of those in Korea working on moon jars or Robert Archambeau who limited his forms to four.

In fact, I have come back to edit this post because I sat down with a cup of tea and read an offering from James Clear.  It is called ‘Warren Buffett’s “20 Slot” Rule:  How to Simplify Your Life and Maximize Your Results’.  OK.  I am not writing about financial investments or how to become a billionaire but I am writing about becoming very very good at one form in wheel throwing.  I know far too many students that want to try every technique that they find on Pinterest. Actually you have seen some examples of some really accomplished work by my beginning wheel throwing students.  But, throwing like investing, should mean that you “think really carefully about what you did and …you’d do so much better”.  So do not think after throwing 40 cylinders that you really can make a cylinder that is extremely special.  Make 1000.  One year a student wanted to learn how to pull really good handles so that she might be hired as an apprentice.  Heather Lepp sat down and made 500 mugs and 500 pitchers.  By the end of July, she could pull really good handles – she could even place them on the vessel so that they ‘fit’ the look of the piece.  They also didn’t fall off and didn’t have big globs of clay where the handle met the body of the piece, a cheap trick used by some to try and conceal a bad joint.  So, when I say that I will work the rest of my life on one single form – an ovoid bottle shape – that is precisely why I am doing it.  I want to know the form so well and I want to be successful.  There are many others, such as Gunda, who are much better at pulling handles than I am and have the patience to throw beautiful bakers that anyone would delight in owning.

For the next little while there is time to work and time off and time to think.  The unglazed bottles will be fired tomorrow.  In a few days I will fire another batch.  They are all going in boxes for the opening of the studio in late spring.  But each of us needs to step back and look at what we are doing.  Remember the word ikigai – something that  you do that has meaning and gives joy to your life.  For Marie Kondo, it is tidying (and boy have I been tidying) but for me it is throwing on the wheel.  Even if I never ever kept anything, it is entirely therapeutic.

In fact, if you are reading this blog or have come to it by accident, I really recommend working with clay – and, in particular, throwing on a wheel.  Yes, at first it is difficult to learn but if you put the effort in, after about 65 hours, you will be able to center your clay without thinking – if you have a good teacher.  Then it is magic.  You cannot sit there and throw and think about all the horrible things life has thrown at you.  It is like a form a of meditation.  Just shut out everything and throw.  Don’t focus on keeping anything, focus on stilling your mind.  It is cheaper than retail therapy and it works!

And while I am here, another former student, now working for the University of Toronto, will be setting up the webpage for Wheel & Throw, the name of my studio.  Thanks, Selena!

Wishing you could own a potter’s wheel but can’t afford to buy it…there is help.

I don’t know how many times a student, a friend, someone I just met, or an old colleague has said to me, ‘I wish I had the money to buy my own potter’s wheel’.   It is actually pretty constant.  Potter’s wheels are expensive.  A new one with taxes can cost $2000 painful to the ears of a 3rd or 4th year ceramics student who wants to begin selling their work and is thinking beyond the ceramics studio at the School of Art.

Well, I learned something today that I didn’t know.  The Sounding Stone in Winnipeg has a rent to own plan.  This is the deal.  You give them $225 and your credit card number.  Payments are $75 per month.  $60 of that goes toward your wheel and the other to the financing.  If you decide you don’t want your wheel, Vern will take it back.  This is less than 9 visits to Starbuck’s or Timmie’s if you get a treat with that special coffee.  So think about it, you could be owning that Shimpo Whisper or Brent C tomorrow.

Many of you do not live in Winnipeg.  What you should do – if this is something that appeals to. you is check with your local supplier.  Maybe they have a rent to own scheme.  But if they don’t, why not talk to them about it?  Vern tells me that no one has ever returned a wheel but if they did, he would subtract off what the rent to own individual paid and he could easily sell it used.  He also reminded me that several years ago wheels cost $895.  Today they are $1500 and up.  Potter’s wheels are a good investment.  Over time their value appreciates.  So is it time for you to finally have your dream come true?  If so, give the Sounding Stone a shout.

 

 

For the Love of Craft

The word Craft is both a noun and a verb, and the difference between the two has often been as problematic as the terms ‘craft’ and ‘art’.  In her new edited volume, Craft.  Documents of Contemporary Art, Tanya Harrod, states, “Craft is a contested concept, a word with almost too many associations” (12).   Harrod points out that historically, the ‘Arts and Crafts synthesis’ did not have a wide following in the various schools of art in the twentieth century as the norm for both teaching, learning, and making abandoned the idea of inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary practice or making.

Compartmentalisation became the standard or, as it is often termed today, silos were built where the crafts were cut off from ‘fine art’.  Even though individuals can be heard to say, ‘I thought that debate was over’, the divide was “rigorously policed” (Harrod, 14).  In the 1980s, many who worked with ceramics began to abandon the vessel form in favour of hand building while at the same time jewellers chose not to use precious materials in the hope of being accepted by the fine art world.   Recently, craft writer and theorist, Glenn Adamson, has sought to find ways in which individuals could cross over any barrier in their thinking.  His new book, The Hidden Wisdom of Objects.  Fewer, Better, Things examines craft as both a noun and a verb and includes a close consideration of objects held in the Tucumcari Historical Museum such as cattle brands and barbed wire.  He says, “I don’t think it’s idealistic to suggest that an encounter such as this [visiting a very local historical museum] can …at least establish the possibility of shared respect and understanding” (184).  As the former head of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England and the director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, now the Senior Scholar at the Yale Centre for British Art, Adamson is no stranger to the cultural divide that still exists between the craft and art worlds.  In his latest offering, Adamson argues that we need to evoke some kind of collective memory, to find the things that each has in common and to come to a space of shared respect and understanding (184).

In the past couple of weeks, I have been engaged in the act of tidying my cupboards.  Most of you will be aware of Marie Kondo and her methods of organisation that help spark joy in individuals lives.  One of the categories of her sorting is ‘sentimental items’.  In my large Chinese cupboard, I have two stacks of objects.  The intricate crochet work with the detailed pineapple pattern on several dozen doilies was the handiwork of my paternal grandmother, Beulah Sipes Duncan.  The embroidery work was done by my maternal grandmother, Maud Bruesch Daniel.  Maud also embroidered the many quilts that cover the beds in my house and fill at least one cupboard.  As a child growing into a teenager, I became acutely aware of how much the arthritis in her fingers impacted her ability to embroider.  Still, every day she would sit in her rocker embroidering everything from quilt squares to tea towels.  The detail in the stitches changed as she aged.  Over time she abandoned the tiny French knots for longer cross stitches.  Neither of my grandmothers had any training in textiles.  They would have, at one time or another, earned the adjective ‘amateur’.  I would argue, as Adamson does, that is no reason to dismiss the labour of these women.  Using the verb ‘craft’, however, their making was as precise and beautiful as someone categorised as a professional.  To this day, it is alarming to me to hear the work of women dismissed simply because they are not pursuing their craft as a vocation.  It is time, perhaps, that the verb ‘craft’ came into play.  As makers we need to educate the consummer on the difference between something well made by hand or by hand using some tools (my potters wheel is, afterall, nothing but a tool) and that work put together from industrially made parts and sold as being an original, creative idea!  It is comforting to know that craft – the noun – is being re-examined.  Within the broader spectrum of art, materials generally associated with work are becoming part of a larger sphere of socially engaged projects and materials such as clay or glass are finding new possibilities in the world of art.

And this brings me to the purpose of today’s blog, and that is to suggest to you that if you are in Winnipeg that you stop by the Manitoba Craft Council on Cumberland Street to see the exhibition For the Love of Craft.  The gallery showcases the work of the organisations’ members.  The offerings are diverse, many of them quite humorous and range from those just beginning their journey of making to more established members such as Keith Oliver, Grace Nickel, and Kathryne Koop (and myself).  The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 12-4, and the show is up until February 23.

Included is Family Picnic by Gayle Buzzi, an MFA student in her final year at the School of Art, University of Manitoba.  Buzzi works in various media and set about creating a space at the School where she could cast glass.  She also took advantages of the decades of knowledge of Ione Thorkelsson, one of the founding members of the Manitoba Craft Council, who set up her glass making studio in southern Manitoba in the early 1970s.  Buzzi’s piece consists of two cast glass and frit geese.

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Ursula Neufeld submitted Checkered Past, a multimedia work that had lots of visitors curious and giggling.

ursula neufelde checkered past

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The variety represented the range of creative endeavours in our city from the intricate and decorative ceramics of Koop to the book making and binding of Debra Frances Plett’s, Stories of the Forest.

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debra frances plett stories of the forest, paper, wood, bookbinding

Stop in, look around, maybe join the Craft Council or take part in one of the many making workshops that are happening this winter.