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!

Author: maryannsteggles

My creative life has many facets. I am a Professor of Ceramics and Art History at the School of Art, University of Manitoba. I write for a number of ceramic journals including Studio Potter, Art and Perception, Ceramics Technical, New Ceramics, and Ceramics Monthly. My research focuses on historical and contemporary Canadian woodfiring and, in particular, the marginalization of women. This year I have presented papers on the topic of the marginalization of women within the field of ceramics at the Third European Wood Fire Conference in La Borne, France, and the Creative Women Conference at the University of Guelph. I own Wheel and Throw. Contemporary Ceramic Design where I produce limited edition ceramic bottles. In the spring of 2019, I will be one of the resident artists at Hospitalfield in Abroath, Scotland. Can't wait! I can be reached at maryannsteggles@icloud.com

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