Happy Holidays to Everyone

We are going to take a break from digital media and people for awhile and slide into holiday hibernation mode here in Canada.

I want to thank all of those wonderful students and people who brought so much joy into my life over the past year.  Getting up in the morning would be nothing without you!

If I could give each of you a box of gifts it would certainly hold lots of good health and ikigai – a source for your own happiness and waking up and seeing the wonder in the world.  I would give the world calm and a truck load of trees to plant.  Imagine planting trees and stopping deforestation!  They say it will help clean up the mess we have made of this beautiful planet of ours.

No matter how or what you celebrate this holiday, have wondrous moments with those who really matter to you.  And may 2019 be full of hope.

Mary Ann

Kendra Wile’s Secret Gardens

Teaching beginning wheel throwing where students meet once a week for three hours for a period of twelve to thirteen weeks can be a challenge.  For the students, it takes dedication, perseverance, time, and a lack of fear of failure to be successful.  Some of you might have followed this blog for the past you months.  If so, you will know that I had the most extraordinary group of talented young women in this single class.  I was blessed.  Many of them could be found working at any hour of the day or night in the throwing room.  Kendra Wile was no exception.  Also, she always had a smile on her face.

The last assignment for the students allowed them flexibility.  It read:

THIS IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO ADD SOME ORIGINALITY AND INNOVATION IN YOUR WORK.  IT COULD BE THE WAY THAT YOU SHAPE THE CLAY, DECORATE THE SURFACE, OR COMBINE THE INDIVIDUAL FORMS TOGETHER.  USING A MINIMUM OF 8 DIFFERENT FORMS, YOU ARE TO CREATE A SINGLE OBJECT OR A SET THAT REPRESENTS YOUR OWN AESTHETIC IN CERAMICS.  THIS MEANS THAT YOU HAVE TO CONSIDER BOTH THE FORM AND THE FINISH.  YOUR PROJECT WILL BE GRADED ON 40 % QUALITY OF THE THROWING AND ASSEMBLAGE, 40 % QUALITY OF THE GLAZING AND APPROPRIATENESS TO THE AESTHETIC THAT IS YOUR OWN, AND 10% FOR VISUALIZING YOUR IDEA IN CLAY AND 10% FOR APPROPRIATE PRESENTATION.  – WITHIN A LIMITED FRAMEWORK, THIS IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO BE YOU!

My very best friend, the late Charlie Scott, who started the wood firing tradition at the School of Art, always said that ceramics was more like architecture than any other medium.   Ironically and sadly, Kendra will be leaving the School of Art and taking a place in the Faculty of Architecture this coming year.   Her last project suggests that she is extremely patient, knows how to deal with enclosed space, can offer surprises with the reveal, and understands the use of colour.  She also makes decisions that are best for the project at hand, switching up her approach to firing and colour.

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Kendra created what on the surface looked like four soup or latte bowls with various knobs.  She quietly sat them down on the lower platform and walked away, saying nothing.  Little did any of her classmates expect the environments inside when they lifted the lids.  Ellina was fascinated.  She got really close staring into the tiny interior environments.

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In the end, Kendra chooses wisely.  She opted to use underglaze stains and fire her work in a cone 5 or 6 oxidation environment in one of the electric kilns rather than lose the detail in the gas reduction kiln.  Can you imagine the time it took her to create each one of these?  Did she secretly use tweezers?  And how many times did she have to redo an interior?  We will never know!

What I do know is that exciting things are going to come from this very creative young woman and I, for one, cannot wait to see what she will design and what kind of a name she will make for herself in the world of architecture.

Sara loves porcelain

Sara Berg has been working with clay for a little over a year.  One day after our class, Sara came to talk about the clay that the School was buying for the students:  Danish White.  She didn’t like it and insisted that her work would improve enormously if she were allowed to use porcelain.  I don’t know how many ceramic instructors have had a student come and declare an affinity with porcelain so early in their education but, I never had.  Indeed, for those of you unfamiliar with porcelain it is, as famed Canadian ceramist Harlan House proclaims, ‘a difficult mistress’.  Porcelain was made famous by the Chinese early in their history.  China has, along with Germany, the right drying conditions for this pure white material – lots of humidity and the right temperatures.  It needs to be dried slowly.  Our throwing area sometimes obliges but on more occasions than not, it doesn’t.  Everything dries too quickly!  House also says that one has to love trimming because, with porcelain, you will be doing a lot of it.  None of this, of course, daunted Sara.  With my permission she went off to purchase a box of porcelain returning to the ceramics area where she worked most of the night.  Sara was right.  She has a wonderful relationship with this fine bodied clay.  In a former life, it is quite conceivable that she was a porcelain master.

Over the course of three months in the summer of 2018, Sara worked on her cobalt blue painting.  She devoured any book that crossed her path on ancient Chinese  ceramics and, in particular, the beautiful blue and white of the Yuan and Ming dynasties.  Just like the painting students at the School who learn by copying and then changing the work of the old masters, Sara studied the shapes and the painted decorations.  In the process she began to learn the symbols that the Chinese used and what they meant to their culture.  On some work she added a contemporary twist.   During the fall of 2018 she abandoned the standard studio glazes used by most of the ceramic students and began a study of Chinese Chun and celadon glazes.  Mixing and testing, firing, taking photos, making notes – all of this became second nature to her.  And it has paid off with some remarkable work.  She also pushed herself more and more with her trimming to the point that her work was almost too thin!

In 2019, Sara Berg will begin her Honours year.  For Sara, who lives and dreams porcelain, it will give her a chance to focus entirely on her exhibition pieces.  In the meanwhile, it is sheer joy to stand back and watch such a talented young woman continually honing her skills.  Porcelain is, indeed, her ikigai – that thing that she wakes up in the morning so happy to do, wanting to learn more and more and never getting bored.

 

The second wood firing had its challenges but it was very successful and all were happy.

It is one thing to fire your own wood kiln so many times that you know its behaviour.  And, yes, we can predict certain things but students brand ‘new’ to wood firing or only having participated in a single wood firing workshop are handicapped to say the least.  Our kiln was designed to use Poplar logs but we cannot get Poplar logs in the late fall.  They have been cut and split for firewood sales.  So, we tried oak slabs, very hard oak slabs and a partial grate.  What did we discover?  The kiln can reach 13.5 on the Oxyprobe in 12 hours with a 3 hour gas pre-heat.  The top of the kiln needs to be ignored.  Oak by itself is not good.  It creates immense amounts of ember but if you want to raise the temperature and finish the job, it had to be mixed with scrap lumber and pine.  The ration was 1 part oak to whatever else we could lay our hands on.  The pots, as anticipated, that were placed in the throat had amazing yohen effects.  Kusakabe would love them!  The students also learned many things about the glazes.

In the ceramics area we have big pails of ‘shop glazes’.  I have no idea who started this practice and, at times, it is a hindrance, not a help.  The students – because the tiles show the glazes by themselves and then mixed with one other studio glaze, cause a lot of dipping.  Dipping without thought, dipping and getting the glaze too thick and when the work comes out fantastic the dipping often causes blank looks on the faces of the students!  Of course they have been told to have a method of recording so that they know what they did and could replicate it.  One of the best of these ‘dipping’ pieces was a tea bowl by Jiawei Dai.  I wish I had a photo of it.  She put temmoku underneath and Haystack Green on the upper half.  It was fantastic.  In fact, those old Sun dynasty glazes fired in the wood kilns of 9th and 10th century China are superb.  The other glazes were the ash ones that we made out of the Poplar ash from the first firing.  Those included a Nuka (gorgeous soft white), a red made with half ash and half low fire red clay, and an amber.

The bagwall question plagued us.  In the end, we put it at the back and loaded the middle half of the kiln tight and put Kewen’s walls there so that we would, hopefully, keep the flames dancing about and the ash as well.  It seems to have worked great!

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We also had lots of ash…did someone say a 12 hour firing in a Bourry box doesn’t produce ash?  It does!  and almost all of the students got to experience what every wood firing potter in the world knows:  grinding is a part of the process.  They also learned about alumina hydrate and the difference between wadding made with it and without.

They were a great group, full of laughter, great at problem solving, and community minded.  Everyone did their part.  Even one of the students who had recent foot surgery showed up on the last day and found that while they couldn’t be outside in the cold, they could grind and clean shelves.  Incredible.  They are such a good group and the plan is to fire the kiln again in April when the weather has warmed up (or in May) outside of a class for fun and also for them to be able to undertake it with some assurances about the oak and the other scraps and pine – that it works!

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A second chance to look a little closer at the work of some very talented young women in the Beginning Wheel Throwing class

It is really easy to write about the work of a very creative group of young women.  In my last blog I talked about their final assignment for their beginning wheel throwing class.  In that blog there was mention of each of them and their work.  Tonight I want to focus on a tea set by Haley Bean.

Haley Bean had never worked with clay prior to registering for this beginning class in her final year at the School of Art.  She said, sadly, that she wished she had discovered the medium earlier.  I wondered what she would have accomplished if this was her last Honour’s critique.  One can only imagine.  Notice the clean lines and use of angles. Haley has a great sense of design, proportion, and balance.  She also learned from the glaze testing she did and that of the others in the class and created a very quiet palette for her set.

Haley represents the future of ceramics, at least to me and several of my colleagues.  In fact, my friend Markus Boehm, said that the future of wood firing is actually women at his presentation for the Third European Wood firing conference in La Borne.  ‘Back in the day’ all of us had a copy of Bernard Leach’s The Potter’s Book.  At a time when there was limited information on kilns, glazes, and wheels, it became the constant companion for the potters of Europe, the United States, and Canada.  Leach toured North America first in 1952 promoting his book and his beliefs.  His influence was widespread.  The view of the rural idyll complete with pottery studio and high fire reduction kiln was common place.  Men ran the ceramics departments, were featured in the books and magazines as well as in exhibitions and they completely monopolized the prizes and grants categories.  But things are changing.

At the School of Art, there are two full time faculty teaching ceramics – me and my colleague, Grace Nickel.  Of the two sessionals this academic year, one is a very talented woman, Grace Han, one of the School’s recent MFA graduates.  My beginning wheel throwing class was all women.  And, yes, the future of ceramics is women – urban, forward thinking, highly creative and independent women like Haley Bean.

The final group critique for the Beginning Wheel Throwing Class

It is hard to believe that it is now December 6.  The students in the Beginning Wheel Throwing class worked for the entire month of September to perfect their cylinders.  Then they moved on to throwing bowls off the hump as well as with throwing individual bowls on bats in October and early November.  For the last few weeks they have been working on their final project for the course.  This was a chance for them to add some originality and innovation in their work rather than following the strict guidelines of the previous two projects.  Using a minimum of 8 different forms, they were to create a single object or a set that represented their aesthetics.  The range of work really did reflect much about their own personalities and aesthetics.

Miao Liu loves copper red glazes and was very disappointed that the School did not have a copper red in the studio glazes.  But she worked with what was available and discovered that the combination of two glazes, equal parts clear and Haystack Green, can, if fired in the right part of the gas kiln in a highly reduced atmosphere, produce copper red.  Her study in small flower vases was tied together through glaze.  Haley Bean chose to make a very contemporary tea set with straight sides and pulled handles, formed in such a way when she attached them that they had an urban edge.  This was in great contrast to the more vibrant curves of the mugs made by Leandra Brandson.  Allison Banman took an entirely different approach.  Her project would be, in the end, gifts for friends and family.  She successfully carved and incised special quotes for one, cats for another, dragon flies for yet another – a time consuming task that often fails for beginners because they get the cut outs too close together.

Bowls are the mainstay of potters around the world.  A former student did a project and in it, Anwen described the meaning of a bowl for the Chinese.  It is what you eat out of every day – not the plates of Westerners.  Various shaped bowls are used for soup and rice.  If one loses their job, their bowl is symbolically broken as they have shamed their family.  Thinking about other cultures such as the Anazasi, they placed bowls on top of the heads of the deceased, piercing the center of the bottom in order to release the soul of the dead.  For us, bowls are comforting.  You can wrap your hands around them and warm up in the winter.  You can fill them with nourishing food holding your hands out in offering.  Carolyn Dyck created two series of delicate mixing bowls using a specific dowel to make certain that the height and width complimented one another.  One set was in the shape of the Sung dynasty lotus rimmed bowls while the other was plain.  One was made out of Danish White while the other was out of Death Valley – giving her an opportunity to explore the reaction of the two clay bodies with a similar glaze in the reduction kiln. Hyounjung Lee worked on rice bowls while others opted to challenge themselves by taking on the teapot.  Ellina Pe Benito was not frightened away by the thought of a tea set complete with serving plate, creamer and sugar.  But, as she knew, you have to make more than one because, invariably, something happens.  Greenware can break, pieces can stick to the kiln shelves while others may tip over in the kiln and stick to one another.  You have to always have a back up plan.  Ellina also remembered to keep the top of the spout higher than the rim so the hot tea would not go pouring out all over the table.  Tingjung Meng worked on serving and eating dishes in the Asian style while others, such as Hae Lim Choi, made coordinating cups, saucers, and plates.  Cassandra Cochrane created tiny espresso cups with rolled handles.  Lauren Sneesby is the only person I have met who created mosquito coils in the shape of pigs while Hannah worked on a sculpture in the shape of a watering can.  Eun Choi opted to paint her rose with acrylics knowing that the colours would be washed out in a cone 10 firing.  Kendra Wile surprised everyone with what was hidden inside her cups – landscapes of the ocean and the desert.  I really hope that I have not missed anyone!  Each was very special.

This group of young women stuck it out through the throwing of hundreds of cylinders to get 40 good ones for grading.  They spent all their spare time in the clay studio for approximately six weeks until the pressure was off and they could center the clay without it controlling them.  I cannot wait to see what they do in the future.

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Hospitalfield Residency

It was such a wonderful surprise Friday morning to open my mail and find out that my submission to be a resident artist at Hospitalfield in Arbroath, Scotland was successful!  Located outside a little fishing village on the North Sea about an hour and a half’s drive from Edinburgh, Hospitalfield was founded in the 13th century by Tironesian monks.  Back then it was a hospise for those who had either leprosy or the plague.  In 1665, it was purchased by James Fraser.  Wikipedia tells me that Sir Walter Scott stayed here in 1803 and 1809 and used it as the model for  ‘Monkbarns’, in The Antiquary published in 1813.  Patrick Allan-Fraser later gifted the property to be an arts center.  Hospitalfield was Scotland’s very first School of Fine Art and the first art college in Britain.  Many prominent Scottish artists have spent time here, either studying or as a resident.  They include Joan Eardley, Peter Howson, Wendy McMurdo, Callum Innes, Alasdair Grey among a highlighted list of others.  Today, the center encourages artists of all ages, disciplines, and backgrounds to apply to work together in their beautiful natural lit studios.

My project examines the transience of time using ceramics, photography, and weaving.  I will be photographing the landscape many times during the day while I am living there.  Those images will be translated into colour slips for my bottles.  Eventually, there will be 56 finished works representing the time spent in Scotland.  These are part of a much larger installation for an exhibition at the School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba, in the summer.  It is especially inspiring that a jury, consisting of individuals who did not previously know me or my work, should give my project a vote of confidence.  For me, personally, it comes at a time of transition in my life and work and to say I am excited about this opportunity would be an understatement.