How great was this? Grace Han is my teacher and it is so much fun being a student.

I want to publicly thank Grace Han.  She has helped me immensely as I complete the final preparations for my residency in Scotland.  Gosh, it has been so long since I was a student that it was wonderful learning something entirely new.  Well, I shouldn’t say altogether new.  I did make some very simple moulds so many years ago that I don’t even want to think about it.  It was fun being a student again – energising was a word that Grace used a lot, and I agree.  How fortunate I am.

My interdisciplinary arts project is about transience.  One aspect of it also questions current ceramics education and making and its impact on the environment.  The conceptual basis for the proposal was strong and was a 180-degree turn from my previous practice making functional domestic ware.  I no longer do this.  There are fabulous potters in every province of Canada that make beautiful wheel thrown vessels that enliven my life every day.  I do not need to add to this.  It is time to look at ceramics production differently.

My original intention was to rent a potter’s wheel and make my ovoid bottles, to apply slip capturing the landscape at various times of day, and to place the unfired pieces along the coast of the North Sea, from Arbroath to Aberdeen.  But I could not rent a wheel.  The obvious next step was to make a mould and slip cast the bottles.  It has been some thirty years since I had lessons in mould making and, at the time, the instruction was not that good.  Enter Grace Han.   If you do not know who Grace Han is you can look back through my blogs but in a nutshell:  Grace Han is from Korea where she is one of the only women to make Onngi.  She is so good at mould making also that her professor in Korea always hired her as his assistant because of these talents.   How fortunate I am to have this energetic and highly creative person willingly gave up over six hours of her, time to instruct me in the process and to make sure that the mould I am taking to Scotland is perfect so that my residency is successful.

If anyone reading this thinks mould making is easy, it is not.  Whatever my perceptions were before we started working last night, it was clear after a couple of hours that only individuals with a great deal of patience and attention to detail would be successful.  Like all things with ceramics, you either learn patience or you move on to something else.  It is like the last 150 degrees C in wood firing.  You have to take the time to make sure that you gave it your all and pushed the energy out of those last bits of wood.

A lot of mould making is about precise measurements and bubbles.

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When I was a student at Oklahoma State University, students in the sculpture class were, on the first day, given a 25 lb bag of plaster and a bucket.  No instructions were given, but if the plaster hardened in the pail, you were asked to leave the class.  We all failed that day.  Grace’s taught me the ratio of water to gypsum; how to slowly stir the plaster once it had all settled into the water in order not to create bubbles.  By the time the third batch of plaster was being mixed, I thought I had aced it.  — Believe me when I say that it also helps not to get overconfident!  Grace took the bowl and carefully tapped the sides.  She was smiling.  You would have thought there was a heat vent like those on the floor of the ocean with all the bubbles rising to the surface.  Remember I said:  lots of patience.  The bubbles are scooped out with a big spoon and placed on the top of the glass.  Little by little they disappear.

The other bubbles have to do with the mould soap.  For those of you that do not know, you must apply a substance to keep the plaster from sticking to your original form (unless you are using raw clay).  It was unclear if the mould soap would work on the unglazed part of my bottle.  Three coats worked.  Grace has no special brush for doing this, merely a man’s shaving brush!  Whirling it around until the bubbles form and then they are wiped off.  This time you want those bubbles!

Grace Han looked more than once at the ovoid bottle I wanted to cast.

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In the end, the final mould required as many as five separate pieces with keys to lock them in place.  Grace used some high quality self-supporting flexible plastic sheets that she purchases in Korea to form the sleeve around the form.  IMG_2157

Looking down into the mould, five hours later, there are only two more pieces to cast:  the last one for the main form and the top.  Look carefully, and you can see the keys.

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Once everything is cast, you are left with something that looks like a ridiculous hat or a weird cake with its royal icing sans decorations.  To remove the original form, you have to carefully grate away the plaster until you can find the keys and the sides to each piece of the mould.

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Then with a rubber mallet, you begin tapping.  In the end, we did not need to break the original form.  It came away nicely.  The edges of all of the parts were bevelled so that you can easily take them away or put them together.  Then the whole thing is secured with the largest rubber bands I have seen and allowed to cure.  By the time I leave for Scotland, it will be dry enough for me to make my ovoid bottles.

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I am so very grateful for the kindness and patience that my former student gave to me as her student.  It is the best of all worlds when we can openly learn from one another, sharing ideas and processes without hesitation.  I know that my residency will be much more successful because of Grace Han’s generous giving of her time.  I will miss seeing her on my return.  Grace Han will be doing a six-month residency at Medalta.  She is currently preparing for a group exhibition at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario, a show curated by my colleague, Grace Nickel.  If you live near Waterloo, check out the events on the gallery’s website and go over and have a look at the four or five large onngi that Grace Han has created.

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.

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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.