Hospitalfield, Day 9 The Colours in the walls, on the trees, and in our heads

Painters must just go mad once they begin to look at the colour in their kit and then, every time they turn they must see shades in the most unexpected places.  For the past couple of days besides being so influenced by the house and the sea, the natural environment that surrounds this great house is full of incredible surprises.  Like looking at a grey and black wall and suddenly noticing a tiny square of yellow.

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Or the moss (or is it lichens?) growing on the cast iron stairs at the back of the building?

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Or the range of earth colours in the bricks?  Why am I so surprised by this?  Because in Canada everything is monotone when you look at the bricks from a distance.  Here, it is very much different.  And it makes you stop and notice.

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And sometimes the face of a brick just falls off…

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And then there are the mushrooms…

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All of these have permeated my work, and it has been grand to create layers and layers of slip trying to capture what only Mother Nature does best.

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So all of the images above, really have put into motion a real change in my work!  It is like crossing over to a totally new experience.

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And speaking about colour, I promised to write to you about the impact of bitumen.  Bitumen is nothing more than asphalt, a black viscous mixture of hydrocarbons obtained naturally or as a residue from petroleum distillation. It is used for road surfacing and roofing.  Some of us call it tar.  In the 19th century, artists were trying to get the blackest black they could get, so they added bitumen to their paint.  At the time it certainly gave them what they worked so hard to achieve, but today, the bitumen is darkening the pictures to the point that most of the figures have been obliterated.  This can really be seen in the work below by Robert Scott Lauder titled, The Trial of Effie Deans.  Lauder lived from 1803-1869 and was a member of the Scottish Royal Academy.  He was a personal friend of Patrick Allan-Fraser, the owner of this house.  Effie Deans is one of the characters in Walter Scott’s novel, The Heart of Midlothian. There is a story that all historical painters in Scotland took their subjects from Walter Scott’s novels where those in England use Shakespeare.  I cannot vouch for the truth of this, but this house is undoubtedly filled with themes from Scott’s books.  Sometimes the name is Jeanie.  She was the first female protagonist of Scott’s to come from the very lower classes.  The book is set about the Old Tolbooth Prison, and the events of the Porteus Riots form the underlying backdrop.

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There are apparently figures that have entirely disappeared from the middle and the far right.

We have the co-curator from the Dundee Art Gallery coming to visit us this evening.  Peter is planning to check out our studios and have a chat.

I want to congratulate Allan Whyte from Glasgow who shares my studio.  Allan just received word that his application for a residency in Berlin was successful.  He will be spending three months in one of the great creative venues, ZK/U.  Everyone is delighted.

Hospitalfield, Day 8

Inside my kiln at home is approximately three dozen perfectly formed, balanced, light in weight porcelain bottles with chattering.  There are boxes of less than optimum bottles broken up.  I couldn’t decide whether to really go for the colour which at the moment seems to be a range of greens and blues or blue-greens using stains.  For the past six months or so I have personally been put off by glaze.  Nothing seemed to capture what was in my head and that is where Hospitalfield comes in.  When I applied to be a Resident Interdisciplinary artist here, I had no idea if I would be accepted.  The ration of applicants to those accepted I have found is very low.  One in twenty individuals.  I am in great company.  My studio mates are amazing.  Lucy Barlow is shortlisted for the First Plinth public art award for Olympic Park in London.  I am really sending off the best wishes for her.  She has to finish her final presentation to the jury in a few days, so she is working on her project here and tackling that as well.  You can check out her art at lucybarlow.art      Lucy is re-entering the art world after raising her boys, and she is doing some fantastic work.  Allan Whyte also shares my studio.  He’s all over social media.  One of the things that Allan and I have learned together is that the sound recording from the iPhone is just pretty darn good.  He is working on finishing up a commission for Glasgow and is recording sounds and working with some interesting recycled materials.  Check him out, too…and of course there are five other amazing people who I will write about later including Kiki who happens to be a fantastic cook as well.

But the point I am getting at is this.  By choosing a residency that had nothing to do with ceramics I have grown immensely in these eight days.  It isn’t just stepping back in time, sitting here in this fantastic historical room with the paint and wallpaper peeling away in places that have inspired me but it is the sea.  I have never lived by the sea.  The east coast of Scotland is flat.  In fact, it is a bit of a cosmic joke because it reminds me of Manitoba!  Flat.  I did say flat, right?  Just in case you don’t believe me, those really high hills that are the only thing Scottish Tourism sends out – well, they are on the west coast of Scotland.  The work that I am producing is my first reaction to this house and to the sea and the light.  The featured bottle still has a lip that is smoothed out, and the joins of where the moulds met have been smoothed but that is now all gone.

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We had rain and blowing rain and snow when these were made and these huge clouds trying to push the sky backwards.  Today the sky was white, and the sea was blue.  It is ever-present.  When the chill is down to your bones even though you can see the daffodils blooming in the garden, it is because of the sea.  When the slip in your mould doesn’t dry like it does in Manitoba in the winter, it is the sea.  Damp.  Moss.  Cold.  And yet, I would not give up these eight days for anything.  I highly recommend anyone considering a residency to step outside their comfort zone and challenge what they have been doing.  For me, anyway, it has allowed me a time to be free, to be playful, to react to something and someplace.  Magical.

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The sea is just beyond the kitchen garden beyond the walls of the house.

For years it was the life of this village.  And today, if you meander around the harbour, you can find ‘Smokie’ stalls.  If in Manitoba you are expecting smoked sausage, you might be right, but here in Arbroath it is smoked fish.  There are five or six places.

Just a funny historical fact.  The people in Dundee used to have a tradition.  They would not eat herring, but on New Years, they would wrap red herring in little paper clothes and hang them outside to bring good luck.  It is called ‘Dressed Herring’, and it didn’t matter if the fish was smoked, salted, or dried.  You could also purchase them ready clothed at some of the market stalls in town.  They even made acceptable gifts I am told!

And with that little tidbit, I will close this blog today.  I am looking forward to the weather being balmy on Wednesday, and I am going to sneak out of the studio and take you on a trip to two of Scotland’s beautiful castles.  Keep your fingers crossed for the excellent weather arriving!

Day 6, Hospitalfield

It is 7 minutes until midnight, almost day 6 at Hospitalfield.  But tomorrow I am going to take a break.  The clay moulds take a long time to dry here.  In fact, I can pour one and go castle-hopping and come back and take it out of the mould without worrying a bit.

So there are said to be 19 amazing ‘romantic’ castles in Scotland.  Most do not open their doors until April 1, secure in that date that spring should have fully arrived and their gardens will have that ‘wow factor’ for all the visitors.  So tomorrow I am going to go and see two of those having ticked off Edinburgh Castle last week.

Dunnotar Castle is north of Arbroath, right along the coast.  It is about a 35-40 minute drive.  Today, the castle is run by Clan Keith. It is a ruined medieval fortress but its fame is the fact that it is positioned on a rocky outcrop hanging over the North Sea.

For Scotland, it was a very important site because it is where the Scottish crown jewels were hidden when Oliver Cromwell and his invading army from the south came in the 17th century.  They held Cromwell off for eight months saving Scotland’s heritage.  Visitors to the castle (when it was intact) include the Who’s Who of Scottish history:  William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and the future King Charles II.  Sir William Wallace is known as being one of the great heroes who united all of the clans in Scotland to fight against Edward I’s army.  The most significant event was a battle at a bridge near Stirling in September 1297.  It is said that the stone bridge was only wide enough for two horses side by side and that it would take the English army hours and hours to cross.  On 11 September the Scots forced the English to have to cross that bridge.  William Wallace and his men waited until half of the army had passed over the bridge before charging it.  The others went along the banks of the river preventing the English from escaping their deadly fate.  5000 Welsh Guards died with 100 fatalities for Wallace and his men.  Known as the Battle of Stirling Bridge it is viewed as part of the first war of Scottish independence.  Mary Queen of Scotts is probably the best known of all the Scottish heroes and martyrs.  She was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth 1 when she sought help during the battle of the Reformation (Catholic vs. Protestants) for nineteen years.  In the intrigues of the day, Mary was discovered to be plotting against Elizabeth and she was executed at the guillotine at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587.  Mary’s son would become James I of England and VI of Scotland after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603.

 

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The second castle is Glamis Castle.  It has been occupied since 1372. Most people consider it to be the most romantic castle in Scotland.

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Information from Scottish Home & Garden says:  “Glamis was the family home of the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and has been in the Lyon family since the 14th century, when Sir John Lyon, Thane of Glamis, received the land as a gift from King Robert II.”

It is said to be the setting for Shakespeare’s MacBeth and it was the birthplace of the late Princess Margaret.

The entrance fees for all of the castles are about $15 CDN, children are most often free.  This gets you into the houses and the gardens.  Each and everyone has a shop where you can buy products related to that specific castle as well as having a meal.  You can even stay in cottages on the Balmoral estate of the Queen.

Photo Credit:  Scottish Heritage and Scottish Home and Garden.

Hospitalfield, Day 4

It is 10 degrees C with bright sun in Arbroath this morning.  Hospitalfield House is cosy and inviting.  The light streams through the windows warming up the entire area of the building on the east side.  I had a lovely walk in the gardens this morning after breakfast.  I am so impressed with the staff at Hospitalfield and the friendliness of the Scots.  I feel completely blessed being here and while I came to do ceramics my interest has been consumed by the objects in the collection and some of the books in the library, such as The Art Journal, from the 19th century that are not available to me in Winnipeg.  In talking with one of the other residents, Allan, who had ten new creative ideas yesterday, I am not allowing my academic identities collide.  That said, having done graduate work in the history of sculpture, several of the pieces in the collection of Hospitalfield have caught my interest.  Thank goodness that pouring my moulds allows me the time to pursue both interests – history and art and that I have given myself permission to slide back into the historical.  Often students struggle with their course projects because they have a ‘fixed’ idea of what they want at the end.  Hospitalfield is a place that allows you to take a different path if you find yourself on it.  That is one of the other reasons that I am thrilled that this is not just a ceramics residency.

It is fabulous getting e-mails from some of you that read my blog.  It is difficult to know if anything is of interest to anyone, so thank you.

We are slowly moving through Hospitalfield House now that more information is becoming available about the contents and uses of the rooms.  The next room down the hall on the first floor is the anteroom.  This is where Patrick Allan-Fraser met with his clients to discuss commissions.  According to our guide, ‘it was cheaply done’.  In 1877, the walls were covered with the first commercially available wallpaper.  To make the embossed designs to try and replicate the 17th century embossed leather that we saw in the dining room, the manufacturers mixed woodflour and linseed oil and applied it to linen which was then adhered to the wall and could be painted.   The wallpaper is still made in Lancaster; it is used for renovations to the walls of these stately homes.  The arrival of cheap wall coverings completely wiped out the plaster industry in England.

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This room also had gasoliers at each side of the fireplace.  A gasolier is typically a chandelier with gas burners rather than light bulbs or candles.  In some cases in Hospitalfield, they are wall-mounted or there is one, designed like a torch, on the grand staircase.

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The anteroom also contains an unusual sculpture carved in marble by George Simmons.  The title is Cupid with a Panther.  There are pictures of Cupid Riding a Panther on 1st-century Roman walls but I have come up against a wall trying to find out about the artist, George Simmons and this particular piece.  If you know anything at all, please write and let me know.

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Behind the door in the anteroom is a picture by Francesco Francia of St Lucy with Madonna and Child.  Francia was from Bologna.   St Lucy has a very interesting legend.  She is considered to be very brave.  She grew up in Syracuse and lost her life during the early 4th century when Christians were being persecuted.  She is well known as a defender of the Christian faith.  One legend says that Lucy wanted to give her life to the service of the Church but her mother tried to arrange a marriage for her with a pagan.  Lucy learning of this devised a plan to get her mother to change her mind. She prayed at the tomb of Saint Agatha who told her that her mother was ill and that her sickness would be only cured through having faith.  Lucy was to try and persuade her mother to give her dowry money to the poor and allow her to become a nun.  Lucy’s mother was grateful but the bridegroom became very angry and reported Lucy and her strong religious convictions to the local governor, Paschasius.  He ordered Lucy to be defiled by the guards.  But the guards could not move her when they came to take her.  They even tried hitching her to a team of oxen and dragging her.  But it was to no avail.  Then they tried to burn her.  At last, they took their swords and put out her eyes.  That was how she died.  When her body was prepared for burial, everyone discovered that her eyes had been restored.  In pictures, she is shown holding a dish containing her eyes.  You can see it in this painting.

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The ‘real gems’ of the house are the two rooms in the west wing.   We will look at one of those today.

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The central feature of the largest room is a marble fireplace carved by James Christie.  The three allegorical figures, from left to right are Peace, Plenty, and Prosperity.  Other details include strawberries and parrots from the coat of arms of the two families.  The central figure, a cupid with both hands under his chin,  was a later addition.  Can you see the parrots and strawberries?  The fireplace still works today and provides warmth to a room that does not start being warmed by the sun until later in the morning.  Because of all of the wood and the tapestries in the house, in addition to all of the pictures, the blinds are generally pulled.

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There was a huge interest in fossils and stones.  A large piece of Jasper was found on the shore near the house and was turned into a table.

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Tomorrow we will talk about the woodwork above the arches, the picture commissions in the room, and then we will take a tour of the harp room with its many curiosities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hospitalfield, Day 3

Each of us, at breakfast, seemed to have settled in.  Everyone has adjusted to keeping warm and many of us threw off covers during the night.  The wind off the North Sea subsided and we woke to glorious blue skies.  Today, was an opportunity to stop thinking about being creative and to enjoy a tour of the library and the house with Alasdair Sutherland.  I learned so much that it was impossible to keep track of everything but today, I will begin writing about the ‘true’ history of Hospitalfield and not that contained in many accounts.  Alasdair gave us insight into the reasons for the carvings, the history of the pictures in the collection as they related to the Fraser family, and showed us some amazing books including the account books of the woodcarver whose work decorates the house.  To not overwhelm you, this will be done in instalments!  The house is the history of the Parrot family from Hawkesbury Hill in Coventry and the Fraser family.

The original building was called Hospitalfield but it was because it was a place to receive pilgrims arriving to go to St John the Baptist Abbey. — ‘hospitality’  A statue on the front of the house is original to the medieval era.  It was only later a place for those ill with leprosy and the plague.

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Patrick Allan’s family did not really want him to be an artist.  Not much different today, parents afraid their children wanting to be artists will be impoverished all of their lives.  His family did apprentice him with his grandfather who was a very skilled draftsman.  He then goes to art school in Edinburgh where he specialises in portraits.  From there he went to Rome where he made a very successful career selling drawings and pictures to people on the Grand Tour.  It is in Rome that he will meet some other painters and sculptors who will become his lifelong friends and will supply work for the rooms here at Hospitalfield.  In 1841, he set up a successful portrait business in London and traveled back and forth to Paris.  Patrick Allan becomes one of the founders of a group of artists, The Clique, in the late 1830s.  The group was known for their rejection of academic art and embracing genre scenes.  They also had a great disdain for the Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood, more of that later this week!

In 1842, Patrick Allan was approached by Robert Cadell, an Edinburgh publisher, who wants him to produce illustrations for Walter Scott’s Antiquity, which I mentioned the last post.  Patrick Allan did create the work but, according to our guide, not that enthusiastically.   Our guide today also said that there is no shred of evidence that Scott’s novel was based on people and places in Arbrough or that Hospitalfield was Monkbarns.  It is a myth that has been perpetuated (even by me yesterday).  While he is in Arbroath working on this series, he meets a widow, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1843.  Elizabeth will inherit all of the Hawkesbury estates in 1883.  Below are three large oil portraits painted by Patrick Allan-Fraser on the left, Elizabeth, his wife, on the right, and her mother in the middle.  The bottom picture is an image of Elizabeth holding her favourite cat painted by Patrick.

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I would like to draw your attention to the material on the wall behind the portrait of Elizabeth.  It is the most beautiful 17th-century Dutch embossed leather and was all the rage when the couple were renovating the house.  The room that these images are in was the original entrance hall of the James Fraser House.  One other curiosity about this room is the installation of gasoliers, gas lighting.  It was trendy and a status symbol, just like the imported leather wall panels.  They, however, did a lot of damage to the ceilings and objects in various rooms within the house with the fumes.  This was compounded by the soot from the candles and the coal that was used.

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The fireplace was shown at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851 at Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851.  The models of all of the various items that could be purchased could also be bought.  That is how the fireplace wound up in Hospitalfield.

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The beautiful wood carving through the original Hall and then the dining room was done by a local carver, James Hutchinson.   His work can be seen throughout the house including the framing of the triple portraits.  Below is a detail.

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The Drawing Room features two 17th century tapestries that Patrick acquired in Bruges.  The Room was decorated in 1870 when cedar was used to cover all of the walls to protect the fabrics from moths.  The room is the earliest example of the Scottish Arts and Crafts Movement.  The intent, through the subjects of the tapestries, was to link the inside of the house with the outside environment.  The ceiling has 197 different plant carvings found on the property.  It was done by a local carver, David Maver, who was paid seven pence an hour.  Hospitalfield has the complete book of his accounts.  Some of the ceiling carvings took up to one hundred hours.  Maver later moved to New York where he made a name for himself carving for the grand houses along the Eastern seaboard.

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Other images of the tapestries in the Drawing Room.  Because of their age, the light from the windows is curtained off.  The brilliance of living a room with cedar to protect artworks at that time was quite impressive. Other cabinets within the house are made of solid cedar and lined with camphorwood to safeguard the beautiful clothes of the women.

Tomorrow I will give you a tour of three more rooms in this great house.

The winds are still down, and the sun is shining brightly in Arbroath.  Any artist seriously looking for a place to do a residency should seriously consider Hospitalfield.  They have a small dedicated staff.  The costs are reasonable and if you take public transportation – and not rent a car – you will really only have to bring your supplies.  For some of the writers this March, that has meant only pens and paper!

 

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.

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!