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!

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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