photo 2It’s easy to work in the studio, filling each day with making, cleaning, dithering, an occasional nap, forgetting that the world outside is going on its merry way without you.  I like that.  I can read the latest news about corruption in government, spying on a massive scale and gross greediness in business without feeling a part of it.  Silly me.

It isn’t often that I feel touched by the potentially criminal or evidently unethical.  This past week, I had brushes with two such instances.  The first was at one degree of separation.  A friend emailed to ask about a situation in which she found herself, not sure how to think about it.  She had donated a piece of her work to a local arts organization for a silent auction.  There was a bid on the object, made by a gallery owner who intended to sell the piece in his gallery.  She, of course, would receive no remuneration for her work and the gallery was getting a deal, in that the auction price was below the wholesale value of the piece.

On the one hand, one could say that it was nice that the gallery liked the work enough to buy it and that the artist would get exposure.  On the other hand, does the gallery “owe” the artist something, not necessarily 50% of what they sell it for, but at least some communication and appreciation?  The gallery sees the object as product, I imagine, and if we sell through galleries, that is what we provide–product to be sold.  But it is the other side of what we do that is offended.  We make objects for expression, communication, pleasure, utility, ego, any number of categories that have nothing to do with profit.  We don’t like losing control of the transaction because of how we feel about those elements of our work.  I’m not saying that the gallery is acting unethically, but it feels a little off and I understand my friend’s feeling of being “bummed”.

The other occurrence was an internet communication.  I received an email from a gentleman in Hawaii who wanted to buy a photo 1-1particular piece that he had seen online.  The email was poorly written with a few odd grammatical constructions, but the name given led me to believe that English was a second language and so I didn’t give it much weight.  A couple of emails back and forth, explaining that there were issues with the piece that he needed to understand and each time he wrote back saying yes, yes, he wanted the piece.

And then I got the email that sounded like the Nigerian Letter Scam.  I wasn’t sure, really, but it asked me to be involved in an odd arrangement regarding money and his shipper.  Not much money, you understand, not the millions that you read about in the true scam emails. “Now I’m concluding you are a responsible person and I can therefore entrust you with this arrangement,” he said.  Up front, it just sounded odd, not criminal, and as I said we’re not talking about much money and I couldn’t quite figure out how he would profit.

Maybe the prospect of making a sale, modest though it was, had blinded me to clues earlier in the correspondence?  He did, after all know my work and ask for a particular piece that was indeed online.  Maybe it really was on the up and up?  Well, no, it wasn’t.  Fortunately, my clever husband suggested that I take the correspondence to the bank on which the check sent without my OK had been drawn.  As it happens, they keep very good records on these guys and added my experience to the pile.  The scam comes in sending a portion of the check on to someone else and then finding that the check is no good.  Your own funds end up being gone.

photo 4No matter how insulated we feel in our studios, doing our work, we are citizens of this big, messy world.  People and money are a potent combination, no news flash there.  But it’s the combination of people, money and our artwork that feels so personal, for good or for ill.

Images are of bisque fired pieces still warm from the kiln.  Still more to be done but I like them in this raw state.

Wordplay was a big deal in our house as I was growing up.  My father had an unending capacity for puns and shaggy dog stories that always ended with horrible plays on words.  One of my favorite punch lines was, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that ate your new shoes?”, a play on the song title, “Pardon Me, Boy, Is That the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”, an old Glen Miller tune.  I don’t remember the story that preceded the line and it really doesn’t matter.  It’s all for the punch line.

We made up punnish names that we would insert into stories and conversation.  Pete Moss.  Al Timeter.  Bill Fold.  Oliver Sudden.  Granted, Oliver Sudden (all-of-a sudden) was a stretch, but it made us laugh.

All of this is a lead in to the fact that, Oliver Sudden, after a seemingly inactive winter, there are several events coming up in the near future in which I will have work.  Here are three.

photo 1The Portland Show, Greenhut Gallery, Portland, Maine.  This is an invitational exhibition, held every two years, in which all the work is to be made especially for the show and is to reference specifically the city of Portland.  The invited artists include some of the best contemporary artists in the state of Maine and I am honored to be a part.  I will have three small drawings in the show, all of the Back Cove, a large inlet in the middle of Portland, at the end of my street.  April 3 to 26, 2014.  www.greenhutgalleries.com

The Kylix Show, Peters Valley School of Craft, Layton, New Jersey.  Another invitational show, the workphoto 4 for which is to be an interpretation of the kylix form of ancient Greece.  For this, I made a coiled piece.  I was invited to participate by Lindsay Ketterer Gates, an exquisite basketmaker and longtime colleague.  Somehow my kylix became a nest, complete with eggs. April 12 to May 18, 2014.  www.lindsaykgates.com, www.petersvalley.org

Fade to BlackThe Smithsonian Craft Show Online Auction, www.smithsonianauctions.org.  I have two pieces in this online auction, both pieces I like very much, both are basketry pieces, Fade to Black and Pastimes:  Gardening.  April 7 to April 22, 2014.  www.smithsonianauctions.org

And there are several opportunities on the horizon for showing clay work.  The shaggy dog story continues.  No punch line yet.

photo 2Dropped my husband at the airport this morning and on the way home, the Rolling Stones came on the radio.  “Brown Sugar”.  Suddenly I was dancing in my seat, feeling a whole lot younger, and singing along like a backup singer.  Now, I love the Beatles.  I think that they were true artists, having created new forms of music that spoke eloquently of the times they inhabited.  But I crave the Stones.

What is it about pieces of music or dance or visual art that grab us in different ways?  How does a personal response relate to a more general aesthetic judgment?  Is it enough to say, “I like it?”  Yes, it is enough if you’re bopping away in the front seat of your car, carrying along all the personal memories and experiences associated with the song.  But no, it is not enough if you are trying to place the song in the history of music or even in the history of rock and roll.  After all, my experiences are different from yours, therefore my personal criteria are different from yours.

My aforementioned husband wisely said to me many years ago, “Don’t try to be your own historian.”  I try not to think about where my work fits in but I do try to figure out why I like some songs, paintings, plays and poems more than others.  I’m starting a list.

1.  Quality counts.  It has to be well-crafted, using good materials (words are materials).

2.  Skill counts.  The skill of making (writing, composing, singing…) should look effortless, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that this piece is the way it is.  It should seem inevitable but not predictable.

3.  Accessibility counts.  The piece must stand on its own.  Even though the experience might be enriched by knowing more about it, there should be a lure, a hook, a pull that engages.  When it works well, the song or painting or poem should land somewhere between where I am and where I would like to be.  I should see something familiar and unknown and be encouraged to follow it where it leads me.

4.  Magic counts.  If I could really understand and explain why a piece of Art works for me…well, it wouldn’t be Art.  It would just be something that could be explained in an algorithm available to everyone in an app.  There is something unexplainable and unknowable in the real thing that is thrilling and important.  That’s why we keep trying to capture it.

I’m not saying that “Brown Sugar” is Art but there is something magical or alchemical about the combination of sounds produced by Mick and the boys.  Maybe it is Art?photo 3

Images are hopeful tulips and their shadows and the products of the first glaze firing in my kiln!

 

photo 5Did you know that there are 152,000,000 blogs on the Internet?  Now, I read that in a blog, so I’m not sure the number is truly reliable but I read some similar number in an article in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and we know that we can trust everything we read in the newspaper, right?  Riiiiiight.  Among those one hundred and fifty-two million blogs, some are like magazines.  Some are rants and vents.  Some are advertisements in disguise.  I guess I think of this blog as a chat with you.  Each of you.  And, frankly, I haven’t had much to say, my friend.  The last few weeks have gone by with little to report and you have already heard my rants and complaints and I don’t want to repeat, although, I might throw in another complaint about the endless snow and cold in Maine this year.

I do want to stay in touch, so here I am.photo 1_3  The first bisque firing in my new home kiln went well.  It’s a funny thing.  You put the work in the kiln.  You wait for two days while it fires and then cools off.  You open the kiln and the work looks the same as it did when you put it in, only a bit smaller.  The bisque firing is not dramatic.  But I was pleased that I managed to do the technological part of this craft, even though the technology is totally computerized on this particular kiln, thank goodness.

photoI have since worked on the surfaces with underglaze and made some patterns by washing off the glaze in areas to reveal the white porcelain beneath.  Another bisque firing to set the underglaze and then a coat of clear glaze and into the final firing.  Wanting a project for this process, I made a coffee set:  a milk pitcher, canister, mugs, plates, cream and sugar, and jam pots.  More learning.  I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.  Honest.  I really will.

 

 

 

photoA few days ago, I received an email from Kristin Thalheimer, a friend, fitness instructor, life coach and chocolatier.   Now there’s a combo.  (www.start-time.com)  She sends these occasional emails with short essays about various small ways to navigate life and work, helpful hints and ways of thinking that can clarify a dilemma you didn’t even know you had.  This time it was about being kind to yourself by not saying the kinds of things we would never say to someone else.  “When was the last time you told yourself you were an idiot?…Maybe it was this morning when you burned your toast…”  It was a voice I needed to hear because, well, I had burned my toast and I wasn’t too nice about it.  I felt as if she were speaking to me.

I thought of a time quite a few years ago when I was debating the value of what I was doing as an artist.  It was a period of parental illness and death and other events that seemed out of control, the kind of time that has you assessing everything around you.  One night, an old friend came to me in a dream.  Her name was Diane Itter and she was a very fine artist in textiles, a fellow graduate student at Indiana University in the early 70s and someone whom I admired.  She was elegant, funny and generous.  We had not stayed in touch on a personal level but had seen each other occasionally over the years until her death in 1989.  I don’t remember what she said in the dream but she was emphatic, saying that I needed to continue to make art, that that was why I was here.  I woke up with the assurance that I should go on.

Now I don’t really believe that Diane came to me in any spiritual form, but I do believe that I needed an photoauthority to tell me what I already knew.  Sometimes hearing voices can be a good thing.  The dream was a little more dramatic than the email but that’s OK.  I’ll take my truth wherever I can find it.

The images are of fire and ice.  The first is the new kiln in the garage.  I did a test firing on Saturday and all went well.  It’s ready for the first batch of pots that are not quite ready yet.  And outside the garage, we had the beginnings of another snowfall.

IMG_0008The big project is moving forward.  And what is the big project, you say?  A new website.  As I mentioned in August, I have been working with a couple of designers, a couple in the married sense, and are now making some headway.  A series of events postponed our work for three months but we are now back on track.  The extra time allowed me to gather images and do a little more homework.  Once again, I am reminded that the process of doing anything is compelling, energizing and full of clues as to what’s next.  I had thought that I knew what this website should be in what I see now was a very vague fashion.  In going through nearly four decades of images, sketchbooks, essays, reviews, emails, letters and files, a somewhat different and more complete idea has emerged.  Conversations with the designers have helped immeasurably in the process.  We are by no means near completion, but we’re moving along.

IMG_0015Somehow it seems appropriate to be summing up and moving forward at this time of year.  Looking back a little, looking forward a lot.  I’m glad that I have a process to carry me forward into the new year.  The website project is a bridge, in a way.  It’s what comes after it that worries me a little.  I am by nature an optimistic person and have been rewarded in my life for being so, and so I don’t fear what comes next.  I just don’t know what it is.  Being comfortable with unease has never been my strong point.

Here’s where we come back to the value of process.  If I want to draw more, I can set up an area in the studio ready for drawing that is there all the time and draw every day.  On the calendar…DRAW.  If I want to travel, buy the tickets.  If I want to have a show, make some contacts and make a plan.  Begin.

Ah, but you say, that’s the easy part.  What about the discipline?  All the plans in the world will not accomplish anything without action.  Right you are.  A lesson learned from the website project–enlist someone(s) else in the project to whom you are responsible.  Having to fulfill my part of the website development process has gotten me moving and kept me going.  Maybe I should set up a drawing group that meets consistently.  Maybe I should talk to my friend, Jo, about actually taking that trip to France that we talked about three years ago.  Maybe I should look into that folder on my desk that says “Work Ideas”, commit to an idea that still intrigues me and find a place to show the work.

IMG_0005These are all doable things if I start the process and enlist the help of the people who will be a part of that process.  You have just been enlisted.  I have said all of this out loud to you and must follow through.  Here we begin.  What’s on your list and whom will you enlist to hold you accountable?  Who will be able to help you meet your goals?

I wish you joy and energy and a wee bit of luck in 2014.  It’s not just another year.  This could be a fabulous year if we make it so!

IMG_1826Christmas ornaments are like little grenades.  Each sets off an explosion of memory and feeling.  Maybe it’s because we see them only once a year so that they don’t become too familiar to be commonplace.  Maybe it’s because they are related to a highly emotional event that is tied to family and friends and ritual.  Maybe it is because they are so darn cute.  Whatever the reason, they are potent visual cues.

Hauling the boxes of electric candles, tree ornaments, wreaths, tablecloths, boxes, cards from past years, plates and Santa mugs down from the attic is an annual ritual that I enjoy (except for the daunting descent on the pull-down ladder, carrying boxes wider than the opening in the ceiling will allow.)  At this time of year, I feel comfortable with a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality that I try to avoid at other times, especially in my work.

What is the difference between nostalgia and sentimentality?  Between sentimentality and sentiment?  As with many words in the English language, we are dealing with different roots for these words, that come from different cultures and have been modified by our own culture in different ways over time.  Rather than looking too closely at the words themselves, maybe we need to look at what they represent.  Sentiment is what we feel about something or our opinion about it.  It is really somewhat neutral, though it has taken on the caste of being sentimental, by virtue of its closeness in spelling.  You could ask, “What is your sentiment about this?” as easily as, “What is your feeling or opinion about this?”  In a broader sense, sentiment is a low-key sentimentality, not so extreme, more related to true feeling coming from experience.  Sentimentality, on the other hand, has become a pejorative word, meaning excessive nostalgia or feeling with synonyms such as gooey, maudlin, mawkish, saccharine, schmaltzy and corny.  Nostalgia has a sense of yearning for some thing, place or time in the past, usually in response to a prompt, e.g, a song, a smell or a madeleine.

But how do we assess the use of sentimentality or nostalgia in our work?  When I Googled a comparison of the words, I found that most IMG_1829of the entries were from writers who suggest that this is a much discussed topic in writing classes.  Sentimentality is seen as creating a feeling in the reader that has not been created by the writer through plot, characters and language.  It is a gimmick, a faux sentiment, a borrowing of emotion from another source.  Nostalgia can be a form of sentimentality, but is less extreme and with a broader base of shared experience, as with the use of music in movies to set a mood of a period of time or a catch phrase from pop culture.  “Yeah, baby!” anyone?  Far out.

What is important seems to me to be to “use” nostalgia or sentiment within a larger context not as a way of avoiding the artist’s responsibility of expressing a personal, unique point of view.  An artwork with a 60s vibe may be richer for the allusion but an object that looks like the 60s and has nothing else to say is impoverished.

IMG_1808 Each Sunday morning, an email appears on my screen that takes me places, places I hadn’t known existed but that are always worth a visit.  The emails come from Brain Pickings.  (You can sign up for this weekly newsletter at the website, www.brainpickings.org).  This morning, it took me to Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and to Susan Sontag’s interviews with Rolling Stone, with a quick stopover at the poet Mary Oliver’s love of dogs.  I guess that you could say that the destinations were really the brains of these extraordinary people.

The tour guide for this journey is Maria Popova, “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness”, as it says on the website.  I may quibble with the effectiveness of too-cute words that are difficult to pronounce, but don’t let that put you off.  Generally her observations and, more importantly, her connections of information, are thought-provoking and fascinating.

This week, the theme seemed to be the need of solitude for a writer.  (Usually when I read the posts from Brain Pickings, I just substitute “artist” for “writer” and find that the meaning holds true.)  At this time of year…well, at just about any time of year…it is difficult to find sustained solitude.  Unless I am at a residency in a foreign city with enforced visitation restrictions or have a major deadline looming, I waiver.  But, in a strange way, writing here is a kind of solitude.  Even though you are participating on your end by reading this, I am alone at this end, taking my time to think and ponder and organize thoughts and write.  It is a very good exercise in momentary solitude.

Have been spinning my wheels in the studio lately, feeling as if I’m covering familiar terrain, always a little depressing and IMG_1809frustrating.  In an effort to get a few pieces ready for a glaze firing, I quickly drew a few fern images on a couple of pots.  (Ferns seem an ingenious species, finding ways to propagate and to emerge from the earth in unlikely ways.  I’ve always liked them.)  I wasn’t sure why ferns came to mind but wanting to find out more about them, I ordered A Field Guide to the Ferns from Alibris (www.alibris.com, an online used book store).  It arrived yesterday.  It is a 1950 edition with a green cloth cover and somewhat yellowed pages, but it only cost $1, so I had no great expectations.

IMG_1812I was unprepared for the beautiful images within.  As I opened the book, I felt as if I had discovered a secret treasure trove.  All are black and white drawings, either line renderings or silhouette images.  In wondering why I was pulled to draw a fern on the pots in the first place, I looked up from this book to see the gorgeous fern that we had just brought into the house for the winter.  Duh.

Here’s an assignment.  Look around.  Look around with intention.  If you are a basketmaker, don’t look at baskets.  If you are a potter, don’t look at pots.  Look at those things around you that you love or simply find interesting.  Choose one.  Everything we need is around us but it can’t be found in a crowd or in a hurry.  We need solitude.  Then, the second part of the assignment, take the next step.  Research it more.  Google it.  Think about how you acquired the object.  Order a book about it.  Smell it.  Taste it.  Start to immerse yourself in your choice.  And then see where it leads you.  As for me, I’ll be drawing ferns, alone, in my studio.  Oh, joy!

IMG_1801Forgive me if I’ve told you this one before.  When I was in elementary school in Indianapolis, Indiana, my mother was the school secretary.  It was a small public school, with one classroom per grade, kindergarten through eight.  At the beginning of the semester when I was entering second grade, I accompanied her, for she had to work in the office even though classes had not started yet.  Miss Coe, the second grade teacher graciously allowed me to be in the classroom and “help” her.  I don’t think I appreciated Miss Coe at the time, but now realize that she was kind and comfortable and committed to her little charges.  I certainly couldn’t have been much help.

One of the tasks I performed was to distribute the new text books, one per desk, taking them from the cardboard carton in which they had been shipped.  I remember fondly the smell of the vinyl covers and the cracking sound they made when opened for the first time, as if breaking the seal of all that fresh knowledge.  At the bottom of the box was a book like all the others except that it was thicker.  Odd, I thought, and certainly worth investigation.  Flipping through the pages, it looked like the other books but, at the back, there were extra ones.  There were the answers to the questions posed in each chapter to test comprehension of what had been presented.  On the cover, in fairly large letters, were the words, Teacher’s Copy.

It had never occurred to me that Miss Coe or any teacher would need the answers.  After all, she knew everything, even what we were doing when her IMG_1798back was turned to write on the chalk board.  My universe changed in two profound ways that day.  First, there are answers available to anyone who has the right book and, second, even the authorities whom we trust most don’t know all of the answers.  They need the right book, too.  That was a confusing bit of business at the time and it took a number of years to understand it’s full implication.

Authorities aren’t what we think they are.  They never were but they certainly aren’t now.  When value is assessed by how many tweets or likes one acquires or the amount of money raised by a political candidate or from the words of the newest, hyped, blockbuster tell-all, self-help, must-read book that is debunked in two weeks, how do we choose and listen to our authorities?  I’m still working on it, looking for the Teacher’s Copy.

And, no, I am not Edmund de Waal, I just make porcelain tumblers like his, above right.  This, if you need another example of nothing new (or unique) under the sun.   Go to the top of this post for an example of what I have been doing with them, very un-de Waal.  To see his work, go to www.edmunddewaal.com.  It’s beautiful.  And you have that on good authority.

 

 

IMG_4375A year or so ago, when the birds first flew out of the frame onto the wall, I realized that this would be a hard sell.  Not the idea; it was effective.  But to find someone who would actually let me do it, let alone pay me to do it, seemed unlikely.  Thanks to a wonderful designer with whom I have worked before, I installed a piece in a home in New Hampshire this week that entailed traveling over to draw on the walls.

The designer’s name is Gay Freeborn (a fine artist in her own right) who works with clients, usually one at a time, on large renovations of older houses, often completely gutting them and then redesigning everything.  New kitchen, new bathrooms, furniture, window treatments, even gardens and landscaping.  And, of course, new art.  I think that this is her favorite part of the process.  When she knew that there would be a horizontal space above a fireplace, she remembered a piece that she had seen at the studio and showed an image to the client.  He liked it, too, and didn’t seem concerned about the wall drawing part.

IMG_4364On Wednesday the framed drawing had been installed and a scaffolding, of sorts, had been set up by the carpenter and painter before I arrived.  The mantel is above the top of the doorway as you can see in the picture to the right so there was no way I could work standing on the ground or even standing on a chair.  The wall paint was a good surface to accept the charcoal, not too flat and not too glossy.  I made a note to specify what paint was used for the wall in the future.  I was lucky this time.

IMG_4365Using the original drawing plan, I sketched in the birds and extended the ones that move from framed piece to wall, getting up and down off of the scaffolding often.  I quickly noticed that the tail of a bird on the wall linked up nicely to the body of the bird when I was standing in front of the drawing on the scaffolding but when I was standing below on the ground, the tail looked as if it were an unconnected blob.  (I hear that Michelangelo had this problem when he was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  I can’t remember another time in which I would have put Michelangelo and me in the same sentence.)  A few more trips up and down the ladders with adjustments to the drawing and we had it.  More birds were needed to fill the space and one even flew off around the corner.

Filling in the shapes with compressed charcoal, much smudging and erasing and handwashing and trips up and down the ladders and finally it was IMG_4381ready for the final sprays of fixative, with drying time in between.  I was very happy.  And this afternoon I heard from Gay that the client is happy, as well.  And that means that Gay is happy.  I imagine that we are happy for different reasons, of course.  The client, because he enjoys the image and the place it occupies in his living area.  Gay, because she admires my work and is happy to be a part of getting it out into the world.  And, of course, it is always good to have a happy client.  I am pleased because it is a validation of what seemed to me to be a somewhat screwy but really potent idea.  I love knowing that Rush Hour, as it is called, is appreciated and given a home.  I can’t wait to do more.

Gay’s website is www.paintingsbygfreeborn.com.  Her love and knowledge of dogs, horses and all sorts of animals are expressed beautifully in her paintings.