All I knew about Chattanooga, Tennessee was the punch line to a joke my father used to tell, what was called a shaggy dog story, a rambling nonsensical buildup to a corny punchline that made you groan and laugh at the same time. It was a play on the Glen Miller song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, the first line of which is “Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?” The set-up concerned a fellow named Roy, a cat and his new pair of shoes. That’s all I remember. But the punch line was, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that ate your new shoes?” It makes me laugh and groan every time. I am happy to say that I now have a much fuller and more nuanced knowledge of Chattanooga, a really lovely small city on the Tennessee River. Like many manufacturing cities, it fell on hard times late in the 20th century and has made a remarkable rebound based on tourism, history, nature and the arts. I discovered this this past weekend during a quick visit to attend the reception of a small exhibition of my work at River Gallery in the Bluff View Art District. The gallery contacted me after having seen an article that came out in American Craft magazine last year and asked if I would like to have a show there. Sure, I said, having never been to Chattanooga and rarely having exhibited in the south at all. They selected work from images I sent and created what was a beautiful show of clay, basketry and drawing. I was quite pleased. Here are a few of the walls. You’ll notice that the beautiful color of the walls is actually carpeting. It is brilliant. No nail holes to fill and it gives a softness to the lighting that is magical for the work. Who knew?
First morning in a class is always high-energy, getting to know expectations and experience levels, learning names, trying to understand the dynamics presented by these particular ten people. Within the first five minutes someone said, “It’s not a competition,” in a funny exchange. It became the byword for the day. It’s a good thing to remember in a class. It’s a good thing to remember in life, actually.
Tonight were presentations by Mo Kelman, a sculptor working with textiles and Elizabeth Spiers, poet and visiting writer. It is always inspiring to see how other artists work with materials, either tangible or abstract, to respond to the world. Another good byword comes to mind. “Don’t compare. Relate.” Our work is so different on first glance that it would be difficult to compare. On the other hand, our interest in materials, the limitations we put on ourselves, the physicality and scale of our work and the interest in words and ideas are evident in both. Though different, our work is related in many ways.
And now, in a dark landscape, with the lights of the studio shining through, I walk back to my cabin.
OK, physician life doesn’t always allow that, but the single iron is my default setting. A couple of months ago, I wrote about leaving my previous studio and beginning the building of a new space in our garage. My focus has been on that process and I have set aside other responsibilities, such as writing blog posts. You may (or may not) have noticed.
Ready for guests
This project has been much more time-consuming and complex than I had thought it would be. (Isn’t that always the way?) It has also been exhilarating, frustrating, immensely creative and budget-bending expensive. We’re nearing completion of the construction phase and are now deciding what goes where, planning to work over the winter before making final decisions for storage and built-ins. I am so ready to get back to work.
These images are of the upstairs part of the studio. The downstairs will have walls this week and should be ready for venting the kiln next week. I’ll be posting images of the downstairs space, the clay space, as it progresses. And with any luck, I’ll be changing irons in the fire, from construction to creation, sometime very soon.
treat as I left for the last time.
I wonder how many endings we miss in our lives. I read an article years ago written by a man who, in his youth, thought it would be a great idea to use excavation equipment as furniture. He would have a large loft space and use the bucket of a front loader as a couch, the backhoe as a chair. I imagined that they would be upholstered and could be moved around at will. He obsessed about the idea and was committed to following through when he had the ability to do so. Years later, he remembered out of the blue that he had long ago decided to use excavation equipment as furniture but at that point considered it a silly idea. He didn’t remember ever making the decision not to do it. He didn’t remember when the commitment ended. A lot of things are like that.
Sometimes you can look back and recognize the moment when the ending happened. After the fourth season of Dancing With the Stars, it’s over. It doesn’t have the same excitement and after a couple of episodes of season five you decide not to watch anymore. End. You have always worn white shirts as your signature look and then one day, you pop on a blue sweater and you get complements all day. A couple of weeks later, the white shirts go to Goodwill. End. It takes a while to get there, but you can see where the end began.
And then sometimes the end walks up and smacks you in the face. You turn the corner to go to your favorite coffee place and it is closed…for good. End. Your best friend moves to Madagascar. End. Your studio building is sold. End. But wait. Maybe it’s not really an end. You can go to another coffee shop. You can stay in touch with your friend electronically and maybe even visit her. And you find another studio. In my case, you build another studio.
The garage at home is being transformed into a two story studio with the advantage of being a short walk from the back door in pajamas with a cup of coffee in hand. Sometimes the end is a beginning.
Sun. Rain. Rain. Sun. Sun. Rain. Sun. Rain. Rain. RAIN. Sun. Weather is a big deal at Haystack. Virtually all of the work is in studios so it’s not as if anything has to be called off because of rain, but things don’t dry and moving between studios, dining hall and cabins is dicey, both for getting wet and for uncertain footing. But the variation adds to the serendipitous nature of the experience here. You wake up in the morning and look out the window and there it is…weather. You go to the dining room for breakfast and there they are…pancakes. You go to the studio and there you find something new to try. As my brother-in-law, Web, says, “You never know, you know?”
Today is the last full day of work. Tomorrow is clean-up, evaluations, a walk-through which is open to the public and an auction that benefits the scholarship fund and the studios. It seems to arrive before anyone is ready for it. The instructors this session have done a masterful job of timing the classes so that the arc of learning has been smooth and is ending at just the right time. People will go home with finished work, samples and ideas from every studio.
The graphics studio is strewn with rich, inventive charcoal, graphite and ink drawings, enhanced with wax, shellac and spirit. The textiles studio is dark with every surface covered with stitched samples, dyed fabric and paper, fab lab laser-cut wood pieces, yarn, lace and other pliable planes the students are using in the process of developing their own ways of working. The class must be off somewhere on a jaunt.
The clay students are getting the last of their glazing done for the final firing tonight. I don’t know how many firings they have had but it seems as if the past four or five days have been a continuous cycle of bisque firing, glaze, glaze firing, assess and repeat. The clay class is perhaps the most unpredictable because the kiln gods have their own agenda. There were many successes and lots of learning.
The jewelry/metals studio is alive with pounding and sanding and scraping, along with the conversations of people who have gotten to know and trust each other. I am always amazed by how jewelery makers work with bits and pieces all over their desk that go together to create small worlds of delight. Tomorrow at the walk-through, all of those fragments will make sense in their final forms.
Even the instructors get into the last-minute flurry of activity. Mark Sfirri, the instructor in the wood studio, is showing Larry Thomas, the drawing instructor how to work with some calligraphic script that he had routed onto wood in the fab lab.
Such is the spirit of Haystack. It is a big idea that affects people’s lives in small ways. But those small effects can add up to a life changing experience. I know that this happens in many places, all of the time, but it’s almost guaranteed here. I am in awe of the kind of intelligence, respect, generosity and effort that is evident here in the students, the instructors and the staff. The world isn’t totally lost after all.
As is appropriate for the weekend, I slacked off, and beginning with the lobster picnic on Friday night down on the rocks by the ocean. It’s a time for relaxation and good food and often the first foray into eating a lobster that many will have. There were even s’mores after dinner.
Saturday was a combination of work and off-campus adventures. There is a lot to see in this coastal area of Maine and those of us who live here forget that, if you come from another part of the country, this may be your only chance to see Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and the many tool, antique and book sellers around the area. The weather was beautiful which added to the lure off-island.
On Sunday came the deluge. Parts of the road washed out and the potholes grew. It was an amazing rainfall. Most people stayed on campus and dug in in the studios. I zipped out to see Dow Studio Gallery, Turtle Gallery and Wendy Murayama’s show at the Center for Community Programs at the Haystack winter offices in Deer Isle. All were worth braving the elements.
After dinner was the traditional faculty boat ride with Old Quarry Ocean Adventures. Cold, wet, overcast and pretty swell. We saw seals and eagles and osprey and a lighthouse. No sunset, but we did have good stories from Captain Bill.
And then comes Monday. Back to business. In the drawing class, most are beginning to gain traction in their self-directed project pulled from the many assignments and directed explorations from last week. The time between now and the end of the week becomes precious to everyone. The second week has a different dynamic than the first, a bit more serious. Only a bit.
Fridays are the same everywhere, it seems. The sense of completion and release, the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend, all rolled into one 24-hour period. Actually it really lasts from about three in the afternoon until who knows when in the evening.
Here at Haystack it often is the time when students are cut loose to follow their own paths in a project for the second week. There is a process of review and consolidation, of adding the new information and skills to the practice brought with them that propels them forward in some fashion. The weekend is wide open with no instruction, no requirements.
In Tim McCreight’s metals class, students have been learning many skills, each explained and demonstrated with clarity. After each small assignment meant to reinforce the particular skill or skills, they gather around the table with their results and compare, assess and profit from everyone’s successes, problems andsolutions. Yesterday they surprised Tim with an “assignment”, making a knife from materials around them in two minutes or less. Totally goofy. They insisted on an end-of-day critique (on Friday, no less) and Tim was reluctant but acquiesced. Laughs all around and the perfect ending to a concentrated week was had by all.
We’re passing the middle of the first week. There is always a shift at this point. Things get, if not serious, at least less playful. A lot of information has been presented, received and applied and the possibilities are (or seem) endless. So many directions to go in, so many choices to make.
Today, small failures are more likely to occur. In the first three days in most studios, with small assignments, instructors introduced skills and materials. If you didn’t understand something, you asked a question and received an answer. If you were learning to file a piece of steel, you kept at it until your hands knew what to do. No failure in that. If the piece of wood that you were carving cracked, you started on another one. No failure.
Now, with the general skills in hand, the students are more likely to be going in individual directions, using the skills each in his or her own way. Now the sense of failure is more likely. Of course, it’s only a personal, interior failure and not really a failure at all. It’s a frustration, certainly, not to be able to realize the idea in your head with the skills and materials in your hands. But it’s not a failure. I will not be so corny as to say that it’s not a failure, it’s an opportunity, though it is, but I will say that it is a part of the process.
To be able to fail, regroup, try again and succeed is essential to learning and it is essential to the creative process. Having the time to cycle through this series again and again is one of the things that Haystack encourages and supports so beautifully. Now I just have to be there to convince folks that failure is a good thing, not always an easy task.
It was a soft, drizzly day, making the rocks and boardwalks slick, the moss green and the sky a white that extended beyond the horizon to obscure the islands. It was good for work, building on the beginnings of yesterday. No one braved the volleyball court (which is actually the lower parking lot) and people generally scuttled between buildings, not lingering for chats or views of the landscape.
The blacksmithing shop is the place to be on a cold day, of course. All the forges were firing and folks were swinging those hammers, working on getting the rhythm right, relaxing the arm, letting the body support the movement, the basic physical aspects of blacksmithing which are learned only through practice. You could see the difference in the confidence and relative ease of movement in just one day.
Sunshine Cobb demonstrated pinch and coil construction in clay. Her ability to control the form and the thickness of the walls is amazing. Again, practice comes into play. Her hands know what to do and how to move with the correct amount of pressure and direction. In the clay studio, too, you could tell that in just one day, the students’ hands were learning and the forms that they made today were more assured. They were not like Sunshine’s, of course, but all they need is practice.
Today was the first full day of classes. Six studios were humming with the eager beginnings of something new. Actually, some studios were banging, clanking or buzzing. That would be metals, blacksmithing and wood. Clay, textiles and drawing had a much quieter presence. All, however, were intense and focused.
Here’s the lineup. Blacksmithing with Mike Rossi is for beginners and for intermediate students who want to brush up on their skills. Clay with Sunshine Cobb is handbuilding and surface development. Drawing with Larry Thomas is for all skill levels. Embroidery with Rachel Meginnes has beginners and people from various disciplines in it. Metals with Tim McCreight is exploring very simple ways of making tools for metalwork. Wood with Mark Sfirri is starting with making spoons and going on from there. All of the classes seem to emphasize the use of the hands and materials to create something in the most elemental way. I like that. The processes allow for the individual to influence the outcome.
These simple copper dividers were made by the students in the metals class in a couple of hours, starting with a short piece of round stock. In the process, the students learned forging, filing, riveting and drilling. They had the same instructions to make a very simple form and yet they each have an individual character. When there is little interference between hand and material, the individual comes through.