The Long and Not-So-Winding Road

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This is the walk from the residence on the Place Lisnard to my studio. It is as narrow and even steeper than it looks. Each day, usually several times a day, I walk up or down this street wondering what is going on behind the doors. I rarely see anyone going in or out with the door open wide enough to see inside. And the doors, themselves, give very little clue. Some seem to have been there since the town was built in the 1500s. Others have a whiff of recent renovation. There is no attempt to keep to any standard or style. They’re pretty swell.

I’m feeling more and more a part of my neighborhood. I see people I have spoken to in the tabac and we nod in recognition. The other day I was at the Huit à Huit, a small grocery store nearby that advertises its hours of operation, eight to eight, in its name. I was ten cents short of having exact change and the young man who is always at the cashier’s counter said I could give it to him the next time I was in. It was a small thing that made me feel not like a stranger or a tourist, but like a neighbor. I smiled all the way home.

The studio feels more familiar, too. Today was a good day. I don’t know why that happens, why some days it works and some days it doesn’t. Part of it is having begun. No, not just begun but actually having gotten on with it. It goes back to trusting the process. Having done A tells you what B might be. And then C. And by the time you get to E or F, you’re on your way. You may get to M and not like where you are, but you know how you got there, and you can backtrack or start over or whatever it takes. But at least you are moving. That’s the trick.

All of us had a good day. Sally went off on her first solo bus excursion, seeing the sights in Antibes. Lucie spent the afternoon walking and writing and looking for the sun. Mikang took her work to the kiln room, ready for tomorrow’s firing, and must have felt great satisfaction with what she had made. And I walked to and from my studio looking at the sights on each side and below my feet all the way up and back. And in the studio, I made it to at least Q.

The Writing On the Wall

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This morning, we had a meeting to discuss the deadlines between now and December 5, the day of the opening of the show of our work here in Vallauris. Somehow seeing the requirements meted out in squares with dates attached made them real and immediate. Ceramists have to allow for firings, typically two separate ones for each piece. These can take hours or days, depending on the type of firing, and can’t be hedged. These firings create different limits than weavers or painters or furniture-makers have to practice. And since three of the four of us are ceramists, the schedule is set up to accommodate those firings. I’m pretty much on my own rhythm.

The most sobering deadline for me is Monday, November 23 when one or two pieces should be finished for photography. No more skipping about from one piece to another, no more playing around without commitment. So today I made some decisions. There are two pieces that I know I want to finish for the show, both with baskets. I have been coiling right along so at least the forms are made and I know what they will be “about”. (That’s an odd term that people often use about art. What is your work about?) And I know I want to include drawings, both charcoal and encaustic. The gallery is a fairly small space so I needn’t have a lot of work.

Basket pieces: a coiled piece with encaustic painting on it to mimic the raku tea bowl I made. If you make the same image in two different techniques, how much can they be alike? The other one is using natural material found in the area to create surfaces on three lidded baskets. And the drawings will include birds, I’m sure. I can’t get away from them!

All the work shown here is in progress. Stay tuned…

In thinking about the work, I also found myself thinking about a reassessment of where I am with the idea of identity. Moment of revelation: it is a really big idea. I have a feeling that I will be dealing with parts of it for a long time. The most relevant point that has become apparent to me here is the role place plays in one’s identity. You can’t help but be affected by the physical aspects of Vallauris. But there is also the history that is embodied here and the knowledge of clay and art that lives here. They are not of the physical place, but they don’t exist anywhere else and so that makes them peculiar to this place.

I feel as if I am collecting information and ideas here. That I am watching myself and not requiring that the work be specific or on a particular path. It’s a very different way of working and actually scares me a little. But the balance between known processes and unknown challenges seems to be working. I can’t imagine going home to doing only the same work I did before.

Under the Influence

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Imagine my surprise when I ran across a farm right in the middle of town. Dale had mentioned that there were farms, but I had imagined them farther out. This one had fields of onions and other crops I couldn’t identify from a distance. Everything was perfectly tended and groomed and wonderfully prolific. It is in the tradition of the family farm that has been the heart and soul of French agriculture for centuries. It is also the front yard for several homes and apartment buildings.

Everywhere you turn here, there is something striking to see or hear or smell. Often it is the mere newness that grabs your attention. I don’t mean new as in “recent” but new as in “different”. The scale and proportion of the buildings. The colors of the stones. The smell of baguettes baking. Voices speaking in words you don’t recognize. The sound of footsteps on cobblestones. The amazing thing is to see or hear something that is familiar. There is a church nearby that rings bells on the hour. It reminds me of the bells at Indiana University when I was there forty-some years ago. That sounds oddly familiar!

My colleagues, Lucie van der Zijde, Mikang Lim and Sally Walk, have been incorporating some of the sights of Vallauris into their work. I went to their studio today to see what’s up and was delighted by what I saw. I’m only showing one image for each at this point, but there will be more.

Lucie is taken with the variety of plant life and has interpreted palm trees in these beautiful bottle forms. As she points out, they are upside down. But that shows the magic of real invention from inspiration. She is not making palm trees, she is making her response to palm trees.

Mikang saw a door-knocker in the shape of a hand, a traditional form in Provence and I remember seeing it in Portugal, too. It inspired her to create her own little hands that then became handles on cups and pitchers she had already thrown.

And Sally zeroed in on architectural details, the slats of the ubiquitous shutters, the cobblestone patterns in so many of the streets, a wave pattern that occurs in many of the manhole covers and a curve seen in the ironwork. These all have become elements in this sculptural piece.

All of this work is unfired and has a way to go before it is finished. But the strength of the forms is undeniable. And the direct response to this new place has been incorporated into a vocabulary that is strong and individual. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

A Little Comfort

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

I would like to say that I plan each day’s entry carefully, taking notes and making excursions for appropriate photographs. The truth is, it just happens. But today, it almost didn’t happen. At about 5 o’clock I was working in the studio and noticed that it was getting darker. I then realized that I hadn’t taken one picture today. Not that there hadn’t been any subjects worth taking. There had. But I just hadn’t done it. Maybe I’m becoming blasé about the beauty or simply lazy or maybe it was just that today was a good studio day with little time outside and nothing all that photogenic inside.

I grabbed my camera and ran out just as the sun was getting low behind the hills. What should I shoot? Within two minutes I had my answer. On a small street near the residency were several stone walls. The ingenuity of how these walls were made is amazing. Who knows how old they are or how many times they have been repaired? The materials might have been from five hundred years ago or yesterday. They are stunning examples of craft and beauty and persistence.

And I would like to say that every day is a revelation, that I discover some new insight into identity or art or myself. But not today. It was a comfortable day. I felt comfortable coiling. I felt comfortable explaining some of my processes to my colleagues. I felt comfortable laughing and talking with these friends. It’s not a bad feeling, feeling comfortable. I wouldn’t want to feel that way all the time. I am here, after all, to escape my comfort zone. But for today, a slightly grey Sunday, two weeks into my stay here, it was just right.

Raku

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

This morning, there was a raku workshop taught by Dale Dorosh, the director at AIR Vallauris, at l’Ecole Municipale des Beaux-Arts. We were kindly invited to attend and for me it was quite exciting. I was familiar with raku but had never actually done it. For Lucie, Sally and Mikang, it was a bit like attending a coiling workshop would be for me, I imagine. But they, as good artists everywhere do, like to play and so went along.

After a brief introduction to the process and materials, Dale set us to work glazing the beautiful tea bowls he had made for each of us. We had three glazes, a thick white, a thin white and a copper oxide. We could dip, drip, brush, spritz, rub or get the glaze onto the surface in any way we wished. In about 20 minutes we had popped the bowls into the kiln for firing.

While waiting for the kiln to do its work, Sally Walk, our Aussie resident, showed us a clever way to make a handbuilt form which used both pinch pot and slab construction. These will be dried and fired later. It was gratifying to have our hands in the mud, so to speak, but I have no illusions that my piece will be anything but goofy.

After the initial firing of the tea bowls, they were quickly deposited in a sawdust-filled contraption to burn and smoke, acquiring the velvet black accents associated with raku. Another ten minutes and we were each scrubbing the excess carbon off our own bowls to see what we had created. Pure magic.

I have enjoyed being with clay people here in Vallauris. It has confirmed my feeling that we select our medium much as we select the person with whom we fall in love. There is something unconscious and inevitable about it. Monsieur Derval said that he knew immediately when he touched clay that it was for him. And I think that each of my fellow residents would say the same thing. For me, it was thread and fabric, the soft line and plane. No matter what other materials I use, I use them in reference to fiber.

Visiting Mr. Derval

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Today is my birthday. I mention that only because it has been an extraordinary day. I arrived in the kitchen for coffee at the usual hour this morning and found my colleagues, and a plate of fresh croissants, strong coffee, candles and a chair wrapped with yellow crepe paper which was my throne for the day. I had thought that I would slide in under the radar, not letting anyone know that this was mon anniversaire. But internet communication being what it is, a friend had alerted the staff and they were off and running. Flowers from home. Champagne and chocolate at four o’clock. Emails from old friends. Dinner at a local restaurant on the Place L’homme au Mouton. It has truly been a memorable birthday and I am so grateful to all who made it so.

This morning, in between all the

celebrating, we visited Monsieur Jean Derval, an 84-year-old ceramic artist here in Vallauris. He arrived in 1951 with training in graphic arts and a newly found love for clay. He said that the minute he touched clay, he knew that that was what he wanted to do. And he has been doing it ever since.

He showed us his home and studio and much of his work that is there. He showed us pictures of parties with Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau and his beautiful wife. He is from the generation that we are now losing. The stories he told us have been told hundreds of times. His public identity has been solidified by the retelling of these stories, the linking of his life with famous people, with the concrete reality of his work over sixty-five years. And yet his private identity is one of a man of compromised health, near-blindness and a strong Catholic faith. These qualities never entered into the stories he told, only in personal asides. “I was quite handsome when I was young,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Maybe it is because today is my birthday that I listened to him for some clue as to how to proceed. His love for what he does is undeniable. Construction next to his house damaged his kiln more than a month ago and he has a table of work waiting to be fired. He continues to work with the aid of his son, maybe because it is all he can do, maybe because it is who he is. It was a lesson in art and making and identity that I will remember. We are, to a great extent, what we do.