Listening to the Clay
Preparing ten pounds of red mica clay that I’d brought home from Taos, New Mexico, reminded me of my residency there two years ago. This naturally micaceous clay used by the Taos Pueblo potters comes from the mountains and is used for both cookware and decorative pottery.
I had in mind to create a traditional piece in the style of the Taos Pueblo potters. After hollowing out the interior into a rough form, the clay needed time to strengthen in order to hold a shape under the weight. After several days I began to work the clay but the walls started collapsing. Days later the walls once again collapsed.
Starting over was tempting, but something held me back and so I let go of any preconceived notions. Letting the clay have its way transformed the piece with folds and undulations I would have never imagined.
Talking with the Clay
I was in Taos when I first read about the relationship the Pueblo potters have with their clay in Talking with the Clay: The Art of Pueblo Pottery by Stephen Trimble. The book focuses on the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest and shares many of the potters’ personal views.
In one of the book’s interviews, Rose Naranjo of Santa Clara Pueblo said, “The clay is very selfish. It will form itself to what the clay wants to be. The clay says, I want to be this, not what you want me to be.” That certainly described my encounter with this red mica piece and more often than not what occurs when working with clay.
There were several other interviews in Trimble’s book that I really connected with: Santa Clara Pueblo potter Jody Folwell said, “My pieces start out somewhere deep down inside of me. I feel that physically I just make what comes out of me spiritually. The pieces seem to mold themselves. I never really mold them.”
Glady’s Paquin of Laguna Pueblo said, “So much of me goes into the pot. Even my thoughts are in the pot. I have to tell the pot how to be. The stubborn ones I give the okay to be that way. You have to realize which one wants to be and which one you should start over again.”
An Elegant Enigma
Although the culture of clay runs deep with the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the rapport with clay touches potters everywhere. This excerpt from my book, The Light in the Kiva, describes how I felt working on the piece “Elegant Enigma.” “The evolution of a piece is sometimes a mystery even to me. Studying this amorphous shape in progress I wondered where it was going. After many twists and turns, a form slowly emerged. This enigmatic piece unfolded into a complex structure.”
THE BRIGHTNESS OF LIGHT
A friend recently wrote to me saying Georgia O’Keefe’s Shell and Old Shingle VI, reminded her of my clayscape photography. When I looked at this 1926 oil on canvas painting for the first time ever I was taken aback myself – two of my own images immediately came to mind. When I showed them to my friend she wrote back, “both of these look like the Georgia O’Keefe painting.” You can see a picture of her painting on the St. Louis Art Museum's website: https://www.slam.org/collection/objects/10406/
To be in O’Keefe’s artistic company, one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, if only by coincidence, is humbling. Though decades separate me from O’Keefe, I feel a kindred artist connection to her way of seeing light. She once wrote,“My first memory is of light – the brightness of light – light all around.” For me, light is my portal to another world where forms of clay blossom.
KINDRED ARTISTS OF LIGHT
The light and shadows that transform my clay sculptures into new dimensions has became an extension of my ceramics. The imagery comes from all stages of the work that reveal the different textures of the clay as it changes from greenware to bone dry to bisqued and smoke fired. One of the early images of this work, Plato’s Cave, was included in my 2012 exhibit “Light from the Window.”
When I look through the camera into a sculpture’s interior I see motifs beyond my imagination – enigmatic shapes, at times reminiscent of landscape and figure, that only materialize in the sunlight. I still remember the exhilaration that swept over me when I first discovered these forms secreted away within my sculptures waiting to be exposed. It felt as though I had been transported to another realm – as though a secret portal had opened up.
PAINT, CLAY AND FORM
I see shaping clay in a similar light as painting. O’Keefe wrote, “The subject matter of a painting should never obscure its form and color, which are its real thematic contents.” Though my imagery is at times interpreted as conveying a sensual nature, it is as incidental to me as it was to O’Keefe. Form is what I seek always.
O’Keefe wanted to distance her flower paintings from the bodily image references when she wrote, “Nobody sees a flower... it is so small.… So I said to myself – I'll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it … and when you took time... you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don't.”
GEORGIA ON MY MIND
Sometimes I even see hints of O’Keefe’s animal skulls and bone paintings in my clayscape photography – is it simply a stroke of serendipity? Perhaps Georgia is on my mind more than I realize.
Living on the Edge
The struggle that comes with being an artist keeps me living on the edge, always searching and striving for something indefinable that is just out of reach.
The desire to make a name as an artist is part of the journey. The potter George Ohr, known as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” made his name some 50 years after he died in 1918. Ohr was quite a character – one of the signs at his store read, “Get a Biloxi Souvenir, Before the Potter Dies, or Gets a Reputation.” He seemed to have a crystal ball when he said, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come.” And it did. Now his work is in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and in a museum named after him in Biloxi, dedicated to his ceramics.
To have your work in collections and exhibits, not to mention a museum of your own – even posthumously – is, for some, the epitome of success. But what of the artist who lives in obscurity because of circumstances? Decades ago, I saw the movie Babette’s Feast which focuses on a famous chef who must leave it all behind. There is a lot of food for thought in this exquisitely delicious story that feeds the soul. I have been telling friends about this movie for years.
An Artist is Never Poor
The 1987 Danish film, based on the 1950 drama by Karen Blixen (under the pen name of Isak Dinesen), deals with the ways people choose to live their lives. There are several vignettes, but the one that intrigues me involves the French refugee from Paris who becomes the cook for two elderly sisters in a remote 19th-century Danish village. After 14 years of cooking simply, Babette gets word from France that she has won 10,000 francs in a lottery. Rather than use it on herself, she decides to spend it all by bringing in exotic ingredients and finery from Paris to prepare a French gourmet meal for the village residents. It is a resplendent celebration of art.
At the end of the movie the sisters finally learn that Babette was once the head chef of a famous Parisian restaurant. When they discover their cook has just spent her entire winnings on the meal, one of the women sadly says to Babette, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life,” to which Babette responds, “An artist is never poor.” This sentiment has echoed in my mind ever since. I too will never be “poor” – my artistic spirit thrives.
There will always be a struggle, or maybe it is more like a climb. That is the life of an artist and I have a long way to go before even getting close to the top. Meanwhile, I’ll take a hint from Ohr – “Get a Pot Before the Potter Dies, or Gets a Reputation.”
Thinking of Hedy, Smokefired Porcelain, 14" x 11"
Sculpting in clay takes time, but getting there is all part of the journey for me. Every new piece presents a challenge to create an original form. My process is to work the clay until the elasticity is exhausted and the walls of the piece are at their thinnest. This technique of stretching the clay till it is fatigued creates the most unique forms. During the shaping of this newest piece, I saw a wavelike form beginning to emerge and so I let the clay decide how far this wave would go.
After one too many close calls of almost losing this piece from overworking, I took the hint that it was time to let the clay rest. This is always a turning point when the shaping is done although the piece is far from finished. Now is the time for finessing edges and smoothing surface blemishes. I look for the slightest imperfections, minute details that are barely noticeable, anything that interrupts the design. When I study the piece, I envision it being exhibited on a pedestal in a gallery. It should be flawless.
I love the transformative quality of clay. As I looked at this static, almost bone-dry sculpture, its tenuous form seemed to convey a sense of movement. I felt the rhythm of a wave waiting to crest.
Available for commissions and exhibits.
Waiting to Crest, Porcelain, 11” x 9”
It is amazing to think that at this time last year, I was in Taos with just a month left to my residency. At that time my book was only a hope and a dream – now it is a reality, as is this website. Although I initially intended to write something more informative for this first blog post, my tendency to muse got the better of me.
But then I realized getting lost in thought and reflection while I work is actually part of my process. My feelings about what is going on in the world and in my life are expressed in the clay. These days, the passage of time is on my mind... what happens in an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year. I think about how long it took to produce this book, the months of editing and writing here at home and the months in Taos creating the pieces and images.
After all this time working on the book I have finally found the time to start a new sculpture. It feels good to have my hands back in clay. The five pounds of Taos porcelain sitting on my banding wheel is a work in progress. As this piece begins to take shape, thoughts about where I have been and where I am headed run through my mind. I like where I am going with this piece...will post a picture when I get there!