Although my decades-long body of work is smoke fired, I have long-wanted to preserve the unique luminosity awakened by sunlight in my bisqued sculptures. This enlightened sensibility paved the way for my exhibit “Light from a Window” at the St. Louis Artists’ Guild (July 21, 2023 thru August 26, 2023.)
Light and windows are deeply intertwined with my work as a ceramicist and photographer. My porcelain hand-built sculptures blend an organic and contemporary style that takes shape using a traditional pinching technique. Each sculpture is a personal journey, paralleling events in my life at the time of making, reflected by their titles.
I use photography to capture the synergy of sunlight and shadow on my works, creating sculptural portraits that reveal the inner beauty of the pieces through light and moment. The effect of sunlight on the bone-white sculptures-- whether unfired or bisqued-- brings a radiance to the imagery that transforms color photography to an ethereal black-and-white realm.
The exhibit revels in the bisqued finish that embraces shadows and radiance when exposed to sunlight. The porous quality from the bisque reflects a luminosity that is only possible without interference from color. When sunlight streams through a window and sets the piece aglow it is ethereal, as though revealing the soul of the sculpture. That is the beauty of bisque.
Before adopting this more raw approach to my imagery, I typically photographed my pieces after smoke firing, rather than before. My recent photographic style was inspired from an artist residency in Taos, New Mexico while living in a 100-year-old adobe casita. As sunlight streamed into a kiva fireplace that I was using for a photo studio, a new way of seeing was set in motion.
Taos redefined my sense of what makes a finished work and a collection of clayscape imagery created during the residency was later turned into a book, The Light in the Kiva. The window light from my own century-old farmhouse inspired this newest imagery presented at the St. Louis Artists’ Guild.
The four smoke fired sculptures in the exhibit and their accompanying photographs (taken before smoke firing) were created in Taos and featured in The Light in the Kiva. The other 16 bisqued sculptures and their accompanying sculptural portraits were created in St. Louis.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
The instant gratification that Facebook brings to artists is irrefutable – what artist could pass up a 24/7 audience where “thumbs up” and “hearts” are instantaneous after sharing one’s work? Although at times I wax poetic about life before the internet, the outreach of the virtual world is irresistible.
While the 200 views I received on a recent post is a blip on the screen compared to ones that go viral, getting noticed is a start. And yes, I check the number of views and engagements (for days and days and days…) and hope they go up.
Reasons to Share
My reasons for sharing are twofold – to put my work out there and hope it clicks with someone as well as for my own record of what I’m doing and what I’ve accomplished. Most recently I made three posts in a similar number of weeks. I loved how my newest bisqued piece “Tipping Point” was “resculpted” each time I photographed it in the sunlight and wanted to share the imagery. Below are the images from these posts:
Posting is definitely habit-forming – once the views, engagements and likes come to a standstill, then it’s time to do it again. However, finding a balance is important. That’s the art of posting.
There is a method to this madness – along with the “likes” comes the underlying hope of success. Unfortunately, there’s no Facebook emoji for "success."
What an Artist Needs
For most artists, being successful means making a living through selling their art. In her 1929 extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf echoed a similar sentiment, stating that in order for a woman to create, she needs to be financially independent and have "a room of one’s own." It is something that we artists all dream of and strive for.
The creative spirit definitely has a mind of its own. American Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton once said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” I am truly enamored with this latest piece "Tipping Point" and have taken hundreds of pictures. I am most successfully lost.
There were so many other pieces and photographs from my three-month artist residency I wished could have been included in my book, The Light in the Kiva, that I decided to create Kiva Memories to begin bringing some of these works to light.
Going through the hundreds of pictures I took of this red mica piece “Wave Unexpected” and reliving the moments of seeing it all for the first time still fills me with excitement. I remember crawling around on the floor of my casita trying to find every angle possible as the light and shadow reshaped” the piece. Photographing my ceramic pieces held me spellbound for hours.
It was during my first week living in Taos that I noticed the light in the kiva fireplace, and from that moment on, my world revolved around the afternoon sun. This small town, nestled in the high desert of Northern New Mexico at almost 7,000 feet, has the most gorgeous skies. Every day I would wait for the first rays of light to stream through my window then slowly move from the wall into the kiva. I made sure to have my camera fully charged and ready, because for the next several hours I’d be taking pictures until the light left.
I felt so fortunate to have been assigned the casita that became my home for the next three months. While some of the other ten artist casitas had kiva fireplaces, mine was the oldest -- some 100 years old -- and the only one oriented for the light to stream in through the window then into the fireplace at the right time of day. This perfect alignment made it feel like my own personal Stonehenge.
The way the sun “resculpted” the pieces to reveal these surreal clayscapes was exhilarating. The time I spent in Taos immersed in my art, dramatically influenced my style. This selection of six images of “Wave Unexpected,” only skims the surface of the vast amount of images I took, but I do hope it conveys some of the extraordinary moments of when light meets clay.
Speaking Out with Art
As last summer’s wave of police violence escalated against people of color, the call for action intensified across the nation with Black Lives Matter. The names Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd haunted me and so I turned to my art to decry this racial injustice. The process of sculpting with clay was cathartic – it was my outlet for expressing outrage.
As an arm and clenched fist took shape, ways of sharing this art swirled in my head. After waiting two months for the sculpture to dry, my dreams of sharing this piece were shattered when it exploded in the kiln. There were just two parts left intact, a section of forearm and a fist -- everything in between was in unrecognizable fragments. Rebuilding the sculpture looked hopeless, but a painstakingly long process ensued sorting, fitting and gluing.
Stoking the Fire
My original plan was to smokefire the piece, which would give it a brown and black skin, but there was a chance the flame from the fire would melt the glue. If it fell apart this time it would be irreparable, but only a smokefire could achieve the desired effect. Keeping the flames small and temperature low helped reduce the risk. Stoking the fire till it burned down gave me hope.
After the piece was cooled and removed from the metal bin, it was a great relief to see the glue held and the sculpture’s porcelain white “skin” had darkened just as I had envisioned. Photographing the smokefired sculpture using natural light and shadow allowed me to emphasize the atmosphere and texture of the work. It was an effective process that reimagined the art in a new dimension.
Rising from the Ashes
The images of the resurrected piece with its scars and cracks, created a more powerful message than it ever did whole. It was ironic that what destroyed the piece is also what made it stronger, reminding me of the fiery reckoning being experienced by our justice system.
My dream of speaking out through my art came to fruition in the names of two virtual exhibits: Art Saint Louis’ exhibit Hope and Art Against Racism’s exhibit Memorial.Monument.Movement. You can view the art at the two links below.
"Clenched Courage" in Hope (Art Saint Louis Virtual Exhibit)
(Click on image to view post.)
"Rising from the Ashes" in Memorial.Monument.Movement (Art Against Racism)
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!