Blog: As the Wheel Turns

Fire in the Head: My Irish Adventure Pt. 1

Not the fire in the head associated with Irish whisky, although that is available if you imbibe and are not careful, I am talking about inspiration stoked by the culture, landscape, history and arts of a fascinating people. I am an unabashed devotee of the music and writers of Ireland: Turlough O'Carolan, The Chieftains, Silly Wizard, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, James Joyce, and Seamus Heaney to name a few. Years ago I read The Tain, an Irish epic tale, Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit by Tom Cowan and Women in Celtic Myth by Moyra Caldecott. Fascinated with the mythology presented in these stories, I vowed to visit Ireland one day. That day came in the form of a workshop with the Potters Council and the Kinsale Pottery School owned and operated by Adrian Wistreich. 

Lo and behold our first workshop began with the well known and loved porcelain artist Sara Roberts who handed out a copy of the poem, "The Song of Wandering Aengus," by W.B. Yeats. My favorite Yeats poem! We were to use this poem as a reference point for our first project. The work of Sara Roberts is rooted in her love of the Irish landscape which was confirmed by a visit to her studio to glaze the project we began at the Kinsale Pottery School. Once completed Sara's dogs took us on a country walk where we were treated to the most breathtaking panoramic views of the Irish landscape and sea.  The path was dotted with delightful flora and fauna, well crafted stone walls and clear blue skies, which could turn grey and rainy at any given moment. 

There is so much to say about this experience that I am sure it will take a lifetime to absorb; hence, I will write about it in installments.  After all it is these moments in life, large and small that ignite the Fire in the Head that guides us through our journey.

Happy creating and ask yourself, what ignites that fire for you!

Sara in her studio with one of her pieces.

Sara in her studio with one of her pieces.

An Irish bee in Sara's studio

An Irish bee in Sara's studio

Glazing in Sara's studio.

Glazing in Sara's studio.

Sara's dogs take us for a walk.

Sara's dogs take us for a walk.

Gateway.

Gateway.

The sea! End of the trail, we arrive .

The sea! End of the trail, we arrive .

Flora

Flora


Fifty Shades of Terra Sigillata.....or Three

In my early years of playing with clay, terra sigillata was my go to choice for surface decoration. Terra sigillata, "earth seal" is associated with Greco-Roman pottery surface finishes. It's earthy, silky, wax-like finish dazzled me. It is especially wonderful for but not limited to raku firings.  I was taught in art school that a ball mill was essential to a good terra sigillata mixture. Now as a small studio potter, I was not about to invest in a ball mill (a thousand dollars more or less) so I used the old fashioned method of water, clay, sodium silicate shaken together in a glass or plastic bottle, left to decant for 24 hours while the heavy clay settled to the bottom, the sigillata inhabits the middle space and the water rises to the surface.

I was joyfully surprised during my visit to La Meridiana with the Potters Council to find out that this is the traditional way of making terra sigillata in Italy.  I asked founder and director of La Meridiana Pietro Maddelena about this and he said the recipe used with a ball mill is a slip and would not be considered (at least in Italy) terra sigillata. Great news!

For anyone interested in exploring this technique I would suggest a video made by our fearless leader (during our time at LM), Marcia Selsor, titled "Raku Firing, Expanding the Potential of the Raku Kiln." This link will take you to a quick youtube demo of the process.....uber simple, so I'll skip the recipe and explanation here! I own this video and I highly recommend this dvd for the libraries of ceramic artists and educators wishing to expand their knowledge or that of their students.  If you are a ceramic artists living in New Mexico and are convinced that ball milled sigillata is the way to go, Coyote Clay and Craft School or New Mexico Clay will happily mix up a batch for you.

Back to fifty shades: The terra sigillata palette is not limited to white or red. A variety of colors can be had with the simple addition of  mason stains or other oxides. A half of teaspoon to one teaspoon added to the mixture should suffice.  I love to use a peacock green mason stain that yields a turquoise blue color, (sometimes a black mason stain), and crocus martis iron oxide for a deep red. These colors remind me of the New Mexico sky and New Mexico red earth. I do not work exclusively with terra sigillata, however, every once in a while the desire comes over me to create a sculptural vessel inspired by Greek vases and amphoras. I never know what I am going to do with it. I have included a photo of one of my first attempts of an amphora using terra sigillata and a more recent vessel. For more information on terra sigillata, google it! You will find more information and recipes than the time you will have to try everything.  As always, happy creating!

One of my first terra sigillata projects, twenty years ago, ""See" of Life," amphora

One of my first terra sigillata projects, twenty years ago, ""See" of Life," amphora

Back view, ""See" of Life," amphora

Back view, ""See" of Life," amphora

Spiral Elixir, front view

Spiral Elixir, front view

Spiral Elixir, back view

Spiral Elixir, back view

O'Keeffe and New Mexico, blah blah blah, maybe...

So recently I had the opportunity to visit Georgia O'Keeffe's home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It has been a long time in coming! You see for a Native New Mexican there can be deep resentment over her presence here due to the fact that New Mexico did not seem to exist on the map until her arrival and subsequent kinship with the state. And if I had a dime for every person who told me they moved to New Mexico or visited Abiquiui and O'Keeffe's home because, "I want to paint like O'Keeffe," let's just say that I would have a lot of dimes!

It was while taking an American Art History class in undergrad that I unexpectedly came to appreciate O'Keeffe. The fact that she dabbled in clay and loved it was a plus! Many of these vessels are in fact scattered throughout her home. Although I must suggest that the potential pilgrim should take the "Behind the Scenes" tour ($60.00) on Friday evenings if at all possible. This tour provides access to O'Keeffe's workroom storage, the famous room behind the black door, and O'Keeffe's fallout shelter and will allow you to see her private quarters and her bedroom, which are roped off for the standard ($30.00) tour . 

Art History classes are about papers; researching a particular period presumably acquaints one with the socio-economic, spiritual, and political milieu of the era that produced the artist and subsequent art. I was actually interested in one of O'Keeffe's mentors, Arthur Wesley Dow and his book "Composition" as a research project. I also wanted to write about a work I could see in the flesh and not in a book. As fate would have it the University of New Mexico had a watercolor painting of O'Keeffe's, Tent Door at Night. I thought it would be a good exercise to write about the work of an artist I wasn't overly fond of. Shockingly enough I found that O'Keeffe's painting was oddly similar to a woodblock in Dow's book, pg.94 in case you are interested. I later learned from my professor at the time that I was not the first to make this discovery (darn!). 

It was what I later learned through my research about  O'Keeffe's philosophy that made me appreciate her and her work.  She once said that "Sometimes I wish I lived in a tent and every morning I would open the flaps and let the wind blow through and clean everything out." (Paraphrased!) I found this refeshingly simple and at one time or another when life gets particularly hectic this statement becomes incredibly relevant to me and lovers of nature. If your ever in New Mexico, Santa Fe or Abiquiu visit the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and arrange a tour of her home. Tours can also be scheduled online. You won't be disappointed! Matthew Scott Drake was our tour guide and will be presumably during the 2015 season. Matthew was very knowledgable and overall fabulous.

No photos are allowed of O'Keeffe's home, inside or out so I've included photos from our hike through Plaza Blanca, The White Place that O'Keeffe loved to paint and hike and one of Abiquiu Lake. The area itself which we have visited numerous times is gorgeous, fun to hike and yes it is conducive to creativity, so bring your camera, watercolors, pastels if you so desire or simply enjoy and bask in the sunshine!

Festina Lente!

Experiences take a lifetime to absorb whether or not we realize it at the moment. My trip to Italy in 2013 with the Potter's Council was one such event.  As artists or makers of things, as I like to call people who create, we are consciously or unconsciously hunter-gatherers, searching for meaning and ideas which will then be translated into our work.  Ironically the influence is not always visual.  Sounds, sensations and sometimes a word or phrase can set off a whole host of inspirations. Festina Lente was one such phrase that had an impact on my thinking.

As our guide led us through the streets of Florence we came to an obelisk in front of Santa Maria Novella church surrounded by four turtles at the center of the base. According to our guide, Cosimo I 'de Medici borrowed the phrase Festina Lente from the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus, as his family motto. Festina Lente translates as Make Haste Slowly. I love this phrase and it became embedded in my memory.

As artists, whatever our medium happens to be, there is a great deal of time spent in set up and clean up. The frustration for me in this process is the desire to spend more time creating rather than being weighed down by the more mundane aspects of practice so I often rush through this time and it is in the "haste" that mistakes are made!  Even in the USA we have our own Ben Franklin to remind us that "Haste Makes Waste."  So as I meander through my "day in clay" the Medici motto blazons in my mind reminding me to be thoughtful, thorough and most of all enjoy the process, while carefully avoiding careless mistakes! Until next post, Happy Creating and Make Haste Slowly! For more information, check out The Florentine online and see what they have to say about Festina Lente.

Santa Maria Novella in Florence (Firenze), photo by me.

Santa Maria Novella in Florence (Firenze), photo by me.

Detail of turtles on the obelisk. Photos by me.

Detail of turtles on the obelisk. Photos by me.

Andiamo!

This time last year I was busily preparing for a trip to Italy with the Potter's Council. I diligently practiced my Italian with the help of Italianpod101.com and eagerly checked for the word of the day which popped up on my cell phone and in my e-mail. Hard to believe that almost a year has passed!

My advice to future attendees--or any travelers--is as follows:

1. Pack light. You will thank yourself and me when you are actually in Italy. You're welcome in advance. Walking up and down narrow staircases and getting on and off trains and buses will be easier!  You will be seduced by the many ceramics at the bottegas you visit and the textiles and other treasures you find in open markets, museums and places of business along your path. Not to worry if your bags are still bulging.....you can always ship your booty home or ask Claudia Bruhin of La Meridiana to help you with this task.  When you arrive home, you will have a wonderful package from Italy to look forward to opening.

2. Pack allergy medication if you are prone to allergies and even if you are not. You will encounter blooming beauties especially in the Tuscan countryside. I have not had allergies for years, yet my downfall was riding on the second tier of a hop on hop off bus in Ravenna. We wanted to make the most of our day visit by seeing as much of the city as we could, including the water and thought this would be the best way.  It was and gave us the opportunity to hop off, at the places we decided to visit. It was beautiful, fantastic, wonderful at the moment to ride atop the second story bus and take in the city, the water, the rolling hills and countryside outside of the city......until the evening when I began sneezing uncontrollably. Others had the same problem and we shared allergy medications (over the counter medications!)! 

3. Be prepared for puntura di insetto or better known as mosquito/bug bites. We all shared mosquito ointment, too.  In Certaldo, our hostess Chiara, told us to keep the windows closed at night because the mountain mosquitoes were large and their bites were unpleasant. This is true! Not to worry, you will be so caught up in the wonder of all you are doing and seeing you will hardly notice the itching and swelling! If you do forget the ointment, stop by the nearest Farmacia where you will find a cure!

4. Study some Italian! Although not necessary, it is so much fun to be able to say something to the locals. They appreciate the effort although, Giovanna, the owner of the Italian cooking school in Certaldo Alto, asked me to please speak in English!!! I was trying to purchase her cookbook at the end of the day on the last day of our visit and all my carefully practiced words were no where to be found! I did have a lovely conversation with an elderly woman in Faenze who pointed out all the streets I needed to visit and what to look for.  She saw me photographing doorways, mosaics on the sides of the walls and windows, etc. and told me about avenues I should check out. These moments are very satisfying. In some cases you will want to practice your Italian as you ask for directions and Italians will want to practice their English.  Very fun! And... you can say things like, Ciao tutti! Hi everyone! or Piacere, pleased to meet you; Va bene, It's all good; Allora, Oh well then; Brava, for a job well done...you get the picture.

5. Be prepared to enjoy yourself thoroughly! Marcia and Carolyn are the perfect guides and both possess the patience of Job.  Marcia Selsor, Professor Emerita of Montana State University-Billings, has done numerous residencies all over the globe and is the quintessential teacher.  Carolyn Stockdale Dorr, "El Jefe," of Potter's Council, is a no nonsense, salt of the earth, good person, and very organized. My middle daughter, Maria accompanied me as a non-potter which made the trip extra special. So, wether you are traveling alone or with a friend/spouse/adult child, wonders await you!  If you get a chance read La Bella Lingua, My Love Affair With Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales because it is informative, funny and divertente! 

I am excited for you! Non vedo l'ora ( I can hardly wait)!  You will see mind blowing art, and..... you get to play with clay!!!!! What could be better? Until my next post, Ciao tutti!

My daughter Maria and myself in Ravenna, studying mosaics.

My daughter Maria and myself in Ravenna, studying mosaics.

Getting Down and Dirty with Clay

After years and years of performing a ritual inner monologue on musings about clay and life in general, I have finally decided to begin writing a blog in the hope of creating a dialogue with other like-minded people, who may not necessarily be in the business of clay or art at all. Clay is one of those mediums you either love or hate. Some people, believe it or not, do not like to get their hands (or clothes) too dirty. For these people, clay is a no go zone, you will get dirty, so will your clothes and other things around you. Constant cleaning is the name of the game. Working with clay is like working in the garden. No matter how hard you try to be neat and clean, that dirt ends up everywhere-on your face, shoes, apron, shirt, legs, pants and even in your hair.  At the end of the day the happiness that is felt is deeply satisfying.

It is the joy of feeling like a child again that brings a person back to the process time and time again, be it clay or gardening. In spite of the dreaded messiness of clay, hundreds of thousands of people choose to pursue the practice of clay art either as a profession or hobby. When touching the clay, almost all clay aficionados will say that there is a deep connection they feel with the earth and all clay artists both ancient and contemporary.

Getting down and dirty with clay on a regular basis, promotes physical and emotional well-being and in some cases, livelihood. There are clay studios everywhere that enable the individual to do just that. This entry is an introduction of things to come: more clay talk, wonderings about the creative process and  oh yes, a recent journey I went on with the Potter's Council to Tuscany and La Meridiana International Ceramic School . So stay tuned for more clay talk and walk through Ceramics in Tuscany.  Ciao Tutti!