Monday, July 21, 2014

new work - june 2014 firing

Lovely firing... almost all oak and mixed hardwoods.  Paid special attention to maintaining a breathing quality of back pressure when stoking during soak.  Even cones in every pack: cone 11 flat and 12 bending.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wood-fired potter's vortex

I'm spending way more time as a lumber jack these days than a potter. My obsession with raw materials and wood has led me to summon mass quantities of trees and clay from the universe. Now it's up to me to do something with it. Be careful what you ask for...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

ideas and stories of tradition: are they worth it and how do we escape them?

In my college clay program we were given a lot of anecdotes and lessons about Asian ceramic traditions.  Some of them, perhaps a lot of them, bordered on legend: the origin of copper red glazes, the strictness of Japanese apprenticeships, clay being dug in pottery villages for use two generations in the future, etc.  These stories loomed large in my psyche and not only set the bar for performance and discipline very high, but also served to discredit a lot of my successes.  I felt as though my own innovations, concepts, and ultimately my pots didn't live up to the myths of the master potter gods that existed centuries ago in an austere heaven of tatami mat tea rooms and austere transcendence.  Now once again, a decade later, I'm grappling with ideas of tradition, acceptance, and artistic validation.

These stories are not true and do not represent true tradition, but they are persistent and have lasting effects that are possibly more damaging than inspiring.  I think they are like religious myths that lead whole populations to fail to recognize their own spiritual capabilities and to imagine that spiritual drama is something that happens in far off places thousands of years in the past.  To mythologize may be chalked up to be a tendency of human nature, but I believe that the quicker we can rid ourselves of these illusions about our past the sooner we may lift ourselves out of creative and spiritual stagnation.  

Besides the far off myths of Asian tradition that were passed down through the academic setting in college,  I come from a town with a rich but somewhat forgotten ceramic history.  My great-great grandfather was, in fact, a jug-maker here on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in the late 1800's.  The beaches north of Fairhope and the local museums are full of old pots, kiln sites, and shards of a time not so long ago when a potter had a place in the community that did not have to be imagined or justified by an artist's will.  Today, a potters role in the community is not so clear cut.  We can buy cheap tableware, storage containers, and even decorative ceramics almost everywhere, so what does that leave for the potter to provide? For me,  the biggest thing a potter provides isn't the pots at all.  The biggest thing a potter can provide is a way to get back in touch with one's connection to the earth and to a working community.  This is done for me through long wood-firings at my kiln.  From my perspective, the work done through the firing process is the validation for the final products, which can be seen as wasteful ornaments in many ways.  However, the pot is persistent, stays around for a few million years, and definitely commands our attention and shapes our perception of tradition. 

I'll probably be sorting all this stuff out for the rest of my life.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

life with an anagama is hard to figure out

 I'm in my mid-thirties.  I had the dream of building an anagama kiln, and after a decade of ups and downs, I have now constructed and fired the beast four times.  I have a couple of shows on the horizon, I've received a lot of community support locally and abroad,  and yet, I am barely making any money from the enterprise.  At the outset of the project and throughout my education as a ceramic artist in college there was never any talk of making a living outside of academia (or even making a living in general). In the world of my small liberal arts school and supportive and intellectual parents, knowledge and education were supreme and I undertook this kiln project to do things that had little to do with the making of the dollar.  I intended to reconnect people with nature through primitive technology, I wanted my work to be used in the homes and lives of people in my community, and I wanted to feel the fulfillment of participating in a tangible and powerful natural  process.  I have accomplished these things and they have incredible value.  But I now find myself needing to adapt to make this enterprise a sustainable economic reality.  I ask very often, "What did I get myself into?"  I see the value in the whole process, I have my mind in every molecule inside my kiln and in each piece of split wood, but at the end of the day I'm left with bunch of brown pots to sell.

How do people make a living and maintain the kind of high standards of integrity that inspire one to undertake being a wood-fire clay worker in the first place?  One immediate answer is: They don't.  There is almost no one that I know that makes a living exclusively from making wood-fired ceramic work without some serious outside support or other income.  I'm sure there are plenty of people that are making wood-fire work and have done it with out the kinds of support that I have had and many others have as well.  One only has to go to a large ceramic conference to see that the majority of academically trained ceramic artists do not have easy opportunities to set up studios, make work, and make a living.  Most ceramic artists, and especially young ceramic artists, are nomadic and shuffle around from residency, to craft school, to post-grad program.  They are all hustling around the world to find facilities to support their work.  Truly, wood-fire pottery (or pottery in general) isn't a money making endeavor and one normally gets into it for reasons other than making a living.  So how does one go on to pay the bills and support a family doing this labor of love?

Lots of ideas come to mind on how to make a living as a ceramic artist, and perhaps I'm really just on a rant of self-doubt, fearful of the future, and ashamed of my naivety in the past.  I'm not sure if I'd be happier doing anything else either.  Maybe I'm just baffled and caught off guard too late in life on the realities of what is valued in our society.  Even among ceramic artists, I hear people claim not to like wood-fire ceramics on aesthetic merit, and my inner zealot becomes enraged at their lack of ideals.  I became involved with wood-fired kilns because wood-firing is the antithesis of the modern technological disconnect in our culture of manufacturing and consuming. Wood-firing is a powerful technological reconnect that quickly changes one's perspective on how humankind has gained ground in this world.  The aesthetic merit of wood-fired is miles more than skin deep.  It's beautiful because it has radical integrity and tells the story of that integrity for those with the slightest inquiry into its process.


I am really baffled by how little people know about the ceramic process.  As modern Americans, many of us know so very little about how things in our life have come to be, and we don't seem to know what to do with the information once we are presented with it either.  Most people are impressed with the wood-fire process once it is explained or especially if they witness or participate in it.  But I often wonder if they see the anagama process in the context of their own lives as consumers and within the context of the marketing of skin deep beauty.  


Thursday, December 5, 2013

thoughts on healing through anagama process and pottery

During the long years spent in the construction of my anagama kiln and  studio I asked myself if the path of a wood-firing studio potter is the best way that I can contribute to the spiritual progress of humanity.  During these years I invested myself heavily in bodywork and yoga, and became very aware of how direct contact through touch and movement helps people deeply.  I questioned whether the anagama process possesses enough direct contact to heal people? Are there too many interfering influences to assure that I am touching people with a healing purity?  etc.  Now that my kiln is up and running and I've had a couple of years of firings I see a lot of the answers to my existential questions about healing humanity manifesting throughout the process.

It's really easy to see how the firing process brings people together around a powerfully focused natural force.  Anagamas are magnetic and half the people on my firing crew have no other ties to the clay community than their dedication to firing.  People want to be a part of the firing process in so many ways, and they themselves are transformed along with the pottery.  These social observations are spiritually worthwhile, easy to see, and keep me motivated.  However, I've had a tougher time figuring out what to do about the pots themselves: the product of this process.  

I was imprinted with the  "Process not product" mantra by my professor in the very first week of Clay 101 and that creed easily led me down the path of anagama work.   Now, over ten years later and just embarking on a ceramic career, selling the product is a necessity.  How does the manufactured product of the anagama process guide people on a spiritual path, and how can anagama pottery justify itself in a world of mass-produced commodities?  I believe anagama clay works stand apart because they tell their story plainly and have little to hide.  Most manufactured products are designed and marketed in ways that obscure their origins and making processes.  Most products have unsettling stories to tell and we've become accustomed to turning a blind eye to the backgrounds of the objects that surround us.  

In anagama work one can easily see the original materials and process of its making, and the work invites the user to ask more questions: questions about geology, ecology, and about the people in one's community who form and fire these ceramic works.  Hopefully this will lead the owners of these works to ask more questions about the interconnectedness of their lives with the world around them and will perhaps lead them to make more discerning decisions as they appreciate all that goes into creating beauty in our world.    

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Clay dictates form

The other night my girlfriend and I were talking about pottery.   She was remarking that some of the forms that I am making in my current work cycle are different/new, and that she liked them.  My response to her compliment was to open up a conversation about the characteristic of the clay itself: I am using a different clay body made from different deposits and it is changing and influencing the new forms about which she was speaking.  It took her off guard when I immediately began talking about particle sizes, moisture content, and flocculants instead of historical references and ideas about form and proportion.  Ideas about form, proportion, and function are always flowing through my mind.  However, it is the particular characteristics of each clay deposit and each clay body that truly dictate which forms are manifested on the wheel.   Realizing this takes some of the conceptual pressure off, I guess.  Makes me realize that concepts in art are only as good as the process and materials will allow.  Anyway, all of this has been written about a thousand times before.  I just want to make sure I get it down on the page in my own short words.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thoughts on career and anagama kilns

How do I make a career out of this kiln? A decade has passed since clearing the first tree to make room for my large studio and kiln shed building, and I have pulled together three successful community firing events this past year and a half.  As one may guess, I am no where near sustaining myself with the volume or quality of work coming from my anagama.  Thoughts of financial windfalls and mega-grants pass through my mind as I ponder what financial success as a wood-fire artist looks like.  The enormous effort of both building the facilities and preparing for firings, my intermittent work-cycles, and a seemingly lack of demand for wood-fired pottery send me wondering why I ever invested an expensive college education in this erudite and extremely laborious pursuit.  

In so many ways, I am the product of an extended childhood that is unknown to many, but that is more and more common in my generation.  When I began my obsession with ceramics during my freshman year of college, the thought of financial responsibility was no more than a mysterious whisper.  I had always shaped my life around interests that engaged my mind, body, and spirit and expected the world to meet me with appreciation and support - and largely it did.  Upon graduation I moved back into an 1880's farmhouse on my family's land and began the kiln project that has anchored me during this past third of my life.  All I could think of during this long period of pay-as-you-go construction was the completion of the project and the firing of the kiln - not what comes afterward.  The how-do-I-make-an-anagama-my-job mantra just circles in my head.

Visiting other wood-fire artists and especially searching the web, I see people who seem to have successful kilns, craft centers, and pottery careers and I wonder what their recipe is.  Many of them are in academics, which is the only career path that was ever reinforced or recommended during my college education.  I was always attracted to teaching and see myself as much a teacher as a studio artist, and having this kiln allows and requires me to flex my educational skills constantly.  However, I built this huge kiln and a studio space during the period when most people were in graduate school.  Now I am looking around for direction - wondering what a studio artist career with an anagama on the gulf coast can really look like.