Friday, April 24, 2009

Exciting Happenings...

I am leaving on Sunday for a week at Montpelier, James Madison's historic home located in Orange, Va. I will be taking part in their Archaeological program! I am so excited about this opportunity and can't wait to learn more and share it here.

We will be excavating the North Kitchen site (hopefully full chock full of pottery!) which was the food prep site for the Madison's retirement years (1817-1844). They think this building was constructed in 1808. Working along side 8 archaeologists, we will try to discover more about the structure itself, the hearth, and design of the area. I'll get to participate in the digs, the lab work, and different histories and lectures through out the week. Its a very small program, I think there are only 2 or 3 others going, so I will be very involved in the whole process.

Art History is one of my favorite subjects, one that I considered going back to school for, and I love the link between the past and present. I think the art of archaeology is very similar to the art of pottery. There are technical details, requiring a very organized approach, mixed with a physical sensitivity to earthy materials. Archaeology and pottery (or just art in general!) are like reading pop up books of history ... and they fill in as you learn more. They may have different goals in the extension of the study but both want to assimilate and use that tradition and history in their understanding of the present. I am so visual and tactile in the way I learn and I think this will hone in on both that and pottery's inexorable ties to its histories and traditions. I'm hoping to learn more about how to learn about the past, to learn more about geology (soil layers and clay), how they identify a particular artifact's significance and date, and more about the history of the site.

I may even come back with some clay from the area to test and use myself! Wouldn't those be wonderfully Virginian pots?!

I think I'll be able to post from Montpelier. If not, I will be back in a week!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where do I come from?

A few posts back I mentioned that I come from a line of artists on both sides. I'd like to share some of the artwork by the people nearest and dearest to me. I think I'll start with just a picture here and there and eventually do a full post on each person.

This is a wonderful print by my Grandma, Gretchen Quie... my mother's mother. This was from the farm that she and my Grandpa owned and operated. Her talent and scope of mediums is just mind boggling. I can't get enough of her sketches, from high school on up! My dream is to write a book about her some day. I have a host of interviews that I've done with her (or I had someone do with her) and would love to type some of those questions and answers out and share them.

She is also the grandmother that was a potter. I will try to get a hold of some pictures of her pots to share too. She gave me all of her pottery tools in her old tool box. I love to pick up a rib or ruler and see "Gretchen Quie" written in her hand on the side, knowing that she did the same action with the same tool years ago.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Double Take

An interesting thing happened today. Something that would have frustrated me a few weeks ago but thanks to recent lessons and Bernard Leach's book, I found satisfying.

Most days I am down in the studio along side Jennie, doing various tasks, asking questions, watching, or cleaning. She works away, not really paying attention to what I am doing but I do see her peeking over to check on the status of things. When she needs to, most of the time because she senses my frustration, she speaks up and corrects or encourages me. I work on my own but with the source right with me.

Today, I was on my own. At breakfast she went over the shapes she wanted me to make, the amount of clay, the measurements, left me a list and some drawings and was gone. I felt fairly confident, although in the back of my mind I felt a numbing sensation: I had a few hours alone, after which she would arrive and find me either glowing among maybe two or three close to perfect shapes or covered in clay from wiping the tears of frustration from my face and nothing to show for my hours of labor.

I pulled my apron over my head and wrapped it once around, tying it in the front. I warmed up by trimming a few of my own bowls and uncovering some things. Then I wedged reclaim and cut, weighed, and balled about fourteen 1.5lb balls of clay. By weighing the clay, I know my bowls will be the same size... essentially. My assignment? Large soup bowls, low and wide, with a large, flat rim. The dimensions for the bowls seemed enormous to me! But thankfully Jennie mentioned that the size, as you throw them, can seem comical (giants eat soup?!) but they shrink so you have to be sure to compensate.

I wrapped up the wet balls of clay and took out my sketchbook. As I glanced from Jennie's drawing and dimensions to my blank page, I began to sketch out the shape, the rim, the profile, and the process. Thinking through, from ball to bowl. In sketching it I wasn't trying to produce a drawing, I was trying to walk myself through what I was about to do in clay... visualize. I thought about the base shape, the inside curve, which rib I would use, the shape I needed to create before laying out the rim (a delicate procedure that can flop easily if done too soon), and the rim's width.

With this done, I sat down to throw. The first few would be smashed, no doubt, because there is very little likelihood that an unseasoned potter such as myself could sit down and get all this right on the first try. I knew I should throw a few, just trying to master the shape, before measuring. I have to say, the visualizing really helped! I was pretty happy with my first two attempts and held the ruler up to them. They were way off the mark. I don't mean a centimeter or two, I mean inches. Inches?! I couldn't believe it. I felt the thickness of the bowls and frowned, they didn't have too much excess clay. I checked the dimensions again and looked at the bowls. This was going to be harder than I thought. I had to get at least two more inches in height and an inch or more in width out of that 1.5lb ball of clay. I felt a challenge coming on.

So, I threw another bowl. Again, the shape fit the profile! This time I had thrown it even thinner, brought it out wider, and saw that it was visibly much larger. I took the ruler out again. Again, at least a whole inch off! I squished the first two bowls and threw another. Thinning, stretching, pushing the limits, trying new strategies... Nothing. Inches away from what it was supposed to be. I squished a few more (can't keep ones that don't fit!), always leaving at least one good one for a 3D visual of the shape. I finally threw one tall, thin bowl just to see if that amount of clay could even get as high as I needed it to. NOPE. So, I'm not just a junk potter, I thought! Something must be off! I need more clay. Now, this may seem obvious to you at this moment but to me it was a revelation.

Sure enough, Jennie got home and realized that she had given the wrong weight of clay for those bowls. She apologized profusely and said that she wished I had just called or something. I had to re-weigh and ball the clay at 2lbs. each and squish the rest of the bowls.

But, you know? I wasn't frustrated. Not in the least. I had thrown some darn good bowls from that challenge. Yes, they were all smashed now but the product isn't the point. I figured out on my own that I needed more clay. I pushed the clay for that shape farther than I thought I could. I learned more about that shape, dealing with it at it's weakest (being so thin), and could feel where it would give and where it wouldn't. With my correct 2lb balls, I easily turned out a board of those bowls. That was an incredibly clear view of how mistakes can make you stronger. You don't always get a view like that... and man, I loved it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Readings

Here are some of the pottery books I am reading right now:

The Potter's Challenge
by Bernard Leach
(click book to read more about Bernard Leach)

Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose
by Robin Hopper
(click book to learn more about Robin Hopper)

The Craft and Art of Clay
by Susan Peterson
(click book to learn more about Susan Peterson)

I am also hoping to jump into:

Fearless Creating
by Eric Maisel

Art and Fear
by David Bayles and Ted Orland
This book was recommended by my fearless mentor (and former master!! ha!), Mel Jacobson. His work ethic and talent are incredibly inspiring and impressive. I will do a post on him when I feel a little more worthy... I miss you, Mel!

Hopefully, as I read, I can incorporate some of what I am learning into my posts and/or post specifically on interesting tid bits in the books.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Are you my mother?

There is definitely something to working with your mother. Last week we sat down to make a to do list. I knew I wouldn't be throwing much to begin with and was not proven wrong. She looked over the list and then looked up at me and said, "now, about you throwing..." I smiled approvingly at her and waited to hear what she had to say. "You, in a little while, will begin with the smaller standard forms, like my bowls and such. Now, Sarah, there are some forms that frustrate you," and with this she looked at me knowingly while I looked back sheepishly, "and so we'll have to work on those before you can produce any." She knows me so well.... Ah the humility required to learn!

As I sit in the attic typing in front of my tiny window, I can see the sky, the tops of trees, the tops of roofs... I'm looking down on the world. There is a sort of satisfaction that comes with being able to see from above. As if you have some privileged view, being able to see so much. Well, today it's quite appropriate that our humble studio is in the basement, for me at least. Three flights down and a few degrees colder lies my workspace.

There is a stink bug crawling on one of the panes of glass in front of me and I watch as he delicately feels his way across the smooth surface. He tentatively touches in front of and beside himself and occasionally falls but continues to cautiously pick his way. I wonder, can he see or does he just feel his way? Like my journey in art, I definitely can't see. I am tentatively picking my across what seems like a very slippery surface too, feeling my way, falling, but trying to stick to it. Sometimes I'm discouraged, sometimes I'm invigorated. I think today was a discouraging day.

And, of course, being so much more than my "master potter", my mother could see it. She talked to me about drudgery and failure. It is within those things that we grow, she said. She has given me reading to do, reading that will supplement that drudgery and failure with a sense of knowledge beyond myself. Knowledge that will help me to understand more fully now what that drudgery and failure means, to see its purpose, to see those who have moved passed certain hardships and what they have learned. Knowledge that will help me to know the why and the how. Reading can pull you out of bewilderment, out of a slump and turn those same issues into progress. It takes hard work. It takes patience and a great amount of courage.

And so, without further ado, I will go read and type no more ...

(The title of this post refers to a children's story that I grew up with.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Grand Day Out

Yesterday I went down to Washington D.C. to see a very small exhibit called Golden Seams at the Freer Gallery of Art. The Japanese, of course, have an art of repairing ceramics. I admire how the Japanese culture respects art so much that everything can be done to such a degree and with such beauty that it becomes an art...

When a bowl would break in ancient China, there was a long standing tradition to staple the pot back together (see picture). In Japan, they took an ancient tradition of using plant resin/lacquer to fill the seams and gave it a little oomph by adding gold dust or silver dust to the lacquer! The result is a bowl that has beautiful golden streams splintering through the clay body. They took what naturally occurred and enhanced it rather than trying to hide it.

The Freer's exhibit told of rulers who had a bowl or a dish (most likely made by the royal potter or a gift from a distinguished artisan) that was broken by a clumsy servant and was not to be thrown out. They wanted that bowl, not a replacement. Sometimes there were larger chunks missing or pieces that were broken and too small to replace. In those cases, the lacquer was used to fill a larger section of the broken pot. On these pots there were large swatches of the gold, sometimes imprinted with a subtle design of some sort (florals, etc.). Oh, the detail!

Pottery from Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam was shipped to and fro and the other countries picked up on Japan's technique. There were examples of these repairs from all four countries.
The technique became so popular that some people started to break their pots on purpose! Broken but beautiful...

I thought it was a little ironic that this poem (done in Japanese lettering) was on a hanging at the exhibit where the thing that is holding a pot's life together does not vanish at all, but stands out:

Like the dew
That clings for life
On hare's foot fern
So I, too, rely on you,
Though I may vanish --Fujuwara Teika

Any ideas?

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Ali Ghotbi is an artist from Iran. I couldn't find much more info about him but I love some of his work.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


After deciding to embark on this apprenticeship together, my mom and I realized that an overhaul of the studio would be a good idea. I didn't realize as we began the huge task of reorganization how interesting it would be! I was able to think through the entire process and see 30 years of potting from inspiration to finished product.

My mom's studio is in the large, unfinished basement of her house. To the left, you can see my commute to work! The work space is to the right and the kiln is to the left of these stairs.

Since the pottery process has so many steps, I thought I'd give you a simple overview of a pot's journey from beginning to end:

A potter has an idea or sees a shape to emulate. A bowl. A simple, beautiful cereal bowl. The potter draws the shape and envisions the end before starting any clay work (remind me to tell you the story of an apprentice and his "new" shapes).

Then clay is made, either by the potter or a company, and brought back to thestudio. A mass of clay is cut away from the block, wedged (a process to get air bubbles out and align particles. more on that another time), and thrown on the wheel using a variety of tools. Let's pause there. Already, a potter has a pencil, sketchbook, some books, a place to store clay (if not make it!), a wedging surface, a wheel, and throwing tools.

Ok, back to our bowl. So the bowl has been created and is sitting, wet and shining, on the wheel. It is then cut off and placed on a ware board (a board for... ware). After a little while, say an hour or so (depending on the air flow in the studio), the pot is turned over. This is done mostly to even out the drying process but also to ensure a flat rim. After another few hours (or couple days, if covered correctly), the pot stiffens but is not completely dry. This is called leather hard and is the perfect time to trim using a new variety of tools. From here, the bowl dries completely (bone dry) and is fired for the first time. This is called the bisque firing and it readies the pot for glaze.

Pause again. Ware boards, shelves, plastic to cover pots, trimming tools, a kiln... and we haven't even finished. Can you see why this reorganization was such a big job?!

Then the bowl is decorated with any variety of techniques using any variety of glaze materials and must be cleaned and fired again. Following the last few hours in the kiln, firing and cooling, the potter will open the door/lid (better than Christmas) and hopefully find a perfect cereal bowl gleaming and ready for the world.

During the 3 or 4 days that it took to clean and reorganize, I would pick up various objects, books, tools, and drawings and say, "what!?" This lead to stories of where she got a book, what sparked an idea, why there was a book on having a baby in her collection (!), what medieval looking tools are actually used for, and why a certain item had to be kept or put in a certain place in the studio. Every artist has a system for working. And while mine may not be the same as my mother's, glimpsing those 30 years of experience and knowing that I was going to have to work within them was a great forerunner to my humility as an apprentice.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An Apprentice

An apprentice is someone seeking to learn their calling by practical experience from a skilled worker already established in that trade. An apprentice by ancient standards was actually bound, like a slave, to the master. You may recognize this from certain movies; the father and mother "giving" their son away, almost signing him off, to be completely at the mercy of the master. Often, though, an apprenticeship is found within a family. A father would apprentice his sons in the family trade, most likely passed down for generations.

Both master and apprentice alike took this very seriously. Some cultures were more strict than others (and still are!). Read the following few lines from an ancient Hindu text at a pottery in India:

"The apprentice looked at the artisans ... as the ones who will open inner doors so that precise skill begins to come and unfold within them. Therefore, each of the apprentices approached his artisan or executive in a very humble and open way, being careful never to relate to him as a physical person or to seek special favors from him that the others did not receive. The artisans and executives were very careful also that they did not show any favoritism among their apprentices. This allowed each one to qualify himself only by his skills. Each artisan and executive ... distinguished themselves by their skills and abilities to pass them on in a transparent and humble way to others. For there was only one reward, that of excellence and precision in what they did produce..."

When I began work today, I told my "artisan" about the excerpt above. She told me a little more about the tradition in Japan; they don't explain. The apprentice must learn almost primarily by observation. But an apprentice does not just sit and watch. If you imagine an office where you have to start out "in the mail room". You copy papers, get people coffee and lunch, clean the office microwave, answer phones, and regularly ship things via UPS. The CEO rarely even sees you and you don't do anything directly relating to business. At the large potteries, that's the way it works. The apprentices must work their way up, not by time but by proving their skill. They clean the studio, dig clay, process the clay, make and clean tools, wedge the clay, and before electric wheels they actually turned the wheel for the master (I will hopefully get a chance to explain all of these things). An apprentice didn't get to throw (the verb for turning the clay on the wheel) until much later in the process. Towards the end of their apprenticeship, many were required to submit their "masterpiece" to a group of masters. It would be inspected and, hopefully, approved. Once they pass this last test, they would be considered freemen.

Today, there are standards, legislation, and committees regarding apprenticeships. People are no longer indentured. Industry and modern technology drastically changed the apprentice's place in a trade. But the apprentice is still alive and well through all of these changes.

My grandmother was a potter, my mother is a potter, and I am a potter. I love being able to work in our small family tradition! But you know, I didn't really have a choice ... not because I am indentured (!), but because I have art going back many generations on both sides of my family and it is coursing through my veins.

So, at the end of the day today, my mom turned to me and said, "I wonder how its going to be when I stop looking at you and talking to you...", as if we were going to embark on the old style of master and apprentice, "being careful never to relate to [each other] as a physical person." Ha! Thank goodness for a little modernity!