Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Turning Point

An aftereffect bene of artist retreats (like Mudhenge) is a hot hinder. I'm not talking about something found in a centerfold, mind you. I'm talking about a barbecued bootay. A pyrotechnic posterior. Seared seatbones. Glowing hot glutes. In other wordsa fire under one's patootie. Specifically in my case, it's the gumption to finish a longstanding piece that's been weighing on my mind for two and a half years

Yeah. That one. For all this time (I'm ashamed to say), he's been sitting on the shelf halfdone and glaring at me with zombielike eyes. It wasn't because I couldn't glaze him, though, it was because I'd forgotten how I'd glazed him.

Half the game with underglazing is memorizing how many layers of what pigment you put where and how because they work very much like watercolors in that they intensify, darken and change with each successive layer. So if you forget the unique sequential process on a piecebecause, ohsayyou got distracted after having finished one side and then completely forgot about it for weeks afterward—there's a very good chance one side will end up looking disturbingly unlike the other. 

Compounding my predicament, I had used blues, purples and greens in his colors as an experiment rather than the good ol' trusted mixes, so I had nothing to fall back on. As if that wasn't enough, I'd also employed some experimental techniques that I couldn't quite remember how I'd done. I'm also still rather new to the whole underglazing game, having been pulled in the opposite direction by art glaze all this time, and so I still have a rather paltry mental library from which to pull predictions for informed decisions.

It was a pickle. A big one. Extra warty. Not a place to be in ceramics. I had this lingering image of being a rather juicy worm impaled on the end of a rather gruesome hook, dangled over the open maw of Big Al sporting rather alarming teeth. So there sat that clinky Taboo for over two years while I hemmed and hawed whether to ever finish him, full of trepidation and self doubt. He may be only three inches tall, but to me he seemed like an unscalable wall 1,000 feet high.

But the thing about carousin' with talented, inspiring friends is that they stoke those internal fires of fearlessness and gift you with a kind of moxie. You get braver. "Cheeky" becomes your middle name. Then all of a sudden a set of mighty impressive kahunas sprout out of nowhere and you think, as TV's Frank bellows on MST, "I'M THE GOD! I'M THE GOD!"

So as I nursed the bereavement of my muddy buddies after they'd left, I turned to that clinky Taboo and squinted. You. YOU. It's GO–TIME buster! LOOK at my kahunas! BEHOLD. They may be as fictional as yours, but they're still WAAAAAAY bigger! And so with MST's First Spaceship on Venus blaring on my iPhone, and with my new iPad in tow for reference photos, I blindly careened back into that clinky Taboo with freakish abandon, utterly (albeit absurdly) confident that I could pull off this longshot.

And soI flail.

Despite all the factors working against me, however, I knew the one thing in my favor was my palette. In a moment of uncharacteristic foresight, I'd airbrushed some of his basic colors onto it to preserve them for handpainting later. That pigment time capsule not only provided a baseline, but actually nudged memories back to the fore, allowing me to reasonably reconstruct what I'd previously done. I could even input some new handpainting techniques I'd adopted since nearly three years had passed in the interim. So after a couple of loops of "Venus," with a loop or two of MST's Sidehackers for good measure, that clinky Taboo was ready for his final glaze fire in Maury, my small kiln. 

Push kiln to "on" and wait.

The good thing about having no idea what you're doing is that you have no real expectations. Anything good resulting from a creative melange has the potential to become a euphoric triumph while subsequent hiccups often fail to pop that celebratory balloon. So as I pulled that clinky Taboo from his glaze fire, I was tickled beyond belief. It worked! Sweet Sons of Sasquatch! It worked! My deliriuminduced kahunas pulled me through like a boss!


Upon closer inspectionafter the frothy intoxication of jubilation wore offI saw that his pinking had vanished. Utterly. Gone. I guess I didn't blast it on thick enough, and so my inexperience was showing again (pardon me!). But rather than getting deflated, resigning myself to partial success (which to a perfectionist like me actually translates into shrieking, mindcrushing failure), I got pissed. Really pissed. OH NO YOU DINNIT. After all that fretting for all that time, and all that effort to complete this piece, I wasn't going to be trumped by anything like my own incompetence. 

And so back to Mudhenge again. Had I been corralled with just underglazes, this piece would have been stuck that waypinkless, hapless and hopeless. But because (cue in the chorus of angelic trumpets) Karen G. had demonstrated handpainting techniques for overglaze, and since both she and Lynn provided us with some basic materials to get started, I now had options. Now I'd originally planned to use all this to fix an old Spinnaker I'd screwed up at a previous Mudhenge back in '06, but instead that clinky Taboo got shoved to the front of the queue, front and center. Simple, right?

Well, actuallyYES.

Surprisingly, yes. Welcomingly, yes. Ecstatically, yes! To my astonishment, a total newb pinking mistake led me straight to this newly discovered soul mate of glazing media. Handpainting these overglazes came as natural to me as scarfing down chocolate glazed donuts, and on top of thatit was fun! And I didn't even have to think about any of itI just did it. Was I channeling Great Gran?

So of course things escalated beyond simply fixing his pinking, having found that I could achieve a level of nuance and detail I couldn't yet with underglazes. Moreover, I could also adjust the tones of the spots, punch up the mapping, detail his hoofies, and even add layers of color to his mane and tail. And I could do all this in a nonthreatening way since what you don't like you can simply wipe away and start again!

What's more, discovering the blissful marriage between underglaze and overglaze has been a joy so farand there's still so much more to learn! For starters, underglaze imparts a luminosity and glow, and is ideal for even gradient tones and blocking in areas of color with ease when airbrushed. In turn, overglaze lends complexity and depth along with the ability to recreate effects easily that are otherwise quite difficult to mimic in underglaze. Overglaze also provides the opportunity to fix booboos after the final glaze fire (which tend to happen more often than they should here). Seamlessly, one compliments the other in gorgeous, unique ways, and it's going to be so exciting to stumble upon them as I delve into this blessed union!

Integrating overglaze also offers a creative familiarity plus the capacity to finish my ceramic pieces in a way that's friendly with my obsessively fixated nature (hey, I'm attracted to realism for a reason!). Indeed, I've cold–painted my sculptures for over twenty years, and to my delight I found that many of my familiar techniques are adaptable to overglaze. I'm also not so handy with the airbrush, being more dependent on handpainting, so this medium fits nicely into my existing skill set.

But perhaps more pivotal, I'm a painter who prefers a high degree of control in what I want to achieve (insanely so it could be argued). It's that whole OCD thing. I become stressed and hesitant when I feel too much control is relinquished to the media, especially when so much time and energy has already been invested in getting a piece to that point. So by combining underglaze and overglaze, I literally get to have my proverbial cake and eat it, too. This is something I can really grow into and make my own.

Even more, my method is fraught with madness. I'm a very chaotic artist who fares bestand creates bestwhen able to metaphorically go back and forth, up and down, in and out, and even sideways when creating a piece. It's very difficult for me to think linearly, to think in terms of fixed procedural steps to accomplish a finished piece. Yet this is what underglazing is all about—starting at Point A and then following a specific sequence to Point Z. Many of the fixed nonnegotiable steps have been a big trip circuit for me because I create so much "in the moment" that I literally cannot see the road ahead of meso I end up stuck in a lot of dead ends. But with the application of overglaze I now have the ability to teleport my creativity anywhere I want it to go; I can glaze as messily as I create!

So now I'm eyeballing all the molds, bisques and partially finished projects gathering dust here with fiery new eyes, lit from within by fires set ablaze from the glorious sparks of underglaze and overglaze. Mudhenge 2012 squirted a whole bunch of proverbial lighter fluid onto my creative embers, and I can barely contain the inferno! Put it all together and it means this is a turning point in my career. A gamechanger. All the pieces of my puzzle have now been found and fitted together. I have the means to realize my goals now. No more hesitation, self doubt, or unease. What an amazing feeling! THANK YOU Joanie, Lesli, Lynn and Karen! I hope someday to return your favors in kind!

And to thinkall this got jumpstarted by a newb blunder! It was a pink nose that nudged open a door that would revolutionize my studio, and I can't think of a better vanguard. More mistakes await on the creative horizon as I tease out the secrets of this magic pairing, but mistakes are as necessary for progress as successes. Each hiccup reveals something new, offers a fresh take, or pinpoints the need for another approach. As long as we know how to put them to good use and remain open to their suggestions, mistakes actually tend to be more useful for growththis escapade being a classic example. 

So, yeahthings are going to get really interesting really fast around here. How fast? Just wait for the next post. Then in following posts I'll talk about some impromptu experiments I began, having been thoroughly swept away by this magic team of two. Forget your yellow brick roads, your silver linings, your pots of goldmy treasure is dirt. 

"How will we ever know what we could do if we only do what we know we can do? Today's failure is tomorrow's starting point." Beth Ferrier


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mud Slingin'

Sunny sunflowers in Lynn's beautiful garden, against the blue Idaho sky.

One of my favorite times of the year doesn't involve a holiday or festival, but an annual gathering where lots of mud gets slung around. That is to say, a muddy buddy rendezvous where my fellow ceramic addicts visit for a week to share each others' techniques and innovations. We originally referred to this time as "Mayhem," since May usually was the target month and "mayhem" aptly described the ensuing chaos. But this year, our bout of silliness was delayed until September due to scheduling. In response, Karen coined an even better declaration for this weeklong mud bathMudhenge. YES. How perfect is that?! Our group this year entailed The Usual Suspects: Joanie B.Lesli K.Lynn F. and myself, and with the addition of Karen G. 

The last two years, though, we experienced a dearth of mudfesting only because each of our circumstances made it too difficult to carve out a week. But now that things have settled down a bit, 2012 marks the welcome reboot of our raucous mud slingin' caucus! 

And what a time we had! 

For starters, we scheduled it to coincide with Art in the Park, the wonderful arts and crafts bazaar that occurs every September here in Boise. We each got some artsy goodies, studied the tent set–ups and types of presentation, and enjoyed the beautiful weather. 

This year AitP had some really cool new and returning artists such as Rocky Canyon Tileworks, Winfield Designs, Masak Pottery, Hudson River Inlay, Studio RynkiewiczBlueside Metal Art, and Arisa Niita. It was fantastic! 

Studio Rynkiewicz was especially fun since the artist was Polish and recognized "Minkiewicz" as Polish, too! We found a fellow "kiewicz!" So we joked over that as we admired his gorgeous glasswork. His handblown pumpkins especially captured my eyethe irresistible cute shape of a plump pumpkin paired with the glitter and glow of art glass was a winning combo for me! And apparently for others, too, since he seemed to have sold out of them by the next day.

So after that feast for the eyes, it was time to gorge on our own creativity! Each of us offered a demo or discussion, and in this round–table fashion we learned from each other and confabbed on ideas, directions, and issues. For instance, Lesli offered two nights of fascinating equine color and genetics presentations, with lots of discussion and Q&A. Joanie showed us a special rub–off glazing technique she developed, an approach especially useful for pieces with lots of sculpted fuzz (like Oliver and Brownie).

In kind, Lesli and Joanie taught Karen some underglazing techniques while Karen did a whole afternoon of china painting demonstrations at Lynn's studio, which was intriguing to say the least. The handpainting methods she demoed were particularly enticing to me because they were similar to my own cold–painting methods. So I can't wait to try them—I think I'll take to china painting like a rattie to scrambled eggs! Banzai! In her generosity, Lynn made us some pieces we could use for china painting, and I'm itchin' to dive in!

As for myself I demoed pouring and tweaking porcelain, and specifically how I claybodied those Reflectives. Apparently I break every rule in the book, but I had no idea. As Joanie quipped: no one told me I couldn't do things that way, so I just went ahead and did them. I listen to the clay and go with my gut, and somehow it works. Makes me wonder just how much of the rules are hand–me–down dogma, or on the other hand how much of them actually apply to what I'm doing, since what I'm doing is a bit off the deep end anyway. I guess I'll find out!

That in mind then, I got a wild hair and poured a porcelain LimerickCollier and Brownie. As if that wasn't enough, I intend to claybody them as well. Feelin' bonko and going with it. Let 'er RIP. The tricky part about casting porcelain is that it cannot be bent or fudged when removed from the mold due to the clay's memory. So pulling those castings was a real breathholder, but they pulled just fine! We're all anxious to see how they fire, particularly if they have slumping issues like fine bone china. We can create solutions whether they do or not, but if we can get this porcelain to work for full body sculptures, a whole new clay is open to us and that means new possibilities—so keep those fingers crossed!

But beyond learning, inspiring, challenging, and tinkering, Mudhenge is also about having a great time. A really great time. Our industry tends to place artists into an antagonistic relationship with each other, something I find uncomfortable and a bit counterproductive to the community. But all of us are friends, first and foremost, and Mudhenge is our rebuttal of sorts. We all love horses, we all thrive on creativity, we all value innovation, we all relish learning new things, and we all worship that miraculous substance that feeds our pugnacious, pudgy kilns. So Mudhenge is a time for celebrating our true bonds of friendship, appreciating our shared enthusiasms, and reconnecting on deeper levels.

Breaking bread together is understandably a core activity then. Indeed, lovingly nestled within all this earthy goodness is food. Lots and lots of fantastic food. Boise is definitely a foodie town—folks here love to eat and eat well—and so we're blessed with a shameless plethora of delectable restaurants, eateries, confectionaries, and food trucks

This is convenient because creativity eats up a ton of calories, and then laughing and being endlessly silly eats up a ton more. So we're obliged to imbibe copious amounts of Basque, Thai, BBQ, croquetas, sweet potato hash browns, risotto, crepes, squishy french fries, curry, bacon…you name it. We partook of our favorite haunts SaWahDee, Bar Gernika, Fork, Berryhill Co., TableRock, Jerry's, Goldy's, Goodwood, and Cutter's BBQ, just to name a few. Mom also made an awesome banana bread which was consumed posthaste. Gotta feed those cells, in more ways than one! So at the end of the week, not only were our brains burgeoning at the seams from being fed…so were our bellies! Both my skull and my waistbands are feeling a bit tight lately. As it should be!

Mud slingin' also requires chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. So off we went to check out a new chocolatier in BodoSaroli Chocolate. I got Pop a giant hunk of dark chocolate fudge, (which I'm told he devoured like a velociraptor), and I got Mom some scrumptious dark chocolate goodies (which I suspect didn't last the car ride home). I particularly liked their key lime gummi fruit slicesthey didn't last long. So a bag of goodies came back to the studio with each of us, but which were pretty much emptied by the next day. This crisis then required an emergency trip to our perennial favorite, The Chocolate Bar, in order to restock our depleted supplies. My favorites there are the dehydrated and candied (real) orange slices (with rind!) dipped in chocolate, and the milk chocolate caramels with sea salt. I'm a milk chocolate girl while Hubby is a dark chocolate guy. So one way or 'nuther, any box of chocolates doesn't stand a chance!

After procuring a new stash of cocoa essentials, we headed to The Potter's Center, the requisite destination for any ceramicist in Boise. It's where I buy all my clay and equipment, and both Karen and Lesli wanted to buy the same slipcasting porcelain I'm using. I also bought some new clay to use for my Dancing HorsesTM to mix up the collection a bit, and the porcelain pugs I need for the 2012 Christmas ornament edition. So we descended on them like chattering locusts, and thus loaded with new supplies (our car's rear wheels were so squished down, it looked like we were doing a wheelie in a sedan!), we headed back to the studio to continue on with our muddy merriment.

Amidst all this, Karen worked on one of her Roundies in underglaze while both Joanie and Lesli glazed a couple of Olivers Lesli brought. Lesli gave me her finished Oliver (thank you, Lesli!) who I named "Mudhengie" while Joanie named hers "Chutney," in honor of the curry chicken sandwich she had earlier at Berryhill. I can't wait to get started on Elsie and Oliver castings, especially for claybodying! Same goes for Dante! Pair that with the china painting techniques Karen shared, and me thinks I'll be happier than a bug in a rug! It would be really fun to blend underglazing and overglazing, too, to see what neat effects can be achieved.

In particular, hooves are a real trouble spot for me. Attaining that sort of embedded "bruised" appearance of stripes coupled with the complex networks of staining, growth rings, periople and everything else makes hooves one of the most difficult aspects of the equine to capture convincingly, in any media. So I'm hoping overglazing will help me get closer to my goals.

I also have an old Spinnaker I glazed some years ago at a previous Mudhenge, but I goofed on the manethere's a series of big bald spots on the high points where my finger accidentally rubbed off the underglaze before I could catch the goof before applying the final glaze layer. Ordinarily that would be a permanent flaw, but it's totally fixable with overglazing! I also want to see what additional details I can add to this hapless piece with that medium, so be expecting a blog post about him sometime soon.

As for myself, I requested that while they were here, Lesli and Joanie show me how to pull castings from their molds. Considering how complicated their molds arein order to accommodate the complicated sculptures I send them (what goes around comes around!)—it was immensely helpful to be guided through the process of demolding a Vixen, Imp, and Dante, for instance. There's definitely a sequence to it in order to pull a viable casting.

My wonderful hubby was a gem the entire week, too. He doted on us, making sure we were all comfortable, hydrated, wellfed, cooledoff in the ceramic studio or warm inside the house

He lit scented candles, brought out afghans, set up Lesli's presentation on our TV, and made sure all the muddy buddies could get online through our network. He also took pictures, drove us all around, carried our bags, and generally became our go–to–guy for anything we'd need as well. So thank you, Ham, you're a peach! Marvelous Mom was also invaluable, especially when helping me prepare the house for the onslaught of awesomeness. Thank you Mom, you RULE! Pulling off a week like this is definitely a team effort!

But it's curious how things come full circle when we follow our passions. I knew my Great Grandma (Mom's side) was a "mudhen" who specialized in finely crafted china painting on porcelain figurines, plates, tea sets, bowlsthe whole shebang. She did the whole nine yards, toodipping lace in porcelain slip and everything. Over the years she created a massive collection readily on display on shelves, but almost all of it was destroyed in a big Southern California earthquake some years back (*sob*). But even more, Mom recently revealed that twice a month, Great Gran would host social gatherings at her house built around classes on ceramics and glazing. Deja vu! In a way, we just picked up where she and her friends left off, and I'd like to think she's with us during our muddin' around. I can just imagine her grinnin' from ear to ear! Looking back, I wish I could have gotten my hands on her kiln, or old enough at the time to have learned some techniques from her. But the best I can do now is to carry the torch and do her proud in my own way, with all this sure adding a cool new dimension to these "dirty" dealings.

At the end of the week, Lesli was the first to return home, then after her, Karen and Paul moseyed back to their abode. That left Joanie, who stayed with us for two nights, and we met up with Lynn and Barry at Goldy's for a final meal before she embarked on her long journey home the next morning in her mighty Mini Cooper, "Winnie the Mini." It was a tasty end to a tasty week, but it was very hard to say farewell nonetheless. I'm still pining for my muddy buddies to be honest, and feel a bit discombobulated, like I don't quite know what to do with myself. All that learning, laughing and creative inspiration is a potent drug, and I wish every artist could experience that high, even if just once. So I'll think of that Beatles song, With a Little Help from my Friends, and look forward to next year, aiming to innovate something worth sharing with the gang.

In the spirit of Mudhenge then: may your belly be full like a happy kiln, may your soul be stoked by the fires of inspiration, may your year be fruitful like a wellcrafted mold, may love and joy envelop you like a gleaming glaze coating, and may your days be blessed with dear ones who enjoy getting down and "dirty" right along with you. Ceramics is about alchemy, and boydo we make magic together! 

"Don't be dismayed at goodbyes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends." ~ Richard Bach

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