Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Body of Work (still play!)

Sometimes ideas are in my head for years before they come out.  Maybe they just need to brew a while, like a rich lager, or the nuances blend and soak in, like the ingredients in your favorite coleslaw dressing.

To have work at various price points, and to experiment with some new directions, I've been making small pieces.  When I do that, I also tend to be a little freer and experimental in a loose, whacky sort of way.  Like the difference between doodling on scrap paper and drawing on the expensive stuff.

I am creating a new body of work and will be making some bigger pieces.  A little scary, what with the economy, but this will feed my soul.  

I love being able to fuss and to include a lot of detail in my work.  Well, I say "love," but there is a certain amount of stress involved, since the detail work takes a lot of time and can't be rushed.  My left brain always has an idea of what I should accomplish in a given amount of time.  My right brain says, "Wouldn't it be nice to linger a while on this section?"

With the two sides of my brain doing battle like this, in my early clay days, I felt pressure and angst (as ceramics professor Mike Sanford correctly described it).  Still, I had fun, in a manic, tortured sort of way.

Here is a product of those times.   I am very proud of her.

Harried Possum--fun under pressure.  When I was working B.S. (that's Before Studio!), in the garage, with no temperature control and poor lighting, I gave myself 3 weeks to create this piece.  Problem was, my scientist-self kept researching possum anatomy and I nearly drove myself crazy.  (I know it's "opossum," but saying that takes so much more effort!)  Finally decided to stop looking at pictures and have some fun.  So here is a slightly anthropomorphic Mama Possum with her "To the Moon!" fist, as her babies skittle all over her back (if that's not a word, it should be).  I made their feet large, figuring that's what she must have felt--all those little claws digging in her back and toes pulling her hair.  (If you do the math, that's a lot of toes!)

Every component was built hollow.  Note that the possum and log are both tripods. You can't tell from the images, but the ears and tails have realistic texture and are very possum-y.

Detail view below.

Check out the teeth on that little one!  You don't have to understand Possum to get the message!

And here is the back of the piece--

After the work was fired, I painted it with many layers of acrylic paint.


Now, with (1) a few years of experience under my belt, (2) the DESIRE to fuss, in a good way, and, (3, a harder lesson), knowing when to STOP, I'm going to give myself a gift of time.  Time to create more pieces like this, in all their fussy detail and glory!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dances with Clay

An important purpose of the studio is to provide a venue for people to come and play with clay. To express themselves, have fun, and maybe we'll sneak in a little learning.  So, while we are working at honing our craft, here, work really feels like play

Picasso said, "Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

And that is so some point most of us tend to get self-critical and judgmental.  As an artist-in-the-schools, I've seen it in students as young as 8 years of age.  

Mike Sanford, my ceramics professor at Elon University, used to say (and probably still does)  "It's only clay."  

And THAT is so true.  (He also told me to try to have less angst. That's been a tougher lesson.)

Clay is very forgiving.  As one of my young students told me, "I love clay!  If you make a mistake, you can fix it."  Over the years, I've found myself quoting him and adding Mike's remark, along with, "This is YOUR art.  It is not possible to make a mistake."

Still, it takes a while for some of us to loosen up, relax, enjoy the process.  If you find yourself saying, "I could never make something like that," or "I'm not artistic," then I say:

Let's make "Artwork" an oxymoron!

That's not to say we shouldn't or don't art seriously, or that I never stress over a piece--I still stress more than I should.  But the clay, like a child, will tell on you.  When people see my art, the pieces they respond to most are those where (1) I got so engaged I completely forgot myself, or (2) I stopped my struggle-fest and reminded myself, "It's only clay."  [Thanks, Mike!]

Remind me to tell you about the piece, "Harried Possum."

Anyway, those art "works" must send out some kind of kharma.

Two stories:

A family came over to celebrate their daughter's 17th birthday party.  We had a clay party with family and friends, ages 5 to adult.  While one of the adults was fussing over his work (for him, it really was more like work than play), his five year old son would make something wonderful, gleefully mash it and create something new.

He did this at least half a dozen times.  I finally told him I'd be happy to give him as much clay as he'd like, that we can put all of his masterpieces in the kiln.  Nope, he was having a great time creating and re-creating.

My friend Wendy (an awesome metal and glass artist) volunteer-teaches a weekly art class at a senior center.  Her students have seen a lot of life and are still going strong.  She asked me to fill in one day, which I was happy to do--figured these people had a lot more to teach me than I could possibly teach them.  Ten or twelve women came in--one in a wheel chair, some a little slow moving, all excited about the upcoming "adventure."  I'm sure they come in to Wendy's classes like that every time.    

One lady stood in the doorway and did a little dance,  a nonverbal way of saying she was happy to be there.  She was 97 years old, by the way.  

A few people stopped by to tell me, "We'd love to take your class, but it conflicts with aerobics.  Sorry!"  Wow--how could I be upset about that?

The plan was to make clay faces--I call them Garden Spirits, human faces with leaves for hair.  I showed an example, along with one of my Kitty Gargoyles, faux finished to look like marble, as an example of how I thought we could finish our Garden Spirits.  (One of my artist-in-the-schools offerings is a gargoyle unit.)  The director and another member of the staff joined us.

One lady said, "I want to make a cat!"  In two minutes, everyone else did, too. 

Who was I to argue?  We made cat faces (one cat turned into an elephant--these things happen....).  

One lady was careful and perfectionistic--I have to include that for completeness and to convey how difficult the habit is to break.  But the others threw caution to the wind!  Some had arthritis and needed assistance; some created cats that were not so realistic; one woman made a cat in honor of a kitty she had earlier in her life.  

They had fun sculpting.  They had even more fun painting when I came back a couple of weeks later with the fired pieces.  

I think the red cat looks like one of the Beatles during their Yellow Submarine phase.

By the way, that 97 year old lady is still with us (she is now 98 years young).  I haven't seen her since, but am told she hasn't changed a bit!

So what happens to us between ages 5 and 97?  So many things....

When "working" in the studio, I often think of the little boy and those ladies.  I may crank up the radio (my husband's mondo boom box from college) and dance a little, when I'm by myself.  (And hope no one's coming to the door!)

Needless to say, if you come to the studio and want a handful of squishy clay to play with, just ask.  Then have fun smooshing it in your hand or making art.  Neither you nor your creation will ever be criticized.  I may offer a suggestion if I think you'd like to hear one.  If you want a critique, just ask ask.  I'll be gentle.  This is a supportive, nurturing environment and always will be.

BUT--don't ask me to dance in public--I can't move nearly as well as that lady.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Scruffy Is In

If you come to the studio, you may meet one of our dogs.  

My name is Scruffy because, when I was born, my Mommy said,"What a Scruffy Puppy!"  The name stuck.  She's always telling me how gorgeous I am.  I'm very sweet, but a little shy, so couldn't sit still when she got in my face with the camera.

I've been telling them they need to get part time jobs.  Hey, dog food is not cheap!  I have a specific project in mind for Toby--can't say much about it yet--have to finish writing the job description and see if he accepts.  I think he will--he loves clay!  So much, I have to pick up any I drop on the floor.  Immediately.  Geesh!  You'd think we never feed these guys.

My name is Toby, and I am a busy boy! This is not a special effect. It's almost impossible to get a still shot of me. I'm also the inspiration for the little clay dogs with the tennis balls in their mouths.

Meanwhile, other pooches may be in the studio keeping me company, greeting visitors, modeling  (for free--so don't tell them about unions!) or soaking up sun.  There is plenty for them to do.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Week (and a half) in Clay

Last week slipped by quickly, but I finally downloaded images from the camera.

Tom glazing one of the four mushrooms.

Suzanne glazing a mushroom.  She used three different glazes on one of the pieces and we were all pretty excited to see the result.  The combination caused the glazes to run more, which let the underlying stamped texture show through.  A happy surprise (Christmas, if you read the earlier post).

Suzanne picked up the mushrooms on Friday and headed home to clear spaces in her garden for them.  

Suzanne is happy with her marvelous Mystery Mushroom

View from the top.

A Fungus-y fungus.  Great glaze.

On Saturday, Jackie and Mike came over and glazed their magnificent lantern (photos below) and bird bath (or feeder, it hasn't been decided).

I love this picture.  A moment earlier, they were working so intently, they weren't smiling, and I mentioned that.  Still, I wanted a candid shot.  (can't make the underline go away-sorry!)

Still smiling--see how fun it is to work with clay?  

I've been preparing for the garden show in Greensboro, NC on June 20 and making dogs and a llama for the show called "In Our Care."  

Birth of a (clay) llama.  Head is on the upper left.  I'm building hollow forms, using slabs and coils.

The kiln just finished a bisque firing (the first of two firings) and I'll open it when it cools down enough--probably late tomorrow morning.  As soon as possible, I'll reload and run a glaze firing of work for the garden show.  Nothing like a deadline to increase efficiency!

On Tuesday, there's a meeting with a parent of a talented artist who is coming by to talk about classes.  Wednesday I'll be teaching in Cary, NC:  Kindergarten, first and second grades.  That's always a lot of fun and the students always amaze me with their creations.

To top it off, I've sold a few pieces, so a productive week (and a half)!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Commercial Break

I did want to let people know about a couple of events in the Chapel Hill/Burlington, NC areas.  One is the library show in Carrboro--sorry about the short notice, but if you get a chance to see it before it comes down tomorrow afternoon (June 10), it's at the Carrboro Branch Library on Fayetteville Rd.  

For directions see

Curator Alex O'Connor's website is

Also, this Thursday, June 11, Emily Weinstein has a reception and book signing.  It will be at the Alamance County Arts Council, on Main St. in Graham, NC.  Emily is a wonderful painter.  She is also a friend of animals and works tirelessly on their behalf.  At this show, she is offering her book, "Saving Magic Places," and 20% of proceeds will go to the Piedmont Land Trust.  So she's working on fauna, flora, and Mother Earth, too.

Emily's website is

In addition, and also at the Arts Council, clay sculptor Tinka Jordy will present her new work  She creates wonderful large figurative sculpture.  I've met her briefly and hope to talk with her at the reception.

For more information, directions, etc. see the Alamance County Arts Council website:

As you can tell, I love the work of all of these artists!  And many others.  

Fungus-y Fungi

Just opened the kiln and was pleased with the results.  I think Suzanne and Tom will be happy with their mushrooms.  Those are some fungus-y fungi!  Tom is a microbiologist, so this is most appropriate! They haven't seen them yet, so that's all I'll say for now.

I threw in several test tiles and got some good results, as well as some serious Halloween.  I have a love-hate relationship with test tiles.  They just seem to take so much time. 

Other ceramists may disagree with me on that, but (1) I'm pretty impatient in some areas of my life, and this is one of them, (2) I usually do them late at night, "Since I'm running the kiln, I might as well throw in some test tiles." (I'm always glad I did), (3)  "Hmmm, wonder what happens if I try this combination," and one thing leads to another, so I end up being in the studio much later than anticipated.  

Still, since a fair amount of work goes into each sculpture, I'm highly motivated to make test tiles--little slabs or pillars of clay that are usually fired before applying the glaze, to mimic conditions the artwork will go through.  Every type of clay (clay body) will have a different reaction, and different kilns will give you different results.   It's like trying to bake using  someone else's cake recipe and wondering why yours doesn't rise as much.  The test tiles give you an idea of what you might get--gravity can cause the glaze to flow as it melts down over the piece, and give some beautiful surprises (or not).  You can get very interesting effects where two glazes meet.  And there are slight temperature variations in different areas of the kiln, enough to make a difference.  Glaze experts, who know the chemistry behind the all this stuff, have spent decades testing and analyzing.  There are even computer programs to predict what you will get or how you might change a given recipe to get something else .  Still, even the experts will still tell you, "But go ahead and run a test tile."

Even after all that, the test tile gives you only an idea--like those little color swatches at the paint store.  You look at dozens of colors, chose the "perfect" one and, when you paint the whole room, it's not what you expected.

Despite knowing this, I continue to have a preconception of what I'll find when I open the kiln.  If I get a "glaze surprise," even if it's a happy one, I'm often just a little put off, at first.  But then, I almost always decide I really like the result.  (Maybe it's a control thing!)   And, more often than not, it inspires a new sculpture, much like what a fiber artist, for example, might experience upon discovering a new fabric.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mushrooms and LLamas and Dogs, Oh My!

It's been an interesting day in the studio--I've been very fortunate to be invited to some really nice shows and have been making different types of work for each one.  

Currently, I have four pieces in a lovely show (which ends on Wednesday!) in Carrboro, NC called "Animals Without Borders," curated by Alex O'Connor.  She is an amazing painter and an animal lover.  I was so thrilled when she invited me to participate.  As expected, I found myself among the most excellent company.  Alex asked me to bring my "Cat Fish."  This body of work is whimsical and folk-arty, and one of the closest things to functional pottery that I do these days.  Many are fitted with a piece of PVC pipe and can be connected to a small pump to become a water feature.

They came to be because I needed some color and to loosen up.  Until then I had been handbuilding vessels inspired by Native American potters of the American Southwest.  My first few pieces were a little more "traditional," but one thing led to another....

Almost functional art:

Sex Pot.  The surface is not a glaze, but a layer of dilute slip, composed of fine particles, called terra sigillata.  The clay is very white--and looks like ivory after the first firing.  The piece is fired a second time in a sealed container with combustibles (usually shredded paper).  As the kiln heats up, the paper burns.  Carbon from the smoke binds with the clay, resulting in the black color.  This process is called "firing in reduction" or "reduction firing," also seen in raku.  Even though I know what to expect (or what I hope to happen--see future post), the transformation is so dramatic, I always gasp aloud when I first see the piece.  

I love these pieces; they have won several awards, including cash prizes in national shows.  But they are so labor intensive!

An example of my non-functional art--

Garden Spirit, clay with bronze coating and patina--real metal, so it oxidizes as it is exposed to the elements.


Anyway, back to the Cat Fish--

The Garden Spirits were a step in the whimsical direction, but it was time for some downright wackiness.  Also, I figured I could use this experience to practice a new way of making hollow forms.  It was supposed to be a temporary thing, but people ask for them, even when I suggest other work!

Rocko, the Cat Fish--Dysfunctional art?


There is a show in Greensboro, NC on June 20, called "Potters in the Garden, sponsored by the Master Gardeners.  Jane, the woman organizing the show, is also a clay artist.  We met through the Carolina Clay Guild.  In addition to Cat Fish, Garden Spirits, and sun faces, I'm making mushrooms.  For ages, I'd wanted to make "Toad House Roadhouses" and, after working with Suzanne and Tom on mushrooms, made a few of  my own, adding front doors.  OK, it was a bit of piracy, but I did suggest the stamps we all used for the caps and offered some technical advice.....Still, I have to give them credit for putting all the information together, and helping me to get the concept out of my head and into the kiln.

Later this summer, I'll bring my "big dogs" (the clay species--they don't bark and you don't have to clean up after them) and other work I'm able to complete to a show called "In Our Care," at the Center for Creative Leadership.  It's a corporate venue located north of Greensboro.  Another great honor, as people from all over the world go there for conferences and workshops.  Laura, the woman curating that show, invited a small group of artists and she probably heard me yell "Woo Hoo!" 45 miles away, when we got off the phone.  She didn't have to finish the question--I could only say yes.  Laura puts together awesome shows and this is a fantastic opportunity.  I had the privilege of showing there as a member of the Alamance Artisans Guild a couple of years ago.  A percentage of proceeds from this show will benefit Red Dog Farm.  They rescue dogs, cats and farm animals, and even have alpacas now and then.  

Check out their site:

More on that show later.  

Needless to say, there are partially formed clay dogs, and even a clay llama, keeping company with the mushrooms in the studio right now.  Sounds grisly, but it will be alright, really.  No animals are ever harmed in the making of my art or this blog.


I'm sure others can confirm this--I've been fortunate to meet so many interesting people along the most unexpected pathways.  In another post, I'll tell you about some other shows, including  "the most fun you can have at an art show," Debbie's and Eric's "Come Out & Play."  Stay tuned!

Blogging lesson

Cranked up the kiln this morning and will spend a few minutes (while it's still quiet around here) learning more about blogging.

Here are some photos of Jackie & Mike and Suzanne & Tom, making their wonderful garden art.  I think it was late January.  The goal is to finish the pieces while their gardens are still going.  What with all the busy schedules, we've had that much trouble connecting!

Mike and Jackie making art--It's funny, when people are so engaged, they don't smile, so when I show photos, I feel the need to say, "They're really having a great time!"


Tom making mushrooms.

Suzanne making mushrooms

Well, this has taken me a while and it is time to move on to other things.  I'm probably missing something very simple, but the "Compose" window is so small, I've had a hard time moving images around.  I'm pretty sure I'm better at teaching clay to other people than blogging to myself! 

When I download them from my camera, I'll post photos of Suzanne and Tom glazing--they made it a point to say the whole process was a lot of fun--more than people would expect.  If you ever get bitten by the clay bug, you'll see what they mean!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Just opened the kiln and so far, so good.  This was a first firing for the ware---the bisque firing, to prepare the work to receive glaze and be fired again.

In general, the bisque firing is slower than the glaze firing, and is intended to burn out materials in the clay that could cause problems for the glaze.  There is  a lot of chemistry in pottery making!

I usually work in earthenware--kiln temperatures are set for around 1900 degrees F for both the bisque and glaze firings.  In this case, I'm firing stoneware, and the second firing will be around 2200.  Those few hundred degrees make a huge difference--clay bodies and glazes are formulated to withstand the extra heat.  Some colorants would burn out at these temperatures.  

As a sculptor, it takes me a while to make enough work to fill the kiln, so every firing represents weeks or months of work.  Knock on wood, I've been pretty lucky--not too many unpleasant surprises.  A very experienced potter acquaintance one said, "When you open the kiln, it can be Christmas...or Halloween!"

Take us to your leader, or at least feed us and throw the ball! (what we want to see when we open the kiln)

Friends Suzanne & Tom are coming over this afternoon to glaze some pieces they made a while back.  This couple, along with Jackie and Mike, were the first people, other than myself, to create work in the new studio (more on that in another post).

The four of them made wonderful pieces for their gardens.  So many, and big enough, that I couldn't fit all of the work in one load!  That gave me the opportunity (read motivation!) to make some work to fill a second kiln load.  Those pieces, if they come out well, will go to a show in Greensboro later this month, called "Potters in the Garden."

I'll plan to take some pictures, but have to unload the kiln and clean up the studio so we'll have room to work.  I have a lot of projects in progress, and people who know me can tell you I'm pretty messy.

In the meantime, if you want to see the type of work I create, please check out the websites for Carolina Designer Craftsmen ( and Alamance Artisans Guild ( 

 [One of these days, I'll figure out how to create links that work!]

Saturday, June 6, 2009

And another thing...

BTW, the new body of work is for a show coming up in November.  I am a member of Carolina Designer Craftsmen and will be creating a Masterwork.  Haven't figured it all out yet, but the topic will be the connection between humans and companion animals.  When I plugged in "companion animal," Chet Baker's image came up. Not the jazz musician, but his canine namesake, a Boston Terrier owned by Julie and her family (or perhaps he owns them, it's complicated!).  Hope neither is offended by the search engine results--the four-legged Chet is really part human--has his own language and a better wardrobe than I do.

Funny--growing up in the late 50s-early 60s, lots of people had Bostons but, until last year, I hadn't seen one in ages.  What's been great with Julie's blog is she has photos of Chet from all angles--more than once, I have stopped dog owners to ask if I could photograph the top of their pooch's head, etc.  That's the thing about sculpture--it's 3-D.

Possibilities for the Masterwork include therapy animals, unconditional love, etc.  I think this will be an exciting journey!

A single step....

Wow--my first post--a toe-dip into the social networking pool.  I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but couldn't seem to get started.  Then, surfing the Net (do people still say that?) for images for my next body of work, I ran into Julie Zickefoose's blog.  I've never met her, but can tell you she is a Renaissance woman--most knowledgeable naturalist, wonderful artist, eloquent writer, amazing photographer, musician (haven't heard her perform, but it's bound to be good...the members of her group, The Swinging Orangutans, sure look like they're having fun), devoted mother to two human and a non-human (but almost!) children.  Check out her blog and you'll see what I mean.  You can get there from here (Julie, hope you don't mind my sharing!): 

Anyway, Julie's blog has been so much fun to read, I was inspired to get started on my own.  No doubt there will be a lot of refinement and changes as I learn the mechanics.  Whereas my husband is the technology expert, I sometimes think I was meant to live in an earlier era....before electricity, and flush toilets (for example, I don't know if the above link will work)...but I digress.

If I may provide a little background--not to brag or yap forever, but in hope that some of this will resonate with many of you.

Formally trained as a zoologist, with a strong background in anthropology, I am enjoying a second life as a clay artist.  (This seems to be a common occurrence--I've run into so many scientists-turned-artists!)   As a teen, I used to dabble--draw, doodle, even painted a little in oils and acrylics.   I adored my middle school art teacher.  One day, upon seeing my clay sculpture, she said, "You know, you really aren't very good."  That shut me down for many, many years.

Lessons learned:

1.  It's amazing the impact a thoughtless remark can have on a child or young person--I think my brother and I were very sensitive children, but I see this a lot, even today.  I am grateful to that art teacher for helping me to become an encouragement (I hope and at least try to be) to my students.  The little ones are pretty fearless, but I've seen the hesitation and self-doubt in kids as young as 8.  As for adults, fearful of mistakes, we can spend a lot of time staring at the clay before making that first mark in that wonderful, squishy, and most of all, forgiving material.

2.  Don't believe everything someone tells you.

3.  Trust your own inner wisdom. (Still have trouble with that one!)

I'm having the time of my life, getting my hands dirty doing the very thing a well-meaning "expert" told me I was not good at, and sharing my passion.  It doesn't get any better than that.