Stability & Fragility

           Mixing dynamic line and apparently random crystal ‘growth’ with the stability, regularity, and predictability of the construction brick the piece is a pleasing juxtaposition of the macro-crystalline structure of the quartzite against the micro-crystalline presence known to be in the very fiber of the brick clay. The talisman focal point created by the pyrite alludes to the brick as well in that the brick clay, stained red from iron, shares the same element with pyrite which is composed of iron sulfide crystals. The translucence of the quartz crystals contrasts with the opaque brick yet we are still able to see through the brick via engineered holes allowing the mind to wander and ponder the various crevasses in this assemblage. How in our own lives may we be intentionally ugly and opaque yet still, those with eyes to see may see straight through us? How much better would it be to be a translucent crystal; would the fragility be worth the beauty?

Ash Fest 2015 Week 1

          Arriving at Finch Pottery in Baily North Carolina after three days on the road I was greeted by Dan Finch himself sitting in the shade on the porch of his gallery. After welcoming me, Dan showed me around the studio and kiln yard and then directed me towards a shady spot to set up camp for the next two weeks. Not particularly involved, my tent took only a short while to set up and I began unloading my pots and preparing myself and my work for Ash Fest 2015! Hosted by Dan on his exquisite property with loading and firing lead by Justin Lambert and Logan Wannamaker, 20 or so national and international ceramic artists would call Finch Pottery home for two short weeks.

            All ware for the firing arrived bisqued and shino slips and glazes developed by Justin and Logan were provided for us to use, though we were encouraged to leave most ware raw and only glaze the insides of functional ware. An impressive and even daunting sight the more than 1000 pots laid out next to the kiln awaited loading into Dan’s Mama Anagama capable of firing more than 700 cubic feet of pottery. The loading, which took every bit of three days, is the hardest part of a firing requiring skill and nuanced attention to detail ensuring the arrangement of the ware would facilitate the flame and ash effects throughout the entirety of the kiln. Bricking the door closed on Tuesday evening and candling the kiln overnight, we as a group spent the day Wednesday touring Mark Hewitt’s studio and began firing the kiln in earnest Wednesday night. As shift leader on shift 3 my group and I spent Thursday morning raising the kiln ~50° f/hour in a slow but steady climb with the kiln reaching body reduction Thursday evening. Now, at the time of writing the kiln is entirely above 2100°f with less than 100 degrees in difference between the front and back of Dan’s nearly 30 foot ‘Mamagama’.

Light, Sweet, Crude

Playing upon the imagery with which we are so often confronted while consuming media this impressive piece pokes a sharp finger in the side of allure and addiction with an imagined alcoholic product branded as “Light, Sweet, Crude”. Appealing to what is in fact a logical fallacy, these images hope to establish a “correlation proving causation” in that these models are attractive and seem happy while also (supposedly) consuming the beverage “Light, Sweet, Crude”. The imagery of the label and indeed the name itself speaks to the oil industry and our overwhelming need for it. Sharing names with the highest grade of crude oil, the advertisements are geared towards men of varying class and demonstrate the versatility of appeal for this product. At the bottom of each image is a warning against the addictive qualities of the product as if this erases all responsibility for the producer putting the burden upon the consumer to exercise self-control. A broad critique of alcoholism and oil dependence this piece keeps the message ‘light and sweet’ while carrying such a powerful commentary on what is indeed a ‘crude’ subject.

A Countenance of Stone

Incorporating geomorphic and figurative elements into a single sculptural piece the hidden imagery is not readily apparent except when viewed from a select number of angles. Focusing on the form itself, it appears solidly connected to the earth both in construction and implied visual weight. As our gaze rises from the subdued earth tones of the sturdy lower register the form is activated by a pass-through and vigorously sculptural tailing edge which captures the implied erosive forces which lead to the supposed creation of the piece as if it were found in a natural context. The upper register or “crown” of the piece is highly gestural in its undulating, wave-like line which has been accentuated by the richly textural surface allowing the applied glazes to break, pool, and eventually overflow the form cascading down the walls of the piece shrouding the clay body in an earthy veil. The green-brown of the glaze references the mosses and lichen of the artist’s Florida home while the form as well could be found sculpted by the waves of the all too distant ocean. The negative space surrounding the piece becomes more powerful still when the artist’s own profile is seen in relief as a silhouette in the protrusions of the tailing edge of this stone-like piece. One may imagine the set jaw and furrowed brow of an artist meditating upon his work in the creation of this piece. 

The Tracks We Leave

When making work meant to catalyze a meditative state in the viewer through processes that are repetitive and meditative in and of themselves, memory is often my companion for hours at a time. Consisting mainly of autobiographical, narrative memory my thoughts range through the breadth of my personal history unhindered. Because the physical body is occupied with a task requiring little thought my mind wanders and I often arrive at moments in my life that I had forgotten, and occasionally I wish those memories had stayed forgotten… thus, the title of this piece. The accompanying image is my own footprint from a walk on the beach several years ago with my father. The sand and ocean spray driven by the wind scoured beach and exposed this mark of my passing several hours after the event on the return trip.  Similarly to the compacted sand bearing evidence to my passage the autobiographical memory of others bears witness to my existence as well. This truth is worthy of pondering indeed for we must consider the impact we have on the lives of others and how our touch on their lives is recorded. In a way, I am an artist of memory creating objects that occupy the consciousness of the viewer with subtlety allowing the subconscious to explore as well. It is the duty of an artist to keep in mind the impacts he or she is having on the lives of others and be sure that there is no need to “forget” the negative memories associated with their passing.

Zhao Meng: The Scholar’s Stones

When things fall into place and fit snugly it is at once pleasing and comforting. So too It seems fitting that an instructor at Harvard University would be making “scholar’s rocks” or Gongshi. Zhao Meng’s mastery of clay and glaze leaves nothing to distract from the perfection of surface on his organic, eroded forms which stand with a quite solidarity looking back at us with calm introspection. To say that these are solid would indeed be a tenuous statement in that they are full of holes eroded by an imagined force; yet they stand proud and still with slight anthropomorphic reference. Zhao’s piece titled “The Impression of Water” with its sturdy, intricately carved base and monochrome body epitomizes the control over form and surface possessed by this artist. With nothing to distract from the standing form it is at once a stationary object of meditation and a memory of the dancing, whirling forces that created it. A scholar’s rock indeed Zhao Meng has transformed porcelain and glaze into an object of sublime beauty and invites us to transform ourselves with meditation and study.

Zhou Wu: Intentional Separation from Refinement

When one is immersed from birth in any given tradition it becomes natural for that person to view the world through that lens. This holds true for Zhou Wu in his ceramic art. Native to Zhejiang, deep in the heart of China’s Longquan celadon region, this strong influence can be clearly seen in Zhou’s work with its pottery forms and perfect celadon glazes. However there is a difference worthy of note, the surfaces of his precise forms have been textured with a variety of scraping motions to hold the viewer’s gaze in the pools of glaze they capture. This intentional inclusion of such a gestural form of decoration on such a precisely thrown form captures both a love of tradition and a sense of self-assured contemporary expression. The quietness of the calm form and glaze are activated by the touch of the artist and come alive as individual objects worthy of thought rather than simply yet another blue-green bowl.

Lu PinChang: Commentary in Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture

Raised in the countryside after his family was expelled from the city during the Cultural Revolution Lu draws much of his content from Chinese folk tales and incorporates aspects of folk art into his sculptures. Currently the Head of ceramics at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing Lu’s work has seen many variations throughout his life now returning to his heritage for inspiration after much time sculpting in a “more Western style”. In his “Fu” series he explores the meaning of “fat” and “happy” (the Chinese meaning of “Fu”) in a collection of abstracted figures. In keeping with the Chinese folk tradition the proverb “A fat man is a happy man” is the source of this investigation while holding its own commentary on consumption in western (specifically in American) society. This gives a nod to cultural relativism and the diversity of meanings a single sculpture can have given the cultural context from which it is viewed. The fact that Lu’s work is so powerful across the spectrum of cultures speaks to his masterly skill as an artist and thinker.

Liu Pinchang Figure.jpg

Luo Xiao-ping: Political Commentary in Clay

Born in 1960 in China and educated in Jingdezhen, Luo’s work documents the civil changes he has witnessed through the vehicle of sculptural ceramics. Upon forgoing a professorial role at the famous Tongji University in Shanghai Luo chose a career as a professional artist and founded a studio in Yixing as well as Arizona and divides his time between the two with his wife Junya Shao who is also a ceramic artist. Deeply rooted in the hand building techniques of Yixing, Luo acknowledges his own history and tradition and willfully steps outside of the conventions in both his treatment and firing methods of the Yixing clay. Luo is known primarily for his work involving the figure in some way or another and perhaps his most controversial work is his “Times Square” series. In this work he looks around the world and realizes that “Here, I can scoff at them, myself and the world.”  20 of the most powerful people in the world are each rendered about 2 feet in height and wearing traditional Chinese clothing. Osama Bin Laden stands next to Chairman Mao and Luo towers above them all.  The markings chosen for the clothing carry weight as well and are a humorous device in and of themselves. Representing as a whole world peace, the words are in stark contrast to actions of the figures portrayed. The depth of thought on this work is evident even in the title for the Luo describes not the Times Square of Ney York but rather “a political image spectrum installed on the Square of Time”. Luo “[invites us] to Times Square with my qualification of an artist, put down the weapons required to stop the conflict and terrorism.”

Luo Xiao-Ping with Times Square Series

Bai Ming: Artistic Versatility, Material Excellence

An established and internationally acclaimed ceramic artist and oil painter, Bai Ming combines traditional Chinese styles of art and contemporary thought to create both 2 and 3 dimensional works of art that abstract and express his involvement in the rebirth of Chinese tradition. Named “The Symbol of Diversification of Chinese Contemporary Art” Bai Ming is a lecturer at the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University and teaches ceramic decoration courses as well as modern ceramic craft and prefers to let theory and practice work together to inform both his own work and his educational model in his classes. This pragmatic view of traditional and contemporary thought and artistry populates itself in his paintings and ceramic art. Evidenced in this vase from 2011 titled “Song of the Wind in the Reeds”, the gestural body with its gentle undulations of form and line becomes the perfect surface for Ming’s loose and painterly style of decoration in cobalt referencing the designs of Imperial China. The heavily decorated exterior contrasts sharply with the pure white of the interior of this open form and is as clean as swept snow, though not devoid of meaning.

Song of the Wind in the Reeds

Jun Ware of the Yuan Dynasty

As one may expect of a Dynasty characterized by ceramic excellence indeed the pinnacle of a civilizations history the Jun ware of the Henan Province are truly a pleasure to behold. The emphasis of formal perfection may be seen in this example from the Freer collection emphasized by the delicate blushes of color from the rich glaze. Produced during the Dynasty following the Song the ability to maintain such excellence across the generations adds depth and breadth to the quality of this piece. Achieved through thick application and diffraction of light amongst countless tiny bubbles in the glass the blue color subtly shifts as thickness changes allowing the clay body to be seen near the rim where the glaze is thinnest. A splash of purple from a copper based pigment breaks up the blue and adds drama to the glaze without taking away from the overall simplicity and elegant beauty.

Ding Ware of the Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty ranging from 960 AD to 1279 AD has long been classified as the pinnacle of Chinese ceramics.  The plate pictured is from a style known as ding ware and was developed during this time. Displaying an immense amount of skill and attention to form this plate is carved ever so delicately and glazed with a thin satin/semi-gloss glaze highlighting the intricate decoration which so elegantly responds to the shallow concave form. Then, as if it were not merely enough to achieve technical excellence in one field a bronze collar was added to the rim of the bowl with such care that no seam is readily evident which would expose the method of attachment. In concert the skill in forming and skill in decoration leave nothing behind to distract from the beauty and technical excellence of this piece.

Sancai Ware of the Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty brought with it an expansion of power and reunification of China begun with the Sui. Art and literature paired with extensive trade routes lead to a flourishing of culture and prosperity. In the production of Sancai ware potters used imported lead frits to make low fire glazes with bright and long-lasting colors. The term, meaning tri-colored ware, is in fact a misnomer originating from the time of rail expansion in China. Tombs and the tomb goods were unearthed during excavations for the rail beds and the workers gave the name to this particular type of ware. By the time other colors were discovered on the same type of ceramics the name had stuck. In this beautiful example from the Shanxi Provincial Museum we see the swelling and voluptuous form characteristic of Tang vessels can be seen accentuated by the running glazes. 

Qingbai Ware of the Yuan Dynasty

With the Mongol unification of china in 1279 AD Kublai Khan took the helm a long and strong ceramic culture in China. Viewing the ceramic arts from the production and profit side of things the Mongol rulers had great influence on the production style of ceramics. The southern counterpart to ding ware in the north, the qingbai ware of the Yuan Dynasty leaves behind the influence of the bronze forms and steps into its own with respect to both form and decoration. In this beautiful example from the Freer collection the delicate and intricate carving highlighted by the pooling of the transparent glaze beautifully responds to the meiping (or plum blossom) form. Broken into three registers the floral decorations swell to blossoms at the high and proud shoulder of this 13th century vase.  

Defining Meditation

The meaning of meditation to an individual can vary almost as much as the methods of practice. This piece invites the observer into a discourse with itself and rewards time spent pondering its subtle curves and coloration. The softness of line and transitions between forms allow the eye to move un-hindered across its surface tracing its flow. Like water unto a stone the eye cascades from a pitted and textural crown down through the hollow of earthy greens and browns on to richly carved textures juxtaposed with stony smooth surfaces at the feet. The arched form serves as a visual bridge carrying the viewer along its form freeing them from the trouble and turmoil of our modern society and invites a sojourner to travel with it through a visual landscape that is contemplative and at peace. Referencing geologic time and its passage the viewer is invited to spend some of their most precious commodity observing the work and observing themselves. Meditation in the quiet, introspection in the stillness, and reflection when at peace are too rare; and yet offered to any and all through this work.

Growlers and Mugs

 These pieces bring to mind immediately celebrations and good drinks with good friends. With the similarity of form between the mugs and growlers and the continuity of glazing effects the pieces are clearly intended to be parts of a set, displayed as a whole, as seen in the central four vessels atop the barrel lid. However, the forms individually are strong enough to stand alone in their functional life and provide a comfortable place for the eyes, hands, and lips to commune after a long day of work. Free of any commentary save for their own the set is made up of heirloom-worthy vessels and draws upon strong historical references providing a fresh look at some of the utensils used for celebrating with beverages.

Stone

 To bring forth water from a stone… a miraculous task indeed. And if a stone were to quietly weep what would any one notice save for the moss growing on its flanks. The moss alone would appreciate the tears. So too it seems that few understand much less care that many soldiers weep quietly to themselves. These are not the ones who become tragic spectacles but the ones who like stones, endure. No large fissures of character allow for dramatic collapse. These stones are sturdy. And not all the water running down is silent crying, sometimes it merely rains. This captures most elegantly the emotions meant to be conveyed by this piece. Tears of stones may only be hidden by storms.

Wisdom

 The Native American man seen here displays imagery from historical depictions of a long dead tribe; The Timucua of North-east Florida. He is an old man and yet was once a warrior. The lines on his face are scars, whether received in battle or by exposure to time and the elements, scars they remain. With his war paint on the gaze holds the viewer and the mutual heart breaks with history, legend, pain, and love. Attempting to capture a melancholy wisdom this is the face of the people through whom I was first exposed to clay. As a boy growing up picking up pot sherds and attempting to make pots of my own from the same clay beds I draw a strong, if abstract, lineage to these ancient people. Growing up close to the land and sea I have developed a land ethic that trends towards “Deep Ecology” and I find it so pleasing to make pots from the same clay, influenced by the same estuarine environment as did the potters 5 thousand years ago. 

Family Honor

  This piece, my first figurative work of any note in my entire ceramics career represents huge marginal expansions of my knowledge of clay and its material properties. Seen here in the snowy white of the bisque firing it is also pure and free of any material except for clay. So too my own image, seen in this body cast bust is pure and in good standing and calls upon the lineage of my forebears both in appearance and temperament. Whether by nature or nurture the influences of the men to be displayed along with this bust have all had their effect on me and how I perceive myself with respect to those from whom I descend and currently surround myself with. Truly, the people of my origins shape my identity.

Eroded Stone

 These Pieces, as a grouping are much more than the sum of their parts. As stand-alone works they hold a limited power of engagement, a thrown and altered piece is merely that. When grouped the pieces yield a landscape that is at once both intriguing intellectually and inviting to the imagination. Projecting oneself onto the work as a miniature climber one can trace the route of visual discovery through differing paths to the basins of satin color amidst the rough, dry surfaces of the vessels. The play of light and shadow across both the altered forms and individual strata is highlighted by the directionally applied glazes and serve to create a luminosity of the pieces reminiscent of the play of light across similar forms in nature, changing with the westering sun. This grouping derives much from primary research with respect both to the forms themselves and also the process of glazing; every piece being fired a minimum of 3 times. Designed with a cone 10 soda fire in mind the transition to the low temperature range remained a proving ground as well. Advice and research can only get one so far; after a certain point, without time to test there is a moment of an educated guess and just a pinch of reckless abandon.