They blinded me with Science!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my undergrad degree is in biology, and I grew up in a very scientific household. My mom has degrees in science education and scientific and technical communication and my dad is a fish biologist. Plus they’re nature nerds. Family vacations usually involved backpacking. According to my mom, one of my first words was “sand verbena.” I grew up dissecting fish (martyrs to the cause of helping salmon survive the Columbia river dams), catching snakes and newts (not for dissection) and building robot-sculptures out of old coffee cans, broken machines and spare parts. Now I work in high-tech, and spend my work-days researching emerging technologies.

I’m pretty sure my science-nerdiness influences my artwork, though I wouldn’t say there is always an obvious connection, beyond of course the name Volvox. But I’m really drawn to artists who are influenced by science and nature. So, after a long self-centered introduction, I’d like to share with you some artists whose work is highly influenced by science and nature, and whose work is really lovely.

Frank Boyden is a local (Oregon coast) artist whose work is very obviously influenced by the local environment. I love how fascinated he is with things like old gnarled trees and half-decomposed bird skeletons. In this OPB segment he talks about where he gets his inspiration (thanks to my mom for sending it to me). He and Tom Coleman built an anagama near Willamina, Oregon in the 1980s, and have done some really amazing collaborative pieces. Check out this article in Ceramics Monthly about their partnership, which has produced spectacularly beautiful work.

This next artist was brought to my attention by my dad. Luke Jerram creates a lot of science-inspired artwork. His microbiology-inspired glass pieces are pretty darn cool. I really like the comment that “These transparent glass sculptures were created to contemplate the global impact of each disease and to consider how the artificial colouring of scientific imagery affects our understanding of phenomena.” He explains that scientific illustrators use color in their illustrations of viruses and bacteria, to explain different concepts or simply for aesthetics. The use of color might change the way the non-scientific public understands the diseases.I find his rational interesting, because while he has, in his clear glass sculptures, stripped the diseases of their color, he has created an entirely new avenue for misunderstandings. His virus sculptures are based on the same partial-visualizations as the illustrations (microscopy simply is not yet good enough to give us a perfect understanding of the details of virus structures). They are stripped of artificial coloring, and are three-dimensional, but the beauty of the sculptures, the fluidity and delicacy of the glass, and the million-fold increase in scale all maintain the distance between the visualization and reality. But I like that about it. Because no matter how hard we try, I don’t know if most humans have the capacity to fully grasp things on that scale–the smallness of the diseases or the largeness of the impacts they can make on our lives.

Jerram’s Aeolus Acoustic Wind Pavilion is awesome–I’d really like to see it in person someday. It is inspired by wind and light, architecture and acoustics. (Side note: Jerram designs his pieces, but most of them are actually constructed by other people–skilled craftsmen in whatever medium he is using. I have some feelings about this that I’ll address in a future post.)

Jerram’s light-related work reminds me of another artist, James Turrell. Turrell plays with light, and the way our eyes and brains process light. Turrell’s pieces are really interesting. At first they appear boring–a square of light on a wall. But on closer inspection, you realize that the square of light is actually an opening into a room that is lit in such a way as to fool your eye into seeing a flat square of light. A box hanging in the corner turns out to be light projected from a lamp on the opposite side of the room.I saw a show of his work in Seattle at UW’s Henry Art Gallery. They have one of his skyspace pieces as a permanent installation. There is another one in San Francisco at the de Young. Turrell has been working on creating an enormous skyspace in the Roden Crater (outside of Flagstaff, AZ) since the late 1970s. It’s supposed to be finished and open to the public in 2011, but many doubt whether it will ever be open.

Turrell’s skyspaces are pretty amazing. They are rooms that you walk into, with openings in the ceiling. If you sit just so, and look up at just the right angle, the sky drops down onto the top of the hole, giving the impression that the sky is actually a flat surface just above your head. The nature of the illusion varies with the weather and time of day. When (if) the crater ever opens to the public, you can bet I’ll be making the trip.

Of course you all know Andy Goldsworthy. More nature-inspired than hard-core science, but pretty darn cool either way. I really like the temporal nature of much of his work. Of course I’ve only seen his works in stone (Storm King wall is neat, but Drawn Stone at the de Young is more subtle), but I’m really more fascinated with his pieces made of leaves and twigs. Like this, or this, or this. I love the fact that he sets out with no tools and uses only the materials he finds to create the sculptures. Many of them are deliberately short-lived: ice sculptures made at dawn that melt with the rising sun, or driftwood cairns that float away with the tide (sorry, the video is gone). If you haven’t seen Rivers and Tides, I highly recommend it.

You also may know my friend Carol Opie. She is a zoologist and a potter, and makes really awesome ceramic pieces with beetles and skeletons carved in them–but more than just carved. She carves the outline and stretches the clay to create a very three dimensional relief, using clay’s natural tendency towards surface cracks when it’s a little too dry, to produce wonderful texture. We’ve been woodfiring together lately, and I’m so glad–her work is perfect for the anagama.

Please, if you are a fan of any science-minded artists, tell me about them!

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On selling

This weekend (Dec 11-13) is the second half of Thurman Street Studios’ holiday open studio and sale. The first weekend went pretty well–lots of visitors, including visits from friends I hadn’t seen for a while. I sold some pieces, which was nice too. But the whole selling thing has me thinking. (What I’m about to say is about my feelings about my work. Please don’t read this as a judgement on the work of other artists who create work to sell. We all feel differently about our art, and that’s a good thing.)

Since I was a child, I’ve identified myself as an artist of one sort or another. My medium of choice has changed over the years, but one thing has remained consistent: I’ve never wanted my artwork to be dictated by the need to sell. That’s why I went to a state school rather than art school for undergrad, why I have degrees in biology and library science, and why I have a full-time career-type job outside of the studio. (Whether those have proven to be good decisions is a topic for another post.)

Pottery started as nothing more than a fun hobby. It cost a little and I produced a little bit of work, but never enough of either to worry about too much. Ten years later, it’s grown into an addiction that produces more work than I know what to do with, and costs more than I can justify spending on a hobby.

I still feel the same about not wanting my work to be dictated by what will sell. I don’t want to compromise my artistic integrity for a few bucks–that’s why I have a day job. But I’m spending more and more time and money on this “hobby” that has become a “business” and accumulating more work than I can pawn off on friends and relatives. I’m at a point where I either need to scale back or start selling enough to defray my expenses a bit. I don’t think I can scale back, so that leaves selling.

So what does that mean exactly? Well, I can make whatever I want, put price tags on the results and hope for the best (that’s what I’ve been doing). Or I can deliberately make pieces that I know will have a better chance of selling: mugs, bowls, glossy things with lots of color and pictures of birds. It would be nice to sell some work. Nice to be appreciated, and nice to defray expenses.

A former studio-mate told me once that selling is an integral part of her creative process. Obviously, I don’t feel that strong of a need to sell, but I also don’t want to create work in a vacuum. As I’ve said in a previous post, part of creating “art” is expressing something to an audience. Selling a piece shows that the piece is effective on some level. It communicated something to someone enough that they felt the desire to posses it. There is something to be said for that. There is also something to be said for being able to afford rent on my studio.

On the other hand, is there a point where the work ceases to be “art”? If the only objective of the creator is to make work to sell, I believe that it crosses a line. It may be wonderfully hand-crafted, well-designed work, but if it is not created with the intent to convey some sort of message or viewpoint from the artist to the audience, it is not art (by my definition). I don’t ever want to stop creating art.

I have to admit: the more I sell, the more I start to think about what will sell. It’s beginning to guide my creative process more than I might like. Maybe that’s ok. I don’t ever plan to go into production-mode, (my mom should know by now that asking me to make a set of dishes is fruitless) and I’m not going to give up my “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” attitude. But I have my own electric kiln now, and things like mugs and bowls are great for practicing technique. This winter, I’m going to spend some time working on my throwing, playing with some cone 6 clay, and figuring out if I can get anything out of an electric kiln that doesn’t make me cringe. I’ll let you know how it works out. :)


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New Wheel!!

Just a quick post to show off some pictures of my new wheel. I haven’t had a chance to throw anything yet, but it’s all put together and ready to go. Yay!

Here it is in pieces on the floor:

Here it is all put together and working. See, you can tell that it’s turning because Mr. Owl is blurry!

This is the studio from the doorway. Keep in mind that it’s set up for the open studio and sale, so it’s looking a little more like a display and less like a functional studio.

Coming soon: photos of pieces from November Digger Mt firing, Thanksgiving Nanagama firing, and a blog post on selling work and how I feel about the whole ordeal.

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The importance of art

I started this post a month or more ago and never posted it. Here it is!

Art matters. Art has been part of my life since I was old enough to say the word. In fact, I think that art is inextricably tied to who I am. I’ve had conversations with people over the years about a lot of related ideas — the value of sadness, the importance of feeling emotions*, seeing beauty in traditionally ugly things, and understanding “angst.” But at the root, I think it all comes back to art.

To really explain how I feel about art, I think I should start by explaining what art is to me. I know it’s different to everyone, so I don’t want to claim that this is the definition of art, just that it’s my definition. Art is any creation (visual, audible, tangible, etc) that deliberately expresses something about the artist’s experience of the world. In other words, something I create is art if I intentionally created it to communicate my feelings about any aspect of my life, experience, environment, imagination, etc. I think “good” art is good in that it expresses the artists intent successfully. Craft is an essential aspect of art, in that the craftsmanship of the art can add or detract from the success of the piece in communicating its intent. But something can be well crafted and not successful art if it does not express anything (which, of course, is in the eye of the beholder). That doesn’t mean it is not valuable in its own right, just that it doesn’t fit my definition of art.

So. Why is art important to me? Because I think that feelings and experience are valuable. Each of us has a unique life experience. Because of that unique experience, we see the world in different ways. We see beauty in different things, and we are hurt by different things. By sharing our experience through art, we give each other the opportunity to learn and grow. We are inspired by others’ creativity. We feel connected to each other in a way that spans distance and time. My life is made richer by seeing bits of the world through the filter of other artists’ creations, and I feel less alone when I see my own experience mirrored in their work.

I know that not everyone shares my definition of art, and not everyone values it the way I do. My mother has never understood why I want people I date to get the concept of angst. My favorite artwork has always been more about negative emotions and difficult experiences. It’s easy to see beauty in the beautiful, and reflecting that beauty back takes skill, but maybe not so much depth. Seeing beauty in sadness and using pain to create something that resonates with others is what captivates me.

This is something I struggle with in my own art. While pottery is my (current) medium of choice, I have yet to make anything that comes from that same depth of emotion that I value in other artists’ work. The piece I just finished (popularly known as Snork Bottles) comes the closest. It’s about the connections between people–conversations, cliques, families, and the feeling of being with, but still removed from the rest of the group. People seem to like it but they don’t necessarily see the message I’m trying to convey with it. I’m afraid that the cuteness of the bottles gets in the way of the message.

My other work is more about the process of pottery–the feeling of the clay, the physical evidence (or lack of evidence) of the artist in the finished piece. It’s experimental, interesting and fun but doesn’t come from great depth of feeling.

Since I was a child, I’ve felt the need to express something through my artwork. I’ve created many pots, poems, drawings, paintings, sculptures that I’m proud of, but nothing that scratches that itch.

Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe once I create a piece that successfully communicates all the emotions I had as a 13 year old sitting in the crook of an oak tree writing incomprehensible poems and drawing pictures of wild roses, or all the thoughts that ran through my head as a college student listening to Love Hangover, drinking whiskey and drawing nudes out of an old Playboy at 2am, I’ll be done and there won’t be anything left to say.

(*The Giver by Lois Lowry and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two of my favorite stories about the importance of feeling negative emotions.)

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Pottery and Community

This weekend is the opening of St. Johns+Art, a community art exhibition with the theme “inspired by St. Johns.” In honor of the event, I thought I’d write a post about pottery and community. This post is a long time coming—in my very first post I promised you I’d revisit the idea of community in a future post.

I have only lived in St. Johns for a little over a year, but what has struck me most about the neighborhood is the fact that community is key. St. Johns is made up of long-time residents with a strong sense of place and new additions, like myself, who came seeking a small-town sense of ownership in their community. Inspired by St. Johns, I chose pieces for my window that reflect the importance of community.

One of my pieces is titled “Pottery Community.” It is a group of bottles, arranged in clusters of two, three or four. The bottles have narrow necks that curve, and bases that lean, so they appear to be talking, watching, or reacting to each other. I used different clays for each bottle, and fired them in different areas of the kiln, so each has a unique color and surface texture.

The piece (I view it as one piece made up of many parts—like a Volvox colony!) is intended to reflect the juxtaposition* of solitude and community intrinsic to the creation of art. Many of us create much of our work in solitude, but not in isolation. We are influenced by art we see and artists we meet. If we work in collective studio environments, we constantly observe and learn from the work processes of other artists.

As you know, most of my work is wood fired, a process which requires collaboration between six to twenty potters to fill and fire a kiln over several days. Each piece in the kiln is affected by the pieces around it. In wood firing, the surface of each piece is decorated by the flame pattern flowing through the kiln. As the flame travels through the kiln, its path is dictated by the placement of the pots. Every pot contributes to the overall success of the firing through its interaction with the flame.

Every person on the firing crew contributes to the success of the firing. Preparation of pots, wood cutting and kiln maintenance must be done before the firing begins. During the firing, the kiln must be stoked continually for 48 hours or more, with careful attention paid to the fire throughout. None of this could be done without a hard-working, vigilant firing crew.

A positive community experience during the firing is also critical. At its best, a firing is a gathering of like-minded people working hard, breaking bread and sharing wine in the most beautiful of locations. As in all group situations, negativity can enter in the form of differing expectations, ambiguity of direction, and perceived imbalance of contributions. It is important for each person to treat each other person with respect, and to feel that their concerns are heard. Gossip and poor communication can cause stress.

All participants recognize the importance of working together to add the final layer to our artistic creations. That spirit of community carries on after the firing and influences the work we create for future firings. We are inspired by the work of our fellow potters and driven by wanting to contribute our best work to future firings.

*It is important to always incorporate the word “juxtaposition” when discussing art. :)

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