Anvil

When people ask me what I do, it is extremely rare that they don’t tell me about a connection they have to ceramics. The memories the medium invokes are strong, whether it is something they made when they were younger, going with their father to check the kilns, or telling me about their Grandmother and the bisqueware she painted. All of these are magnificent, and the conversation that comes from it is a good reason to be a ceramist.

But last night when I heard a friend’s connection to clay, it knocked my socks off. He started by telling me that his Grandmother did ceramics. He moved his hands to explain what he meant. I didn’t get the meaning at first. I couldn’t tell if it was hand-building or throwing, as he went on, I realized why. He told me that his Grandmother made all of the family’s pottery. She sent him and the other kids to the river to collect smooth stones that she would use to smooth the pots after she had built them. Again, he moved his hands to explain, and I understood the use of an anvil in a way I hadn’t imagined. The smooth rocks on the inside and outside, working with water to smooth and create the form.

I didn’t have to ask the details, my friend was eager to share. They would gather wood and build a fire around the pots she made. Sometimes they cracked from the flame, but she would just make another. The clay, I wondered about. They had to go outside the small village where they lived to collect it. It took a lot of work to get it to a consistency that would work, so they would knead it and press it to get it ready for her. When he was describing the clay he told me about what it could do, more than how it felt. His Grandmother made large jugs that would keep water cool no matter how hot it was outside. Good science, but mostly, an incredible relief in the heat of Mexico. And that they would gather other types of clay to build houses and apply to the walls so that they would never have to be painted. Again, he swirled his hand to show me how he did it.

This was almost too much for me to take in. I could have talked for hours, finding details, but I didn’t want to lose the magic of that conversation. At the end my friend told me that his favorite memory of working with his Grandmother was, after they were done, he and the other kids would go dig for old shards of clay and find broken pieces with faces carved in from long ago. I could imagine the wonder of a boy finding a connection to the past, and had the honor to see the excitement of a middle-aged man being taken back to that moment.

Advertisements

Answers

“Set goals. Make lists that have nothing to do with those goals.” This is a small excerpt from, what can really only be called a ceramic manifesto, that I found myself writing, trying to find some direction, several months ago. I pulled these two lines out, rewrote it a hundred times until I had it right, and framed it behind a piece of plexiglass and four finishing nails, with the heads sheared off and shaped like an L. It’s rough-edged. I read it every day.

Recently, someone asked me what it meant. I didn’t know how to answer, or that I wanted to answer, even if I could. I find myself doing that quite a bit. Not answering. After nearly two decades teaching college students, and thinking about what it meant for me to be a student myself, I have found that answers tend to stop ideas. At first, I was frustrated when my undergraduate teacher wouldn’t answer my questions. I had a desperate need to know right then, so that I could move on. But then I realized that once I knew, I would be moving on. Not forward, not deeper, just on to something else. Kotani could have just told me. I’m glad he didn’t. Now I realize that he answered all of my questions by not telling me what would happen. He taught me to explore, try, fail, research, practice, reflect and try again. He taught the persistence of learning.

Finding an answer as an artist, in the infinite list of possible answers, is far more meaningful than a single answer that is handed out and patiently accepted. Ideas are difficult; they challenge, they ask questions, they doubt, and then they lead to conclusions that may not have been considered before ­– by anyone. In art-making everything matters, from practice to concept to science to philosophy, it all is embroiled in a larger discussion about what it means to be creative and make connections. This is the most critical of thinking and as a result, Art becomes a response to the great expanse of things and ideas, and a deliberate statement on itself. In art-making, ideas weave in and around each other in non-linear, seemingly inefficient, yet wildly productive ways, to generate a fabric that is magnificent in its complexity and depth.

A simple answer can stop that in it’s tracks. Maybe I could explain the excerpt, but it wouldn’t do any good. For anyone.

Quiet

Music inspires me every day. It seems to embody passion and thought like few other art forms, and many times I find it running through my head when I am doing other things. Except when I am in the ceramics studio. When I draw, sometimes, music seems ok. Other times, I want to hear the scratch of the drawing utensil, for me a zip-tie, or get absorbed in the movement of the ink. But always in the ceramics studio, I need quiet.

Clay is contemplative, like many other disciplines, but ceramics has a history of stillness and reflection that has permeated the way we work today. I used the think that it was the patting of the clay, or the faintest sound of my hand on the clay, but throwing is so quiet, that even in the most serene of environments, it is hard to perceive. I think that my need for quiet is just about focus. There are so many distractions in our daily lives that I think we need time to concentrate, and to use all of that concentration. Of course I need noise, conversation, and outside influence, but when I am working I want to dedicate myself to it, not to be divided, or have a backdrop of distraction waiting to insert itself.

It sounds like a need for isolation. It is not. Art needs the presence of others to be relevant. There are always other people there. The ceramics studio works well this way. People come and go, sometimes with a whispered hello, other times with unspoken acknowledgement, everyone building their life as an artist through their own specific way of working. The collective concentration feeds off of itself, and creativity stretches near the limits, taking risks without the socially constructed worry of acceptability, and without being pulled out of the delicate grip of art-making.

Student work

At the end of most of the semesters that I have been teaching, I have bought a piece of art from a graduating senior. Not always a work from the exhibition, often I have found a piece that didn’t make the cut, or that the student didn’t consider submitting. My walls are full of work done by these students.

I have thought about why I do this. Sometimes I think it is a way to give them a push as they begin their career, sometimes I think it is a way to give them an economic benefit for their hard work, although it is often very modest, but in reality, it is because no one makes as good of work as undergraduate students do.

Of course, I am talking about work that moves beyond projects and doesn’t show an explicit influence of their professor. This work is reflective of a time of transition. It is from a time when the artist is full of confidence and ambition, a time when there is no constraint and, interestingly, a time when no one is standing over their shoulder telling them about the limits of their ideas, or how their work would fit, or not fit, in the world outside. The art is work that is done on the cusp. It is defined by a sense of risk and experimentation that is raw, new, fresh.

As the years pile on, work becomes more and more resolved. Something is lost when that happens. When I walked out of the studio in December, carrying a small ink and watercolor drawing in a store-bought frame and a mat cut with an exacto knife, I realized that I seek this work out because it is what Art is supposed to be; it’s audacious, unrefined and full of potential.

Drawing

Drawing has always been a part of the studio, and one that I have always struggled with. I have seen the value of it shift over the years, originally, the idea that you had to know how to draw to be an artist weighed on me. I couldn’t draw a straight line, much less make something look like something else. I spoke to Kotani, my ceramics professor in undergrad, about this one Friday evening in the studio, he told me to use a ruler.

Even with such straight forward advice, it was still intimidating. Nothing looked right, or had the illusion of depth and perspective that I saw in other work, but I loved the line and the way the material moved on the surface. I realized that it didn’t make too much difference what I was drawing, or what it looked like, but that I was approaching seeing and ideas in a different way, a way that alluded to space, rather than occupied it. It helped me slow down and take a step back from the frenzied work of the studio. It forced a pause in the activity of making objects, pieces that I worried would quickly become something that was just taking up more space in the world. Drawing was used as a way to reassess and clarify.

Recently, however, drawing has become the thing in and of itself. Drawing has shifted away from it’s supporting role for the objects, and become a distinct way of working. Of course, the drawings, the ceramics, the sculpture, they all inform each other, they may even respond to each other, but they are only the result of a particular studio practice. Disciplines are fluid, possibly better understood as broader. Work has more to do with ideas than with a specific medium, and it turns out that ceramics has very little to do with clay. Ceramics is an approach to art-making that embraces the most expansive understanding of context, the notion of craft, the foundation of function, the importance of process and the deep reflection on the residue of that activity, whatever it may be.

Urgency

I am not rested. I finished a piece today, maybe. Every time I start to work, I am convinced that I will pace myself. I say that I am taking the long view and there is no real rush to get this done. I make a schedule. I never stick with it.

In the studio, I forget to drink water, or eat, or look up. I can’t. At some point, the basic necessities become unavoidable, but that always happens at a time when something has to be done. It will have to wait, the work calls for it. It’s frantic. And it doesn’t stop until there is some degree of resolution. That may be my personality, but I think it has more to do with art-making. It is all consuming to the point that when I finally stop and leave the studio, I have to refocus my orientation to the world around me. Everything seems strange and unfamiliar for a few brief, clean, fresh moments.

The urgency is something I think about quite a bit, and is something that I don’t seem able to resolve. I have time, and there is nothing really at stake; nothing that compels me to finish the work quickly. It may be that work is about ideas that seep back and forth between all the different aspects of life. I used to think, formally, that Art had to solely respond to Art, it may, but in terms of intent, work is informed by experience well outside the bounds of the discipline of Art. It doesn’t have to be visible in the finished piece, but, in general, this way of working leaves me with this constant, and often unpleasant, need to delve deeper and make connections between disparate experiences. There is no rest. A friend described the life of an artist as relentless. She was right.

Keramist

When I heard the news, I wept. I had come to my desk to check my email and saw that my teacher, Tony Hepburn had passed away. This was a year ago. I hadn’t spoken to him for far too long. With so many students, I don’t know that he would have remembered me, certainly not as vividly as I remembered him. In my second year at Cranbrook, Tony talked to me about when he would no longer be standing over my shoulder. He spoke of this time many years after I was to graduate when I would be working and realize that he wasn’t there. He thought this is what should happen. I have thought about this for the past 20 years. Sometimes Tony isn’t in my studio, but when he is there, he doesn’t hold me back. Instead, the work is more challenging; I am both more focused and more willing to take risks. Time passes differently in those moments. I feel confident he said this to me about teachers in general, and I agree, but he may have been the exception.

I changed the nameplate on my door. Now it says; Aaron Wilcox. Keramist. In my first days at Cranbrook, before anyone else had gotten there, I went to Tony’s studio to say hello, let him know I was there, and probably ask if I could make clay. I was anxious. This was when Ceramics was still in one of the original Saarinen buildings and I found myself in a dark, unlit hallway. The hallway ended at a door that was nearly blocked by boxes and crates from his residency at the European Ceramic Workcentre. On the door was a small plate that said Tony Hepburn. Keramist. He wasn’t there, but I knew I was in the right place in every interpretation of that thought. The plate on my door is in honor of Tony and that moment when the tide turned.

This blog is about ceramics, understood in the broadest sense. I think it will be about ideas on studio practice, about context, and about risk. It’s not technical. It’s not about my work, at least not specifically, at least not physically. The blog will be one aspect of the residue of my practice.