Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Daily Mini Sculpture Project: missing days

Somehow I missed a day or two last week. The student show opened at the Larson Gallery on Tuesday. Saturday I did a raku firing with my clay students all morning (and into the afternoon--they were motivated and did not want to stop). Next week is the last week of the quarter. And my daughter got sick after the raku firing. Am I making excuses?

I made one piece during the week.

I made this one while watching TV with the family.

The next three I finished on Sunday after recovering from the firing and after the sick kid felt better.

I bought some shells to use to replace some shell sprigs that are missing somewhere in the collections of stuff in my home studio or my work studio locker. The new shells came in a cheap bag that was apparently glued or epoxied shut. The adhesive got all over several of the shells and stuck them together. I used the stuck shells to impress the surface of this piece while my daughter sorted the rest of the shells.

Some sprigs and sprig pieces my daughter made after sorting the rest of the shells.

During the week, even though I didn't make much, I kept taking inspiration hints for the project. I got a series of dud inspirations like "tiny" and "nature" and something the size of a dollar. On a basic level these are easy to do but I don't feel very satisfied with my creative response to these hints. Distracted, I guess, and not very excited about the hints. But I suppose using shells is nature and all my stuff is tiny and roughly the size of a dollar. I made some stuff anyway.

My students keep asking about using glass as part of glaze. The problem with glass is that by itself it will melt but not fuse to the clay. Glazes are made of clay and silica. The silica forms glass and the clay causes the glass to stick to the fired clay. However, I haven't personally played with melting glass in the kiln, so this piece has indents into which I plan to put pieces of glass to melt. Gravity and the irregular shape should (maybe) hold the glass in after firing. Or else the glass will twist out of the hole and maintain its shape.

This piece was the last of three I made Sunday evening. 

Monday while my daughter played in the sandbox, I used acorn shells and other tree droppings for this guy.

the book's hint for today was "a love story in 10 words" but since I wasn't going to write (its not really the parameters of my project), I created this guy which I meant to suggest the curved head of a swan. I was picturing the heart that is created in by the curving necks of two swans. I suppose it makes more sense with two of them, but I was thinking the love story didn't end happily. I kept thinking what the love story would look like if I dropped the piece while still wet.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Raku Firing (Spring 2012)

This weekend we had our Spring raku firing. The class is energetic and interested. All this is good--really good, but it also means we were there later than usual. I actually forced them out by the end because I wanted to get home.

I didn't get as many pictures as I had hoped, particularly of the stuff coming out of the kiln, perhaps my students will help me out if they took pictures.


I did get some videos, though I was directing part of the process and trying to help so I didn't always get video of each round. 

This first video is of the last set of stuff we unloaded. This was the first time these two students had opened the kiln. It was also the first time for one of the students helping with the post-firing reduction buckets. The results of this firing were quite good. Better than average. I need to ask the students to get me pictures. The two largest pieces reduced evenly all over their sides. I didn't realize it at the time, but the student waving the small white bowl was probably trying to cool it quickly to crack the clear glaze on the surface before reducing it. We aren't sure why the green bowl blew out the side, though it may have been touching the insulation of the kiln, I don't believe it was.

This next video was from the first round. I was trying to direct and to record, so the video is shaky (beware motion sickness). Students are unloading the kiln and trying to remove broken shards from the shelf. Early in the firing a piece exploded and we removed it but were unable to remove all of it. Actually, the piece popped twice, so we turned off the gas and pulled up the top of the kiln. I started to remove the piece when the base literally exploded in my tongs. It didn't hurt but it sure surprised me. It turns out the piece was probably still wet from being rinsed and glazed the night before. Everything else we fired sat in or on a hot kiln before loading. 

This video shows the process of trying to unload the broken (and glazed) shards we missed the first time and the biscuit (flat piece of clay on which we set work if the glaze might drip) with glaze drips. Then the hot kiln is reloaded. I only recorded one piece going in; I think I put down the camera and helped load. This time in between firings took longer than usual and was faster between the second and third rounds later in the day.

Here a piece had been cooling for a while after being removed from the post-firing reduction bucket. My daughter dropped in a little seed or something from a tree and watched it burn and jump. I started recording to catch the "ting-ting" of the cooling glaze but kept recording because I was entertained by my daughter's interest in the burning seed.

This last video is a short recording of unloading a piece from the post-firing reduction bucket. The piece has been reducing and cooling for a while, though, as you can tell, is still hot enough to light the shredded paper on fire.


action shot: post-firing reduction bucket

piece recently removed from post-firing reduction bucket

cooling pieces

emptying the post-firing reduction buckets

horse-hair on naked raku

post-firing reduction buckets (after firing)

I gave my daughter my iPhone before we unloaded the last kiln. But I also gave her instructions to stay back behind where we were firing, so most of the pictures either include people's backs or are avante garde arrangements of her fingers over the lens (intentionally) or the subtle pattern of shredded paper on pavement. Here are two that include no rears.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Daily Mini Sculpture Project: Assessment

When I set up my rules for this project, I said I wouldn't start to assess my progress until the end. This weekend I had some time to think (the time to think was occasioned by my daughter and husband being out of the house for an extended time when I didn't have homework or some other commitment) and I started to think about the project.

I have persisted in the project better than I anticipated. I've only missed a day or two and mostly I've made up for the days by doubling up the next day or a few days later. I've made some pretty good pieces. I've made some pieces that weren't much different from my usual work and I've rushed some pieces, particularly when life has intruded on the boundaries of the project time. I've made some pieces that are very different, outside my comfort zone. I wouldn't have made these pieces without the project guidelines. 

Some of the pieces I've made haven't been up to my standards, but I've kept (and photographed and posted) everything. The parameters of the project required this. I think it was a worthwhile project to require myself to finish and photograph everything. Had I been working in my studio under normal circumstances, I would have taken much longer to complete individual pieces and I would have already scrapped some of the less successful pieces. Several times I ended up telling myself that a piece was "good enough." Granted, I have some plans for some surface treatments after firing, but several of these pieces have come to a premature conclusion because my daughter wants to play or I need to go cook dinner.

Just this last week I finished this piece with a rough surface texture and linear indents because I needed to work on something else. The piece is fine, but not that unusual or interesting on its own. I can experiment with underglaze or other surface treatments later. The inspiration hint was water, though, as you can tell, the execution is only vaguely related to the term.

This piece was on its way when my daughter came in ask me to do something. I quickly use a bone dry pot shard to shape the edge between the ball of the form and the stem. I poked some holes and rushed off. 

I think the requirement to make and finish something during an already full day forces me to make different decisions than I would normally make when time is not an issue (or a parameter). Reaching the "end" of the piece necessarily comes quickly. In my studio during the summer I usually spend hours and days on an individual piece. I work and work and work on textures and surfaces. Many of the projects for his assignment have finished with rough surfaces and similar forms, though a few have been made with significantly different forms than I usually use. 

This piece was inspired by "camouflage." Upright it looks a bit like an animal on many narrow toes.

Flipped up you can see what it was hiding underneath.

This piece took longer than most of the pieces I've been able to do for the project. I enjoyed the time I spent on it, but I was only able to steal the time because of the aforementioned absence of my family. 

During the summer I will be able to spend more time on individual pieces again but the mini-sculpture project seems like one I should continue with similar parameters (maybe a time limit). It is a different way of working. In some ways the restrictions of the project are refreshing. In some ways it is like the blog project or a commitment to exercising; I commit to do so much, so often and just do it, finishing at a set time rather than after reaching some subjective quality goal.

Some of the projects have caused me to experiment with a new techniques, process or idea, something I might polish or continue to experiment with in the summer.

The piece below was a technique I discovered on accident. The application is a little sloppy (you can see the seam if you look carefully) but I can use a more refined version of the technique later on other work. I formed the work, then cut it in half and poked the bumps through from the interior before putting the halves together again.

Often it seems that the forms that are most different from my habitual forms are also the ones that are least successful. However, even with the ridiculously unsuccessful pieces (generally the more literal interpretations of an inspiration hint) I have felt like I have learned something. 

This inspiration hint was "bird" but the paper also had a sketch of what I meant by bird. This was one of the more successful of the literal interpretation pieces because I had done a little more planning (by having a sketch on the inspiration hint) before I began.

The less successful element of this work is the wings. I used simple slabs and I'm not very happy with the way they just curve roughly around the form. They feel like literal add-ons, where the rest of the bird form is simplified from real life. There has to be a better way to abstract the wings and maintain the solidity and gracefulness of the form.

*cringe* This was done the same day as the bird above. Sometimes what I try just doesn't work. (But I kept it and photographed it per the "rules" of the project.)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Inspiration Images

I thought I would share some images I have been collecting over the last few weeks. As I gear up (mentally) for my summer studio time, I keep noticing interesting shapes and forms around me. Though I haven't really started making sculptures based on these times, I have been taking pictures. I usually print the pictures and put them up in my studio or sketch them and keep the sketchbook handy in the studio when I start to work.

I had a little extra time today after work so I put away some stuff in my studio after my last show. Here are some pictures of my studio storage area now. I had to consolidate last summer's work so I had room for my mini sculpture project pieces.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Daily Mini Sculpture Project: New Camera

Here are the latest additions to the mini sculpture project. I believe I am above 60 pieces. Who is going to glaze all these? Maybe my next project will be "daily mini glazing"

This guy has some pen tips and some flower stamps (barely visible because they were pressed lightly into drier clay).

Today's inspiration hint was "student." I have a couple of students who are making work with dragons. One made a dragon relief sculpture on the side of her thrown pot, the other is turning the spout of her teapot into a dragon's mouth. I started by planning to have a dragon on the side of this mini sculpture but apparently I got distracted and it turned into an ROUS mixed with a stegosaurus.

Donut additions with all three textures courtesy of a mini screwdriver my husband left out. The inspiration hint was to use materials nearby.
screwdriver texture again

One I am certainly not happy with. The inspiration hint was to make something inspired by Stephen Robison, but I think I was in a bad mood.

Robison teapot

I had a rough week. I was feeling crummy this weekend. I think I either skipped or misplaced a piece or two. Luckilly today was beautiful and I was able to get all the Department of Visual Arts Student and Faculty Exhibition paperwork and inventory done today. I feel much better. My husband got me a tiny camera for mother's day. It is nice and portable but it might not be the official recording device for the rest of this project. Results below:

Make something inspired by breakfast. Yum

I worked with sloppy wet clay while my daughter played on the swing in back. This one was fast but, ironically, much better than the one above, though it took less time.

Back to the old camera (iPhone) for a round up of storage/drying area. Soon I will need to clean my studio or fire some work at least I feel like I've done something with my spring. I'm also looking forward to using those new sprigs next to the ROUS.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Can Art Be Taught?

While grading some assignments in class, I was thinking about the process of learning about art. Actually, there were several events in the last couple weeks that made me think critically about teaching and learning art. Of course I think about this all the time, but these three events put the question into new focus for me.

Writing about Art
First, I had a a conversation with a student about a writtten assignment. The class writes a short assignment about a contemporary artist each week. This assignment is very short, only 1-3 sentences. They write about the same artist all quarter and the topic they are asked to address is the topic recently covered or covered the week of the assignment. Last week they were asked to write about their artists' composition. We've spent a week and a half talking about balance, rhythm, consistency with variety, dominance and scale. During class they looked at and discussed artworks, watched and listened to me point out important aspects of the arrangement or particular works and even explained terms themselves. On the last day of the unit, I had them do a Bauhaus-style activity where they arranged scraps of paper to create compositions that showed various terms. I thought they were prepared.

But this particular student (and a handful of others) had completely missed the point of the writing assignment. As an example, for my work I would have expected something like this: "Rachel's work shows rhythm and consistency in the repetitive use of sprigs, applied textures and embellishments that cover and transform her surfaces. Her colors and textures are varied and are often organized in such a way to create emphasis or contrast between sections of a particular work."

The assignment isn't meant to be simple, though it is short. I know my own work like the back of my hand, but writing the two sentences above took three rewrites. I ask students to describe the compositions we generally see in all the work (or a representative group of work) by their artist. Students have to first look at enough work by their artist to get a sense of it. They then have to apply their knowledge of the class terminology, much of which is new to them. They need to combine their (complex) observations with their knowledge of the new terms from class. And finally they have to write it down in a coherent set of sentences. I tell them they shouldn't be writing this just once but should be editing their first drafts. Regardless, I suspect some of the work I grade was written in one shot and took the students all of 10 minutes. This is a shame, but I don't think their is much I can reasonably do to prevent this. To their credit, some students do this assignment (and others like it) beautifully and I can see that they both understand the class terms and ideas and are familiar with the work by their chosen artist.

Each quarter I have students at either end of the spectrum of effort and understanding. The student I mentioned above appears to be making an effort, he asks questions, does all the work and is active in class discussions, but he also doesn't seem to be getting it. On the one hand, I wish he would take me up on my numerous offers to come talk to me in office hours or during individual work time in class (admittedly work time in class is rare, but it happens). On the other hand, I don't quite understand why homework, assigned readings, class discussions, lectures and review assignments aren't enough to get him on the right track. Maybe all that stuff can't take a student who is completely unfamiliar with the subject and turn them into the class leader, but it seems like they should be getting by if they are doing all those things.

I am aware that I have a limited ability to know just how much of the assigned work and reading is getting done or getting done carefully. I also have a hard time, sometimes, relating to the academic experience of students who don't have the habits and skills of a strong student. I don't remember a time when I didn't have these things. (Though my mother likes to remind me of a certain ziggurat project in elementary school. Apparently I neglected to mention it for 2 weeks, then started it the night before it was due. Perhaps this early mistake and her frustration with me prevented me from making similar mistakes in high school and college.)

Though I don't have a good answer for the student above, or others like him, I did make a point of talking to him before this week's assignment was submitted. It was one of those rare days when we had a few extra minutes before the end, and I asked if he wanted me to look at the assignment before he turned it in. He did; I did, and it turned out this one was much better. I pointed out one minor change and he was able to earn full or almost full points when he did turn it in. Success or fluke?

Critiquing Individual Progress
Another teaching/learning moment in the past weeks happened during a long clay critique. This quarter's beginning class is, overall, quite strong. It helps that it is a big class and I also have several students who work quite hard. I think they are a positive influence on the class overall and subconsciously encourage the rest of the class to work harder.

For this second critique, most students had a lot of work. the quality was good and on average I would say the work presented this quarter was stronger than the average work presented last quarter for the corresponding project. Most of the students this quarter had done well in the first critique a month ago. The work we were looking at represented throwing skills and effort that started higher and ended higher than the average. They were building on a strong foundation.

However, two students showing work in this second critique had done very poorly on the first critique. For various reasons, they just didn't have much work done. They had a lot more work in the second critique though, for at least one, the quality was as high. If I remember correctly (more than a week has passed between the critique and this writing), the quality of at least one of the student's work was below average when compared to the less competitive work produced last quarter.

As I was making grading notes for these two students, I started to wonder about how often grading in a critique setting is relative to the quality of the class rather than to an ideal or a general standard. Did these two students work harder than their classmates because they were not building on a solid foundation of work from the first critique, though the quality of their work was certainly less than that of their classmates. If I were grading to an ideal or standard of where they should be at the middle of the quarter, these two students are below the standard while most of their classmates are above the standard. However, if I am grading each unit separately, these students improved significantly from the end of the first project to the start of the second project.

As a comparison, I have a student this quarter who started the class head and shoulders above her classmates. She hadn't taken the class before but was familiar with the material and had been around the studio. In the first project she blew the standard and her classmates out of the water on both effort and improvement. She challenged herself and worked harder and more consistently than her classmates. She started the second project in a similar vein. But then there were some distractions and she ended up missing a significant amount of studio time during the end of the project. she did the assigned work and her work was still probably stronger than that of her classmates but she hadn't improved significantly or challenged herself much within this particular project. Compared to a general standard, her work for the second project was much better, but compared to her work at the end of the first project, there was little improvement.

So, who worked harder in the second project, the below-average student who improved from a poor foundation or the above-average student who didn't improve on an impressive foundation?

Seeing Design
The third art-teaching question has been surfacing with some regularity in my design class this quarter. The class is an introductory design class, not focused on any particular technique. We do a lot of talking about and looking at art. They have regular weekly readings and lots of sketching and planning assignments that require them to practice seeing and showing that they understand various design terms. The projects in the class introduce them to various drawing and collage techniques. The class generally has students with a range of abilities and experience.

This quarter I have two students, in particular, who tend to come regularly and work hard, but I have been struggling to help them see or understand the concepts of the class. With other students I can point out a particular element or arrangement in the composition and they can then recognize it and recreate it or even see it in a similar context. The goal is, eventually, for them to be able to see these important elements on their own.

However, these two students don't appear to be able to see the elements when I point them out. I find this very frustrating. I suspect the students do as well. One of these student was working on a paper collage. She was meant to be recreating the composition and tonal variation of a found work. She worked on the assignment outside of class and brought to class a "finished" composition as well as the original photograph from a magazine. My immediate reaction was that her composition was a mess and only vaguely resembled the original. So I pointed out to her the color and texture contrast that I thought she was missing. She acknowledged what I said and I left her to work. I spoke to other students, worked my way around the room and when I came back to her, she had added some paper to her collage but had failed to address the problem. I told her to set aside the original and work with loose paper so that she could make major changes. I showed her an example. I pointed out the important tonal contrasts in her original and told her what tones she needed to collect before she could proceed with her collage. She spent time, but somehow didn't do this.

Before the next class I prepared a more thorough example. I had shown the students a finished example and an incomplete example but I hadn't shown them how I manipulated the papers before I attached them down for the final composition. So I did this. I went back to the student, but nothing I said for two days seemed to make a difference. The composition she submitted at the end of the day was different from the original and better in some ways, but she had still completely ignored a significant light area in the middle ground of the composition. This area we had discussed at least three times, she hadn't even nodded to in her "new" version. I started to wonder if she couldn't see what I was pointing to.

Just yesterday another student from this class had a similar situation. She was meant to be recreating the style of a set of images in her new composition. In the other assignments from the week she was to have identified compositional elements, copied the exact composition of the original images in sketches and created planning sketches for her finished composition. She hadn't done the last part, which was unfortunate, but I believe she had done the first two parts.

BG17wm.jpg  ca-museum-countryjoe.jpg

When she described to me her plans, I thought she understood the important aspects of the style she was trying to recreate (1960s and 1970s music concert posters). She mentioned the curving text, and planned to create the composition using paper collage which seemed appropriate (the posters were originally printed using silkscreen techniques). But after she had begun, I returned to look at the work and discovered that her approach to the psychedelic "lava lamp" curving text was to cut out balloon letters and place them in a backwards line. When I pointed out that the line of the text warped and bent but didn't reverse direction, she turned the text around. Then I pointed out that
the letters themselves bent and twisted irregularly. I pointed out that some of the letters were squished with just a thin line indicating the spaces between parts (look at the image above on the right).

But despite all the characteristics I pointed out, the student wouldn't or couldn't change her composition or her elements. I started to wonder whether she could see these elements I was trying so hard to show her.

Why Art Cannot be Taught
In these three personal explorations of how art can or cannot be taught, I neglected to mention the other influence on these reflections. I just read the book Why Art Cannot be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students. The book, as you might guess, discusses the question of whether art can be taught. The author isn't referring to art technique, which, of course can be taught, but expression or essence in art. I didn't start (or end) my reading with much faith in the argument that Art is this something other that you either have or don't have, but I guess the idea has been simmering for some time. Combined with my experiences above, I guess I have started to wonder if the author might be right.

Why Art Cannot be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students

I went into the book thinking that what I do is help students see and recognize qualities that make their art. I teach them technique but I also teach them to recognize and maybe create good compositions. I teach them to think about what they are making and why. We practice discussing how a composition affects the viewer, how it is interpreted and what elements or aspects of the work cause the viewer to react in a particular way. Perhaps this isn't the same as making "art" but I'm not sure you can make good art without a grounding understanding of these concepts. 

Not a small part of the process is learning to work. I guess I am a believer in giving the students a solid foundation of concepts but maybe more important is learning that art takes time and effort. This quarter I think I have succeeded in convincing the majority of my clay class the value of repetition and practice. The result has been stronger than average work produced by these students. I heard from another instructor that my design class is "a lot of work." This is almost the same thing. I don't think that class, as a group, has recognized any value in the hard work. 

Mostly I think that if I can just get them to recognize the importance of drafts and sketches and practice--if I can get them to practice enough, in other words--they can push through the blocks they are having and get to a place of higher art. But a nagging thought in the back of my head is that maybe some of them won't be able to "see" the concepts even with a lot of practice. I think that inability to see or do is the premise of the book.