Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Big Magic" & Coincidence

A few weeks ago I wrote about "Those Times When I Can't Get Motivated." When I shared this post, several friends commented on it in ways that felt supportive and helped me feel better about my slump. One of these commenters suggested I should read Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic. The person who suggested it, Cheryl Hahn, is an amazing artist and someone I respect both as a person and as an artist, so I put the book on my library hold list.

The Cheryl Hahn painting in my dining room.

And then, while I was doing the dishes or something boring, I decided to catch up on some episodes of By the Book, a hilarious podcast about self-help books that I've been listening to on and off for most of a year. I don't actually like self-help books, but I enjoy the podcast. Anyway, the book they were doing was Gilbert's Big Magic. What?

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

At the time I listened to By the Book's take on Big Magic, I hadn't read it and had only just heard of it, but now I know that, according to Gilbert, the coincidence of the personal recommendation followed closely by the book's appearance in my podcast feed is, basically, "big magic."

The funny thing is, the way By the Book described Big Magic made me want to run from it. I hadn't read the subtitle, "Creative Living Beyond Fear" and that combined with it being pegged as a "self-help" book made it sound like something I would not enjoy. It sounded sappy, cheesy, and like something that's been done, even though the By the Book ladies both ended up recommending it.

By the Book Podcast

By now my library hold had come in, but I still didn't get started reading it immediately. It didn't sound like fun. But, since Cheryl had recommended it, I gave it a try. I thought I'd speed read through it and see if it was worth anything. And I did speed through the first part, but then I started getting tripped up on coincidence.

This past Thursday was advising day and among many, many conversations about which courses are required for the AA, I had a really exciting conversation with a student about the feasibility of being an artist or, specifically someone who makes things with their hands. I basically told this student that if they really wanted to "make stuff" in their life, they could "make-up" the jobs that went along with it. I did a bunch of that in the years before and during my graduate school career, proposing art classes that didn't previously exist to city park and rec programs, and being paid only if the classes filled, teaching computers to senior citizens in one of those city programs (most surprisingly difficult class I ever taught), and selling my "boxes" and fountains at all manner of arts and crafts fairs.

the fountains were really a blast to make, a pain to set up each time, but overall lots of fun

Just after having this conversation with the student, I'm reading this book where Gilbert is basically saying that if you want to "make stuff" in your life, you should just make time to do it, even if it isn't your "real job" and even if it doesn't make you any money. It wasn't exactly the same conversation, because ours had to do with making money and the benefits and challenges of "making stuff" for other people to pay the bills, but it was similar. And it resonated, as did the remainder of the book, with me about why we make art.

Around this time another coincidence of sentiment showed up in my life. One of my colleagues, Peter Monahan, is both a Spanish teacher and a filmmaker. He shared with me this video he had made about Janet Essley, an artist and educator in the Washington/Oregon area. The video is short, so definitely watch it. In the video, the artist talks about needing to make art, even though it isn't how she makes a living.

By this time I was really getting excited about Big Magic, the book and the stories within. Some pieces of it are a little woo-woo, like I'd rather call them coincidences or even stuff that reaffirms what I think is important, whereas Gilbert gives inspiration and creativity a kind of agency of its own. It reminded me of Marie Kondo thanking inanimate objects for their service. But I really enjoyed Gilbert's light hearted approach to both the book and "living a creative life."

Another thing mentioned in the book was that if you don't feel inspired, just follow your curiosity, even if its barely there. I've been spending a bunch of time in the the last few weeks drawing and coloring complex Valentine's Day cards with my daughter for her classmates. They are weirdly fun and relaxing to draw and color. 

She recommends taking risks, doing the work, following what seems like a random tangent in the work and not asking for any results in return: "Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting." Gilbert recommends just finding everything interesting. Oh, I failed miserably? How interesting.

Last night when I was finishing up my latest sculpture, I starting thinking about how I might use marks on the surface of my ceramics that are similar in character to the marks in the zentangle-y Valentine's Cards.

The best part of the book is the way Gilbert adds in these stories of "Big Magic" in her life or in the lives of her friends. The stories are funny, and fun, and inspiring (in a not sappy way). She tells the stories so well that I'm not going to try to capture them, because I actually recommend this book very highly, especially to people who want to "live a creative life."

I will relate one story, though; in it Gilbert recounts a situation where she sent in a short story for publication which was rejected with a nice note, then happened to (accidentally) send it in again to the same publication where it was accepted. "I saw it as another example of Big Magic....I saw it as proof that you must never surrender, that no doesn't always mean no."

My summary doesn't do Gilbert's writing justice, but I love the sentiment. This is how I approach improvements to our art program at YVC. A "no" one year might simply be a "not yet" and I tend to ask again when I feel the request will improve our offerings. I got one of these "no"s last week, and the book's reminder was nice, though I'd already put it on my "not yet" pile to be requested again next year.

I'm very glad I read the book. I will recommend it. It probably won't change my life, and the information and sentiments in it weren't exactly brand new to me, but they were a refreshing, joyful, engaging, and funny reminder that maybe I'm approaching this the right way.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Actual Studio Time!

The small sculpture I'm working on right now

I got into the studio last weekend. I can't now remember why, but I had some time in the afternoon on Sunday, so I turned on my studio heater, cleaned my wheel, and threw some pieces.

thrown parts, including the main structure of the piece

This week's snowstorms resulted in canceled school and sports events, so I managed to get back in the studio on at least 3 days during the week and some time on Saturday.

texture in progress

The little push I needed to get going was that I had been asked to bring "something no one has ever seen" to Artebella Gallery in March. I don't know if I'll actually be able to finish and fire this piece, but its worth a try. 

a simplified similar form from a few years ago

The form is a reiteration of my other plantlike bulbous forms. I threw all of the parts because that's a bit faster than hand-building them. I got them together on the weekend, and have been refining the form and adding texture since then.

more thrown parts and a bowl I also made.
I have some ideas that I'd like to try in the studio, but the rest of them really require more mental energy than I can expend right now. The bulk of my mental energy is going into classes and union work right now. My priority was to just get something made, even if it wasn't the thoughtful work that I'd like to do.

holding up one of the parts with a hair spray bottle

The next month or so of studio time (whatever I can squeeze in on weekends and evenings) will be spent finishing this piece and possibly glazing some mugs from summer.

politics mugs in progress

Once I get some serious chunks of studio time, I'd like to work on my political mugs, finishing some sculpture pieces, and working on something else I'm not even confident enough to mention just yet. If I do it, it will be a big departure from what I'm used to and will relate to the political mugs.

this poor sculpture has been incomplete for years now

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Politics / Protest Mugs

A screaming Trump with his wall. I like the face, but the wall is boring.

This past summer, when I began working on my 30 pieces in 30 days project, I had originally intended to make three sets of 30 pieces, because, apparently, I like to give myself too much to do. I did finish and display a set of 30 abstract bulbs and a set of 30 politics bulbs, but I wasn't able to finish the mugs.

A (poorly lit) detail shot of my abstract bulbs at Columbia Center for the Arts. As far as I can tell, exhausted me from the summer never even took a decent photograph of the other installation.

The concept I was playing with was the contrast between sides. In the abstract bulbs, I simply created contrasting textures and colors on either sides of some of the bulbs, but for both the political bulbs and the political mugs, the original plan was to create imagery that represented contrasting political perspectives on opposite sides of the same piece.

The opposite side of the "wall" mug. I'm reasonably happy with this side.

If I remember, correctly, I abandoned the reversibility of the bulbs when I realized that some of the more sculptural forms would make the bulbs difficult to hang both ways. The extra depth of the sculpted parts would force the bulbs to hang at a funny angle or not at all. Eschewing the reverse side sculpture also allowed me to close some of the bulb fronts.

I didn't glaze this one yet, in part because I'm less happy with it's opposite side, the Obama "Hope" poster.

But the mugs work as reversibles. The handles are the automatic hook for hanging, and the handle is automatically some distance from the decoration on either side. The depth of a nose won't cause them to hang much differently than they would with a flat surface. Also, the forms are larger, meaning more space for some of the sculpted forms. 

A diagram of two alternate setups for the same mugs, with A side displaying one political perspective and B side another. Each mug has an A and a B side.
I have to admit, the ubiquity of the mug form for a potter, and the fact that people buy mugs, was also part of the appeal. I teach Functional Pottery all year so when I get to the end of the year, I have trouble stepping away from the functional forms. I can't tell if it is just familiarity or if it's a result of the fact that I spend the entire year trying to get students to think critically about form, function, handle shape, rim definition, and surface decoration. After harping on about it all year, I think I need to make the forms I'm bugging them about.

This one has a male dominated side and a gender equity side, but its a little trite and a little boring. It might work ok as a supporting actor for related mugs, but I'm not excited about it. there are some flaws in the glaze on the rim and handle, too.

I abandoned the mugs this summer when I'd made only about 15. I had simply taken on too much work, as I'm wont to do. and I realized that to finish the other two projects, I'd have to drop something. The mugs weren't working as well as the bulbs, so I stopped building and didn't even glaze them. I also knew I'd have to fire the mugs separately. (I was using a cone 6 throwing body and planned to use cone 6 glazes, but the bulbs were done with two different low fire sculpture bodies that I finished with the same low fire glaze.)

The opposite side of the gender equality/inequality mug.

I finished some of the mugs in December in the days I had off between the end of the quarter and our holiday travels. I took the pieces out of the kiln just before we left and mostly wasn't happy. The motifs didn't work as well as I'd initially planned, regardless of color, but I was also unhappy with some of the glazing.

One of the exciting things about the bulbs that I decided to avoid in the mugs is the use of mixed media. If these mugs are functional, they can't have holes, materials that aren't able to be washed, or undercuts that can catch water. The result is more subdued decoration.

I didn't glaze everything. Two pieces had cracked, two were too complicated to finish in a few days and I'd left one blank because I planned to paint the decoration, but I can't now remember what I was planning to do.

The idea for this mug is the two favorite amendments of the two contrasting political parties. The second here and the first, above, but as is, this just looks like guns randomly stuck on a mug. 

I'm still halfway interested in trying to finish the project, but I need dedicated time. The political or protest inspired pieces are simply more taxing mentally than the abstract pieces. Working on the abstract pieces is repetitive and relaxing and the results aren't controversial, so I don't stress about how people will react.

The glaze was either too thin or underfed on this mug. I was too lazy, too, on my glaze application. This one, on its own, probably put me off writing about these for over a month.

With the political pieces, I know I'm going to make someone unhappy if I'm doing what I mean to do, but the worst result is if people don't know what I'm trying to say. I'm afraid I've accomplished that (a lack of clarity) with some of the mugs, and in general the mugs I've finished are, across the board, more disappointing to me than the political bulbs. Some of the mugs simply feel cheesy and/or amateurish.

This one has protestors and placards on both sides. The decoration is ok, but it felt like too much work to glaze it in December. I'm glad I didn't, too, because I'm unhappy with the contrast I got from the commercial celadons in the text mug above. Instead I'll use underglaze like the gender symbol mug earlier.

The pieces I still like the best and that I most enjoyed making are the screaming faces. They're fun to make and they also feel like they capture the mood of the country right now. I've been toying with the idea of making an installation composed exclusively of screaming faces. And really, who doesn't want a screaming mug right now?

These two are my favorites. The screaming person is the opposite side of the screaming Trump above and who even cares what is opposite the birth control, because the color worked well. I used underglaze for both and the color is much more what I want than what I got with the celadons.

I think I will eventually finish the mug pieces. During the year I've got a day job that takes a lot of my mental energy, but in the summer I think it might be worth it to push past the unpleasantness and the failure of some of the mugs to see the whole set installed together. Though I'm disappointed with the current results, I'm not totally over the whole idea.