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Artist Talk

I-40, westbound, the vibrant & fragrant mesquites on either side of the highway, populating the Mojave Desert. Up ahead, the Colorado River and the California border - behind, in the bed of the truck that is, eight giant bins of new stoneware ceramics.

I-40, westbound, the vibrant & fragrant mesquites on either side of the highway, populating the Mojave Desert. Up ahead, the Colorado River and the California border – behind, in the bed of the truck that is, eight giant bins of new stoneware ceramics.

1:00pm March 18 – Los Angeles. A potter talks about his work:

Well, thanks everyone for being here. I’ll try to keep this kind of brief – I’ll talk about my work, and about what it’s like for me to make my work, and then if anybody has questions I’d like to try to answer those too. I want to really specifically thank, again, Tony, for making this weekend happen. Tony and I have been friends for about eight years now, and have done a few – I think three – events like this over the past eight or so years – every time I visit and we get together Tony always asks: what’s new with your work? What has changed?

I always have to stop and think for a second, because the way I think about being an artist, and maybe this is true for studio artists especially, and really especially for potters – is that what it’s about is just showing up – just keeping on, getting yourself to the studio. The ones who make it are the people who are so stubborn they just keep getting back to the studio and picking up the thread from the day before, over and over again. There’s even a certain amount of freedom in thinking about being an artist in this way because in a way you stop thinking – you don’t analyze or critique – you focus on protecting your practice and pushing the work forward, little by little, seeing things a little further along, day by day. I’ve always loved the kind of escape from your own self that the studio provides – I’ve needed it – and identifying that need was the way that i – reluctantly – first began to identify myself as an artist. It just made sense – trying to build a life around a creative practice. 

And then there’s Tony’s question. Which really goes to the whole opposite way of looking at being an artist. What’s new – where are you going with your work – how is it evolving? The danger, I think especially for potters, who usually work prolifically, is to start repeating yourself, and get in a rut of making the same thing again and again. You do have to have a direction. You have to have some perspective – that’s, for me, a lot of what this weekend is about, getting out of the studio and regaining that – and you have to be going somewhere. These days, as I work along busily day after day, I try to keep Tony’s question in the back of my mind. I should have an answer! And hopefully in a moment I’ll get to some specific answers about what’s new with my work at the moment.

Meanwhile, I’ve brought along a couple of the basic materials I use to make the pots – this is clay that I dig up in Abiquiu, which is not far from my studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in this other little bowl, you can see, is wood ash, just straight out of someone’s woodstove. I spend a certain amount of time processing these materials – sifting, sorting, straining out. Sometimes I go a few months with a bunch of big bins sitting around needing to be processed, and kind of procrastinating – then as soon as I get to it I think geez, this is kind of fun. Meditative, and kind of mindlessly relaxing, passing all this clay through a screen to remove rocks – kind of like being in a fairy tale where someone has to separate rice grains from beans or something. Who was it in the Greek myth who has to do that – and the birds come down to help? Or was it ants? Anybody remember? Somehow, she gets help – and there’s a level of that for me, really, getting these materials straight out of the ground – I’m kind of invoking help from a source, and from a power, that’s greater than what I have. Seems like just kind of a formless, grainy, black powder here, the clay in this bowl – but. Feels exciting too. Filled with potential.

The wood ash becomes a key ingredient in some of the glazes I use – turns out it contains a lot of the minerals that you need to form this thin, melting, layer of glass that covers the form – this glaze. Wood ash was one of the very earliest materials used to form glazes. A lot of the look of my work comes from my approach of very direct engagement wiht the materials of making it – of course you can just buy clay instead of processing your own, now, and you don’t have to start from scratch, so to speak, with your glaze formulations – but I get into all that, and I want to reveal the kind of textures and very earthy nature of the clay, tearing it, cutting in to reveal the underlying material, wanting to let the glazes move and drip.

Of course none of these are original ideas and I’m working within a very defined tradition of American studio potters – we’re all very inspired by certain Asian approaches to clay – for me, in particular, some Korean and Japanese approaches. A lot of Americans study these pots, their apparent simplicity, the rapid, spontaneous, making, and the placing of these pots squarely in the daily, the regular, living of life. It’s almost a cliche now to point out in the Asian aesthetic the restraint, and the emphasis on form over surface – you do see this as a goal of my pieces here though – I’m thinking shape, and overall feel, and trying to keep surfaces from becoming something you notice in themselves – you’re supposed to be not looking at them so much as looking through, seeing what’s underneath.

I’m also trying for a kind of beauty in my work that’s not so much of the moment but that might endure over time. That sounds like a contradiction, of course, given that I’m working rapidly, leaving a lot of artifacts of the making process, wanting spontaneity and wanting the piece itself to be a kind of record of the event of making – I think it’s not a contradiction, actually, but it is a paradox. I’m hoping you can live with one of these pieces every day for five years, or fifty or five hundred years, and still come back to see it revealing itself in a new way – still encounter it for the first time. I go to museums and see thousand year-old Korean celadon vases that look like they just came out of the kiln yesterday. They’re not so much in time, or from a specific time, as being about time itself – and I’d say that really time is part of my aesthetic – I’m using a sense of time and invoking a feeling of age to design my pieces in a way.

I was listening to a podcast as I was driving out here on I-40 – it was Terri Gross on Fresh Air interviewing Adam Alter about technology, and how it is so addictive, each new version of World of Warcraft coming out, you have to keep up with it, and the new Ipad – these products are specifically designed to keep you hooked in, to keep you wanting what’s next, the way Netflix gets you to binge-watch – they make it impossible to stop. Alter suggests an antidote to addictive technology is to spend an hour a day doing something where you can’t tell what year it is. So like if you’re at a cafe on your Ipad Mini 4 or whatever, you know exactly when that technology is from – it locates you. Now I’m on the third season of Game of Thrones, say. But if you’re just walking down the street looking at the trees, or working in your garden, or knitting – weeding – well, it could be a hundred years ago and the scene would still be the same. I was driving along and I thought: oh! Ah-ha. That’s something I want my work to do – to kind of lift you of out time, and to be a kind of antidote – to let you float.

Anyway. To get back to Tony’s question of what’s new. Here’s a recent platter. You can see my on-going obsession with tearing and opening up and with the ruggedness of clay, and the earth as source, and the look of this piece overall as being something that could be old – from another time. The piece started out as a perfect circle – wheel-thrown. One thing that’s new for me, that I’m exploring and pursuing, is ways to interrupt that – to break the circle, to make it purposefully not a circle anymore. Or – not a perfect circle. I remember my brother, one day when he and I were riding home from school on the bus, I was probably about seven or eight, saying “you know there’s no such thing as a perfect circle.” “What?” I said. “The peanut butter jar lid is a circle – or my bike tire?” My brother explained that the tire is always going to be a little more worn in one place than another…I thought about that…lots. I probably thought about that for a few years, and I had to eventually admit that I understood what he meant – that a circle is a kind of ideal, and whenever you make one, or draw one, it’s going to be real – it’s going to be not quite perfect.

So here, on the wheel, you make circles – you chase after an ideal you can never realize – which is fine, that keeps you going, keeps you chasing. This new series of work is an attempt to sidestep that pursuit – to embrace un-circularity, to deliberately make things not quite right. The platter, when it’s still a semi-wet half-formed circle shape, is thrown down on the floor and stretched – kind of like pizza dough – ovalized. Then, using my left hand, since I’m right-handed & wanting to get away from my pursuit of doing things right, I kind of draw this oval line with a pointed tool – a different oval, necessarily, since I am just winging it. I made those, and then I was like why not just break off this whole rim and advance it a little around the circle? Pieces may fall off as I work – what I’m left with is a new shape, a new geometry of non-Euclid, non-ideal. But real. You can hear a little of John Cage in this process – I need to read more of him, and listen to more of him – but I do remember that he deliberately introduced a random element sometimes – I don’t know quite what is going to happen when I start cutting and shifting, advancing. Cage used to write a five-page composition and someone would go out on stage to perform it – but they would be told to shuffle the pages first, so what formed the beginning, and the end, would be unpredictable. It’s an urge to subvert, or to surpass, my own small-minded intentionality and to commit it to something bigger.

That’s – if I were to sum up – what lies behind a lot of the new strategies and new directions and new kinds of forms I’m always moving toward – it’s a desire for freedom and for getting out of my own small life, having my work not be small, having it invoke and encounter forces that are greater, and more eternal.  

When the truck was emptied of pots, I had a chance to go hear Billy Childs play at the Doheny Mansion. His new record – Rebirth – was just coming out. I went to Manhattan Beach. I had a fabulous week in LA and turning eastbound on “the ten” and heading home…ah, I did not want to go.