This afternoon I took a walk up the arroyo behind my place, sunny and muddy, mid-January, granulated snow turning to water in the hoofprints and bootracks and ATV treads, I was mourning the passing of Terry Jones and thinking about the up-coming Chinese New Year, the year of the rat and the outbreak of the Coronavirus.
Lots to think about and my conclusion, as I skidded back down the hill toward the back door: 2020 hasn’t quite begun yet. We are all still waiting, this bumpy January will soon give way to the start of the real new year.
Still. Winter is here, and along with these other dubious thoughts I was feeling grateful & inspired by our recent Winter Clay Weekend – a three-day (really four-day) workshop here at the studio.
There were six of us altogether and we began with a snow delay – a quick, wet, unanticipated storm filled the streets with slush & cancelled a few key in-coming flights to the Santa Fe airport. We waited. Eventually everybody arrived, and we all sat down at our wheels.
Well, I said, starting off. I’ve been wanting to do a workshop on the theme of the vessel, the jar, the large vertical unitary form, for quite a while. I began enumerating some of the reasons why I love this form:
1) This first reason is a cliche, and I’m not even sure it’s true. The vase form is the most anthropomorphic of the wheel-thrown forms. Right? The closest metaphor to the human body. The body, the shoulder, the lip, and so on. The more I think about this the more I doubt – how about the teapot, with its arm akimbo and its spout? Or how about the pitcher.
2) Simplicity. This is something I really believe in – the the simplicity of the wheel-thrown vase. It’s always easier to throw going up than going out – the clay stays close to the center of the turning axis of the wheel, and if it’s not quite centered, who cares? Sometimes that’s an improvement, giving the form attitude, bias. You don’t really have to do anything, begin pulling the sides up taller & the form takes care of itself, you just follow along. It’s instinctive, like throwing a rock into a lake, or kicking a big dirt lump off a steep dirt bank, as I might have done this afternoon. My boots were covered in mud! An arc, a trajectory of line, you set it in motion and something begins to emerge and you take it as far as you can.
The vase is my go-to form, I admitted. If I’ve been away from the studio for a while, or feeling bad, or I’ve had a bad firing, or I need to reconnect with studio work – I throw vases. When I get my wrist out of this cast…I will throw vases. Think about your go-to form. How do you reconnect? Since as an artist you’re always trying to get back to the center, you’re always re-creating the discipline and the space in which you can work.
3) The vessel is the most direct connection to archetypal, traditional, ceramic form. The pots we will throw this weekend – you will be able to go to museums or look through books and find forms that are very similar, from two or three thousand years ago. I think about this while I’m actually working – I feel a link between what I’m doing with my hands as I stand at the wheel and what people long ago have done at the wheel. There is no invention in the clay studio, or in any art studio I don’t think – there is only participation.
Think of our work this weekend as a ritual – as you get into the discipline of pulling up a vessel form on the wheel, you get into a kind of work that has no beginning and no end. That’s good.
4) Most important: empty space on the inside. Unlike the bowl or platter form, the vase is about what you can’t see – the hidden volume that’s in there. You can’t see it – but that’s what informs and defines the form overall. When you look at a vase and you like it, what you really like is something beyond its physical form – it’s the immaterial, weighty, contained, volume of the vase. It’s just like this new year – anything good about it is still to come, as-yet-unmanifested.
Since my right hand was in a cast I couldn’t actually do anything during the workshop, just talk, and I relied on our studio manager Leslie to run everything, and I am grateful to our three visiting artists Esther, Rachel, and Carolyn, who brought work to discuss, and demonstrated, and worked with our group, throughout the three days of our workshop. On the fourth day we glazed work we’d thrown during the first two days.
I gave my little talk at the beginning about why I love vases and how we can work on this form all weekend – and then we went around the circle to introduce ourselves and talk about what we hoped to get out of our time in the studio.
Well, one person said. I want to throw big forms – I want to throw ten pounds of clay!
Okay! I said.
Well, the next person said. I really want to make a lidded tureen? And I am struggling with the platter form – I really want to work on making bigger plates and platters.
Inside I laughed. A good workshop is one in which people don’t take the leader too seriously, and where you can learn from whoever else is there and from the clay itself. Who cares what the theme is? In the end we all just went our own way.
Attention, concentration, and a big body of work. The bisque kiln is now candling about three hundred pounds worth of clay that we all threw during the last three days. A good workshop is one where you don’t have to pay attention to the teacher – you learn from the other people there, and afternoon flies by, maybe you even put your earbuds in.
Before you know it the sky is clear and the snow is melting – on the way back to the airport, white crests on the muddy dirt hills in the distance, and some new energy to put to use back in your own studio when the year begins – which is soon – but not quite yet.