You know the saying, “to do a job well, you need the right tool.”
After searching for a number of years for just that ‘right tool’ for one specific studio process, something unique to my way of hanging my tiles and moveable sculpture, I ordered one that looked very different from the one I have just about worn out. I only had half a hope it would fill the bill. It looked quite different on line from the one I always used.
It came the other day…and Wow! it is not only ‘perfect’ but better than the one I’ve been using for decades. The tip is angled to make the work easier; the handle is thicker to make it more comfortable for my somewhat arthritic hands to hold and manipulate. What a delight!
I didn’t realize how improved my process would be until I had the courage to purchase that rather expensive, new, seemingly different object. But now I rejoice in the way the designer of that tool has improved my life in the studio.
It’s the little things, right?
Getting that tool made me realize how we are all sculpting away at our individual lives, each of us pretty much using tools that may have worked splendidly early on…but may have gotten worn down and are no longer really useful.
COVID has and continues to bring all of us to re-assessing the way much of our lives work, but to actually make the change, that’s what takes the real courage…even in little things.
My passion for drawing and art in general carried into my college years, when my drawings and designs became more distinctively my own.
With a Bachelors in English, I spent the next fifteen years teaching that subject, in addition to some art classes to high school students. I also enrolled in a series of college art classes in preparation for applying for a Masters’ Program. In those I explored all media. So yes, I spent hours and all-nighters working with watercolor, in design classes, with sculpture classes…and finally… finally…my hands touched clay! It was magic. The potential of this material to transform into something useful and beautiful spoke to everything I understood art to be about.
My first clay class in hand building introduced me to the painful reality that it is better to destroy a poorly done piece while still workable than have it fired and be part of the history of humanity forever…and we were strongly encouraged to do just that. The following summer, I spent eight hours a day, five days a week for six weeks to develop a modicum of proficiency on the wheel.
With acceptance into the MFA program at the Catholic University of America in D.C. came more summers exploring diverse media, but always with most of the time in the clay studio. My thesis show consisted of all sculptural ceramic wall works, one 8’x5’ destined for Neumann College which just happened to be expanding and was happy to have a work from one of their graduates to permanently install in the new building. My art trajectory was set.
All the years that followed proved tremendously productive, teaching art in formal classroom settings from pre-K to college, offering workshops from my studio, establishing community arts events and galleries, as well as creating my own sculptural work, both for commissions and personally imaginative creations. Those years were energized and energizing.
For nearly 30 years now, I have worked solely from my studio, Earthsongs. It was initially a very scary jump from the security of the formal classroom to my own enterprise, but I found it a useful springboard to create many community-based arts endeavors. At this point, with all of the experience, connections and collaborations behind me, I now feel I have come to a moment of centering both in myself and in the medium, called to explore clay as my primary communication and interaction with the world. My images and objects now are my primary engagement with society, and I delight in this new reality.
In the garden Autumn is a season of removing, of taking away. On the farm, it is a time of harvest; for the gardener, it means a cutting back so flowering plants can consolidate and renew themselves through the colder season. For the farmer, it means gathering up the produce and grain, so they can be used to nourish.
It seems most appropriate then that this month I brought to conclusion my time as a teacher, ending 25+ years in a formal classroom, teaching levels from pre-K through college (So amusing to have been called ‘Professor’) followed by 25+ years giving workshops, teaching in the studio and in varieties of informal spaces and leading arts organizations. My hope is that this new phase will produce both a harvest of renewed creative energy, even as I now give consolidated focus to what my mind and hands do directly with the the clay, to the sculpture I create.
My studio practice is now all.
While I found all that has gone before exciting and so very appealing…I loved engaging with ‘human clay’ as much as the earthy stuff…I do look forward to this new moment with great eagerness.
Earthsongs lives in the midst of a ‘handkerchief garden,’ a small plot, front back and side, that Nino and I tend with great care. So, I understand the season from the gardeners’ point of view: all quiet, just the structure, the ‘good bones’ of the space making themselves known, as well as all the physical labor it takes to bring it to this point of quiet.
With my Dad hailing from a farm in the Heartland, I claim something of the farmer in my genes as well. And so I look at this time as one that will produce a ‘harvest of fruition,’ a time that will allow me to create in new and exciting ways, that will be nourishment to not only myself, but all who will encounter my work.
Beginning anew amidst a pandemic…honoring the past…embracing the
Creating a new digital face for Earthsongs…a new way to present the studio to the world…was an immense endeavor, one that has taken nearly half a year. First, it required me to review and be thoughtful about what I had done through my ceramic art for the past nearly 30 years, and if I include the work created at an earlier studio Canticles in Clay, the forerunner of Earthsongs, then more than 30.
Then to realistically look ahead to what I hope to achieve going
Collaborating with an insightful webmaster, a true ‘master,’ and
one with whom I have partnered for nearly two decades, I was given tools and
guidance to approach that task…while Kyra, of WhyKyra.com…possessed the digital
skills as well as the innate creative ability to use word and image and color
to create the spirit of what the studio is about and to design something that
would clearly say all of that.
Now this moment is one when the entire world, all of living
humanity, our fleshy beings, have been encouraged for over two months, for our
own health and the good of our neighbors, to pause, to ‘hunker down,’ to draw
in, to center, to quiet ourselves. But
today, even as we long for an end to the quarantine, “Claysongs 3.0” leaps into
being, a sign of hope and newness, allowing the fresh public face of the studio
to travel boldly through the ether and around the world, even as I continue to
create in the cloister of Earthsongs,
My hope is that Claysongs becomes a place you visit often,
beautiful and inviting, a digital destination to which you invite friends; a
place you can peruse together with those you are now ‘sheltering.’ Do stay safe…do remain well.
The work that has been on my studio easel for a number of weeks is the large Guardian figure I am creating for a local homeowner. Intended for the porch pediment of her Victorian home, it is large, measuring nearly 6’ at the base. Having done drawings, from which she selected her choice; then a small, scale model to allow her to see color possibilities and treatment of wings and other features, I set out to fabricate the actual mural.
I began with several small areas and then plunged into the large figure herself. The client’s wish was to have a very traditional angel-like figure in that space. Early in the process, the client stopped in, quite unannounced. I had always encouraged her to visit whenever she, a runner, was ‘running’ by. And this particular day, she did.
The Guardian was very much in the early stages of development, with odd lumps in strange places and a very unbecoming expression. The client looked on in dismay. I simply said she was ‘in process’ and this was ‘not her best moment’. I needed to work with the clay, struggle with the image until what emerged was that for which we both were hoping. There was a lot of silence and looking, and I felt a lot of uncertainty in her leaving.
As for me, I simply continued working and brought the Guardian to a point of satisfaction for me: a strong, gentle figure, cradling the client’s home in her arms.
The clay artist is the one who must face and understand process. Not every moment is beautiful. The potential is always there…but the artist must fearlessly stare down the awkward and gently wrestle the clay into beauty. There can be no panic in the moments when the form is way off balance, or the image far from what’s hoped for. The artist must simply move forward with assurance in her ability to bring forth the image.
In the work of art which is each of our lives, the same is true…as shaper and creator and artist, we must acknowledge that all moments are not our best,…fearlessly stare down that which is awkward, unlovely, and…move forward with assurance in our ability to create what is the best and most beautiful person.
This April marks ten years that the fountain with three little birds dancing in the water have reappeared in front of the ceramic Earthsongs sign. Every October, the fountain is put away for the winter; only the stones remain, and the area takes on winter quiet. But come April, amid the tulips and daffodils, the columbine and periwinkle, the area regains its lively spirit…those little birds reappear. And they have a story…
The sign and the fountain were initially installed in August, 2001. My initial plan was to have a small flat ceramic slab over which the water gently bubbled. Nothing more: very unassuming, very unobtrusive., something that would surprise people only if they looked. Nino, of course, made my plan actually work: installed the electricity, designed the hidden water container, found just the right kind of screening to support the ceramic slab, secured the proper flexible piping.
And when all was done, nobody ever noticed because it was just too modest!
The next year, he set it up so that the water shot up higher…more noticeable, but not very elegant.
Friday, September 24, 2001, I had scheduled a “Meet the Artist” at What’s the Scoop, the new ice cream parlor that just opened the previous summer and allowed me to exhibit my work. Out of the events earlier that month, I decided to include an opportunity for all who visited to engage in clay therapy…fashioning their personal response to 9-11 with clay. Mike Patterson, the owner, further agreed to have the “Fountain of Peace” into which I formed all of those responses in the front of the store. I added a clay base to hold water, and three birds of peace as a cap. It gurgled there as a reminder and a sign of hope for an entire year.
When I finally dismantled it, not wanting to destroy any of the parts, they were stored in our garage. During the Spring clean-out the following year, I non-chalantly placed the birds on my clay slab fountain…SATORI! The birds completed it. They were what was needed all along. They were the perfect addition.
Now, with the water playing over them, the birds continue to bring a spirit of tranquility to a very busy street in a very busy area. Children in strollers beg to visit ‘the little birds’…and older children confide how they “loved to see those birds anytime they drove or walked by since they were little”.
Art creates community. We share images. They shape us. And three hopeful little ceramic birds continue to be a source of bonding for those in Metuchen, NJ.