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.
Many Christian artists take the time of the 40 days of Lent to engage in an artistic spiritual practice. I have never felt called to do that…until this year.
Hearing that 43 US Senators had blatantly abandoned their oath to uphold the Constitution and voted to acquit Donald Trump of his involvement in the January 6 storming of the Capital, I knew I needed to respond to that with the power of art. But social commentary has never been the focus of my work. I was quite at a loss to respond and yet found it absolutely necessary to do that.
Eventually the memory of what I had seen in Olympia, Greece surfaced.
There, just outside the ancient Olympic stadium, was a WALL OF SHAME to expose those who had cheated. Each on a pedestal had a plaque that included their names, their fathers’ names, their crimes and the city-state they had represented (and embarrassed).
That seemed the perfect approach to highlighting the blatant dishonesty of those 43 Senators, only rather than include their own names…which I did not want to incorporate into anything so permanent as high-fire clay…instead included only the names of their fathers, since their crime echoes back and forth through history.
And so I began as Lent began, setting out to create 43 5”x5” 1/2 thick tiles. One side included the necessary words…the other, abstract gouges and impressions, and as the project evolved, I knew what I was creating was really “A Study in Orange,” and so glazing on the other side of the tile was settled.
My plan from the outset was to share these with the community on Good Friday: a kind of communal Way of the Cross for us as a nation. I was very uncertain that I would complete this project and, as a friend assured me, “it will take a lot out of you dealing with all that duplicity and hypocrisy,” because, not only was it necessary to focus on the betrayal of those 43, but authentically acknowledge the ways that shows itself in me.
Remembrance is important; my hope is that recognizing this COMMUNITY DISHONESTY calls us each to action.
My intention going forward is to have the installation exhibited in more formal spaces that have a sensitivity to social consciousness; then to sell each tile and donate all of the proceeds to a national organization that works for justice.
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.
The Holidays celebrated at this time of year find nearly everyone tapping into her/ his inner artist. No matter the tradition, creativity flows:
But I have seen the creative spirit alive many-fold this year in efforts to compensate for our quarantine. The ever-fun, “Ugly-Christmas-Sweater”party to raise funds for a good cause was replaced in one instance with cookies decorated to rival Ugly-Christmas-Sweaters.
Some families have revived the age-old craft of cutting paper snowflakes. It seems there are multiple places to visit online to get you started. Someone suggested this to be an especially good one.
I personally delight in being part of the creative swirl as soon as the Calendar flips to December. Much of what the Studio presents at this time of year is very different from my usual focus and allows my work to add to the treasured traditions for many families.
Which is why I found it so wonderful that Papillion was willing to host Earthsongs’ Winter Market Faire, my annual Open Studio. To be able to actively participate in the season in a safe way was a real stroke of luck for which I continue to be grateful…a new, creative solution!
So while I miss terribly all of the many gatherings, performances, and events that have come to mark this season for us, I invite all to join me in this festive time of heightened creativity to apply that creative spirit in a new way to the season’s celebrations during this very unique ‘time out of time’ year.
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.
Someone cleverly remarked that the Pandemic has reduced us to the same lot as Peasants living in the Middle Ages:
“Bake Bread, Avoid the Plague, Revolt Against Tyranny.”
How true! I laughed.
…but it brought me to think about the inherent connection all of us have with all those humans who have gone before. And specifically for me, my connection with all those craftspeople, sculptors, potters, those whose skill adorned public and religious structures, even those who painted murals on the rock walls of the caves of Altamira and Lascaux.
Every day in the studio pushes me deeper into an understanding of what art is and what it is all about. The Dutch artist Frederick Franck describes it this way,
“Art is neither a luxury nor merchandise, and far from a hobby. Art must arise from regions fathoms deeper from the deepest recesses of the human Spirit. It springs from the maker’s core, as if it is to touch the core and the very truth of the one who confronts it.”
So while I toil away at 242, creating functional sculpture hopefully to bring beauty to individual residences, my real effort is to infuse the core of life into each work. And while I have a prominent piece of wall sculpture for sale in Papillon, it is there with the express purpose that someone will recognize something of their own spirit in that work and allow it to resonate in their home.
Kafka tells us, “Art is a nothing that is everything,”
I think most of us have a sense of that. Art distinctly changes the energy of a place. I tell my clients who commission work that they are “my Medici;” they make it possible for me to create. To commission a piece of art is inherently different from simply purchasing any other object, a pair of shoes, a kitchen appliance. Those may well make life more comfortable, easier, but they do not deal with a matter of ‘soul.’
It was a comfort to remember that while many were doing the “bread baking” thing, there were also…even back then…many others who were engaged in creating art, that “nothing” which is everything.