Wednesday 24 September 2014

Life with Clay (The Silica Kind)

photo collage

I’ve been thinking about my life with clay.
In 1976, it was a course to take with my mother who needed to get out of the house but stay close to home and a post-operative husband. We went to my parents’ town’s civic centre where a clay class was being offered informally. It was a ten-week, evening leisure class, and we met there after both our jobs, once she’d seen to my father. My mother made coil pots and slab, leaf-shaped bowls.
My first ever glazed clay piece was a terracotta pinch-pot that became a turtle. My mother kept it. It became the first in her subsequent collection of turtles. She collected so many over the years, stone, metal, glass and plastic ones, turtle broaches and pendants, realistic ones and comic ones, even children’s turtle paper clips, that I had two engraved on her footstone when she died in 2007. Whatever they represent to the world, I think that to her, they represented me.
Over the course of those ten weeks of evenings, I came to realize that clay was my home. I mean that I had never felt at home with anything as I did in the presence of clay ready to become whatever it allowed me to make of it. It was the most generous, the most cooperative, the most imaginative, the most communicative medium I had ever touched, but it demanded my full attention, much like a life partner does. From then on I worked with it intently, totally committed, and somehow communicated with it without difficulty though gesture and touch. No other language had ever come as easily to me.
Not long after that first encounter, my first sustained series in clay was a group of portraits of characters from stories I told to children at the time. In terracotta still, they were high relief faces and heads. If I remember correctly, the final series had fifteen of them, life-sized (what is the life size of an elf?) and as expressively realistic as I could make them.  I had always been interested in ‘the figure’ but being able to give physical, three-dimensional life to people who had lived full lives in my stories made me realize it is ‘the person’ I wanted to represent in my art, not just ‘the figure’.
From these portraits, my clay work progressed to more and more complex images using talc-body clay. One series referred to expressive personal objects as stand-ins for the person, and another combined the modeled human form or parts thereof with built structural environments. As I worked, my visual art was increasingly inspired by the ‘internal’ person, not the external; that is, by human psychology and philosophy. My most recent works are a type of narrative that reveals thought and attempts to capture pivotal life moments or moments of insight.
I love the feel of clay in my hands as it warms and responds to my touch. I love its mass and weight. I love the architectural and even engineering challenges it gives me as it moves from slip to dough to leather hardness and greenware to bisque to accepting colour, which changes upon firing. Each stage allows me to push the clay into new directions, to use different tools, gestures and energy, to delve deeper into my technique and my interpretation, and to discover new expressive possibilities.

            Of course I enjoy using other media. I love to draw, and I’m getting back to painting with acrylics. But no matter what technique I use to draw or paint, the image is still flat; it is non-existent viewed from the side. For me, the dimensionality of clay is as appealing as its malleability, its changeability and its flexibility. For me, no other medium can beat that.

Friday 12 September 2014

The Ins and Outs of "Why?"

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There are many typical questions asked of artists by audiences. One questions the medium or technique used to render a particular image. Looking at say a clay piece, a viewer might ask the artist, “Why not bronze?” Or looking at an acrylic painting, “Why not oils?” Or in response to a work on paper, “Why not on canvas?” The implied assumption is that the work would be IMPROVED if it were in bronze or oil or on canvas, that the artist somehow made the wrong choice of medium or technique.
Where does that kind of subliminal judgment come from? Not from a true response to the work being viewed. The persons looking approach the work with a pre-set programming; one that has been sustained through the generations and about which they are not even aware.
In this sub-routine of the viewing experience, media live in a stratified critical environment. Such media as pencils, clay, paper, glass and fiber, for instance, have retained their low ‘art’ status because they were once cheap, meaning accessible, are associated with functionality, and over the history of art, they have been used for sketching, and some by women and children. Over time, they have also developed a reputation for being fragile or worse, for being impermanent, for not retaining their freshness for more than a few human generations.
These considerations are not really a part of the viewing experience; they are knee-jerk reactions by people coming to look at art already convinced that supposed fragility, impermanence and accessibility reduce the value of a work of art, and that media like paper, clay, pencil or fiber are less ‘art’ than such media as canvas, oil and bronze. Also, for some, somehow, their association with function sullies their potential purity as art media. Art teachers, galleries and museums sustain these attitudes – the MOMA, for instance, has separate museums for works it deems ‘craft’ and ‘art’ based largely on the work’s medium not its intent or effect (Yet Picasso painted on clay, Chagall made stained glass, Duchamp’s urinal became iconic, Andy Warhol based much of his imagery on functional objects…).
It’s a great victory for the art dealers. It is in their best interest to promote and sell an artist making bronzes (multiple times) than one making clay pieces, or one painting in oils on canvas than one working in print on paper. Why sell something for $3000 when you can spend as much time and sell for $30,000?
Self-sustaining longevity is, after all, a big selling point, and it can justify big prices and hefty gallery commissions. A work that lasts with little help from its owner is more desirable than one that needs care, or that can be damaged by dusting, for instance. As long as there’s no war or shortage of metals, or as long as they’re not dropped or banged, bronzes are forever, and as long as there are no floods, no direct sunlight, no mould or too much touching, oils are forever- if they were painted well to begin with. (Yet, fine art museums have staff and spend much money on display, restoration and preservation of their collections).
Ok. To a person or especially public institution investing considerable amounts of money on a work, self-sustaining longevity  might be relevant. However, judgments based on this question rarely have a place in a viewer’s pure viewing experience. All media well used require serious technique, and all works, no matter their materials or functionality, express through their media.  There are probably many fascinating reasons why the work is in one medium or technique and not another, but the most important is that it’s in the medium or technique the artist chose. That could be the starting point of any query, not what the artist didn’t choose.

Friday 5 September 2014

The Old Quarter

Riding the Wave
photo collage

Ok people, we need to talk about what seems to be a 21st century phenomenon: retirees taking art courses and expecting to exhibit and sell their creations.
            Many of you come to art after a working lifetime in other fields, all geared up because sometime in your youth or childhood, you must have done something artistic (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein). You are adults +, have perhaps been highly successful in positions of power or authority; perhaps you brought children to adulthood and usefulness, perhaps you have accomplished miracles as members of philanthropic associations and/or garnered respect for your knowledge in and contributions to your field. Or conversely, maybe you endured or even hated the domain that ate up your creativity and felt dissatisfied and under-appreciated in it; you have spent a lifetime dreaming of something more exciting, maybe something sexier.
Then you have retired, or approached retirement. Your profession no longer needs you, or you no longer need it.
            What to do? Too many of you come to art classes expecting to just cross the floor, to sashay gracefully into being ‘an artist’ at the same level and with the same ease with which you were something else, and for the same or better acclaim. Perhaps you’ve held on to that pleasure or praise you got from a teacher long ago, or nurtured the idea that you’d have been an artist if life hadn’t conspired against you. All you have to do is to just do it and all will be well.
            I hate to be the one to bring this up but I must point out that it doesn’t quite work that way.
Seniors retire and come to art classes as adults, expecting to pick up where they left off, forgetting they often left off art as children or youth. They believe that the knowledge, skill and attitudes, but especially the desire they had then are sufficient, that with a couple of courses here, a few how-to’s there and very little practice in between, they will become ‘artists’.
It doesn’t seem to matter to them that art is a living practice,  that its tools, its materials, its subjects, its styles, its themes and its concepts have kept pace with an eve-changing world. They disregard the fact that others have dedicated their lives to research, discussion, debate and practice to sustain, grow and popularize the profession. They will be the artists they were as children or youth and ignore, even disdain, the entire body of knowledge and skill that has evolved into today’s art world.
As an educator, this is my lesson if you are one of these seniors: Forget supplementing your retirement income. Make art because you have your own images clamouring to be expressed, for which you will take whatever time it takes to learn and develop the necessary skills, techniques and concepts. But do so aware, connected. If you are the artist you imagine you always were, if you really love art, not just the romance of it, then you will engage with all aspects of the profession to fill in the gaps in your knowledge and understanding. You will find this exciting, not onerous; you will not lament the money, space, time and effort it will take. You will support the profession not just as a maker, not just to exploit what others have accomplished, but also as an informed viewer. You will respect what it is to ‘be’ an artist.