Portfolio of Pontification

Herein, you shall find samples and excerpts of writings published beyond the limited reach of my personal writing desk.

Thus far, at least as of June 2015, the writing pertains to the field of ceramics.

However, my ambition is to extend that voice, for the benefit of, not only the field of craft, but also of my own sanity.

#insertpithyemoticonhere


Most recently I have been working on a series of creative non-fiction portraits of makers in the field of ceramics. The first subjects of this endeavor are the 2014-15 First Year Fellows at the Archie Bray Foundation. I'm going to share two of the essays here, you can drop me a line if you are interested in seeing more of them. The long-term goal for this format of "literary portrait" is to compile a book of essays. I've yet to decide if the focus will be on ceramics, craft in general, or makers of any kind. I can tell you, as of 9AM on Wednesday, June 3, 2015 I'm really leaning toward opening it up to makers of any kind. Commitment to a process really knows no media, does it?  I can also tell you, each essay is meant to be published with images of the work the makers produce, but since this page is a dedicated portfolio of writing...


The Call of the Humility

Once upon a time there was a young girl who shuttered herself away in her room for a week, refusing to eat or talk to anyone. Her family was concerned for her future. They were unsure of their recourse. What to do with a prideful, stubborn child? Until this portentous week, the girl had always been the epitome of obedience. Of course, she loved her parents very much and would never want to displease them; but, sometimes, there is a stronger voice one is compelled to honor. The voice is the smallest voice--so small only the echo resonates on a person’s heart. The voice is insistent, especially when it is most afraid of time and social propriety. Somehow when the voice is petrified, it delivers a dose of courage, turning an obedient girl into a girl who stands her ground.

And when the girl finally pulled the covers back from over her head, she found two things had changed. The first: her parents’ hearts had softened. The second: she had taken the first conscious step toward leading the life of a maker.

She would become an artist.

Don’t you suppose it’s a curious way to begin one’s journey? Only the rarefied individual seems able to attune their actions in concert with the small voice. The rest of humanity realizes there is a voice too late and labors incessantly to keep the voice within earshot. Conversely, for the individuals who heeded the call early and often, the echo becomes holistically embedded. Their listening is a perpetual prayer.

Please do not take my meaning to indicate their struggles are over, but it does become a habit for them to check in with the small voice. It is a touchstone of every decision. It is how they find true north. It is why they accept humbling experiences as moments to learn and build their mettle.

“I was a little flower that can be damaged easily by the elements. I lived under the protection of a greenhouse. When there was no more greenhouse, I was attacked by everything. But--that intense time gave me strength. I started to take more risks.”

Heesoo Lee has never stopped listening. We can see it in the depth of field she conjures in an image. It is evidenced in the way her forms support the drawing, pulling two-dimensions into three. The mastery she shares is tempered by humility earned from a life lived listening to the small voice. The voice that opened her spirit to nature: aspens, cherry blossoms, waves, and poppies.

“I can only see two colors: yellow and white. There was a whole family of aspen trees. I have never seen so many white trunks, very beautiful and elegant. Their shape is so long. All the knots looked like eyes. There were younger ladies, sad ladies, all different. It was a windy day and all the leaves were moving--whispering. Like tall ladies standing around me talking, ‘Who’s that girl?’ I was just a stranger to them. ”


The Quality of Obsession

Ceramic seraphim from Tennessee, with tousled hair and a kindly stubborn streak. He walked 300 vertical feet every day to share a sweet, fleeting moment and ensnare a heart. He gnarled his way through an academic system, twisting the experience into his own Black Mountain College. At least as much as he could. At least as much as they would allow.

Bill Wilkey knows a secret, but it’s not one he won’t tell. With his head cocked and his smile akimbo; he’s sure we all know too. At least insomuch as “ALL” means all of us who love beyond reason. At least insomuch as “ALL” means all of us who have succumbed to the lure of craft. At least insomuch as “ALL” means all of us who hear William Morris shout across generations to our ears-NOW-his anthem, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Filippo Brunelleschi failed to dominate Alberto Ghiberti in 1401. A competition between craftsmen. A competition between goldsmiths. A competition to dress the baptistry doors of Battistero di San Giovanni.

History wants to call it a draw. Brunelleschi called it a failure. He retreated for 15 years. Wilkey might call it fate. You see, he understands unwavering commitment to quality. Brunelleschi reached for drama--Abraham was going to KILL Isaac. Ghiberti shone light on the tenet of faith--Isaac was willingly obedient to his father’s knife. Two bronze illustrations. Two masters in their field. When the draw was called Brunelleschi, laid down the forge and picked up a brick. He built a dome.

In 2011 Wilkey stood under the dome. He stood under the arc of transition. He opened himself to a torrent of affirmation and doubt. In Brunelleschi’s details and engineering Wilkey saw biomimicry made manifest. He heard the poet Wendell Berry, “...And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.”

“What we need is here.”

Spina pesce.

Spine of the fish.

Brunelleschi’s transformative herringboned brick was a structural necessity. A vessel with deftly textured planes redefining the voluminous dome at an intimate scale is a love letter to the forthrightness of beauty and function. Not derivative. This homage hides in plain site. Repeated niches for private petitions are now undercuts lifting the foot of a pitcher above a tabletop. The weight of water evaporates.

As they negotiate their life in craft, contemporary romantics bound by timelessly pragmatic concerns, the Wilkey family will often play a modern version of “Name That Tune”. Usually the game is specific to the  Iron & Wine catalogue of medleys. If familiarity eases the struggle, they conjure rules to re-up the difficulty.

They are honor bound to do so.

They laugh.

Wilkey shared a paraphrased entreaty from the lyricist. A call to arms. “It’s the artist’s job to follow their obsessions,” and from the vantage point of handle in hand, we can be glad he believes as much.


Excerpts from an article published in The Studio Potter  VOLUME 43 NUMBER 1  


A sample from profiles written for the 2014-15 National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts Emerging Artists, published on the NCECA Blog. 

Mel Griffin, David Peters, Renee BrownZimra Beiner, Lauren Mabry, and Adam Shiverdecker.

Click on their names if you wish to read any or all of the profiles.


Reclaiming Tacit Knowledge: A Portrait of Zimra Beiner

Posted by Jill Foote-Hutton

The initial and easy assessment of Zimra Beiner the person?

Mind you, “easy” means from a distance. Watching someone who is naturally engulfed in observing his world and is not particularly concerned with how the world is observing him will leave one with an impression revealing more about one’s own peccadillos than the reality of who Beiner is and what actually motivates his studio practice.

So what is really going on beneath the haphazardly rumpled shirt, the gently disconnected demeanor, and the intentional gaze?

Every maker is dancing under several category umbrellas and Beiner is no different in that regard. The largest umbrella shelters the art world proper under it. The second umbrella houses the world of design and craft. Let’s say the next umbrella is where material exists. The final umbrella is where it starts to get personal and sets of parameters specific to Beiner’s inquiry reside. Here he is busy observing and stacking up abstracted objects in search of compositions, constantly moving back and forth between things visible and invisible, micro and macro, reactions and responses, recording and reflecting, explicit and tacit, inside and outside, and questioning the boundaries defining what is complete and what is unfinished. All this mounts to answer the question, “What’s going on?” and we find what’s going on is an attempt to throw a cloak of visibility over tacit knowledge in this world through the development a visual language.

Tacit knowledge was an idea introduced to philosophy by Michael Polanyi in 1958. In a nutshell, tacit knowledge zeroes in on our ability to know more than we can tell. We could also call this knowledge our intuition or our gut feeling. Beiner enters the conversation as an individual concerned with contemporary culture’s indifference to the decline of tacit knowledge. He sees it slipping away as culture becomes more and more removed from the creation of the objects we utilize in our day-to-day lives.

While walking down the aisles of Wal-Mart, Beiner cannot accept the existence of the mass-produced objects without questioning them. He is mesmerized and asks himself where were these objects made; how did they get here; who made them? While it will unnerve anyone who is just trying to make a quick run to the store, Beiner is methodically curious about what the objects on the shelves of Wal-Mart have to say about the culture we’re living in now. Beyond the specifics of industrial, consumer objects, his fieldtrips to box stores provide additional fodder as they reveal, “strange compositional overlaps.” A pile of books lain on a pallet that’s propped up with some strange little coins. What could be seen as evidence of a basic restocking task, are to Beiner the residue of human existence.

Beiner acknowledges there is much to criticize about the culture of box stores, a point that may have been glossed over in his presentation at NCECA. It must be maddening to attempt a summation of the multi-layered baklava that is a studio-practice in ten minutes. His professed ardor for Wal-Mart lies in the specifics of the objects and the found compositions among the aisles. During our conversation he had the opportunity to clarify, “I have no desire to challenge or defend them specifically, or the way they treat their workers, or level of environmental consciousness. I’m simply curious about the box store as representing our reality.

“While I scour through books looking for obscure sources, I’m also in awe of the things right in front of me.” He takes a note from the Designer Hella Jongerius who asserts the only way to make an impact through criticism of an entity is to be inside of it and admire it. In the same way anyone with siblings knows the terror we are able to exact on each other within a family dynamic, but woe to an outsider who dares to point a finger. “If I’m going to make sculpture that’s about the mundane and the everyday, I need to know what that is, and I need to admire it as much as I’m skeptical of it. It’s my job to go to Wal-Mart and look up to it and then to unpack it and criticize it at the same time.”

For now, Beiner’s main focus is to secure a stable relationship with a gallery, utilizing the time and resources academia provides for his research.  He feels that such a relationship is the next step toward becoming a known quantity as a maker interested in navigating the space between fine art and industrial design.  Keep an eye out for him at the Ohio Craft Museum’s upcoming “Best of Ohio 2014″ exhibition, Toronto’s Gardiner Museum’s “RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award” scheduled for this fall, and Beiner will be in residence at the Center for Ceramics in Berlin this summer.  Of course, you can always see his latest works online at ZimraBeiner.com.


A guest post I did over at the Musing About Mud Blog, hosted by the indomitable Carole Epp!

 A link to Pt. II, of the essay.


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Jill Foote-Hutton has been someone I've long admired for her artistic endeavors as well as her work with Red Lodge Clay Center and her blog Whistle Pig Studio. So I was naturally thrilled when she contacted me about writing guest posts for musing. Her insight into our makers community as well as the gallery system offers us new perspectives about the co-existance of the two and how we can better manage this necessary relationship. I'm very thankful to Jill for her time and consideration with the following article and eagerly look forward to future posts written by Jill to get our community thinking and discussing. I wholeheartedly encourage you to respond to Jill's writing in the comments section; I know I have a lot on my mind after reading this. 

Revisiting and Redefining Markets, Pt. 1

By Jill Foote-Hutton

Red Lodge Clay Center and Whistlepig Studio

In the September 28th weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal there was an article on custom denim.  Set against an image of several bolts of selvage denim inside New York’s SoHo 3x1 store, is a story about the growing customization market.  Clients are paying up to $1200 for a pair of jeans, participating in the process from concept to finish.  While obviously an elite example, it reminded me of a conversation begun several months ago while courting an artist for a future exhibition at Red Lodge Clay Center.

The artist was interested in participating in the exhibit, but took issue with the standard contractual agreement.  The artist went on at great length about how outdated the current model is.  Concerns about gallery commissions and standard shipping arrangements were at the top of the list.  Like many galleries, Red Lodge takes a 50% commission on all sales.  The work represented in the brick and mortar storefront and online is on consignment.  Artists bear the cost of shipping to the gallery and the gallery ships work back if it doesn’t sell. 

For my part of the conversation I presented the whole picture of Red Lodge Clay Center’s mission statement.  When I took the position of Gallery Coordinator at Red Lodge, it was because I believed in the core tenets of the mission statement, “…provide a place for professionally minded ceramic artists to develop…and share the importance of art in everyday life.”  When we invite an artist to be part of an exhibition or to be represented by our commercial gallery, we are asking said maker to buy in to that mission statement as well.  Of course, there are the very real costs of keeping the lights on, insurance, publicity, shipping supplies, staff salaries, etc. Our ideal objective is to represent a large number of makers to showcase the variety of methods and concepts comprised within the landscape of contemporary ceramics.  The residency program and the community arts outreach programs were and are the foundation of why Red Lodge Clay Center exists, and the commercial gallery is here to support and enhance all of our programming.

In my naiveté, I thought the altruism of our mission would sway the maker into seeing things from a new perspective. 

It did not.

And perhaps it shouldn’t.  What was proposed in the conversation, first and foremost: begin a conversation within the field.  Moreover, the artist believed galleries should begin looking to standard retailer/wholesaler models for their next evolutionary step.  My difficulty in seeing the equation in such simple terms?  We are not selling packs of gum.  If I was running a convenience store, I would order 12 gross of a specific item and pay for shipping.  I would also have the secure knowledge that I would sell said 12 gross and be re-ordering more in the next quarter.  We are not selling convenience store items. We are selling an ideal, a commitment to a very specific way of approaching life, as much as we are selling objects.

What to do, and what does this have to do with custom denim?

Cups and Saucers by Sean O'Connell

Well, a conversation was started here, and it made me begin to look around more closely at solutions emerging craft artists were conceiving in their own marketing strategies.  It turned my eyes and ears sharply toward how contracts between galleries and artists are approached. It began an investigation.  The relevance of the topic was underscored on a recent episode of Tales of a Red Clay Rambler in the discussion between Host Benjamin Carter and guest Sean O’Connell. O’Connell opined the current gallery/artist relationship model seems good for no one, but he was not yet sure what the alternative was.

If you are reading this post, then I feel it is safe to assume you are familiar with the field of ceramics.  I feel it is safe to assume you are familiar with the marketing success of Ayumi Horie’s model.  We all stand in awe of her professional prowess and clever marketing strategies.  Have you seen that match striker video

We are also probably all familiar with Ceramics Monthly’s recently published yearbook featuring Forrest Lesch-Middleton as the Ceramic Artist of the Year, as much for the high quality of his studio objects, as for his success in establishing a production line of tiles featured in the Home & Garden section of the January 2013 issue of the New York Times. 

Finally, I feel it is safe to assume we are familiar with the, somehow controversial, success Molly Hatch has found in her partnership with Anthropoligie.   Because I am assuming we are all familiar with these success stories, I don’t want to focus on them.  Mainly, I will not address the models of the aforementioned artists because their success puts them into the realm of “other” and may seem out of reach to artists who are in the throes of development and question.   Rather, I have talked to and listened to artists who are at the brink of their own concepts.

Familiar main points have surfaced and resurfaced in my conversations, but as Lesch-Middleton stated in his feature when asked about what advice he would give to those aspiring to make a living in ceramics he acknowledged the practice of, “…revisiting [familiar but easily forgotten advice] on a daily basis.”

Those points are:  Planning, Perseverance, Integrity, and Diversification.

I don’t know that I have arrived at a solution, or an entirely new model for the gallery/artist relationship, but in the interest of continuing to, “…provide a place for professionally minded ceramic artists to develop,” I have a clarified picture of a galleries responsibility and role in the equation.

Are you addicted to Tales of a Red Clay Rambler?  I kind of am, and I don’t find it to be too much to work in ceramics, listen to other ceramic makers, and then head to the office to coordinate ceramic exhibitions.  Rather, I tend to languish in the muddy water, submerged in the many conversations.  It was a chat with Arrowmont’s Bill Griffith on the podcast that directed my attention to the new endeavor Objective Clay, a collective of fourteen ceramic artists conceived during Utilitarian Clay VI.  Because I am blessed to reside in a region densely populated by ceramic artists, an organic conversation with founding member Sunshine Cobb was fairly easy to coordinate.  I presented the question to Cobb, sharing the conversation broadcast between O'Connell and Carter, and asked for her perspective.  Did she think that Objective Clay was the answer to artists taking the reigns on their own behalf and cutting out the need for galleries in our modern age? 

Cobb pointed out that Objective Clay was still in its infancy and the members were in an ongoing conversation to line out the manifestations of their objectives.  Their mission statement asserts they have, “a shared vision to create an artist established and maintained online space.  This space functions as a gallery to view our latest work as well as a window into our current thoughts in process. By sharing our ideas and opening our studios, we invite artists, non-artists, educators, and students to actively engage in our artistic practices. In this virtual studio, the people who love pots can view/purchase new work and form direct relationships with the artists who make them.” 

 That last bit about forming direct relationships is really the key to branding isn’t it?  If one wants to be successful in any endeavor, it all comes down the relationships one establishes.  The more circles one can overlap, the more relationships are built and the end result is fiscal success.  Focusing on relationships, whether that relationships starts with a one-on-one consultation with a jean’s designer or whether that relationship starts by finding out what your favorite ceramic artist is reading for inspiration on the Objective Clay bookshelf, allows makers to maintain integrity in their marketing.  By putting relationships first, clients are able to step inside the creative process and feel a part of it.  Happily the end result can be a successful bottom-line because clients are as invested in the final product as the maker. 

Beyond utilizing the internet to establish new relationships, Cobb reported that Objective Clay is looking to corporate markets for sales in an effort to land wholesale orders from clients with larger budgets.  This year at the Wisconsin NCECA keep an eye out for their partnership with restaurant chains within the city. How great would it be to one day walk into a high-end establishment and see the fare presented on hand-made wares?  This kind of vision is looking to the ever-narrowing space between design and craft and grabbing a foothold.  It isn’t an entirely new idea, but one worth revisiting.  It is a vision that looks beyond the tried and true, and perhaps oversaturated market of contemporary ceramics.

Within the walls of Red Lodge Clay Center we are reviewing how we spread our advertising dollars.  The bulk of our budget targets the converted within the pages of Ceramics Monthly.  While we don’t want to step away from a loyal base, we do want to consider how we can break into other realms by looking to foodie magazines and events, as well as design firms who might share the work of our artists with their clients.  A successful model to study is Red Dot.

Red Dot is a company founded on the idea of taking design into new markets by focusing on the highest quality work and awarding it.  New clients are constantly coming to Red Dot so their presentations, homes, and companies might be on the cutting edge of aesthetics and function.

“Look to the periphery!” is the battle cry of modern business acumen.

The final tidbit of wisdom from my discussion with Cobb was an anecdote about the standard shipping arrangement between galleries and artists.  Cobb is currently working as a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana.  Shipping from Montana can be pretty pricey, and anyone who has had to fly out of Montana to anywhere besides Seattle, Denver, or Minneapolis can tell you there is no easy road out in regard to travel.  She shipped work to a gallery and made the choice to send a grouping of smaller objects.  Of course, all the work sold out rather quickly and the gallery called to request she send more work for the exhibition and include larger pieces in the next shipment.  Cobb was happy to oblige, but observed and asserted that she was getting the short end of the deal in regard to the shipping arrangement.  “If all of my work sells, then the gallery never has to ship work back to me.”  Cobb suggested the gallery front the shipping costs on the next shipment.  

As a gallery representative, I know that shipping costs are one of the larger line items in our budget.  While that cost is shared by our clients who pay shipping and handling in their purchases, a gallery does maintain a healthy stock of bubble wrap, peanuts, newsprint, boxes, tape, fragile stickers, branding logo stamps, and includes supporting documents about the artists and exhibitions in every package.  Still, Cobb's point was taken.  How can a gallery work to better reward its best sellers?  Especially if the intention of a gallery is to support the livelihood of its artists as well as keeping the doors open.  Hmmmm?  Again, the words from O’Connell’s Red Clay Rambler interview came back to me, “…good for no one.”  Cobb’s proposal didn’t seem at all unrealistic to me:  invest more in the artists who present proven product.

Next month I will present the rest of the story in my visits with Meredith Host who divides her efforts between her commercial line Folded Pigs and her studio output Dot Dot Dash, Meg Roberts who has been busily building her socially motivated brand and soon to be 501c3, Plants for Patients, by looking to the advocates for reproductive rights, Andrea Moon who is building the new web format Pedestal as a market place for contemporary craft, and tying the opening model of custom denim back to the work of Andrew Gilliatt his evolving concepts. We’ve seen the beginnings of the importance of diversification and integrity and will delve more into those areas, as well as being reminded of the importance of perseverance and planning.  Until then, my thanks to Carole Epp and the Musing about Mud blog for providing a venue and an audience for this discussion. 


Samples of Curatorial Statements from my time at Red Lodge Clay Center. If you want to read more, just go to Red Lodge Clay Center's exhibition archive.

Anything produced between June 2010 and August 2014 came from my keyboard.


Bob & Elaine Shay -- RETURN

Visceral Responds to Formal

Dark. 

Massive. 

Tumult. 

The sounds of a blacksmith hammer and bellows are audible. Images of steel industry loll about in the mind's eye and drop heavily on the toe. Belching fire roars and copper pipes wrench the plastic terra firma.

Clawing up and climbing out, the border of Mars' foundry delivers the viewer to a fleeting world of commodities. Common objects have been gathered from a pocket, from a stroll through a second hand shop and from a walk in the woods. As viewer, we have been ejected from the center of the earth and dropped into the middle layer of reality. We are firmly seated in a chair and refocused on paper airplanes, once light and full of potential, now rooted with the weight of memory and mass. The representation of insouciant youth rests upon a bottle of Log Cabin syrup. The juxtaposition conjures allegory and invites formal concerns into our purview, if only to cease their banging on the door. 

We are jolted out of the nostalgic reverie on dice and pocketknives.

And now--

Again at a border; the viewer can make a choice.

This time the boundary defines the choice between standing on firm ground or floating upward to the highest realm: the heavens. Here the mass of production loses all sense of gravity. Here the violent propulsions of forces colliding slow to a gentle ballet. Together, viewer and object hover in a celestial white box and, together, we consider our conception and consequent relatedness to history, journey and cosmos.


IMPACT: Archetypal Riffs

The works of John Williams, Katherine Taylor and Daniel Bare begin with observations. Each artist considers implications of interactions between human elements and the land. However, concepts from a common fountainhead quickly diverge, raising questions of commoditization, place and consumption. The resulting objects strike discordant notes of control against chaos and supply the viewer with ample fodder for challenging visual debate. Analyzing the works in relation to each other not only accentuates their disparate visual conclusions, but also grants us opportunity to review the topics in common from a new perspective.

The objects are rife with query and gleam, reaffirming the spirit of spring and exploration. April is, after all, the month designated for terrestrial reflection. It is the month to consider all manner of revival. We may even find permission to take leave of our usual obsession with weighty concerns and revel in the lush surfaces, textures and forms. 

If we do give over to formal indulgences, lolling about consuming gold, porcelain and remnants of sandy beds, we become manic with verdurous hedonism. We are pulled into the intricate mechanics of turbines and pipelines. We may be strangely compelled to visually rake our psyche against caustic remnants of shards, unearthing dormant masochism. We may yearn to lap up syrupy glazes from their bed of polychrome clay.
Inversely, we may be repelled by the decadence. We may perceive these objects as gross displays and regurgitations of a too-prominent dilemma with no solution. 

The most interesting potential lies in awakening the contest between guardian and hedonist. The field of ceramics is oft agitated by incongruous intentions, helplessly engrossed in a perpetual conflict of love for and depletion of material. 


(a)LURE

lure is anything that attracts, entices, tempts or acts as a live or artificial decoy.

Allure is a derivative word, focusing on the positive aspects of luring, namely attraction, fascination, or appeal.

The five artists presented in the Loft Gallery use sundry devices to lure even the most aloof viewer into a mental space where indulgence in fantastical notions is prevalent. In doing so, they elicit an engagement which lasts longer than the standard eight seconds a viewing audience allots for assessing unidentified art objects and images.

Once the artists have our full attention, the similarities end and the remainder of the dialogue is a coin-toss of fate. Which artists successfully plied you with their wares? Are you engaged in an endearing fantasy where teddy bears are human avatars? Or have you been drawn to a darker world; a world where the alluring palette quickly drains from the subject matter and you are asked to confront the tenuous grasp society and self have on day-to-day order? Or perhaps the object has a more singular objective; one of permission. Permission is certainly granted here. Indulge, deeper and deeper, in the hedonism of material, color and hybridization.

A lure often results in a bitter end for the prey. However, a bitter end is not pre-ordained. A lure can create an embarkation point for broader opportunities. A lure can be a spoon full of sugar as easily as it can be a snare set for entrapment. The good news is: both experiences generate growth and prospects for self-introspection.

The exhibition has been organized to create a specific interaction between the objects as an intimate community. Take a moment, while you are hooked, to consider the relationships between the objects. Finally, be mindful of your own path through the space. Does the gaze of an object direct your line of sight? Is your progress impeded or changed by object placement or by your own attentions? Ask yourself what are the implications of the way you engage with the work. What are the implications of the questions generated within your mind?