Author Anne Lamott writes that her pastor Veronica says that "peace is joy at rest, and joy is peace on its feet." (Plan B, p. 7) I haven't heard peace and joy described this way before, but I get it. It is how I feel when I am throwing, glazing, or recycling clay.....I feel peace as the wheel spins in front of me, and I become one with the clay, as we shape together a bowl or plate, and joy is the activity bubbling around, the hum of the wheel and the radio blasting, my body working and aching and the voices of the studio busy in creation around me. It is active, and peaceful...a wonderful connected yin yang circle of fullness.
I have been so busy lately getting my pottery chops that there has been little time to write. After 60 cylinders, 50 mugs, 20 lidded forms, and now on to thirty bowls, there isn't as much time to reflect through a keyboard. However, there is an abundance of time to reflect, wonder, think as the wheel spins and my body attempts to connect to the clay in an act of co-creation. The practise is good. Practise will serve me well, creating a body memory of being with the clay, learning how to work with it...so that soon, if I keep up the practise, I will be able to play more in the clay...as we are comfortable with each other. It is a dance, I think....getting these pottery chops...a lesson in improvisation, in being in tune, in getting the nuances. I listened to an interview with Joshua Bell on NPR one day, and they were talking about a piece of music that he has played thousands of times (something by Mozart, but I don't remember which piece.) He said that each time he played it, even though he knew it inside and out, on top and underneath, the act of playing that familiar piece revealed a fresh nuance about his playing, or his violin, or even the piece of music itself. I had a professor once, who gave the exact same lectures year after year, from the same yellow legal pad paper that she painstakingly wrote out in perfect cursive lettering. I heard some of these lectures twice and three times, in different settings, not to mention reading them in her publications. They were, and still are, captivating for the listener--because her work was groundbreaking in feminist hermaneutics and biblical interpretation. But what about for her? I wondered, did she get bored? I asked her about this. She peered at me through her owlish tortoise shell glasses with the ever slightest smile, and said, "Each time I give a lecture, it is like the first time I ever give it. " Nothing boring there. Nothing boring in throwing a million mugs, either. Each time I sit down with a lump of clay, I never really know how it will unfold into being exactly...but as I practise, I feel that I am getting more and more accomplished at the art of improvisation and craft and contribute as much to the clay as it gives back to me.
I haven't had much time to write lately, as I have been busy with my work. Did I mention that I am a clergy person? The fall is a busy time in the life of a congregation, and encouraging the renewal of programming at this time of year is a monumental and satisfying and frustrating task. In any case. In my functional pottery class, we have been reading a book called ART AND FEAR. The authors of this text argue for that artists are unique in the world because they pour their being into something they have created, and the world around them can reject that creation or embrace it. In other words, no other work besides an artist's (whether that art is visual or musical or .....) is loaded with oneself. Therefore, the artist, in what she offers to the world is exceptionally vulnerable, and needs to discover inner strength and resolve and esteem no matter how her art is received. This is an interesting thought to me, because I really don't think this phenomenon is singular to the work of an artist. Or perhaps, more people are artists than we know. For example, my ministry as pastor is fraught with my being...I offer myself to a congregation, to a work, to a sermon, a project, and it is out there, to be received or rejected by a group of people. Especially this is true for a sermon, or a specific ritual action. The sermon offered, hopefully is inspired by wisdom from the universe, God, the Holy, (whatever you want to call it....but again, aren't their muses for artists? ) but the fact is, the sermon is a work from my heart, my creativity, my connections to people and to the Divine, and if people are mad at you because you didn't tell them about Bessie's upcoming surgery, or didn't include them on the birthday list, or whatever, they can and do and will reject your ability to create a sermon, a word that might offer some hope or healing. (wow, that's a run on sentence for you!) I guess what I am trying to say is that yes, making art is risky (according to Art and Fear) and so are other "works" as well.
In design class on Tuesday, we explored rhythm in visual art. When we were looking at art and sculpture in books, some of sort of "sang" the rhythm of the work: "Well, it looks like bah-bah-bah-dah-swhooww!" I have been looking the past two days, for rhythm...on the highway, at home, in the movement of my poodles dancing and kittens purring and in the soft melody of an understanding gaze of a friend during a time of discomfort. "Noticing rhythm..." commented our design instructor, "is a nice way to be in the world." Indeed, the world has a heartbeat, and songs to sing and wail, screech and slide. I want to hear that music, and I want to notice it, see it, and wonder about it as I create my own song and beat in this little corner of the world.
...We discussed today how "creating" is countercultural, because for artists, the process of creating work is as productive and informative and deepening as the final product. In our schools, we focus on product, the grade, the end of year test, the ability to advance to the next grade level--the end performance is key. But, in making art, the "works" are the guide (Art and Fear). "The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work" (Art and Fear, p. 26). IF this is true, as a beginning potter, I need to get busy and do some work, because I have much to learn. So, I am off, to get busy, learn some lessons, and be countercultural.
Today, I elected not to travel to class, which in essence, is a three hour commute both ways. This was a hard choice for me, but one I needed to make. It seems like there will be an issue about gas supply in the Southeast, due to Hurricane Katrina, and since I have made the trip three times this week, I felt like I might should do my part to lessen the impact of my ecological footprint--which is already three times the size it should be. Sigh. Selfishly, I wonder what impact this energy situation will make on my ability to learn about clay and design. I worry, and then I feel guilty because the suffering from this disaster is catastrophic, wrenching, and devastating. It is stunning and breaking. And, even though I know that we need to continue to live the regularity of our daily lives as we usually do, in spite of feeling 'survivor guilt', this is a conundrum. We need to live the dailiness with awareness, thoughtfulness, compassion and generousity. But, there is more for me. I wonder, how does action, solidarity, justice, connect with making art? Especially when one is a middle aged part-time student, and nearly full time professional? Is it frivolous to want to burn a quarter tank of gasoline so that I can learn to throw two pounds of clay into 6"-8" high cylinders, over and over and over--with no clear direction or goal of the outcome? The materials of art, according to the book, Art and Fear, are seductive. The tooth of good paper, the glide of an delicious pastel, the bristles of the perfect brush. Clay, for me, is seductive. It calls to me, flirts with me, sings sonnets that circle in my head and heart, beckoning my hands to dig deep, practise, learn, create. Justice and mercy, practice and seduction. This is the tension I hold in my body today.
In design class, we have to do collage sketches on certain concepts. This week we explored "balance." Sketches. Not works of art. Sketches--nothing special, just a way to learn the concepts with our hands and a material. This has been hard for me, choosing shapes, colors, thinking about composition...and then someone in class said, about her own process, how she told herself, "don't get precious with it." Meaning, don't worry yourself over this, don't get overly involved in this, just do it....I love this phrasing, and I am trying to use it as my mantra as I learn to turn clay, to practise with construction paper, and any number of things in life. This is practise, like piano scales. Don't get precious with the things that aren't precious.
Today in design we explored balance in two dimensional design. We looked at artbooks from the met and moma, and talked about what kind of balance and symetry and unbalance each painting had. with modern art, this is difficult to discern...and one painting by Mark Rothko was especially intriguing for us. We concluded that it was balanced, but still was unsettling in the way that it made you think, ponder, wonder. perhaps it had deep balance. What was striking to learn, for me, is that balance doesn't necessarily mean that something is calm, meditative, boring, perfect, easy to grasp, or dull. Balance can be strong, complex, have depth and wonder, challenge and possibility. This is an important lesson for me...that balance in my creative, spiritual well doesn't have to be nice, peaceful, expected. There can be energy, surprise, and strength that is grounded and challenged by the unexpected. It is something I want to wrestle with more....
On Thursdays, in class, we pause. We pause to check in, to see where everyone (all four of us) is on the page--or should I say, in the clay. Then, we talk a little bit about a book we are reading, and then write. The book is called Art and Fearand the topic is control. A perfect time for community, reflection, connection, and space. Pausing....taking a moment...to remember our breath, to let it fill our bodies, down to our toes and fingers and back and bellies to be nourished by its presence....and exhaling.... only to breath in again. My friend Ellin says that it is important to remember that the one thing we have in common with everyone around us is that we all breathe the same air....we all need to breathe. It is essential, obviously, for life. But the action of breathing mindfully is vital, as well. We need to remember to pause so that the stuff of our lives don't suffocate us. We need to breathe so that we can rest in the tangle of life and wonder, marvel, at it all. We need to breathe to remember there is space around us, and that one step at a time, the journey will inform us. The most risky thing God did, according to Barbara Brown Taylor (amazing teacher, writer, Episcopalian priest) is breathe life into the forms created from the earth of the ground. Ruach--the breath of God. Indeed this breath life within us sings to us to create as well. And so we do...we become risk-takers, creators, leaving a little bit of ourselves in everything we make, every cylinder, every bowl, every mug...and we don't know where those creations will end up. Part of the risk, then....letting go...and being able to tolerate uncertainty.......
Making art, I am learning, is all about choices. It is telling stories, as my design instructor would say. Making choices is HARD for me, and probably the biggest block for me as an artist, as a professional, as a regular person who has to go the grocery store on a regular basis. Sometimes I feel like each choice I make will determine the course of my life--down to deciding whether to pay 99 cents for organic black beans, or get the store brand that is two cans for $1. On my limited budget, I want to get the better deal, but I want to be consistent with my values and buy organic, because it is a better deal for my body, for the earth, for the small farmer producing the organic beans. And so it goes, ten minutes of my life deciding which can of beans to buy. This problem with choice making was magnified in our first assignment in design on "composition". We are to choose two or three shapes, and make five compositions, going from unified to chaotic. I am stuck on what shapes to choose. Circles, lines, squares, triangles, squiggles, spirals, stars, flowers, splotches, narrow, fat, swooshy, straight, crooked....oh my. So many possibilities to choose from, so many ways to tell the story, a story, of unity and variety and chaos. It is a relief to turn to the clay from construction paper and exacto knifes and just work on making the same cylinders, over and over and over.
Today in class we learned about different clay bodies and safety issues in the studio and the nature of the earth's crust and its composition in minerals and rocks and other technical "stuff." Surely, chemistry and tables and math are not my strength, but this is information I want to soak through to some of the layers of the crust of my thinking! What strikes me that within the complexity of the earth's change and shifting and complex geological activities throughout the eons, clay is a simple, common, ABUNDANT product of the intricacies of that constant motion which began as a molten fiery mass. Hmmm. In spite of not taking the welding class, maybe I am playing and creating with fire, in a way. The picture is of a slab pitcher I made at Columbia Teacher's College studio while in NYC, the summer of 1999. It is one of two pieces I saved from that beginning class...and the glaze on it faintly reminds me of the surging of melted earth, a cauldron from which all creation has grown.
By far the most enjoyable moments of today came at the end of our time together, when I learned the process of recyling clay. What a mess--a slurpy, squishy, smoothie mess! The process begins when someone presses used clay through a mesh sieve that fits over a fifty gallon trash can. This can be a pain in the rear if you have a lot of clay to press through the screen, and some people take a short cut and lift the screen and throw their used clay (this can be lumps, fallen wet bowls, etc. into the goop.) Bad, bad idea. A polite and considerate potter uses the screen, as it creates less work for the one recycling--which as a task in itself is quite physical. So, when the giant trash can is filled with a mess of slip and slop, it is rolled into the clay mixing room and transferred to the big metal clay mixer. Transferring is a relative word. It is more like playing in the mud when you were a kid, except much more messy. You just grab gobs of this gunk and smoosh it through the screen that is now covering the top of the metal clay mixer. It flies everywhere, and gets all over your clothes. Some people find this gross. I loved the feel of this wet slop slurping through my fingers. In the picture, the background for this bisqued mug is the t-shirt I wore today. When the transfer is finished, then some dried clay is added to mush, and then you close the top, and turn the mixer on, and after it shakes and agitates and integrates all the ingredients for thirty minutes, you have a beautiful, chocolate moussey- silvery glowing substance that is ready to become usable studio clay, after it dries out some. What is most interesting about mixing clay, however, is that recycled clay is alive~it has a lot of body to it, because it has bacteria growing in it to keep it active. If one were to mix clay from scratch--throw some dried ball clay and generic stoneware and whatever else goes into it, it would look nice and feel nice, but it would be sterile. According to Dan, when people mix new clay, they thrown in bacteria creating agents, such as beer, to help the clay come to life. Usually we think of mold and bacteria as bad, but for clay, it is good. What a wonderful metaphor for life--and obvious, I suppose for most of us--being on the journey means that all of what we meet and encounter and do--the moldy and smelly and messy along with the tidy and good and delightful--is essential for the health of our chi, our life force...and we shouldn't try to get rid of it--absolute purity makes us sterile and lifeless. ( I know this is arguable, but for me, it is a bit of a relief!) Life is a mix, a tangle, a journey. It reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, who wrote in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ...Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator's exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques an horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time. This, then, is the extravagant landscape of the world, given, given with pizzazz, given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over...(p. 146)
Last spring, I received a professional development grant to grow my skills in creating with clay, along with wondering about the creative spirit and human connections to the Divine. Thinking I might take a couple of classes at a community center over the summer, instead, the plan unfolded that I could enroll in a more intensive program in the fall that will give me more in depth experience with the art and craft of being a potter. So. Here I am on the first day. Sitting at the wheel, making a mess, in sheer happiness and eagerness with this artistic medium that I know so little about, yet love so deeply. I feel this way about...the Divine. I know so little about God, Goddess, Spirit, Creator...and yet I am deeply connected to this Source of my being, loving the Mystery of it all.
I love being in the company of artists. They simply think differently, and very carefully they express what is visual with words. It is almost sacred conversation, at times. In the design class, we spent about thirty minutes of quiet time, just leafing through art books, looking a paintings and works of art. After the quiet, we gathered around the table to share whatever struck us. One person shared, "look at how the activity and design of this wrought iron gate rests in the space". Activity resting in the space. I thought it was a profound observation--to be able to perceive activity, but the quiet space holding it, anchoring it, making it possible for it to be an active, living piece of art. I wonder if this is what God is like....the space around each of us, the quiet space, the strong space, that allows us to live and breathe and be all of who we are.
We only used the wheel for a couple of hours yesterday, but it was good to be back in the clay. I am anxious to spend more time learning about how to create better, stronger forms. I was able to center the clay, and pull up the sides, make a fat cylinder...but then I just sort of wandered after that. Which, actually, was the assignment. Just wander about in the clay, feel it, get to know it, push it to its limit, just enjoy being with it.
I am also taking a two-dimensional design class. (I might mention here that there is also a welding class for artists that I am not able to take, because of my time constraints, but oh, how I dream to get to create with fire some day, too!) Honestly, I thought I might get a little bored with design, because it sounds a little dry. The first class, however, was wonderful. Emma, the instructor, talked about design as giving artists the tools to solve the problems once creates as an artist. When I think about it, maybe design gives us the tools to ask the questions to create--"What if?" and then find as many ways to answer the questions we pose--"I wonder what would happen if...or if I ...??" In any case, the design class is going to help me see and wonder, which can only be good, I think. I like the way my used clay piled up in a bucket, creating a mountain of shape and lines and curves.
I woke up this morning, thinking about clay. Thinking about possibility, about what I want to make, about what I want to learn, about how much I truly enjoyed yesterday. I thought to myself, how lucky am I ? Dan, our welcoming instructor, while going through his sixty page syllabus, says his goal is for us to be thinking about clay all of the time. His vision is effusive. I feel so fortunate (and if you are reading this, Dan, this is NOT a ploy for extra credit!) to get to have a teacher like him, and I am fortunate to be in a studio with so many wonderful artists at different levels and interests and skills in clay. It is a great community.