Filling the Tank: Fuel for the Creative Life

This weekend Gabe and I had the good fortune to attend the Lawrence Art Center Ceramics Symposium in Lawrence KS as part of the midterm meeting for my graduate program at Fort Hays State University.  The Symposium featured 6 very well-respected ceramic artists working in a variety of techniques and approaches.  The artists that participated were: Sunshine Cobb, Gerit Grimm, Chris Gustin, Akio Takamori, Patti Warashina and Stan Welch.  The two days were divided between simultaneous demonstrations and artist talks.  We also had the great good fortune to visit the studio of Kris Kuksy.


The slide lectures were an opportunity to become acquainted with the artists of the symposium through the history of their work.  Chris Gustin works primarily on the wheel, making large vessels and platter forms and then wood firing.   His inspiration comes largely from the geometry found in nature and art and architecture of the past.

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Akio Takamori creates simplified human figures and then paints  them with underglazes. These painted figures have the look and feel of dimensional sumi paintings.   The work explores his identity as a Japanese person living in America and his interest in the act of looking, at art, people and culture.


Patti Warashina also works with the figure.  Her slip cast pieces, inspired by surrealism, are complex narratives that examine human nature and culture.

patti warashina

Stan Welch combines photographs, ceramic, installation and two-dimensional design to create large wall hanging pieces that feature ceramic figurines and the ocean.  These large works evoke both isolation and anticipation.


The demonstrations took up most of the day at the symposium, and while we wanted to see everyone work, it made the most sense to drop in and focus on the work of a couple of artists and get the full benefit of what they had to offer.  We chose to watch the demonstrations of Sunshine Cobb and Gerit Grimm.

Gerit Grimm is a German born artist making figurative work on the wheel.  For the demonstration she made two works, a horse and rider and a woman with a flower-pot.  Her process began with throwing parts, torso, head, arms, legs and other bits.  Once the work had dried efficiently it was assembled into incredibly engaging sculptural forms that reference both the style of making and that which they are meant to portray.

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Gerit helped us deepen our understanding of complex form and multi piece attachment processes.  She was an engaging and funny presenter and we had a great time with her.

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Sunshine Cobb is a functional potter who combines hand building and wheel techniques to create pots that have an incredible vitality and integrity.  The work is aggressively formed and there is no attempt to hide the means of their making.  The vigorous finger marks and pinching cracks add humanity to the handmade work that is for some artists has become indistinguishable from factory produced work.   Her methods were quick and confident and we came away feeling energized and motivated in our own work.  Another great thing about Sunshine’s presentation was her straight talk about the nature of ceramic business.  She offered tips and encouragement on a subject that is often neglected in these types of events.




We had a great time getting to know her and feel really inspired by what she taught.

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The weekend offered other opportunities as well.  The first night of the conference the art center opened a show titled “Souvenirs from the Future: A Survey of Contemporary Ceramic”  It was a very good show.  Here are a few of our favorite works:


Stephanie Craig, Raft Lake Fables: “Home Before Dark”


Josh Zimmerman.  Stratified Construction #2


Shalene Valenzuela.  Implements of Self Construction: Paint by Numbers


Brett Kern.  Inflatable Astronaut

In addition, Russel Wrankle had a solo show up featuring dogs with things tied to them.  The idea he said came from the old trick of tying a dead bird to the neck of a dog that kills chickens.  Wearing the bird until it rots off was though to cure the dog of the chicken habit.  I don’t know about the practice, but the work was wonderful.  This piece titled “Frog Muzzle” was our favorite.


We also had the outrageous good fortune to visit Kris Kuksy’s new studio and get to chat with him about his work, upcoming shows and the fine art of kit bashing.  We couldn’t photo any of his work as it’s for an upcoming show, but we did catch this sweet little vignette of roosters and death in a corner of the space.

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If you don’t know Kris’s work, you should.

We also paid a great visit to Bracker’s Good Earth Clays.  They were super friendly and helpful and had soooo many lovely tools.  I’m afraid we got a bit carried away.  It was a good connection to make and I am sure we will be doing business with them in the future.

We learned a huge range of useful things this weekend, fundamental to our discoveries was the importance of clay body to technique.  That without exploring a range of bodies, it may not be possible to fully engage a personal technique.  Each change brings new challenges and as those are overcome a true vocabulary can be built and potential explored.

This was the bones of the weekend, the rest was inspiration to return to the studio with new perspectives and techniques to push our work into the next project and beyond.  Fuel for the creative life.



This lovely pic is a bonus from the walls of The Java Bean Cafe in downtown Lawrence.


Ceramics as Theater and the Necessity of Video

Either by question or comment, people are often curious about the blending of ceramic and video that is at the heart of the Foxy-Wolff collaboration.  Partly, it is a simple matter of blending Gabe’s and my skill sets, this is just what would naturally come about from a collaboration of a  ceramist and a film maker, but after reading a wonderful essay in Ceramics Art and Perception (issue 92) titled “Is Ceramics a Genre in Theater”, I am compelled to think more deeply.

In the article, the author, Orly Nezer points to a definition of minimalist art that came out of the 1960’s.  Theorist Michael Fried identifies minimalist art as “neither paintings nor sculpture, but rather a situation that takes into account the actions of its manufacture, the activities that have preceded it and to great extent, the presence of the spectator”.  The author goes on to develop a thesis based on this quote that put the viewer in the center of a work of art for the context that is given through that act, and another from Eric Bentley on the nature of theater, “A impersonates to B while C is watching”  This quote establishes the necessity of time in the idea.  So we are left with an audience and a measured time of action.

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Orly then identifies several ceramic installations that meet this criteria.  My favorite is Titled “Signs and Wonders” by Edmund de Waal, it was installed in the Victoria and Albert Museum  in 2009.  For tis installation, de Waal honors the ceramic collection of the V&A through recreating them in porcelain from memory.  The works were then placed on a circular aluminum shelf suspended high above the gallery floor.  This placement distorts and blurs the work for the viewer.  Orly claims that this placement requires the imagination of the viewer to complete the work.

In each of the works discussed, the audience must participate, and that participation can only occur while in contact with the work.  From this keen observation, Orly goes on to include functional pots into this definition, because their use gives them context and meaning and their value is in a collection of gestures that goes into their making.  A pitcher is not really a pitcher until its poured.

So then how does this pertain to Foxy-Wolff and our toys and videos?  I think it’s an easy jump to view the handmade toys and houses as functional objects that are not really complete until they are played with.  It’s true that ceramic is an absurd material for toys but that is, in a way, the point. We act out these strange adult scenarios with toys too fragile for a child.  The play is closely regulated with firm rules so that the video has the look and feel that we need, but none of it has any meaning until they are watched.

It is true that the recording of the play removes the necessity of the ephemeral, but perhaps this is not the play of the script that is really being recorded.  I begin to wonder if the play that we are really interested in is the continuous dialog of the collaboration itself.  Sometimes light and funny and at times a battle with immovable opinions, but always compelling as we continually push for more and more from the work and each other.  Maybe that question; why ceramic and video? is at the heart of the entire project. Though for me at least, its one that I don’t really need to answer.

Janet Mansfield

I was attracted to the article in Ceramics Art and Perception on Janet Mansfield (issue 92) primarily because I admire her contribution to contemporary ceramics.  She has been so very dedicated to the spread and growing acceptance of ceramic art as a respected medium.  Her legacy as a writer and editor and publisher, including the launch of this very magazine in 1990, is one that will be felt for generations.

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This article had little to do with these achievements however, it was a conversation about her favorite pot.  It seems amazing to me that she could choose one, having made so many, but according to the article, she chose without hesitation.  In her discussion of why she loved it so, she discusses the form, the handles, the salt accumulation and the ash, all to be expected from someone who helped the world understand what good pots are, but she went on to note its imperfections, and to include these in the reasons that it was her favorite.  She said it’s like people, everyone has a flaw.

It is this accumulated wisdom that I carried away from the read.  Her life was spent in clay, and it was her passion.  Through making objects she seems to have made herself, and her view of the world.  A simple wish to be useful, that carried itself into so many lives and influenced so many others.  In the photos she cradles the pot like a beloved pet or a happy baby, it reminds me of the simple pleasure in making objects and the wonders that a life making has to offer.

Wall-Paper: An Installation by Aurora Hughes Villa

Wall-paper has a pretty bad reputation among contemporary house proud decorators, yet it has so much appeal for artists.  Being passé and completely decorative is just one of the reason to use it for inspiration.  Another wonderful feature is that its broken symmetry and patterning work so well in backgrounds.  Additionally,  wall-paper is loaded with symbolism, both within its own images and culturally as metaphor for the times it has been popular.


The installation “Wall-Paper” by Aurora Hughes Villa that was displayed in conjunction with the 2012 NCECA in Seattle WA and reviewed in issue 92 of Ceramics Art and Perception, picks up on all these universal themes,  but manages to be a work that is intimate and personal. Part of its ease of communication is in the meticulous craftsmanship of each of the pieces.  They are created using a mixture of new tech and reliable technique.  The vintage wall-paper designs are scanned into Photoshop, where they are manipulated, and then turned into screens for silkscreen, which is applied using colored slips and underglazes.  The surface of the clay is formed using a combination of carving, stencils and free painting.  The medallions are then fired several times.  Each medallion is unique and features cameo images of women, medical drawings of body parts and architectural drawings of Victorian houses.


The overall effect of these well placed, well-organized images is controlled and possibly a bit predictable, as  is expected of wall-paper, until considering the strong shadows cast on the wall by the heavily top lit medallions onto the dark painted wall.  Those shadows blur the edges of the entire piece and break up the uniformity and control.  The metaphor for shadow in a calm and ordered environment brings this work out of the Victorian, where the ideals of domesticity created a prison for women, into the contemporary mind, and suddenly the colors are reminiscent of a Martha Stewart Living magazine, also proclaiming the joys of quiet and controlled domestic living.   On the opposite wall from the medallions are two strips of wall-paper, tacked up, with the edges loose and bulges by the tacks.  These pieces of paper stand in stark contrast to the well placed order on the other side of the room.

Hughes Villa is a wife and a mother, and I do not believe she is making a statement that rejects either of those occupations, but rather acknowledges what all wives and mothers sometimes feel in the quest to create well-organized lives.

Her Website: