Monday, February 28, 2011

An Unconventional Potter

Three small bowls, 2008

     Throwing again today for an upcoming Empty Bowls event in Richmond, Ky later this month. Despite the stormy weather and power outage in the early morning, I was able to start on making some bowls towards my total of 50. As I was centering my fifth or sixth or seventh ball of clay, I heard the voices of people I know asking, "Why don't you teach? How about offering lessons?" It's something I wish to avoid, quite frankly, but as I was making my bowls and stacking them on my tables next to me, I realized why. I'm a shitty thrower. I don't follow the basic rules of throwing and could never demonstrate because every example would be different than the next pot thrown. I have no consistency. And I don't care, either. I'm not in this because I have an obsession with the craft of being a potter and the historical connection to the past, blah, blah, blah. I have no romantic notions of the utilitarian and how noble it is, even if I do appreciate a good solid pot when I see one. I throw because I love working in clay and when you work in clay, it's something you learn to do. Someone trying to learn to throw from me would be instructed in what not to do.
I still have trouble centering.
If it isn't centered, I'll pull the form anyway until it becomes a disaster. And then I'll throw a fit.
I use clay that's too wet.
I use clay that's too dry.
I use the wrong ergonomic technique.
I use inefficient techniques.
I use the wrong tools.
I trim too much.
I trim too little.
I don't trim at all.
I don't use my chamois to soften my edges.
I don't clean up enough.
I overwork the clay.
I'm sloppy and clumsy.
My hands are in the wrong position.
My head is in the wrong position.
I don't open up enough.
My bowl bottoms are too shallow, too narrow, too flat.
My cups are too light. Or too heavy.
I don't throw tall enough.
My handles still suck.
     I am inconsistent to the end and so if you want lesson in how to throw, don't watch me. But if you want to know what it's like for a lot of people, feel free to watch me destroy a ball of clay, throw a fit and laugh at me in my insanity.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gourds: New Bloom

New Bloom; 2011; Dyed hardshell gourd, gourd membrane, glass microbeads, milkweed pods, formed copper

This is the last of the gourd work recently completed. This piece is constructed from the top of a bottle-necked gourd and the inside membrane of various hardshell gourds. I find the inside material of gourds to be as fascinating as the outside shell. Sometimes it is unremarkable and porous, but other times it is papery and shimmery. The piece references a flower with a large "stamen and pistil" area comprised of milkweed pods. The feathery seeds have all since blown away.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gourds: Nest Overflow

Nest Overflow; 2011; Dyed hardshell gourd, dyed toothpicks, silk, glass microbeads,Tamarisk branches, vines, pyrography, carved, assembled

Several years ago, I was visiting my friend, Robbin when she handed me this large gourd on her living room floor that was "over 50-years-old" or so she told me. She plopped in my arms and said, "Here. Do something with this." Well, Robbin, five years and one BFA later, here it is. I hope you like it. I doubt it's what you expected.
     This piece is a reflection on the material things or maybe non-material things that fill our lives and the near-to-bursting feeling it can create. The top is separated from the bottom like a hinged jaw. The toothpicks remind me of the baleen of a whale that takes in the thousands of krill to feed itself. The actual gourd is old and has split in some places as if it could not contain its insides. I expanded on that idea and it made me think about the lure of material goods and wealth we acquire over our lifetimes, the material "stuff" we fill our homes with in order to add value to ourselves. In some way, this piece could be seen as a celebration of good fortune but I think it should also make us question what really constitutes happiness and home, in the long run. How attached are we to our "stuff?" What do we give up to acquire material goods? How heavy a burden are our things? Do we compromise our decisions and our values in order to keep our things? All things to ponder, in my opinion.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gourds: Control Freak

Control Freak; 2011; Hardshell gourd, dye ink, bronze spiculae, brass wire
This is the second gourd finished recently. For me this references the mother figure, specifically, or certainly a female figure, but every person has their own interpretation. Like a lobster trap, once you get in, you can't get out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gourds: Momma's Boy

Momma's Boy, 2011, Hardshell gourd, gourd seed, loofah, string, dyes, inks, copper banding

My BFA work in Metals centered around the combination of metal and gourds. I knew, because I have this weird fascination and obsession with gourds, that I wanted to combine gourds with the materials I was concentrating on in my degree program but I really expected to marry gourds and clay, not the metal.
     However, I found a conduit for my strong emotional response and reaction to my family situation at the time using the metal work to trap and encase the gourds I was drawn to. It was then that the gourds became the metaphor for the person, in particular, they often became the son. The metal became the mother figure. I explored the exploitation and power abuse of a parent to child in order to gain advantage in a divorce and custody situation. They addressed the parental alienation issues surrounding my husband's divorce and the effects on his young son.
     Time has passed and circumstances have changed. The power relationship between the mother and son has developed. The gourds still reference the human but now the mother/son elements are separating and have gained their own identities. A power struggle has developed as the child has matured into young adulthood. These new pieces address the elements in this. Metal still makes an appearance in these pieces but I am using it as support instead of a major element. I'm interested in exploring the gourd itself as a sculptural medium. More mixed media is being used, particularly natural elements. I've tried to make more use of gourd parts as sculptural elements when possible. The piece above, Momma's Boy, touches on the tangled, baggage-laden relationship of mother to son and the long-term issues that follow. The inside bowl of the main piece is covered with gourd seeds with the words: self, boy, man, mom, own, control and ... written on individual seeds. The "umbilical cord" penetrating the form and tangled inside is repurposed from the loofah gourds grown on my farm. This is one of four new pieces.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tea Horse Studio

Green Bubble Stoneware Cup

Some new items up on Etsy including the drinking cup above. I love these pinch pots and the shape they create, the narrow bottom. They promote a sense of dignity and delicacy in a vessel made with the crudest of physical interaction with the clay. The motif is derived from textures I use in my fine art sculpture and makes me think of frog eggs clustered in a river, very organic, very life-oriented. I like drinking wine out of these cups. Makes me feel rustic!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Off-topic: Change

© 2011 cynthia cusick

    The only constant is change. Cliché. But true. Another one: All change is painful. If you weren't in pain, you wouldn't be changing. Sounds like a recipe for constant suffering, right? Now you understand why Zen and Buddhism plays a part in my life. And a sense of humor. The concept of change is an integral part of my work and what motivates and interests me. 
     When I was in school at EKU, one of the inevitable themes and comments that students would make about their work, including me, was how the work symbolized or referenced "growth." This made sense to me because the process of going through an art program is, or should be, the inevitable growth of basic artistic skills into a deeper understanding of one's point of view and a maturation of the work that resulted from it. The obvious metaphor for 'growth' was that the work was botanical and organic in nature. That's also an element of my work but I use organic things for additional reasons, not solely or even most importantly, the metaphor of 'growth.' So the fact that so many students, and other artists from other media, reference growth in their work tells me it must be an important idea for many people. When I think of the process of growth, however, I see it as slightly different but complimentary to, and part of, change as a whole. Growth, I see as movement forward on the life/death/life cycle. Change can happen during growth but may not always contribute to growth itself. Change can move the process of growth forward but maybe, sometimes, it just moves it sideways. Perhaps change is something that happens on a meta-level, as in, contributing to growth in the life/death/life cycle, but it also happens on the local level, such as positioning the entity to better achieve growth.
     And of course, I'm relating this now to living organisms because of my other obsession which is the human part of the natural-world puzzle and our ever-increasing tendency to believe we are separate from it, but change also happens to non-living things. That's another philosophical question for another time.
     I want to get deeper into the facets of change itself, the markers, the indicators, the journey and the feeling when it happens. I find that change, as a process, is often invisible to the participant. We often don't realize change until we stop for a moment and reflect. It's then that we can observe and note the differences between then and now. Those differences mark time and change but do we really feel it in the moment? I think the evolutionary record of life on earth is a beautiful example of indicators of time and change that we can see happened but cannot directly feel as it happens.
     I always try to remember that change contains information. It's how scientists do their jobs. You try something, note the changes and analyze the information contained in the change from point A to point B. Change and the effects of time are our textbooks to ourselves and our experience. Observation of changes contains the information we need to solve the puzzle of ourselves but so often, we miss the message. As Uncle Frank used to say: OBSERVE!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Enlighten: Jessica Armstrong

     This is an introduction to and heads-up about my friend and former classmate from EKU, Jessica Armstrong. It will be redundant to say Jessica is "a little out there" as frankly, all my art friends and associates are like that. Let's say that Jessica is energetic, physically expressive and has a great sense of humor. What she also has is a wicked vision of metal in jewelry. Currently, she's working on her MFA in metalsmithing at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Not to be stopped, she also works in 2D in photography.

Here is a link to more images of her work. 

     Much of the work I was familiar with at EKU when were were in class under Felicia Szorad involved body wear and jewelry that was purposefully restrictive and uncomfortable. If you read her statement on the front page, it pretty much wraps up where she's coming from right now. After she gets out of school, she tells me she has plans for a blog to keep people updated on her work and possibly an Etsy site but right now, grad school is where she is focusing all her energy. Keep an eye out for her work in the coming years. Cheers to Jessica and continued great work in the future.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Progress report

I'm busy putting together some applications for shows and submissions. I'm wrapping up four gourd pieces. I have finished with an inventory of gourd badges that I will roll out on my Etsy site. Here's is an image of the direction my clay sculpture is taking. I am trying to morph the seed references into animal-like things. I would like to see the simple structures evolve into things that move so I've added the most basic things I can think of that differentiate animal from plant: an entrance hole and an exit hole and a way to become mobile. This is part of the progress:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

C&L Picks: February

Lori Phillips and I are collaborating on monthly Etsy Treasuries or curated lists of things we think are good work, good finds. Here are this month's picks:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gourd [Curcurbitaceae]

     I use hard shell gourds in my work. I’ve been asked why. I ask myself why. I still can't fully explain it. I think that's a good thing. I am interested in the family of hard shell gourds, Old World Lagenaria siceraria, used for centuries in many world cultures for dipping, pouring, as containers, storage, carved bowls, and just plain decoration.

     Most people in my limited experience craft items like bottle gourds painted to look like Santa or a snowman. Much of the more sophisticated gourd artistry uses wood burning tools to burn in imagery and burr tools to carve in shapes and patterns. Mexican and Native American imagery and basket weaving techniques are very common. I’m not interested in any of that. 
     The bulk of the gourd carving and artistic work I have encountered uses the gourd as a canvas, that is, images, allegories, symbols are painted and carved onto the surface. The form of the gourds is rarely disturbed from its original shape, even those gourds that are carved. It’s as if the gourd itself is sacred and dictatorial. The artist, craftsperson or hobbyist can only approach it up to a certain level but the gourd maintains its identity as a gourd. Some of the work done this way can be very, very good. Much of it, however, is kitschy and tacky in my opinion. And too often, I find myself less than intrigued by the artwork displayed than the inevitable reaction of, “Oh look, a gourd.” The gourd stays separate from the art. I want to use the gourd as the art.
     I admire the more craft and traditional approaches to gourd work but I find those styles frustrating and limiting in my work. I look to use gourd forms as metaphors and abstractions. If you look at many of the shapes of hard shell gourds, they scream sexual forms. It’s so obvious but after people make the crude crack about the curve of the short handle dipper gourd or the bottle-necked gourd, they then set out to find a safer, more palatable, less offensive representation like… a long neck goose, or a literal reinterpretation of a whole human figure. When I work with whole forms of gourds, I either have to address a sexual identity question because it begs for it, or I have to dismantle the form and use the material for its other tactile and tangible qualities. 
     Hard shell gourds are light, carvable, accepting of glues, paints, inks and dyes. Left solid, they will float and bob. They burn out in a kiln, leaving cavities. They can be flat like mini-canvases or chopped into voluminous material. Cut strategically, a variety of curved planes are presented to the artist. A variety of textures, patterns and imperfections on the outside of the shell can also be utilized. The inside texture is inspirational on its own. To me, they need to be destroyed, used, cracked, carved, repurposed, trapped, combined with other media and turned inside out. They are a medium and sculptural tool. So far, whatever I've done with gourds, I feel like I'm not doing enough or I'm still limiting their use. For this reason, I'll probably continue to come back to them and try to integrate them into work whenever I need to take a break from other media. 

Crushed By Love, 2008
     Currently, I'm finishing up a boat load of badges carved from shell for the more functional, craft side of things. I'm also finishing up four sculptural pieces that are a continuation of the series that began with my BFA metal work on parent-child relationships and abuse issues. These start to break away from the relationship with the parent and begin to focus (hopefully) on the inner dialogue of the adolescent/young adult. When they're done, I'll post... Ciao for now.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Enlighten: The Beauty of Hand-Made

Thank god for modern inventions. I cannot imagine the cost and availability of everyday objects we use without modern manufacturing. Yes, there is an industrial cost to our environment and to our health in many instances, but really try to imagine what it would be like if everything you needed to enjoy your modern 2011 life, was hand-made. How much would that coffee-maker cost? Would it operate the same or would you be hand-grinding the beans? There are minuses to our modern manufacturing world, no doubt, but I, for one, appreciate the plusses that make mundane, daily life easier than the generation before us here in the Western World.
     Beyond the cost of environmental stress from modern manufacturing, what other minuses are we talking about? I think we lose the connection to our humanity because we become detached from the actual process, energy and effort it takes to make an object. We lose the experience of how complicated making any one thing can be. We become more and more separate from our beginning nature of homo sapien, and the basic tool making needed just to survive. In losing that, we lose our connection to nature, and the environment from which we evolved. Am I suggesting that we all ditch our cappuccino makers, grab a stone and rock and grind our own coffee beans to make our morning joe? Or carve out a hollow in some wood so we have a mug to drink it from? Not at all.
     I had a Krups cappucino maker for years that I’ve carted around with me but it’s been gathering dust because I broke the glass carafe that the coffee drips into which is also the measuring cup for the right amount of water. I left it in the back room, gathering dust because I just couldn’t bear to chuck something that was otherwise, fully functional but I also didn’t have the energy to hunt down the Krups site and find the right replacement carafe. So it sat. And I went cappucino-less for decades. But then some time, a few weeks ago, I thought, surely I can find the right vessel to use with the machine! And I did, a hand-made mug, thrown, carved, glazed and fired by a single person, just the right height to fit under the spout and just the right opening to fit the old carafe top that keeps the coffee from spitting out all over the place. Better yet, when the cappuccino is done, it’s already in the cup, no transferring from a carafe, no extra clean-up. And it’s a lovely cup. It’s become My Cappucino Mug.
Blue cereal bowl by me, My Cappucino Mug made by Melissa Zimmerman.

     One human being created this cup with her hands using basic principles that have existed for centuries. Using materials that come from the earth that we evolved from. In this one mug is the aptitude of an individual who had her hands on the clay, shaped it similar to, but not exactly like the next one she made. The form of this particular mug, the shape and placement of the handle, the carving motif, the glaze choices, the color palette, they all reflect on the individual person who created it. They are evidence of the spark that represents our connection to nature but also what makes us different from the rest of nature. Not just basic tool making and tool use, but sophisticated tool use without stepping into total machine manufacturing and thereby disconnecting us from nature. It’s not perfect, some lines are chunkier than others, some colors run into others. It shows variation and the mark of the hand which reminds us of our uniqueness.
     The beauty of hand-made items, whether they be mugs, body adornment like jewelry and accessories, furniture, art, sculpture, clothing, is that they can offer a connection to your fellow human being. They can offer an experience of human sophistication more directly connected to nature. They can offer a unique item that represents not just the individuality of the creator but also of the person who chose that item. They celebrate the ingenuity, effort and creativity, the spark of humanness.
     I encourage you to get out there are visit art fairs and craft fairs. If that’s not possible, there are a ton of internet venues to find hand-made items for sale. I use Etsy, based out of Brooklyn, and one of the first “hand-made-for-sale” sites. Many friends and associates of mine have also set up shop with Etsy like 
Starry Road Studio by Karen Totten , American Walkingstick by David Warner, and, previously mentioned, Lori Phillips Ceramics . But be warned, there are many items out there. A good way to get started hunting for cool things is to look through collections or curated lists called "treasuries" on Etsy, or, if you find work you like, check out who that artist likes on their favorite list.
     I'm surrounded in my home by manufactured goods and I love the standard of loving that comes with that, but I also appreciate the creativity and uniqueness represented by original, hand-made work. I hope you do, too.