Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Glenda Hopp and So Many Colors

We're quickly coming up on the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer.  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

A sample of one of Glenda's
hand-dyed fabrics
If you were to meet Glenda Hopp today, you probably wouldn't begin to believe the road she's traveled in her journey to So Many Colors. But then again, her experience isn't that much different from that of so many creative folks out in the wider universe. Glenda earned a BA in Social Science from Michigan State University, followed by a Masters of Arts in Vocational Rehabilitation from Wayne State University. Ten years of employment in social service followed, succeeded by  clerical work in a fast food regional office where she learned the first version of Lotus 1-2-3, tapping into a heretofore unknown passion.

Glenda at the Rust Belt Market
with some of her wares
Glenda fell in love with software, initially expressed through teaching DOS and the first versions of Windows, later while developing a talent for writing software instruction manuals and teaching business software - skills that seem sadly lacking in the current era.  She carved out a niche teaching and consulting on software designed for ISO 9000 requirements, all the while raising her son Chris as a single mother. In 2000, her employer eliminated her business unit, leading her to the realization that she could no longer work for anyone else. Ever. Again.

She and Chris started Farmbrook Designs, a creative enterprise dedicated to designing and fabricating unique, durable garden and home accents using hypertufa, a light-weight cement substitute, tapping into an entirely new side of her personality: "I never thought I had a creative bone in my body until I designed our molds for our lanterns," she says.  Glenda "retired" from Farmbrook in 2009, seeking other creative opportunities. She had always loved working with color but never thought she had an talent for it until she started dyeing fabric later that year, focusing on 100 percent cotton knits, an under-represented niche in the yard-goods market. "Seeing hand-dyed woven fabric for quilts inspired me to try something different with the low-water immersion process, getting the same sort of mottled colors, to create unique knit fabrics for clothing," says Glenda.

So Many Colors. So Many Looks. So Little Time.
In yet another example of "The Best Laid Plans", Glenda had originally intended to sell dyed yardage at sewing expos but an injured back and then ankle led to three missed shows. The resulting hiatus gave her the opportunity to reassess her creative trajectory.  She is now a permanent vendor at The Rust Belt Market in Ferndale and on Etsy selling scarves and other accessories fashioned from her unique fabrics. Cutting out the middleman, she's starting a clothing line of her own, probably to be called "Plan B" - because things don't always go as planned - coming out in 2012. "I have to do something with the hundreds of yards of hand dyed fabric!" she says - and has had interest in the clothes she's made so far.

Infinity Scarf - Green 
I first ran into Glenda the summer of 2007, at the Yule Love it Lavender Festival in Leonard, Michigan. I had met her son earlier that year but did not know him particularly well yet. It was nice to meet another member of the family and I really appreciated Glenda's dry, matter-of fact perspective on things.  I remember being particularly impressed at how she was able to just throw around those hypertufa things - I mean, they are "light weight" but they're still cement, for goodness sake!  As I got to know the family better, I realized that Glenda and her Mom lived not far from me - and I mean not far - less than a mile, I'd guess. There were times when we'd pass one another on I-94, running the stretch from Cadieux, near both our homes, to Roseville, where the Farmbrook shop was located for many years.  And although she's not directly involved with the company anymore, she does sometimes help Chris out at the occasional event, so I do get to see her on the circuit occasionally.  Glenda has always been one of the most independent people I've known - it's not easy to get her to let you help her - but she's also one of the most generous, level-headed folks in my personal universe.

Glenda Hopp
Founding Member, AARF
(American Association of Retired Fairies)
Earlier this year, we both got caught in a torrential downpour as we were breaking down at a local garden tour.  Even though she was completely finished and could have left, Glenda very generously helped me through the experience.  It was raining so hard and everything was so wet that I was contemplating just leaving the bloody tent there in that field by the Van Hoosen Farm in Rochester, but Glenda patiently helped me pack up and get me on my way.  By the time I got somewhere dry, I peeled off my jacket to see the tell-tale stains of either being caught in the rain or having a serious panic attack - probably both!  I don't know if Glenda really saved my life; it sure seemed that way at the time!

Although Glenda and her mother, Mildred (yet another inveterate cat lover!) live so near, I don't see them nearly as often as I'd like.  It's like that with family, I've found. So sometimes I drop by for a brief visit (to drop something off or pick something up, usually) after a quick call or invite them over to visit my feline family, see the latest creation I've purchased from Chris or just to enjoy the garden (Glenda, too has training as a Master Gardener). Somehow, we always have a lot to talk about when we do manage to get together.  Oftentimes, when we don't have the chance to meet "face to face", I find myself calling in to shoot the breeze as I pass the turn that would take me to their house - on my way to some other destination.  And I always have a great conversation with Glenda, about the creative process, what's happening in the garden today, dealing with cats, the crazy city situation.  And, finally, it's just about finding our own individual joy.

"One of the hardest things I've had to learn, and one of the best things, is not to struggle when your plan goes wrong. The reason behind every change in my life has been because something got in the way of my original plan. I've learned that if I don't struggle against it, new ideas and new opportunities just seem to... appear."  - Glenda Hopp

In Praise of Squirrels. Really.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis)
Melanistic subgroup ("Black Squirrel")
Last week Monday I came home to what is, for me, a very upsetting situation: An animal in distress. A little black squirrel was in my back yard, moving lethargically and erratically, obviously disoriented and possibly seriously injured. As I approached it, carefully, it darted a short distance until it got tangled in some Clematis vines.

The squirrel was so beautiful - black fur soft and thick as the feathers of night, a dense, bushy tail; I was able to reach out and gently touch its haunch, so disoriented was it. It was obviously suffering from a recent injury or other affliction - other than its behavior, it was the picture of squirrel health. I called my vet, described the situation to the receptionist, who conveyed the details to the veterinarian on duty. I was told that, if I could capture the squirrel and bring it in, they could perform a humane euthanasia. Not being certain as to whether the little guy was simply injured or suffering from some neuropathic toxin, I opted to see if I could manage to get a hold of it and bring it in.

You know something is wrong when a middle-aged woman can actually catch a squirrel. It did bite me, through my gardening glove, but I managed to gently smother it in a large burlap sack and place it in a cardboard box. The little guy was quiet for the brief drive - I wondered if he'd had a seizure due to our encounter. I got him to the vet's office, where they took him back for evaluation. I later learned that he was so severely injured - probably due to a fall resulting in a closed-head injury, which is not uncommon this time of year - that the vet did elect to euthanize him.

Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)
I know, from informal surveys of some of the groups for whom I've spoken, that there are a lot of folks out there who don't particularly care for squirrels and would like them to just sort of "go away". I also know there are even people out there who think squirrels are so undeserving that killing them is actually a good idea, whether through the means of a firearm or a motorized vehicle or even poison. I have a slightly (actually, radically) different perspective on the situation.

It has been said that, before the "European Invasion" instigated by Christopher Columbus's landing in Hispanola in October of 1492, a squirrel could have traveled from the eastern bank of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard without ever touching the ground. The vast majority of the eastern half (this is a geographic/biological, not an arithmetic, term) of the United States consisted of diverse hardwood forest - maples, walnuts, beeches, oaks, hickories and chestnuts. Lots of chestnuts. In fact, 25 percent of all the trees in the eastern half of the United States were... American Chestnuts (Castenea dentata). Now, some tree seeds - including maples and elms, for example - can successfully germinate just sitting on the surface, sending out a small root to burrow into the ground and then sending up its first seed leaves. Other trees - including oaks, hickories and chestnuts - cannot successfully germinate unless their fruit is buried; their hard shells just aren't going to let that little rootlet get a start. And nuts and acorns can't bury themselves - they need someone to do that for them. That's where the squirrel - and some of its relatives - come into the picture.

Eastern Gray Squirrel
(Sciurus caroliniensis)
Here in Michigan we generally deal with three squirrel species. Sciurus niger, or the Fox Squirrel, is our largest squirrel, although a threatened subspecies (Sciurus niger cinereus, or the Delmarva Squirrel) native to the Delaware/Maryland/Virginia penninsula is larger still. The common name may be derived from their reddish coats, like those of red foxes. Next in size is Sciurus caroliniensis, or the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Usually mostly gray with some brown and a light underbelly, a melanistic subgroup is almost entirely black and found in certain geographic areas, including southeastern Canada. Finally, last but not least (except in size), is Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, the Red Squirrel, which is basically the Chickadee of Squirrels: Small package with lots of personality and not too shy about expressing itself. These guys are much smaller than our other native squirrels and are extremely territorial, easily intimidating their larger cousins.

A healthy forest is made up of lots of different plants that flower and fruit sequentially. From a squirrel's point of view, soft-bodied fruits (berries and such, which start bearing in June well into the fall) and soft-shelled seeds (think maple or elm here - the various species of which also fruit throughout the season) make great meals in the moment but they aren't very good for long-term storage. Squirrels bury hard-shelled nuts - which take much of the season to develop fully - in fall as their winter-time larder.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus (American Red Squirrel)
Now, I realize that a lot of folks out there don't think squirrels are very smart. But they're plenty smart enough to get themselves through the winter, relying simply on what Mother Nature has provided. If you're depending on food you've stored to survive an otherwise very lean season, you're going to make sure you're putting up the very best quality food. In a squirrel's world, this means the very best nuts and acorns, healthy, undamaged fruit with the absolutely highest quality nutrition and caloric value. So, squirrels only bury the very best nuts. An aborted or borer-damaged fruit is not a good investment - too much work to find, bury and find again, for something that, in the long run, may not even really be that good for you. Squirrels can just "tell" an aborted acorn from a fully-ripe acorn or a borer-damaged walnut from a Grade AA walnut. How can they tell they're the best? I don't know. I do know that, if I want to tell a good acorn from a bad one, I have to get a bucket of water and see if they float or not (the good ones sink).

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis)
Anyone who has ever taken even a moment to observe squirrel behavior in the Fall also knows that the little guys never bury a nut where they find it. Some innate, inborn compass directs them to some unknown spot under a small pile of windblown leaves to bury that acorn or nut someplace else. Although there are large nut-bearing trees that are wind pollinated (including members of the Oak, or Quercus, genus), their fruit is obviously too heavy to be dispersed by anything significantly weaker than your average squirrel. Who carries the fruit away from the parent tree, further dispersing the plant's genetic material.

If you are only burying the very best nuts, and burying those nuts across a squirrel-wide territory, and you bury a lot more nuts than you're actually going to need and the nuts you don't need end up germinating, guess what kind of trees you're going to get? You're going to get the very best trees. And that is what we had here in the eastern half of the United States in 1492. All because of little rodents too many of us seem to despise.

It's true. Squirrels are not the edgiest of thinkers. They are very reactive, depending, in many instances, on the most primitive part of the brain - the amygdala (I call it The Squirrel Brain), where our fight versus flight responses are stored. But those little four-legged, fluffy-tailed squirrel brains have been able to figure out that the cars driving by under that oak tree are going to run over those acorns, and those acorns are going to make great meals today, saving energy that would usually be employed in getting those acorns open for burying even more nuts for wintertime; and they get mighty peeved if you just park your car there - minimizing their opportunities for fast food.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus (American Red Squirrel)
So, the next time you find yourself grumbling about squirrel damage, consider the damage we've done to the squirrel's world in the last 500 years or so. Consider the fact that, although less than five percent of the entire eastern half of the United States hasn't been developed into cities and highways and farmland and golf courses, these little creatures have not only found a way to survive but to thrive. And maybe plant a nice oak or hickory so they'll focus on those nuts instead of your tulip bulbs. And plant those tulip bulbs with some hardware cloth over and around them to deter those digging squirrels. And slow down and let that little fluff ball figure out which side of the road he really wants to be on without you putting your trip to the grocery store ahead of his life.

Give a little respect.

All photos Deb Hall copyright.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Cathy Dossin

We're quickly coming up on the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer.  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Sunflower Stool
The year Cathy Dossin received an art kit for Christmas – a box of paints, brushes and canvases – was the year she discovered her voice. The experience and adventure of creating something from apparently nothing was a heady and uniquely rewarding one. Everything about the paint – how it felt, its smell, the glossiness and malleability – engaged her. One of her first efforts – an attempt at a serious, life-like image of a young farmer boy in a straw hat and jeans – became a touchstone for her continuing evolution as a self-taught artist.

Cathy continued to experiment on her own in conventional formats and traditions for ten to twelve years, at one point turning out a painting a week, some of which are still treasured by their recipients. Constraints of process and circumstance became more frustrating than freeing, as she put down her paints to raise her son as a single Mom.

The turning point came in 2001 when she purchased a piece of painted furniture at a local art event: “I remember buying the coffee table I still have. Someone had painted it and I thought, ‘I love this idea!' I didn’t know you could do something like that, painting furniture, painting anything you wanted. I went home and thought about the piece all night and ended up going back the next day and buying it. It was so far out of my comfort zone – in so many ways – but it was so unique to me that I was willing to sacrifice anything in order to have that piece of furniture in my life.“ With that inspiration, Cathy stepped outside the box and into her own creatively whimsical universe.

Cathy is also a plantswoman. She started gardening in 1994, digging up all the grass in her front and back yards in order to plant 80 rose bushes. Which might be considered as demanding as raising a like number of children. But the catalogs kept coming. And the colors and flower forms and sizes and habits and names – they were all so different! Between having to work a full-time job and raising her son, however, there just was not enough time for 80 more kids.

Now, Cathy has her “Bed of Roses” – a garden bed delineated by an actual iron bedstead – and about ten additional roses scattered throughout her property. Other plants have taken their place, including Clematis, Hydrangeas and Lavender. (Some of Cathy’s roses and clematis are featured in a set of note cards and prints from Don Schulte’s company, Notable Greetings.) Combined with repurposed found objects and her own art work, Cathy has created a “New Wave” cottage garden.

I met Cathy in June of 2008. In addition to working for my own clients, I was doing some work for A Southern Gardener, which also employed Cathy. We ended up working on an installation on the hottest Friday of the year (so far) – and Mil Hurley, the business owner, generously took us all out for ice cream at a local coffee house, now defunct, when we finished. I ended up being scheduled to work with Cathy again the next Friday. I remember that, when I got out of my car at the job site, the first thing I said to her was, “It’s Friday. Do you want to go for ice cream?” And from there a friendship was born.

Words To Live By
We went for ice cream just about every Friday that Summer. Whoever wanted to go went, giving us all a chance to get to know one another a bit better. It got to the point that the soda jerk knew all our orders – Cathy’s Strawberry Chai freeze, Alaine’s Boston Cooler and my chocolate malt. I remember our confusion when another employee, upon returning from leave, observed that it wasn’t special if we went every Friday. And today, if we need to meet, more often than not it’s going to happen at Sander’s in The Village over a Hot Fudge Cream Puff. Even on the coldest day of the year, to date.

Cathy is one of the kindest, gentlest, most generous and imaginative folks I know. Her garden, even as it has evolved, continues to be a key inspiration to her work. Botanical imagery – especially plants and insects – figure prominently in her custom-designed, hand painted furniture, bricks and slates. Old or new materials – both are fair game for Cathy’s aesthetic. Each piece is a new relationship, as a battered dresser or an unfinished stool takes on fresh life.

"I love getting my hands in the dirt and I love getting my hands in the paint. I started gardening and it brought the art back. It seemed I needed some art out there. When I ran out of space in my house and garden, I started giving it away because I just had to keep painting. And now it’s become part of the work I love to do."  - Cathy Dossin

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Leaf Pockets

Catalpa speciosa (Northern Catalpa)
Leaf Pocket
The Inspiration.  Starting in Autumn 2010, I returned to an ongoing source of inspiration in my pottery - the leaves of native trees, shrubs and vines.  My interest in native plants and passion for woodies certainly intersects here and I've always loved trees and their highly-varied foliage (both in form and color, and the latter's seasonal transitions).  I had been using leaves in my work from early on, when Gene Pluhar first introduced me to the use of stains on textured surfaces, a technique that is a hallmark of much of my work.

Populus deltoides (Eastern Cottonwood)
Leaf Pocket
My increasing interest in native plants is a direct by-product of my Master Gardener training and the community of gardeners in which I've found myself in the succeeding 10-1/2 years.  As I educated myself more and more, I came to recognize the critical role these plants play in our indigenous life community and began to reexamine them more closely.  As a result, I found myself focussing almost exclusively on native and near-native plants in my pottery.  (I, of course, accept commissions for work featuring other materials as well.)

Quercus rubra (Red Oak)
Leaf Pocket
One of the designs arising out of this renewed interest and inspiration is what I refer to as my "Leaf Pockets".  Taking the concept of the leaf-adorned Wall Pocket I had been making (and continue to make) for years, I pared it down to feature the leaf and the leaf alone.  I thought I would only be able to focus on plants that had really large leaves - Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa, native just south of here), American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).  But I actually found that smaller leaves - from the same trees, as well as Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) - provided for very satisfying results.  Sometimes I was able to exploit some plants tendency to produce very large leaves on very young saplings (maximizing photosynthetic capacity in the face of limited foliar potential) - especially in Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), American Elm (Ulmus americana) and Basswood (Tilia americana).  In some instances - Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) and Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), I actually combined multiple leaves to fabricate a larger form.

Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud)
Leaf Pocket (Large)
The Process.  I developed a new process with these pieces.  Well, I had to.  And it's still evolving, although I do think I'm getting close to perfecting it.  The leaves are used either fresh or rehydrated.  I follow my general technique when using leaves - roll out an appropriately-thick clay slab, remove the canvas texture using the flat edge of a metal kidney and rolling with a clean rolling pin, arrange leaves on slab and roll in.  Initially, I followed my usual process, cutting the leaves out using the cutting tool perpendicular to the slab's surface - straight up-and-down.  I'd remove the cut-out piece, place it elsewhere on the slab, and cut out the same thing again, for the back.

Hamamelis virginiana (Common
Witchhazel) Leaf Pocket
I placed the bottom piece on a kiln shelf  (I use kiln shelves for much of my fabrication - they will not warp, unless overheated, and they can go right into a kiln if I'm working with a delicate piece) and punch a hole at the center top for hanging (despite all sarcasm to the contrary, I see no point in making things more complicated than they have to be).  Then scored and generously slipped the side edges.  Using newspaper (the Metro Times is ideal for this, as well as for lining bird cages, etc., once you've read it), I created some "stuffing" to help "pop up" the leaf pocket.  (Sometimes, as for a larger piece, I may use a whole spread, or even two; for smaller pieces, I may only need an eighth of a spread.)  Compressing the paper toward the center/top of the clay slab, I carefully applied the top piece with the leaves, pressing down along the sides to get a good connection.  I then smoothed the edges with my fingers or a sponge, cleaning up any excess clay.  The piece is then dried.  (If you're using a fan, make sure the bottom of the pocket is toward the fan; if air is blown into the pocket from the top as it dries, the bottom will crack.  Believe me.)  After drying, I cleaned up the piece to remove any rough edges using synthetic steel wool.  Then, bisque firing.

Asimina triloba (Paw Paw)
Leaf Pocket
Once bisque fired, I would stain and wax resist the top surface per my usual process, then glaze the rest of the piece.  The pieces were fired upside down on clean posts or the ceramic ("bottom") side of clean stilts.  This resulted in a very resolved work, but you couldn't really see the glaze, as it was just on the edges.  So, I rethought the process this fall and figured out that, if I cut the leaf out at an angle, so there was flange leading out from the edge of the leaf, and continued that when cutting out the bottom, more glazeable surface would result.

So, the process now consists of cutting out the entire leaf at an angle, carefully removing the surrounding clay, laying the cut-out piece on the slab, cutting out the top edge at an angle and then cutting a very rough shape around the rest of the leaf.  The bottom piece goes on the kiln shelf as before, the hole is punched as before, the newspaper is used as before, but wider "edges" are generously scored and slipped to account for any surface area the top may hit as the piece is finished.  The top slab is applied so it registers as much as possible with the top edge of the bottom slab and, once a good connection is made, I cut the rest of the piece out again, at an angle.  The process then continues as before.  With this refinement, the leaf pockets are a much more successful design.

I have had to modify the process in some instances.  For Red Oak (Quercus rubra), because the lobes are rather deeply-cut, I do try to find leaves with shallower lobes and use a bamboo paintbrush handle to "pocket" them, with good success.  The Witch-hazel pockets are probably my favorites - something about the leaves' shape; so much so that, although I seldom (although more frequently of late) make things for myself, I made a set of three for my home - although I don't yet know where I'll put them!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Don Schulte and Notable Greetings

We're quickly coming up on the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer.  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

As a boy in the late-1960s, Donald Schulte was fascinated with the complex machinery of his grandfather's cameras and the mystery of the photographic process. It was a time when magazines such as Life and Vogue became his first look at the revolutionary influence of photographic masters including Gordon Parks, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.

Apples with Pitcher
At an early age, his paper route was a vehicle to earn money for the first camera he could call his very own. Soon, he was building his own darkroom and winding the tangled skeins of experience into useful technique.  Later, while attending Grosse Pointe North High School, he was encouraged with awards and opportunities to help teach photography and assist local portrait and commercial photographers. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the prestigious Center for Creative Studies, several years of professional photography in Detroit and New York City further polished his work.  He continues to work in the commercial sphere, focusing on portraits, product photography, interior work and food photography.  His still life of Apples with Pitcher exemplifies his photographer's sensibilities coupled with his consciousness of the ongoing artistic tradition; I have seen few "modern" images so utterly reflect the traditions of the early Netherlandish still-life.

Don's awareness of the art historical context, however, is as modern as it is grounded in the past.  "I have always admired the work of abstract expressionist painters such as Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko," he says.  "Their work documents the energy of the artist and communicates emotion with color and form. I also admire the magnificently vibrant color, the subtle transitions and the rich variations seen in the work of artists who work with pastels. Their works inspire me to push the boundaries of the photographic medium and strive to work with color and value to evoke a mood or feeling."

Food Photography for Ardmore Cafe,
at Ardmore Park Place in St. Clair Shores, MI
I met Don at the Grosse Pointe Garden Walk in June of 2007.  Our tables were adjacent to one another, I with my pottery and he with his notecards and prints.  I thought his work was beyond competent, let alone beautiful, and he had a really effective way of handling his customers - deferential yet knowledgeable.  When we finally had a break, I looked through all of his notecard sets and commented that he needed more Clematis images.  He responded that he didn't really have a garden of his own, was having to rely on the gardens of his sister and parents and the occasional trip to the Arboretum or other public garden to pursue his botanical interests.  As we parted ways at the end of the event, I mentioned that I knew a lady who had a whole bunch of Clematis in her garden, that she was a bit weird but utterly harmless (unless very provoked) and he should contact her.  And gave him my card.  He made it to my garden less than two weeks later, on June 30 (I was out of town, that's why I remember!) and shot the first of a series of Clematis notecard images.

Since then, we've just been galloping along.  We're up to six sets of Clematis notecards (there are six different images in each set, no repeats), nineteen sets and counting of Michigan Wildflower notecards (all of these also from my garden), as well as herbs, Sunflowers, Hydrangeas, Autumn color and more, many photographed in friends' and clients' gardens with their generous permission.  Don has also been a tremendous help to me with my business, doing portfolio photography of incomparable quality, and listening to my rants at our sorta-Quarterly Panera Summits.

Four of Don's Flower Images
Having the opportunity to watch Don work in my yard has been an adventure - mostly one of observation but sometimes one of holding a card to handle the light or restraining a rambunctious plant. Through it all, I am constantly reminded of his technical sophistication, coupled with an intense awareness of his surroundings, on many levels.  The shift toward digital has certainly enhanced the immediacy of his process, an immediacy reflecting the inherent ephemerality of his subjects.  "Today, digital technology brings the immediacy and freedom of plein aire painting to photography," explains Don, "while adding a whole new level of sophistication that expands the possibilities of the medium. I find it satisfying to communicate my vision though this medium of photography. It is most rewarding when people have related personal stories and treasured memories when inspired by the patterns, colors and subjects of my work."

It's been exciting to watch Don's work evolve over the last four-plus years; as accomplished as his work was when we first met - and it certainly was, he continues to challenge himself (and his equipment!) and comes up with some truly, truly, exceptional images, images that ratchet up the bar exponentially.  It is with great humility that I consider myself fortunate enough to be a part of that process.

"I seek to reveal the richness of color and diversity of form in the natural landscape. With careful exploration, I find that the results can transcend the moment and become a spirited collaboration of light, color, form and texture. The photograph is not just a cold record of something - it is evocative of a thought captured, a memory recalled, a feeling shared."  - Don Schulte

Sunflower Masks 5 - Blossom

The glazing process for these pieces is pretty much identical to the process for my Original Sunflowers.  I use water-based chemical and stain solutions to color the bisque-fired clay, a process which retains much of the clay's texture and creates a relatively naturalistic, matte finish that a lot of my clients really appreciate.  (If you think about it, there aren't that many naturally-occurring glossy/glassy things; I can come up with two - water and obsidian, or volcanic glass.)

I mix the powdered materials with enough water that they don't clump up on the brush.  I don't want to put them on really heavily - it's more of a wash technique I'm using.  I use Burnt Umber for the face, making sure the entire surface is covered.  The solution dries almost immediately, as the clay is dry from the firing but still porous.  Then, using a moistened (dip it in water, squeeze it out) typical synthetic pottery sponge, I take most of the color off, bringing up the face's detail.  Then I apply the color for the petals, front and back.  (Not everyone might see the necessity of doing the back of the petals, but I realized a while ago that, if I cover everything, I'm not going to discover, pulling the piece out of the glaze firing, that I've missed a critical spot that will be visible when someone looks at the piece.)  Again, I use the sponge to remove some of the color from the edges and tip of each petal, to enhance their dimensionality.  If the solution is applied to thickly and not removed sufficiently, it can flake after firing - the clay can only absorb so much of it.

When glaze firing, I load these pieces directly on a clean, bare shelf (same as I would use for my bisque firings - I have separate shelves for each, which simplifies my maintenance process).  Because the stains don't vitrify, but rather fire into the clay body, I don't have to worry about sticking to the shelf, or any other stained piece in the load - so these pieces can be loaded more densely than traditional glazeware; I even stack my Original Sunflowers.  (They sometimes stick together because of the clay's reaction to the heat, but I can usually - 99+ percent of the time - get them apart carefully once they've completely cooled.)  The petals can "relax" a bit in the glaze firing so I sometimes use posts to keep them "up", but usually I don't bother.

The last design I came up with for the Clyties (although not the last I'll share here) came of the fact that I was making a series of these of my sister/sibling friends for my garden and wanted as much individuality as possible.  A lot of the pieces have a "serious whimsy" about them - fantastical in subject but pretty straight in execution.  This design was a bit different, from start to finish.

This design is probably the direct result of my training as a Master Gardener, during which I learned, among many other things, about the flowers of the Asteraceae family, formerly known as the Compositae, including such favorites as Asters and (surprise, surprise), Sunflowers.  Each "flower" is actually composed of many smaller flowers, the outer, or "ray" flowers owning the colorful petals we recognize, the inner, or "disk" flowers less conspicuous to us humans but every bit as attractive to the average pollinator.  This structure makes these plants super attractive, as the flowers in each efflorescence opens sequentially, making for a prolonged nectar harvest - no fear of double-dipping here!  With this pair of masks, I reinterpret the composite flowers of the Sunflower, the colorful petals mimicking the showy disk flowers, the little cut-out rosettes reflecting the more discrete disk flowers.  I also added an "extra" rosette as a whimsical "beauty mark".

I had tried combining stain colors on the petals in an earlier design and decided to try the same with a different combination, to create a reflection of some of the bi-colored sunflowers out there in cultivation.  In this instance, I used Orange and Woodland Mason Stains, using the Orange over the entire petal and the "florets" on the face, and tipping each petal with Woodland.  The overall effect is quite strong - maybe a bit overwhelming for some; but I like it and would do it again.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Complementary Colors of Fall (Part 2)

Solidago flexicaulis
Zig-zag Goldenrod
If I had to guess as to the most-unfairly-maligned native plant, I would certainly give some consideration to the Goldenrods.  These plants bloom just as we start feeling the first sniffles and sneezes of the Autumn hayfever season, flaunting their golden display right up until the first frost in many instances.  And, of course, we associate our grievous allergic condition to these highly visible and ornamental plants, not realizing they are not the culprits at all.

But it is not the showy Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) that are to blame; rather, another native plant, Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) is at fault - a plant whose inconspicuous greenish flowers pale beyond insignificance when compared to the Goldenrods.  How do we know it's the Ragweed to blame?  Goldenrod pollen is so heavy, it just drops to the ground; in fact, you can often find the ground under a stand of Goldenrod carpeted with pollen.  Goldenrods, like other members of the Asteraceae, are pollinated by insects; by contrast, Ragweed is wind pollinated - its pollen has to be light enough to be carried off by the wind - right into our nasal passages and sinus cavities.

Solidago caesia
Bluestem Goldenrod
Goldenrod is one of Autumn's gems, along with our native Asters (which, as we now know, aren't really asters at all, although they are members of the Asteraceae.  So is Ragweed, by the way.)  I find it quite compelling that Mother Nature used plants featuring complementary colors - the purple tones of many of the asters and the yellows of the goldenrods - as the final movement in her yearly color symphony.  With only one exception (S. bicolor, which is native to Michigan and blooms silvery white), the flowers are yellow to gold in color.

Many of our native Goldenrods make admirable garden plants, aside from their beautiful color and bountiful nectar for late pollinating insects.  One of my favorites is S. flexicaulis.  Its common name, "Zig-zag Goldenrod", is derived from the fact that is stem subtly zigs and zags from one leaf node to the next, making it a great plant for children's gardens, for the behavior and resulting name.  It was when I saw the more sparsely flowered S. flexicaulis that I realized the Goldenrods are, indeed, members of the Asteraceae.  I had not realized that each "flower" indeed, like the largest Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) is composed of prominent, peripheral "ray flowers" (each of which exhibits one of the showy petals we associate with the family) as well as less-conspicuous, centrally-massed "disk flowers".  (I had the same "ah-ha" moment with Blazing Star, or Liatris, species.)  S. flexicaulis will spread, not with the wild abandon of S. canadense, but in a manner that can easily be controlled, and prefers woodland edges and dappled shade, contrary to common assumptions about Goldenrods as a whole.

Solidago rigida
Stiff Goldenrod
Another personal favorite is a plant I purchased from the Wild Ones tent at the Marshall Area Garden Tour back in 2010 (a great event if you can get there!)  S. caesia, or Bluestem Goldenrod, is similar to S. flexicaulis in that it is not as densely flowering as some species and also preferring woodland margins to wide open fields.  An elegant plant characterized by thin, lance-shaped leaves, the stems have a graceful arching habit similar to that of Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum).  The stems, true to the plant's common name, have a definite blue, or glaucus, cast, as well as a prunose bloom (think about how a plum's or grape's skin looks and you've got it).  S. caesia is a bit less aggressive than  S. flexicaulis, but either plant would light up the edges of a woodland flower garden at an otherwise rather lean time of year, especially planted near another woodland native, White Snake Root (Ageratina altissima).

Solidago rigida
Stiff Goldenrod
One of the things I find most fascinating about the Goldenrods is the variety of foliage - ranging from narrow, lance-shaped leaves, to coarse, paddle-like foliage, some smooth, others hairy or downy - making a collection of the plants visually interesting even when they aren't in bloom.  That is, in fact, how I've planted my Goldenrods, near one another so the variations in the foliage can be better appreciated; near my asters, so their brilliant yellows and golds are complemented by the Asters' cooler tones.

A more robust-looking plant, S. rigida, or "Stiff Goldenrod", is as desirable as a foliage plant as it is for its densely-packed flower heads.  Characterized by large, relatively coarse leaves covered in gray downy fuzz (much like Helianthus mollis, or "Downy Sunflower"), which gives them a silvery cast.  The foliage of the basal rosette is very "Aster-like", but the flowers are Goldenrod all the way, densely held in a flattened, more ball-shaped panicle; get up close, and you can really see the flowers' typical "aster" form.  This can be a big plant - two to five feet, make it a great companion for your untrammeled New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Solidago canadense
Canadian Goldenrod
Goldenrods can spread by seed but they also increase by means of spreading rhizomes, generating leafy rosettes that produce tall, leafy stems topped by panicles, cymes or spikes composed of tiny little daisy-like flowers.  This habit is exemplified by S. canadense, the plant we usually see as we're cruising Michigan's autumnal highways.  I have "had" this plant in my garden, not by intention; it came in with some topsoil, probably in seed.  (The seeds, like those of many of our native "asters", are fluffy and disperse with the wind.)  Although the flower heads are quite lively with loosely arching stems packed with yellow blooms, the plant itself is quite aggressive and probably not workable for the typical gardener, spreading quickly through most soil types.  So, you might want to give a pass to S. canadense but do check out the other numerous garden-worthy native Goldenrods; no Autumn garden is complete without at least a few of them!
All photos Don Schulte copyright.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cup Plant Leaf; Solo Exhibit Opening

Gonna keep it short and sweet today - have to get back down to Detroit (I'm in Dewitt, north of Lansing, right now) to do last minute preparations for the opening of my solo exhibit at Galeria Mariposa in Grosse Pointe Woods this evening.  But, I wanted to share another photo of the pieces my friend Don shot for me on Sunday.

Probably my favorite is a Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) leaf I formed into a bowl shape.  Because, like the sunflower leaves, the main vein on the leaf is very thick, I used a coil to support the form.  I also really "crinkled up" the leaf to give a lot of sense of movement.  This was one of those pieces that made me grin from ear to ear when I pulled it out of the kiln.  So much so that I went right back out to my Cup Plant (given to me as a gift by my good friend, Barb Hayes, Executive Director of the Detroit Garden Center) and, despite the lateness of the season, found two more decent leaves and made them into complementary pieces.

In making "sets" of these leaf pieces, I'm used a couple techniques to unify them. In trios of small Rudbeckia and small Sunflower leaves, I've used different colored, yet related, stains but the same glaze to tie them together.  (Each can definitely stand alone but they look so much better together.)  I took a different tack with the Cup Plant pieces, using the same stain but different, yet harmonious, glazes, so it was clear each could definitely stand as an independent piece but could work together as a larger composition.

I was so happy with how these turned out, that I went back out in my garden and harvested three Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaves.  Found a pretty large one (for my small plant; keep in mind, these guys can get three feet long - so future big leaves for more big pieces, right?), made a great bowl, using a coil on the back and then continuing the coil sinuously down the axis of the leaf to its tip, which made for an interesting variation in how it sat on a surface.  I liked that so much that I decided to see if I could find two more smaller Prairie Dock leaves - which I really couldn't, so I took the two smallest I could find and made two more pieces.  All of which will bisque fire today....

Hope to see you at the opening - or sometime during the show, November 4, 2011 - January 4, 2012 - Galeria Mariposa, 20445 Mack Avenue, Grosse Pointe Woods, MI, (313) 407-0953.  Opening reception (featuring delicious artisan baked goods by my friend Jennifer Flynn of Urban Attic and live music by up-and-coming musician/songwriter and painter Charlie Palazzola) November 4, 2011, 6-9pm.  New work will be coming in through out the first month (or until I drop from exhaustion!)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sunflower Leaves (*Giant* Sunflower Leaves)

I finally had (a little bit of) luck this summer growing sunflowers in my garden - not a a big issue getting there, just time.  And space.  And enough sun.  Anyway, I finally got a few pretty decent plants (photos of some of which you can see in the notecards featured in my last post).  Then, late in the season, I started noticing the leaves.  They were really cool looking, all toothy and textury.  When the flowers were spent and the plants started looking pretty peeked, I harvested some of the better leaves and made some nice bowl-form pieces.  Some really nice bowl-form pieces.
During my travels this summer, I had also come across a bunch of sunflowers with really huge leaves.  I decided to try to make them into some even bigger pieces.  This was a huge learning experience because the veins on these puppies are so darned big that the piece will literally fall apart out of the mold because the clay is so thin behind the three main veins.  I didn't want to let go of it because the leaf was so large (the largest I could find).  So, I waited until I was well rested (relatively speaking).  First, I carefully peeled the dry leaf off the clay of the broken piece.  This was not easy.  It came off in sections - some pretty big.  I needed to rehydrate the leaf to use it, so I soaked a newspaper spread (re-use!), laid it out on my work table, laid the pieces of the leaf on top, correctly oriented to one another, sprayed it down with water and topped it with another damp piece of newsprint.  I went and rolled out my really big, think slab of clay and prepared it.

When the leaf was completely re-hydrated, I took the whole newspaper/leaf sandwich over to the slab and, making sure the vein side was up, removed the top piece of newsprint and flipped the remaining leaf and newspaper backing onto the slab.  I removed the newspaper, used my very fine cutting tool to adjust the pieces of the leaf, rolled it into the clay and cut it out.
When working with a slab this large, it's a good idea to use an old pie baker's trick - roll the slab onto a large rolling pin (the kind made to work with clay).  Then, you just unroll it over the mold in/onto which your putting the piece.  Once I worked the slab into the mold and shaped it to my satisfaction, I used my clay gun to extrude a consistent coil of clay, which I then fabricated into a flat coil, which I scored and slipped and then applied to the back of the piece where the veins converged.
This time, the piece survived - right through the bisque firing.  Of course, I still had to finish it.  I used Sage Gray Mason Stain and Amaco Potter's Choice Temmoku Glaze and fired the piece upside down on four eight-inch posts, using nine-inch posts for the next shelf.  I let the kiln cool down within 20 degrees of the outside temperature before taking it out.

I think it was worth it.

See this piece and others at my upcoming show at my friend Estela Boudreau's new studio/gallery in Grosse Pointe Woods, Galeria Mariposa, 20445 Mack Avenue.  The opening is this Friday, November 4, 6-9pm, with artisan baked goods by my friend Jennifer Flynn of Urban Attic and live music provided by my friend Charlie Palazzola.