Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Masks: The Great Gorgon

I started taking pottery classes in January 1993, a few months after moving back to the Detroit area from a two-year sojourn in Northern California. I had always wanted to do pottery and finally found my opportunity through adult education classes offered through the local school system. The classes were taught in the instructor's classroom - he taught high school studio art, including sculpture and jewelry making; the facility was a veritable treasure trove of tools, from typical pottery equipment to drill presses, propane torches and sandblasters, most of which I eventually used.

Medusa Rondanini
I tried everything - the wheel, the extruder, the slab roller, the spray booth. I learned about making molds and glazes. I eventually made a cast of my face (with the assistance of another student) and started exploring its potential to express some of my feelings about the experiences I had had in the past few years with my family and during my marriage. Early on, I started a series of dozens of masks, the first of which was an image of Medusa inspired by the Medusa Rondanini, a piece I had studied in college and graduate school. Like a portrait of Julius Caesar I had studied during the same period, I was utterly flabbergasted at the beauty of the piece and it haunted me for years.

Medusa I
Although first mask I made was, not surprisingly, a Medusa, I didn't realize that would be the outcome when started. Utterly ignorant of the best way to pursue this particular process (I would later learn that a relatively thin - 1/4" - slab will do the trick, with some work), I shoved wads of clay into the mold, squishing them together. When the clay had shrunk somewhat, I pulled it out but twisted it a bit, which caused the wad that was the tip of the nose to become skewed. The piece wasn't what I wanted - event though I could "fix" the nose, there were significant fissures between the wads which made the face look coarse and unfinished to my eye (even at that stage) - but I realized it might make an interesting piece nevertheless - remembering the Late Hellenistic or Early Augustan sculpture. I fabricated three snakes and attached them to sinuously embrace the entire face. I finished the piece with a raku firing, using Crackle White glaze for the face and Copper Sand for the snakes.

I pursued the idea further, making three more masks, one very similar to the first, two others with the snakes more complex and inter woven (Medusas II, III and IV, left to right, above), while I was pursuing other mask concepts. I decided to try a really ambitious piece based on Athena's aegis. the goatskin that the Greek goddess of war, weaving and wisdom wore over her breastplate, on which the head of Medusa was placed when Perseus gifted her with it.

I rolled out a thick slab of clay and cut away the center to insert a mask. I added over two dozen snakes, arranged around the face but also extending out onto the slab; I hoped, by anchoring the snakes in a complex network around the face and onto the slab, it would help "knit" the piece together structurally. I also punched three holes in the slab so it could be bolted to a slab of wood for display. The piece - rather miraculously, considering the stresses inherent in its construction and its size and weight, survived the bisque firing. I glazed it as I had most of the others - Crackle White for the face, Copper Sand for the snakes. Additionally, I applied, using the Copper Sand, stars and phases of the moon across the slab.

Firing the piece was a bit of a challenge - due to its weight (very heavy), overall dimensions (a large flat slab) and construction (the mask inserted into the slab and the applied snakes). Amazingly (and this is no exaggeration), the piece survived the raku firing and subsequent smothering in combustibles, only cracking when it was laid to rest on a work table in the studio. (It would be expected that, considering the thermal stresses inherent in a raku firing - in which the bisque-fired clay is  rapidly heated to over 1900 degrees F and, even more quickly, cooled to the ambient temperature, that complex pieces would crack.)

To finish the piece, I collected the sections of the piece and glued the reassembled work to a piece of heavy canvas. Using a propane torch, I scorched a piece of scrap plywood I had cut to size with a table saw. I drilled holes into the wood to correspond to the holes I had made in the slab, as well as four additional holes to take bolts for hanging wire. I took a large piece of black window screening and scunched it up, painting areas of it with copper spray paint, and bolted that between the wood and pottery slabs. I added heavy-duty hanging wire to the back.

This piece was featured in my first solo show, at Planet Ant Coffee House (now Planet Ant Theater) in 1995, as the centerpiece of the "Girls Gone Wrong" wall.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Fall(ing) Leaves II: Menispermum canadense (Moonseed Vine)

The first time I saw this plant in my friend Trish Hacker-Hennig's nursery, I was just enchanted with how the beautifully-shaped shallowly-lobed leaves cascaded over one another to create a lovely green curtain. I learned about this plant - a little-known native vine - Menispermum canadense, or Moonseed vine - and met it for the first time at her native plant nursery in Ortonville, Michigan. I'm always asking Trish about new plants I could include in my garden; when I saw this vine, I knew I had to see if I could grow it and exactly where it would go in my garden - on a sunflower-themed trellis near my rain garden. I added it to my garden in 2012 and, by 2013, it was more than living up to my expectations.

This is a perennial woody vine that tops out around 18-19 feet. It can  travel via stolons, colonizing other parts of your garden, but has not done so obnoxiously in my yard. Unlike grape, it does not have tendrils but clings by winding around supports; the vine has been able to "reach" from the trellis on which I trained it across short distances to wind itself around other nearby structures. I have not yet seen any flowers on my specimen, but that could be because it hasn't matured enough to make the investment in fruit and flowers. The plant's common name comes from its crescent-moon-shaped seeds. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans. I need to do more research but I'm wondering if, like Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper), it is toxic to mammals but edible for birds. (I suspect there is something that can eat the fruit to aid in seed dispersal but I haven't been able to find any information on that as yet.)

The most interesting thing to me about the leaves is how the stem actually attaches to the mid-green leaf's underside at a point slightly inside the leaf margin. The main veins radiate out from that point. The prominent veins translate well to this medium, making a distinct impression in the clay. The lobed form is quite popular - I believe because it is reminiscent of most maple leaves.

When I first started observing the plant, I immediately associated it with a glaze with which I had just started experimenting - Arctic Blue, from Amaco's Potters Choice series. Like the Indigo Float glaze from the same series, Arctic Blue has a lot of green in it, although it is much lighter than Indigo Float. I immediately thought to pair it with my proprietary Mason Stain mixture - 50% Titanium Stain and 50% Green-Ivy Stain - for a recipe I refer to as "Spring Green". This stain really works well with the green undertones in the glaze.

I have been able to reuse these leaves to a certain extent but it is best to pick them fresh; they can be then be rehydrated for multiple use.

The Process
Once I've harvested the leaves, the first step is to roll out a slab of clay that's about 1/4" thick. I follow my usual procedure of rolling out the slab, pulling back the canvas to loosen the clay, folding the canvas back and flipping over the slab and canvas, pulling back the other side of the canvas to begin working on the clay. I use the flat edge of a metal kidney to "scrape away" the canvas texture (if you don't do this, you will not get as clear an impression of the leaf's veins, which can be critical with species with more subtle texture). I finish removing the texture by running the rolling pin over the slab. Now I'm ready to place the leaves for the next step.