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.

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