Articles

Colored Pots / White Pots or “Blind Faith” / by Sandi Pierantozzi

vinegar-oil-set-copy salt-and-pepper-copy

(published in Studio Potter Magazine / December 2006/
The Language of Color)

My mother had beautiful hands. They were hard working hands; large and strong yet soft as a baby until the day she died. A seamstress by trade, she instilled in me a deep appreciation for all things hand made, from ravioli to prom gowns. It comes as no surprise to me that I, too, have hard working hands.

All of us involved in the making of pottery use a variety of tools to accomplish our goals in the studio. Our most cherished tools are our hands. What happens then, when our hands become compromised? I know two potters who have dealt with serious injuries involving power tools. For me, it was a skin condition that grew increasingly severe over the course of eight years. The skin on the palms of my hands was disintegrating. It had become considerably more difficult to work. Three dermatologists concluded that the condition was caused by the heavy iron content of my beautiful, red, earthenware clay. They each advised that I stop using it. Since I make my living from my pots, this was easier said than done. We are all aware of how much time it takes to get to know a clay body, and I know from experience that the task of developing and perfecting a glaze palette can take years.

The thought of beginning again with a new clay body was daunting. Plus, I had commitments for two years out. So I tried every skin ointment and bath, prescription and over-the-counter medicine. I tried wearing gloves, but hated that. Eventually, it became painfully clear, that I either had to change my clay or stop making pots. Not make pots? Not an option.

By this point it time I was actually ready to shake things up in the studio. The seed of change had been planted for a couple of years, and the question of what would happen if I started with a white slab of clay, instead of a red one, kept coming to mind.  Since I never met a white earthenware body that I liked, I decided to change temperature range as well. Why not just go for it all the way? I knew that changing my clay would change my work, but never imagined how much it would change my studio practice. In addition, cleaning twelve years of earthenware from my studio was quite a job.

During the summer of 2004, I tested a dozen white clay bodies, porcelain and stoneware. I decided on porcelain. Although it was more difficult to slab build my forms with, and the shrinkage was astounding, I liked that it was the complete opposite from the red earthenware I had been using for so long. It presented a completely different color and surface, which inspired a new way of dealing with texture.

I decided I did not want to keep making the same forms, using all of the same textures as I had been with earthenware. Instead of using found objects, mesh, some of my clay stamps etc., I decided to use only clay stamps of my own designs. To this end, I designed and carved a texture palette of clay stamps. This proved to be very exciting for me, as I could see much potential for growth in working this way. The possibilities for future surface designs seemed endless. Using only my original clay stamps in a patchwork pattern on the white slabs was the right fit for this new clay. I felt completely connected to the surface. The pots felt very personal. I loved the way the stamps looked on the white skin of the porcelain. This way of working enabled me to bring into my work, various sketches of inspiration and design motifs that had been in my sketchbooks for years.

I made of few shelves full of new forms. I bisqued some pots, and kept some leather hard. I had no idea how I was going to glaze them. I had folders full of low temperature glaze tests, but other than wood firing, I had never explored a higher temperature range. I began doing tests at cone 6 and decided on transparent glazes, since I had always used opaque glazes on my earthenware. Transparency would give me new options for glaze treatment. As I tested for a handful of colors, each day I would unwrap and spend time with the leather hard, white pots and I kept feeling they were “finished”. 

After I had a few nice transparent colors, I tested them, as well as the base glazes, on the bisqued pots. In each case, I liked the base glaze more than the colored glazes, but the shine was distracting. I began to re-think my testing, and decided to focus only on white satin glazes that could hopefully capture the life and breath of those leather hard pots. Many tests later, I had a glaze that I thought would attain that goal.

Although in my gut, I felt sure that the white glaze was right for these new pots, I began to feel terrified of the consequences of no color. Self doubt setting in, the questions began to wreak havoc on my sensible self. “How could I not use color? I love color. Who will want to buy these “white” pots? What if I can’t sell them? I am not in a financial position to make pots that don’t sell. My colorful work has served me well. People bought it. Am I crazy? I have to make a living here”. It was an emotional roller coaster and I was not enjoying the ride. I would feel sure and confident on one day, and the next day, doubt and uncertainty.

During all of my glaze testing, I realized that I was leaning toward a color palette similar to my earthenware colors. After deciding on the white glaze, it occurred to me that a break from all of that color would be the best thing to grow my work. It would provide the space to explore surface texture and form with porcelain, with the hope of making stronger forms that feel complete, and can hold their own, without glaze. When I feel ready for color again, it will be to enhance, rather than complete the form.

It has been very different making pots that ultimately will be all white. With earthenware, I would create the forms with color in mind, setting up the sections for the various colors in my glaze palette. This gave me a framework to build the form around. How to deal with a form when that color structure is not there has helped me think differently about my forms. This has been challenging as well as liberating. Glaze application presented another set of issues. The higher temperature glazes required that I change from brushing all of my glazes to waxing and dipping. I am still trying to get comfortable with this process.

After a couple of months of making white pots, half of my shelves were still full of the colorful earthenware, and the other half held pots that were all white. Looking at these pots side by side was an interesting experience. At first glance they seemed completely foreign to each other, as if two potters with very different aesthetics had made them. Then, after some careful consideration, I began to see the similarities. This was comforting to me. There was a common thread.  The white pots made sense. I wasn’t crazy. 

One of my most interesting observations of these two different styles of work was that the colorful pots demanded attention, even from across the room, while the white pots had a quiet presence that beckoned you to get closer. With the colored work, you notice the color first and then take in the forms. With the white work you observe everything simultaneously; the form, surface and glaze are completely integrated. I like the fact that the white pots pulled you closer and wanted you to slow down and spend some time with them. Living and working in a big city, I am well aware of how fast paced life can be. I love the idea that a pot can engage you and make you slow down, even if only for a few minutes; that it can grab your attention and help you take the time to be right where you are at that moment.

Initially when I began working with porcelain, I was excited by all of the new possibilities this white clay offered. But I was so full of anxiety as to whether the work would be accepted and sell, that it was difficult to enjoy the transition. Now that I am used to the clay, it has presented not only new ideas for my slab work, but also has allowed me to explore the wheel. Throwing with earthenware had become impossible due to my skin condition.

Presently, I am feeling more relaxed with the clay and the ongoing transition. There are two different styles of work emerging in the studio. The stamped white slab built pots, and the thrown work in which I am using other types of surface design that I have never explored such as sgraffito and slip trailing. This thrown and decorated work is asking for color. These new decorating techniques take me way out of my comfort zone, but I welcome the opportunity to pursue other options for surface. There are many avenues for discovery with clay, and blind faith tells me that eventually I will figure out how to bring these different techniques together into a solid body of work again. And if not, I will just enjoy the fact that I can speak different languages.

Change is hard. You have to accept the fact that studio time will be altered and that production levels will be down. The growing pains will continue, but the key word here is “growing”. My hard working hands are smoother than they have been in years. I have my skin back, and as a result a whole new direction with my work. I feel liberated; unlocked…unsure…and strangely, unafraid. The most amazing thing to me about all of this change is that after twenty-two years of making pots, I feel I have yet to make my best work. My mom would be proud.

A heartfelt thanks to my friend, Silvie Granatelli, who kept all of the letters I wrote her during this time of transition. They were helpful in writing this article.


COMMENT / The Sketchbook: Fertile Ground

(From Ceramics Monthly, June/July/August, 2005)

A while back, while listening to a news radio program, I heard that many schools were eliminating chalkboards from classrooms. There was concern that chalk dust would cause problems with their state-of-the-art computers. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss. Writing on the “blackboard” as a child in school conjured up many memories, good and bad. I went to Catholic school. On a good day the teacher, usually a nun, might let you write the homework lesson on the board. There was something very satisfying about pressing out letterforms with a fresh piece of white chalk. On a day when you participated in a bit of mischief, which was often the case with me, you had to write the same sentence of apology about a hundred times on the blackboard in your best Palmer Method. Eventually, you got the message, and you probably would not repeat that bit of mischief again, at least for a while.

This news item got me thinking about the idea of making marks and how important my sketchbooks are to me. Sketching is an age-old tradition of how artists record information. Whether the destination for the art is the sketchbook itself, or the seed of an idea to be harvested at another time, sketchbooks tell a story. They are the continuously woven fabric of our creative life. Every day, in some way, we all react to the world around us. If you carry a sketchbook, you can capture a slice of that reaction with a quick sketch or phrase. In a sketchbook we have the power to edit the world. With sketching there is an active involvement with all of our senses and a time element that helps us retain information, and enables us to process it in our own way at any point in time. A sketchbook is a great place to hang out, a place to set your creative soul free. We can be lighthearted or serious. We can dance in our sketchbook, or cry. We can doodle. We can let our imaginations run wild.  We can have cohesive thought or be completely scattered. It is a way to slow down and collect our senses. Unlike our work, a sketchbook is a place in which we need not complete anything. It can be a time for fragments and threads. 

Often, when I am working in the studio, I feel I am, at once, in all of the tenses. The past is there because the pot I’m working on holds the information and knowledge from every pot I made before. The present, obviously, is the piece I am working on at that moment in time, and the future is there because the current pot holds the promise and possibilities of every pot that follows. This gathering of the tenses is always present in a sketchbook. I can go back through twenty years of my sketchbooks and see ideas I never pursued, and one will hit me and lead to a new series of work. Often, I realize that when a particular sketch was made, I did not even have the acquired skills necessary to make that form. In our sketchbooks we all have the chance to be ahead of our time. Whenever I go to a major retrospective of an artist, I am always drawn in most by their sketches. Rough ideas that hold the potential for great art, or that take us into their private world, can often be more engaging than seeing the finished works. 

When I teach long workshops I always talk about the importance of sketchbooks and begin the class with sketching exercises. I often hear the comment “but I can’t draw, how can I possibly keep a sketchbook?” The fact is that sketchbooks are not necessarily about fine drawing. They are about ideas, jotting down thoughts or quick sketches of a form in your mind’s eye, or recording a rough image of something that you see. The idea for a form can stem from anything: seed pods or buds, the steeple of a church, or even the way bricks are stacked at a construction site. Sketchbooks are about taking the time to really observe the world around you. Of course in this age of digital cameras, one might question the need to sketch anything. Sketching is a way to visualize and internalize information so that it can eventually make its way out through your hands and into your work. This enables us to make our humanity show.  Since a sketch is a record of something as you see it, or remember it, you will interpret it in a very different way than if you have a photograph in front of you. A photograph is finite. A sketch is infinite. The rougher the sketch the more interpretations you can glean from it. 

Once a clay piece is finished, if you think it is unresolved, it can be a good idea to sketch the finished piece. In this case the sketch serves another purpose; to help you really see that piece. You can view it from every angle, and by sketching it begin to carefully observe the composition of its parts. You can begin to feel its’ mass and visual weight, and notice how light interacts with the form. I often do this and always find it beneficial in resolving a piece.            

A fresh clean page of a sketchbook is like the mind of a beginner. It is empty, uncluttered, and ready to accept. It can help us be unhurried, because it provides us the time to be just where we are. Each page allows us to be spontaneous and open to all possibilities. It is fertile ground that enables us to react to, capture, and stylize the world around us. It gives us permission to be whoever we are, or want to be. The Earth has a pulse. If you take the time to listen you can hear and record its’ heart beat. 

So the next time you want to use a piece of state-of-the-art equipment, pick up your sketchbook. Every state of your art will be there.

 

Sandi Pierantozzi /”Purple”by Alexis Rotella
NCECA Journal, 2001

PURPLE*

In the first grade Mrs. Lohr 

said my purple teepee 

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color 

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough 

to hang with the others.

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came 

to my purple tent

in the middle 

of an afternoon.

 

In second grade Mr. Barta 

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white

and beautiful.

“Purple” is one of my favorite poems. As I ponder the words in my head and my heart, I imagine that if I could spend an afternoon with each of the three characters, this would be my plan: 

With Mr. Barta, the second grade teacher, I would want to take a long walk and observe the world around us, focusing on all of the positive things we encounter and discussing how we might bring about change to the negatives.

In my own mind, the child is a boy, and I would want to sit by his side on the floor with a huge bowl of crayons and a big stack of crisp white paper, and let our imaginations run wild.

Mrs. Lohr, on the other hand, I would take directly to an Art Museum and lead her by the hand to the rooms which house the great Fauve and Impressionist paintings of the world. We most likely would not find any purple teepees, but maybe her eyes could be opened to the world of possibility with color. Perhaps she would be enlightened by the imaginative use of color, alive and empowered through the energetic brush strokes of painters with a unique vision of the world around them.

In considering all of this, I am reminded of my good friend who is color blind. When he comes to my studio he is drawn to pots because of a specific form or texture. He will pick up a pot, feel it, and really study it. Then he’ll say, “I love this pot—what color is it?” I love his view of my work, because often non-potters are drawn to color before they connect with form.

I have to wonder, if Mrs. Lohr were color blind, what her reaction to the purple teepee would have been. Would her non-colored world help her to see the drawing differently? What is she looking at when she views the drawing? Is she really “seeing” the drawing or does she immediately discount it because she only sees the purple? Maybe the actual drawing was beautifully done, or had a unique energy about it, but she only saw what in her mind was a negative: teepees are not supposed to be purple. She doesn’t look for what might be a positive aspect of the drawing. There was no discussion of what was good about the piece and what the child could make better. To me, no real learning happened.

By the second grade, the child was probably so dismayed by his first grade art experience, that he was afraid to put crayon to paper again. Mr. Barta’s “snowstorm,” for me, was full of hope and imagination. He saw the possibilities of the blank, white paper. I believe he could help that child want to draw again.

This poem illustrates two very different styles of teaching. I am not an “educator” in the academic sense of the word, nor do I claim to be an expert on teaching styles. But I have taught many workshops and regular evening classes over the past eleven years, and I think of teaching as an offering, a “gift.” What better way to show you care about something than to teach it, give it, share it with someone else?

Anyone who went to the Coleman Barks presentation at NCECA heard him begin his enlightening talk with the words, “The role of education is to open the heart.” As teachers, academic or otherwise, how do we approach the challenge of opening someone’s heart? We may possess the skills to open the eyes and minds of students, to help them really see and think about their work. We can also help students technically, but what tools do we use to open their hearts? If we can find the answer to this, I believe the result would be more soulful work from all of us, work having a depth and presence which runs deeper than any intellect can.

To begin with, we have to open our own hearts. In searching for the heart and soul in my own clay work and  teaching, there are a few things I need and want to embrace. The first one is respect.

I try to have respect for each person with whom I work. I Respect them as human beings no matter what our differences are. I Respect their ability to learn, and I respect the result of their learning, that is, the piece they have made. Whether I like the piece personally is not the issue. I am not there as a judge, I am there as a guide. What is important to me is their attitude and how much they have learned during the process of making the piece. Respect for that learning opens my heart.

The next thing I want to fuel me is patience and understanding. It is important for me to realize that every life I touch comes with a certain amount of baggage, some heavier and some lighter. The young boy in the poem had the purple teepee in his bag, which most likely got heavier when the next art assignment was given. He wasn’t ready to carry another bag so he didn’t even try. I believe Mr. Barta lightened his load. A willingness to be patient and to understand different personalities and backgrounds opens my heart.

Arousing curiosity is another ingredient in opening one’s heart. The best thing I can do for anybody in one of my classes is to make them curious. I believe curiosity leads to understanding and better understanding leads to respect.

One way I attempt to arouse curiosity is by teaching in a way that encourages experimentation. I try to keep my demonstrations somewhat open-ended. People take workshops for all kinds of reasons, but most often it is because they are drawn to your work and are interested in seeing how it is made. It is important that we satisfy that curiosity by showing how we make our own work. But we can’t stop there. I like to take the techniques I use in my work and demonstrate how those methods can be expanded upon. One way I do this is by making a piece the way I normally make it, then use the same techniques to make something I’ve never made before. This is not always so comfortable, but for me it does two things: it puts me on the learning side along with the students, and it puts me in the “discovery” mode which is the best part of creating anything. I always tell students that one of the best zones for creativity and discovery is that place between comfort and discomfort. You have to be comfortable enough with any given technique to be able to really use it, but uncomfortable enough to keep you thinking and searching in order to discover something new. To keep the juices flowing we have to keep asking ourselves that all-important question, “What if?”

The final element in trying to open the heart and be a good teacher is generosity. People respond well when they know you are giving it your all. The more we share what we know, the more people will share with us. This is when the real “gift” exchange happens. I always ask participants in a workshop to share any tricks they know with the class. When I teach, part of the joy comes from what I learn as well as what I share. Best of all, I learn from watching people take what I have shown them and expand on it, give it a new twist so-to-speak. It helps me to see new ways of working with my own techniques.

During a recent workshop a friend asked me if there was a lot of “copying” going on. Were people copying my work? Wasn’t I worried about that? To be honest, I don’t even think about it. If I were that worried or threatened I wouldn’t be teaching workshops. We all have different hands, and ways of touching the material. I don’t believe anybody can exactly copy my whole body of work, or anybody else’s, and I don’t think most people want to. I think people want a springboard—something to get them familiar with a new technique, or perhaps spark them to take a new direction with their own work. They might try to make what you’ve demonstrated, so they can become familiar with the technique itself. This helps them internalize the information, and as they keep working, can push beyond the original form they were shown to develop their own. 

It is also important during a class to present exercises that promote the development of each person’s individual ideas. This helps to create more personal work. People may be inspired and influenced by your work but exact copying is a very different thing.

Imagine, for a moment, if your favorite piece of music was never recorded because the original composer was afraid another musician would copy his style. Not only is the original piece of music lost to the world, but anything that could have been learned from it is lost as well. 

Anyone making pots today is just trying to breathe new life into honored ceramic traditions and forms, and perhaps create some new ones. By passing on our knowledge, we continue the legacy of all the potters that have gone before us no matter what style of work we make. Our techniques, like poems, should belong to the world.

We are, after all, just animals on the prowl, searching for that next discovery to sustain our curiosity. Searching for that clean, white snow to put our tracks on.

*”Purple” by Alexis Rotella is found in the book “Step Lightly” poems for the journey collected by Nancy Willard, 1998, published by Harcourt Brace & Company.

 

 


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