Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blue and White All Over

dress w/ parasol and ceramic bodice
 During March, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., presented Iberian Suite, a celebration of the cultures of Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking peoples around the world that also highlighted the influences that the region absorbed from other cultures. This global arts remix included dance, theater, and music performances, as well as installations and a literature series.

Two of the installations were of particular interest. One was an exclusive exhibition of more than 140 of Pablo Picasso's ceramic pieces (more on that in a later post). The other was titled So Blue, So White: Fashions Centuries in the Making. It was a selection of blue and white fashions created by various designers. Interestingly, one of the dresses not only incorporated it's own parasol, but also had a bodice made of blue and white ceramics.
This fashion exhibit also told the "story" of cobalt, which was first mined in central Iran in the 9th century. The Persians used the pigment on ceramics, which had a great appeal to the Chinese. They, in turn, began importing cobalt, producing sophisticated two-tone ware in the 14th century. 

In a story of early "globalization," in the early 1500s, Portuguese merchants began importing these pieces. Exports of Chinese blue and white ceramics soared when the Dutch captured two Portuguese ships in 1602 and 1604 and their cargo of porcelain was sold at auction. Blue and white tableware became very popular in Europe and local manufacturers--most famously, those around the city of Delft--began emulating the style.
Andí's collection of blue/white plates

In the meantime, azulejos, or wall tiles, derived from the Islamic styles of North Africa and Muslim Spain, became emblematic of the decorative arts of the Iberian peninsula and soon spread to the Americas, particularly Mexico and Brazil.

Thus, the continuing allure of blue and white ceramics.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Gifts of Hope

Serving bowl
I recently created some pottery carrying the word "hope" to support Family Services of Roanoke Valley, a private, not-for-profit organization that has served Roanoke Valley residents since 1901. Its mission is to improve life and restore hope to the most vulnerable, from the very youngest children to the oldest adults, through prevention, counseling and support services. Family Service is a dynamic, multi-service agency helping a diverse population of clients that spans the area's economic, ethnic, and cultural divisions.

The items I created, including brie bakers, mugs, and serving bowls, can be purchased at Amiable Qualities' Gifts of Hope, which allows consumers to purchase artistic items that benefit nonprofits and the clients they serve. Proceeds from the sale of all items are distributed to the designated organization they benefit on a monthly basis to allow the most flexible and efficient use of the funds by the nonprofit directly. For more information, check out Gifts of Hope about page.

Brie bakers

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Childlike Enthusiasm

It is not sophisticated technique or exact skill
but childlike enthusiasm, 
timeless concentration
and pure devotion that feed this clay to life for me.

Knowing this as my hands work slower than my desire to create,
feeling this on frigid winter mornings when clay spirits are
cold and so am I.
Laughing in J.C. Penney's when I notice there is still clay
stubbornly stuck under my fingernails,
and I pass a free manicure display.

Dreaming up new shapes and stories for brown
earth and me, as I secretly call myself
Mud Woman.

Indulging in limitless, creative possibilities.
How lucky I am to know this clay.

Nora Naranjo-Morse

Monday, February 9, 2015

Kiln, Greenware, and Birds

Going to California.

Overcast and in the 40s today. Got up at 10am to one sale in the Etsy shop: a green yarn bowl is going to California. 

After having brunch (kale and mushroom fritatta) and reading the paper I made it out to the studio by 12:30pm. It's 72 degrees in the studio: nice!

There's a flock of juncos scrabbling in the dead leaves outside the studio door.

Today I'll be happy if I can get a bisque load started. But first I'm making witness cone plaques in anticipation of the eventual glaze firing. After all the issues w/ firings at the end of the year I had a long talk w/ the Skutt representative (Wouldn't life be so much nicer if every customer service rep was as helpful and pleasant as the Skutt people?). I had been telling my husband that there *had* to be something wrong w/ the 20-year old manual kiln because my glazes were coming out all wrong. Husband, who is an electrical engineer, researched it and concluded that it was unlikely that it was the kiln. The Skutt technician agreed. More likely it was the glazes, which had been sitting in their buckets for several months and had turned a strange color. In any case, I learned a lot about my kiln from the Skutt technician. The most interesting thing I learned is that since I'm firing to ^6 my elements should last 200 to 250 firings -- I had been told I needed to change elements every 100 firings! I can actually go much longer since at least half of my firings are ^06. So, that is why I am making witness cone plaques. After all this time, I decided that I really need to know what is happening during my firings. And I'm making plaques because I didn't pay attention at the store and did not buy the self-supporting cones.

Witness Cones.

After making the cone plaques I started cleaning the greenware and loading the kiln. (I am definitely going to have to clean the shelves and put some kiln wash on them before the glaze firing.) I fuss too much with the greenware and, of course, I broke something. I have an order for a Starry Nights lamp twice the size I usually make them. I made 3 and was really quite happy with the way they came out, but I broke one during the cleaning up. It doesn't bother me too much to break ware. What bothers me is that I know better! As I was cleaning out all the clay burrs from the little stars, I was thinking that I needed to put a piece of foam under the lamp... but I didn't do it, so it broke.

I was able to fit in all the large bottle vases (some of them are for the silent auction at my granddaughter's school), the batter bowls, the brie bakers, and the mugs. The two platters were left out, they'll go in the next firing. A lot of stuff was still wet so I'm candling the kiln today. It'll run with the bottom ring on low and the lid and all 6 peep holes open for about 10 hours. Tomorrow, I'll do the actual bisque firing.

After that, I cleaned up a little... mostly put stuff away and wiped down the shelves. Then I played with some recycled clay that I pugged a couple of days ago. I made a wrapped vase like the ones I used to make when I first started out and my throwing skills left much to be desired. I also made a couple of plates using Styrofoam rings as molds as shown in the February issue of Ceramics Monthly. I don't have a lot of patience for this and did it from memory rather than follow the directions. The foam rings are too deep, I think, and they look more like bowls than plates.

I've got the yarn bowl packed up and ready to go tomorrow. The kiln is off now and the mugs on the top shelf look dry and ready for tomorrow's bisque firing. It's still 72 degrees in the studio, but the temperature is falling outside and there's a cold rain coming down.

There was a flock of robins scrabbling around in the leaves when I came inside.


Sunday, January 11, 2015


I’ve read a lot about how to foster creativity and found that common themes include protecting the time that you have to practice your craft and showing up to do the work. One of the writers on this topic who really speaks to me is Clarissa Pinkola Estés (CPE) who devotes chapter 10 (Clear Water: Nourishing the Creative Life) of Women Who Run with the Wolves to just that. I very much like the metaphor of creativity as a river that can get dammed up or polluted. It is our job to remove the logjams and clean up the river. CPE gives us nine steps to “take back the river”.

1. Receive nurturance ~ Accomplishing this first step is as simple as accepting compliments about your craft, savor them and fight the negative talk we have with ourselves about not being good enough. Practice just saying “Thank you!” when you receive a compliment. It's surprisingly difficult to do!

There’s another form of nurturance that Julia Cameron mentions in The Artist’s Way. She refers to it as “filling the well” (again, the water metaphor, which I think is so apt). Cameron suggests blocking out time every week to go on “artist dates” to refresh the soul. This can be as simple as going for a walk or taking a bubble bath, or could be a trip to a craft fair or museum. The point is that this is your time, alone.

2. Respond ~ “Creativity is the ability to respond to all that goes on around us”

3. Be wild ~ For the river of creativity to flow we must “…allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing.” 

      In his online lecture on creativity, John Cleese also highlights the importance of humor, noting that it’s essential to spontaneity and playfulness, and that laughter leads to relaxation, which results in creativity (see April 10, 2012 posting in this blog).

      4. Begin ~ Just do it! If fear of failure is what’s keeping you back, then “Let your fear leap out and bite you so you can get it over with and go on.” 

      Steven Pressfield also looks at the issue of fear in The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, and says that fear and resistance are indicators of the importance of our endeavor to the growth of our soul. 

      John Cleese notes that fear of making mistakes stops creativity; we must know that whatever the outcome, nothing is wrong!

     5. Protect your time ~ Do not allow interruptions during your precious creative time. Put up a sign if necessary: “Artist at work. Do not disturb.”  In his lecture on creativity, John Cleese also underlines the importance of undisturbed time.

6. Stay with it ~ This simply means to keep showing up and, if necessary, tie yourself to the pottery wheel. This is a way of saying to all the negative thoughts and excuses we make for not being creative that we will not cooperate with them. Sometimes we go into the studio and it becomes quite easy to start doing trivial things, rather than the deep creative work. For this reason, it’s important to carve out enough time to be able to get past this initial busyness.

7.  Protect your creative life ~ Again, just show up to do the work… practice every day.

8.  Craft your real work ~ “Insist on a balance between pedestrian responsibility and rapture.” In other words, make your art a priority.

9.  Lay out nourishment for the creative life ~ According to CPE there are four basic food groups to nourish the creative soul: time, belonging, passion, and sovereignty.

Other really good books on this topic are:

  • Carla Needleman: The Work of Craft: An Inquiry into the Nature of Crafts and Craftsmanship
  • Robert Piepenburg: Treasures of the Creative Spirit: An Artist's Understanding of Human Creativity
  •  M.C. Richards: Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person
  • Julia Cameron: The Vein of Gold

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

Sharp shinned hawk*
It is only 20 steps from the back door of the house to the studio door. The pebbles on the walk have frozen together and crunch loudly with each step. The birds and squirrels eat non-stop. The juvenile sharp-shined hawk keeps coming by for lunch. Chris worries about his birds with the hawk around. I do too, but I still don't let him scare it away: it's cold, it too needs nourishment. The hawk doesn't catch anything today and flies off. We haven't seen the rabbit in a while, but there's evidence that it lives under the studio, where it's probably nice and warm with the heater on all night. The fox hasn't been around in a few days, but we've seen the tracks in the snow and there are a lot of mousy treats around here to keep him going.

Keeping the throwing water warm.
It's 22 degrees F on a sunny, frigid day with snow on the ground. I left the oil-filled radiator heater on high last night when the temperature dipped to 8 degrees F. Last year, when the temps also got this low, I neglected to leave the heater on one night and ended up with frozen clay and glazes. Still, though not frozen, the clay and throwing water are cold. In addition to bringing buckets of hot water from the house, I put a bucket on the heater to keep the water warm. Another trick to fend off the cold water is to lather my hands with Bag Balm.

auxiliary heater
It's 52 degrees F in the studio at 1:15pm. It's warm enough, but I still turn on the auxiliary heater aimed at my feet. My feet are always cold in any weather so at these temps it's especially important to keep them warm. I have a pair of too-large green Crocs that can accommodate several pairs of socks: a pair of white cotton socks, a pair of fuzzy purple socks, and a pair of blue wool socks (handmade by Mom).

3 pairs of socks.

That was today in the studio.

* Couldn't get a photo of the hawk so I got this one online.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Channeling Dad's Cousin Chichín

Antonia and Chichín in the 1950s
 My father's cousin Rubén Benítez Heyneh ("Chichín") was a painter and university professor in Uruguay. His wife, Antonia Jordá, was also an artist. Before we came to the US, my family used to visit Chichín and Antonia and their two kids often. I have fond memories of the fun we children had running around their back yard, unbothered by adults. One thing that fascinated me was the wood-burning kiln that Antonia had in a shed in the back. 
Car headlights on a dark, rainy street, or moon over the water?

On a trip back to Uruguay in the early 1960s, we visited them again and Chichín showed my parents his sketch book and some of the paintings he was working on. He gave my parents a beautiful black, white and blue abstract painting, which now sits in my younger brother's house in St. Louis. 

by Rubén Benítez
I was a rather shy young teen then (14 years old), but could not contain my excitement looking at Chichín's work. I finally ventured to say that I really liked a particular abstract work. Chichín asked me what I thought it represented and, without any hesitation, I told him that it was the headlights of a car on a dark, rainy street. He thought that was a good enough answer (although his inspiration had been the moon over the water at night), and gave me the painting. It is one of my most precious posessions.

Chichín's painting has found its way to some of my recent pots: