Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Art From Scratch (DIY Pottery)

I usually talk about how process is one of the most important aspects of my art. I thought I'd share a little bit about one of the aspects of my process which involves gathering and preparing materials. For this purpose I figured one of the more interesting and involved mediums to share would be clay. I thought it would be cool to share the entire process from digging the clay to the finished piece being displayed. This might be the teacher part of me: since I know how difficult it was for me to teach myself this process, and how much I could have used some more tips, it is my responsability and pleasure to share this experience with any and all interested ears (however, if you are interested in DIY ceramics, I would say close this page and go get dirty instead!)

So, before I get to the actual point of this post, the art from scratch demo, allow me to meander within the topic, as usual.

For about 5 years now I have been collecting and using local clay for a body of work I call POK. I define POK as "mud" or "art bread". My idea for POK was to discover a personal connection to the medium of clay, from zero, as if I were a cave man. I thought "how hard could it be?" "just dig some dirt and mix it with water and fire it!" Well... I have come a long way since...

Though I do not consider myself a potter, I have gained an enormous respect for the entire legacy of potters since antiquity who discovered these techniques and refined them to a master craft. I believe this appreciation has come from the fact that I experienced, first hand, the many hardships and learning curves the first potter might have encountered. I also believe this could be an enormously enriching part of any first potter's learning curriculum.
Here is a page from my sketchbooks, of an early exploration into the POK experience. I like to keep detailed documentation of all my processes for later use in my studies and teaching.

Here is a similar documentation, although here I am exploring the extraction of colors from different vegetable matters to make ink.

I have been long fascinated by the idea of "art from scratch", or the harnessing of art materials from readily available, free sources. One of my biggest art fantasies involves being stranded in an island, empty handed, and being able to make art. Of course survival itself has always been a fascination for me as well.
But even here in the urban context there is much to say for the enormous ammount of resources available to the creative mind. Beyond accesibility, there is an almost romantic passion in me, to create something out of nothing, or to find/make value of things forgotten or taken for granted. Creating art from scratch is a challenging, demanding, sustainable, tremendously educational and profound practice. Don't take my word for it, try it.

Needless to say, I am of course not the only one to share this passion. In fact, just last week a new venue endorsing this kind of artistic exploration opened here in Pittsburgh. The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination had its grand gala opening last Friday, October 9th, 2009. It is an art space on Penn Av. offering workshops and hosting exhibits, etc. The theme for this first show was salvaged art, welcoming recycled, reclaimed, gleened, salvaged and found arts of all kinds. I was thrilled.

So, especifically for this show I decided to make two pieces. The first one is a playful catalog which I donated to the center called : "Art Media for the Urban Scavenger", with 30 or so potential "free" mediums of art. They are, from top to bottom, left to right: terracota clay, ochre clay, orange clay, sand, salt, sticks, brick, ground stones, rust, rocks, wood, cardboard, newspaper, plastic, cloth, lint, metal , glass, wrapers, stuff, charcoal, soot, coffee, tea, grass, flowers, spices, berries, dirt and imagination!

While this was meant to be a conceptual and playful statement, I was hoping it could be seen as a potential tool of inspiration for art students as well. All of these materials I have actually used (and continue to use) for the creation of "fine art".

The second piece I decided to make was the reason for this post. It is called "Emergence of the POK Man" and it was made from scratch, using clay from the Allegheny Cemetery, located just a block from the IF Center and my house, which I thought was appropriate. Later I mention the strong connection I feel to this clay, and how this history is translated, as with all art materials, to the energetic charge of the finished work.

The clay at first is raw and impure, full of stones, roots and other organic matter. My first step after gathering it (in this case I don't need to dig for it myself) is to grind it to a somewhat fine powder. I do this using a stone, and in this process I can get rid of all larger rocks, etc.

I then mix abundant water into it and start mixing it all together, shooting to get a homogenous mixture.

In this process I quickly gather many "conglomerates" of impurities, which rather than tossing I like to pack into condensed balls for later use, potentially ritualistic.

Once I have a homogenous and relatively clean mixture I pour it through a really thin mesh, since only the finest and cleanest clay will be suited for art. This was an important part of the POK lesson: even the tiniest stones, when fired to a high temperature, go kapoof!
Other impurity conglomerates, finer ones, come out of this process.
Here I have to add that somehow, taking care of cleansing the clay, one feels as though impurities are being extracted from one's own self. This is a feeling that may be familiar to anybody who takes care of things, beautifies and creates, like a gardener.

Once impurities have been removed, I leave the clay to settle for several hours, and in this process all the water rises to the top. I then pour it out, getting a thicker and more solid paste each time I repeat this.

One of the helpful tips I learned from a potter friend, Bruce Brinker, is to pour the slip onto a plaster tray, which soaks the moisture out quite fast. Once dry enough, the clay is ready to use. One other step before actually sculpting is to add other materials to the clay to give it the desired properties. In this case, and often, I add sand, which gives the clay body strength, especially in better resisting changes of temperature during firing. It is also essential to "wedge" the clay extensively, removing the air from it while at the same time mixing it further into a homogenous mass. As any potter knows, not wedging the clay can result in unwanted explosions during firing.

I then begin to sculpt the form using structural support when needed.

As the clay further dries, more details can be added, always perfecting and refining the form.

Once the piece is completed, I have learned it to be very important to allow it to dry slow, especially with non-industrial clay. To do this I make a cave of a plastic bag to maintain a moist environment. Chances are the piece will crack if dried too fast.

As the piece dries I like to polish it using a spoon to make the surface smooth.

Once the piece is completely dry it can be fired. In order not to betray my "primitive" process I most often fire my pieces in a bon fire. I do a firing technique inspired by Native Americans, as I learned it from a documentary about potter Maria Martinez. It involves a reduction atmosphere to turn the clay black, which is optional. As a parenthesis, here is a sketch piece I made in a bon fire a couple of weekends ago, just for fun. The reduction atmosphere was done inside an altoids box...

In this case though, due to weather and time constraints I temporarily fired "Emergence of the POK Man" in my kitchen oven. I will do a propoer firing soon. Firing could be an entire, long and detailed extra post (maybe I'll get into it some other time!). Keep in mind that I am sharing a very basic an general description of this process, and each of these steps has lots of important details I am not including simply for practical reasons.
So finally, here is the piece as it is being shown at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination.
Notice that I choose to display it among the raw clay and the impurity clusters. I recomend visiting the exhibit and seeing the piece in person, along with the huge and fun collection of recycled artworks being shown.

To end, I have added the statement I wrote for "Emergence of the POK Man":

"The Pok Man is made of clay from the Allegheny Cemetery, located 1 block away from my house. Collecting clay here seems appropriate because it is nearby and it is free. I enjoy walking among the wild, silent trees, in such ominous and grounding place. New holes are made there every day, and I don't need to personally uncover the red and orange clay: it is already there, like an opened wound of the earth. This clay is powerful to me. There is a profound richness in the history of this soil where, for centuries, bodies return to the earth where they came from, turning to primordial dust as nature continues to cycle. As in Neruda's "Alturas de Machu Pichu": "When the hand of clay-color turned to clay and when the eyelids shut..."
The POK Man is a symbolic aftermath of the death cycle, honoring the re-emergence of life. From the earth grows a figure which is the voice of Spirit re-emerging from Matter. It represents the cycle of the inert acquiring Anima or "life force". In this case, the POK Man is surrounded by the raw dirt that gave birth to him, and by conglomerates of stone and detritus which are the impurities removed and left behind in this process of rebirth. As the cycles continue to renew, so the new life filters and cleanses itself, becoming ever anew, always emerging, eternal."

October 13, 2009 AA09