Wisdom from Jon Stewart: Set Limits - Cycles of 10

I was catching up on my backlog of Fresh Air this week. Terry Gross did a great interview with Jon Stewart about his creative process for the Daily Show.(Click Here for the full Interview) One particular quote hit me so I had to hit pause and write it down.

"Creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom I think you don't know what to do with yourself. When you have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kinda come back to that."

This makes sense in many creative areas. From a musical standpoint Jazz is based on improvising over base rhythm and melody. From a sports standpoint basketball is a free flowing mixture of improvising over set plays. The more limits I impose on my self the more I grow. One of my professors used to tell me that school was about learning how to set up your own studio challenges.

A common challenge I use is a simple numbers game. I work in cycles of ten making different versions of a form to let my hands and mind get used to the idea. In the first cycle I keep the overall scale of the body the same as I change the proportions of height to width. I take the ones I like and make ten more copying the body but changing the foot or handle. If I work with the idea of keeping two out of ten I can make a lot of progress in a few rounds of pots. This challenge is good for me because I tend to make decisions on intuition without knowing why I am going in a certain direction.This systematic approach keeps me focused on the details with out loosing the excitement and momentum of a new form or decoration.

Here are a few tumblers that I've been working on using cycles of ten. I was changing the scale of the deco and thinking about density/focal point with pattern.


The Pottery Workshop's 25th Anniversary celebration in Hong Kong

In early December members from all four locations of the Pottery Workshop (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Jingdezhen, and Beijing) descended on Hong Kong to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a weekend of festivities. It was great to meet the HK staff and see the original location in the basement of the Fringe Club. This small but quaint space has become the springboard for the largest privately held ceramic organization in the world. 

My travels took me by plane to Shenzhen, P.R.C and then by bus into the city. The hour long bus ride was a great chance to see the transition from the mainland to HK. The closer you get the more obvious the British influence becomes. The organization of the city, the street names, and the double decker trams all point to the 156 year British occupation of the territory. (For more HK history click here) It was refreshing to be in a western style city where the taxi drivers spoke English. I found myself starting to speak my broken Mandarin (which is doubly funny because they speak Cantonese) only to have them say in English "So where do you want to go?" 

Over the weekend I walked around the city soaking in the lights and the people. One afternoon I spent a few hours on a boat that was generously lent to us by a supporter of PWS. I was amazed at how quickly you could reach remote locations in the cluster of islands that surround HK. We cruised back to High Island to have lunch at a small beach-side seafood restaurant. With full stomachs we laid in the sun like iguanas and took a dip in the chilly South China Sea.Our weekend culminated with a large party at the Foreign Correspondents Club. Each PWS location gave a slide show and Caroline Cheng spoke about the development of the organization. At the dinner PWS unveiled a book that chronicles the history of the organization. We will have them at our NCECA table for anyone that wants to take a look.

As a side note, Shanghai is a much larger city (20 million) but HK (7 million) feels more dense. It is a vertical city with closely packed high-rise buildings. The city pushes up against steep hills that look very similar to the topography of the Caribbean islands. This picture looks down onto Stanley where we spent the afternoon at the beach.

Dylan Baker-Rice, Affect_T Design and The Great Mosque of Djenne

Another highlight of my Hong Kong trip was seeing my friend Dylan Baker- Rice who I hadn't seen in 10 years. We climbed together and went to the same Zen center when we were in school at Appalachain State University. After going to architecture school at Columbia he has founded his own firm, Affect_t. He and his partner, Damita Yu, now live in Hong Kong while they work on an apartment project. Here are few of his furniture/interior designs for the Asymptote clothing store in Paris and the Hauser Wirth Gallery in London.

Click here to check out Affect_T's website. The meaning page is especially interesting as they talk about their architectural influences from Venice, Italy to the great mosque of Djenne, Mali. (For more info on the clay buildings of Djenne click here) The following quote from a movie about Djenne I found to be particularly interesting.

Surface of sensation whose manifestation is affect, the affectionate feeling of cool earth- a mood, a shadow across a cracked wall, a realm beyond the realm of pure signs, beyond syntax, beyond the indexical; this is the territory that the architecture of Djenne resides in. An island city with earthen architecture the buildings of Djenne are constructed of memory and sensation that eschew the possibility of an architecture alive. The building breaths, it resists those forces which attempt to freeze it, attempts of reading and assignation. If we are to speak of the architecture of Djenne, one cannot speak in terms of modern architecture. The closest built facsimiles are the distant masses of the Baroque. Buildings in Djenne demonstrate the characteristics of massiveness, movement, and painterly style that make Baroque architecture so unique. Yet, the adobe or banco structures are more than the sum of their parts, they move more, breath more, have a life greater than the cathedrals, palaces, and villas of the Baroque style. They are within a realm of becoming which the Baroque only strives for. One must look at buildings of Djenne as a possibility, a possible model of construction and design that might aid modern architecture in showing the potential of architecture to free itself of the stultifying characteristics of form, meaning, and surface.

Text Excerpt from Film: 'The Future of Mud: A Tale of Lives and Houses in Djenne' 2007


The Secret to Perfect Terra Sig - A Ball Mill and a little Crocus Martis

I recently traded emails with Jim Gottuso, of Sofia's Dad's Pots fame, about how to make Terra Sig using a ball mill. His recent blog posts about Sig made me realize I should post my Sig information (Click here to see his post). My base is Pete Pinnell's well circulated recipe, which I copied below. In my first year of grad school I discovered ball milling as a way to increase the Sig's consistency, yield, and shine when burnishing. A ball mill uses a spinning drum to rotate milling media, usually steel or porcelain balls, to crush wet/dry solutions into finer particle sizes. If you don't have a ball mill you can build your own by following digital fire's instructions (click here) or buy one online.

The first step after getting the ingredients is measuring the capacity of your ball mill. Then divide the recipe so that it will fit in the ball mill. The duration of milling depends on the base clay you are using. Course clays with short particle size ranges (like red art) need to be ball milled longer than clays that naturally have a wide range of particle sizes (like OM4). Since Terra Sig is made from the finest particles of clay the end goal of ball milling is to increase the number of that size particle. Ball milling significantly increases yield but over milling can cause a host of problems (clay fit, won't burnish to a shine, etc). When clay particles are over milled they become an unusable mush. I attribute this to the particle loosing its hexagonal structure. You want the clay particle to become shorter in length but not loose its hexagonal shape.

This excerpt from F.H. Norton's Studio Potter Article explains clay particle size and shape.

The Clay Particle
The optical and electron microscope have made it possible to examine the clay particles of all sizes. It is found that each particle is a crystalline plate with an hexagonal outline as shown in Fig. 1. The average diameter of this plate is one micron [one millionth of a meter], a size so small it can only be observed by a high power microscope. Other particles in the clay are as large as fifty microns and as small as one tenth micron in diameter. The thickness of the clay particle is about one tenth the diameter with the faces flat and smooth.

In the clay mass most of the particles are stacked together somewhat as shown in Fig. 2. In most clays the clay material is kaolinite with the formula (OH)4 Al2 Si2 O5, but other clay minerals occur in small amounts.

When I make red art terra sigillata, I ball mill the clay, water and deflocculant for 12 hours before starting the separating process. I then take the mixture out of the ball mill and put it into a see through container. After six hours of settling I collect the liquid portion of the mixture. There will be a thick sludge at the bottom of the container that can be thrown out. If you desire only the finest clay particles, which will give a shinier burnished surface, then you can repeat the settling process for another six hours. Boiling off moisture, or adding water, after decanting are necessary at times to achieve the ideal specific gravity for burnishing - 1.15 to 1.18.

For a deep Maroon Sig I add one teaspoon of Crocus Martis per cup of liquid. Crocus Martis is a slightly soluble iron sulphate. (Click here for specs) I got color happy one day and added 3 teaspoons thinking it would be three times as good. Unfortunately over saturating the solution made the burnishing properties worse. This makes sense because I introduced a semi-course metallic particle into the solution. One teaspoon per cup is sufficient for any high iron/heavy metal colorant. When I apply the Sig to hard leather hard pots I burnish after each of the two layers. If you stick to this specific gravity range you can almost burnish to a glossy finish. It's remarkable how the Crocus Martis helps the shine. If you look at the mug above the dark brown color is the Sig. After burnishing it is water repellent on vertical surfaces and on the feet of Terra Cotta pots.

I'd love to hear other people's Sig experience. Post a comment if you have any tips to share.

Pete Pinnell’s Real Authentic Lip-Smackin’ Smooth Easy Terra Sigillata

color suggestions to 1 cup liquid sig:
white = + 1 tsp. Zircopax or tin.
off white = + 1 tsp. titanium diox.
green = + ½ tsp. chrome oxide
blue = + ½ tsp. cobalt carb.
black = + 1 tsp. black stain
purple = + 1 tsp. crocus martis

In a 5 gal. bucket put 28 lbs (28 pints or 3½ gal.) of water. Add 14 lbs. dry clay. XX sagger works well for white base, RedArt for red. Add enough sodium silicate to deflocculate (a few tablespoons). For red clays use 2 teaspoons sodium silicate and 1 tablespoon soda ash. Allow to settle. Overnight is average. Less plastic red clays (such as RedArt or fire clay may require only 6-8 hours, while very plastic clays
like XX Sagger or OM4 ball may take up to 48 hours). Remove top ½-b w/o disturbing the mixture (syphon off). This is the sig. . Throw the rest away; do not reclaim.

Terra sig is best when the specific gravity if about 1.15. Useful range is 1.1-1.2. Specific gravity is measured by weighting out 100 gms of water, marking the volume, and weighing the same volume of the sig. Divide the weight of the sig by 100. If too thin evaporate. If too thick allow to settle longer. Apply sig to bone dry greenware and buff. For “patinas” use 1 gerstley borate + 1 colorant as a thin wash over bisqued sigs, applied and rubbed off. Works well on textured areas.


Check it out - Debuse-on-the-Loose- Chandra Debuse

My graduate school experience was as much defined by my studio mates as it was by the course work . I was fortunate to share a studio with a few amazing artists. (TJ Erdahl, Patrick Coughlin, Beau Raymond, Magda Gluzcek, Chris Pickett-Click on their names for websites) One of these, Chandra Debuse, has just launched a website of her work. http://chandradebuse.com

For surface decoration fans her work is a tutorial on how to use line to define form and space. She says of her work "I use images of squirrel antics as metaphors for goal-driven, yet impulsive human behaviors. The ceramic forms are composed of rhythmic, bouncing lines, referencing the path a squirrel takes as it scampers among trees. As squirrels poke their heads around corners looking for the nut, human fingers seek out their own nourishment by roaming the topography of a plate. "

She also has a virtual sketchbook (blog) Debuse-On-The-Loose that is definitely worth checking out. Chandra is currently an artist in residence at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, FL.


Blogging Tip of the Day- Add a Favicon

As I am working on my blog format I thought I would share tidbits of how to alter a blogger based website. I give all credit to Tips for New Bloggers. This site offers easy to follow instructions on the ends and outs of building websites using Blogger.

Todays tweak is to add a Favicon to the site. Favicons are the images that appear next to your websites title in the browser tab. You can create an image that will distinguish your page from the others that the viewer is seeing while they are browsing. Their are programs (like Imagicon) that will help turn a jpeg image into icon image with an .ico file extension, or you can try Googling "favicon" for lots of generic icons. I choose to use the icon that I use for my regular website. It is a C that is in a font similar to Bookman Old Style. Simple graphics that are high contrast are easiest to see. Most companies use their simplest logo.

Click here for a detailed explanation of how to add a Favicon to your website.

(Todays blog tip is brought to you by the letter "F". F is for Favicon, Foot long hotdogs and trimmed Feet. Lets here it kids for the letter "F")


Working with negative space while tweaking my blog layout

I'm on a short studio hiatus as PWS moves to a new studio this week. I unloaded a bisque kiln full of mugs, tumblers, serving bowls, and noodle bowls. They went directly into a cardboard box where they will live for the next few weeks. This last batch of pots has been focused on opening up more space in my decoration. I'm thinking about the power of negative space both as a visual tool and a metaphor for the intangibles that shape life. I tend to error on the side of excess so its been a great challenge to say more with less. Less decoration, less words, less consumption, just less in general.

I'm devoting part of my hiatus to tweaking my blog format. After a few hours of reading I managed to alter the  template HTML of the blog to include a navigation bar in the header. I found a great website that makes editing HTML actually seem possible. Check out http://tips-for-new-bloggers.blogspot.com if you need help with any blogger edits.

Please excuse the broken links for the next week as I figure out how to make this all work right.
Happy potting/tweaking!


2010- The Year in Music

The Roots- How I Got Over- Dear God 2.0 featuring Jim James

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses- Crazy Heart Soundtrack- The Weary Kind

Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs- God Willin and the Creek Dont Rise- Beg, Steal, or Borrow

Have Gun Will Travel - Postcards From the Friendly City- Ballad of Asa Daulton- Re-released on Suburban Home Records in 2010

Josh Ritter- So Runs the World Away- The Curse

Vampire Weekend- Contra- Taxi Cab

I'm slightly addicted to "Top 10/Best of" lists. This time of year is perfect because media outlets are posting their lists about everything from sports to music to political miscues. (Click here for NPR Music's Best of 2010 List and Here for Michael Jordan Top Ten Best Dunks). These short snippets of culture are easily digested in my routine 30 minute breaks from doing things I should actually be doing.

Here are a handful of my favorite releases from last year. Many of these are strong showings from bands you probably already know (Josh Ritter, Vampire Weekend, Ray Lamontagne). A few might be flying under your radar like Florida's own Have Gun Will Travel. (Technically they self released Post Cards from A Friendly City in 2009 but 2010 saw Suburban Home Records picked them up and re-release their sophomore album.) The breakout newcomer for me was Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses. Bingham's song Weary Kind was produced by T. Bone Burnett for the soundtrack of Crazy Heart. They won an Academy Award and have been nominated for a Grammy. Its great to see a fictional movie about a washed up outlaw country singer bring an actual country singer fame. As a side note anything produced by T. Bone Burnett is fantastic. He has been the driving sonic force behind Buena Vista Social Club, the sound track for O Brother Where Art Thou, and Alison Krauss/Robert Plant's Raising Sand.

My hands down favorite album of last year was The Roots How I Got Over. This album combines the bands usually crisp raps with Marvin Gaye era melodies and indie guest stars. Radio Days, the title track How I Got Over and The Day are three great tunes on the album. Indie veterans Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Joanna Newsome contribute backing vocals to a few of the tracks. The combination doesn't come of as a gimmick but of a genuine mixture of genres. The video I posted, Dear God 2.0, is a rewrite of a song by the indie super group Monsters of Folk. It took me by surprise and kept me wanting more.

I posted all these songs to the blog's music roll. For the music lovers feel free to repost your favorite albums of the year. I'm always looking for more music.


Happy New Year! - Holiday Tea and the White Elephant Exchange

2010 has passed. I feel like that statement should coincide with advertisements for hover cars or time shares on Mars. I had a great year with many changes that have not fully sunk in yet. Part of my great fortune has been meeting the amazing group of people that work at the Pottery Workshop Shanghai. 

We recently got together for a holiday party to celebrate the end of the year. We had an international potluck with sushi, chicken satay, and tasty home-made chicken wings. One of our studio renters performed a tea ceremony for all those in attendance. I have read many accounts of the ceremony but I had never participated until the party. It was great to see how a ceremony known for its quiet focus could be translated to a group of 20 people. We each took turns as Premala took us through the process of whisking the Matcha (powdered green tea), turning the bowl three times, and drinking the mixture in three quick sips. (For a better explanation of the ceremony click here or here) I appreciated Premala's willingness to teach us about the ceremony and its place in ceramic history.

The group picture above is with our White Elephant gifts. For those not familiar with this system of gift giving it is based on the idea that you can "steal" a gift from someone else at the party. At the party every person chose one pot out of our holiday sale based on a number they drew from a lottery. During the White Elephant, number two can take number one's gift, number three can take both one and two's gifts, and so on. With this system its best to be the final one to draw so you can pick from the largest group of objects. Once we got going it was fun to watch each persons excitement as they picked their pot. The best part was watching the early participants try to hide their pots so that no one could take them. We had a great time with lots of laughs. In the picture above we have students from China, Ireland, England, Denmark, Japan, Turkey, Canada and the US. One of my plans for our new studio space is to hang a small flag from every country where our students are from.

2011 will be a great year for the Pottery Workshop Shanghai. We will be moving to a newly remodeled studio this week. Ill post pictures of the new space as soon as we are in. Ill be traveling a large amount in the next few months and I look forward to posting more about that also. Happy New Year to everyone! Please come visit, China is fantastic.