Chris Pickett's colorful slab built forms - A virtual tour of Cush

I had the great fortune of seeing Chris Pickett's show Cush while I was in Florida this spring. The show was top notch in every respect from the pots, to the lighting, to the flowers and the pedestals. Chris balances subtlety and boldness with an expert touch. He often contrasts embossed patterns under a celedon with a thin orange line of satin glaze. I admire his "little goes a long way" understanding of color. The plate set and the flower bricks where my favorite pieces in the show. 

I am looking forward to seeing Chris's new website which should be up in the next few months. If your interested in buying his work he can be found on Facebook. 


New work from this Summer

Here are a few highlights from the last two firings. I've posted process pics on the blog in the past few months so these might look familiar. The full set is on my Facebook fan page. (Click here to see the entire collection.)

Finishing a large batch makes me step back and see where I want to go next. My next group is geared towards a Chinese audience. Practically this means I make everything much, much, much smaller. I'm making teapots that my fingers can barely fit in and they are still large compared to pots used for green tea. This might be the only time that I want something to shrink in the kiln. I'm making two cups and a tray for each teapot. It's a nice challenge to work on small objects for sets.


Working with Sets and Superstitions

I have been thinking about the significance of sets lately. Rarely do I make sets of three. This is practically based on my buyer's desire for functional sets of four, six, or eight. This fits the average western family consisting of two children and two parents. If a buyer purchases four each family member gets their own piece, while a set of six has a few spares to replace the ones you might break. A set of eight is ideal for larger families, or those who don't want to do their dishes after every meal.

This number theory however doesn't hold true in China where the single-child policy has created multiple generations of three member nuclear families. (Click here for  more info on the single-child policy.) A three person family would most likely buy a set of three, five, or six. They would not buy four because of the number's unlucky association with death. In Mandarin the word four, "Si", sounds similar to the word for death. The tones are different but the association is close enough to make four a "bad" number. Numeric superstition carries into dates also. There are good and bad days on the lunar calendar that are based on astrological significance. When we opened our studio my boss looked for an auspicious day to bring us luck in our business. 

In addition to numbers, colors are filled with cultural associations. In China a bride can not wear blue because it is rumored to bring bad luck to the marriage. This color prohibition continues into pottery. I had an instance where someone commented on my work, "Don't use that shade of blue. It's bad luck. No one will buy it." The concept of luck is taken very seriously in China. In contrast, imagine telling your friend "You can't buy this car because its unlucky color will ruin your life." Statements like this seem comical and out of place because freedom of choice is a given in the western world. An individual can buy a car, a wedding dress, or any other object of a particular color without creating cultural friction. Individual-first societies have superstitions but they tend to loose sway when confronted with personal taste. (1.* see below) The strength of Chinese superstitions is related to the desire for cultural cohesion. The psychological remnants of the Cultural Revolution still fuel a desire for uniformity. In the west cultural cohesion and personal taste are not in opposition. It is possible to have individual preferences without being seen as a threat to your culture. (2.*see below)

One way I have navigated around the speed bumps of superstition is to make service ware. There is no way to pick an unlucky number for a serving set because its communal nature doesn't tie the bad luck to one specific person. There are so many different needs for serving foods that luck is superseded by necessity. Living outside of my own culinary tradition has helped me see table ware in a whole new light. Every meal is an education in food service. I have tried many new types of food with their own specific methods of service. I especially like the Chinese love of mixing small amounts of strong flavors. The table is often filled with small dishes of intensely flavored sauces made of garlic, hot peppers, and a Sichuan Pepper that numbs your mouth.

Here is a design exercise based on numbered sets that I find interesting. Make a set of three pots where each individual is decorated differently. The set must be unified but no pot can be the same. Make a additional set of four where each individual is decorated differently. Again this set must be unified but no design can be the same. Now compare the sets. Do you notice any difference between the set of three and four? I notice that the inherent asymmetry of a set of three changes the way I approach the decoration. I find it hard to put symmetrical decoration on an odd numbered set. Even numbered sets can go either way. I'm not sure why this is but it shows that the way you frame the problem largely determines the outcome. Has anyone else noticed something like this when making sets?

Footnotes- a.k.a late night tangents
1.* This points to a byproduct of democracy; the belief that each person is entitled to their own opinion regardless of the larger culture around them. This belief empowers the individual to make every day decisions of little consequence, like which cereal to buy, and more major decisions, like ballot referendums on gun control. Theoretically, a democracy insures that an individual that holds a minority opinion has the same  power as their majority counterparts.

2.* To believe in a superstition it is helpful to identify as a member of the culture that created the superstition. A cultural native sees their personal experience as confirmation of superstitions were an outsider sees the same experience as unrelated. It is very hard to adopt another cultures superstitions because complete assimilation is rare. The role of the outsider is always one of observation even if they are fully participating in the culture.


Art of the Day V.5- Square Red Lacquer table with stools- Qing Dynasty 1644-1911

Rarely does furniture deserve to be anthropomorphized with words like "sexy" or "smokin'". This Qing dynasty table is the exception. The proportions, curves, and color make this set a lesson in seduction. Curves like these have been symbols of abundance/fertility dating back to the Venus de Willendorf. The color red also has long time links to attraction- i.e. red lip stick, red sports car, that are connected to the mammalian tendency to blush red during arousal. As a whole this table displays similar qualities to the form language I like in pottery.

A closer look at the table's surface reveals multiple layers of floral and landscape patterns. Notice there are multiple species of flowers in various orientations. They are incorporated into the overall pattern in a way that doesn't over emphasize one specific type of flower. They are reduced to motif and repeated to fill the space. The "wall papering" affect lets the artist spread the design three dimensionally around corners that could be a real challenge to decorate. (Imagine building a pot with equal volumetric contrast to the seats and legs of these stools.) The craftsman has filled every available space with decoration. There is even a classic Chinese "human in nature" scene carved into the fringe of the stool. This excess works because the scale of the decoration is small and the color scheme is monochromatic. The bordering system of curvilinear lines also helps transition from pattern to pattern.

The wood is covered with red lacquer for a rich semi-gloss surface. Lacquer is a finish that is prevalent in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean wood working. The basic method consists of applying multiple layers of a thin sealing medium. A quick trip to Wikipedia found that " Known applications of lacquer in China included coffins, plates, music instruments and furniture. Lacquer mixed with powdered cinnabar is used to produce the traditional red lacquerware from China." Cinnabar is the ore that yields mercury. Its interesting to think the same material that made the standard thermometer work is the coloring agent that produces the unique red of Chinese lacquer.  The tone and toxicity of Chinese red lacquer remind me of Ben Owens III low fire lead red glaze. (Click here for his Art and Perception article. Many of the pots pictured where in a Blue Spiral One solo show that I saw years ago.) It goes to show that getting a vibrant red has always been a toxic endeavor in wood and ceramics.

This set is part of the Shanghai Museum's permanent collection. I will be posting more lacquer ware from the collection in future posts. 

The Art of the Day series features art that I encounter on my visits to museums. These are from the Shanghai Museum collection, which offers a broad range of Chinese Art from 3,000 BC to the mid-1900's. For the museum website please click here.


It's a small world after all- Joy Tanner's Shanghai Fan Club

I walked into my class the other day to find a student in full concentration trying to copy a pitcher from Lark Book's 500 Pitchers book. She had made eight versions but was struggling with the proportions. As I looked closer I realized that the pitcher was made by my old studio mate Joy Tanner. I explained to my student, Shao Lingzhi, that I knew Joy and we both laughed at how small the ceramic world is. I used to watch Joy make lots of these when we were at the Odyssey Center together so I sat down to show Lingzhi how to make the lip of that pitcher just right. This shows yet again that our pots can travel long distances thanks to the internet and international publishing. You can view more of Joy's work at http://joytannerpottery.com or visit her blog Journeys In and Around the Studio.

I was lucky to be at the Odyssey Center with many talented artists. Here is a picture of the residents around 2005. Left to right you have Annie Singletary, Joy Tanner, Cassie Ryalls, Anne Bartges, and Tommy Frank. Through out my time at Odyssey I also shared space with Will Baker, Emily Reason, Stephen CheekLeAnne Ash, and many more. There are so many great artists that I got to know in the greater Asheville area. It is still my favorite city and the most inspiring ceramic community I have encountered. If you get a chance stop by the Odyssey Center for a summer workshop or a class.