Have you ever watched a dance performance that gave you chills? While the dancer expresses herself, seemingly effortlessly moving through space evoking emotion in a highly individual way, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the training that proceeded that performance. Dancers practice for hour upon hour at the barre, perfecting small repetitive movements. Year after year they do this. If you’ve ever taken a ballet class you know. The class is structured and rigid, the movement is extremely specific. Eventually the most dedicated dancers become those performers who take your breath away, but there exists a distinct contrast between practice and performance.
In art we have exercises that build our skills. These exercises can be repetitive, challenging and often boring. They are not what we have in mind when we imagine expressing our creativity through making art. Just like the thousands of plies dancers do, we visual artists have our exercises too.
A dancer will have a fit and flexible body for as long as she practices regularly, but it is her performance that is the Art, the body is only the tool. When visual artists perform skill-building exercises, there is usually a drawing or a pot as a result. These results are not the Art, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.
I’ve been teaching kids. A young student burst into tears this week because she felt she “messed up her drawing”. We were doing value studies on black construction paper with plain chalkboard chalk. The subject was white paper cups, cubes, and spheres. We discussed the notion of exercises, how we do push-ups and crunches to make our bodies stronger. All these kids play soccer. They know the difference between the warm-ups and the game. I explained that these exercises were the warm ups, not the game. I chose plain, cheap materials to reinforce the notion that these were not precious drawings. Nonetheless, there were tears.
There is a student in my night class who is a beginner at 85 years old. He is a fit, smart, outgoing man. He expressed his frustration at his awkwardness in clay compared to the advanced students in this all-levels class. He told me that after several class meetings he went home vowing he “wasn’t coming back”. I tried to explain the years (20 or more for some of us!) of practice and failed attempts each of the other artists have endured to get to their stage of development. We use inexpensive recycle clay, its just mud, nothing special. Nonetheless, there was frustration.
As we search for meaning in our lives through the practice of art we need to recognize the value in the ugly, awkward, boring, repetitive stuff we make along the way.
The warm up is not the game, but it’s still important.
Girl Talk opens tomorrow evening. The gallery is a lovely house on Banker’s Hill which is used by its owner Gustaf Anders Rooth as an art gallery and a showroom for his unique furniture made from vintage wine and whiskey barrels.Rooth has a massive workshop behind the building, peek back there when you go. Rachel, Kelly, and I installed our artwork in the context of this house and its furniture.
Now that I have seen the finished installation it occurs to me that this gallery is the perfect setting for these two related bodies of work. originally we set out to collaborate on work that confronted relevant issues in our lives, finding similarities, humor, differences. Food and consuption must certainly be relevant to all of us. All the sculpture in this exhibition is food, interpreted through each artists’ distinct filters and presented in this domestic setting.
For me the work is always about popular culture and how the images and products we consume (literally or figuratively) affect the way we think, behave and feel about ourselves and each other.
Kelly and Rachel work with “…themes of consumption, indulgence, and juxtapose high and low culture with consideration for traditional craft. Together they combined their medias to offer a perspective of America’s love affair with consuming both food and possessions. The china a family eats off of and the jewelry they pass down, like the food they consume, are representative of their history, cultural values, and economic status. Today’s fast food nation of increasing income inequality, and throwaway culture, may not be able to carry on these traditions of heirlooms.”
I think the sensual qualities of food plays a roll for the artists too, in color, texture in addition to flavor. Is it just me or is there a shameful quality in the detritus from this shared food? Come and see the exhibition and let me know what you think.
Planet Rooth Design Haus 3334 5th Ave, San Diego, CA 92103. (619) 297-9663
(from the gallery text)
Girl Talk is an art show about pop culture, feminism, food, and mass consumption, with humor conveying the themes. The featured artists are Lee Puffer, Kelly Schnorr, and Rachel Shimpock, all three San-Diego artists who graduated from San Diego State University’s Masters of Fine Arts program and who have worked collaboratively on several projects. Their varying artistic methods range from ceramics to metalsmithing. Opening reception June 20th, 7-9pm, which features performance artist Amanda Schoepflin. Show runs June 20-August 15, 2014.
Kelly Schnorr: http://www.kellyschnorr.com
Lee Puffer: http://www.leepuffer.com
Rachel Shimpock: http://www.rachelkassia.com
Girl Talk (a conversation in objects)
Girl Talk is an in-progress body of work, developed collaboratively, made manifest in objects that are, essentially, a conversation between two artists/friends Kelly Schnorr and Lee Puffer.
Rife with humor and irony, the sculptures address contemporary life from both unique and shared experiences/perspectives of the individual artists.
The sculptures explore the similarities and differences between the two women, the nature of female experience, friendship, and more weighty and contemporary concerns such as…but not limited to:
Upbringing, family history
Milestones (marriage, children)
Popular cultural influences
Definitions of beauty
Sexuality and taboo
Sense of place
Drawing on personal experiences and offering cultural critique of events that most impact their lives, the artists present a frank, open and funny conversation in sculpture.
We each make a sculpture and trade them. Then we will respond to/embellish/add to the work we received to create a juxtaposition/dialog. The result is a series of two-part pedestal pieces and wall sculptures. The material is predominantly clay, but both Kelly and I use a bit of image transfer, textile, and found objects as well.
In Defense of Pottery in the Pursuit of Meaning
Forget beauty for a minute (if you can).
There may be nothing more intimate and soulful than making a vessel for food or drink for another human being. There is something quite sensual, erotic even, in giving someone a cup that you made which becomes the first thing that touches his or her lips every single morning. Before they kiss their children or their lover or their cat.
There is an intimacy in making the bowl with which your loved one will nourish his or her body with food. What could be more basic and essential than that?
Arguably, the every-day vessel, as opposed to the magnificent ceremonial object (or sculpture, for that matter), matters more.
When you feel like you need to defend the making of pottery, remember that. And if you want to love someone, make a cup for them.
Ted Talks have really raised the bar for public speaking. Those of us who are invited to speak regularly cannot just mumble through a 100-slide presentation anymore.
People want and deserve real content now. Time is valuable, and there’s a lot of good stuff out there.
Quality content is continually made available online, anytime. Presentations and lectures by contemporary thought-leaders are on reputable websites that update regularly, are instantly peer-reviewed in comment sections, and available for free.
I remember a time when the Internet was new. At first people believed everything they read online. The pendulum of popular culture then swung the other way, nobody believed anything anymore. A healthy skepticism exists now. The open forum nature of the Internet allows us to research, discuss and even discredit reports or information that we encounter. We have ready access to the research and opinions of others. At this point, we each have a menu of trustworthy sites for information that suits our needs to choose from. One of the sites on my menu is TED.com
There has always been pressure to be informative, eloquent and relevant when giving a public lecture. The stakes are even higher now. We can no longer talk about our work, our process and our journey unless while doing so we also reveal to the audience a deeper insight into the human condition. We must leave the viewer with a sense of motivated optimism that they may affect positive change in the world. I am speaking at SDSU tomorrow evening as the final guest speaker in the Artists and Designers in Real Time series.
Wish me luck.
Tell anyone you’d like to learn to speak and write in Japanese, and they’ll say “wow, that is so challenging”. You would agree of course, but if you truly want to learn something difficult, you expect to work hard and rise to the challenge. Not so with Art. The reaction of a friend would be different, perhaps they’d be happy for you, perhaps they’d be jealous, and some may tell say you are wasting your time.
Chances are, you would not approach the art class with steely resolve to rise to the challenge of hard work in the face of difficult subject matter. There is a commonly held perception that Art is easy.
I’ve been musing on this lately because it happens so frequently with students who are new to a particular technique in art. Contrary to many popularly held beliefs, art is not easy.
The techniques we utilize to make artwork need to be learned, practiced, and internalized until they can be used fluently. It is just like learning a challenging new language. We must train our eyes to see subtleties in an artwork just as we must train our ears to hear subtleties in a language. We must train our bodies and hands to perform new skills in art just as we must train our lips to make new sounds in language.
We must train our brains to notice different structures in foreign sentences as well as while analyzing a work of art.
And this takes practice. Just as you would expect yourself to practice saying Japanese words and phrases over and over before being successful, techniques in art need to be practiced over and over.
And here’s the biggest newsflash of them all. Just as you would not expect yourself to write a work of exquisite poetry in Japanese on the first day of Japanese class, you should not expect yourself to create a masterpiece on first day of art class. You should not expect it on the second day either.
This surprises people. Often frustration ensues; sometimes people give up as a result. This has nothing to do with the ability of the student artist, or the quality of the teacher or the materials. This has everything to do with commonly held misconceptions about art.
The misconception is not so much that art is easy, but that it should be. I’ve met students who think that if masterpieces don’t start flowing out of them right away, it is an indication they are “not artistic” or worse “not creative”. I have heard “I do not have an artistic bone in my body” many times. Art is not a bone. Creativity is not a bone, it is a muscle. If your work it, it will become stronger. And, yes, we all have that muscle.
Artmaking is, for many of us, a lifelong pursuit. I can be for the student as well, but it doesn’t have to be. I think that both short term and long term growth for any individual can be achieved through studying something new, really putting an effort forth, for any length of time. Come to class when you can, expect to be challenged, expect to be humbled, expect to grow.
My father was a math teacher. He would say to me “you are so lucky to be teaching art, on the first day of Math class my students are already looking at me with contempt in their eyes, they hate math so much already.” Many of Pa’s students were in math class because it was required. Hardly anyone takes Math as an elective.
Art, on the other hand, is often an elective. Students are excited on the first day of class. Even Drawing 101, a required class for many Art and Design majors, is not quite as reviled as Math. For the instructor, Drawing 101 can be challenging. As a requirement, students often feel resentful for being forced to take it, especially those students who have drawing skills. Especially the ones who are sure they are already really good at drawing. Even so, with students of different skill levels on the first day of Drawing 101 I ask “how many of you loved to draw as a child?” Every hand goes up, every single one. We all laugh. Then I assure them, despite the many tedious exercises I will force them to do, despite the many times we will try something new and challenging, we will rediscover that love.
When making a pot on the potter’s wheel, the first and most important step is “centering”. With the clay spinning on a disc (the wheel-head) atop a whirring motor (pottery wheel) we seek to create a certain stillness where the clay is evenly compacted in the middle of the spinning disc. This is achieved by allowing the gentle, even pressure of your hands to be a guide while the power of the pottery wheel’s motor does the work. Clay, when spinning wants to go down (gravity) and out (centrifugal force). Our hands tell the clay to go inward and up.
This action is the foundation of every pot ever made on the potter’s wheel. It looks easy. Indeed it is a simple idea, but nonetheless a skill that must be learned and practiced and it does not come easily for many people. Without a centered piece of clay, however, no successful pot can be made.
Pottery is one of those unusual disciplines where the most challenging skill is learned first. We start with the most difficult and important aspect. (it is not brain surgery, but if it were, we’d start with the brain surgery, and take the blood pressure later). It is important and challenging, but it looks easy. Therefore students approach it with intensity and determination. There is often frustration and resistance when centering does not come easily. It is only mud after all.
One of the most common mistakes students make is to take their hands away from the clay too quickly, to grab a necessary tool or get more water. This action of removing the hands quickly can push the clay off-center, undoing all the hard work of centering. I find myself repeating the phrase “Relax and Drift” over and over in effort to remind them that when we take our hands away, which we must do often, that we relax the hands where they are and let them drift or float off the clay. It is a reminder, but also a chant, a mantra, “Relax and Dirft”.
This phrase lessens the intensity and frustration of the experience. I repeat it so frequently that my students tease me, as they rightly surmise that its usage is philosophical as well as technical. It’s cool. Humor is an excellent tool to engage students in any discipline.
When I teach beginning pottery, which I am doing now, my use of the phrase “Relax and Drift” begins to seep into my daily life. When life throws me a challenge or and intense experience, I can try to “Relax” enough to assess the situation with my mind and heart, and “Drift” towards the best action, thereby not pushing life off center by moving too quickly. That’s what I’m doing now.