Who cares what you think

 

Art doesn’t mean anything. Or does it?

 

This is a message to all artists everywhere. Who cares what you think? It really doesn’t matter in the least what your work is about or what you think it’s about or if it’s about anything really.

 

Meaning. Sure, it matters to you. That’s important. It’s really important that your art contains meaning and that that meaning–no matter how personal or universal–contains messages you have hidden or left in plain sight.

 

Are these contradictory statements? Perhaps at the surface. But in reality they aren’t contradictory in the least. In reality these statements are true simultaneously, and the fact of meaning in any work of art is inherent in the art itself.

 

Let’s take a look at the sources that academics look to when they interpret a work of art:

 

  1. The life and times of the artist
  2. What the artist says about the work of art
  3. The life and times of the viewer

 

These three sources are commonly used to interpret art and to derive a work’s meaning. Often an artist (even a contemporary artist) is a dubious resource when it comes to the meaning of their work. Artists can be mysterious, withhold information, or in some cases paint, draw, or sculpt subjects from subconscious places in their psyche that escape their own ideas about meaning.

 

When an artist sets to work and creates an image that contains imagination and emotion, it serves to reason that the possibilities for unconscious meaning are increased. So in this way, an artist is somewhat of a conduit of messages. A sort of cosmic copilot. A shadow of illumination.

 

Their life experiences, the economic and political and social climate that an artist lives in are partly in control of the meaning of any work of art. There is no denying this. Look at a work of art from each century from the first to the 21st. Each generation, each religion, each government, each culture, each gender all play a role in defining the voice of the artist.

 

The life and experience of the viewer is an undeniable factor in the reading of a particular piece of art. For instance, it’s absurd to suggest that a literary critic from the 1950’s and an 18-year-old gamer might have the same experience of looking at a Jackson Pollock canvas. The art is there, on the museum wall, sitting there like a flower or a train wreck, free for any person to look at, see shapes and color and volume and mass.

 

What Pollock said about the physicality of paint was important to art. But what have the effects of time had on that particular revolutionary action for subsequent generations of viewers?

Pollockpainting

 

The meaning each viewer takes from the work is malleable, ever changing, and frankly has less to do with the intended meaning and much more to do with the willingness of the viewer to search for or meditate on meaning.

 

So who owns the meaning? The artist? The universe? The reader?

 

All three do. The artist gets to look at their work for the first time. Like a mother falling in love with a newborn child they get to say “you are here,” and they do get to gaze in wonder at the fruits of the creative act. After that, their act of creation is done. From that moment the meaning of the work itself is no longer theirs entirely. From that moment the work is on a linear trajectory in time and and space toward the next viewer. That viewer will see the work and is free to get the meaning they need from it. It’s a good thing that the viewer isn’t limited to the intended meaning.

 

In art critiques with my students, I encourage them to avoid saying, “this work is about…” and I ask them to say, “what this work means to me is…” or “I think this means…” or “I intended this to mean…” In this way, the student-artist is well served by considering the viewers’ possible perspectives. It’s an act of respect for the viewer. The viewer, after all,

is in charge of making the work mean something to them. And that is indeed an essential element of the dance we call meaning in art.

 

Images: “Convergence”  Jackson Pollock 1952

Jackson pollock painting in action

Stop Specializing

I struggled for years in the studio to figure out how and when to concentrate on drawing and painting. The solution I arrived at was deceptively simple. I stopped being a potter.

Now this doesn’t mean I’ll never make pots again. In fact I’m still taking orders from clients for bowls and dishes and sets of functional ware. But until the summer of 2016, I’m concentrating on drawing and painting.

And this brings me to my purpose for writing this article. What has happened in this weird western world that causes artists to fall in line with the idea of exclusionary specialization as a matter of protocol among artists and other creatives?

Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most influential artist of our time, was not limited in his creative output by the media through which he chose to express himself. Picasso’s sculpture, collage, poetry, tapestries, paintings, ceramics and other forms of art all expressed the same oeuvre.

The same could be said for a significant number of classically trained artists. Degas sculpted, Modigliani sculpted. Noguchi designed furniture, lamps and theatre sets.  At the turn of the last century it would have been considered surprising–even inappropriate–for an artist who sculpted to not be a capable renderer.

 What happened?

This isn’t an easy mouse to catch. My suspicion is that student artists are often trained by academic dilettantes (there are lots of these so called “artists” out there), and thereby influenced by the fact that they learn from painters who paint, printers who print, fiber artists who weave and drawing professors who draw. Let me just say that if one’s sculpture instructor is not capable of teaching a 2 level figure-drawing course with expertise, that instructor probably is not worth studying with…

 When I demand my students draw in my clay classes I often hear them say “but I can’t draw.” That’s a bit like a person walking into a restaurant and ordering soup only because of fear of using a fork and a knife.

Can’t draw???

Perhaps you haven’t drawn enough. Perhaps you only think you can’t draw well. Perhaps you haven’t been in the right class with the right professor or perhaps you’d rather be doing something else with your time. “Can’t draw” is both defeatist and belies a greater problem in the school system which has proffered far too much option and choice in the training of our young artists. This, coupled with the fact that the academic system too often rewards the demonstration of academic nonsense rather than the practical, demonstrable fact of artistic production and sales.

But back to drawing and painting…

I always figured that the essential tool for an artist was his or her ability to draw. I’ve spent lots of time drawing from life, drawing from imagination, and just plain old drawing.

In graduate school I had the opportunity to work with James Munce, who taught me about the relationship between drawing and sculpting. He taught me about composition. He especially taught me that an artist’s ability to describe space intellectually to the viewer can be more effective  than a photograph. My sensei in ceramics, Yoshiro Ikeda, worked in clay, but was a trained painter. Yoshi always encouraged me to draw and paint. I often think of my abstract forms in clay as three dimensional surfaces that I paint (rather than glaze).

So I’m determined to continue painting and drawing until summer, when I will crank up the functional pottery again. Until then I intend to produce as many drawings, paintings and mixed media pieces as possible.

 I’m confident that drawing and painting will benefit my ceramic art and expand my possibilities as I continue to explore a multitude of media.

  • Show All
  • Drawing and painting by BK McCallum

 

PLASTIC IS FANTASTIC

The search for all elusive plasticity in clay is often shrouded in mystery. In graduate school I tried everything. Soap, beer, piss (never do this by the way) time…everything. Generally speaking the best method was to work in some old chunks of clay into the recycle mix. add some softened bentonite (I’ll cover this later) and wait about three weeks. At least three weeks.

Bacteria it is thought leads to the possibility of increased wetting. and incredibly wet clay is incredibly dense and plastic. Density and plasticity improve just about every aspect of building and throwing. No matter if you are working with a stoneware,porcelain, or earthenware – the plastic clay body is the strongest and best to work with. There is no doubt.

I read an article recently that indicated  slight acidity aided in plasticity. Slightly acidic water aids in the wetting action of the clay which renders a maximum plasticity of any dry mixed clay body in about 72 hours. three days is shorter than three weeks. This is the kind of math that an artist can understand. In most part of the country the water is basic. So slightly acidifying the water before mixing  in your dry ingredients will yield a throwable clay body in just a few days. I’m in.

Lacking any PH strips I chose to experiment a bit. For a 10 gallons of water I added 2 tbsp of muriatic acid.  Note: this is available at your local hardware store. It is used to clean cement. It’s really dangerous stuff. It will blind you so wear goggles and be safe when handling it! The first clay we mixed was the original porcelain: with a few additions:

25 ball clay

25 silica

25 custer feldspar

25 epk

I like to simplify my recipes whenever possible. After weighing , I discovered that if I used a 3 gallon bucket as 1 part, It worked out to 1 part of each to 1/2 part of silica. This simplification worked great although the Custer feldspar is a bit dense – allowing for another part. so I chose to make that 5th part Pyrax, Grolleg, PV clay, in about equal amounts.

The pyrax aids in mullite formation.

Golleg aids in working characteristics and plasticity

PV (plastic vitrox) is added for plasticity

 

So, the clay is converted to:

2 parts ball clay

1 part silica

2 parts custer feldspar

2 parts epk (or georgia or tile 6)

1/3 part grolleg

1/3 part pyrax (or spodumene)

1/3 part PV clay.

 

The addition of Muriatic acid was definitely beneficial as an aid to plasticity. It worked great! Since that time I acidify the water every time we mix new batches of clay. No matter the mix – be it stoneware, earthenware or porcelain – by all means you should definitely work with a PH of about 6.5 is considered to be the most effective for the proper wetting (and therefore plasticity) of your clay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BARTER FOR EVERYTHING

Ever feel like money sucks? Especially when you have a lot of great taste and not a lot of money?

Personally, I like really fine stuff. My wife, Ramona and I love to collect art. For me, nothing beats a one of a kind hand made object (like a painting by a colleague) or a beautifully designed, functional item (like a Dyson vacuum).

 

And maybe you’re more of a tapestry and Swifter person. Regardless, everyone has taste and desires the items they want to have in their lives, from the aesthetic to the practical. It’s part of being a person.

 

My wife Ramona–whose own art is poetry–and I have been articulating the changing world and the shrinking  economy that some of us are fortunate enough to work in. Ramona and I deliberately use the word “fortunate” because we believe in a world where everyone has an abundance of something to offer. It may not be a bunch of extra cash, but everyone has some inner treasure to share with the people in his or her community. Regardless of our age, gender or socio-economic status, we all have what it takes to provide for the needs within our community and in the process, find our own needs and heart-felt desires taken care of.

 

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I’m standing for ordinary people everywhere–like your family and mine–to share what we have and get what we want. I know it’s a reality because I see it happening right now in my own life. I’m happy to share with you that I’ve got a fortune exchange of my own going on this week! I’m trading a ceramic soap dish and a toothbrush holder for food.

 

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Yes folks–pottery for food. I am a potter and a sculptor and I there’s a fabulous cook in my community by the name of Maria. Maria and I are each fortunate in the ways we make life beautiful. Well, Maria wanted some functional pottery made by an artist rather than filling her home with plastic junk. And I’d walk miles past fast-food for one of her meals. Thankfully, all I have to do is my art. All I need to exercise is the talent I’m fortunate to have in order to get what makes me happy. And in the process, I make someone else happy. This week I’ll be busy dreaming of tamales and soup while Maria dreams of a soap dish and toothbrush holder.  I’ll post a few pics as our dreams come true.

In today’s connected world, we all have at our fingertips an economy available for each of us to have an abundant fortune as we share with each other the stuff that makes us who we are. Dollars don’t make us who we are. Why keep wasting life worrying about how bad money sucks?  Facebook groups and Google circles and even Craigslist are a ready tool for neighbors to band together to enrich one another’s lives through sharing. It’s bigger than the barter system. It goes farther than paying it forward. We can do this…

 

In this society,”everyone pays” is a good thing. After all, everyone has a fortune.

 

Post your inspiring fortune exchanges in the comments section. I want to share in the joy that your fortune brings you and the world around you.

 

Brian McCallum