Clay workshop at KACA in lovely Lindsborg KS

I really enjoyed spending time with fellow Kansas Artists in quaint Lindsborg, KS on the 4th of November. I was able to share some of my techniques and philosophies with students, professors, and several independent Kansas artists.

Kansas Artist Craftsmen Association is one of the oldest associations of its type in America. I have served in numerous capacities over the years, including president from 2007-10. It’s hard to believe ten years have past! Time flies friends.  This year was a lot of fun. The KACA conference happens every year early in November in different parts of Kansas. There are keynote speakers, featured artists, technical workshops, and fun parties. It’s so important for artists to get together and learn from one another.  Let’s hope KACA keeps going for generations to come.

Here is a link to the KACA website. I think you should join!

KACA Website

The 2017 conference had workshops in metals, printmaking, plein air painting, and even art business. Two of my favorite people, Tara Dean and Mikey Knutson were a part of this years conference, While I wasn’t able to attend either of their sessions, I hear they did a fantastic job. I was hosting my own workshop here in Garden City with Joseph Rincones and Emily Chamberlain. I’ll post about that one soon.

Thanks again to the board and organizers for the lovely opportunities, and thanks especially to Dale and Kami for all the help making figures. Keep an eye out for the location of next years conference. The juried show, “Materials Mastery” happens concurrently. All of you should enter the show. Best of thanks to the organizers, the board, the artists, and all of my fellow organizers who helped make the 2017 KACA conference a success. Check out some of the images that Tara Dean took of my demo below.

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  • KACA Lindsborg 2017

Muslim American/American Muslim: The Photography of Robert Gerhardt

Muslim American/ American Muslim. Mercer Art Gallery. GCCC 08/15-09/27 2017.


We are used to images from war-torn parts of the world like Syria and Afghanistan–often hyper-dramatic, bloody, and unnerving images. In some ways, with a provocative title like “Muslim American/American Muslim” I believe we expect a kind of protest, or an expose of resistance to hate.

What we have here is a much more subtle and sublime series of images. As a group they read more like family photos, or perhaps images of a week in the life of a typical American neighborhood–people going about their lives in a peaceful and devout manner.


If anything, the images in this exhibit help remind us that kids sleeping at church or playing ball or men and women contemplating wise words are a kind of universal thing in America most days. Peaceful days.

When Garden City, Kansas was the object of a planned terrorist attack in October of 2016, our community was rocked by the possibility that folks we see every day, at groceries stores and Wal-Mart and at banks and parks were being targeted for…what? Working? Praying? Paying Taxes?


Most people in Southwest KS were shocked. We held a peace rally. We stood together with our neighbors and reminded them that, yes, you are welcome here. You are helping our economy stay strong and our shops stay open. You are helping enrich our community with the diversity you offer.

I was thrilled that Bob Gerhardt contacted me with the possibility of hosting “Muslim American /American Muslim.” The Administration at Garden City Community College was open and supportive about the possibility of hosting this series of photographs. Bob Gerhardt will visit our Campus on Thursday, September 21st at 7:30 pm. to speak about his work in the Pauline Joyce Fine Arts Auditorium. I hope you are able to take the time to visit us and learn more about Bob Gerhardt, his inspiration and his work.


Here is a link to Roberts Photography website

This is a link to an HPPR interview of Rob and his work by Jenny Inzerillo

Working the figure at KSU

Recently, Michael Kent Knutson and I had the opportunity share our art and techniques with the students at Kansas State University Ceramics Department. Professor Amy Santoferraro was gracious and lovely enough to share her Ceramics 1 and Materials and Surface classes with us.

img_3272 img_3621-1


This blog post will serve as a basic tutorial for those classes and be an aid to adding an interesting surface to these pieces.


surface one: painting with fluxed Terra sigillata and colorants:


Ok here are my suggestions. First, let’s make Terra sigillata. It’s easy to do. Terra sig provides a juicy surface that works great as a low fire matte.

Caramic arts daily article on terra Sigillata


The recipe I have used for years is simple:  

In a glass or clear plastic jar:

800 gm clay (red art, ball clay, gold art)

8 gm of darvan.

1 gal of water.

I have always dispersed the darvan in a cup of water before adding this to the clay.

agitate this mixture. let sit overnight. siphon off the center and discard the top (water) and bottom (clay).

I use a 1/2 in. vinyl tube that can be purchased by the foot at your local hardare store in the plumbing department.


I like to create 2-3 batches of Sig and then let it dry in a wide container. I use a plastic kids sled for this. They  (round ones that look like a trash can lid) are officially called flying saucer sleds. let your sig dry overnight and then dump it into another container. This one should have a lid.



I brush this onto the figures before I bisque them. I find that the sig added to bone dry clay helps future layers adhere.


Bisque slowly to 04-06


Adding additional layers of Sig with Stains and oxides:


Fluxing your sig.


I have experimented with various fluxes to prevent flaking and I have found Soda Ash, Lithiium, and Colemanite to be suitable – there may be more. Test these fluxes to see what works for you. I use a basic volume measurement of 1 t of lithium to about 1/2 cup of Sig.


Soda Ash is best dissolved in hot water and then added to a small amount of Sig. Soda is soluble. It will crystallize. Do not make more than you will use.


Colorants: Mason stains, oxides.


Note: mason stains sometimes require the addition of specific chemicals for them to work. Reds need calcium (whiting), some stains will not work in the presence of Tin etc. Charts are available from your supplier that will provide you this information.  


I like to use black copper (brush on, wipe off). It brings out the texture of the clay.  Iron and cobalt are nice. Cobalt is hazardous but can yield beautiful results. Never use Manganese or Chromium. Too much of those minerals inside of your body is a bad plan. Practice safe procedures and always wear a mask.


now add layers of terra sigillata plus mason stains at various ratios. I can’t emphasize enough the fact that we are building up layer after layer of stain/underglaze here. It’s essential that sigillata be milky, and built up in two or three successive applications. You might want to try this technique on a test piece that is textured first just to see if you have got the hang of it.


You can’t do enough glaze tests.


After three or four layers of stained sigg, toss the piece in the kiln. Fire 06-012. The lower the fire the brighter the color.


Keep adding fluxed sigg/stain to the work until it looks beautiful. After a few applications you’ll get the hang of how the work will look after gazing as opposed to before.


Your lovely finished figure can be waxed or clear coated. I’ve used paste wax, varnish, and acrylic.


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?



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.

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  • Drawing and painting by BK McCallum