Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Biology of Sculpture?

Yesterday I ended with a thought that ceramics can be interpreted in an evolutionary perspective. What if we go further with that thought and consider sculpture as a biological phenomenon? This is not to subsume art under science. But the idea is to think about sculpture in a new perspective.

Early in the Neolithic people began making ceramic pottery. I think you can argue that this was an extension of their intellect. From a worldwide perspective we see so many types of pottery emerging from the Neolithic, probably starting in China. But pottery emerged independently in the Americas. Looking at pottery from Mesoamerica reveals so many styles and methods, we can see that human culture played a role in its development. Pottery was almost certainly tied to the beginnings of agriculture, not just because people needed to store their grain, oil, and wine. Early pots show a striking resemblance to cultivated crops like squashes, and in many cases they depict other plants as well. Here are a few examples from the anthropology museum in Merida, Yucatan.

Squash fruit pottery

Mayan tree of life

Mayan maize representation

Sculpture is apparently older than pottery however, and we can trace its beginnings to the Paleolithic, which occupies most of human history. Here’s an example from the anthropology museum in Bordeaux:

Paleolithic Effigy

Still older are human tools, and my thought is that sculpture may have grown from re-shaping tools or at least re-considering them from a nonfunctional standpoint. Here’s an example of a large tool, also from the Paleolithic. In my mind it doesn’t take much to see how the effigy sculpture above evolved from the tool:

Paleolithic Detail

I teach about early human tool making and its possible descendent, sculpture, in my introductory biology class. How do these topics fit into the subject of evolutionary biology?

Simply, the formed object is an extension of the human brain, heart, eyes, and hands. As a biological entity, the things we make are related to us, not through physical kinship, but through our agency as makers. As I work to bridge science and art I wonder whether this theme will continue to inform my thoughts.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Darwinian Ceramics

The cold dark days of enforced indolence. Wish I was working with the clay but the studio is closed. Been spending time in the house doing some odd jobs and painting (my own stuff).

Clay as Canvas

Paint on Clay

Clay as Canvas Detail

Thinking about the creative process and what it means. Could discuss this in volumes. But the interesting thing to me, especially when it comes to ceramic sculpture, is how much the endeavor is an extension of both body and mind. This is new to me, beyond visible, beyond tactile, more of a core expression. At once it is part of yourself and very much outside of yourself.

Interesting also that shape and dimension and all the high-falutin’ things I think about are constrained by the physical and chemical characteristics of the clay. The sculpture can fail on the way to the kiln, burst once inside, break on the way home, (until now almost everything I’ve built here in Boston comes home in a bag on my bicycle!). If it doesn’t survive you have to re-design for next time or give up on the idea. From a Darwinian perspective this is very much a discussion of selective pressures.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Finding Construction: Agreement Between Clay and Artist

To construct is to take space and material and impose form. To construct with clay is to find a moment of agreement with the clay substance. It agrees more or less to stay and you agree to stop forming it. "More or less" because it will shrink, deform, crack, and change in submicroscopic, molecular ways you can't see. The surface is part of the construction and the shape underneath is its base. So the surface represents the shape like electrons bouncing off a gold surface in a vacuum in electron microscopy.

lichen colony
Is the surface something real? Is your construct really yours?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sculpture, Space, and Science

Sculpture. Is it making space? Defining space? Filling Space? Maybe it’s finding space. The space in this photo was “hidden” until the sculpture “found” it.
Made it to the Kiln
There is so much space even in the crowded human-built environment. As much space, it seems, as on an empty beach or mountainside. The space is there, it doesn’t need to be “made.”
Dark and Light Forms on Rock
You could say that sculpture is a way of defining space but that seems silly to me. There is already definition all around. In this photo, you can make out “defined” space in the background and foreground of the sculpture. But defining seems more real than “making,” maybe because it’s part of the way toward “finding.”
Riding a Contraption on the Prairie
I think as an artist I find space. The clay object I shape is a found space and the space it inhabits is found, because in a sense it didn’t exist in that form until the thing filled it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Looks like next semester is taken care of. I’ll have lots to do in the largest format I can make and I hope to have good conversations with my colleagues and of course with the clay.

Meanwhile, applying for residencies, though most aren’t due until January. Just sent in my materials to the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Japan, a place I’ve been interested in for a long time.

Probably another one of my snowball’s chances in hell but hey, might as well try!

Meanwhile, happy with my bundles of shards wrapped in chicken wire and started hanging them onto a tree in the yard. Pictures soon.

Oh and I’ve been doing some painting the past few days. If art is my occupation this year why not play with paint too? Here’s a painting I made a few years ago. One of the few I took a picture of.


and a collage from last year…

Kodachrome Collage

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rules of Engagement

Does clay impose rules? The materials we call “clay body” are so diverse and behave so differently, it makes me wonder. There is stretching and shrinking and drying and cracking. But is the lexicon of clay limited to these and other characteristics?

I had just started my new squeeze routine when I went to Medalta. I spent the months of May and June conceptualizing what I would do with the new “technique” and I was full blast when I got to Medicine Hat. I started with a low-fire, low grog clay and made dozens of irregular shapes molded on plastic bags filled with packing peanuts.

Hand in the Clay

The clay “behaved” perfectly and I later used the pieces in large modular sculptures that fit well into the landscape.

Prairie Tower

I switched later to a higher-fire clay that I could use in the salt and soda kilns at Medalta. It was more heavily grogged and I could squeeze it thicker. I got some interesting results:

Prairie Figure

Mean Mask

When I got back to the studio at BU I tried making similar shapes but the low-fire, low-grog clay we use there fell apart with alarming consistency before it got to the kiln.

As luck would have it we were low on student clay at the beginning of the semester and I found another medium-grog, high fire clay.

Something about the clay inspired me to try something new. Instead of the peaceful shapes I had been making at Medalta I started wrestling with the clay in fast, barely controlled movements, propping it against tightly crumpled newspaper, and letting it dry almost as I found it as it came out of the box. The results are some of my most recent work:

Olmec Baby's Dog Closeup

Phospholipid (Life and Limb)

Rules of engagement? Contemplate the form, engage the clay, find accommodation and uncomfortable satisfaction. Be ready and willing to change.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Passion and Frustration

A few years ago when I started doing ceramics I was surprised by the passion that grabbed me to work with clay. I was talking with a friend the other day who goes to the studio once a week. “It’s hardly enough,” he mentioned. And I thought to myself, “once a day is barely enough for me!” So I continue to experience feet off the ground excitement to have a sabbatical year to use in which to explore clay. My month at Medalta last year was an exercise in productivity and learning that set the stage for what I’m launching into.

Sculpture has grabbed me in a way I never expected. All the years I went to museums I never gave it a second look—usually not even a first, and now that has changed. Looking is one thing, but then there’s the wonder of creating art.

The urge to create comes with frustrations too. Our place in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a small antique house with no room for a kiln. Perhaps my best bet would be to continue working in the studio at Boston University where I teach, a short seven minute bike ride away. But the studio is an undergraduate space and the current instructor, not a ceramicist, has not “let me in” the way Sachi did when we worked together. Kiln space tends to be used inefficiently and I’m needlessly apologetic about firing my sculptures. If it’s BU next year it will have to be in sync with Batu, who I know will teach me a lot and share a lot of give and take.

Some of the private studios nearby have excellent reputations. I’ll look into them. The Harvard Ceramics Program may be my best bet:

but there are restrictions about size and firing that I will run into.

Residencies are an option and I have applied to several. Yesterday I spoke with the Vermont Studio Center. I was accepted there for an eight week residency in winter, 2013. But after our discussion I’m not sure the single smallish kiln there will accommodate what I want to do, as my sculptures are growing larger and larger. The place is beautiful and I’d love being there, especially in the middle of winter when I can walk to studio and not have to deal with the destructive salt we pour onto our streets here (have a look at these photos):

I’m looking at other residencies as well some in New England, some farther afield. It’s all exciting, all a matter of balancing home, family, and ambition. Coming in as a senior scientist and an “emerging” artist is quite a challenge!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Joy of Clay

Exploring shape and movement with a piece I almost threw out. I squeezed the clay as thick as my hands could manage for this sculpture. It's made out of two pieces, one that was marginally successful and the other, a broken piece of a larger sculpture that came off when I was moving it, still green. But they seem to work together nicely.

I tried the surface technique Batu taught me yesterday and the piece comes close to doing what I want it to do. Still would like to experiment with a more amber-looking surface. I'll let you know when I get there.

Last month I was in New York and saw some amazing Chinese scholar rocks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was surprised at how similar they looked to gingko trees I had seen earlier in the day on the street---bright yellow in their final glory before winter.


I haven't uploaded pictures of the scholar rocks yet but here are links to my new "Dormancy" sculpture. I would love to hear your thoughts about it.




Tuesday, December 13, 2011

To Glaze or Not to Glaze?

The surface of ceramics has always been the biggest draw to me. I started working in ceramics to play with glaze surfaces. I ran into something of a brick wall when, reaching my glaze goals (randomness, peacefulness, an “untouched” look) I realized I was focusing on a square centimeter or so of a piece and losing the bigger picture. My BU colleague Batu Siharulidze saved me from despair with the simple sentence, “the details always show the hand of God,” meaning that the challenge is in making the bigger piece and holding it all together.

So, to glaze or not to glaze? I’ve had a few good moments:

Glaze zones

Paleolithic Tool Closeup

Gorgeous Glaze Moment

but were these any better than what I could accomplish by non-glaze methods?

Pebble and Oxides on Terracotta

Radioactive Flower

Clay Knob

Where the Hand Squeezed

So I started asking the question: If it’s not a vessel why does it have to be glazed?

The past few months I’ve been playing with different surfaces, latex paint, oil paint, and oxides, with varying success. Then yesterday I wandered into Batu’s studio. I had just helped him fire some big pieces and he was demonstrating to students how to put a non-glaze finish on a sculpture. It was gorgeous.

He took asphaltum (thick as molasses…in fact I bet you could use molasses!) and mixed it with terps. Brushed it on in a couple of thin layers, then applied butcher’s wax, touched it with a torch, painting all the while, and finally buffed it to a semi-shine. Wow! I think I still have a lot to learn.

Monday, December 12, 2011

What Do Science and Art Share?

I’ve been exploring this question for a long time. Actually it is a set of questions because it concerns goals, practices, behaviors, methodologies, etc. But here are a few ideas.

Both science and art are systematic. Both ask questions and are exploratory in nature, and demand rigor.

Both science and art build. The scientist or artist builds a body of work, a set of inquiries, and a practice.

Both science and art are referential. Practitioners in both disciplines use the past to bring the present into being.

Both science and art are experimental. There is always a give-and-take, always a risk for failure and the hope of success

In my opinion both disciplines also are prone to a severe failing. They both can become canalized, as a set of individuals come to conceptualize only within a given range of ideas. Both disciplines tend to be prescriptive in this way and can discourage creative thinking outside the box.

Just a few short thoughts jotted down in the morning.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Abstracting Nature

After a long career of explaining nature (20 + years of teaching non-science majors) and depicting nature (some examples of the many science animations I’ve put on youtube below),

I found myself drawn to abstracting nature. Not that this was anything like a conscious decision. But after many many years of observing nature and making abstract art I realized that my sculpture recalled the nuances of form and even process that I had tried before to communicate.

Perhaps it’s the nature of sculpture, the physical involvement with the clay, eyes, and hands, that transforms what we’re perceiving into something that we’re forming. In some sense then it seems that this “becoming” is an expression both personal and creative. This is new to me, though people who have been doing ceramic sculpture may have experienced and articulated this before.

Here are some of the “abstracted” forms I’m talking about:

Soredia and Isidia

Surface Moment

I’d love to hear what you think about these ideas, which I think I haven’t articulated that thoroughly!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interpreting Movement

The clay body is fluid. Clay particles are suspended in water. When we take the clay in our hands we encounter an environment of uncertainty. We engage in that uncertainty to interpret it.

Me and the Clay Baby

So we see movement in nature all around us. The surface of water epitomizes the seemingly random motion of natural substances. But there are patterns to discern.

How to accommodate the randomness and the patterns in nature, in the movement of water, in the clay body we encounter?


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Ake Inspiration

We were traveling in the Yucatan the way we do, no car, second class buses and combis, flexible plans. We landed in Izamal, a very small town that sits atop an enormous ancient Mayan city, and decided to stay. While we were there Janet said why not go to see Ake? So we got in a cab (the only way to go) and paid the exorbitant fare of about 30 dollars to go the 15 miles or so to Ake.

Once we got to town we were saw how utterly isolated we were. Not a town really but a street or two of houses. But the Ake site was amazing. Most amazing were the pillars of Ake, situated high above an acropolis and outstanding in their individuality and as a group.

Each pillar was a marvel of sculptural sense, balanced, nuanced, alive. I came home excited and tried to make sculptures that referenced these mammoth pillars. Here are some of my efforts:

Ceramic Tower

Ake Installation

Red Clay Pillar

Tower Spirit Lines

It wasn’t until the last one that I finally got the feel of lightness that I wanted, and that sculpture set me on a whole new trajectory. I learned more from the Ake experience and surprisingly, I did it through sculpture. More on that later, but it also got me to thinking….how can we use sculpture as a way of problem-solving? Can making sculpted objects help us learn? What is it about sculpture making that combines so many things about heart, body, and mind?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Folly or Form?

I painted with oils for many years before I started with ceramic sculpture. I was used to ideas of balance, composition, color, etc. but I was also oriented more to surface than to shape. I first started ceramics hoping to play with glazes and never even gave sculpture a thought.

My first year or two were spent trying to get a surface that didn’t look manmade. I had some successes and some not-so. Most of my work was very thin tiles that I didn’t have to stress about drying or blowing up in the kiln. I was impatient with the idea of having to cover something to let it dry slowly (I still am) and anyway I liked the idea of cracks and irregularities. I was never trying to make pots or vessels. Here are some of my results:

My glaze experiment

Mission Accomplished

Paleolithic Surface Detail

They worked as individual pieces but in general they were very small and not telling any kind of a story. More like test tiles. I was trying to get to the idea of modularity and build larger pieces but the struggle was mixed. Here’s an example that my son Ben took for a wall in his new house:

Merry Tiles All in a Row

Not bad, decorative, but not as dimensional as I wanted to go. Some of the pieces I was doing were more dimensional but my colleague Sachi Akiyama was encouraging me to go further with the idea of form. It’s something that I couldn’t seem to break through!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Failure into Success

Just ran into Central Square to get a roll of chicken wire. “What?!” You may wonder…

Long story short, the ideas don’t stop. And lately I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with shards of clay that either don’t make it to the kiln or come from the kiln fired but not attached to the sculpture they were supposed to be part of.

Thing is, the pieces are beautiful as they are. Because I’m shaping everything with my hands, they are graceful, long, gestural, and infinitely detailed…down to the fingerprints! I’m not obsessive about my stuff. I’m happy to throw things out when there’s nothing else to do with them. This summer I threw out almost everything I made at the Medalta Artists-in-Residence,

about 100 pieces in all made from about 800 pounds of clay

Here are links to a few of the things I threw out. What else could I have done? SHIP THEM BACK TO BOSTON??



My Sponge Sculpture


To tell you the truth, I did give some away or alternatively, parked them in some of the most beautiful natural places I could find in western Canada. But still, all I have are the memories.

Now that I’m starting to get more shards together from my work at Boston University I want to do more than just throw them in the trash.

I also like the unknown magic of found objects or objects that don’t fit. You might say I like to make failure into success.

So, I’ve been thinking, why not wrap up the shards in pieces of chicken wire and make an installation from them. Heavy enough to have some umph. Light in shape and feel. As I make progress I’ll show you some pictures. Meanwhile, wish me luck. I need it!

Scientist Plunges into Art

Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? If you look at my flickr site,

you can see it’s been more than a year since I’ve been practicing, struggling, and now and then succeeding with clay.

I’m starting this account because yesterday I got written approval of my sabbatical for academic year 2012-2013 and I want to keep track of my activities, my work, my schemes, and and my feelings around art—something I’ve wanted to pursue full time for a long long time.

This sabbatical was literally a dream deferred. It’s a big deal to me that I got sabbatical because three years ago when I applied I was turned down. It’s ironic because at the time I had a Fullbright in hand to go teach science in Thailand, but my dean wouldn’t let me go. It was the second sabbatical for me, and the results of the first sabbatical, during which I had grants from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic, were impressive. Over a dozen scientific articles written and published, many new species discovered and named, and a solid body of work behind and in front of me. You may be able to access some of my work through this link:

If you were able to access my article in the American Journal of Botany you can see I was preoccupied with the development of form in nature, something that still makes me very excited. So perhaps it’s no wonder that form-making through ceramic sculpture is what I’m doing for my sabbatical.

So in these pages I’ll be sharing my ideas about form, form-making, sculpture, nature, and whatever else gets me going. There’s lots more to write but I’ll leave off for this morning and start up later for more.