Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Innovation, Expression, and Letting Go

Innovation, Expression, and Letting Go: Three curious ideas that you might not expect to see together in a title. However, as I continue along the path of making ceramic sculpture they seem to fit together surprisingly well.


First, the connection to science. Certainly the scientific method has something to do with innovation. We observe, we analyze, we hypothesize, and we experiment. Figuring out what our experiments tell us (or don't tell us) about the natural world leads to the development of new understandings. Something we can call innovation.

All of these activities (observation, analysis, hypothesis-testing, experimentation) go into my sculpture work too. But how much of the time can we say that innovation is a product of frustrating "failures?" Maybe a lot. It may seem to non-scientists as though science were an ordered process, dictated by strict rules. I think a lot of scientific innovation is the product of accidents of some sort. At least that's been my experience. So let's agree for the time being that "scientific method" in science and in art, perhaps with a healthy dose of accidental discovery, leads to something like "innovation."

But how much can we say that scientific innovation leads to greater expression? In my experience with sculpture, I would say one hundred percent that innovation has led to expression, and I'll explain more of that later. In science too, the scientist "expresses" ideas about the natural world. It all seems connected to to the unconscious somehow, which would say a lot for scientists (and artists) letting go.


Letting go? In a lab full of glassware? In a studio full of chemicals? Doesn't seem to make sense. Or does it? If we "let go" and allow our accidents to lead to innovation, and if we let our innovations lead to enhanced expression, isn't there some value in permitting the subconscious to lead us where we're going?

These ideas might sound antithetical to people who take their science or their art "seriously." What about all those frustrating years of training? Mustering discipline? Deferring personal goals for the sake of a career? Could it be that we need to think about alternative ways to train ourselves? To let some inner voice guide us as we develop professionally?

Mounted Detail

All of these are difficult questions that we can take up again another time. But I promised I would talk about how innovation in my clay work has led to further expression....In my post yesterday I wrote about how I was enamored of these new forms that just came out of the kiln. I thought about it some more and I think I have an explanation, or at least the beginnings of one...

When I form clay I try to let my hands do the work of my heart, and to a lesser extent, the work of my brain. It's not that I'm not "mindful" of what I'm doing. If anything, I'm very mindful of precisely, "letting go," letting my hands, arms, and the rest of my body "do whatever they want" to the clay with no specific goal in mind.


In most of my applications for residencies and fellowships I've written, "all of my work is abstract and non-functional." I've reconsidered this in light of some of the ideas I'm discussing here. My work does have a function. Its function is to express something that is deep inside me, something I've been sketching since I was a kid, something cartoon-like, silly, emotive, and uniquely gestural. As I pull the new work out of the kiln I see in front of me the sketches I've always done, sketches that are in themselves an expression of my art sense.

Question Closeup

The interesting thing to me is that if I brought one of these sketches into the studio and tried to form a piece that looked like them, I would never be able to accomplish what I set out to do. At one level, I doubt I'd be able to make the shape I was after. At a deeper level, I couldn't make the piece express what it does when I simply let go and do the work.

Taking Orders

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Exquisite Moment

I read somewhere that the crucial moment in painting comes when the artist knows it's time to stop. It's a sort of exquisite moment of completion where the artist and the work intersect and go their separate ways. It is a moment of drama because it engages so much of the artist's intellect, emotion, and intuition. How to tell when something is "done?"


I think with clay sculpture this moment is all the more dramatic. Control over the wet clay is much less than with paint. Part of the judgement of "done-ness" has to do with acknowledging that the clay will shrink, shapes may flatten, etc. In many of my sculptures, which are large, parts are propped up by heavily balled newspaper, so I can only visualize what's there. Questions of composition and balance need to be abstracted because the finished piece is still a way into the distance.


I love this challenge, this exquisite moment, because it is tactile as well as intellectual, emotional, and intuitive. It's the moment where the clay stops being "mine" and moves into its own self.

Symbol Closeup

Yesterday I pulled about 20 small and large pieces out of the kiln. I placed them on a table in the clay lab under the skylight in no particular order. Call me a fool but I was enamored of them, and happy with the way each one had turned out. Those without much shape and detail had just enough shape and detail. The large piece that broke produced two large pieces that were brimming with life. In fact the whole assemblage seemed to be full of life, something that surprises me each time I see the work.


I think it goes further than the fact that this is "my" work. The clay shapes that are coming out are somehow tied to the material nature of the clay and take on a life of their own, aside from my pride in making them.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What is the Meaning of Life?

Sounds like a BIG question. I'll try to make it smaller by saying upfront: I'm not talking about human life. At least I don't think I am.

As part of my project "The First Billion Years," I'm thinking about the great unfolding of life over the eons. But I'm also thinking in snippets, snapshots if you will, of moments that recall realizations about life. Sort of redolent unearthings, glimpses of the unfolding, scents on a breeze, the sound of laughing water, the quiet, perhaps poorly communictated understanding that all living beings are connected by a common ancestry.

This little series represents the smallest of the pieces I've made so far for "Billion Years." When I first made them I had no idea what they would turn out as.

Wallowa Trio

Sleeping on it an idea, almost unstoppable, came to mind. It was a moment during an extended field trip I took for my Harvard work in 1991. I was exploring a little-visited corner of southeast Oregon, the grasslands and mountains of Wallowa County. About as far from "Portlandia" as you can imagine.

I wasn't having much luck finding Cladonia lichens, the subject of my doctoral research, because they don't like grasslands and they prefer mountainous areas that see plenty of rain and less snow. But there I was in the morning mist next to a little creek, a hillock of sandy soil, some mosses on a rock and the most charming little group of Cladonia pyxidata, polished with dew, growing on the moss.

Wallowa Closeup

I didn't have a camera with me then, only collecting bags. But the memory of that moment is somehow so powerfully clear it has stayed with me over two decades. It's as though those lichens were set up just for me, in a kind of museum diorama explaining evolutionary ecology and its place in the puzzle of billions of years of life on Earth.

Wallowa Family Assemblage

Friday, February 17, 2012

The First Billion Years

Life started on our planet about 4.5 billion years ago. I just started a project called "The First Billion Years." Each clay figure in this project represents one million years of life on Earth. So, I'll have to make 1000 figures. Incidentally, scientists conjecture that life began in a clay matrix, so I think this project fits right in.

 Study Shape for "The First Billion Years"

How to observe the species one encounters? As a snapshot? A series? A set of forms? Part of a hierarchy? A surface? A shape? A whole or part of a whole? These questions still challenge scientists and artists. In this project I grapple with the questions of classification, evolution, and analysis that have puzzled scientists since Aristotle.

Study  Shape for "The First Billion Years"

The first several thousand years of taxonomy (and of art) were predominantly form-based. The discovery of DNA and genomics expanded our taxonomic practice and challenged the philosophical basis of classification, but the seeds of challenge were planted by Charles Darwin, who understood the random nature of evolution.

Study Piece for "The First Billion Years"

Study Curve for "The First Billion Years"

Study Shape for "The First Billion Years"

Darwin himself recognized the antiquity of our planet, which he estimated as one million years old. Earth and Life are much older. We estimate that life has existed on Earth for nearly five billion years. Understanding the development of life forms over this incredibly long period presents a perhaps unfathomable gulf to the human mind. My project aims to address this challenge.

Study for "The First Billion Years."

 Study for "The First Billion Years."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ageless and Brand New

This flowing water at Waterton National Park in the Canadian Rockies reminds me of my clay. The splashing water is as new as the day. Moving past our eyes, careening down the mountainside, temporary, ephemeral, flowing.

The rocks in the background are sedimentary rocks perhaps a billion years or older. They are the remains of layers that accumulated at the bottom of an ancient shallow sea, crushed and shoved to the surface 40 million years ago when the Rockies were formed. They hold some of the most ancient fossils on Earth, like the remains of some of the earliest bacterial organisms that inhabited our planet.

Clay is a mix of liquid and solid, the product of crush and flow, ancient, epochal, yet fresh as the shape it takes when your hands form it. It's a product of geological processes, a mirror to the history of Earth, yet it takes the shape that one of the planet's most recent creatures imposes upon it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

An Existential Question?

I was speaking with a colleague in the Sculpture Department.

"How's the ceramics going?" she asked. I had in my hand some clay I had just prepared, a kind of small figurine, part of an assemblage I thought up over the weekend. We're looking at pretty heavy duty firings over the next few weeks so I'm making these smallish, regularly-shaped pieces to accommodate spaces in the kiln when and where they occur.

Anyway the piece I was holding reminded me of a figurine I saw last summer at the wonderful anthropology museum in Bordeaux.

Paleolithic Effigy

The Bordeaux sculpture is very old, maybe 30,000 years or older. What about my piece? It's a take on that ancient sculpture. Would you call my piece an abstracted version? Maybe. Or maybe it's an attempt to represent in some realistic way what that figure is. What about the original? Was it an abstract of the artist's idea of what a human figure should look like? Maybe. Or maybe the artist was trying to represent, in the realest way they could, a "real" human figure.

This gets me to the crux of the question, I think. It came up because Kitty was teasing me about criticizing representative work (busts). Well not so much teasing me as trying to explain to me "This is how we teach the students to learn to abstract."

Old Figure

So what's abstract and what's representational? How do we learn to "abstract?" Aren't we abstracting when we make the first crayon drawing of our house and family?

The existential part of the question is, I guess, that humans by our very nature are abstractionists. We take what we perceive, what we "see," and we build it into some representation that must be an abstract. Because we can never make the "real" thing. Take a photograph, as close to "real" as we can get. But it's abstracted through layers and layers of culture, technology, technique, and vision. Certainly the viewer experiences it as an "abstract" because the viewer's interpretation is part of the realization (or abstraction) of the image.

Muneco and Rebar

What Do You Do?

Not being a professional artist I don't have to sell my work. As a matter of fact I enjoy giving it away. The one problem is I'm running out of friends with room for the sculptures and our garden is getting pretty full.

Last September I made this sculpture and it sat in the kitchen for several months.

Painting it Pink

It Regards Itself

Recently I put it out on a stand in the garden, where it showed up nice The other night we invited Molly's parents over for a bowl of soup. They've only been here once last spring and I didn't think they had noticed the garden at all. Both of them came into the house exclaiming, "Oh, did you just put that sculpture in the garden?" I was surprised and I have to admit a bit happy that they saw it (or any of the sculptures). So when they left that night I gifted them with it.

What do you do when friends say they like your stuff?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Back in Business

Ben and Molly took me down to Braintree yesterday to pick up new clay. We fit 700 pounds of clay into the car and it felt great. I had the palette all set on the loading dock when we got back. Rolled 'er up to the fifth floor and got started. One large sculpture and a draft of the small sculpture I promised to make for Molly. Used a new clay so we'll see how it responds to my process. If things don't work out won't be the first time I have to change to accommodate the clay. But that's part of the adventure.

Meanwhile Batu showed me the awesome finish he put on a maquette that he's sending overseas for a competition. He used graphite and wax, heat, lots of rubbing. The result was incredible and something I'd been thinking about a couple of years ago. I bought graphite back then and tried to put it on one of my sculptures but it just turned out jet black. I want surface that's a bit shiny, like if you rub a pencil on a piece of paper. Two problems I think. First, I can't hope to get a graphite shine on rough surfaces of my sculptures (and there are many of those!), and second, looks like you have to rub it in, which I hadn't tried.

I bet there's some science to getting a shine out of the graphite. Something about aligning the carbon atoms to make the microscopic surface more uniform. I think there's a bit of alchemy there too.

Anyway, great to be back at the drawing board and thanks Ben and Molly for making the ride to and from Braintree as entertaining as it was productive!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Creative process

Doesn't it always seem this way in the creative process? One day you're down in the dumps and the next day you figure out whatever was bugging you, get to it, and get back on track.

I wasn't quite happy with the way my sculpture "Heart's Portal to Nature" had worked out. My friend and colleague Kitty Wales mentioned that it needed a little shining up and I agreed. Lazy, I used the first thing I found in my locker, an old can of polyurethane. I like polyurethane but this batch was so old it came out thicker than molasses. I ended up with a drippy, gloppy, thick, irregular layer that didn't do anything to complement the sculpture....itself reminiscent of something thick and irregular.

I also didn't like that the only color that seemed to come through was the light blue. I had actually done more work than just a single layer but it didn't show.

I stopped by the hardware store and picked up a very hard stainless steel brush. I rubbed hard all over the sculpture. I feared the worst...would the brush break the clay?

New Look at Heart's Portal

The results were better than I'd hoped. The steel brush made tiny fissures in the polyurethane. As the brush started to disintegrate it left a fine dust of black metal in the fissures. Cutting through the light blue paint, some of my other colors started to come through. I ended up with a buff finish that really enhanced the colors and more important, highlighted the shape of the clay.

Heart's Portal Finish

I stopped worrying about displaying the piece as I intended a sort of open portal. Instead, I looked at it from whatever angle seemed to "work." I ended with this wonderfully live, twisted, moving piece, much more of what I intended in the first place and a springboard to more work in the coming months.

Twist and Shout

How does this connect to science? I remember when I first started working on problems of lichen morphology. I used the microscope intensively. Drew, sketched, labelled, conjectured. But somehow I missed what was right in front of me. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's the human condition. One morning I woke up and realized that the locus of morphogenetic activity was right at the tips of the lichen, exactly the place I'd been drawing for months.

Creativity or sweat? You tell me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hope Against Hope

...or, hope from despair. First email this morning was a rejection from Shigaraki. Not a huge surprise but you know how it feels.

I forced myself to go into claylab this morning and pulled out a couple of sculptures I've been working on, both of which I have been unsettled about, "Heart's Portal to Nature" and "Finding Flow," both of which I've written about here.

Heart's Portal took a turn for the worse as I daubed it with viscous polyurethane. The results were predictable. But I went in earlier this week with a very hard stainless steel brush I'd bought recently. And just brushed away at the surface, creating tiny fissures and in some places pulling away the finish. The result is a smooth, buff finish that I have some pictures of, but I don't want to post surface "moments" just now. They are the least of my problem and I don't want to get hung up on closeups when it's form I'm mostly concerned about.

My colleague and friend Danielle Sauve commented the other day that my work is scatalogical but ironically, that I tint it in such unusual light colors. I can see what she's only natural to look at squeezed clay as....something else. But her comment bothered me, not for what she said, but because I've been hoping to put more life into the clay, something that seems to have eluded me.

Until today. I reworked "Finding Flow" by gently applying very thin, very light-colored pastels of blue, yellow, and pink. Then I waxed it and let it dry for a couple of days. Today I went in with my stainless steel brush and worked it over well, trying to highlight the linear aspects and bring it into some sort of unity.

I stopped worrying about how it stood on or with the stand, and placed it the way it seemed most natural. Voila, something worth showing.




It felt like something shifted big time. Maybe this is also because I've been worried about Lucy, who's had a lot of discomfort since her surgery. Today is the first day she's reported in pain-free and energetic.

All's well that end's well, and Shigaraki can hold on for another lifetime.

Monday, February 6, 2012


I'm supposed to be doing my annual report but I wanted to share my newest work with you instead. This is a very thick hand-squeezed piece that weighs about 35-40 pounds. It's coming to be called "Wrestling."


I think it does show some kind of struggle of maybe two people, maybe one. From an autobiographical perspective it doesn't matter because I'm a gemini.


Initially I shaped this in pretty much the position it's in. I stood it up then, painted it with oil paints, and "slept" on it over winter break. It's still a work in progress. I applied a layer of wax today and we'll see where we go once that gets a bit drier.


I like the way the linear shapes engage one another, and the way they seem to disguise themselves as chunks. It's a good example I think of the way life seems to get breathed into the clay. What do you all think?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Animal Sculpture: Ants as Artists

I visited my brother Jonathan at his home in rural Aragon last June. He was a wonderful host, the best cook, and awesome company. I had the run of the house but also all the time I wanted to wander around the countryside. I was amazed by the many artistic and sculptural activities the ants were up to. Here are a few of them.

Twin Ant Hills

Complex Ant Hill

Umbonate Ant Hill

Pustulate Ant Hills

Ant Hill Hay

How can we incorporate the kind of design intelligence into our work that the ants instinctually put into theirs?

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Garden as Sculpture

Dead of winter...thoughts of gardening! Our postage-stamp sized garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts seems to have filled up with ceramic sculpture. Or is it just the missing foliage that allows us to see the sculptures that were hidden during the summer? To be honest, it's a little bit of both.

Ceramic Towers

My Fence Installation

I've always thought of my gardening efforts as a biological phenomenon. But now anticipating the spring I think of gardening in another way. As we plant, prune, weed, water, and fertilize, is it possible that we're really doing is sculpting a little corner of nature?

Garden Green

I guess it doesn't need to be formal. You don't even have to exert that much control. Could you even control it if you wanted to? But this spring as we start seeing the garden doing its thing, I'll be thinking about how maybe this too is a kind of artistic expression.

Verdant Cambridge Garden

Magenta and White in the September Garden

Open Mouth Ceramic in the Garden

Thursday, February 2, 2012


A lifelong painter, I'd like to think I have something of an eye for composition. Taking thousands of pictures for my flickr site has given me a chance to learn more about how to compose an image but I think the best examples of composition are found in nature.


Compared with painting, composition is a bit harder to accomplish in 3-D, which is my special challenge with ceramic sculpture, but I think it can be done.

Ceramic Chain

Science aside, from an aesthetic standpoint nature can be said to specialize in composition. One example is the way flowers are arranged to attract pollinators. Over a period of a couple of hundred million years angiosperms (flowering plants) have co-evolved along with their pollinators to get the interaction between species down to


Fly and aster