Month: January 2014

Pottery as a fixed point in time

blue-black-white-bowls1I have been getting my nerd on tonight, simultaneously stoking two different levels of fascination – the history nerd and the pottery nerd – by watching “The Story of Clay – Ceramics – A Fragile History” on You Tube.  One line in particular has stuck in my mind – talking about the permanence of pottery.  I got swept up in the 17th century pottery (the place/time period I studied at Georgetown was London from 1660 to 1688) but now that I’ve had some time to let the nerdgasm fade, I’ve really been thinking about the earlier line about how the permanence of ceramics separated it from other art forms.

This has played out in my own life.  At countless events, I have heard myself saying, “The thing about pottery is that it has closure.  Every time I perform a poem, it becomes something different.  A painting could get altered right up to the moment that someone takes it off the wall of the studio.  But, for better or for worse, once it’s through the second firing, pottery is done.  It will hold food, or be uselessly cracked, but it’s done.”

This has always been one of the things that drew me to both sculpting and pottery. Being able to bring something to world that is at once three dimensional, useful and lovely still makes me giddy with delight.

However, I did train as an historian.  The reason this particular documentary excited me so much was because it does something that my own brain does: places me inside a continuum of potters and artists going back to that first person who worked with clay and hopefully forward for many years into the future.  For more about that, check out tomorrow’s blog.


Dancing dreams…

original dancerTonight, I would love to go dancing.  I would put on my boots of power, thick tights (because it’s below zero outside), a nice skirt, a black blouse a friend gave me with a silky black shirt over top that has gold and cream designs around the neck and buttons.  All of which would be covered by a jacket and scarf until I get to where ever it is I would go.

My hair would be exactly as it is now – pulled back to the nape of my neck, but still waving and curling enough to be interesting.  Also, that way it would be more invulnerable to the pressure of a hat.  Now that I feel more comfortable in make up, I wouldn’t mind showing off my face-painting skills.

I long to laugh with abandon, to be drenched in music so loud my hearing is impaired for at least a couple of hours after leaving, to kick up my heels as best I can given the awkwardness, the lack of balance and the general graceless of my legs.  dance 2 cardMost of all, I want to feel such freedom and peace, that I won’t care about those impediments I just listed.  Tonight, I think I just might be able to manage burning bright without needing to crawl back into shyness as a reaction to over-exposure.

However, it is below zero outside, with a wind chill that feels like -20.  I am busted for the next few days.  And, most important of all, I’ve been having more problems walking and negotiating space today than I have in awhile. This afternoon, I had to move pottery out of a gallery that had closed for the winter and the effort left me in trembling pain – although, thank God, I didn’t drop any of the boxes taking them to the car or then taking them into the studio.

Nevertheless, it all adds up; I am being sensible even though it doesn’t feel as satisfying as my dreams of dancing.  I am staying here at home, playing music so loud that I expect the neighbors to complain.  The animals keep glaring at me, determined not to join in the dancing.  Every once in awhile I twirl and grab onto some piece of furniture before I go down.  Mostly, I am letting the restless desire pass through me while singing out my gratitude for its presence.  There have been many days when I did not have the heart to desire company, or dancing, or to be able to dream of risking that once outside in the world I would shine rather than fall.

Painting! Huzzah!

poetrytriptych1Yesterday, after dinner had been digested, I had washed off my make-up and changed into pajama bottoms, I put a whining dog in his jacket and on his leash and together we crept back out here to the studio.  While the dog slept, I painted.  The idea of a haiku being fused into a painting – using three panels to create one coherent whole of word and image – has been exciting my imagination.  I finished the painting I blogged about earlier (see left), then I started working on another even more shamelessly word-based poetry triptych.

In the meantime – and for no reason that I could fully define – I felt incredible waves of bravery that inspired me to finish the sea smoke on another painting and to pick up the image of a dancer dancer alt 320x480and start working on her again.  Before I knew it, yesterday had turned into today and I needed to wrap up the grumpy dog to make the trip back to the house in the wee hours of the morning.

Today, I started my “day off” by writing for a few hours this morning – poems that had been trapped within my skull too long, rattling around and demanding their freedom. Since it was freezing cold, I welcomed the extra time tucked in bed, warm under covers, just the tablet, the pen and my eyes exposed to the world. After lunch had been digested, I found myself dragging the bundled dog back to the studio again.  He snores from under a pile of blankets while I blog this blog and stare at the dancer painting still resting on the easel.

Of course, I have to throw. Bowls thrown yesterday need to be trimmed. 2014ashafenn0130I have 40 plates that need to be fired, and nothing to go with them for the thermocouple shelves (which, to use the space best, need to be reasonably tall pieces) and a gallery crying for large bowls.  This is a no-brainer.  Moreover, I have commissions to finish.

But, even with all that looming, I know that throwing a couple of bags of clay will take no more than two hours.

When I am done with the pottery-work, or before I get started with it, I think I will let myself get back to the glories of painting.


more poems

Here are some more recorded poems:


open like a flower:

the same in substance:

Sloppy poems:

Sometimes the longing:

tweeting in haiku

My tweets fall into three categories.  First, there are the announcements of these very blog posts (very circular, I know!).  Second, I promote individual pieces I have for sale on ebay or other venues.  For example, I put up a tweet about a sculpture of a dancer that is up for auction on ebay.

But, most of my 1,029 tweets have been haiku or senryu.  If you want to read a wonderful piece about haiku, here is a kindle single by Jane Hirshfield that is worth much more than the $0.99 charged.

This has become a rather formidable part of my writing practice.  There is an amazing clarity that has to come over me when seeking such precision and conciseness.  As much as I can, I try to stay to the 5-7-5 syllables, but without it cheapening the poem itself.  Each day I write a few haiku, trying to improve my writing with every new effort.  Often, they are how I end and open the day – waking up my brain or slowing it to sleep.  Then, they get tweeted when I remember I have them in my journal waiting to go.

Here are a few from my twitter feed.

from 8 minutes ago:

palms up to the sky
frozen moonlight in my hands
bright, sublime beauty.

from 16 hours ago:

wonderful comfort
inside winter’s frozen night
words falling like snow

from January 18th:

waves of stubbornness
heat the ever colder day –
seek strength and courage.

also on the 18th:

Someone licked the moon
Tasting a small bright sliver
Drinking in its light

from November 13th:

lonely cold morning
looking for hope in sunlight
that provides no warmth

November 11:

Waiting for the rain
Muted light and gentle dreams
Soothe my troubled heart

From all the way back on June 2nd:

Joy flows out of me
My spirit dances within
My bliss is reborn

There are literally hundreds more, just go to my twitter feed if you want to gorge on haiku.

101 blog posts

water2bI just realized, this is my 101st blog entry since I deleted everything and had to start the blog process over again. 101 entries ago, I wrote while still in shock over the years of entries lost.

Now as I type these letters, I find myself laughing.  I wonder what I have written in these 101 blogs.  Never more am I a creature of the moment than with the written word.  Once I start a new project, the old almost disappears from my mind.  Although, I have tried to treat you well with my work.

These past six months have been a real whirlwind for me, hopefully the journey through these blogs entertained you.

Now for the next hundred!  As long as I don’t delete it all again.

For the 101st blog to have some flourish, I will leave you with some poems of gratitude.

the best year ever:

two poems about gratitude:

thank God:

art of the broken

studio_005_02232011This is a first: a blog by request.  My friend Shawna Barnes has begun writing a book about art and health issues – a few hours ago she asked me for my thoughts on the subject above and beyond what I wrote in a survey she sent out.

Part of the reason she asked me this was because she knows my history.  I was in graduate school, type A, writing poetry and fiction on the down low before I got very sick. While I had painted a lot before I fell ill, I had never allowed myself to think of poetry, fiction or art as a possible career. Everyone told me that trying would make me a fool – how many have had the message that no one makes a living at art drummed into their head.  However, getting sick changed all that.  There is tremendous freedom in having nothing to lose.  I reacted to my situation by throwing myself into the arts.  I wrote thousands of poems, several novels, over a dozen short stories and started painting and drawing and sculpting.  I dealt with a lot of  depression and PTSD through art.  While many of the pieces I wrote and painted reflected my sorrow over my situation, creativity became the greatest healing force in my life.

At the time, I was married and didn’t have to worry about making a living through this compulsive creating.  Which wound up being a wonderful thing.  At the time, my health would not have allowed for any regular or reliable efforts.  Deadlines would have been impossible.  Therefore, I had years to educate myself and practice and create.  Indeed, I was coding my website earlier today – adding dozens of paintings, some for sale, some from the days when I was just starting down this road.  It proved to me how much I have evolved and improved as an artist.

I cannot bring myself to regret getting sick because it brought me to this place – where I am doing what I love.  Indeed, I am even learning to get better at running the business that keeps my art going.  However, I doubt there will ever be a time when I can ignore my health in the equations of being an artist and a business-woman. There are still days I cannot work.  Deadlines continue to be a struggle.  Without doubt, it has an effect on the environment I set up inside the studio.  A lot of the changes I expect to make within the next year are because of my health mandating adaptations in how I order the space in which I work and live.

The problem with defining such things, as we discussed when Shawna asked me to write something up, will be that everyone’s needs are radically different, disability or not.  Each artist – every human being – has their own method of work, their own particular habits and preferences.  When disability or sickness is added to the mix, that just intensifies the need to think about what each individual needs.  The joy I experience in what I’m doing means I can work through a massive amount of pain – last year I threw 150 bowls while I had a broken vertebrae and a busted disc – but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

Because I am the one that uses the studio most, my first concerns were to make it a comfortable and energizing place for me.  That sounds selfish, but really the bread and butter of my business is my own art – not the teaching that I do.studio_008_02232011

For me, the most important thing is movement.  Stillness gets painful after awhile – so if I can throw (seated), then sculpt (standing), then write (seated in a different position), and then maybe sculpt a bit more it helps.  Either way, the entire work flow is designed to serve my need for movement.

This has actually been a very good thing for my teaching.  One of my students has a fused spine, so she uses the surfaces that work well when standing. I have gathered about every possible height of stool and chair, along with a whole lot of bricks and cement blocks, all so people can move up or lower themselves at the wheel or at a table.

When I write, or code websites (for 10 hours today!), or use the computer for social media and marketing, during my “off hours” (I laugh every time I write that) at home, I have the option to use this desk as a standing desk or as a seated desk.  I wrote a blog entry about that, too.

Part of the reason I shift my environment so frequently is because I am in pain, I find a position is stressing my body, so I keep trying to get the best possible positioning for myself. As the my muscles, nerves and bones improve or deteriorate, the configuration of surfaces and seats must shift as well. I encourage my students and members of the studio to move chairs and blocks and bricks around to help them best.  The next step is to make sure that afterward everyone moves them back.

studio4Another aspect of organization was to have a space that encouraged me to create.  Both upstairs and down, I have music.  Wide tables allow for any sized project to be tackled.  I can have the lights low if my head is pounding and yet there are spotlights for close detail work.  Reading glasses have been scattered throughout the entire studio.  Most of all, I try to listen to both my body and my students – if something isn’t working then I shift the furniture and tools around until we find a better configuration.

Other adaptations are easy.  Turn off the ringer for the phone if a student has PTSD or Autism and would be jarred by the noise.  Play music that they find inspiring or energizing or comforting – most of my students have their own Pandora playlists.  If someone has poor impulse control, make sure that things which might injure them are safely stored away.  When teaching a small hoard of children, make sure there are other adults around to help herd them properly.

Yet, the most important thing I have to do is encourage my students and be kind.  All teachers will know this, but the challenge is to find a way to give advice that is true and helpful but doesn’t diminish the student’s artistic vision – or their vision of themselves as artists.

That was one of the hardest messages to digest.  Even though I had been telling people in grade school that I wanted to be a writer and I had filled nearly every notebook from the first day of kindergarten through the last day of graduate school with doodles, drawings and poems, I felt like I was somehow less legitimate as an artist because I had planned my education around another path. At art events, I found myself apologizing for studying history and language.

The insecurity ran deep.  Simply because I spent nearly every waking hour creating in some medium or another did not mean that I was good or that this was something I ought to be doing. For a long time, I thought of what I did as the art of the broken rather than simply art.  Then I surrendered to the compulsion and the bliss of it – and like magic questions of my legitimacy no longer kept me up at night.  I realized I had as much right to make a living with my art as anyone else.  It sank into me that I am truly blessed to have had this passion to embrace when other dreams fell apart.

Alas, the message that I should not be doing this continues to dog me.  Just this past weekend it was suggested that I throw out all painting, drawing, sculpting and pottery because I lack skill at them. At least this time, the speaker said my writing was worth all my attention.  So there has been improvement!  Regardless, it took years to be able to shake such judgements off – to realize that for everyone who dismisses my creations there will be another who likes them – and I don’t want to give someone else that burden.  We have enough to deal with just being artists.

And that, Shawna, basically sums up my thoughts on the art and disability.

art or death

I lost my zen during a phone conversation.  Now I don’t mean that I ranted and cursed, but I let someone else’s prophecies into my heart for a moment. They insinuated their way into me like smoke does the lungs. The sensation felt both familiar and disheartening – because I had been doing so much better disarming this fiercenessparticular button.  A year ago, maybe even six months, those statements would have made me wildly insecure and led me to tears – but today, I reacted with defiance. Art or death, because quitting is not an option. Nor is being immobilized by negativity or fear.

Still not the reactions I want to arise from such stimuli, but they were better than falling into despair.

The button that was pushed – which wound up being hit for the second time in three days –  is hopelessness.  The overwhelming verbal waves that everything I – and in both cases the people talking to me – hope for and dream of is impossible. Their art could never support them. Financial situations will never improve.  Our chance for making art and writing has expired.  There is no adaptation to improve this situation.  Conversations even went into the realms of how foolish I am to continue with whatever medium the speaker finds problematical and how vulnerable and irrelevant we all are.

And, on a certain level, those things are real and possible. Economies and people suffer.  Art is in a state of chaos, change and redefinition.  Hence the button being there.  Committing to this life is often a difficult choice.

However, when I am alone, with nothing but my words or art, those voices no longer torment me.  They used to arise spontaneously and hold me captive for hours. They held me up by my arms and toyed with me like a cat does a mouse, all glee and sadism. Thank God, if they appear at all now, they float away without leaving the marks of their claws.

The change was not spontaneous, but rather deliberate retraining using all the tools that meditation, therapy, hope and faith have given me.  Also, this has been an act of surrender: I know I cannot control whether people buy my art, or my house, or support me as a human being.  These glories cannot be forced.  However, I also do not know that I will fail.  I have to surrender to my absolute and unavoidable ignorance of the future.  As my past has faded away to an echo of what it once was, the future too has become something completely unreal.  This realization has, finally, worked its way into my being, all the way down into my bones.

However, it must not be in the marrow yet, because I still fell off my zen.  One of my biggest challenges continues to be standing up against someone else’s insistence that their imaginings, their perception, their dread, and their judgment are the absolute truth.  People can project a staggering amount of emotion onto others, particularly when they are scared, discouraged or feeling doomed.

My impulse is to walk away from such prophets; to protect myself from the power of their woeful certainty.  But, after I let the waves of defensiveness pass this afternoon another thought arouse within me: I wonder if they are relying on me to change their mind?

Not enough time nor wisdom

Just a quick note, because I have a kiln that needs to get unloaded, a sculpture that wants to be finished (before I drop her again, she’s already had to have her hands reattached today) and a huge amount of pottery that I have to throw.

My being has been thrashing about a bit.  The last weeks of December and the first week of January were overwhelmed by bad weather, the ice storm and then wretchedly cold weather.  After that passed, I enjoyed a week of awesome throwing, before I became consumed with end of year/beginning of year small business chores.  Now, I am finally at a place where my creative work can start up full speed again.

Only, I am exhausted!  Even though my heart is singing and I feel wildly optimistic today, I cannot deny that my body is dragging along grumpily.  Twice my eye makeup has been ruined by the tearing of fatigue; my coordination is off because I am barely able to manipulate my limbs.  And, making me wonder if this is partly psychosomatic, I have a story that I want to work on in the worst way.  One of the characters had been troubling me – he had shown up without any warning and I had no idea who he was or what he was doing there – only now I think that I might have a glimmer of what’s going on with him and why he effects the world around him as he does.  The only way to know for sure is to spend several hours of my life writing.  To me, that would be the most decadent joy.

Alas, it is also exactly what I should not be doing today.  I do not have enough time right now – if I do not throw today, my firings will be delayed.  Procrastination now will have a bit of snowball effect over the next few weeks.  Other obligations are a higher priority.

However, I think I might lack the wisdom to deny myself the story.