Aug 12

Into the Woods

Part three of three — Into The Vermont Woods.  ©Leili Towfigh, 2012. All rights reserved.

Maidenhair fern.


More lacy ferns.



Magic hour.



Tinder Polypore fungus – whilst on the tree. Amazing!


Tinder polypore whilst off the tree. Look at all the tiny pores.


Tinder polypore broken in half. Each needle-like thing is a “pore”, in stria.


More of the tinder polypore, called “amadou” in Europe, and used as … tinder.


Bearded hipster bark.


Rushing river.


Suffused with light.




Erosion from Hurricane Irene. There was a huge oak at the bottom of the ravine.


I liken lichen.


Glinting, late-afternoon light in the woods.


Heather in the magic hour …. Tall grass in the field.

Aug 12


Part two of three — Thanks to inspiration from Samimi-Extremie. Photos of Vermont scenes – second section, Inside.  ©Leili Towfigh, 2012. All rights reserved.




The light at the end of the hall


Lots of guests


Flash of light


106 degrees




Stripy velvet


The Trusty General


Painting, as they are wont to do


Kitchen TV


Stained glass window made by hand, © Patricia Towfigh


Bluebell wood ©Patricia Towfigh


Art everywhere


Childhood sheets


Aug 11

Are you stuck?

The other day, I needed to ship an order overseas. I went to my storage shelves to retrieve the ceramic piece in question – a little verdigris green bowl with sliptrailed decoration – and was dismayed to discover that I had inadvertently stacked it inside another bowl. It was stuck. I mean, completely wedged in there, with almost no wiggle room. I tried to wrench it out: nothing. I tried gently tapping it upside down: nada. I whacked it with a wooden spoon: it mocked me in its complete refusal to budge. Here is how the fused pair looked:


The green one was due to be shipped. Apparently, though, it wasn’t quite ready to leave its friend and move to Australia.



I initially tried to solve this problem by researching on the internet what other people in this situation had done. But do you know what? Other people have not been in this situation. Yes, a lot of potters’ jar lids get fused to the pot in the glaze firing, and there are oodles of techniques for addressing that situation. But I learned that no one else in the entire ceramic community is stupid enough to wedge a pot – one that has already been sold – inside another pot on a hot and humid day.


In addition to feeling isolated, having just been shown that I am considerably dimmer than all other potters in the world, I was also worried. Would I have to break the outer piece to get to the inner one? Was that even possible, without breaking the inner one as well?


Before it got to that dire a point, I decided to try various methods to coax it out. The first was hot water. I spoke to Darrell Finnegan, ceramic artist and pot whisperer, and we agreed I should try some hot water to get the outer piece to expand. I put some boiling water in the sink and placed the bowl, right side up, in it. Hot water did not seem to help. It did, however, burn my fingers.



Tried expanding the outer piece in boiling water.


Next on the agenda was freezing. Perhaps if I dried the piece thoroughly and put it in the freezer for a while, the inner one would contract. I put it in and waited for a couple of hours. Nothing. Didn’t move. I was getting frustrated.


Not sufficient



My next brilliant idea was to slowly expand the outer pot with a very hot hairdryer on the outside, which was extremely effective at burning my hands, and not at all effective at getting the pot to move.


Subsequent idea was talcum powder. I know that sounds weird, but if the heat and humidity of the past days were contributing to the stuckness, perhaps drying talc would get in the crevices and free the bowl.


Baby powder: not just for babies any more.



The poudre pour bébés did not do anything except get everything on and around me white and powdery. I did, however, smell very fresh, so that was a plus.


After more consultation with Mum and Dr Finnegan, and still unwilling to take a mallet and break the pot(s), we decided I should try WD-40. Now, the concern about trying anything oily was that the verdigris glaze of the stubborn piece has a fatty-waxy matte finish that is notorious for staining when it comes into contact with acidic substances, and some oils. It was risky to douse it in oil and get it free, only to have it look all stained and mottled. But at this point I was getting desperate, so I took it outside and drenched it (and myself) in WD-40. Incidentally, I now smelled less fresh, more like an auto mechanic. And tapping the oil-covered piece upside down on the dirt and grass added to the picture. The piece was getting dirty, I was getting oily, grassy mud all over me, and everything was nicely moisturized, for sure – but it was still stuck.


In my house, this stuff, along with lacquer thinner, plays a role similar to that of Windex for the father in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.




I am now whacking a grass-stained pot in the mud, and starting to lose patience. I am saying “ARGGH” and “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING” loudly in the back garden, giving our neighbor yet more evidence for his already airtight theory that “That Family Is Very Odd.” Not even the Cure-All of the Tool Cupboard, The King of All Solutions, WD-40, seems to be helping.


Dad comes home at this point, and gets into the spirit of the The Situation, suggesting that I take the offending item down to the basement and blast it with the air compressor. The theory is that this will jam it upwards, or at least force some of the WD-40 into the crevices. Normally, I tend to think my Dad’s “big guns” approach is too much for delicate little ceramics problems, but this time, I’m all for it. I feel a little angry with the pot at this stage.



I turn on the compressor, which is very loud, grab a drop cloth, and start blasting the thin gap between the walls of the pots with air. Nothing. Nada. Nada nada y pues nada. I fire it up again, blast it while it’s upside down this time, and it just looks back at me, glistening with WD-40, covered with mud and grass and talcum residue, STUCK.


I am now at the end of my interventive options. I can’t think of anything else besides what I’ve already tried – hot, cold, wet, dry, air, force. At one point earlier in this very long day, I had tried a palette knife, and also had wedged wooden toothpicks in the gap, getting them wet. I hoped they would expand. They just broke.


I stormed upstairs from the basement, and went to put on my shoes. I would have to go over to Darrell’s – in downtown Boston, rush hour traffic – and get him to free the pot. Free the pot! Free the pot! (Uh, that actually doesn’t come across as intended).


Anyway, I am angrily putting on my shoes and muttering “Sassafrassa sassafrassa grumble why me” and things of that nature when I spy this amongst the shoes:


Shoe horn. *celestial music is heard*




My dad’s shoe horn. I seize it and use it to try to wiggle the inner pot. The pot makes a squeaking sound, and tilts. I then use the shoe horn as leverage, and the thing pops out.


Just like that.


No breakage, no stains, no scratches, no damage on either pot. They’re just a bit dirty.


This experience made me think of Bruce Lee.


Yes! That Bruce Lee. One of my idols.


Once, maybe in the 1960s, Bruce Lee was teaching martial arts to someone – maybe Elke Sommer’s husband? He was teaching him how to do a side-kick to the head. He kept saying, “Kick!” and the guy would throw up his leg towards Bruce Lee’s head and Bruce Lee would say, “No! Again!” So he’d throw up his leg with all his might and concentration again and Bruce Lee would say, “Wrong! Again!” 10 times, 20 times, 30 times, 50 times, and now Elke Sommer’s husband is getting mad. And tired. And frustrated. He thinks he’s doing it right, and the more he does it, the more Bruce Lee shouts at him that it’s wrong. Finally, anger welling up inside him, Elke Sommer’s husband says to himself, “Forget this! WhatEVER!” and gives up. He stops concentrating and thinking and just throws one last furious, angry kick to Bruce Lee’s head.


“That one,” said Bruce Lee with a smile, “Was perfect.”


So: Are you stuck? What methods are you using to try to get unstuck? Have you ever been so exasperated that you say, “Forget it” and then – unexpectedly, after you’ve stopped trying – something gives?


As a person who is grappling with several arenas of stuckness, ceramic and personal, I am interested to hear your thoughts on this.


After being unstuck. They look soooo innocent, don’t they?



Jul 10

Listening to Waves – Part 2


The heart-rending photo I posted yesterday of an Alabaman wave polluted by the Gulf oil spill prompted me to share some work by artists who evidently love nature, and whose work, I find, deepens my own love for nature and beauty.


Sakiyama Takayuchi is a Japanese ceramic artist who makes clay look like water and stone at the same time. Joan Mirviss says of his work, “Some vessels appear as if made from sand on the beach, the surface simply decorated by the current of the receding water. Others appear to undulate and twist in space as if in perpetual motion.”



“Listening to Waves”, 2004, S. Takayuki. Sand-glazed stoneware.



This undulating, double-walled piece, entitled, Listening to Waves


“…gives material expression to the sensation of sound and the movement of water…. Waves swirl across the exterior, sweeping over the rim into the interior to create a fully integrated, organic form. Moss-colored glaze fills the ebblike grooves, leaving traces of sand on the surface of the vessel. This effect recalls the raked sand-waves of Zen kare sansui gardens, such as the sixteenth-century Ryoanji in Kyoto, which convey the expanse of the oceans, and ultimately the entire universe.” (From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Met’s site)


I  love the idea that a humble lump of clay – skillfully-formed – can convey someone’s inner sense of the “expanse of the universe”.


S. Takayuchi, 2008. Vessel with diagonally-incised cascading folds. Glazed stoneware.



Next up, Jim Denevan is an American “earth artist” who, like Takayuchi, evokes the grandeur of nature. He makes temporary drawings on sand, earth and ice that are eventually erased by waves and weather.


 I’m so partial to this image I don’t know what to do with myself.


He claims to have made the world’s largest free-hand drawing. Is it bigger than the Uffington White Horse drawing etched in chalk in the English countryside? Possibly. I don’t really care. His drawings are sublime, and I love the fact that they are ephemeral. They fade away according to nature’s whim and schedule, covered by the tide, blown away by the wind.


Stunning, meditative, freehand labor of love. Look at the scale!


Finally, there’s Colleen Plumb, an American photographer whose eccentric and surprising series of photographs, Animals Are Outside Today, examines the intersections between humans and animals.


Horseback Mountain



This image is so arresting, it gives me the shivers. I can *hear* it. Plumb explains that she likes to study “how animals are woven through the fabric of culture. I began this project looking at fake nature, considering how substitutions for nature might satisfy people. Looking deeper I began photographing real animals, investigating how they provide intangible links to a deeper world of instinct and rawness.”


Elephant. Colleen Plumb, “Animals are Outside Today”.



Now, I am not claiming that these three artists have some sort of pure, unambivalent “love for nature”. Love for nature can look like many things – sometimes the over-the-top awe and joy we feel for the natural world can be mixed with revulsion, fear or callousness.


We domesticate wild animals and keep them indoors. We adore the beauty of creatures, but one way of engaging with that beauty has been to conquer them and decorate our interiors with their hides and horns. We yearn to walk in an ancient forest, but we won’t directly miss it if it’s gone, thousands of miles away, and if it yields beautiful furniture and houses for us. Plumb says,


Contradictions define our relationships with animals. We love and admire them; we are entertained and fascinated by them; we take our children to watch and learn about them. Animals are embedded within core human history–evident in our stories, rituals and symbols. At the same time, we eat, wear and cage them with seeming indifference, consuming them in countless ways.


Our connection to animals today is often developed through assimilation and appropriation; we absorb them into our lives, yet we no longer know of their origin. Most people are cut off from the steps involved in their processing or acquisition, shielded from witnessing their death or decay. I am interested in moving within these contradictions, always wondering if the notion of sacred will survive alongside our evolution.


Plumb reflects on our relationships with animals, and underscores in her photographs the many contradictions and ambivalences that characterise those relationships. My starting point, the photograph of the oily wave, seems similar somehow. Although the image is not a traditional “nature” shot depicting a pristine ocean, I don’t doubt that the photographer loves nature and wants, through his work, to draw attention to its destruction. Denevan’s work is fleeting; it dies and fades away, underscoring the fragility of nature and a fascination with its manipulation. Even Takayuchi sets forth ideas with a sort of irony: he thinks about the expanse of the universe – in the form of a pot, made of mud.





What artwork have you seen that inspires your love for nature, contradictions and all? And don’t worry – there will certainly be ample discussion of Andy Goldsworthy in Part 3, coming soon.

Jun 09

Fun Fiascoes

How different is your inside from your outside? Your interior thoughts from your exterior presentation?

Some people I know have very few filters; the distance traveled between their thoughts and actions seems … short. Others are enigmatic and full of surprises. Sometimes the unfiltered people and the inscrutable people change guises. Sometimes it is apparent that I simply have not learned enough to decode it all, either way.

Recently I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon in my artwork: the things I’m thinking about most in my interactions with people seem to show up in some form – symbolically and unbidden – in the artistic and technical problems I encounter in my work. Turns out that efforts to achieve harmony with people are on some level, anyway, not so different than efforts to achieve harmony of form in art. I regularly feel that I get the opportunity to examine spiritual concepts through the evocative processes of ceramics and picture-making.

The piece in question, when it was greenware (before the bisque firing).

A recent ceramic piece that I liked, and spent an inordinate amount of time making, failed. It was the most frustrating kind of failure because it appeared only in the final firing. At the same time, it proved to be a very useful failure.

I had applied a surface texture to it, and glazed it with a verdigris on the outside, and a clean white on the inside. The glazes, however, were apparently stressed out because they had such different formulations. They didn’t get along.

Obstinate verdigris and white glazes

One had a high frit content and didn’t budge (so I’m told) when it became vitrified; the outer glaze reacted quite differently, and expanded and contracted with the extreme heat of the firing. These very different chemical reactions, along with the shape of the piece, caused it to crack from stress. It’s called “dunting”.

Look! I've hidden the unsightly crack!

Although disappointing, the dunting drew my attention to a spiritual idea. Perhaps it was a symbolic, visual demonstration of what happens when the interior and exterior of a thing do not match:

“They … have no ambition except to revive the world, to ennoble its life, and regenerate its peoples. Truthfulness and good-will have, at all times, marked their relations with all men. Their outward conduct is but a reflection of their inward life, and their inward life a mirror of their outward conduct.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CXXVI)

Or maybe, “Hast thou ever heard that friend and foe should abide in one heart?” (Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, #26 from the Persian). I do know now that shiny white and verdigris should not abide in one vessel, for sure. And that it is more fun to experiment with this topic on pots than it is on people.

I kind've like - and accept - the piece this way.

So what of dunting, or jarring differences between the inside and outside, when it happens within a person? Between people? In your own creative efforts?

[With thanks to A. for asking about the artwork and precipitating thoughts]

Mar 09

Aref-Adib’s Look Alikes

I like people who see things others don’t. This guy collects on his blog images of people and objects that, well, look alike.  It’s not just the “Separated at Birth” concept, however. Aref-Adib has collected some unusual pairs, like this one (Banksy/calligraphy):

Lookalikes 1

Here’s a Mondrian/”Mind the gap” juxtaposition that I like a lot:


There’s also one of Borat vs. the Turkish “I kiss you” guy.  I think one influenced the other, however, and their similarities are no accident.

So what other observant, unlikely collections of visual connections do you know of?

Jul 07

Putting Shame in Your Game

Some years ago, my brother and I were playing Boggle with a friend. Boggle, for those who don’t know (and I don’t know if you deserve to be told if you don’t know, but I am in a munificent mood) is a word game consisting of a small plastic board, 16 letter cubes, and a transparent plastic hood that enables players to shake up the cubes and rearrange them on the board.


The object is to find as many words as possible in 3 minutes by linking the letters on the cubes. Three- and  four-letter words win a single point, for five letters you get 2, six get 3, seven 5, and eight or more yield the Holy Grail of Boggle: 11 points. It’s quite difficult, especially as you are rewarded for uniqueness: during the tally, any common words that you and other players have found are disqualified.

Most of our games that evening (and, to be fair, any game played by us on any evening) consisted of trash-talking. During the round in question, after the gameboard made the Pavlovian “clack-a shick-a shick-a” sound, pencils set furiously to paper. To our alarm, at minute 1:30, my brother threw down his pencil, crossed his arms with a triumphant smile, and watched us as we continued to search for words.

The reason for this display? He had found an 8-letter word: QUAGMIRE. And it was worth 11 points. A terrible blow. He knows how to stop when he’s ahead, and so shut down the tournament, claiming victory.

We knew what ensued would be bad, but we had no way of knowing how bad. Declaring himself the “King of Boggle”, he asked our mother to fashion a crown—yes, a crown—out of wrapping paper. For reasons still unclear, our mother complied with this request from her grown son, making him a Burger-King-style wrap-around crown.

To the crown he affixed “pieces of charm”, if you will—Post-it notes with the words: “King of Boggle. QUAGMIRE. 11 Points”; “RISK: Flattened opponents” and “BACKGAMMON: Marsed Dad”. This of course further endeared him to all members of the household. Uh, the royal household, I should say: starting at his coronation, he would enter the room with a “royal” wave of the hand towards his humble subjects. How happy we were when he said it wasn’t necessary for us to genuflect when he got up for a snack—we only needed to do that when he arrived in the room.

The Boggle win was, in short, unbearably annoying. For not only is the brother an expert trash-talker—especially when it comes to lucky wins—but he is also tenacious. We knew we would not soon hear the end of this.

Fast forward to the next summer. Another friend (with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, I should add) had come to visit, and while the others prepared the barbecue, I was hunting for something in the cupboard. I came across the evil crown and showed it to my friend, telling him about my brother’s ascension to the Boggle throne, precipitated by his win with QUAGMIRE for 11 points. My friend, apparently unimpressed, said, “Oh, like the Beastie Boys.”


“What? No, this was when we were playing Boggle,” I said, concerned that he was not listening.

“Right, so, like the Beasties,” he said. I still had no idea what he was talking about.

“No, no, I am talking about a word game. Perhaps I should start at the beginning again?” He told me to wait and went out to his car.

Whereupon he retrieved his computer. He played a song for me by the Beastie Boys which simultaneously made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, drained the color from my face, and made me feel dizzy. It had the following lyric:

I’m the King of Boggle
There is none higher
Got eleven points with the word quagmire

The name of the song is “Putting Shame in Your Game”. Check it out for yourself.

Mar 07

Tundric adventure

Morningside Park
Morningside Park.

On Friday, I had to get from the upper west side of Manhattan down to the UN, over to Brooklyn, and back, and happened to pick a miserable, urban ice storm in which to do it. In addition to subways, that’s about 40 blocks of outdoor walking. I had not come to the City with the right gear, either (dramatically incorrect footwear, no hat, flimsy umbrella). I felt, as I often do these days, culturally ill-equipped for my re-entry into US society — Martian, even — as though I have never had to be out in snow before and could think only of the 78 varieties of coconut that grow in my fictitious backyard.

eighth of a block took 25 minutes

As I walked down 42nd Street, I couldn’t help but notice that my face was being bombarded with tiny stinging ice pellets (Mum helpfully pointed out that said pellets are called “rime,” but the fact that they have a name that appears in 19th-century poetry does not excuse their behavior).

stationary bus

As we stepped gingerly through the gunmetal slush, trying to find a bus – any bus – to catch, a recent transplant from Canadia confessed to me that she had dismissed that morning’s severe weather warning as the paranoia of wimpy Americans. Then she got to work, and started noticing colleagues arriving at the office covered in, well – rime. With wet feet. And then she realized her only shoes were buttery-soft leather flats. I should add that the addition of ziploc bags used as socks did not help (is that some sort of Canadian trick?). The one who fared best among us was, interestingly, from Perth, and had never been in such weather in her life. She was wise enough to have invested in granny boots at the first signs of winter.

Mar 07

What’s new, Lash LaRue?

So, lucky me! Lash came to visit.


It was great to see him, though surreal, because it’s been months, and many farewells, and thousands of miles, and … thousands of degrees, besides. We walked around Boston in freezing ridiculous weather, and snapped some photos.

The Pru

The light was very New England – I would even venture to say that it was very Bostonian. I don’t know, however, if I have a leg to stand on when I assert that Boston has its own light. It may just be superstition. People say the Caribbean has its own light. The Mediterranean. The American southwest.

And Boston: something about the brick against the blue cold sky, and the silver shine that glints off bare urban twigs – for me it is iconic. I was eager to see how a Canadian eye-lens would see all of this, and of course I was not disappointed. But you can’t see them because he hasn’t put them up on his Flickr yet.

Here are a few from that day. Because I like taking pictures too, Mr. Professional Photo Person. If ONLY I had a better camera I could take photos just. like. you. <wink>

window reflections

back bay boston

Mar 07

Who I met on my walk …

seal pup

… We stopped to chat for a while. He was lolling about by the incoming tide. Because he didn’t seem to be making his way back into the water, and because there were no other seals lolling about in the vicinity, we thought he might be ill and waited while a man called the New England Aquarium for help. Apparently seals “look abandoned” while their mothers leave to seek food for them. No, I don’t know how to tell the difference between seals that look abandoned owing to the lunch issue, and those that really are abandoned.

Later, I was asked what there is to discuss with a seal. It went something like this:

Me: What are you doing here? I’m cold. Are you?
Furry Creature: (flappity flap)
Me: I see your family also makes you go out in the tundric wind in the middle of winter.
F.C.: (disarming seal-grin)
Me: You have a coat on, but still. Is your mother getting you lunch? Are you lost?
F.C.: (flap flap flap)

Am I wrong, or is it kind’ve unusal to come across a seal during a mundane walk?

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