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.

Mar 10

Nothing Has a Final Shape

Some weeks ago, my sweet friend Shirin came over to purchase a wedding gift for her cousin (Congratulations Tekies!). I brought out a number of my ceramic pieces to the kitchen table (made of white Corian, about 6’ long) and let her choose. When she selected the piece she wanted, I went to the other room to wrap it in protective paper, and placed it back on the table.

Black and white stoneware piece for the Tekies

Shirin was texting someone, not touching the table, and I was writing something down, also not in contact with the table, when we both heard a very loud CRRRACK, then exploding sound, then a huge crash. Apparently, the table, which had upon it several of my very favorite ceramic pieces, decided to SPONTANEOUSLY SPLIT ITSELF IN TWO. The two halves of the table turned downward, crashed to the floor (narrowly avoiding our feet) and everything on it broke—except the recently-purchased and -wrapped wedding gift.

After jumping out of our chairs with the noise and explosion, Shirin and I were paralyzed for a moment. What had happened? Why, with only about 8 lbs of weight on it, and no one touching or putting pressure on the table, had it committed hara-kiri? And why, after we have had the table for years, did it choose to do so with my pieces sitting on it?

There is probably a simple technical explanation – perhaps the span of the Corian table was too wide, and it had a hidden stress fracture that finally decided to resolve its tension and split. I was more interested, however, in spiritual reasons for the breakage, if any, and what it could teach me.

Table now fixed, w/ supportive plywood added underneath

I have heard many times of the practice in Japan, China and elsewhere of requiring beginning potters to throw work—and destroy it all for an entire year or two or three. I have mentioned this here before. Although I am relieved in some sense that I have not been trained in this context, the purpose of this approach is a noble one. Making and destroying your work for a period of time teaches detachment from the pieces you make, from your ego, and from outcomes and reactions thereto. It prizes the process, the pure intention and technical exercise of creating something, and challenges the illusion of control over the very capricious medium of clay.

I found an interesting thought on a Hungarian ceramic artist’s blog, proposing that perhaps ceramics could be defined as clay in all its stages of being—greenware (unfired), bisque fired, glazed and yes—broken into shards. “Nothing,” writes Gabor Terebess, “has a final shape (broken ceramics advertise) … it is the part that makes the whole; it is absence that makes presence what it is.” Hm. Nothing has a final shape. Always transmuting, always changing, never static. Also true for people? Is it ever time to give up on our own (or others’) capacity to change?

Left to pick up the pieces.

So evidently my pots decided to change their shape, without my prior approval. It was, I admit, disappointing to collect the broken pieces of these pots that I spent hours making. I haven’t thrown them away as yet, which may be an indicator of my reluctance to fully embrace the lesson in spiritual detachment that a table tried to teach me. But all is not lost. This tiny realm of destroyed artwork can provide reflections on why more significant things in life often don’t turn out as planned.

And what to do when they don’t? The totally uncalled-for explosion of the table actually is an opportunity to examine what it means to make something out of an unintended result, and have that new effort be better, more confident, more integrated and awake.

No, really, it was a good experience

How have you responded when things contrary to your wishes happen? Both in the symbolic artistic realm, and in the larger arena of life?

Oct 09

Intention and Submission

Michael Cardew, an English studio potter born in 1910, wrote, “Pottery is a fundamental craft and should be pursued in a fundamental way. Beware of all ‘short cuts’. Begin at the beginning. The simplest materials and the simplest methods are often the best. The most primitive work is often the most refined. Potters must be artists, but they should make things that are useful as well as decorative, otherwise they are in danger of losing the common touch.” (Quoted in Spinning the Clay into Stars: Bernard Leach and the Bahá’í Faith, by Robert Weinberg)

I am not sure what Cardew means by the common touch, exactly, nor do I understand why it would be bad to lose it. Perhaps it’s an admonishment against overthinking, and pretentiousness. Maybe when you start thinking your pots are something, they stop being something at that very instant.

Michael Cardew slipware bowls - Cardew was considered one of the best slipware potters ever.

Michael Cardew slipware bowls. Cardew is considered one of the best slipware potters ever.

As I make things, I think about what I’m doing. That is to say, I try to work with intentionality: I need to know which clay to choose, how much of it to wedge, whether to throw the piece on a bat or on the wheel-head. As I center the clay, often the results are better if I start with a general form and methodology in mind. The steps I take and the tools I need for throwing will be different if I am making a bowl, or a lidded vessel, or a plate. To change direction midstream in a lurching, corners-cutting manner can result in a piece that looks cobbled together.

At the same time, as I work, and this might sound strange, I try not to think about what I’m doing. If I imagine how people will respond, wonder if my piece looks like the work of this or that potter I admire, think about “reception” – it tends not to go well. This is to be contrasted with having a goal in mind. When I sit at the wheel, I have in mind an aim, an intention, but not “an answer”. So much can happen as a form is emerging. Submitting to the process presents previously-unseen opportunities, including spectacular accidents and damage (see my previous entry, “Fun Fiascoes“). Also, the limits of one’s technical skill can of course impact the successful rendering of one’s intention.

All of this – thinking and not-thinking and having a goal but being flexible enough to submit and change approach if new information comes to light – led me to start working a lot with black and white. Black and white is simple and stark, and I find that its limitations help me to explore these ideas of form and methodology in what feels like a clearer, cleaner way. It is somehow less encumbering to see how form interacts and integrates with surface decoration when I am using plain black and white.

Below is some recent experimentation along these lines – an effort to simplify my approach, edit out distractions and focus on form and technique.

Do you find yourself doing this kind of thing in your field of endeavor, artistic or otherwise? What methods do you use to simplify and focus?

White stoneware platter with "Orbit decoration", black licorice glaze and white sliptrailing. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

White stoneware platter with "Orbit decoration", black licorice glaze and white sliptrailing. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

Large white stoneware platter with "Magnetic" design. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

Large white stoneware platter with "Magnetic" design. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

White stoneware bowl with black mason stain slip and white sliptrailing. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

White stoneware bowl with black mason stain slip and white sliptrailing. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

White stoneware bowl with black sliptrailing. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

White stoneware bowl with black sliptrailing. Leili Towfigh, 2009.

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]

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