I saw a grasshopper
We often listen to music when we’re drawing or making. But how does the presence of music or kind of music change our environment and consequently what we make in it? How does a grasshopper spring up in response to 5 minutes of ‘Wander in the heather’ by the Celtic girls? In last week’s constellation lecture I had a go at creating an object to this melody, using only a green lollipop stick and a length of wire:
The music itself almost disappeared into the background while I was making but I remember focusing in on the guitar in particular. It conjured up memories of jams and open mic nights with a guitarist friend from home, as well as a day I spent during the summer holidays, sat in the garden listening to a Spanish flamenco CD I’d found while rummaging through an old box in the garage. In particular I recalled fond memories of visiting my nan and grandad’s caravan in Pembrokeshire where dad would sit out on the balcony on warm summer evenings strumming away Big and Rich and Time O’Brien tunes. There were plenty of insects in the campsite: lumbering bloody nosed beetles traipsing the sandy beach path, stripy caterpillars in their cobweb tents, and in the bramble hedge – grasshoppers, the sound of their legs rubbing together like an ensemble of tiny maracas players. This ‘celtic’ style of music also reminded me of early Renaissance court music played on a lyre so I wasn’t surprised to find a cover of ‘Greensleeves’ featured on the same CD. It was easy listening, cheerful, slightly jazzy, and flowing steadily so that I felt comfortable to work at a slow pace, not worrying about the result of the exercise.
I didn’t try to make a grasshopper (or any insect at all for that matter) but perhaps the way the wire was presented to me pushed me in that direction, the long strand looped to look like wings and the stick the long curved green body of a stick insect. The green colour I probably associated with nature, plants and growth. I played with the materials and they would suggest things to me: a raft or a person crouched, skiing downhill, Joseph Beuys’s sledge. I’d then adjust the shape in response to the material, how can I make it look more like the image in my mind of a person skiing? It would then morph into another creature or object. I tried to bend the materials to my will but had little control – the neat, smooth lollipop stick splintered into sharp, jagged edges revealing the grain inside.
I spent Sunday afternoon at Cardiff museum where I stumbled across these stunning earthenware vessels dating from the 5th century BCE. They each stand about 25cm high and were made in Attic, the region of Greece that surrounds Athens. The clay there contains lots of iron which explains the vibrant red colour of many ancient Greek vases. These jugs would have been used to store olive oil for religious ceremonies and funerary purposes as well as for use domestically and in baths (olive oil was used instead of soap). Something about the elegance of these forms appeals to me. The long, narrow necks taper up from almost flat shoulders and the wide feet make the cylindrical bodies look like they’re sitting on plinths. The bottles would have been thrown on a wheel low to the ground, probably in sections, with the neck thrown from separate coils of clay stuck to the shoulder. While the red and black slips would have been applied before firing, the one on the left has had a white paint (kaolin clay) applied after the firing to about 950 degrees Celsius.
I’ve been practicing throwing bottles after seeing a beautifully minimal and quiet ‘still life’ by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott at the V and A. I like the way bottle forms have a particular character. In contrast to more open froms they can look upright and proud but also shy and aloof.
Watch a lekythos being made on a kick wheel
Having discussed how materials and environment hide from view in everyday life I realise that I’m very lucky to be studying ceramics. Unlike other subjects the material is central to our practice. Although with more industrial techniques like press moulding and slip-casting it’s possible to ‘intellectualise’ away the material, when working directly on the potter’s wheel, the clay immediately commands respect and you learn very quickly that you can’t impose yourself on it.
I have also developed my understanding of the arguments surrounding phenomenology (how the body experiences itself in the world) and the idea of the body schema: the ability of the body to feel in relation to space. Lately I’ve been doing lots of throwing and I feel in some ways the potter’s wheel is incorporated into the body schema, like when you drive a car. I forget about the fact that I’m using pressure from my foot to turn the wheel and the changing of speed is done almost subconsciously in relation to my hand movements. As a next step I want to try throwing on a kick wheel to see how taking out that automatic element changes the sensation of the process.
Additionally in the session we read what has been written about the action of ‘from-giving’. According to the artist Paul Klee ‘Form is set by the processes of giving form, which is more important than form itself…Form is the end, death’ whereas ‘Form-giving is life’. This understanding could be important to me as a practitioner because it might influence what kind of work I decide to make. Production throwing seems to be concerned with final form and the repetition of accurate ones. Performance art on the other hand is about the ‘in the moment’ action and not any final outcome or creation of ‘form’.
Another way I might think about form-giving is considering how what I make shows traces of how it was made and the way this brings and object to life. I’ve started thinking about the way potters remove their work from the wheel, some wiring off when the wheel is stopped while others prefer to cut while the wheel is moving to get a series of grooves on the base revealing the direction of movement. Klee’s quote reminded me of something Lucien Freud said: ‘A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation, but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life’.
On Monday our task was to attempt to identify the kinds of creative strategies we use when exploring materials. Available for us to use was paper-clay, red terracotta, black slip and green paper towels which we were free to play with for about an hour and a half.
Dipped paper-clay in slip
From the very start my instinct was to combine the materials, so I experimented with rolling the two clays together and dipping them in slip. A reciprocal aspect emerged to my making, the forms began responding more and more to one another and sharing similar characteristics. I began repeating forms and patterns I enjoyed making or thought looked attractive.
Vessel forms holding slip
I planned from the start that I would make a series of objects, whereas I realise some of my classmates were much more interested in the process and sensation of playing with clay and less concerned with any final outcome. Despite this, I don’t feel there was an element of pre-design to what I did. I responded to the material and the shapes took on a life of their own, growing as I added on pieces I thought would look balanced. I considered myself to be working slowly, taking time to think what my next move would be. I chose to work on quite a small scale, maybe out of some concern of wasting material, probably because I liked being able to abandon one experiment if I felt it was going nowhere and move on to another quickly. It’s interesting to see at which points I considered a form to be ‘complete’.
Rolling the clays together
At first I found the paper-clay much too plastic to mould. I felt frustrated that it wouldn’t hold its shape so began mixing in strips of green paper towels to make my own version of paper-clay that was stronger and had a marbling colour effect. I also mixed and reinforced it with the red clay. Although I tried to impose my own ideas onto the material in this way, the material acted equally on me and I had to adjust to the forms slumping and not sticking together. I wasn’t concerned with keeping the clay pure, which might reflect my interest in the work of multi-media artists like Gillian Lowndes.
The environment I was in probably had an effect on my making. In front of me were a collection of vessels I had thrown recently and almost all the models I made included vessel forms. I worked at my desk which at the time was very cluttered. Perhaps seeing all my tools and equipment balanced precariously, subconsciously influenced my work because most of it during that hour was concerned with the theme of balance.
Numbered in order of when made
In last week’s constellation lesson we started to discuss how to cite relevant theories to support our observations. Here I’ve attempted to rewrite last week’s post about the exercise of drawing from touch and sight:
I find it interesting how my mind imposed memories onto the clip as I felt it. I came to think of a specific carabiner I thought I’d seen my dad use, and so drew the criss-crossed texture that one had on its grip instead of the vertical indentations which are visible in the second drawing. Attempting to make sense of this ‘mistake’ is the theory that ‘The familiar will always remain the likely starting point for the rendering of the unfamiliar; an existing representation will always exert its spell over the artist even while he strives to record the truth’ (Gombrich, 1960, pg.72). In other words, I filled in the gaps in my understanding with ‘preconceived prejudices’ and drew not what I felt but what I expected to feel. This would also account for why I imagined the object to be purple in colour, because the cold metal texture felt similar to a purple camera I once owned.
As a result of my own memories and experiences, by feeling the object I created a much more personal drawing than when I drew it from sight. In this way we can look at drawings as things that contain part of the maker and his/her mental world, simultaneously looking outwards and inwards, to the observed or imagined world, and into the draughtsman’s own persona (Pallasmaa, 2009, pg.90-91.). If the exercise of drawing from touch and then from sight was repeated with a group of people drawing the same object, I would expect the pictures drawn from sight to be more similar to one another. There would be fewer gaps to fill in the participants’ knowledge. However, even when drawing from sight it’s possible our memories and preconceptions still play a part and that ‘our waking worlds are made different by the differences in what engages our interest and our attention (Jastrow, 1899). We each perceive and experience our own individual reality.
Gombrich, E.H (1960), Art and Illusion, Oxford: Phaidon
Pallasmaa, J (2009), The Thinking Hand: existential and embodied wisdom in architecture, London: Wiley
Jastrow, J (1899) The Mind’s eye, Popular Science Monthly, Vol 54