05 October 2010

Open Call Response to Jonathan Wolfman

For those of you who are reading this on The Fly , this is a response to an open call for responses from a poster named Jonathan Wolfman. His question is: "What is your gift? What do you do with it?"

Anyone who wants to respond to me on blogspot is, of course, more than welcome. In fact, I happily extend the question to all the Fraysters who want to answer it. I'll post the link on Salon, too, in case anyone there is interested. This is going to be fun.


The only answer I have is ..... ready? I make stuff. I'm good with my hands. Doesn't sound like much, does it? I mean, a LOT of people are fairly adept at doing things, of putting things together, repairing things and the like. 

It's hard to explain what I mean. I see in three dimensions. I'll never make a painter or be able to draw well. I've tried, and it's utterly futile. I'm foul at math. It's like a foreign language to me. I can't picture it, and that crippled me all the way through school. In fact, my math teacher in Grade 12 gave me a mercy mark just so I could get into university, then made me promise to take geography as my science option. I did.

That still isn't very clear, is it? The thing is, it's a maddeningly ephemeral thing. If you gave me a bag of clay, I could build you what I want you to see. If you hand me a pen and paper, forget it. Whatever I put there won't make a lick of sense. I'm sure there's a deeply complicated explanation for it that delves into brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, whether I had pets as a kid, and whether or not the water was fluoridated when I was born (it wasn't), but that's just the way it is. 

What I do is clay. Clay makes sense to me. It's something I can manipulate - I can make it do what I want it to. When I'm working on something at the clay lab, I zone out completely, sometimes for hours. All I need is my IPod, a bucket of water, some tools and a bag of clay and you can count on me being occupied for as long as it takes for me to either finish a piece or realize that I've missed lunch and I'm damned hungry. Thankfully I have some friends that are brave enough (I get VERY cranky when I'm hungry) to smack me on the shoulder and make me take a break.

Don't get me wrong. It's not easy. As with any art form, there's a massive learning curve. I've been at this for ten years and I'm still learning. I suspect I'll be learning for the rest of my life, which is both maddening and reassuring. It means I'll never lose interest.

There are people who say that working with clay is all about chemistry and physics. Ok. I get that. Clay bodies vary, glazes are incredibly complicated and highly experimental and I know I'll never have the patience to make my own. That's because these folks are all about the mechanics. You can recognize most of them because everything they make is perfect. It is symmetrical. It's usually thrown on a wheel. A whole lot of people make decent money doing this - it's their job. Their work sells because it's generally pretty nice, it's always recognizable and it has a use. 

What I do doesn't have a use. In fact, it's utterly useless. I do this on purpose. I figure that if I wanted a bunch of identical plates, I can get them at Crate and Barrel for a lot less money and a ton less angst than trying to make them myself. I get bored very easily, and if what I make became mechanical or mindless to me, I'd quit. I wouldn't see the point any more. 

 I've never made the same piece twice and if I tried, I probably couldn't do it. That's just the way it is. I work with my hands, not with machines. I don't want to master the clay that way. There are things I'm very good at. Sales, for example. I've been pretty successful at selling just about anything in the past, from couture gowns to nails. It's easy for me - I've been told I'm a "natural", whatever the heck that is. It bores me stiff, though. I had to quit because I just can't muster the energy to care about something I've got whipped.

I've posted a few of my Utterly Useless Pots. They don't hold water - and that's on purpose. I don't want them to have a function. I don't want anyone to hold on in their hands and think "vase", for instance. Other people make better vases than me, to be truthful. My first instructor was Larry Fleck. He always used to ask me what things were FOR. My stock answer became, "Larry, it just IS."

Utterly Useless Pot. 12" tall, 8" across. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved. 

High fired stoneware. The glaze is temoku wiped off, then dipped in yellow salt.

Utterly Useless Pot. 15" tall, 37" diameter. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

Low fire terracotta with matte black underglaze, matte gray glaze on top. It looks very different, depending on what side you're looking at, which I think is pretty cool.

Utterly Useless Pot. 8" tall, 7" across. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

High fired white stoneware glazed with red iron oxide, yellow salt and temoku.

For those who swore they've seen these pictures before....you're right. I've posted them before. I KNOW I have to get on with taking more photos. It's just so much more fun to be in the studio, don't you know.

The above pots are three in a series, and I'm off on another series now. I find that when I find a shape that makes me happy, I play with it for awhile. I want to see where it can go, so I mess with it on different pieces and with different glazes for awhile. It took me six pieces to finish with this one. There's another one that I haven't photographed that's just massive. It's in white with black accents and I have to look at it for awhile because I'm not altogether sure about the glaze.

These are for sale, by the way. If you're interested, you can reach me at onemessylady@gmail.com .

I know where I get this. I come from a long line of carpenters, farmers, harness-makers, boat builders and other craftspeople. If I could go back far enough (and I can't, really), I'm sure that there are "handy" people in my gene pool that go back for centuries. No artists, though. Most of the family are pragmatic and rather gloomy types that would never do something that doesn't have a "use".

There are other things I can do. The handiness is most useful. I sew, for example. For the last couple of years I've been making my own wool coats. I like summer dresses, and when I make them, I know they'll fit. I love being able to wear something that I won't be seeing walking down the street all over the place.

I can also replace taps, install light fixtures, repair tile, and paint interiors. These are all survivor skills that I think everyone should learn, but that's because I'm kind of a tightwad.


  1. You have a good eye for aesthetics, which makes you good at sculpting and good at photography. Everyone has skills of some kind, and some are more marketable than others.

    For instance, I'm great at spacial relations. With my weird little skill, I can tell people exactly where they should hit a putt-putt-golf ball or a pool ball, or where to roll a bowling ball, in order to make it go exactly where it needs to go. But I don't possess the skill to actually make my own balls go where they should in these games. (A matter of hand-eye coordination.)

    In one sense, this "skill" means I have to work hard at asymmetry, because my mind has some sort of weird proportions in mind which an object has to meet for it to be asymmetrical enough for me not to find symmetry in it. Sort of like (for the mathmatical) trying to find a 12-digit prime number. It either works, or it doesn't. This seems to come naturally to folks with your skill.

    I envy people with certain skills, which are only marketable for those willing to put in considerable time and effort to sell products which, in a sense, reflect their souls. I'd love to have a skill like yours which "merely" creates things of beauty, and wouldn't even care that it would likely never make me rich, famous, or desired by all the handsome men in a room.

  2. I write. Give me a subject and some semblance of structure in which to work (a college paper, a newspaper column, a long-form editorial piece) and I will turn out something that even if you think I'm full of shit will at least make you think and at least make you consider the craftsmanship that went into the piece.

    What an artist does with a paintbrush, a musician with his instrument, or a sculptor with clay or stone or ice, I do with a keyboard, making my words dance on the page to the symphony in my mind.

    Writing is what I would do for a living if I didn't have to worry about money. And I'm damn good at it.

  3. Fox, where have you been? We miss you around the old homestead! Come by more often, dude. Your input is always brilliant.

    Writing has generally come easily to me, too. I think part of it is that we read so much. We get an instinct for what sounds right.

  4. well I tend towards poetry and history, but I find being a poet a curse not a gift. As for history, perhaps there's something to say for amnesia?

    Of course on a good day, I find my eyes and what they see of nature as well as human arts a gift.... I wonder where we get our sense of beauty and why does it make us happy?

    Speaking about art, I recognize your clay sculpture and I like them even more than before..... Can't wait to see pix of your new series. I'm amazed at your camera eye and your hands' eye... where did you get them? The rest of the time you don't sound like any of the artists I've known (a good thing!)

  5. I am not sure I have anything like a significant gift. I may have a couple of smaller gifts, but no big deal, world changing gifts.

  6. Kati - There are definitely no artists in the family! I've been furiously taking photos all weekend, though. I'll try and post a few when I get home.

    I don' get at all why so many "artistes" have that flaky, arrogant notion that eccentricity and dippiness are not only to be expected, but cultivated. I think it's hopelessly pretentious, and I've noticed that the better the artist, the less attitude the project. See, art is WORK. Attitude is for dilettantes.

    Tonto- You have a gift for clarity of thought which allows you to cut through bullshit wherever you see it. It' a useful thing to have. I don't think you'd ever fall into the trap of self-delusion.

  7. Haha...I've been on a bit of an odyssey. And by "odyssey" I mean "wasting WAY too much time on Facebook and neglecting my REAL writing."

    Even the career counselor at my college has jumped on the "what are you doing studying accounting?" bandwagon---I wish someone had told me this sooner.

  8. Fox....finish your degree, because you're almost done, right? Write at the same time. I can pretty much guarantee that you're going to need a day job while you're writing, and there's nothing wrong with accounting. The world ALWAYS needs accountants.

  9. Fox, at the beginning of my junior year in college, I had completed the miserable core coursework for a degree in economics and was ready to get into the electives where things are a lot more fun. Then I looked at the job market for bachelor's degree economists, and decided I did not want to sell life insurance or shoes. Like Messy said, there's always a need for accountants.