Tag Archives: clay

The Temple of My Imperfection

—that moment when you finally realize that all your efforts toward achieving perfection will never be enough.

Seizing the Wabi-sabi

 Wabisabi (侘寂) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. -Wikipedia

crProbably wabi-sabi was first named for what happens to pottery subjected to the hellish temperatures in kilns, around 2,000ºF (~1100ºC). During the firing, the intense heat vibrates all the bonds that hold the minerals together until they come apart, and their constituent ions and molecules cruise around in a melted bubbly mixture that resembles lava, an igneous rock.

The kiln cools, and the pottery solidifies. Sometimes a gas bubble in the glaze pops at that moment and a little crater forms. Or maybe the glaze didn’t come out with a uniform color, or part of it dis-adhered from the pot and crawled away. Or the tea bowl sagged into another pot.

Classic wabi sabi, telling the story of a unique and unrepeatable moment of creation, fired and frozen in time.

Such wabi-sabi moments manifest keshiki–the landscape of the clay; these imperfections do not in any way interfere with the functionality of the piece, and it would be enormously wasteful to throw something useful away because of a surface imperfection.

One over Infinity

SphericalCow2I like to think of firing pottery as a sort of ‘backyard metamorphism’ that changes the pottery, essentially a sedimentary rock, into a metamorphic rock.

I have even made the statement publicly, that kilns are science laboratories in which ceramic artists perform experiments in thermodynamics, which is a branch of science that deals with the advanced secrets of the Universe. <Click here for Out of the Periodic Chart and into the Fire>

We have learned a great deal about the behavior of matter through experiments that rudely resemble the actual physical universe, tweaked by precise mathematical equations that ignore much of the almost infinite variation therein. Somehow we get close enough that the pieces fit together in rude sorts of ways.

Potter’s kilns on the other hand, much more closely approach the actual imperfection that brought us all the rocks on Earth. And the universe. With a great deal of faith, you consign your piece to the kiln. The wabi-sabi is impossible to know or quantify. There are no round frictionless cows.

Pray to the gods of fire, electricity, gravity and magnetism, that what comes out resembles the vision in your mind. Let me take a moment to calculate the likelihood of that.

One over infinity.

There’s always some wabi-sabi.

A Wabi Sabi Moment with Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe-(hands)I grew up looking at O’Keeffe art—being that she lived in New Mexico, where I was born and spent most of my life. I’d seen her paintings in books and posters for years. Standing in front of famous paintings in real life—no photograph holds a candle to that experience. It’s not just the colors being more alive, or that you get the true idea of the size of the painting. You are close, very close to the act of creation.
And once, I stood mesmerized in that very moment, as close to a painting as the cops at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe would allow. I could not take my eyes off it: a single paintbrush hair embedded in a stroke of color. I felt as if I was there in that one moment when Georgia O’Keeffe stood before this very canvass. A million brush strokes in her long life of painting…and there’s this one that put in that single, unique moment of exquisite wabi-sabi.

It was breathtaking.

I’m glad she didn’t see the hair; surely she would have plucked it out. I would have, in the name of flawless perfection that is found only as a concept within the part of the human brain that dreams of round frictionless cows.

Imperfection: it’s what makes the world

The Hope Diamond
The Hope Diamond

Not even crystals are perfect; they all have wabi-sabi.

They found this one really big chunk of blue diamond, cut all the wabi-sabi away, until it was perfectly huge. Hugely perfect. They called it the Hope Diamond—hoping for another humongous one like it.

One over infinity. It happens. But it’s all the other instances of imperfection that comprise the whole dang universe. The perfect parts are so few as to barely exist at all.

I’ve never made a perfect pot, never wrote a perfect book, never been a perfect anything. I’ll continue to put it out there, though, as long as I have a heartbeat. I am but a fragment of the whole wabi-sabi universe unfolding.

I just don’t know what else to do with myself.

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The Little Pufferfish Who Could

…build her a castle

Art in the Sand

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Click on image for extraordinary video: Art of the Pufferfish

I am totally charmed. Who knew pufferfish are masters of art and architecture?
The scientific powers that be attribute the whole thing to a mating ritual and the sole purpose of the pufferfish’s activity is to impress a female.
Not me, though.

Mission Accomplished

I am impressed. Thoroughly and completely.

I feel a certain kinship to this pufferfish, who pulls his vision from the sand. I work in clay—rarely if not never do I sketch things out first on paper. It’s not that I cannot draw, it’s that paper is but two dimensional, and clay is three. For me, it’s just easier to ‘draw,’ so to speak, with the clay in the first place.

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Archimedes Flight, 2006, Ceramic sculpture by Mary C Simmons

The pufferfish didn’t draw it all out first either, for obvious reasons. No paper, no writing utensils, no thumbs…just an internal vision that drove his entire body in the performance of art. That’s how I do it too, engrossed in my task and operating from an internal vision that informs my hands to construct the compendium of details that comprise the whole.

Art and Sentience

We humans draw a firm boundary between ourselves and the rest of creation, based on a standard (set by us) of intelligence and sentience, which undergoes periodic redefinition to exclude all of creation except us. Originally defined as the ability to feel and perceive, the definition was expanded to include an ability to suffer. Once we started noticing that all animals have that ability, self-awareness became the defining quality of sentience.

I can’t imagine how the pufferfish created his art without an awareness of himself in his oceanic landscape of water and sand. Why is it that the creation of art is an instinctual mating ritual in the animals, but a sign of sentience and intelligence in us?

satin-bower-bird-nestUntil the pufferfish first maps out his sculpture on paper or via computer graphics, or when the bowerbirds use differential equations to construct their nests, they’ll never even approach us intelligence-wise. Cool that we get to not only set the standard, but keep changing it as well so as to exclude all that is non-human. But why?

I am over-awed and comforted by my kinship with the little pufferfish creating a work of art the same way I do—from an internal vision, using his physical body. I doubt very much, however, that I could create this or any piece of art with my nose. From that perspective, the pufferfish is quite a bit more talented than I am.

 

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Animal Architecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mother, My Art

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Self Portrait, ~1950, Rita M. Simmons

Thanks to my very creative mother, Rita M. Simmons (1921-2004), my childhood was steeped in a variety of creative enterprises and the permission to make messes. She faced it, back in the 1950’s: creativity is untidy. She even organized a neighborhood puppet-making project in our garage that engaged the children of the whole neighborhood.

She painted. I opt for the third dimension. Far and away from my childhood steeped in the odors of oil paint and turpentine, my mother’s paintings inspired me from the hidden places of memory and imagination. I put my hands in clay and evoke the landscape, the dancer, the flowers that grace the Earth. As she, my mother, did before me, on the flat canvasses of her vision.

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Abstract Landscape, Acrylic, ~1970, Rita M. Simmons; Ceramic Sculpture Cylinders, 2005, Mary C. Simmons

The paintings and ceramic sculptures herein were part of a recent art show at the Church of Art, in Hotchkiss, Colorado.

In 1999, I received a Master of Science degree in geology, which also has exerted a profound influence on my art, both in design inspiration and technique (seeMaking Paint from the Desert Landscape & Bones of Earth, Bones of Clay…)

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Ceramic Sculpture Cylinders, 2005, Mary C. Simmons

I taught geology for 4 years in Indiana, and spent the summers in dry New Mexico, where the Cylinder Series happened, 22 of them, comprised of high-fired stoneware and porcelain.

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Skeletal Cylinders, 2005, Mary C. Simmons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Textured Platter, 2014, Mary C. Simmons

My latest passion in ceramic art: bright, beautiful colors and intricate textures in low-fired earthenware clay.

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Textured Bowls, 2014, Mary C. Simmons

At last, I am painting. Like my mother, who by her example, made my life an open space for art.

Thanks, Mom.

 

 

 

 

Landscape Paint and the Chemistry Blues

419px-Johannes_Vermeer_(1632-1675)_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_(1665)Alchemy reigned at the time Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1665. Back in that day, before the Periodic Table of the Elementswhich didn’t show up in until 1869—painters made their own paints from the powders of ground minerals by mixing them with linseed oil.

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Lapis lazuli

The pigment in the blue scarf around the head of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, for instance, was made from lapis lazuli, a beautiful but rather expensive mineral to be grinding to a powder.  Unfortunately, linseed oil made the fabulous blue color of this beautiful mineral a bit cloudy.

Linseed oil did that to most of the mineral powders, but there was no way around that in 1665. The mineral powders would be chalky-looking and would not flow onto the canvas smoothly without being mixed with linseed oil.

Better Living Through Chemistry

The Periodic Table going public in 1869 moved the job of creating paint from artists to the laboratory chemist. These days, few artists mix their own paints, or even know what’s in them. I’m a big fan of chemistry, for without it, there is nothing. No rocks, no clay, no paint. And I wonder how they make vivid yellow as well as intense red paint from the same thing. Not a mineral, but an element from the Periodic Table: Cadmium.

Modern painters can thank French artist, Yves Klein and a few French chemists, who created a rich luscious blue paint that retained the brilliant blue hue by suspension of the dry pigment in a synthetic resin, avoiding the murkiness of linseed oil.

They called it International Klein Blue. Yves Klein used IKB, as this patented pigment is known, to paint Blue Monochrome, part of a series of one-color paintings he had been creating for several years.

BlueMonochrome
Blue Monochrome, Yves Klein, 1961

IKB represented something profound to Klein: le Vide-the Void. Not a vacuum or terrifying darkness, but a void that invokes positive sensations of openness and liberty, a feeling of profound fulfillment beyond the everyday material world. Standing before Klein’s huge canvases of solid blue, many report being enveloped by serene, trance-like feelings.

That’s how the Southwestern desert landscape makes me feel.

the-surreal-rock-formations-were-created-over-thousands-of-years-as-water-and-wind-eroded-the-navajo-sandstone

The iron-stained colors of my native land inspired me to make paint from it, in the old way—grinding the minerals to a powder and mixing them with linseed oil. Perhaps because these paints are made from desert clays (see my previous blog Desert Paintings), linseed oil did not make them murky.

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Crows Across the Sky, Mary C. Simmons, 2010

 

Bones of Earth, Bones of Clay

I’m fascinated by bones…all bones, especially the white bleached remains of the wild creatures picked clean of all flesh, marking the place where they lay down on the Earth and died.

I am not alone….

full-scale-t-rex-built-near-the-seine-river-paris-designboom-01Bones of Metal

French artist Phillipe Pasqua designed and fabricated this full-scale, 21 foot tall Tyrannasauras rex sculpture. Comprising 350 bones of chrome and aluminum, the Lizard King towers over the Seine River in France. (Click here for more…)

Bones of Rock

Speaking of T-Rex, a rare nearly complete fossilized skeleton heads for the Smithsonian as the centerpiece for the new dinosaur hall. <more here…>r-T-REX-SMITHSONIAN-large570

In other bones, Paleontologists recently excavated the fossilized tail of a 72-million year old hadrosaur in the northern desert of Mexico. Discovered by locals, the scientists unburied fifty remarkably well-preserved vertebrae. From these bones, scientists determined the dinosaur suffered from arthritis and tumors (Click here for more…)

DinoBones of Clay

From molten origins of Igneous rocks, whose feldspars undergo weathering and disintegration at Earth surface, forming a variety of clay minerals that, thankfully, blanket much of Earth’s surface.

I too am descendent from Firstborn Earth. I know this clay. It is me.

During one muse-filled summer break from teaching geology, a series of ceramic sculptures, whose central theme of twisted spinal columns sprang to life beneath my hands, telling tales of my own origins, my vertebrate ancestry. My own bones.

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Cylinder Series, #1-22, after the bisque
Summer 2004
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Detail, Cylinder Series, #19
Mary C Simmons

Our evolutionary paths cross, clay and I, in a moment of geologic time-the instant in which I so briefly live. I witness a distant past and participate in this miraculous path of life upon which my hands and this clay chanced to meet.

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Cylinders Series, #23
Mary C Simmons

Paint from the Desert Landscape

Making Paint From the Rocks

I can easily IFlose myself in Earth’s landscapes, especially the rocky ones. The textures and colors tell a story of chemistry, weathering and erosion. And, if providing a scenic backdrop to my life is not enough, I understand these rocks well enough to make pottery and glazes from them.

And paint.

The color palette is generally limited to oxides of iron: brown, reddish-brown, tan, yellowish tan, greenish tan–e.g. Earth colors.

Occasionally a little copper shows up, coloring the clay softly green or blue. Pottery glaze colors depend on these denizens of the Periodic Table. And so did paint, once upon a time before IKB.

I started with several gallon-size zip-lock bags of reddish, greenish and one highly yellow clay. The colors are the result of a certain degree of iron oxidation, and finely ground turquoise, which is a copper mineral.

I sifted out all the rocks, twigs, animal bones and other detritus, and let the colored clay settle in large jars of water. After siphoning off the excess water, I poured this clay slurry onto large pieces of gypsum board to dry. The mud cracks were amazing art pieces in themselves.

CuMudHLimonitePM

Painting with Clay

After the clay slurry completely dried, I crushed and sieved each into a fine powder. I added a little linseed oil to the colored clay powder and in a frenzy of inspiration, I painted

The Paintings

SandiaSunset2 What else can I say? Inspired by rocks, enchanted by Earth’s landscape…

Follow this link to Desert Paintings…http://wp.me/P3Fsq9-in

Science Meets Art: Intelligent Design

Blessed by the exquisite anatomy of our hands and the infinite crossing points between the so-called right and left brain, we blend the vision of the imagination with technical know-how. We are the God Kings and Queens of Tool-Makers, and with these hands we make everything…

Art Meets Science: Glass

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Blown Glass Baskets, Dale Chihuly

Discovered thousands of years ago, the science and technology of glass continues to enthrall and astound us. Quartz in the form of silica-sand is the primary constituent in window and art glass. Various oxides of calcium and boron, as well as colorants are added to the silica sand to give the glass the desired properties.

The first glass blowing techniques were developed in Syria over 2,000 years ago. Not much has changed in the methods or equipment since then, though the understanding of glass and melt behavior has certainly increased.

Click here for a short history of Glassblowing (http://www.seattleglassblowing.com/glass_history.html)

Peacock Window, Lewis Comfort Tiffany

Science Meets Art: Porcelain Pottery with Copper Red Glaze

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21st Century Copper Red Vase, Heather Mills, Christo Giles, New Zealand

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Red is a difficult color to produce in a glaze (which is nothing more than a glass) but the Chinese discovered the technology ~5ooo years ago. Oxygen atoms are stripped from the copper oxides in the glaze during the reducing atmosphere of wood-fired kilns. Not only that, the copper particles suspended in the melted glaze must be approximately the same size as the wavelength of red light, or the color will not be red. Too small particles gives no color at all, and too large particles give a fleshy color that is only occasionally attractive. Click here or on the image above for more information about copper red glazes.

Art Meets Science: Red Paint

Cochineal Beetle

Back in the day of the Alchemists, before the Periodic Table of the Elements had been invented, artists made their own paints, by grinding minerals from the landscape (or bugs) into powder, adding a binding agent, and voila! oil paint! Red and purples were beastly difficult to make. Red dye could only be produced by the crushed carcasses of the insect Cochineal, found mainly in Mexico and South America. The famed Red Coats that Paul Revere warned the countryside about had been dyed with Cochineal.

These days, artists use commercially-prepared paints. Red? No problem! Cadmium, from the Periodic Table is used to make both red and yellow oil and acrylic-based paints–another technological innovation in painting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylic_paint.

Art Meets Science: Yves Klein International Blue

Back in the late 1950’s, the French artist Yves Klein, with the aid of Edouard Adam, a Parisian paint dealer, developed a pigment known as IKB (International Klein Blue). Using an alternative to the traditional linseed oil base, which tends to cloud the color, Klein produced a paint the color of the mineral lapis lazuli.

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Lapis Lazuli
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IKB – International Klein Blue
Klein’s purpose was not only to make a better blue; he wished to evoke the “authenticity of the pure idea.” Prior to IKB, his monochromatic paintings had been of a variety of colors and people reacted to a gallery showing of them as if they were each a part of a mosaic. Not what he had in mind…read more here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yves_Klein)

Science Meets Art: The Art of Science Competition, Princeton University

In 2011, 20 university departments submitted 168 pieces of art to a competition sponsored by Princeton University, around the theme “Intelligent Design.

Click on image below to view 11 of the 56 works chosen. Nothing more needs to be said, other than: “Where are the other 44?

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Model of Earth’s Magnetic Field Reversal