Naomi Clement – Artist Profile

Naomi Clement is a Canadian ceramic artist I met virtually during a Harvard Ceramics virtual studio tour. I was very interested in several things she mentioned during the tour, including a project she did to gather feedback from recipients of her pots on how those people used her work in their lives.

I reached out to Naomi to ask more about this topic and also her use of script in her work.

JW: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what attracted you to ceramics?

NC: I attended an arts high school in London, Ontario. While I originally did printmaking, I never thought I was particularly good at drawing. When I tried clay, I felt this was the first medium I was really good at. I ended up attending the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I then apprenticed with Joan Bruneau, a professional studio potter based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I took a break from ceramics to work in the food and wine industry, but came back to ceramics, ultimately attending Louisiana State University for my M.F.A. in studio art (ceramics), where I graduated in 2017.

JW: During the workshop I attended, you discussed you “Stories I tell” cup project. For the benefit of others, would you describe that project?

NC: Sure. I was doing a residency in Medicine Hat, Alberta, before graduate school. I had written an artist’s statement about how I wanted my pottery to impact the lives of those who owned and lived with it. A friend of mine asked, “How are you going to show that happens?” It was an excellent question. I wrote up a research proposal for a project and that was the genesis of the “Stories I Tell” Cup Project.

I created a series of ceramic cups for my exhibit, and then gave the cups away to members of the public who attended the show. In return, I asked each recipient to send me information on what they did with the cup. I provided a self-addressed postcard for their use. I got quite a bit of feedback from recipients. All the post cards I received are posted on my website.

JW: And what did you learn?

NC: I suppose I learned about the varied ways my work became a part of people’s lives. One person told me that she used the cup to hold her chapstick collection. That was something I never would have envisioned or expected. This person transformed my cup into a whole new object that I never imagined. I know now that handmade pots can impact people’s lives, but not necessarily in the grand ways I originally contemplated. Living with and using pottery affects people’s lives in subtle ways. 

A lot of art is created for galleries and maybe even museums. I make things for the home, where people spend time with my work. They embrace it in their everyday lives – enjoying their morning coffee, for example. They may use my mug for ages and then one day, pause and look at my work closely and say, “I never noticed this little detail before.”  I want my work to be part of people’s daily lives. There’s an interaction between me, my work and the person that holds my work – even if that happens over time and I’m not consciously aware of all of it.

JW: Do you have any other projects in mind for gathering feedback?

NC: Not immediately. I am interested in how my work is used, but I wouldn’t do another project just like this. It could get gimmicky and I want to avoid that. Nowadays, I get some feedback on social media. I see photos on Instagram that tell me how some of my work is used or displayed in a person’s home. That didn’t exist when I did the “Stories I tell” Cup Project.

JW: You incorporate script into your pottery. Can you tell me how and why you do that?

NC: I’ve always been fascinated by handwriting. It’s a way of leaving your mark, of telling your story. And I just love the way script looks. Originally, I acquired some correspondence from my grandparents, back from when they were dating as young people. At the time I acquired the letters, my grandparents were going into long-term care. I always cherished these letters and the snapshots they provided about two people falling in love.

In grad school, I started experimenting with using bits and pieces from these letters in my ceramics. At that point my grandparents were both gone, so there was an element of connecting in some way with my family in some sense.

I originally started with text from my grandparents’ correspondence, but later worked with the handwriting on some recipe cards used by women in my family. There’s a celebration of domestic life that really appeals to me.

JW: What is the process you used to incorporate text into your work?

NC: I would scan and enlarge text elements, then use a laser to cut the shapes out of newsprint. I used those cut-outs as stencils. I still incorporate text elements into my work, but with the Coronavirus I don’t have access to a laser so I’m having to change my process somewhat.

I find that people are also quite interested in what the text says, literally, and I’m more interested in the gesture and graphic shape of the script than the literal meaning of the words. I do have a personal connection with the text, but that’s not necessarily what I’m bringing into my ceramics.

JW: My sense is that you are interested in more than just the ceramic pieces you create. You seem to also focus on the connections between your work and either your past or the people who acquire your work. How do you reconcile that with making a living as a ceramic artist?

NC: I will admit that it’s somewhat of a battle making a living as well as staying engaged with these aspects of my work. I’m lucky that people support me and buy my work. But sometimes that can make it feel difficult to change and evolve. 

JW: Are you constrained from trying something quite different?

NC: No. At the moment, I make changes on a smaller, more incremental scale. Some artists completely change what they produce in one full swoop. My tendency is to make smaller changes. That said, I do have a different line of work called “naked pots” that are spare and less decorated. It’s another way for me to experiment.

JW: You are very intentional about each aspect of each piece you create (the shape of handles, where you place them on a mug, how you adhere them to the mug, etc.).

NC: When you make a functional object, it needs to have intention behind it if you want it to function well. How it fits in a person’s hand, how it works when, for example, the cup is tilted. It’s important to me.

JW: Where do you see yourself taking your ceramic work going forward?

NC: This pandemic has really changed things. As artist I spend a lot of time alone. Formerly, workshops gave me a break. Now, not as much. Workshops and teaching also represented a big part of my income. I’m now doing online workshops, which have both positive and negative sides. On the positive side, in an online workshop everyone has a front-row seat, more people can afford the class, an infinite number of people can attend, and attendees come from all over the world. I’ve had students participate from Israel and Dubai. On the other hand, I miss the community aspect of in-person workshops. A good workshop has back-and-forth dialog that’s sometimes is missing online. That dialog makes me think about my work in different ways. Everything has been thrown on its head with Covid. 

Moving forward, I’ll continue to make incremental changes and progress. Something I’d like to try is bringing my designs to 2D surfaces (like drawings & paintings). To do that, I’d like to do a residency – change out of familiar space and routine. But that isn’t likely to happen soon. I’m also interested in making tiles – as more of a technical experiment.

Naomi’s website is: naomiclement.com. Her work may be purchased online at companiongallery.com

Naomi also lists upcoming virtual workshops on her website.

delecTABLE 2020 Exhibition

delecTABLE 2020, a national juried biennial exhibition with pieces centered around the fine art of dining begins on July 28, 2020. The exhibit includes a display of selected 2D artists with food-themed works, and the work of ceramics faculty and staff of the sponsoring arts organization, the Art Students League of Denver.

Unfortunately, like so many other shows this year, delecTABLEs is virtual due to the Coronavirus pandemic. But please take a moment to browse through the work. Two of my pieces were selected for the show (a Hila-shouldered Sgrafitto pot and a set of four Sgrafitto drinking cups):

The juror, Liz Zlot Summerfield, will announce awards via Facebook Live, tentatively scheduled for Thursday, August 6, 2020.

Mining Glaze Materials in Colorado

Carl Judson runs Judson Pottery, a commercial ceramic studio located on the Phantom Canyon Ranch 20 miles north of Ft. Collins, Colorado. Carl mines his own glaze materials from mineral deposits on ranch property. He offered to show me where he found his materials and how he prepares them for glazing.

“It’s not difficult to find glazing materials,” Carl says. “Almost anywhere you fire at stoneware temperatures you can find materials to use in within walking distance, or at most a short drive away. Readily available materials are one reason ceramics are so widely produced across the globe,” he continues. “The main difficulty is breaking down minerals that you find into small enough particles (about 200 mesh) that will properly suspend in fluid when applied as a glaze.”

Carl got interested in ceramics as a high school student. He read several influential books, including Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book and Michael Cardew’s Pioneer Pottery, which contained the gem of the idea of locally-sourced materials for ceramics. He also studied chemistry and has a keen interest in geology.  He told me he would sneak out of school to explore the hillsides for minerals.

In his mid-20s, Carl attended a lecture about ancient Chinese glazes, where the lecturer mentioned the use of granite in glazes. Knowing where he could find local granite deposits, he ground it up and put the granite into a glaze as an experiment. He has continued to mine materials and refine his glazes ever since.

We drove down several unpaved gravel roads near Carl’s ranch house. We first stopped near an exposed cliff revealing some purple-tinged rock under sandstone deposits just 20-30 feet of the roadside. “This is a remnant of the Fountain Formation from about 300 million years ago, the precursor to the Rocky Mountains that appeared about 60 million years ago,” Carl explained. “The earlier Fountain Formation mountains eroded away, revealing these conglomerate deposits. That purple tint indicates iron in the rock. Iron will produce a greenish hue in any glaze.”

We next stopped at a small roadside cut-away. “That yellowish material is very low-grade, impure clay, which we use in our brown slip glaze. We add some materials like schist, which I’ll show you later, to make this brown slip glaze harder and more durable. On many of our pots, we apply this brown slip glaze across the entire piece, then use wax or some type of stencil resist to create patterns, and over that we apply a clear glaze. In the kiln, both the clear glaze and the brown slip glazes melt.”

A mile or two down the road we came to another roadside cliff face. “This is granite sandstone. You can see this particular layer is yellowish and not red. Nearby iron deposits haven’t leached into this rock. It’s basically just small pieces of ground-up granite held together with a mineral cement. It’s easy to grind down and forms the basis of our clear glaze. Every 2-3 years I come up here with some 5 gallon buckets and stock up with a supply.”

The primary ingredients in granite are feldspar, quartz and mica.

Our final stop was alongside the road just above a beautiful creek. Here, Carl pointed out schist, which is metamorphic rock that intruded into the granite sandstone deposits under high pressure. “You’ll see dark stripes of this schist alongside the roads driving up into the Rockies,” Carl explained.

“Shist is extremely hard rock. We grind some of the is up and use it as a hardening agent for our brown slip glaze.”

Returning to Carl’s ranch, he showed me some of the equipment he uses to grind his materials. “We use two types of machines. One is a hammer mill, the other is a ball mill. The hammer mill will grind rock down to about 8 mesh, and the ball mill will reduce 8-mesh slurry down to about 200 mesh, which is what we use in our glazes.”

Hammer mill

Ball mill

“I’m personally fascinated by mid-19th Century technology, and have built my pottery production around technology of that era. With newer technology you can get more uniformity and higher throughput, but I like the pace and the slight imperfections that Civil War era technology produces. Both the hammer mill and the ball mill were used in Civil War times. If you had a small creek running nearby, that was sufficient to drive the action of both mills. We use small electrical motors here, but the technology is still the same.

In the ball mill, for example, we build a ceramic container, fill it with porcelain balls and some stones, and then dump the 8 mesh slurry into the mill. After several days, the slurry grinding through these balls and stones will reduce in size to about 200 mesh.”

“We also produce our own ash for glazing here. We use ash from a large hay fire up the road, not wood ash. We first soak the ash in water to remove solvable caustics. These caustics, if not removed, would soak out of the glaze and into the bisque clay body, changing firing characteristics of both glaze and clay. We don’t want that.

So we essentially leach out the caustics with several rounds of water soaking. We then put the washed slurry into the ball grinder, reducing it to a 200 mesh level. After that, we dry the ash for storage.”

“Simple wood ash plus clay is thought to have been one of the first glazes used in China, about 1500-1000 B.C. Ceramics made during the Shang dynasty frequently use ash glazes (as seen on the right). That simple glaze formula was used extensively in Asian ceramics, but less so in the West or today because it’s not particularly durable.

It needs some alumina and silica. Our home-made ash constitutes about 20% of our clear glaze. The granite sandstone constitutes about 40% of our clear glaze. Lime from local limestone quarry is about 10% of our clear glaze formula.”

Judson Pottery is open for visitors. More information can be found at their website. If you do drop by, say “hi” to Carl for me.

Juan Barroso – Artist Profile

I ran into Juan Barroso’s ceramic art in a recent copy of Ceramics Monthly. I reached out to him and asked if he would be interested in a discussion about his work and influences. Juan was gracious enough to spend some time answering my questions.

Juan’s labor-intensive artwork is intertwined with his family story and personal identity as a Mexican American. His personal recollections of working in clay with his father is very touching.

JW: I see you studied studio art at the University of Oklahoma.  How did you select that program? 

JB: I went to OU as an accounting major. From the start it looked like a place that valued ethnic diversity. After my first year, I was realizing I was unhappy with my choice of major. There was a strange coincidence on my way to buy a baked potato. Several art teachers were standing by desks outside the art building looking at art portfolios or inviting students to enroll. I mostly remember showing photos of my drawings to Jason Cytacki. I can’t remember what he told me, but it made me switch majors. On that day, what had only been a hobby became my life. 

JW: What attracted you to ceramics?

JB: After learning how to paint, I took a ceramics class thinking I’d be working with small ceramic tiles to “paint” pictures. I had no idea it meant mugs, vases, and sculpture. The day I walked into Stuart Asprey’s classroom, I saw all these pots on shelves and realize I’m in the wrong place. I was planning on dropping until I saw how excited Stuart was about ceramics. I stayed out of curiosity and a few weeks later I realized how rewarding it is to drink or eat out of something you made from scratch.

Clay is a humble material that is essentially just eroded rock, but after seeing Aztec and Mayan vessels I saw that despite its fragility, clay can become a permanent record of culture. 

When my dad was a kid in Mexico, he went to a school run by nuns. He was a lefty and they would tie his left arm behind his back. The nuns thought using the left hand was a sign of the devil. My dad was forced to work in his father’s fields and would show up to class with clay on his clothes. Those nuns called him a dirty devil child, and my father grew up ashamed of who he was and the clay on his clothes. He moved to the U.S. and worked in every construction job he could find. When I was old enough I started helping him build fences. I wasn’t as careful so digging fence post holes left me covered in mud. Throwing on the wheel leaves the splatter of clay on my clothes that takes me back to those days of building fences. 

There is an irony in making beautiful works of art out of a material that at one point had stained my father’s clothes and damaged his psyche. To make a positive out of a negative gives me joy. A few months ago my dad helped me make some porcelain water-jugs, and his clothes got clay on it. On our walk to get lunch I pointed at his pants and asked him, “are you not embarrassed to go to the restaurant like that?” His reply was, “what, it’s evidence of hard work.” Two happy clay-covered lefties went to eat that day, and I wondered if those nuns turned in their graves a bit.

JW: Can you describe your early ceramic work and how it has changed over time?

JB: The early ceramic work that I am proud of included mostly patterns from Aztec textiles and indigenous stone sculptures. Before that work, I was afraid to depict what I wanted.The most significant turning point in my work was when my parents became legal residents, which coincided with my first ceramics class. My grandparents and all my uncles and aunts became residents while Reagan was president. All except my mom because she was married. Before their resident status, I lived in fear of their deportation and of showing my Mexican heritage. I was painting random cats, mountain lions, wolves, boats, and turtles.

As soon as my parents became legal residents, I felt the freedom to show where my family came from. I started with their pride in an indigenous past, and I made pieces inspired by the poems of Nezahualcoyotl, a pre-Columbian ruler, warrior, architect, philosopher, and poet. I then moved on to Mexican music and food.

The first trip my family took to Mexico after they received their residency, I found myself taking photos of all the professions people were doing to survive and provide for their families. Those photos found their way into my oil paintings and my paintings on clay. I would say that first trip was another turning point in which I decided my work would be about Mexican labor and humanizing the immigrant. I focused on what immigrants are doing to survive, which has included the dangers of the border and labor within the U.S.

In graduate school I focused on marrying the painted image with a form or vessel that is also related to the content of the image. 

JW: How would you describe what you’re doing with your ceramic work? What are you striving for?

JB: I would say I’m searching for the successful marriage between two-dimensional imagery and three-dimensional form. I believe that hybridity can also reflect a bilingual and bicultural identity. With the current political administration in America enforcing immigration policies that dehumanize and force immigrants into the shadows, recognizing an immigrant’s humanity is vital. Notions of “us” or “them” deteriorate and it becomes clear that most of us are working and fighting to provide a shelter and a decent meal for ourselves and often a family. I hope to pay homage to my people and the dignity with which they work to make a living. 

JW: How did you come to pointillism technique?

JB: At first, pointillism was the answer to a technical problem. When I used watered-down underglaze or mixed different tones of grey underglaze to paint images and applied glaze, the end result lost clarity and contrast of values. It looked hazy and light.

Images with dots, on the other hand, moved closer together as the piece shrank during the firing process and as a result got darker. With a background in drawing and panting, keeping the full range of values made pointillism the best technique for images on clay. 

I started using watered-down underglaze after I realized I did not have to apply glaze over my images. By then, I had established my preference for dots. My process is as important to me as the creation of the final image. Pointillism is a time-consuming and labor intensive technique, and after years of doing this my wrists, fingers, and neck hurt more frequently. My hands have been getting more shaky, but I can’t think of a better way to show my respect and admiration for my people than with labor of love and time invested. 

JW: Why ceramics as a foundation for your images?

JB: My choice to use clay as a canvas is influenced by the images found in Mayan and Aztec ceramic vessels, the patterns of Mata Ortiz pottery, and Talavera Poblana vessels. Images and pattern on clay has been present in Mexican culture for hundreds of years, and I find joy in being a part of that history. It keeps me connected to my roots. 

JW: Where did the sculptural ideas come from?

JB: I realized I was spending 30-60 hours on an image that was placed on a mug or cup that did not relate to the image very well. I consider the forms my weakness and the area that needs the most improvement. Although painting a mug was acceptable and I still do it, I wanted to place my images on a form that would help carry the same message as the image. I wanted the image and the “canvas” to work together.

For example, I see the water jug as a symbol of the dangerous journey across the desert. I saw a video of border patrol officers dumping out water jugs that were left by the humanitarian group No More Deaths to prevent deaths from dehydration. A slip-cast water jug felt like the appropriate form for an image of razor wire from the border or a caged child. Both the form and the image relate to the undocumented immigrant’s experiences at the border. 

Another example could be  “Honoring the Janitor”, a coil-built mop bucket I painted with the image of a single janitor mopping. I made it to honor the labor of the janitors in school, labor that may often go unnoticed or unappreciated. In high school, I noticed many students would ignore the janitors, walking past them as if they were invisible ghosts. My mother used to clean houses, driving around with a bright pink sign on the back car window with the words “Lucy’s House Cleaning Services.”

Because I noticed a lack of respect for the janitor in school, I was embarrassed of that sign when she’d pick me up from school. Years later, while working the closing shift at Michaels, I was mopping the restrooms as clean as my mom would have left them. I realized the dignity with which she worked to provide food and a decent education for my sister and I. I made that sculpture to elevate the mop bucket as well as the labor that it is used for. 

JW: I see a few pieces on your website with a spot of dark red, but otherwise your work is almost exclusively B&W. Have you always worked in B&W?

JB: I have mostly worked in black and white. There is a feeling of “in between-ness” among some Mexican Americans. The feeling that we are too Mexican to feel completely American and too American to be just Mexican. I get the best of two worlds but am rooted in neither. At times this is reflected in my work. The black and white imagery can feel like a ghostly and faded memory, as if the color and beauty of Mexico is barely out of reach.

I have gradually started to use blue, which I associate with Talavera Poblana pottery. My blue is still a desaturated blue, and not the bright opaque blues of Mexico’s pottery and wall tiles. It exists in this “in between” state, a symbol of my bicultural and bilingual identity. 

The technical benefits to black underglaze include a higher contrast of values in the images. I’ve tried red a few times. The images were not as clear and so red is sometimes only used as an accent of color. In the more political imagery, I associate the color red with the deaths of immigrants.

JW: Can you tell me about some of your collaborations?

JB: The collaborative pieces I posted on my website were a result of Companion Gallery’s Collaborative Companions show for NCECA in 2018 and Collaborative Companions II for NCECA in 2019. We were invited to collaborate with two other artists drawn at random from a pool of the participating artists. The invitation proposed collaboration as a chance for cross-pollination, discovery, the hopes of a visual conversation and perhaps a challenge to our way of thinking. Collaboration was a chance to look at your work in a different light. We were asked what we might learn from working with other artists of a different generation, gender, race, orientation, or religion. The goal was a visual conversation, a dialogue instead of two consecutive monologues. 

Images I painted in these collaborative pieces were inspired by conversations with these artists. We got to know each other and we discussed our differences and similarities. What I painted was what we had in common, what reflected both of our experiences. These collaborations inspired me to search for better and more challenging forms as well as consider image placement. 

JW: You reference your Mexican-American background in most of your work. How has your background influenced your work?

JB: The freedom to reference my Mexican heritage in my work is something that I only dreamed of at a time when my parents were a speeding ticket away from deportation. I was too scared or paranoid to express who I am and the values my parents passed down. With my family being either citizens or residents, I think we have now reached some version of the American dream. There was a time in Mexico when we were content to at least share an egg. I get to celebrate the work that got my family where they are now, and I’ve found the ceramic community tolerant and accepting of each other’s differences. 

At times that background I celebrate also means a great pain when I see caged children and the misuse of funds by detention centers. Undocumented immigrants are willing to risk their lives for a chance at a better life. I must admit my family got lucky and making my work is a privilege. 

JW: Do you anticipate any significant changes to your work – or your ability to work – arising from the Coronavirus?

JB: The biggest change so far is not having easy access to a kiln for firing. I bought a new test kiln that arrived defective, and the store that sold it is closed and probably drowning in emails. Things won’t be easy for a while, but I’m happy to still paint the pieces I have bisque-fired so far. I believe I will be painting on canvas significantly more, as well as weaving as a way to cope with current events. 

JW: Where is your work available to view or purchase?

JB: My work is on display on my website (www.juanbarrosoart.com) and available to purchase at Companion Gallery’s website: www.companiongallery.com

JW: What’s next for you?

JB: Now that I have my MFA at UNT, I need to figure out a way to keep making work, which includes setting up a studio space.I want to use the rest of the year to learn more about glaze chemistry, 3D modeling and printing to become a better candidate for teaching positions. I also want to read more about Latin American history.

Clay Tokens and The Origin of Writing

Disclaimer: this post is definitely high on the nerd-ometer scale.

In an earlier post, I described how clay tokens found in ancient Mesopotamia were used as religious souvenirs. I got interested in these early tokens and did some research, ultimately stumbling into a book entitled, “How Writing Came About” by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. The thesis of the book is that small, hand-formed clay shapes were used for 5,000 years as an early accounting system to count goods in prehistoric cultures of the Near East. Perhaps more importantly, the evolution of marks made on these clay tokens and, particularly, on holders for these tokens ultimately set the foundation for human writing.

The author traces the origin and use of small clay objects in distinct shapes (cones, cylinders, spheres, etc) in early settlements across what is now Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, beginning about 8,000 B.C.

She calls these small clay objects “tokens” and, based on archaeological findings, theorizes that tokens were formalized into distinct shapes (e.g., cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc), with each shape representing specific farming goods (e.g., grain, sheep, goat, etc) in early agricultural-based economies. For example, a cone might represent a small basket of grain, a sphere might represent a large basket of grain, and a cylinder might represent a sheep.

The author observes that these clay tokens were among the first example of fired clay objects.

Around 3,500 BC, as societies became more complex and bureaucracies increased, the tokens were adapted to account for finished goods such as bread, rope, jars of oil and even cloth, pieces of furniture and tools.

Since the number of shapes was limited, this additional information was conveyed with markings and incisions on the tokens. Archaeologists have documented patterns used to denote different information, as in these disk shapes to the right.

Initially, these simple clay tokens were accumulated as counters of farming goods. For example, if someone owned 3 sheep, that ownership would be represented by holding 3 plain cylinders. Why these goods needed to be counted is not clear – it appears to relate to some type of storage or taxation system. Over time, archaeologists believe people began either storing the separate clay shapes inside a clay “envelope” or tying the clay shapes together with a string, sometimes also sealing the string with a “bullae” made of clay and carrying the stamp or markings of some administrator.

Clay envelopes were given marks that indicated the number of clay tokens inside. Typically, if there were 3 cylinders inside a clay envelope, a scribe impressed 3 cylinders on the outside of the clay envelop after sealing it.

These exterior markings became more elaborate over time. For example, the author notes:

The invention of numerals … provided a new formula to express numbers of units of goods. We know from the token contents of envelopes that tokens were repeated as many times as the number of items counted. “One jar of oil” was shown by one token standing for a jar of oil; “two jars of oil” by two such tokens, “three jars of oil” by three tokens, and so on. This rudimentary system was replaced … by numerals or signs used to express abstract numbers, such as 1, 2, 3, etc.

So the progression was individual clay shapes representing individual items to envelopes holding those individual clay shapes and marked on the exterior with impressions of those

shapes to pictographs representing numbers of items contained within the envelope. Ultimately, the clay envelopes holding individual clay shapes gave way to tablets marked with signs representing items being counted and quantities.

It’s not a leap to imagine how this foundation evolved into written language, expanding from “thing” (sheep) and “quantity” (10) to include additional information: “10 sheep received from Kurlil”. Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes:

…pictographic tablets inherited from tokens the system of a code based on concept signs, a basic syntax, and an economic content. Writing did away with the greatest inadequacies of the token system by bringing four major innovations to data storage and communication. First, unlike a group of loose, three-dimensional tokens, pictographs held information permanently. Second, the tablets accommodated more diversified information by assigning specific parts of the field for the recording of particular data. For example, signs representing the sponsor/recipient of the transaction were systematically placed below the symbols indicating goods. In this fashion, the scribe was able to transcribe information such as “ten sheep (received from) Kurlil” even though no particular signs were available to indicate verbs and prepositions. Third, writing put an end to the repetition in one-to-one correspondence of symbols representing commodities such as “sheep” or “oil”. Numerals were created. From then on, these new symbols, placed in conjunction with the signs for particular goods, indicated the quantities involved. Fourth, and finally, writing overcame the system of concept signs by becoming phonetic and, by doing so, not only reduced the repertory of symbols but opened writing up to all subjects of human endeavor.

More information on these topics can be found on Wikipedia, at ThoughtCo, and in an online publication by Denise Schmandt-Besserat.

Anna-Marie Magson – Artist Profile

Anna-Marie Magson is a ceramic artist living and working in York, England. Originally trained as a painter, Anna-Marie has over the years moved a lot of her creative focus to ceramics. You will see, however, that her ceramics retain a lot of painterly qualities. Anna-Marie also continues to paint and to work with collage. I spoke with Anna-Marie about the evolution of her work.

JW: You originally studied painting. How has that training and body of work influenced your ceramics?

AMM: I studied Fine Arts (Painting) at art college in Liverpool in the early 80’s. It was a quite unstructured course where student were given freedom to explore their own interests. I initially spent a great deal of time in the life studio, drawing mainly with charcoal.

Obelisks III, 2019 (oil on canvas)

Egon Schiele’s work was an influence. Gradually, I moved from the figurative to the abstract, admiring Paul Klee and then mid century abstract art such as Lee Krasner and William Scott amongst others. Painting became all about shape, texture and color fields for me.

JW: Do you still paint?

AMM: I began painting again to provide background work to display with my ceramics. I now find myself also working with collage and mixed media, again in a style that compliments the pottery.

Grey Rock Study, 2020 (collage)

JW: When did you start doing ceramics – and what drew you to ceramics?

AMM: After graduating from art school, I had no clearly defined career path. My boyfriend (now husband) had studied ceramics and we combined our skills to produce white earthenware domestic ceramics. From the mid 1980’s onwards, we made a living as a small scale craft pottery, firstly in Liverpool and now in our native Yorkshire.

Earthenware samples, 2015

JW: Are there things you can do on a ceramic surface that you perhaps couldn’t do on canvas?

AMM: The 3d form of my pots greatly helps in the evolution of my designs. Different angles and views create interesting shapes to play with, while the surface and texture of the clay gives opportunities to make marks through embossing and sgraffito. Working with wax resist allows me to develop the negative and positive spaces around my abstract designs. There are obvious similarities between my paintings and pots, but I find the internal/external aspects of a 3D vessel invite much more exploration.

JW: You’ve said that you find inspiration in “ancient structures, their weathered surface and the evidence of human mark making.” What examples can you provide?

AMM: Living in York, such a historic city, is inspiring. The different landscapes in this part of Britain – the North York Moors, the dramatic coastline and Yorkshire Wolds are indeed stimulating and uplifting.

Samples from personal collection of antiquities

I feel I am more directly influenced, however, by my continued love of the ancient world. Visits to Rome, Athens, Cyprus, Ephesus in Turkey, and the caves at Lascaux in France have given much to excite me.

There is an almost endless list of sites I have enjoyed – each with variants of weathered human expression, be they mosaics in Paphos, megalithic structures in Wales or the petroglyphs of indigenous peoples in Utah and around the Colorado River.

JW: How has your ceramic work evolved over time?

AMM: The last few years have seen me move away from decorating domestic pottery to working on my current, less utilitarian vessels. The need for practical items has given way to aesthetic principles of form and texture. Shapes are now pared-down, leaving little to distract from the designs.

JW: I see a consistent use of oval forms in your work. Where did that idea come from?

AMM: I find the oval structure of my pots gives a strong but simple outline while allowing a generous, relatively flat surface to decorate. Thrown, cylindrical vessels remind me more of industrial formality – I prefer the more organic forms that hand-building with slabs affords.

JW: I also see layers in your glaze work on many of your pots. Have you always incorporated these transparent/translucent layers in your work?

AMM: Previously, creating quite flat, distinct pattern for the domestic pottery was a priority. Now I build up and then erase areas and layers of color and shape, leaving traces of previous marks, either obvious or suggested. I look to create contrast with sharp details and occasional flashes of color against a soft, limited background palette. On paper, collage and printing appeals – giving me the opportunity to explore layering, translucence while masking off areas presents negative space to exploit. On the ceramics, I do all the decoration with slips, only using a transparent, satin glaze that gives a soft, less sharply defined finish.

JW: How has the Coronavirus situation in the UK affected artists – particularly ceramic artists? 

AMM: Many artists I know have found the situation has led them to discover other ways of being creative. Without access to certain facilities, maybe working more simply with what is available has become apparent. For me, collage has been important in extending my creativity. With many events cancelled, artists and ceramicists have had to increase their use of digital platforms to connect with their audience.

JW: Where do you think you’ll take your work from here? Do you sense a progression in your ceramic work?

AMM: I intend to keep refining my work along the same lines – there is, I feel, still much to explore in my current themes. I am constantly considering and developing ideas and methods with various clays and glazes.

More of Anna-Marie’s work can be found at her website: www.annamariemagson.co.uk

Religious Souvenir Tokens

I purchased these three clay souvenir tokens outside a religious shrine in Thailand. I’ve seen similar clay souvenirs in other Asian countries and in Latin America. I’ve used them as press molds in larger ceramic pieces that I’ve built.

They exude a certain aura of the divine, subtle yet unmistakable.

When using one of these tokens (actually, a reverse-impression of the clay token) as a press mold recently, I started thinking about the origin of clay tokens, especially as souvenirs of religious or spiritual sites around the world.

Religious-themed clay tokens have been found dating back to early Mesopotamian times, 8,000-9,000 years ago.

Archeolologist Joel Palka notes that:

In the ancient Near East, clay tokens were used in temples, human burials, pilgrimage shrines, and ritual caches…  Cross-culturally, worshipers utilize small clay objects for ceremonial purposes, such as pilgrims’ tokens. Clay absorbs spiritual power at shrines in many cultures, making it a significant material for ritual offerings, blessings, or protection. Worshipers place clay tokens at shrines or take them home for family members and sick persons to touch or consume. Similar material contexts suggest that ancient people in the Near East used some clay tokens to gain merit from deities for prosperity, health, and religious devotion.“ (Palka, J.W. “Not Just Counters: Clay Tokens and Ritual Materiality in the Ancient Near East.” J Archaeol Method Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-020-09457-8)

Illustrating Palka’s observation that small clay souvenirs are widespread across the world, clay tokens serving as religious icons were manufactured in the early Christian world. These two souvenir tokens celebrating the life of Saint Symeon the Elder date back to the 6th-7th century.

https://art.thewalters.org/detail/31121/pilgrim-token-from-the-shrine-of-st-symeon/

Saint Symeon was an ascetic, one of a group of Stylite “pillar dwellers” known for living alone & unsheltered atop high stone columns for 47 years of his life, practicing self-mortification in religious devotion. Apparently this drew a crowd. Ultimately, a group of followers settled around Saint Symeon’s column, eventually growing into a large pilgrimage complex along the major crusader route from Europe to the Holy Land. Souvenir tokens, purportedly created from the dust surrounding the columns on which Symeon stood, were sold to passing pilgrims. The tokens, stamped with the image of Symeon, were believed to hold great curative powers, as if the pilgrim were touching the hand of Saint Symeon himself. (See: Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics, Valentino Gasparini, Maik Patzelt, et al.)

https://art.thewalters.org/detail/31677/pilgrim-token-of-saint-symeon/

[One odd thing to note: there was a Saint Symeon the Elder and a Saint Symeon the Younger – presumably father and son. Clearly living in isolation on top of a stone pillar for 47 years was somehow attractive to the ladies. Go figure.]

Other examples of clay religious-themed souvenirs are these these two pilgrim flask mementos of St. Menas, pictured in both instances with his arms outstretched in a blessing. Both are ceramic ampullae (small holy-water flasks brought from pilgrimage places as a souvenir, and mass-produced in Early Byzantine times). They were found at Abu Mena, near Alexandria in Egypt.

The first example is held in the British Museum (item number EA69839). It is dated as late Roman, apx. 480-650. It was made from a mold and is stamped in Greek “O ΑΓIOC ΜΗΝΑC,” translated as Saint Menas.

The second example is held in the Louvre Museum.

These small religious tokens made of clay represent a continued tradition of human creative activity that has lasted over 9,000 years. Think about that for a minute. In today’s world, any one of us may live 100 years, experiencing perhaps 6 generations (our grandparents to our great grandchildren). People have been making these clay souvenirs for 400 – 450 contiguous generations, and we still find them on display in small roadside stands near temples and churches across the globe.

Yana Payusova – Artist Profile

Yana Payusova was born in Leningrad, USSR. She was trained as a painter at the St. Petersburg Fine Art Lyceé, and received her MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder after immigrating to the U.S. Yana exhibits her work nationally and internationally. Her paintings and ceramics incorporate symbols of folk art, Russian icons, graphic poster art, illustration, and comics, and reflect Yana’s cultural heritage and her training in traditional Russian realist painting. I reached out to Yana after seeing her work exhibited at the Northern Clay Center’s “Horror Vacui” show. She graciously agreed to an online interview in these isolating Coronavirus times.

JW: Yana, what attracted you to ceramics?

YP: In my work as a painter, I always felt the urge to move into the third dimension.

When I was making paintings on canvas, I tended to use very thick stretcher bars and continued the intricate and detailed painting on all four sides of the canvas (even though a viewer would never be able to see most of those surfaces when the work was hanging in a gallery/museum).

I knew that I wanted to break out of the flat surface, but could not think of an approach that did not feel gimmicky. I always admired ceramics from afar, but did not see an entry way into the medium. Ceramics seemed to me to have a very steep learning curve and come with too many possibilities and choices. However, in 2013 two things happened that changed the trajectory of my artistic practice.

First, I came up with an idea to create a series of heads and at the same time came across the work of Katharine Morling. Morling’s work is visually stunning but very restrained in the materials she uses (white clay body decorated with black slip).

Her sculptures look almost like three-dimensional drawings. It was a Eureka moment and I dove off the deep end. Initially it was a very frustrating process, as I had to fail again and again (and again!) before I started to figure out the process, the materials, the timing, etc. One project turned into many and I never looked back.

JW: Had you worked with ceramics earlier in your career? What started you down this path?

YP: I worked with clay a little bit when I began my training at the St. Petersburg Art Lycée (Russia) at the age of twelve, but we did not fire the work nor did we have any glazes. As I mentioned, I always admired ceramics from afar, but could not decide what I wanted to do with it. In my graduate program at the University of Colorado at Boulder we participated in graduate seminars with students from other disciplines, including ceramics. At that time, I also thought that sculpture, as a broad medium, was going through a Renaissance of sorts in the contemporary art scene. I kept seeing work that resonated with me that was ceramic in nature. What the artists did with the medium was endlessly surprising and varied.

JW: How have the properties of ceramics influenced your artistic development?

YP: I always loved the physicality of clay. Loved how it warmed to the touch and responded to one’s direction. However what I find to be its most irresistible quality is its versatility. One can make dainty functional works and giant abstract sculptural pieces and slip cast multiples, etc. One can literally take it in any direction one desires. Also clay is cheap so it’s a somewhat democratic medium.

JW: Do you think of yourself as a ceramic artist now – or is your work in ceramics just one phase of your creative arc?

YP: I think of myself as an interdisciplinary artist. I have always painted, but used various media in my practice. For example my MFA thesis was photographic in nature but the surface was layered with drawings, paintings, and digital scans.

JW: In your “Revolutions” series, you created these interesting, intertwining bowl forms covered with narration. What was the origin of this work?

YP: Again it was one of those moments when an idea for a project came to me, at the same time I was teaching my Comics and Sequential Art course at the University of Arizona and was looking at a lot of wordless novels and woodcuts from the 1920s and 30s. At the same time I came across Akio Takamori’s erotic vessels and just fell in love with the complexity of the form and surface. The series began with a small homage piece to Takamori. As soon as I finished the first piece, I knew I wanted to keep going.

“Revolutions” explores the dynamics of power and gender… The vessel functions as a circular canvas whose interior and exterior spaces are activated with imagery examining the ever-changing roles of women and cultural gender norms.

Clay forms are hand-built using the coil technique, then bisque-fired before they are painted with underglazes in layers, and scratched into the painted surface. The color palette is purposely restricted to one traditionally used in printmaking: most of the imagery is black and white, an homage to the stark language of the woodcut print. Red is also added as an essential primary color.

JW: What prompted you to utilize bowl shapes as the foundation for these narrations?

YP: I think of the pieces as spherical vessels, very body-like. I liked being able to work on the two surfaces (interior and exterior) simultaneously and enjoyed the fact that the two surfaces continually interacted with one another, as the viewer moved around the piece. I was able to stay very spontaneous and intuitive as I worked on the surface as large stretches of the surface were two dimensional. It was almost like drawing on a flat surface. I liked the fact that the imagery was endlessly looping. It felt animated and almost cinematographic.

JW: You incorporate so much imagery from your Russian origins — what draws you to that imagery and those cultural references? 

YP: I lived in Russia until I was seventeen and I am obviously hugely influenced by Russia’s culture, folklore and traditions. Some of the imagery is steeped in nostalgia. Some of the imagery is not meant to look Russian but is because it is deeply personal. I believe that in the personal lays the universal. Even though the imagery looks Russian at first glance, the surface is not impenetrable to the viewer.

JW: In Revolutions, you seem to be moving beyond strictly Russian imagery. (There are certainly Russian elements, but they don’t seem to dominate the images as in your earlier work.) Is this a change in direction for you? 

YP: Though my choice of influences and imagery transcends boundaries of space and time, my own cross-cultural existence plays a crucial role in shaping my individual perspective and aesthetic. Revolutions is a series about the female experience. Most of the figures that you see in the series are unclothed. Once we remove the clothes and various other attributes it’s much more difficult to specify the ‘country of origin,’ so to speak. There are some cultural nuances in what it’s like to be a woman in today’s society in Russia but there are many overlapping complexities of sexuality, motherhood, and mortality.

JW: Where will you take your art from here?

YP: My fascination with memory and identity continues in Gravis, a large-scale sculptural installation that investigates the importance of materiality to recollection and personal narrative. I describe the work as follows:

Life-size portraits, juxtaposed with assemblages of artifacts, invite contemplation of the embodiment of individual experience in accumulated belongings. Assembled items, when viewed alongside the personal depictions, will encourage each viewer to construct a narrative built from the imagined experiences embodied in each object. The act of observation thus becomes a participatory and collaborative process that investigates the productive tension between emotional and intellectual engagement with the concepts of memory, materiality, and identity. Human figures, embellished with inventories of personal objects, represent the encoded experiences and artifacts of the dissolved Soviet Union and encapsulate the enormous impact of radical political and cultural shifts on collective memory, which is repeatedly modified, reconfigured, and woven into personal histories.

JW: Will you continue employing ceramics?

YP: In the foreseeable future – yes!

JW: Are there directions you want to push the ceramic “foundation” in your art – or are you more focused on pushing the painted imagery and narratives that rest on that foundation?

YP: I would like to experiment more with various glazes, stains, englobes and get more expressive with the surface. I am currently in the process of applying for some artist residencies where I can take the time and space to do so. I do think that it’s useful to continue to learn new processes, as it expands what is possible in the studio.

JW: As an art professor, are you seeing more programs and students gravitating toward ceramics in their art (or as part of their art)?

YP: Ceramics are hugely popular today. I think that the physicality of the medium and the tactile quality of clay is very grounding in today’s online existence.

Mimbres Pottery Database (MimPIDD)

After listening to a webinar on Mimbres Pottery, offered through the Crow Canyon Archeological Center on June 11 (available as a YouTube recording at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKReeOR_6e8), I contacted Dr. Lekson to ask some questions about topics he discussed. Dr. Lekson referred me to the Mimbres Pottery Images Digital Database (MimPIDD), a digital collection of Mimbres pottery images (and data associated with the pots) available to the public with a simple registration. The link to MimPIDD is: https://core.tdar.org/collection/22070/mimbres-pottery-images-digital-database-with-search.

The introduction to MimPIDD states, in part:

“The Mimbres Pottery Images Digital Database (MimPIDD) is a collection of over 10,000 images of Mimbres ceramic vessels, among the most spectacular and renowned prehistoric pottery in North America. The Mimbres archaeological culture, concentrated in southwest New Mexico, is particularly noted for its stunning black-on-white style bowls, which were often decorated with naturalistic designs (especially ca. A.D. 1000-1130)…. Numerous collections of Mimbres pottery vessels exist, scattered across many countries and dozens of museum and private collections. …. The MimPIDD image collection and database brings together visual and descriptive information from many of these collections, allowing easy access to a wealth of disparate data. Created by Harvard Peabody Museum Curator Steven LeBlanc and Arizona State University Professor Michelle Hegmon, MimPIDD contains images and data from more than 75 collections and more than 140 archaeological sites.”

Although designed for academic research, the site affords anyone the ability to view Mimbres pottery while Coronavirus travel restrictions persist. It also allows the viewer an opportunity to refine his/her search criteria for subsequent in-person visits to museums. Typically, when requesting such in-person visits, a museum asks either for specific item numbers

#10021, Style III Bowl from Swarts. 2012 ( tDAR id: 382393) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8S46RSF

you want to view, or for key object criteria (such as period of time, historical phase, identifying marks or styles, etc). This resource can help you answer some of those questions.

Big Pot Workshop

In May 2019, I attended the “Big Pot Workshop & Pig Roast” at Judson Pottery in northern Colorado. Master potter Dan Toberer demonstrated his construction of large clay amphora which he sells to craft breweries. Tim Barry, a partner with Dan in Omaha, NE’s “Hot Shops Art Center” lead a discussion ranging from technical topics on ceramic production to large-scale public art commissions.

The workshop location was the Judson Pottery, set on the Phantom Canyon Ranch in northern Colorado. Judson Pottery was a regional ceramics production facility established 50 years ago and is still used today by the owners for small-scale pottery production. Phantom Canyon Ranch once covered over 140 square miles spanning from the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park on its southern border to close to the Wyoming border on its northern edge.

The setting was extraordinary. The workshop itself was in the old barn. Workshop attendees could wander around the site, inspecting several large kilns. The workshop was interesting. I met great people, including nearby ranchers who came by after the workshop to enjoy the pig roast. Interestingly, several ranchers I met there had lived & worked in Central America, including one man who lived in the same Costa Rican town I lived in during my Peace Corps days. Small world. Dan brought some home-made beer to share with workshop participants. During these Coronavirus safer-at-home days, I think back fondly to that well-spent day in Colorado: cold beer, roasted pig, great conversation, and a workshop.