Art as the Cultivation of Your Own Story
Good morning! Today, I’d like to talk about “Cultivating Art and Discovering Your Own Story.” If we’re Facebook friends, you probably know that I’m an artist as well as a writer. So, in addition to writing memoirs and short stories, I do all sorts of art: painting, collages, art boxes of found objects (if you’ve ever seen the work of Joseph Cornell, you’d know what I mean), ceramics (objects made out of clay and fired to high temperatures in a kiln—as opposed to “pots”), and sculpture. Today, I’d like to talk about one facet of the work that I’m doing—which is in ceramics.
When I was in my early 20s, I started collecting interesting pieces of lace that I’d find in places like thrift stores, the Salvation Army, or antique stores. In fact, many old things fascinated me. I could see the beauty in such things very easily. I attributed this to the fact that I grew up in an 86-room house that was built by a steel baron in 1897. I knew from a young age that the kids at school didn’t have 14-foot high stained glass windows in their homes, foyers the size of kitchens, or two ballrooms—a big one and a “small” one. I loved the fact that the kids in my neighborhood thought the house I lived in was haunted—and that when I’d have a group of kids over and wanted them to go home—or just wanted to have some fun—I could just say, “Listen…I think I hear the ghost,” and they’d run screaming from the house.
I lived in a similar house in college–Victorian and much smaller, it only had 15 rooms. One of favorite projects in college was when my Art & Design teacher gave us an assignment about texture. She had us find textures around our house. We were to place a piece of paper over them and rub black crayon on them to make an impression of the image/texture. The professor was liked what I found—intricate designs from grates, radiator covers, lighting fixtures, door frames, even the walls. I was living in a house full of texture, much like the house I grew up in. My concentration in college was on sculpture but, after graduation I didn’t have access to the equipment I needed so I put that part of my life on hold.
About 20 years ago, when I started taking ceramics classes again, I thought of that exercise in texture. How much I loved capturing those images on paper… and how interesting it was to combine several of the textures into unique designs of their own. I had just moved and had come across the pieces of lace I’d collected. I had the idea of impressing the lace into soft clay, as a way of capturing the image. The images of lace are so beautiful that I wanted to turn the clay into wall hangings or sculptures. Two years ago, I started taking classes again at the Ann Arbor Potters Guild so that I could have access to good equipment. For example, you need a huge slab roller to roll out a sheet of clay that will be useful. Some people can do that with a rolling pin, but I’ve never been able to manage that. My arms just aren’t strong enough. And besides, for what I wanted to do, I had to have good, even slabs that were thick enough to withstand temperatures of 2500 degrees when they are fired. And, of course, you need a kiln for that.
Since I’m also a writer, my plan all along has been to incorporate words—a poem, a phrase, a bit of written history—into these wall hangings and sculptures. But I haven’t done that yet because I’m still perfecting the images I’m using and, frankly, if you’re going to incorporate words into a piece of clay—something that will be fired and permanent and can’t be changed—well, they’d better be good. Nothing was coming to mind.
From the very first time I started collecting lace what was on my mind were things like: the history of lace, along with the history of textiles, women’s work, children’s work in the pre-industrial revolution, the repetition of work, the repetition of making consumer goods…the very “cost” of lace … in terms of physical labor and human suffering… To me, lace is a very feminine art and that in itself is a statement. Lace takes a huge place in our history… Similar to the Tulip Bulb craze that took place in Holland and around Europe, there was a Lace Craze in the 16th and 17th centuries. And in some ways, that craze still exists. If you’re in Venice, you can visit the islands of Murano (which specializes in glass) and Burano (which specializes in lace).
My plan all along has been to incorporate words that will make what I’m doing more obvious. After I more firmly determine which lace pieces I will use – and in what formats, I plan to write a brochure about what I’m calling the Pottery and Lace Series—and will include it with each piece. And I have plans to use lace in projects that will be more sculptural.
A lot of people who see my work “get it” right away. Somewhere along the line, they’ve read about or considered the issues of women’s work, textiles, and repetitive labor. But I know that some people look at these ceramics and think, “Oh. She just took a piece of lace and is using it over and over and over again. How …uncreative.” I know this because they’ve told me so. And they might be right. But here’s the thing about repetition. Repetition is an act of cultivation. The best teachers—and best artists I know—advise their students, and remind each other, to work in a series. Meaning, take the same image or images or themes and do them over and over and again. Being intentionally repetitive is one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard, regarding making art.
Repetition is the seed planted into the ground. By constantly “watering it” …. You’re helping it grow. Who knows where a series in art—like a train of thought—will go. But, unless you do this, you’ll never know. Everything else runs the risk of being a “one-off”—an image that lingers by itself.. a lone wolf… that doesn’t travel anywhere. Most artists and writers I know have a favorite piece that they wish they’d done more of. … writers in particular often mention running across a piece of writing that was nearly finished and how much they regret not finishing it and not trying that piece or a similar one again.
The ceramicist who manages the clay studio I work in now recently said to me, “Well, unfortunately, if you look at Etsy, everybody is doing lace-impressed pottery now.” And, of course, she’s right. Granted, MOST of them are not using the process I use (which is too detailed to go into here), so their work looks different. They’re using beautiful but thick glazes that obscure the delicate features of the lace. I use a process where I use only underglazes and fire twice. The underglazes are so thin that the delicate threads of the lace are captured. BUT: There are potters in Ann Arbor who are now using the same process…with lace! Whoever said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” never tried to sell their artwork for a profit. Then my mentor asked me, “So, what are you going to do, now that impressed-lace pottery is getting popular? The only way to remain distinctive is to tell your own story.” She knows that I’ve planned to add words and bits of history and identify the kinds of lace. But, she is right. It needs more. “You have to figure out exactly why you’re doing this. What’s behind it? Through this work, you need to tell YOUR unique story.”
It made sense. But I had no idea what my unique story was.
A couple of weeks ago, a former work friend named Sally came into town and wanted to have lunch. She had a gift for me: curtains her mother had given her that were trimmed in Dutch lace. She is in the process of getting rid of things, traveling lighter into the next phase of her life. She asked me if I could use the lace in my ceramics in some way. I was thrilled—and honored— and said yes. And she was happy when I told her that the lace can be used over and over again and won’t be destroyed. She had assumed that using it would destroy it. Repetition. She wants to purchase what I make with this lace. But, of course, it will be a gift.
Sally asked me how I came up with the idea of pottery and lace—and I told her what I’ve told you. And then I told her about how my mentor said that I need to find the story behind why I’m doing this. As we talked, something came to mind that I hadn’t thought of for years…
A family story. My family were French and lived in Belgium.
The family lore was that my grandmother’s sister was about to get married at the ripe old age of seventeen and was making her own wedding gown. There was a dress shop in the town they lived in – Jumet—and it was having a contest for the best bridal dress. Well, of course, you know what happened: She entered her own wedding gown and won. Not only did she get the first-place prize money, but a rich woman bought the gown for her daughter’s wedding. The sister and her fiancée had been saving their money. Now, they had what they needed to go to America. Her father—my great grandfather—decided that even though she wasn’t too young to get married, she was too young to go to America by herself. He went with the young couple to America—and secured a job for himself—he was a glassblower. Soon he convinced most of his male relatives to go to America. He ended up managing plants in Independence, Kansas; Ford City, Pennsylvania; and the town of Jeannette, aptly named for all the French and Belgian glass blowers who lived there. The family arrived here in 1904. He went back to Belgium three years later to get the rest of the family. (Whenever this story was told, I would get very sad, thinking of the young girl who sold her very own wedding gown—that she had worked so hard on—for money. It didn’t help that every time my grandmother told this story, she’d pause and end it with “We should have never come to this country.”)
At lunch with Sally, I recalled the main feature of the wedding gown: it was practically all made of lace.
When I told Sally this, she—a writer—said, “Well, there you have it! That’s your story!” If it weren’t for Sally, I’m not sure I would have put that story together. (But that’s the story that I need to tell through these pieces—the real reason why lace has been, and remains so interesting to me.)
And what occurred to me as I thought about telling you my story is that each piece of art IS a story in and of itself. Art arose because there were stories to tell – from the cave artists to the makers of the most fascinating and enduring stories in the world.
And, of course, there are some stories we may perhaps never figure out… (Just think of the work of Jackson Pollock.)
And so, now I ask you: What is your favorite piece of art? What do you think is its story? What is yours as you look at it?