St. Peter's Abbey is certainly a great place to be productive. At the very least, the surroundings are so foreign that there's no forgetting you're here for a particular purpose. Here's an except I wrote earlier in the week in which Lee tries to make the difficult leap from being a student to being a professional artist.
Most artists, I suspect, have ways of "doodling" while they keep one part of their mind distracted so that the creative part can do its work. Let me know if Lee's way of doing this seems to trivialize the process.
Lee had been told after the examination of her thesis – both her essay on Empedocles and her exhibition of teapots – that she was quite good at melding theory and practice. But as soon as she could tell that her committee was happy with her defence and that she was going to pass, she began thinking about getting ready for Bazaart, where her thoughts about her practice didn't matter. The people who came to craft shows didn't want essays on Empedocles or teapots with mushroom clouds billowing out of their lids. If they wanted you to come down on one side of the transparent fuzzy line between art and craft, they wanted you on firmly on the craft side. They didn't care whether your bowl or mug had an idea. She suspected they wanted to know if it was attractive, nice to touch and hold, and matched their decor. She has other goals. She wants to make work with self-respect, something no one else has made. All the work she turned on the wheel had the imprint of her hands, but she wants her work to also have the imprint of her imagination.
So a couple of days after her defence in April, after she'd found all the ways she could think of to passively-aggressively rail at her father for fucking her over [He's selling the house and moving to Swift Current, where he wants to become an organic farmer] – she'd tried silence (he didn't seem to notice), she'd tried picking fights (he ignored the bait), she'd even hidden the overnight supply of makeup and shampoo and tampons Chrissie left in her dad's bathroom, taking them out of “her” drawer and putting them under the sink behind the toilet cleaner. – After she got over herself, as her mother would have said, she decided it was time to do something productive. So she hauled out the box in the bottom of her closet to look at the best work she'd done during her degrees.
From each set of her experiments, each time she played with a kind of clay or shape, underglaze or glaze or firing technique, she choose the best piece for what she thought of as her own archive. Others put their highest prices on this work in the student sale they held each term in the Riddell Centre. She'd noticed, though, how careful they were to make everything predictable, workmanlike. Somehow after she knew that she was in love with the feel of clay in her hands, in love with the way it it centred her as she centred it on the wheel and it rose to her bidding, her early decision to keep the best of everything as her own personal record liberated her to play a little more with form or decoration. So she took it all out of its box and set it around her on the floor of her room: the early thick terra cotta bowl simply glazed, the stoneware where she practised a kind of calligraphic underglaze the way Jack Sures did, though instead of using his dancing loops, hers were variations first on the pi sign and later other Greek letters. She played with them, sometimes putting a tiny sprinkling of them at the edge of a plate or a trailing them down a vase, until they morphed into her own expressive vocabulary. Then there's the work that's trying to be art, as she got ready to write her thesis. She'd read that potters needed to think of themselves more as sculptors, so she'd tried stoneware vases in the balanced elegant forms you see in Greek black figure pottery. But she'd thrown them rather thick, and when the were leather hard, she'd started incising them, scraping away part of their beautiful form while she left the classic neck or the rounded bottom half of the body alone. Or she'd carve them, even opening them in places, willing to let the kiln have their way with them. If they chose to slump, so be it.
Sitting on the floor of her room with her work all around her lit by wan April sunlight had been disorienting: she felt gay and sad, elated and sorrowful at the same time. The floor of her room was the only place she could have some privacy and spread her work out so she could see it all. Sitting there, her legs splayed on the faded cotton rug her mother had bought also made her feel like a child again. Her dad's comments at her defence made her see the work before her as a record of a childhood: her sandbox play. This was what the last six years of her life had been about? The memories of classes and conversations and arguments seemed so rich and complex, filled with illumination and questions, epiphanies and befuddledment, some puzzles solved, others still reverberating in her mind. Yet her father's suggestion that she needed to settle down and make workmanlike mugs that people who didn't give a hot damn for pottery would buy was demoralizing. Had he done that on purpose?
Her defense was over, her dad was suggesting she needed to be turned into a worker bee on the spot (what have I been doing for the last four years, Dad, working 15 to 20 hours a week at Roca Jack's to pay for classes and books and clay, leaving you with enough savings to buy a fucking farm?), and he was dismantling her home to go off and pursue his own pipe dream. Literally. She suspected he and Chrissie would find someplace secluded to grow some pot.
On the other hand, what stood before her in the frail sunlight, patterned like lace from the shadows of the branches and the buds on the trees, was the story so far, with its suggestions about where she might go in the future. She could see the learning before her in a kind of wild arc.
More experienced ceramicists had told her that as a newbie she'd need a variety of work. Established potters could make endless plates and bowls in the same design because people knew what to expect of them. Or they could bring nothing but twenty large expensive raku-fired pieces because they had built up a clientele for their work. She'd have to find ways of pulling in people with different tastes. She'd need something edgy for the young and hip, something carefully crafted for the thirty-somethings who wanted to signal their good taste, and something with more of an idea for the collectors – the people she really wanted to cultivate if she didn't want to join the brown mug crowd.
What she needed was a story, her own story. When she was a student with good teachers and a great supervisor, they guided her to the artistic role models she needed to realize her own vision. Now, except for every potter in the universe, she was on her own. She leaned back against her bed, narrowed her eyes to see her work differently, studied her toenail polish – it was badly chipped – stared out the window, willing the sun to work harder, and looked again at her work with narrowed eyes to see it less personally, less in the particular, more in the general. 'Inspire me,' she almost whispered to it, shouted at it, so calm and overwrought was she at the same moment. The glaze on that mug looked a bit like Styrofoam. What did that suggest? It suggested work, the smell of coffee, the stacks of cups she filled hundreds of times in a day. An arc connected several things in her brain. Ah. There it was, her edgy project: she 'd do some miniature take-out coffee cups and design an ironic logo for the lid. People could use them as bud vases or even as boxes for earrings or paper clips. She'd do some larger ones that could be used as mugs, writing orders on them: “soy milk latte with a double shot of hazelnut,” or “non-fat milk cappuccino with a double shot of espresso and a shot of cinnamon.” She always found these order affected, a parody of individuality. Would people know that as a barista in a very unbarista coffee shop she was being ironic? Did it matter? It couldn't matter.
She got up, went into the bathroom for a bottle of nail polish remover and a bottle of nail polish, and sat back down on the rug. She scrubbed away at her toenails, got up again for the clippers, sat down and stared at her work, studying one of the stoneware plates with its inscrutable Greek message on the edge. She put the clippers down, went to her bookshelf and got out a recent book she'd bought on firing. She hadn't gotten far into it, so the photograph she needed (she was sure it was on the left hand page) must be near the beginning. She flipped; she was sure it was this book; she'd taking to reading it while she was preparing for the defence. Firing was the thing she knew least about. Or was it glazes? There it was. The caption read “Anna Stina Naess, translucent porcelain cylinders, electric firing” (Firing 14). It was the plain white translucency she wanted underneath her Greek vocabulary. But not the austere shape. These were handbuilt cylinders decorated with dark scribbles that looked like Kandinsky doodles. She wanted sensuous thrown forms that would take her morphed Greek vocabulary, but planted as spontaneously as Anna Stina Naess had strewn her doodles. She wanted the tension of the formal shape and the arbitrary decoration. It would look cool enough for the thirty-somethings and it would have some self-respect. She hadn't exhausted, by any means, her deconstruction of the Greek pot. That would be her art. Simple glazes—the kind that Lucie Rie used—no decoration, just the carving. Glazes whose colour you couldn't quite name: not quite a mustard, not quite a tan. Soft blue grey green. A teal that shaded off into navy sometimes and nearly into black. These would be the jewels of her table.