Thirty-four years ago, astronomer and Cosmos host Carl Sagan made his famous claim:
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan. “The Lives of the Stars.” Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. PBS. 1980.
Sagan could have been talking about making anything from scratch. His goal was to convey that everything on earth, everything in the universe, is made up of precise combinations of the most basic elements, and those elements were created in stars’ nuclear cores. We could also say, “If you wish to make a pot from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
These star-forged elements combine to form all the components of ceramics: the different strains of clay (silicon and iron), the water used in throwing (oxygen and hydrogen), the arboreal ingredients of glazes (calcium), and even the potter himself (carbon). Entire books could be written focusing solely on one of these ceramic elements.
Copper, for example. Copper red glazes have been meticulously pursued and produced since the fifteenth century in China. The new host of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson, often analyzes the concept of a “Goldilocks planet” – a planet which has the precise conditions for possibly sustaining life. A successful copper red glaze is a “Goldilocks glaze.” Everything in both the recipe and the firing must be perfect.
As Sagan and Tyson have taught us, science is found in everything we do. Baking an apple pie from scratch, developing a new drug, and mixing and firing glazes all rely on experimentation, creativity, and chemical reactions. A potter doesn’t need a degree in chemistry, but he uses some pretty cool science to produce copper red glazes.
Nowadays, gas-fired kilns produce the best conditions for copper red glazes, but ancient Chinese potters created their beautiful pieces using only wood-fired kilns. Many potters do not have regular access to gas- or wood-fired kilns, and use electric ones instead. Electric kilns eliminate the need for constant temperature monitoring, but they are unable to create the atmosphere copper red glazes require.
Copper red glazes need to be fired to a temperature called “cone 10.” This photo shows three cones (small pieces of clay), set up inside a gas-fired kiln. Each of these pieces is made from a different factory-produced type of clay formulated to melt at a certain temperature. A device called a pyrometer can be used to measure the temperature of the air inside the kiln, but what really matters is the temperature of the clay, hence the use of cones. When cone 10 melts, the potter knows the clay is roughly 2345 °F.
Even inside the same kiln, the atmosphere unavoidably varies. The pots below all had the same glaze and firing, but were placed in different areas of the kiln.
The green color on the right also occurs when firing a copper glaze in an electric kiln.
Color, just like copper, depends on the stars. Light from our sun strikes objects on earth, and those objects absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. The wavelengths they reflect are the colors we see. As Tyson puts it:
“Color is the way our eyes perceive how energetic light waves are.” – Neil Degrasse Tyson. “Hiding in the Light.” Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Fox. 2014.
Thankfully, potters did not have to create the universe to make pots from scratch. Their ingredients are already present in the cosmos, swirling in the air and lurking in the earth, waiting for them.
With the winter-threatening winds howling outside, can you believe this sunny photo was taken less than two weeks ago? On Sunday, September 29th, the weather was a summery 80 degrees for the Millstream Arts Festival. Sixty-four artists sweated it out on the streets of St. Joseph, bringing in sales not only for themselves, but also for local businesses.
Joel’s unique symbiotic partnership with the Local Blend continues to cultivate this relationship between artist and business year-round. This was Joel’s fourth year participating in Millstream and his second year throwing pots in front of the Local Blend. This location and his kick-powered wheel have consistently shown to bring in more sales. If you weren’t looking closely as you strolled down Minnesota Street, you may have missed him because of the crowd that gathered to watch pots being made!
Many of you may have heard about (and maybe entered!) Joel’s recent Shark Tank Pottery Giveaway. We selected the winners the day after Millstream, and gave those who stopped by the booth one last reminder to enter.
As fun as this contest was, as much as Joel wants to bring his wheel to national TV – the local community remains paramount to his business model and poignant to him as an artist. This is where his pottery began. The local community is where Joel earns his livelihood, giving him the stability to pursue his bigger dreams and schemes.
Joel participates in 3 weekly farmers’ markets in Sartell, St. Cloud, and St. Joseph, Minnesota. These farmers’ markets, along with art festivals such as Millstream and Art in Bayfront Park in Duluth, Minnesota, cultivate the local emphasis essential to Joel’s artistic philosophy. Here, customers can handle the pottery, watch it being made, and get to know the artist.
Then, when someone takes home a mug, its mysteries become more accessible and appreciated. That spiral in the clay, those finger marks in the glaze, they now have memory and meaning in them.
I remember the first time glazing a pot in Sam Johnson’s ceramics class last year. I had made this slightly uneven coil vase with pockmarked walls nearly an inch thick. The piece was truly ugly, an ogre really, but I couldn’t see the pot as anything other than beautiful. It was my Princess Fiona and I was its Shrek…At least until I glazed it.
Like most naive ceramics students, I pictured glazing just like painting. I picked out a handful of colors using the test tiles as my guide, and then brushed swooping glaze patterns all over my vase. By the time I finished, the pot looked like something straight out a kindergarten arts and crafts class. I on the other hand thought it was a masterpiece – a trophy of abstract art. When the thing (it was beyond a pot at this point) finally came out of the kiln, it was hideous. I looked over at my professor for encouragement. Sam walked over, took one look at my monster, turned to the class and said:
“Opening a kiln can be like Christmas or Halloween. Either the pots look amazing and you fall in love, or the results are horrible and you want to smash everything.”
Unlike my great clay ogre, Joel can’t afford to make ugly pots. He makes his living through pottery, and as a result, his experiments with glaze need to be calculated and precise. He needs to know exactly how each part of the glaze works; how copper, cobalt, and iron make red, blue, and rust colors when the glaze reacts with fire in the kiln. Glazes transform clay bodies from ogres into princesses. However, as Joel continues to explore glaze chemistry, he finds that these potions are often difficult to create. Like the alchemists I wrote about last post, Joel works tirelessly to find the right balance of form and color that’ll turn a clay body into a beautiful work of art. For his livelihood, each glaze must reach for a certain standard of beauty.
Looking back at his previous body of work, I think Joel’s been chasing this certain type of beauty all along. It’s been hidden in his work throughout the years, and now I feel we’re just starting to uncover it in the color blue.
Take a look at the gallery below to see an evolution of this blue color. Even in woodfiring, salt firing and copper red glazes, the color blue shows up. I can track the color throughout his work back to 2008:
Numerous potters talk about the lore of blue pottery. Throughout the ages, potters can’t seem to shy away from it. I’ve heard some contemporary potters even refer to the color as cash-flowblue.
Our text book this semester has been Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. Now a 50 year old text, Leach provides a rich history of how ceramics has evolved. His book not only offers rich lessons of the past, but it also gives insights into the future. But even Leach, who wrote the book after decades of experience under his belt, could not seem to understand the lure of the color blue in ceramics. These stories share his experiences with blue glazes:
“At my St. Ives workshop each summer we are asked by three visitors out of four for colour and yet more colour, blue and the more intense the better, is easily the favourite.”
– A Potter’s Book, page 36
“Yesterday we had a good bunch of people, 2 of whom at least knew a good pot when they saw it. One woman started by asking if we hadn’t got any ‘blue pots’, and when David showed them that the last olive-blue glaze for which we have experimented for years, she said: ‘Oh! Do you call that blue?'”
– A Potter’s Book, page 227-228
Perhaps what this all boils down to is something we talked about in the beginning -the pursuit of beauty. Some of the best potters in the contemporary art world don’t make beautiful work. Their work is strange, ugly and confusing.
With this in mind, does the color blue still have a place in the contemporary ceramic world? This poster sits above our workspace, and it’s made from postcards Joel picked up in Philadelphia in 2010 at NCECA (National Council for Education for the Ceramic Arts). It gives a snapshot of the contemporary ceramic work, and shows only a handful of simple, blue pots. Joel will be at the conference in Milwaukee next week networking with contemporary potters and pottery enthusiasts. His goal is to show that the color blue continues to have a strong lure in both historical pottery as well as contemporary ceramics. He wants his work to be a bridge between historical potters like Leach and contemporary artists like Paige Dansinger. As a result, we’ve prepared some innovative market ideas, re-designed the website home page, and packed the online store with blue pots and artist collaborations with Dansinger. We’re prepared for the biggest ceramics conference in the country and we’re hoping to lure people to us with our blue pots!
Hannah Anderson worked as a “Pottery Marketing Intern” this semester. She is a senior Art major at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. In this post, she describes our semester long task of trying to define the role of pottery in the contemporary art world.
Throughout my internship with Joel, we had many discussions of “high art” vs. “low art” and where his pottery fit into the mix. High art, one could argue, is not functional for the consumer. Traditionally, the function for this type of art is to sit in a museum as a masterpiece, observed through this elevated status. Low art is generally mass-produced, inexpensive, and far more available to the public. In my critical theory class, we discussed how museums have opinions on high and low art as well, and can influence how people view artwork by either appearing intimidating or more approachable.
The terms “high” and “low” art should be reevaluated and adapted to today’s contemporary art world. Words that correlate with high art seem far too Renaissance or Baroque in feel, such as “master of art,” prestige, traditional, western, still-life, landscapes, portraits, and, my favorite, original. This particular word poses the question: can high art even exist anymore? I would argue that it certainly still exists, but not in the same light in which it was originally established. High art and low art should be adaptable terms for each new generation of artists. Low art has synonyms such as: consumerism, production, affordable, advertised, ordinary, etc. This is a challenge many artists face today, and it creates a huge imbalance in the art world.
Joel poses the question, “why are we making and selling pots?” He gathers a lot of insight from potter Warren Mackenzie, whom also has a lot to say about art as a functional vessel vs. sitting in a gallery space. Warren is an 89 year old, world-renowned artist. He is most at ease with his work when he knows it is being used, handled everyday and looked at often. Pottery has the potential to be the most intimate of artwork, because it’s users have constant contact with it. Clay is not expensive and is made from the earth, so when does it make the transition from low to high art?
Price plays a factor into what is high and low art. Warren says “A 10 dollar pot, now that’s affordable.” He says that if it breaks, then it is not a huge loss. This is interesting coming from a renowned artist, because his philosophy conflicts with his position in the art world; his pots resell on Ebay.com for hundreds of dollars everyday. Mackenzie says, “Unfortunately, now I only sell through galleries.” His philosophy seems more focused on low art, but his standing is high.
I like to think that many artists in today’s art world present a mix of high and low art, and it is perhaps just difficult to find the balance. Right now, an imbalance is evident in Joel’s artwork. His pottery is functional, consumer-friendly, priced lower than most professional potters, and is meant to bring a comfortable aesthetic to anyone’s home. His online store is in contrast with this idea, because we take a high art approach by using professional photography equipment to shoot pots in front of a gradated background. We then use these photos to try and join the contemporary art world.
I wonder, is the Local Blend pottery high or low art? At the Local Blend coffee shop, they use Joel’s pottery in mass, so anyone can eat and drink from his pottery everyday. This seems much closer to low art to me. We take the same pots and put them in front of a gradated background, making them high art in a different atmosphere. Without a little low art, high art wouldn’t be possible, since the Blend is where most of Joel’s income is generated. Writing about this venue has also brought him some of his biggest successes in the art world, including 2 major magazine publications. Perhaps these everyday pots will someday be elevated to a high art status?
Low art is what’s paying the bills, yet in the future, Joel wants to support his livelihood with a balance between low and high art. This means more of his income needs to be generated from our work on the online store. One way we accomplished this was by branding his artwork in a more focused way, using one glaze: the Nuka Glaze with iron. Nuka with iron had a great deal of success for Joel throughout my internship, enough for him to narrow his focus toward solely that glaze. Currently the online store has less Nuka with Iron than Joel would like, and his future plans are to recreate his online store geared toward pottery of only that glaze type. Over 50% of the online sales were Nuka with iron, and Joel sold pots with this glaze type to five different people both locally and nationally in one week. He has also completed 4 dinnerware sets in this glaze, 2 of which were sold through wedding registries. We see huge potential in this glaze combination.
This branding was influenced by Ayumi Horie, who certainly has a recognized, established, successful brand for herself. Her style is easily recognizable on every pot. Her artwork sells at high prices online and is always sold out in less than a day. Moreover, Horie has earned her place in the art world through years of consistent craftsmanship, a huge resume, and skillfully writing about her craft in major publications.
Our experience with high art continued through Paige Dansinger– an internationally renowned painter and art historian who is collaborating with Joel. She makes high art in the form of painting on canvas, digital paintings on IPads, projections, performance, and most recently, painting with glazes on Joel’s pottery. During my internship, she opened a gallery in the Minneapolis Skyway Mall called Gallery Paige. Everyday, she exhibits and sells her artwork as high art. The collaborative work made by herself and Joel has huge potential to take off in the high art world.
To conclude, perhaps in today’s world, the balance needs to be found in the middle of the spectrum between high art and low art. Are the best artists those who spend their time making both high and low art? One could argue that they can reach the most amount of people that way. Because that in fact is what art is all about: reaching the most amount of people with a particular message. The meaning of art and its purpose to be seen can easily get lost when identifying it as either high or low. As renowned potter Bernard Leach said, “To me the greatest thing is to live beauty in our daily life and to crowd every moment with things of beauty. It is then, and then only, that the art of the people as a whole is endowed with its richest significance.”
Rock is definitely my favorite type of music to throw to. After a few hours of Red Hot Chili Peppers I just feel like I made more pottery than if I had been bobbing my head to Mr. Sunshine on my Shoulders, John Denver. I do think mellow music can be great for detail work or anything tedious. For example, when I mix and test new glazes I like some old Coldplay, like High Speed. Here’s an image from a bunch of testing that I did during my senior thesis in Spring, 2010 on the Nuka glaze:
I’ve never been a fan of tedious work that takes a lot of concentration. I’ve made tedious work even since freshman year in college, but I like to work fast. I made this one for a cardboard project in our Intro to 3D Design class. It was partly the result of a whole lot of Smashing Pumpkins.
In Spring 2009, I went to Northern Arizona University to see 6 artists at a 2 day workshop. Don Reitz really stood out in my head because of his style of working and because his sculptures seemed really fresh. His process reminded me of drippy paintings by Jackson Pollock. This is my favorite way to make artwork: fast and direct. With Abstract Expressionism, you go with the flow and surrender to the process.
For me, the Red Hot Chili Peppers embody this artwork in their music. Anthony Kiedis belts out catchy vocals and lyrics hidden in random sentences that would be grammatical nightmares. Flea’s bass lines have a huge presence in every song, and they meshed perfectly with John Frusciante’s melodies and Chad Smith’s loud, fast beats- good luck finding a drummer that hits his drums harder. The band writes each song from jamming- just rockin out together and letting the music flow. With Frusciante now pursuing his solo career, he trained in little Josh Klinghoffer to live up to his legacy. After releasing their new single I’d agree with Rolling Stone that their “juicy funk-pop groove” isn’t going anywhere. I have a feeling I’ll still be throwing pottery and sculpture to the Chili Peppers for decades to come, hopefully with the same energy embodied by their music, Abstract Expressionists and my Mindscape sculptures.