The search continues for compelling concepts, appropriate materials, and a balanced creative life. Watch and learn how I deal with not knowing what's going to happen.
I've teamed up with Steve and Mike, the filmmakers at New Ulm Cable Access Television (NUCAT), to produce a new series of videos. I have a history of making my own "making of" videos. My youtube channel is a sporadic collection of mixed production quality, poor sound, and learn-as-I-go experimentation. My videos turned out ok, but they were always amateur. The NUCAT guys bring it to a whole different level.
It's still called "The Process". We have a handful of videos in the works. Video stories are based on the projects already happening in my studio. Steve and Mike occasionally come by to film some B-role footage and interview me. I make a few GoPro clips along the way. The guys edit it all together into a lovely 24-minute show. In a short amount of my time, I'm afforded a powerful way to explain the processes, concepts, and intents of each project. This arrangement allows me to focus on studio work while the professionals focus on the video production. The result is a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood-style conversation and tour in which I can be hospitable to so many.
Episodes air first on New Ulm Cable Access Television. If you live in New Ulm, browse the program schedule here. I invite you to watch our first episode below (in which I cope with a large print commission by building a press).
Check out NUCAT's excellent "Off the Shelves" music series. It's an impressive collection of acoustic musicians performing at Bookshelves and Coffee Cups.
It started out as a little experiment based on a hunch. I tried to print my wood block on an old tshirt from my bag of painting rags. I wondered how my printing press would handle fabric. I'm thrilled at the results! Now we're fulfilling orders! My son Teddy has learned to print and has been cranking these out with laundry safe ink on a variety of men's and women's sizes.
Interested in wearing or gifting one of these unique, Biblical statements? Get yours at http://www.jjjaspersen.com/prints/not-ashamed-t-shirt-758ea
Critter encounters have been a theme of my stay at SJU. I've heard loon calls nightly around midnight and a pair of loons calmly swam near me as I watched from shore. A swallow swooped in circular patterns that were nearly tangent to my own wingspan. A turtle worked hard digging a nest. A muskrat swam under the my feet as I stood on the dock. The bullfrogs make sure you hear them. I definitely saw a bald eagle fishing. Speaking of fishing, I printed fish on the dock. Colin and I relocated a bat. I waited for the geese to cross the road. A deer and I shared a moment by the lake. Pelicans slid through the sky. A stray cat trotted by the kiln and a racoon stared me down at the dumpster.
On my way into lunch on Thursday, Richard pointed out a group of guys carrying oranges. He told me that they regularly bowl their oranges down the road to see who can get closest to the wood shop door. ! soooo....
Midway through my final week as a "Jerome Scholar", I found myself sitting still. I can try to force the work, but it doesn't go well. I've learned to allow down time to happen. When I had incubated long enough, I had a very productive end of the week. This organic cycle is what I had been hoping to rediscover. Tea at 10am and 3pm daily schedules time to sit and think, exchange stories and have tasty treats. The stop helped the go.
The last 2 days yielded 7 new sculptures. They happened quickly thanks to some conceptual work I did in my sketchbook in prior weeks and an armature hack from August Rodin. I made an entire bag of clay into a tall cone shape sometime in the middle of the month and set it in the damp room. The concept is that clay can be built over the cone after it firms up a bit. The firm cone holds up the clay AND allows for easy removal by lifting the sculpture straight up. Clever, Rodin, clever. I used the same cone for 6 sculptures on Thursday and Friday. A heat gun sped up drying on the sculptures so I could lift them off faster. I actually saw the heat gun bisque some thin bits of clay...interesting.
The theme of these cone pieces was carrying/riding on shoulders. I explored the significance of the old "piggyback ride" relationship. It turned into something with huge potential. It can serve as a symbol for divine protection/guidance. It can speak about the "upstairs/downstairs" economic relationship. It can be about parenting or mentoring. It can be a picture of education. It can be about "standing on the shoulders of giants" and the benefits of having a foundation that others labored for. For me, it was mostly about being carried and cared for at the St. John's Pottery. At times I felt like an oblivious child and was thankful to have so much support. I enjoyed a fun ride and a majestic view thanks to decades of programming at the pottery and the financial backing of the Jerome Foundation. I was carried by Jerome Hill, the Benedictines, SJU staff, pottery staff, and Richard Bresnahan.
Serenade! At 3:00 tea on my last day at the pottery, we talked about the various musical instruments that various members of the studio could play. As usual, it was a lively conversation full of surprises from talented people. At about 4:32 Brandon strode into my work area with a guitar and said, "I'm gonna serenade ya." Except a break for supper, he played that guitar until 10:30. He was joined by Colin on Native American flute, ceramic ocarina, and improvised percussion. The two harmonized with gusto through Fleetwood Mac, Oasis, Goo Goo Dolls, and Wallflowers favorites. Brandon also had lots of fun putting a folksy twist on Kesha, Macklemore, and Jay-Z. We had even more fun inventing family-friendly edits. I didn't have words to express how much I would miss the pottery so on my last day, I worked like a maniac. I made 7 new sculptures in the last 2 days, but the serenade was a far more eloquent tribute. Joy and sorrow mingled in the air. This was a beautiful month in my life.
I started construction on some stacking figures. A vertical orientation implies those who support and those who benefit from that support. Every expression is a result of the situation that supports it. For example:
My students are a result of their high school. The high school I teach at is a result of the congregations and individuals who support with their prayers and gifts. They support the school because it lines up with their shared Lutheran heritage. The Lutheran belief system is built on a specific understanding of the Bible. The Bible carries the very Word of God. God's Word carries his love. My ministry is to communicate that love to my students...
A work of art is a result of a system of expression such as "Impressionism" or "Jazz". Systems of expression are built on systems of thought or feeling exemplified by ideas such as "Order", "Carpe Deim", or "Git 'er dun". Systems of thought or feeling come from one's basic priorities such as survival, leisure, community, legacy...
If surviving the winter is a real concern, various sequences of thoughts, words, and actions will follow to cope. If community is a priority, there will be corresponding results extending through etiquette, formalities, and networks of acquaintance. If religious faithfulness is one's basic priority, it would not be surprising to see one's studies, activities, writings, and daily speech all affected.
I've been ruminating on this since Richard gave me his printout of the Louis Sullivan quote on basic systems of living. I realize now that I've had a fascination with paradigms for years. I love to think about the assumptions behind thoughts, words, and actions. I guess it's just an extension of the toddler question, "WHY?"
David Kolb's learning cycle has commonalities here. Maybe I'm forcing this, but synthesis is one of my favorite challenges. His cycle of learning proceeds from Experience to Reflection to Conception to Planning (for the next Experience). I see a similar pattern of one thing depending on the previous. The interesting thing with Kolb's cycle is that it leads into further cycles. If this sculpture were to represent the ongoing sequence of one answer leading to more questions, this would grow and grow and grow. For now it's 2 little figures.
As much as I want to start new work in this final week, there are some pieces that need to be processed. I spent the past two days addressing the needs of the two big heads (working titles "Concern" and "Contentment"). These two pieces were initially made on blind impulse. In both cases, I grabbed lots of clay, smacked it together and hewed a face with my palms and thumbs. Now I'm responsible to prepare them for the inevitable trauma of wood kiln firing. I spent much more time on hollowing and reassembly than the actual sculpting. Hollowing the heads was a matter of judging when the clay was stiff enough to stand, but soft enough to carve. That window of opportunity has to stay open for rejoining pieces as well.
"Contentment" surprised me. It turned into my daughter. Then it turned into my elderly daughter as I'll never see her. Plus there are soaring pelicans again. After hollowing out the interior and repairing the seam, I got to surface work. I was surprised that:
- reworking the surface took most of the day,
- I enjoyed it so much,
- there are passages of subtle grace
This is a weird sculpture. It toys with a Japanese formalism (replace those pelicans with cranes and add gold leaf or imagine the whole thing is made of jade) and evokes American Western taste (that smiling old leather face). Is it a new age-ish tribute to mother earth? Oddly, it all feels dangerously close to kitschy "aw shucks, will you look at that" cuteness. At one point this evening I declared, "I'm afraid I may have made a Jeff Koons piece." Then I threw up a little in my mouth and followed up, "but I made this myself so that can't be true." Still, I may not sleep much tonight.
But why? As best as I can tell, I think my daughter is beautiful. But it's not the kind of beauty that is only because she's young. If God will that she lives to be an elderly woman, I see her light continuing to shine. This is more than hope. She's been blessed with a deep generosity and love. I guess that had to come out somehow. So, kitsch or not, there it is. I love you girl.
With sculptures this large, the weight, moisture content, and amount of material to be removed are all greater than my typical clay experience. Recall that this clay is fairly raw from the ground. It has particular characteristics, such as high iron content, up to 20% shrinkage rate, and a strong capillary effect. Water moves from higher clay down to lower clay more freely than I've seen before. Therefore, lower portions can get soft.
This sculpture, "Concern", fell over backwards after standing for over 12 hours. The fall distorted the dimensions and tore the neck apart. I decided to slice it up like bread and deal with pieces individually. Each piece was hollowed and restacked when I judged the base could handle an additional ring. This rearranging of matter took its toll on proportions. The whole thing lists to one side in a nauseating, shifted, almost-rightness. Like when you walk on a floor that's not quite level.
The whole surface has been resculpted several times throughout the process. It has a coating of iron slip to encourage a dark (red, purple, black, blue...) metallic reaction in the kiln.
We all get concerned. I don't intend this to be a portrait of an individual, but rather an expression of a universal experience. Many conflicts seem to stem from a disagreement about what causes us the most concern. Admittedly, I have had world events on my mind and I see us entering into a very different era in world history. Conflict approaches persistently. The slightly tippy, bloated distortion of this sculpture feel just disorienting enough. Tell Bob Ross I just had a happy accident...
I have had some time to wrestle with a new concept. It's a modular piece. It incorporates the Louis Sullivan concept of basic systems of living, David Kolb's learning cycle, generational influence, variation within constraints, repetition, support, lineage, patterns of inquiry, anatomy, and the realities of building terra cotta figures. We'll see if I can pull this together in the next 4 days.
It was a day of surprises.
It's reunuion weekend at SJU. The pottery studio had a constant buzz of tours, tea, and talk today. I met a man who insisted that hope is the last thing I want, compared my work to Camille Claudel's, and insists that time does not exist. He has lived seemingly everywhere and doesn't feel at home anywhere. Another man had problems with flouride and crop tillage, but preferred Jerusalem artichokes to potatoes. He seems to not have moved much. Richard's daughters suddenly appeared in the pottery exuding a sisterly synchronized joy. I found myself at Fishers (legendary local restaurant) celebrating Joe and Sara's birthdays/wedding anniversary. There it was revealed that Garrison Keillor may not be such a nice guy. I also had some amazing sunfish there. Brandon unveiled his mastery of musical hand farting and his obnoxious car alarm. I infiltrated the Johnny/Benny reunion party courtesy of Steven. I learned Raj and Emily have AAA roadside assistance and that I taught their nieces at MVL. Lot's of surprises today.
I did manage to do a bit of work on this "Simul Justus et Peccator" sculpture.
But before all that hit, I had a concise lesson from Richard. His slip decoration for these bottles is masterful. He was happy to let me watch, but emphasized that what he is doing is not a "technique." It's something far more. He talked about putting his whole being into that moment when he applies the slip. What he does in a sweep of his hand has taken decades. To refer to it as a technique and try to replicate it or teach it as such is disrespectful. I take this as another manifestation of Richard's insistence on deep relationships. He believes in deep relationships with materials, with people, with community, with the environment, and with his spirituality. He doesn't abide the trite, disposable, temporary, unfelt, or superficial.
There was a cover band at the reunion party. They were playing 90's hits fairly well. I'll admit I did bust a move or two, but something occurred to me part way through my night as a Johnny impostor. Knowing approximately 3 out of the hundreds of people there afforded me time to try to understand. All 9 members of the cover band seemed to know their instruments well. Songs would melt into each other seamlessly for long, well-rehearsed stretches. So they were good at what they did, but what were they doing? Technique? It's a shallow relationship of nostalgic sound bites and crowd-pleasing prompts. Is this what Richard was warning me about in our slip discussion this morning? This band certainly put a lot of time and energy into preparing and delivering this content. But where were they in all of it? A deep relationship with instrumentation, lyrics, audience interaction were all absent. Audience members engaged in a sort of mob psychology that lacked foundation beyond nostalgia. It amounted to an awkward group aerobics event.
While I did have a good time, it got me thinking about the differences. Where does my art come from? Do I intend for a deep relationship with my audience or my materials? To what extent do I encourage fleeting, superficial encounters? What does it mean that I haven't committed to any one medium? I put a lot of time and energy into my creative work, but to what end? I seem to always be rushing to meet deadlines. I often chase commissions thinking that my way to an art career is somewhere down that road. Am I disconnecting from other parts of my life such as family, faith, teaching? Here's a portion of my application letter for this residency,
Jay's going to work on the world. He's a Political Science major at SJU and splits/stacks wood for the pottery. As an accomplished composer and percussionist he studies music most of the day via headphones. He says Minnesota is fine but he sees a lot of the same race problems he saw back in New Jersey. That's where Poli-Sci comes in...
A few days ago I convinced Jay and a few other humans to spin in an office chair while I took 30-seconds of video. The resulting videos gave me 360-degree reference images that I could play and pause to rotate. Such a quick and painless event for a model and a super useful reference for the artist!
Sculpting a portrait is my home field advantage. I feel like I know what to do when I work a portrait. That plays into my previous discussions about flow state.
I only put in a 12 hour day today. I realized tonight that it's been common for me to be in the pottery from 9 am to 11:30 pm. Healthy?
My sister Mandy and her family visited today! Have you ever tried to explain something to someone and you realize they can't understand you. I hope these daily updates help people understand what my emerging artist residency is about. But nothing beats actually sharing the experience. Now Mandy's family will "get it".
I finished the pelican/flow sculpture tonight. Tubes and bird both needed to firm up enough to handle the transfer and the weight, yet soft enough to join together. I sped the process with a heat gun. Nothing collapsed! Thanks for helping Colin!
Speaking of Colin, he had a big day. He got the green light to go ahead with a new form using the Hera tool that he's been making. Richard demonstrated a bowl for Colin to chase after. Apprentices make most of their own tools here. In this case the Hera is a very specific shape that allows unique shaping and compression of the clay. Colin has been carving and sanding this tool for the past week. See Richard use the Hera tool in this excerpt from the 1995 PBS documentary "Clay, Wood, Fire, Spirit: The Pottery of Richard Bresnahan.
A new form began today. This figure is based on Martin Luther's theological stance that mankind is "Simul Justus Et Peccator" (simultaneously saint and sinner). Watch for this to develop in the coming days.
I spent today building a pelican. It's not that I'm particularly in love with pelicans. But I am fascinated with "flow state". This occurs when one's skills and the difficulty of the task meet. If a task is too difficult one gets anxious, too simple and one gets bored. But Flow is where it gets fun. I've been thinking about this idea since Rob Kinzel presented it in our Philosophy of Experiential Education class. Watch the TED talk here for more on this.
But pelicans...fly so nicely. They're pretty awkward otherwise. They aren't so pretty. But when they fly it's just so nice. I'm using the pelican flight as a symbol of flow state. Also, after a long day of work in the studio, I noticed a pelican tile directly across from my dorm room (cue Twilight Zone music).
My portrait sculpture took a few conceptual turns today. It became my daughter...when she is old...and it's about pelicans flying. I think she is remembering her life fondly.