The kiln opens. About once a week the newly completed glazed pieces are laid out on the table. We artists see the magical transformation that has, or, sometimes in my case, has not, taken place. Some of the my pieces lining the table were worked months ago. I had been eagerly awaiting them for such a long time. Others, the small ones, might have been unformed clay only a week or two before.
From the moment I use the wire to cut off a hunk of clay I form a relationship with it. With smaller pieces I squish smaller shapes between my fingers and form the raven, the chess piece or the Buddha relatively quickly. I put the piece aside, and move on to the next. I wait until the clay dries a bit to put finishing touches on a piece, the final shape of a cheek or lip, the definition of fingers or wing feathers.
Each piece is then set aside to dry. It is wrapped in plastic to prevent it drying too quickly. If the process goes too quickly the piece could crack. I form pretty close relationships with my art, so I feel twinge of sadness when I walk in and discover the fatal condition of the piece. It takes only a few days for small pieces to dry. Bigger ones can take several weeks to go through the process. I need to gradually remove some of the plastic to enable the process.
Next each piece is bisqued, fired in a kiln for the first time. It moves from being extremely fragile “green” to becoming a hard piece of ceramics. Pieces look totally different than they had when they were soft clay, Many of the artists at the ranch throw pots.
The next step is to glaze the piece. This for me, is the scariest. By now I have a relationship with the work, and a vision of how I want it to come out. I select a glaze, and hope it will magically transform what used to be a lump of clay into a beautiful piece of ceramic art. It often does not work that way for me. I have struggled with the amount of glaze to put into a piece. The glaze gets on too thickly, and it ends up looking like it was dunked unto a creamy frosting. For me, though, I have the opposite problem. A piece I expected to look blue will come out thinly glazed, black and nondescript. It is the process of glazing which will be the most important in determining how the sculpture will look in the end. Poorly glazed, no color. After having put in so much work to get it to this point, I sometimes go away frustrated by what I have.
But, fortunately, this is not the last step in my creating my art. I bring the pieces back to my studio and match them each up with a piece of wood. My art happens when the right piece of wood is attached to the sculpture. This process redeems some of my inability to glaze.
I made a planter with a head on it. When I glazed it, only the head was glazed to its true color. Beneath that some of it was mildly transformed. Most artists would throw this away, calling it a “failure.” For me, however, those pieces can be very exciting. While not what I expected, the final result looks almost stone-like, and when it is attached to a piece of driftwood, it looks almost natural. The blue-green head on a yellow-red clay-body takes on a life of its own.
To find the right piece of wood to finish an object becomes a dating game. I might pull up as many as fifteen different scraps of wood to see which looks best. When the right two pieces are matched, there is a narrative connection between, a story hinted to explain their placement together. “That now looks led a bird on a branch.” “That poor guy now drags a burden behind him!
So, fortunately, seeing the glazed piece for the first time is not an end, in itself, but a step towards its final presentation. This process is my favorite part of the entire creation. And having an entire pile of wood from which to select the proper mate, means sometimes it take three or four pairings and leaving the piece alone for a day or two before I know the process has worked.
Once definite matches are found, I move onto my final step, that of using plumber’s epoxy to connect the wood and ceramic This is a tube of gritty white putty with grittier grey putty inside. I mash the two together until they form a solid grey and begin to feel hot. At that point I connect the wood and clay. I work relatively quickly so it does not harden before the connection is made. I sculpt the putty so it becomes a part of the piece, not just a connective lump. Then I use three or four different latex paints I had purchased at Ace Hardware to cover the gray putty. Like all my art, this process is improving as I move through it over and over.
Spirit of Life,
You swirl among us,
hover over us
and move through us
with the rhythm of our breath.
Your name, formed by our lips,
echoed in the chambers of our hearts
and magnified by our voices;
May the greatness of Your name
be praised forever and ever,
and let us say Amen.
Spirit of Life,
You rustle through grasses,
weave through vines
and toss tree limbs in ecstatic dance
with the exhalation of winds.
Your name, sung by grasses,
whispered among vines
and clapped by branches;
May the beauty of your name
be praised forever and ever,
and let us say Amen.
Spirit of life,
You bring brothers to embrace,
unite communities with single purpose
spread Your tents of Shalom
over Israel and across all lands.
Your name, proclaimed by your peoples,
affirmed across communities,
spoken in Peace across the earth
May the glory of Your name
be praised forever and ever,
and let us say, Amen.
I awaken at 2 a.m.—a frequent occurance in my life. When I could not fall back to sleep quickly, my mind stumbled on the roasted vegetables. I served roasted cauliflower soup at my first open studio day, and it was gobbled down quickly. I came home and roasted another head of cauliflower, then found some florettesof broccoli and put those in a separate pan. I had to get up, make the soup.
I made the cauliflower and broccoli soups separately. I loved the cauliflower, but wasn’t as sure of the broccoli. Soups complete, I headed back to bed for another four hours of sleep. I got up in the morning, gathered together what I wanted to take the studio. I grabbed the pan I thought held the cauliflower soup, then went back to find the other pot of soup. It was not in the refrigerator, nor was it in the car. I figured it would show up!
When I got to my studio I saw that the soup which I had was the broccoli one. Cauliflower was missing! I called my neighbor ands asked her to comb through my house, looking for the missing cauliflower soup. She could not find it!
Fortunately the cauliflower and broccoli combine beautifully, and nobody else misses the cauliflower soup. I have absolutely no recognition of where that soup went. The problem of nocturnal cooking.
I left my house at eight and headed out to Reitz Ranch. I had not been out for several days because I was so involved in preparations for the studio tour. The workspace was locked, but I knew back ways to get in. I spent quite awhile admiring the pottery displayed out there for their studio tour, then headed home.
One particular cottonwood, right on the road, speaks to me season after season, her branches forming a wonderful head resembling curly hair. The sun caught her uppermost golden boughs. She wriggled in the wind, enchanting me once again.
Then I drove on to where the yellow cottonwoods and the black slag piles sang to one another in the rising sun. And the Verde River! She shimmered with reflections from the trees, the golden grasses, the achingly blue sky overhead.
The beauty of the Verde Valley overwhelmed me. I was brought to tears.
As I continued back to my studio the radio blared with the news of the shooting at the Orthodox Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Even on a gorgeous fall day in Arizona, nasty headlines from outside can invade. According to headlines I found, this occurred during a bris, the ritual circumcision for babies on their eighth day after birth. I still cannot fathom the sharp divide between the faith and joy of the worshipping Jews, and the hate this shooter must hold within him. For the second time in minutes, I was moved to tears.
In Judaism we read the Torah from cover to cover each year. The entrire set of scrolls is divided in a a number of segments, then every Jew and every synagogue studies that piece of the Torah at that time each year. The cycle begins right after the High Holidays when we go back to Genesis 1, and read of the Creation all over again. This being the third week of the year, all Jews read the portion called Lech Lecha.
In this parsha God tells Abraham., “Come with me to a place where I will show you……” Abraham travels then to this land, as told, where he encounters a drought, and must work to make this land, which shown to him by God, his own. This story, at this time in my life, resonates.
I was living in the Washington DC area. My health was terrible. I was taking 15 different prescription medications. My chronic absences meant I could not continue to teach as I had been for the past 40 years. My sons lived there. I had to tell them good bye .
I read this portion, and it took on new meaning for me. There is a place for me, a place where I can thrive, where I can throw off the many medications, the constant doctor appointments, and find a new life. And it worked. Here I am nine years later, living a totally new life, happy and fulfilled.
For the first six months I lived here I spoke to nobody, I sat in my house with my unhappy dog and watched quiz shows. But I found a way out of that, discovered first life-long learning classes, then ceramics. My lech lecha story! How I came to the Verde Valley and found my own continuing journey. And I wonder, how many people living here have their ownm lech lecha story>
But, going back to Abraham. His story, goes back to the time when he and his family lived in Ur as sellers of stone idols. They were monotheists, and in grave danger. I came across this story, and asked myself, “What could motivate this family to move to a place thousands of miles away to escape?” I met Amitlaai, Abraham’s mother, and then wrote down her story This is it:
Amatlai: Mother to Abraham,
I was born in Ur, a hub of government and trade in ancient Chaldea. By the time I was twelve I questioned our religion. How could multiple gods dwell in stone idols and within the natural forces these statues embodied? Struck by the single unity of mountains, rivers, skies, I came to a belief in monotheism. This complicated my life as wife to one of King Nimrod’s top aids . The fact my husband, Terach, worked an as idol seller, added to my difficulties.
I’d raised our two older sons with few problems. Late in life I became pregnant with Abram. I knew this son was special, even before his birth. His movements within my womb seemed to have purpose to them. Soon after he was born, unbeknownst to us, Nimrod’s stargazers discerned Avram to be a future enemy of the king’s idolatry. Nimrod heard this and ordered us to bring our infant son to him. I sensed something to be amiss. Terach grabbed a slave’s son to present as we dashed to our meeting with the king. We stood, horrified, as King Nimrod killed the infant slave with his own hands.
As Abram grew I shared secrets of the universe I’d come to understand. With weak eyes I could barely see the sun rise , but felt its warmth. I did not see the glitter of the stars, but heard the twitter of crickets sparkling in the night’s coolness. I observed how everything in this world fit together so carefully. I knew, without a doubt, this could not have been done by a multitude of stone gods. Only a single deity could take disparate beauties, the songs of birds, the seeming wrath of winds and the coolness of a deep pool of water, combine these, and throw in the soft souls of people and the sharp shards of stone. If only Nimrod and his soothsayers could understand this! As I let the sun’s rays soak into my skin each morning, I heard a still inner voice affirm, “Yes Amatlai , I am the One God.”
At the start of each day I took Avram outside to share this special time. I felt him absorb my thoughts and words .. I heard his toddler feet patter as he ran from stone to flower, enjoying the feeling of early morning’s sun on his skin. His first word was 'One'.
As an adult living in a center of idol worshippers, I knew enough to keep silent about my beliefs. As Avram grew, I understood God, in control, would protect Avram. Since I shared I his wonder and excitement, I couldn’t stifle it. He explored his surroundings and talked of his beliefs. “One, One, Holy One,” he chortled.
Too soon, word of young Avram’s enthusiastic monotheism reached King Nimrod. Terach and our son were once again summoned to court. I knew Nimrod to be as capricious as the wind, and I held my breath. He rebuked my husband, for bringing him the wrong baby at Avram’s birth. Attempting to disguise our deceit, Terach blamed this mix-up on a servant who gave him the wrong baby. “I was concerned about our appearance in your court and I did not even stop to check the baby.” Fortunately, the king was momentarily appeased with this explanation.
I took this reprieve as a serious warning to hide Avram. We found a nearby cave, where we lived for the next ten years. It was Avram who best understood that shadows within my limited vision could be ditches in his. I tripped over these shadows and Avram led me in a new direction.
Haran, my oldest son, 32 years older than Avram, often came to take his brother on walks, accompanied by his own son, Lot. Knowing Haran to be indiscreet, I held my breath during these outings. Would he be able to quiet Abram’s affirmations? One fateful day my family strolled along the banks of the Euphrates River, deep in conversation. “There is one God, an unseen spirit,” Avram asserted, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. “The spirit of our one God is greater and more powerful than King Nimrod, or any of his court.”
One of Nimrod’s counselors heard this blasphemous talk, an anathema to his idol-worshipping ears .. He dragged the three of them to King Nimrod. “Take them to the brick ovens, incinerate these blasphemers!” he charged.
Lot, sobbing, later filled me in on what happened. He said the interrogation began with Nimrod’s question: “Do you believe there is a being greater than I?”
“Oh there is no being greater than you,” young Avram responded.
“Is there anything greater than I?”
“Oh yes, King Nimrod. There is the one God over all beings, over the stars, the moon and even the sun,”
“Would this god rescue you from that great fire?”
According to Lot, his father Haran answered, “I hope so.”
“But you do not know for sure?” responded Nimrod.
“I have that faith,” piped up Avram.
Lot described how Nimrod’s aides shoved my young son into the oven. After a few minutes the aides recovered his body. All gasped in amazement. Not even a red spot on could be found on Avram’s body.
Lot said the aides turned to his father: “And you, Haran? Would your god do that for you as well?”
“I hope so,” Haran replied a second time
Lot watched as his father dove into the oven before anyone could push him and was burned up instantly.
“I don’t think my father had enough faith,” Lot realized aloud, trying to hold back his tears.
After this, Nimrod understood Avram was invulnerable and left him alone.
Terach expected Avram to apprentice in his idol shop. At first Avram tried to keep his beliefs in check, not wanting to bring any more hardship on our family. He neatly arranged the idols each morning and watched with disgust as townspeople came in to worship some idols and buy others.
One morning while I was sweeping the front stoop, I heard Avram speak as he dusted these stone idols. He rubbed his cloth over their smooth surface. I heard him speak aloud, “These idols, said to be filled with holy spirits all feel cold to me. The One’s Creation can feel warm like a beam of sun or as cold as a stream of water in winter.”
Suddenly, Avram smashed all the idols together. I heard the racket and ran into the showroom. I asked Avram was going on. Terach stood behind me.
“These idols started a fight and I tried to stop them.”
Terah replied, “But that’s crazy, Avram. You know these idols can’t move, can’t speak!”
And Terach was struck by his own words. He fell back into my arms.
“Your god, Amatlai , your god doesn’t stay within an inanimate object. Your god is everywhere!”
Forty years ago my then-husband and I planned a marathon Scandinavian summer tour. I was four months pregnant. By the following summer our opportunity to travel along the Norwegian fjords would be replaced by diapers and grandmothers in California who would demand bonding-time with this soon-to-be-here infant.
Itinerary planned, we made an appointment with the travel agent to sign for the tour. Then Dan got a phone call. Would he consider spending the summer in Washington DC as an aide to the President Carter’s science advisor. The deal was sweetened by a lunch in the White House Mess.
Then, he asked what it would take to convince me to spend the summer, pregnant, in DC. Hot, humid DC. No fjords in my future. We bargained, and I ended up with a six-week half-day sculpture class at the Corcoran Gallery. The as-yet unknown additional perks included a transit strike, allowing me to walk up and down Wisconsin Avenue into Georgetown in the stifling heat, with the gas fumes from the bus-less streets only DC could offer in July. And, just down the block was the Hirschhorn with its fabulous 20th century art collection.
I loved the sculpture class, but my lasting memory of that summer was my daily visit to the Hirschhorn, a contemplation of the abstract Picassos, the Louise Nevelson boxes, the spaghetti-stranded Giacometti’s. I stood in front of these works daily, tracing, in my mind, their curves, their lines. They became dear friends.
Eventually we moved full-time to DC. For the next 18 years I periodically paid a call on these old friends. Sometimes one was missing, a “cousin” standing in for the young ballerina by Degas or Dali’s melting clock. But they were always there waiting for me.
Then in 2010 I moved to Arizona. I paid a final visit to my friends, storing their lines and shapes in my memory. I thought of them frequently, mentally tracing, their shapes. A year ago I began doing my abstract sculptures. I noted how my fingers seemed to know how to move through the clay, where to pull, and when to pinch. It was like they had held the memories of these sculptures within their muscles.
I planned a trip to visit my grandsons in Columbia, Maryland. A friend and I planned a two-day extension to my trip. I would go back to visit with my Hirschhorn friends. The weather was gray. More rain expected within a day or two. I pushed through the circular doors, rushed in. “No need to see the paintings in the inside galleries. I have come for the sculptures,” I announced to Marge. We approached the first room. Something was wrong. There were no sculptures displayed. Around the entire circumference of the space was a collage of stripes. As we progressed around the room, the stripes grew figurative, gradually. This was Picketts charge?
Maybe a few of my friends survived on the second floor? Next to the staircase sat the disgustingly fat man piece I had never related to. But the inside gallery was almost empty. A few beams of light crossed the interior space. None of the fabulous collection Mr. Hirschhorn amassed was on display.
We went out to the sculpture garden. Every piece out there was wrapped tightly for the impending rain. Gardeners were trimming back tree limbs, and the entire space was cordoned off. No reunion this trip!
We went back inside to get further details. This show has been hanging for six months, and would hang for another year. I was livid, and expressed this to the staff. I knew there was nothing they could do!
We salvaged the day by walking a few blocks over to the African American National Museum. Normally opened to only ticket holders, and jam-packed, this week the museum was open to all. Crowds had stayed away because of the constant rain. We bought lunch in the cafeteria—crispy fried chicken, shrimp and grits, collard greens. All tasty. Then we immersed ourselves in African American history for the next three hours. A well-spent afternoon, not the one I had been wishing for.
I saw my 34-year-old son that evening. I started to describe my experience. “Oh Mom! I love the Hirschhorn because they are so avant-garde, so willing to challenge what one normally expects in an art gallery!”
“But celebrate nothingness?”
“Absolutely! And besides, you got to see the African American museum. Know how many people are still waiting to see it, two years after it opened?”
“Yeah. I hear tickets for it are going for two years from now,”
On my next visit I think I will focus on the National Gallery and East Wing. Those exhibits do not change. The National Gallery’s collection will never be co-opted for a celebration of empty space! And as I lament the absence of my “friends”, I wonder. Am I an Old Fogey?
I had just turned two. My older brother, Paul, was scheduled for out patient surgery on his eyes-fifteen minutes, maybe. Then he would start kindergarten. We brought a little kitten into the waiting room, and we took our seats. All four of us, my Mommy, my Daddy, and my baby brother. I held the kitten. Whenever my thumb got close to my mouth, my father cuffed me. “Too dirty,” he growled. Time passed. fifteen minutes, twenty, an hour, two. Nobody came out. Finally the nurse who was my mother’s friend peered in, she had been crying. “He died,” she sobbed. My parents both cried. I had never seen Daddy cry. They said nothing to me. I was good. I followed them out of the hospital. We left the kitten on the chair. They dropped me at a stranger’s house where I stayed for several weeks while they adjusted to the loss of my older brother.
I have never, in some ways, moved beyond this earliest memory, my abandonment. Seventy years later the headlines scream about our government tearing children from their parents. Some of these children are two, too. I feel their earliest memory.
These headlines, this summer have forced me to revisit this trauma. Nightmares have returned.
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"