Thursday, February 27, 2014

What I'm Working On ... A Many Faceted Answer for February

People are always asking me what I'm working on. This is a complicated question for me to answer because I am usually doing about a billion different things, in different realms, most of which is not what they would consider "Art". There is usually at least one major organizing project going on. I have a home project "to do" list that's about 200 items long and mostly just waiting for the budget to do it. I am always thinking of new things I want to try in the studio, and I've been writing these down, as it's not really time for me to create right now. I am gathering ideas and energy right now. But that's doesn't mean I'm not going on a whole bunch of field trips to look at stuff and get inspired. I have been doing that almost once a week.

So in an effort to answer the question, "What are you working on?" I thought I'd just take you on a little tour of what I've been doing in February.

Hanging out at the National Gallery of Art

Winter is the best time of year to visit the museums on the National Mall. There are hardly any tourists, (due to our crappy winter weather) so you may be the only person in that entire section of the museum. It's heaven! When I have been going lately, I have worn my "Art Geek" hat. I've been looking for guidance from the Masters, be they Renaissance, Dutch, Modern, or other.

 The layered colors just killed me when I saw this huge piece, Ocean Park No.61,  by Richard Diebenkorn. I had seen it in a book, but I had no idea it was 10 ft by 8 ft! And it just glows, like a pearl. It gave me all sorts of ideas about layering different concoctions of chalk paint and glazes to get different effects; how I could mix pigments into wax to make a glaze become iridescent or pearlized. See what I mean about Art Geeking?

In the Dutch section, I was struck by how Jan Steen used different colors in lighter and darker shades to show the folds of the cloth in his merry painting, "The Dancing Couple." For some reason, that idea is completely revolutionary to me. And when I was telling my very science geeky 14 year old about it, she mentioned that one could take advantage of the Doppler effect and have things closer to you be redder and things farther be bluer to trick the eye into seeing depth. I love it when life just teaches you from random directions.

And then there's Andrew Wyeth. I don't know what it is about this man's paintings, but they have haunted me with their mystery and beauty since I was introduced to Christina's World in 8th grade. In this one, Wind From the Sea, I was looking at how he created the sheerness of the curtains. The more I looked for shading and color clues, (picture me leaning right up to the canvas as the security guard inches closer and closer nervously) the more I realized there weren't any. He simply painted the lines of the curtains and then left at at that. Remarkable effect, wouldn't you say? Transparent looking because there is no paint there? Brilliant! 

See? This is why I go look at other people's art. Because I would never think of this this stuff. Once you figure out what they've done, it seems obvious. But it's the thinking of it in the first place that's the trick. So I just file it all away in the Mental Cauldron and it swims around in there until it decides to combine with something else and emerge again as a loosely formed idea.

Making My Own Chalk Paint

I have been toying with this idea ever since reading this post from Cottage Instincts. So this week I actually tried it. I can't tell you my results, as I am teaching a class on it this coming April 5th (more on this soon. I am super excited about this class!), but I will say it made a mess, and that's always a good thing in my book. 

As a part of my class, the good people at Websters sent me wax and mix in samples for all the students in the class! They are the best! Check them out here. And I promise to do a full review of their products as soon as I have a chance to use them. What's not to love about new brands of art supplies?

Making Things Out of Other Things

Neither of these is a great photo, but they give you an idea of what 
my inner up-cycling bug has been up to lately.

I (well, DK and I. He helped me a lot on this one) made a curtain rod out of pipe conduit. 

I couldn't stand the vertical blinds in my basement any more, both because they were ugly and mostly because my kids never shut them the right way and they were breaking. So DK and I took them down and replaced them with a pipe conduit curtain rod inspired by this hilarious post from Lynne Knowlton's blog Design the Way You Want to Live and some Ikea cotton drapes. 

And don't worry. I have full tutorials in the works for building the curtain rod (you get to use the pipe cutter at Home Depot!), hemming the super long drapes, and adding big fabric stripes to the drapes. Obviously, that last one hasn't happened yet, due to a disagreement with my sewing machine. It needs to go see the sewing machine doctor and then we will resume our merry course together.

I also stripped a tree stump I saved from my friend Rodney's 
wood pile and made it into a plant stand.

I got this idea from my dear friend Brandi's excellent blog, Don't Disturb This Groove. Check the awesome tutorial out here. Brandi's tutorial is so good,  I don't need to write another one here. 

She and I are Instagram buddies and I was completely taken when she posted her awesome "after" pics of this project. I had the stump in my studio, curing. I tripped on it one day and decided the time had come. So off came the bark, and out came the bleach. "Worth it, but nasty" is all I have to say about the process, especially after cleaning out my tub. I also ended up sanding the stump quite a bit after it was dry, which she doesn't cover in her tutorial. I prefer the lighter inner wood to show, as opposed to the darker wood near the bark. And her stumps had no bark to begin with. Lucky!

Painting Things Really Bright Colors

This was one of my birthday presents. My sister always sends me the things that I can't really justify buying, but that I can't live without. This print was just calling to me (It's by Vin Zzep. I like all of his stuff. You can see it here) I knew exactly where I was going to put it; to the left of my desk, so I could stare at it when I got writers block and could pretend to frolic in the grassy fields under the giant fish with a crown. Totally normal, right?

I ran right out and bought a frame at Walmart and got it home and framed it up. And all I could think was "I like this, but the frame needs to be red." So back to Walmart I go, to the blessed spray paint aisle. A little primer, a little spray paint, and Voila! The perfect frame for a flying fish!

And the other day, I was sitting in my chair in the living room looking at my front door. I just KNEW it needed to be electric orange red. So up the paint chips went. DK was leaving town for the week and he made me promise I wouldn't paint it until he got back. So I agreed to just mess with paint chips in various locations until he got back. 

Let's just say 4 coats of paint were on the door and dry within 2 days of his return. And I LOVE it! It makes me feel like it really is MY house. (Tomato Red by Benjamin Moore Aura paint, for those interested.) 

It looked like ketsup on top of the can, and DK said it reminded him of tomato soup, so now our door has been named "Campbell." Gotta love my kids. Who names the front door?

While all this paint chipping was going on, I brought home some aqua chips as well, just in the name of being thorough. I had become entranced by Sherry and John's new entry way from Young House Love here. (Do you think I read enough blogs?) And yes, I have total Moravian Star light envy, but that's another story.

Long story short, I hated the aqua for the front door, but loved it for the laundry room/garage door. DK hadn't extracted any laundry room "no painting" promises, (it's the laundry room for heaven's sake) so I painted a few base coats with paint I had and ran to Benjamin Moore to get a sample of Fairy Tale Blue the day after he left. And I told him he'd have to figure out what I had painted when he came home.With me, that could have been anything. 

I am in love with it, but I can't decide what to do with the wall color, as the many paint swatches indicate. The existing taupe is pretty trashed. And while it looks nice and all, I'm just not a taupe girl.

So that's the rundown. It sounds so much more exciting telling you guys about it than it actually was. 

The funny thing is, the project I am most happy about was 
sorting through all the out-grown, hand me down clothes!

Notice the clear labeling and the uniform containers. It is ridiculous how happy I am about this.

I went through nine big boxes or bins of clothing and trashed or donated 4 bags of stuff, sent some to my sister, labeled and binned the rest for my younger kids as they grow. I have wanted to do this for a YEAR. And now it's done. 

There is such joy in "Done".

What have you guys been doing?

Talk to you soon,
CM Shaw

PS. If you find that I don't talk enough here and you need some more, 
you can follow my Pinterest boards here

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Xiaosheng Bi - Discovering a Porcelain Garden

I don't know about you, but I have a weakness for glass in its myriad forms. I love how the light reflects off of it and how color is so deep and shallow and layered all at the same time. And I like how it feels to the skin: cold, smooth, hard.

When I get in my glass revelry, I usually don't think of ceramics. While I love a good turquoise or cobalt blue glaze, things fired in a kiln and made of dirt fill a different spot in my mind. I generally think of them in terms of "texture".

Well that all changed when I walked past the studio of Xiaosheng Bi, 
a master potter, who works miracles with porcelain.

I happened upon his studio at the VisArts center, where I saw this exhibit by Lauren Boilini and this exhibit by Michael Sellmeyer. Along with their galleries, the VisArts center also has studios that juried artists can use. They are lovely 2nd floor spaces with huge windows and white walls and great light. Super dreamy. Maybe when I grow up, right?

He was right across from the Michael Sellmeyer gallery and as I walked out, I just kept staring at the flowers growing out of his ginger jars. And there were more inside, and the door was open, so I walked in. At first I didn't realize he was there. Eventually, I noticed him by the sink. I probably mumbled something about how much I admired his work (I find flattery is always an excellent segway when one has done something awkward) and somehow I got him talking about his methods. 

You always want to get an artist talking about his methods, if you can. That's where the joy is for them. You can feel the energy building off them as they talk about creating. Watch their eyes as they talk. They look at the things they've made and see them in all the stages of creation. It's magical.

Each of these ribs was carved out of the clay by hand to just the right 
depth and width by loosely following a bendable ruler

I asked about working with celedon glazes and he told me the kiln he was using was tricky, because it was electric and most kilns are gas fired. This changes the outcome of the pieces and is less predictable. He has to use special kinds of celedon to make it work. When I commented on the clarity of the glaze, he told me he only uses the whitest raw Chinese porcelain clay. "Isn't that super expensive and rare?" I asked. "Yes it is," he replied, "but it allows me to get the colors I want to show through." Fair enough.

I am always curious if an artist favors certain pieces of their work. So I asked Bi what his favorite piece was. He looked around the studio and scratched his head and said, "Well, I love them all." After thinking another minute, his eyes lit on a shelf near his desk  covered with celedon tea cups with delicate inky blue designs on them and he smiled and said, "But I think this technique is very pretty. I love these colors together."

He told me how he loves their simple shape, and the fact that they are so obviously not machine made. You can tell he finds great pleasure in what he makes as he hold them in his hands and turns them to show what he considers their most pleasing side when I ask. He is a very modest man, and I realize I have asked enough questions about his personal opinions. 

So I change tactics and point to his desk to have him tell me about what inspired the gorgeous creations there. He told me that formal Chinese gardens are the basis for most of his ideas. The pedestals here are reflective of the lava rock used in a garden as a rough contrast to the smoother elements of grass and water.

And the same tension of smooth and rough works beautifully in ceramic as well. All the disparate elements work together to emphasize and balance one another. The rough base against it's smoother top. The round, but layered stripes to the simpler flat base. The flowers at the top, jagged like the base, but made of smoother, more delicate things. It all just works so well. And the more you look at it, the more you see the subtle beauty of it. 

I did say he was a Master, right?

And the flowers, it is so hard to imagine that they are really made of clay.

The centers are rolled between the hands into narrow "snakes" about 1/8" in diameter, and then wrapped with another piece of flat, paper thin porcelain that makes the petal. Each portion of the flower is delicately glazed to best reflect is natural, yet idealized form. The intricacy really takes your breath away. 

Oddly enough my favorite thing in the studio had nothing to do with flowers.

I couldn't quit staring at this tea cup. I loved the roughness of the design against the "just barely there" aqua of the glaze. It was hypnotic. I still think about it, a month later. Bi told me that he had intended a smoother finish, but left the clay in the air too long and it had started to harden. When he cut it, it cracked and buckled, but he liked the effect, so he went ahead and fired it anyway. I'm so glad he did. It brings me such delight to look at this photo and think of all the yin and yang involved in this piece. So much serenity in the tension.

One of the miracles of porcelain is it's sheerness. The cup you see above is the same one I love. Despite the thickness of the sides, you can still see the light through it. And don't you love that little pool of celedon glaze at the bottom? Makes. me. weak.

After swooning I bit, I pulled myself together to see what other wonders awaited.

This piece was painted with a glaze that protects any spot it covers from being removed. Bi said he paints this on and then uses a liquid to remove a certain portion of the uncovered clay to create the relief design you see. The glaze gathers in the lower areas, accenting the white design. I am still geeking out that it wasn't carved.

Here are a few more pieces done with the same technique, but fired without a glaze. I love the matte white. It looks so modern, despite being done by a man trained in techniques that go back thousands of years. And it shows you just how white the clay he uses is.

This piece was done with a similar technique to my tea cup. Except this time, Bi let it harden on purpose to recreate the effect. I thought the penguins were charming, with their tiny little eyes. This piece is mid process and still needs to be glazed and fired. 

Here's another piece from the same series that was finished. 
Don't you love all the variation in color as the glaze gathers in the nooks and crannies?

My poor iPad had a hard time there trying to decide what to focus on. Sorry about that.

With so much beauty, how do you choose just one?

There were so many other things I wanted to ask, but I had only paid for an hour of on-street parking and my time was up. 

Sadly, I had to go. 

But I am so happy I took the time to ask what I did. I had forgotten that a balance of tensions is what makes the serenity of an Asian garden. And I had never thought of porcelain as a source of light. Or a tea cup as a metaphor for nature. Such wonderful ways to think about things.

And when I get a bit more allowance, that tea cup is mine!

Talk to you soon,
CM Shaw

What have you all done lately that changed the way you thought about something?
Leave me a comment and tell me your story.

By the way:

Here is an article from the Chicago Tribune with a lot more info about the techniques used by Xiaosheng Bi. If you didn't believe me before that you were looking at the work of a master, you will after reading the article.

Here and here are two more articles about his work.