29 November 2012

And Then It Was Gone . . .

There are days when you notice that you took something for granted; something so warm and cozy and inviting that you never realized it would someday be gone . . . 

I received an email on November 28th, just as I was about to walk out the door to catch the shuttle for school. It was regarding the closing of the clay studio at The University of Texas at Austin.

My immediate response, written in a flurry of anger and prompting me to miss the shuttle to school, looked something like this: "Clay is the absolute best, most encouraging material out there and to deny students from being able to experience this full-throttle is inconceivable."

I re-read the email at least a dozen times throughout the day. It took me a while to actually digest the contents of what I read . . . And then, after a day of things bumping around in my head, I came home from teaching and burst into tears.

Ceramics at UT Austin was my life. MY LIFE. Anyone who knows me knows that they didn't have to look any-further-ever than the ceramics lab to find me. Between 1995 - 2000, that's where I was. And again from 2007 - 2008, that's where I was. I grew up there. I learned about work ethic. I learned about critique. But most importantly, I learned to be myself and became a part of a very welcoming and strong community of artists and makers.

In 1995, I was gently persuaded (strong-armed, really) to take a ceramics class at UT Austin. I was a painting and photography person and suddenly needed another 3D course requirement for my degree. I was cranky about it and remembered thinking that I didn't want to make cups and saucers. I was being a spoiled brat. I was 22 and obsessed with color. I didn't think that I would be able to get the same satisfaction out of clay that I got out of painting or color photography. Nevertheless, I enrolled in my first ceramics class . . . And I can honestly say that it completely changed my life forever.   


I could write a long-winded essay about what I used to make then compared to what I make now and blah, blah, blah. But this isn't about that. You see, clay is not just about creating a product or a piece of artwork. Working with clay instills a passion for more than just the finished piece. It's about process, community, and collaboration. In a nutshell, you are taking mud and making something out of it. Sometimes it's functional and sometimes it's sculptural. There is so much connection to the material from start to finish, it's crazy to even think about.

When I started out in clay in the mid-nineties, I didn't know what I was doing with my life. I knew that I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn't quite sure how to make that happen. Ceramics sort of focused me, grounded me. It's incredible how a material can do that. And, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to people who are not artists. But something happens when there is a connection to a material. It's almost other-worldly. Something else takes over:  passion.  

There was an amazing group of people in the ceramics lab at that time who really influenced me:  Wendy Cook, Rachael Shannon, Bob Schmidt, Lisa Barber, Jennifer Quarles, Janet Kastner, Don Herron, and Richard Bonner

Lisa Barber was the resident graduate student at the time and she and I were tight. We would work really late hours, stopping every once and a while to get Slurpies or watch Conan. We played music really loud and occasionally dance parties would break out. Jennifer and I called these dance parties Club Cone 10. Okay, that was probably more me than Jennifer, but it was hilarious at the time. (I realize as I am writing this that no one outside of the clay world will get this or think it's funny. Quite possibly none of the clay people will think it's funny either.

Jennifer and I also created the bubble, and we talked about everything in that space. We talked about boys we liked and didn't like. We talked about our families. And, we talked about art:  really great conversations about art making and what it meant to be a maker. We did things we probably shouldn't have in the studio, but we were young and learning about boundaries and lifely things . . . 

I raised a little white dog named Raku in the ceramics lab. He slept in a little laundry basket under my table.  

And who can forget the first NCECA that we all went to together in Dallas? We decorated our professor Janet's van while she was in a lecture . . . And each NCECA after that just wound up getting crazier and crazier.

I made the weirdest things during that time period:  a series of clay bras, clay shoes, slab-built clothes, cakes, a giant 85 pound green and pink Kitchenaid mixer that ended up being left on a picnic table in West Texas somewhere because it was too heavy to even bother bringing back from a show. It was all crap, but it was so important to make at the time. It's the doing of things and constant creating that's important. (Making art always gets you to the next thing you'll be making, so just keep making.)

Richard Bonner told me one day in the studio that I had verve. I didn't know what it meant at the time, but it stayed with me forever. Now I understand . . . 

In 2007 when I re-enrolled in school, I immediately signed up for advanced ceramics with one of the most fabulous instructors I have ever had the pleasure of working with . . . And I met a crazy person named Moses. I say this in the most loving way possible. Like me, Moses was obsessed with clay. Together we spent hours--no--DAYS in the ceramics lab making things. We bought clay together, critiqued each other's work, and argued about things. We even broke one of those huge windows in the studio together after a not-such-a-good-idea of wanting to play baseball in the kiln yard with a stick and a piece of clay. Moses lost his grip and the stick went flying into the window and shattered it into pieces. Thankfully no one got hurt, but the look on Moses's face after it happened was absolutely priceless. (It was not unlike the look you see on his face in the image above.) We supported each other in a quasi-competative manner, which was good for our artwork and our energy.



"Upon reading about UT's decision to close the ceramics lab at the art school tonight, I decided to go ahead and cry about it. I can't begin to count the hours I spent not just making art there, but making friends, eating meals, entertaining myself, and even filling a void on a lonely Saturday night. There was something about it that made it okay to be there at 4am...I miss being an art student tons at times and it's comforting to me to know these places are still there. I'm not interested in any kind of reasonable analysis of what's replacing it or why that can't be done elsewhere. I just want to be sad, romantic and old fashioned here! Thank you for listening." -- a recent Facebook post by one of my friends after hearing the news

"I've tried to express my sentiments to others about how sad it is, but unless you've spent Saturday nights there, had dance parties and moments of panic at 4 in the morning . . . I guess you won't get it." -- a Facebook response to a post on the subject

Perhaps this will be a good thing. Perhaps this will open up lines of communication between UT Austin and neighboring institutions and create a cross-collaboration of programming, where students can take classes from everywhere and receive credit wherever they choose. Perhaps.

But looking at the bigger picture: what does this mean for art? Any art? Is it really that forgettable? What about sculpture? Painting? Are they all dead now? And what about community? What about the huge community that ceramics built--NO OTHER ART FORM does this the way ceramics does this!

All I can say now is that I am so-very-thankful for all of the years and hours I spent in that damn ceramics lab. I wouldn't have had it any other way . . . 

28 November 2012

Rafting, Monkeys, and Temples: Oh My!

On the second full day of my Bali trip, I split off from the ladies I arrived with to do a little rafting. I signed up for the trip before I left Singapore, so I was a bit nervous and skeptical. (Had I just paid someone sitting at their laptop in their living room who has no intention of taking me rafting?  It was Paypal afterall.)

I woke up, ate breakfast, and waited patiently for my ride.  

A driver and a tour guide arrived promptly at 8am. This is incredible, I thought. I get a tour guide and a driver? In fact, yes:  I got a tour guide and a driver. All for me. Spectacular, indeed. And perhaps a bit weird.  But when in Bali . . .   

We drove for about an hour and half before turning into an elephant camp and driving down a steep and bumpy ride. The tour guide spoke the entire time, telling me all about Bali's history and people and religions. It was fascinating, to say the least. 

Once at the rafting establishment, I was joined by about 14 other people--all with their own drivers--and about 3 rafting guides. I was the only person traveling single, but no one seemed to mind. Everyone was very friendly. Once everyone was huddled around, they gave us each a bottle of water, a life jacket, and a helmet. Then we proceeded to walk down about 500 stairs carved into the side of a hill. (This is actually where I became most concerned, as the rocks were slippery, it was very steep, and I was carrying my paddle, cameras, water bottle, etc.) 

Once we arrived at the base of the stairs, they split us up into about 4 people per raft, with a guide and a back-paddler. The back-paddler addition was something I hadn't experienced in the States. He basically sat at the back of the raft and paddled the rough waters for us, steering us from hitting giant boulders.  

I was in a raft with 2 young guys from Korea. They were super-nice and asked me to be in almost every picture with them. Here we are standing in front of a giant rock formation on the side of a hill. It has been carved with pictures telling of an ancient Balinese story. This was our first stop on our 2 hour rafting trip. Our second stop involved swimming and a cold beer, which was perfect. It almost felt like I was in Gruene, Texas doing a tubing trip.

Here is our guide after he dove off of one of the rocks. He was great! Very friendly and just adventurous enough . . .  

We stopped off at this giant waterfall before our rafting trip came to an end. I couldn't resist standing underneath it! One of my rafting buddies joined me. The top picture shows how far it goes up the side of the rock, while the picture below shows us getting soaked! Our guide kept calling it our free water massage . . . 

After rafting, we climbed up another 500 stoney stairs to a little restaurant on the side of the hill. We were served a full meal, which was included with the trip. My driver and tour guide were there waiting for me. What I thought would just be rafting and the sunset at Tanah Lot turned into so much more.

We drove for another 30 - 45 minutes through some rural areas and busy areas before arriving at our first stop. Below is a video of how popular scooters and motorcycles are in Bali. "They are like ants", said my tour guide. They go in and out of traffic so quickly! It's really something to marvel at . . . 

The first temple we arrived at is one of the larger temples just outside of Ubud. It is a walled off sacred space for praying. Respectfully, shoulders and legs must be covered at all times. Since I had just come from rafting, I had to wear a sari around my waist. And, we were not allowed to go inside the space, only look from the outside. There are walkways all the way around the space, so it was easy to see inside. 

The space was absolutely gorgeous. And, jackfruit and mango trees were everywhere. There was also an unusual amount of cats. They were inside the sacred space and out; enjoying their nap times in the heat, I guess.

Our next spot was a coffee tasting and herbal farm. It was run by a local family. They showed us how they roasted the beans and then we sat down for a tasting.

Seven coffees and teas were placed in front of me. Everything from ginger coffee to a very prickly lemon tea. The flavors were out-of-this-world. I ended up buying a few small packs to take home. The ginger coffee was amazing! I also learned the story of the Kopi Luwak coffee. I'll let you read about it here, but in short it's the most expensive coffee in the world. And it's made from animal feces. Needless to say, I was not given the Kopi Luwak to taste. But, hooray for learning new things!

We arrived at the monkey forest freshly caffeinated and ready. I was told to be prepared for anything, as sometimes the monkeys will just jump on you and start picking through hair. They are also quite fond of cell phones and cameras. But they seemed pretty chilled out while I was there. 

They were fascinating to watch. I couldn't stop staring at them and I felt bad for doing it. They were not being held captive, like at a zoo. They lived here, this was their home. And, I just kind of walked into their space.

Apparently 3 large families of monkeys live in this area. And, they can not be in the same place at the same time or fights break out. So, while one family was eating, another family let out a huge scream. So the family that was eating ran away--like a heard of cats--and the other family appeared to begin eating. It was such an interesting way of living. They had societal rules and regulations down, it seemed. I could've stayed there all day and watched them.

These two little elementary-aged monkeys played in this sand pile for at least 30 minutes. They would jump to the top, pick at each other, then slide down, one-by-one. Then they would scamper back up to the top again for another go at it. It was so precious to watch.

This big old guy was eating a coconut in the parking lot. He found it, popped it open, and went to town.

On our way to our final destination, we passed through several beautiful rice farms. I couldn't stop taking pictures from the van window. 

Everywhere we went, we would pass ladies (and sometimes men) with baskets on their heads, preparing for praying ceremonies. I asked about how frequently the ceremonies were, and I was told daily to monthly. Like any religion, it depends on each individual. I really enjoyed learning about Hinduism. The colors, dances, and hand-crafted items used for their praying ceremonies were very similar to things that I associate with, enjoy, and make. 

This lovely woman was showing me the peppers she just picked. 

We arrived at Tanah Lot around 430pm. It was a beautiful place, but unbelievably crowded with tourists.  We were all there for the sunset. But because it was cloudy, the pink, orange, and red sunset was not going to happen. I watched the water for a little while and took note of how many families I saw taking pictures. They appeared to be from so many different parts of Asia, the world. I enjoyed watching everyone posing with their loved ones. 

I was intrigued with how many offerings were being left. They were everywhere in Bali:  temples, water, tied to trees, etc. You'll notice that I posted an image of offerings on the rocks where I started my rafting trip. I thought it was fitting to begin and end this post with offerings. I am so thankful for what I have been able to experience. To many more adventures . . .  

25 November 2012

Batik, Batik!

Cheryl and I arrived in Bali on Thursday afternoon around 3pm. By the time we got outside to our driver--at 10 minutes before 5pm--we were drained: we stood in line-after-line showing IDs and passports, paying airport taxes ($40), all while wondering how to quickly calculate Singapore dollars to rupiahs in our heads. (I admit this was mainly me, as I don't do quick calculations very well and Cheryl is kind of a math whiz-kid:  lucky me!!)

This was a short trip. For some reason this didn't dawn on me until I was packing in the early a-m, on the morning of my flight. I was only going to truly be in Bali for 2 days. It wasn't going to be like when I was in the Philippines--I was there for nearly 8 days. My pack felt light, which was good. But, whoa- expensive . . . To be doing this trip right before leaving for the holidays in the US was a bit taxing on my nerves and my bank account. As a result, I was being a bit of a curmudgeon.

But never one to be down for long, I decided to go forth and have fun. Short trip or not, this was the experience of a lifetime!

When we got to our hotel, Cheryl and I sat down in the restaurant to eat and then we decided that we would start off our weekend by getting our complimentary massage. (I had forgotten about all of the things I would be getting for free for purchasing a Groupon for this trip. I never thought I would become a Groupon-using person, but suddenly I was happy for making the purchase:  breakfast, transportation, and a massage. Nice!)

After our massage, we met up with Dhivya for a mid-evening snack. It was so nice to be somewhere where I could actually afford a couple of glasses of wine.

The next morning Cheryl and I had to be up early to take our batik class.

The driver picked us up at our hotel in Kuta at 830am. We were taking our class in Ubud, which was about an hour and a half away. (Next time, this is where I plan to stay--Kuta was way too crowded and not very laid back.)

Hot Chilli was our driver's name. He was a fascinating character who got his name by being born in a garden. He sang to us all the way to Ubud.

Widya's Batik was off the beaten path. The studio was in a perfectly-sized-open-air room, surrounded by dogs, chickens, ducks, a cat, and a cow. It backed up to a production ceramics studio. After brief introductions, we began our work right away.

Batik is a process by which wax decoration and fabric dye are alternated to create a layered design. 

The first step of the process? Figuring out what design to create. Prior to our arrival, Widya had laid out two large pieces of sketch paper and our cotton fabric, which measured about 3 feet x 2 feet. Cheryl chose a design from the stack that Widya had collected over the years. They were almost like stencils, or like picking out a tattoo design. I decided to combine freehand drawing and parts of previous designs. We also both wanted to incorporate stamping.

Once we had traced or drawn our imagery onto our fabric with pencil, we had to trace over the pencil with wax. We used a small, handmade tool for doing this. It was a piece of bamboo with a small copper bowl and spout wired to the end of it. This part of the process took a while. Widya and his studio mate Komang ended up helping Cheryl and me finish outlining our designs, as this is a practiced process that takes many months to perfect. (Leave it to me to create a design that had a ton of  patterning in it: triangles, flowers, stripes, and scalloping.)

Once the wax was traced over the entire design, we began painting. We filled in the entire design, as if we were coloring in a coloring book. The fabric dyes were already mixed up, and we followed a color wheel to determine what colors we wanted. I stayed in the blue, pink, orange, yellow, and teal family. We painted with sticks and cotton nibs. Some of the colors painted on true to their color while others changed with sunlight or during the finishing process. Our trust was completely in the color wheel!

Once we completed painting in our pieces, another layer of wax design was put on top of the painted work. This was done almost entirely by Widya and Komang. But, Komang read my mind! He knew exactly what I wanted . . . He traced back through my stripes, added in dots, and reverse-scalloped on my cloud shapes: exactly what I would have done. I loved it!

Once the second layer of wax design went onto our work, Widya began preparing the fixatives and dyes. He worked on Cheryl's piece first, bowling off all of the wax before submerging it in the fixative. The fixative created the "magic" where the color changing--if any--took place.

After the fixative, the work was dipped in the dye. The dye filled in where there was white fabric or, in some cases, where the wax had been boiled off. It was incredible to watch the colors coming to life right before our eyes!

The colors were fabulously bright!

The process took about 7 hours, not including travel time. But it was completely worth it! It was an entirely new and unique experience for Cheryl and me, combining both culture and creativity. And, it has added another layer to my work as an artist: I can now use the knowledge of this process in my current work. And, I can go back to Widya's studio to do more pieces that I can include in future works. There is an absolute depth to combining travel, experience, and creativity that I would not be able to get from anywhere else--it's completely unique to Widya, Bali, and the interaction with my creative background.

The piece I made at Widya's studio is one of my sister's Christmas presents. And while it's no longer a surprise for Kerry, I think she will appreciate the care and attention that went into this piece of artwork. Three different people worked on it: Widya and Komang from Bali, and me. And I personally signed the work over to her during the wax-tracing part of the process: it is a completely original piece of handmade artwork specifically made for her. And she got to share in the process of the making of her artwork through Facebook and--now--this blogpost, which is super-great!!

I'm so thankful to master batiker Widya for letting us into his studio and sharing his process with us. He is a great source of inspiration and tenacious artistry. I'm looking forward to a long creative friendship with batik! This is only the beginning...