I love coiling. Making coil pots is really one of my most favorite ways to spend time in my life. I also believe coiling is an inefficient and time-consuming way of working, making it unsuitable for almost all projects. Because of the pressures of time the second consideration almost always wins over the first. The one notable exception of this rule is The Bird Monster.
I began working with the crow in my ceramic work over 20 years ago during undergrad. Combining a bag of locally mined clay, persistent bird obsession and a Maria Martinez video gave birth to the first, which was heavily influenced by totem pole birds and burnishing leather hard clay. This first piece did not survive its near the firebox placement of the wood kiln, also an emerging skill, but the coil pot combined with sacred avian images had me hooked, it’s a piece I have revisited many times over the years.
Most often I choose to make a Bird Monster when I have the urge to coil. The process is deliberate and requires attention at every step which makes it the perfect activity for times of transition in the studio. At the end of a large project or after being absent from the studio, cleaning everything up and building a Bird Monster is a great way to check in with myself, my skills and my space.
The years spent working on my MFA left no time or head space for a check in, and then there were several months to rest and refocus the studio. Aside from some functional commission work I had been almost completely out of the making loop for most of the past year.
So when the studio was finally clean and the Magic Box safely stored I decided to spend a few days on a bird monster. There were several random clay bodies hanging around and I chose a box of R2 with grog, a terra-cotta from Laguna that I had long been interested in for its color, for this particular piece.
One of the reasons the piece was in my mind is that I sit next to one of the most recent at work, done as a demo a couple of years ago while teaching at PCC. It’s a really good example and I love the paint job but looking at it closely every day had me pretty dissatisfied by the way it met the table. The work on The Magic Box had me thinking about the pedestal and the role it plays in gallery work. Contrary to contemporary thinking I really love what elevation does for am object’s significance. My hope is the looking at an elevated thing or idea does the same thing to the mind that considers the work. Even if we don’t agree on content or meaning, were thinking outside of the feed, and that can sometimes spark ideas.
A long absence from the studio, a formal consideration and an unfamiliar clay body began the latest. These forms usually begin as a blank, a rough shaped bust/bubble that is pushed in many directions. This piece was the same but added a base blank to the process. The long absence had my skills rusty and the clay had been in the box for a long time and so was a little hard. This combo had me working even more slowly than usual on the two blanks. In spite of the slow start they came together well. The clay was really a pleasure to use and the color delightful, which may have caused my error.
I decided to do a mishima surface using very loose grolleg porcelain slip. Unfortunately this added more water than the clay could handle and I came in the following morning to find the head lying on the table.
Initially I saw this piece as pure experimentation, so this set back was pretty minor, I cut off the torn bits, altered the shape and stuck it back on. After scraping off the extra slip and making a few slabs it was time for the good part. The blank is an incredibly fluid way to work once all the pieces are ready, the limits of the clay and imagination are the only rules that can’t be broken and even those become flexible under the right situation.
Adding the pedestal changed so much of the feel of piece that I no longer wanted to add the screaming beak that many of the bird monsters have. Instead I decided to test an idea that Gabe and I were discussing for a future installation. Initially the idea involved putting masks on sort of blob figures but as this piece became more compelling it seemed the perfect place to play with the idea.
We decided a skull would be the perfect image for the first mask as it tied in to some of the funerary ideas growing with the concept. I was dissatisfied with my first few attempts so I asked Gabe to step in and see what he could come up with. Using his skills and the materials we were already using in the piece he came up with a great solution to the problem that we were both really pleased with. I was possibly too pleased.
Rather than call it a day as I should have I returned to the studio that night to attach the mask. I had what I felt was a good plan and I worried that if I left it too long the clay would not take the attachment. One moment pressing too hard on the “face” while taking a measurement for the attachment pieces and the entire head was laying on the table, broken at the weak re-attachment point.
this kind of thing is not un common in the studio and I’ve learned to cut my losses after a major set back of that nature. I stayed in the studio just long enough to wrap things back up and then left the thing alone. I was strongly tempted to abandon the entire top piece but I was unsure if I had enough of the R2 to replace the upper piece and honestly the conversation around the emerging installation that was springing from this piece was steadily moving away from the figure.
To finish it, I chose to cut the head into pieces and focus on the object as vessel. I used an attachment technique that my son and I used to play with using old bits of slab that were too hard to attach in the usual way. Rather than a slip and score the nearly leather hard pieces, I dipped them in heavy slip and held in place until the drying clay pulled enough of the moisture from the slip for it to stick the pieces together.
the rough aggressive feel of the attachments and the broken nature of the body adds to the ancient feel that we’re moving toward in the installation.
Over all the shifting currents of this piece make it hard to read. We’ll let it sit on the shelf for a while so we can consider what its given rise to and how the work might come together for the coming installation.