by artist Karen Orsillo
Colors will intensify when fired (see Karen's examples at top of page)
by Shanna Wheelock
I've been a student in the MFA program at Heartwood College of Art for almost a year and a half. The low-residency, part-time masters program is a unique educational opportunity in Maine. I had been searching for such a program for several years, one that would feed my soul as an artist and a teacher while allowing me to continue to live and work in my own little nook downeast. The program is perfect for educators and I feel fortunate to be in a pod with my art-teaching colleagues, though the program is equally satisfying for those who are not teachers. It is not an online program, rather "low-residency" which means that the time we spend on campus is consolidated into short but intensive weekends. I carry a two-class load and am generally on campus two weekends a semester: one three-day "weekend seminar" and an end-of-semester one-day presentation. In between weekend meetings, I keep in constant contact with my mentors and advisers. This allows students to work toward their degree while keeping up with their normal workplace responsibilities in their hometowns. At Heartwood, MFA candidates hail from all over the country. Some fly-in for their weekend intensives, others endure the lengthy hours-long drive like me. But it's all worth it.
I had looked into the popular MFA programs at Portland School of Art and Vermont College of Fine Arts. These programs both proved to be prohibitive for me for two reasons: cost and time required on campus. Even though they are both low-residency models, and excellent programs, they moved along at a full-time rate and required more than I could offer while working full-time. At my first art teaching job in central Maine, teachers were required by contract to have their Masters degree within five years. At that time I worried because no program existed that fit my specialty area and needs. Those programs would have required me to miss several weeks of work each year. Heartwood College of Art really did tap into the the needs of the working artist, creating a program that filled a niche for art teachers, at a reasonable per-credit hour cost. If this program had existed when I was first teaching, I would have hopped on board immediately.
Heartwood College of Art is a small school in comparison to the bigger city art colleges, but that has proved perfect for me. Set in beautiful Kennebunk, Heartwood plays host to a myriad of professional art studio spaces: ceramics, painting, drawing, fiber arts, sculpture, metals, printmaking, photography, etc. The staff is incredibly personable and working closely with professors and advisers, I feel validated in who I am as an artist. With pods, I have had the opportunity to build close relationships with my peers, mentors, and advisers, and that understanding of one another allows for open dialogues that nurture each student along his or her personal learning path. The way we learn and are treated is an excellent model for how I, as a teacher, choose to work with my own students.
I read an article earlier today in an online science digest about happiness and success. It stated that spirituality is more important than religion in the development of these two things in a child. It did not specify specific spiritual paths, but rather the qualities that accompany a spiritual path - specifically the building of self-esteem through self-awareness. I have always stated that the most important work that I do as a teacher, the greatest gift I try to bestow upon my students, is a sense of self-esteem through the success and enjoyment that they encounter while creating works of art.
It is so refreshing to be part of a masters program where this is happening to me as well. Being a student again gives me new perspective, puts me in my students' shoes per say. I am reminded to always keep in mind the importance of what I am doing, both as an artist, and as a student. I am reminded that it is not always about creating a perfect finished piece, but about the journey we take while creating. In the process we filter through our own life experiences. Who we are is illustrated in our artwork. We may not recognize ourselves immediately in the work that we create, but eventually we start to read the images the way we do a written biography. We decipher the symbols and clues and begin to have those ah-ha moments where the pieces of the puzzle fit together. I had this experience with the current sculpture that I am working on. At first, I didn't understand where the vision came from, but now, two months into the working phase, I am finding all kinds of correlations to my family's and my own life experiences. It really is an amazing feeling to begin to make sense of things in one's own life. Art is the perfect vehicle for this.
Recently I attended the spring semester weekend intensive at Heartwood. The weekends are broken down into different activities including critiques, discussion groups, lectures, and an all-day workshop where we learn new skills that can be applied in our work as artists and teachers. I love all parts of the seminar and though the weekend leaves one exhausted from the packed-pace, it is also highly inspiring. This spring, we had the honor to learn colored porcelain techniques from master artist Karen Orsillo.
Colored porcelain technique involves wedging stain powders into the clay. Once thoroughly mixed, clay is stacked in varied patterns and sliced. Then, the process is repeated until desired patterns are accomplished. The finished pattern blocks are then sliced into thinner panels which can be used for handbuilding. Sometimes the patterned slabs are inlaid into other clays, sometimes they are simply formed as-is. The process requires a delicate hand to attain a certain level of precision. But as Karen said, almost anything you do looks awesome! It is a bit tricky deciding on color combinations as the stains in powder form translate differently when fired. Such is the case with most ceramic glazes, too. For example, the dark blue stain is pink in its raw powder form. The slab platter that I made, as well as the taller vessel, (see photos above) will not be pastel after a cone 8 oxidation firing. Rather, they will be a bold combination of black, rutile, dark blue, and green. What's extra nifty about this high fire process is that the clay is vitrified when fired to temp, meaning that it is water-tight. No glaze is required unless one desires a glossy surface for aesthetics.
I poked around on the web for colored clay sites and found some interesting work by an artist named Vince Pitelka. His architectural sculptures resonated with me, and he explains the process and materials well. It's worth a look!
It's good to be back to blogosphere. The last few weeks I have been preoccupied with other life happenings and look forward to soon jumping back into my artwork. I have been working on a couple new sculptures and plan to have them complete by May. Spring in hectic as my teaching responsibilities kick into high gear (more so than usual believe it or not!). If you are in Lubec, check out the mask show at Lubec Memorial Library, on display March and April. Folks have lent masks from their personal collections, as well as their own handmade pieces. Three of my felted masks are included as well as masks made by some of my 6th, 1st, and 2nd grade students. Grades 3 and 4 are making awesome paper mache masks right now. Unfortunately, they weren't finished for the exhibit deadline. I love masks!!!!