Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New York City: Art Weekend

Streets of Manhattan

Street Music
Youtube Video link:
I think this may be the same performer that we saw in NYC

Kiki Smith: Sojourns
(Brooklyn Museum of Art)

Judy Chicago: The Dinner Party
(Brooklyn Museum of Art)

Judy Chicago: The Dinner Party
Close-up detail of the setting for "The Primordial Goddess"
(Brooklyn Museum of Art)

I finally made it back to the Big Apple. Last time I visited was when I was a student at USM nearly twenty years ago. Back then, I had all of ten minutes at MoMA, a quick gallery tour of SOHO, and a visit to the Hudson River Valley Museum. This time around, my mother planned a bus ride to the city, some fairly fancy hotel accommodations in Manhattan, and museum tickets. The day before we boarded the bus to New York, I learned that not only would I be seeing Kiki Smith's Soujourn exhibit, but that Judy Chicago's Dinner Party was also on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Chills!!!

We boarded a greyhound at 7:30 a.m. on a Friday and spent the next eleven hours in traffic and bus stations. The hotel was a welcome reprieve. Coming from Lubec, where the nearest traffic light is fifty miles away, it was a bit of shock for me. The flashing lights and throngs of people, beeping horns, yellow sea of taxi cabs, and sirens were overwhelming. The sounds and lights continued through the night, even when trying to catch a few winks. Saturday morning we pulled ourselves out of bed and prepared for the adventure ahead. Goal: MoMA (Modern Museum of Art).

One of the essential lessons that I learned is that the faster people move, the longer it takes to get to your destination.

We bought tour bus tickets (highly recommended by the concierge) that would deliver us to all the spots we wanted to visit. As we boarded the bus, the driver said "this bus will take you two hours to get there, you're better off to walk".

Walking in NYC is an adventure in and of itself. It took a few times, but I eventually got it, that you don't just dart out in the middle of the road to get to the other side. You need to wait until the pedestrian light flashes, lest you be run-down by a honking taxi or tour bus. And when that pedestrian sign flashes, you need to be prepared to move with the crowd, at a fast clip, or else you'll be trampled or bumped out of the way. I actually got quite good at knowing when the light was about to change, and by Saturday night, I was the first to step off the sidewalk and the tourists would follow my lead instead of the other way around.

I much prefer the city at night. The lights and sounds draw you in. You can catch live music on most every street corner. One spot we were treated to some excellent funk guitar and a break dance ensemble. The next block over, a percussion performance that utilized only pots and pans and plastic buckets.

MoMA was amazing. In a few hours, I was acquainted with master works that I have been looking at in books and teaching my students about for many years. We were fortunate to catch a special exhibition of Matisse, then strolled through gallery after gallery, in awe of magnificent works by Kandinsky, Monet, Kahlo, Rivera, Brancusi, Mondrian, Duchamp. The list goes on and on. Looking at Picasso’s lithograph’s made me crave printmaking. The design exhibit enticed a brief moment of plans to redecorate my home with contemporary furniture and fixtures. Bontecue sparked a few ideas. A quiet reverent moment overtook me when seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in-person. The museum offered major artistic eye candy around every corner. One day, for certain, is not enough time to take it all in. So much is already a blur.

The Saturday night plans were squashed when we learned that the Blue Note performance for that evening was already sold-out. Walking down the street, we passed a poster for the Broadway show “Million Dollar Quartet”. We called the box office at 6:00, and within an hour we were in a cab heading over to the Nederlander Theater. The show was about a chance meeting of four performers at Sun Studios in Nashville in 1957: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johny Cash. The musical was out-of-your seat, toe-tapping energy. The actor who played Johny Cash was phenomenal, capturing the musician’s mannerisms perfectly, and matching his singing and talking voice equally as well. I was impressed that each of the actors not only acted the parts, but they played their own instruments and sang in their own voices. My mom was taken back to her early teen years, remembering when each of the songs was released, recollecting where she was with her friends at the time, and screaming with glee when hearing particular songs on the radio.

Sunday, the plan was to head to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It took nearly two hours to get to Seaport by tour bus, drooling at the cultural delights as we drove through Soho, China Town, and Greenwich Village. Seaport was packed with people patronizing the fresh produce and souvenir vendors. From there we switched buses to head over the bridge into Brooklyn. We were let off at the public library and walked a short distance up the street to the museum, passing gorgeous botanical gardens.

Something was sparked in me. I felt an immediate connection to Brooklyn and if I am to return to New York, I think I would much prefer a stay in that area opposed to the more upscale area of 7th Avenue Manhattan. Brooklyn seemed to move at a slightly slower pace, the buildings were more “low-rise”, and the various ethnic shops and restaurants were less fettered by the glitz and glamour of the higher-scale more modern rents of NYC.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art was the “piece de resistance.” I had endured hours of uncomfortable bus seats, food on the run, humid anxiety-filled streets, long lines, cranky bus tour guides, and polluted city smells to get to this one particular spot.

We went straight to the fourth floor to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. First stop: Kiki Smith Soujourns. Smith combined her sculpture with drawings on handmade Nepalese paper that illustrated a creation journey from spiritual conception to death. As an admirer of Smith’s work for many years, I was thrilled to finally see some of her work in-person.

I took my time with the Judy Chicago installation. I wanted to rush forward into the darkened room to see "The Dinner Party", but forced myself to begin at the entrance banners, reading each one, then detoured to a video viewing room to learn about the six year process of producing the artwork. I watched the video as long as I could before impatience set-in and led me into the exhibit. From first step taken into the cave-like darkened space, I felt an aura of reverence. It was quieter than a library as people filtered around the table, stopping at each place-setting as if it were an altar set in honor of a sacred holiday. I was overwhelmed with emotion that kept bubbling-up from deep within. I wasn’t prepared for the intense reaction that I had. It was a truly humbling experience.

After we left the museum, things went downhill a bit – though stories were created that in time will allow us to laugh more and more. For instance, we walked back to the tour bus pick-up site and waited over an hour, in rain, but the bus never showed up. Cell phone technology was much appreciated as it allowed us to call the tour bus company. After three employee conversations, and several minutes on hold, we were told that the tour bus was full so the driver decided to “skip” our pick-up spot. We were informed that it was the last bus of the day to drive through Brooklyn and ended up having to call a driving service to return us to the hotel. We saw plenty of yellow NYC cabs, but regulations prevent them from doing a pick-up in Brooklyn even though they are allowed to drop-off in Brooklyn. We were glad to get back to the hotel, albeit much later than anticipated, voiding our plan to spend the afternoon gallery hopping in Soho. We instead ended the evening at our hotel restaurant, then back to the room good season to pack for the next day’s travel back to Maine.

I like short trips, but two days just isn’t enough time in NYC to take-in the arts and cultures. But at the same time, it was more than enough - enough to make me appreciate the quiet of Lubec, the vast star-filled night sky, and the absence of zooming yellow cabs.

Unexpected Events

I am late to post this week due to some unexpected events. I did spend a few days in New York City and when I return to blog world, I will post about that experience. Please check back in a few days (or maybe a week?)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

New Beginnings in Teaching and Art

The new (old) Ashford spinning wheel
Thanks Judy!!!!

Pottery Studio/Basement insulation has begun!

Rack of greenware almost ready to bisque

I have been recuperating this past week from a minor procedure that left me with a big headache and a noggin full of stitches. In usual Shanna fashion, I assumed that that life would proceed as usual with a butt load of work lined-up to complete. I had marked-off one day in my daily planner as "recovery time" and was looking forward to a few days at home to spend in the studio. I learned a bit of a lesson in slowing-down, and though it was difficult to be so "still", I managed. Timing worked out well, actually, as I needed to write my proposals for the upcoming semester at Heartwood. I now had plenty of time to sit still and think!

Looking back over the past few days, even though I was "laying-low", I realize that a lot has occurred.

I had been talking about getting a spinning wheel since 2007, but time and resources haven't come together to make that happen. Recently I decided that I would like to incorporate spinning into my upcoming tapestry project. I mentioned this to our friends Nicky and Judy while visiting for dinner two weeks ago, and to my delight, Judy offered me her wheel! Wow! Talk about putting something out there to the universe. Within days, a wheel was sitting in my studio. Of course, I have no clue how to work a spinning wheel. Thankfully, the universe had that one figured out as well. Our friend Barbara, an accomplished artist/weaver, came right over and created a list of what parts I needed to to order. She also offered-up her talents to teach me what I need to know to get me started. I can't wait! Oh, incidentally, the fiber supplier I called in Wisconsin may be a distantly-related relative. I received some interesting information on my family's genealogy. (assuming we are the same line of Wheelock?). It's a hoot to call someone so many states away who I have never spoken with before - who just might be related to me.

This next part of the blog is for those of you not from Maine who think that Moose sightings are a myth to try to get tourists to visit us here. Yes, I swear to you, this huge creature really does exist.

About mid week, Chris packed-up his gear and headed off into the woods for an overnight camp. He does this occasionally and perhaps my sitting around whining about my pain and inability to get anything done prompted this bit of out-of-the-blue behavior on his part. I dropped him off at the trail head and off he walked into the woods with gear in tow. While he camped, I snagged the opportunity to pull-together his birthday surprise. Though I wasn't up for hours of pounding out clay, I managed to wrap gifts, create a treasure hunt, bake a cake, and prepare one of his favorite meals, malai kofta. I picked him up from the trail head about 24 hours later, excited to see his reaction at the surprise awaiting him at home.

I know that his little bit of the week had nothing at all to do with my path as an artist, but, it is too good to pass up. Apparently, while Chris was in the pitch black of night standing on a rock, watching the shooting stars, he heard this loud repeated snorting noise followed by several heavy stomps. After this happened a few times, the animal ran in what sounded like circles.

Hindsight, it appears as though Chris might have set-up his tent in the sleeping spot of a moose! My dad is a hunter safety instructor and thought that the "perfect tent spot" that Chris found was purposely packed-down field grass for moose-sleep-comfort, complete with scat markings that Chris considered a minor nuisance and had kicked "out-of-the-way" for tent placement.

The disgruntled moose seemed to want to challenge Chris, but thankfully it eventually backed down. Mind you, this was in the dark of night and Chris could not see what animal was making this noise. Upon his return home, we found the online sound byte of a moose. (click on #1 or or #12 to hear what he heard!) What a close call! I'm glad he's home safe.

Yesterday, myself and the kindergarten teacher from school attended a workshop at the Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Eastport. We are participating in a pilot program for something called "Visual Teaching Strategies." I'll be posting more about this as we move further into the process. It's an exciting way for students to develop critical thinking and language skills through the arts. The pilot program we are participating in is a partnership between the Tides Institute and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The presenter from Boston was phenomenal and I can't wait to get this project rolling in the classroom. Speaking of which, I can't believe that school begins in less than two weeks!

While I was in Eastport for training, my dad and his friend Gene visited from central Maine. Along with Chris, they insulated two walls of the basement, a.k.a. "The Pottery Cave". Last winter it was extremely cold down there, and even with two heating sources, it would take almost three hours to reach 60 degrees. Chris will soon begin insulating the ceiling. Working down there this winter will be much more tolerable and pleasant experience than last year. After blogging, I will head downstairs to finish the nailing and taping, then will clean-up the mess and get all equipment and furniture back into place.

I have missed working with the clay this past week. Why is it that when we are unable to be in the studio that we are also the most full of ideas?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Summer in Lubec: Gourmet Jazz Brunch, Kayaking, and...Harleys?!

Shanna kayaking on Rocky Lake
Photo by Joe Phelan

The campsite on Rocky Lake
In photo: Shanna, Kristin, Chris
Photo by Joe Phelan

Chris loading up the kayaks after lunch
Photo by Joe Phelan

Sunday Jazz Brunch at Water Street Tavern
Mike Levine (keyboards) and Ric Mosley (upright bass)

No, it isn't Sturgis....
it's downtown Lubec....rumbling, rolling Harleys...about thirty of them!
Photo by Joe Phelan

Neal McPartlin with his painting "End of the Bay"
Now on display at Cobscook Pottery and Fiber Arts
Photo by Joe Phelan

My most recently completed tapestry,
inspired by St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada
Wool and silk fibers, maple, bronzite, Czechoslovakian glass

Water Street Tavern, listening to live jazz, eating gourmet crabcake and poached eggs benedict, I looked to my friends and said, with inquisitive disbelief, "This is Lubec?" Moments later, throngs of Harleys rolled down over Main Street and around the corner, brigading behind Annabells Pub. Bellies full, we walked the gaslight-lined brick sidewalk, past the smokehouse gardens, past the scents of homebaked goodies at Atlantic House, and into Landmarks Gallery for the Circus Show where spectators bounced about joyfully perusing familiar local faces in oil and acrylic paintings by Shawn Costello and Peter Deveber.

Nine years ago this month, Chris and I arrived in a 24 foot Uhaul with two cats in tow, no jobs, no money. The roads were bumpy, buildings dilapidated, streets vacant. We had been driving two days from Knoxville, Tennessee, and all we had was a photo of a house (no legitimate address), a key, and the wise words of Richard Bell Jackson "it's a great place for an artist and a writer."

It took a few years for me to acclimate to the quietness and despair of a seaside village that was in the midst of change. The last of the factories had just closed previous to our arrival downeast, and Lubec felt more of a Ghost Town than anything else. But we got used to this way of life: the solitude, the remoteness, the struggle. though all of a sudden, Lubec has sparked. Water Street is full of tourists, the harbor is filling once again with boats, and four-star dining is becoming the norm. The arts are growing, artists visible, and music is pouring out from the pubs and Summer Keys.

Pinch me.

Is this real?

Surreal. Yes. Surreal.

I thank the fates and our ancestors everyday for the gift that we have been given - to be able to live here, where nature inspires and encourages the creative meanderings of an eccentric poet and artist. And now, not only the beauty of the environment, but the bustling activity of a thriving seaside village that is blooming with arts and music.

This past weekend allowed me breaks in my regular work routine to enjoy all the gifts of this area. My sister Kristin and her partner Neal visited, as well as our friend Joe, a photographer from central Maine. Our travels took us to a new kayaking spot at "Rocky Lake". We had never been there before and it has quickly become one of my fave kayaking spots of all time. We began our excursion at a small inlet which led to the larger lake. In our exploring, we happened upon a rustic campsite on a small island where we sat a spell for picnic lunch. Our return to base in the afternoon allowed time to regenerate before an extravagant cookout that left us all well-fed and ready for a sound night's sleep.

Neal likes to paint while here in Lubec. I was thrilled that he left behind three paintings for display in our shop/gallery. (See photo above). Cobscook Pottery and Fiber Arts really is a family effort. My sister displays her gorgeous jewelery, my mom notecards from her paintings and my sis-in-law notecards with her photographs. My husband sells his poetry chapbooks, and now Neal his paintings. My own work, which ranges from pottery, to sculpture, weaving, and painting, is on display as well. I love that we are a small cottage environment, and that such talent is evident in our family throughout. Dad even has a hand in things.With his woodworking talents he has contributed by making the space more aesthetically pleasing with walls, windows, steps, and trim.

It's been a fantastically full week with family and friends, art, business, and planning. A new week is beginning, and though it does not entail any kayak excursions or gourmet jazz brunches, it will allow time for weaving. Pots are drying and awaiting firing, and there is thinking and writing that needs to be completed this week. I am hoping for a couple of quiet days to tackle the brain-bending work - will see what the week brings me!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Talking to Pots

Mini Pottery
(4" tall)
Sea and Sky Glaze Motif

Clay balls, wedged and ready to throw on potter's wheel

Wheel-thrown and drying before trimming

I doubt that most people know fully what goes into the making of a piece of handcrafted pottery. Folks visit a pottery shop, pick up a mug or bowl, and if the vessel has the "right feel" they pull out their credit card or checkbook and walk away with it securely wrapped in tissue or bubble wrap. Hours of enjoyment ensue, whether gazing adoringly at the newly purchased fine craft or enjoying the ritual bowl of breakfast oatmeal.

Seemingly simple to the average person, but to the potter, it is a labor of love, sometimes blood, a lot of sweat, and occasionally tears. (I'm not joking here....I'll spare you all the gory details, but trust me, it isn't all fun and games!)

Throwing a piece of pottery begins with the clay. Some potters dig their own, myself, I drive a couple times a year to Portland (a six hour jaunt) to load up on the mucky, earthy-scented joy mud. Chris, without complaint, unloads the hundreds of pounds of boxes into the basement pile and there it sits until I am ready to do what I call a "pottery run".

In the past, a "pottery run" consisted of a few ten-to-twelve hour days in a row. With the new set-up, I tend to throw about four to five hours at a time, first thing in the morning. If I am well-prepared, I would have already wedged the balls of clay, in and of itself, a time-consuming task. Wedging is much like kneading bread. It aligns the clay particles in a particular manner and if done well, relieves the clay of little air bubbles, which can be the death of a pot long before the glaze ever graces its sides.

Each ball of clay is wedged about 100 times then set by the wheel for the next step.

Slung upon the wheel-head, the speed is increased and the task of "centering" begins. It looks easy if you watch a skilled potter at the helm. But rest-assured, a first time thrower may be dismayed when they experience the wobbly disobedience of the mound.

The clay is coned, re-centered, and opened. The walls are raised, the lip compressed, the shape formed. Then the base is trimmed (first-time around) and the pot removed from wheel.

Once the pot is dried to a leather-hard stage, it is again placed on the wheel to be trimmed. After that, I attach a "chop signature", add handles if needed, and carve if the pot deems carving, then set the pot aside to dry. This could take two days or three weeks, depending on the humidity. This summer, it has taken the latter.

The first firing is called bisque. It basically removes the moisture from the clay. Pots are loaded, and stacked inside one another for efficiency of space. That firing, to cone 05, takes anywhere from 9-12 hours. After cooling for several hours, the kiln is re-opened, and shelf by shelf, the pots are removed and bottoms waxed to prep for glazing.

A kiln load of pottery takes me about 16 hours to glaze. That's one very long day or two, depending on my stamina and schedule that week. Pots are reloaded into kiln, this time much more carefully, and fired to cone 5 (approximately 2150 degrees fahrenheit).

The entire process, from wedging to removing from the glaze firing, is about a six week span of time. So when I run out of a particular item that is in demand, it is not as easy as saying "I'll whip-up one of those for you for the weekend."

An extra "step" that I add to my pottery is that I "talk" to the clay. I tend to be a bit eccentric and did inherit my Nana's pension for talking when no one else is around to listen. I also get a lot of stares and smiles in the market as I walk the aisles and talk to myself about what ingredients are in a special recipe. I also talk out loud when alone when I do my three mile walks, planning out the next art project and what process might work best. So, there's a lot of unrequited talking going on here.

But what I say to my pottery while it is being formed is unique, I think. As I center, I remind myself to find my own "center. When I center I also push down upon the clay as I exhale and say "letting go". (Don't we all have something that we need to let go of?)

As I push my finger in to the spinning mud, I repeat" opening up to love" and as I push the clay from the side walls back to the center opening, I repeat "sending the love back into the center of the universe for all to receive." I pull up the pot walls and speak of "strength and fortitude" and remind the clay that anyone who holds the pot in their hands will experience a deep capacity for love and kindness toward all beings.

It's a tall order, I know. At first when I began this ritual, I thought that I was merely sending this energy out to the folks who purchased a piece of my work. Then it dawned on me; I am touching this clay for hours on end, days on end. Am I not receiving this abundance of healing energy myself?

I certainly believe I am. And this recognition has me wanting to sit at the wheel more and more to soak up the feel-good vibes that the clay and I are exchanging.

I do hope that anyone and everyone who holds one of my "made with love" pots feels that love overflowing in their lives as well.