Sunday, November 27, 2011

Homage to Ai Weiwei

"I realized that being an artist is more about a lifestyle and attitude than producing some product."
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 87)

PBS Documentary
"Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favor"

As I type this, Occupy protesters all over the U.S. are facing eviction from parks where they have set-up camp. I listen to voices on both sides of the debate about whether or not what they are doing is futile or even justified. From my own personal perspective, I am proud of the commitment that they have exhibited and the inspiration and voice that they have provided for others. Whether or not someone agrees with what the Occupy protesters are fighting for, I think that most of us can agree on one thing: that freedom of expression is critical to our survival as a society.

Imagine if you will the opposite. Rather than being able to voice discontent, that our words and ideas were squashed, and even more frightening, that we were punished, sometimes to the point of death, for speaking out against what we feel must change.

Artists and writers have for centuries taken on the role of the dissident. It isn't an easy road for these philosophical warriors. They are often scorned for their honesty and outcasted from their communities. But without these movements, change and progress does not occur for the betterment of the whole.

Where would women be today if the suffrage movement was not successful? What if the Civil Rights Movement had not occurred? What conditions would workers be exposed to without the Labor Movement? Certainly, rational, caring beings would not condone such inhumane injustices and inequalities. Born in the latter part of the 20th century, the fights that others have fought is just a story in a history book. Without living through the situation, it is sometimes difficult to empathize or fathom a time when certain rights for people did not exist.

That I am able (or allowed) to write this blog is a right that I or many others take for granted. Other than a bit of self-censorship in the name of sensitivity, I know that I may freely voice my concerns and opinions without fear of major retribution. I know that I can make a statement about the shortcomings of our government or those in power and that other than a few disgruntled readers there will be no major backlash. At this point in my life, in this country, within this venue, I feel fairly confident that no one will force me to stop speaking my view.

This was not the case for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. A child born shortly before China's Cultural Revolution, he grew up surrounded by censorship. His father, famous poet Ai Qing, was exiled to the far reaches of the remote Gobi Desert when Weiwei was only one year old. For sixteen years, Weiwei's studies consisted only of Chairman Mao propaganda and the occasional but hidden references to art and poetry. He was discouraged to learn to read, and books were nearly non-existent after they were all burned. To be a well-read, well-informed intellectual was to put the self at risk for imprisonment or worse. To us, this is a contradictory life - to be born to an artist and an intellectual - but to not be exposed to those riches of the mind.

Weiwei left China in 1981 and moved to New York City, a place he considered to be the center of the contemporary art movement. He had already begun schooling in Bejing, but did not complete his studies. In NYC, he studied art at Parsons School of Design, originally was a painter and drawer, but soon took to sculpture and photography. He was also a master Blackjack player frequenting the casinos of Atlantic City, and surrounded himself with poets and intellectuals. In the PBS video posted above, Weiwei speaks of the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square where liberals, artists, poets, musicians, homeless, and poor people congregated. Upon trying to impose a curfew for the park, a movement against government and police brutality commenced. Weiwei documented the event through photography and found inspiration in the uprising of the people, perhaps offering a glimmer of hope for his own oppressed home country.

Weiwei returned to Bejing in 1993. From 1994-1997, he worked on a series of three books called The Black Book, The White Book, and The Gray Book. The Black Book was purely written words by artists. He was concerned with ideas and concepts more so than actual visual images. The following books included images that were provocative in post-Cultural Revolution China. The books were picked up by a publisher in Hong Kong and considered to be illegal and "underground". This was perhaps the beginning of Weiwei discovering the power of his own voice within the oppression of his home country. Although China proclaimed to be a different place than it was in years previous, freedom of expression still did not, in Weiwei's eyes, exist.

In 2006, Weiwei was pretty much forced to begin a blog as China worked to improve its reputation, to prove that it was a more open and free society. Weiwei was nervous at first being that he did not consider himself a good writer. But soon he found this venue as his greatest form of self-expression. He wrote freely about government, culture, politics, art, and the human and social condition.

"The techniques of the Internet have become a major way of liberating humans from old values and systems, something that has never been possible until today"
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 6)

This new found freedom was of utmost importance and provided immense satisfaction. Weiwei contemplated whether or not he would someday be able to give up everything else and only write blogs. He posted sometimes as many as 100 photos a day, and when his blog was shut-down by the government in 2009, he had written over 200 entries and accrued millions of readers.

The entries preceding the shut-down of his blog pertained to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake where several school buildings had collapsed killing thousands of students. Ironically, many of the surrounding buildings remained standing, eluding to shoddy construction of the educational structures. Weiwei accused that the government was shirking its responsibility and his political blog entries roused feathers of government officials. They did their best to silence him.

His sculptural and architectural works are steeped in political innuendo - an outcry against injustice. Influenced by the artist Marcel Duchamp and compared to German artist Joseph Beuys, Weiwei uses everyday objects that already carry with them personal familiarity to a wide population, and reconfigures or destroys them to make his statement. For instance, In reference to the Sichuan earthquake, Weiwei collected nine thousand children's backpacks to create an installation that spelled out the words of a grieving mother "She lived happily in this world for seven years." In other artworks, "Dropping the Urn" and "Colored Vases", Weiwei drops or dips in paint historical ceramic artifacts. To many, the act is a jaw-dropper, witnessing the destruction of something that is to the greater population considered highly valuable. Weiwei challenges our perception of value and how and why we make such judgments.

Weiwei's artistic popularity and esteem has earned him several awards and placement in various countries' biennials. Within his own home country of China, he was solicited to design the 2008 Summer Olympic stadium known as the "Bird's Nest". Later, Weiwei spoke out against the Olympic event and stated that the Chinese government used the event as propaganda to try to be seen in a positive light to the rest of the world, when in fact, it is a highly oppressive country where freedom of speech still does not exist. He refused to have photos of himself taken with the stadium.

The stadium is only one of many architectural projects by Ai Weiwei. His first inspiration was a book that he found in New York bookstore about a house that the philosopher Wittgenstein had built for his sister. He was taken with the intricate details of the structure and returned home determined to build a studio home for himself.

Weiwei discovered eventually that his artistic projects would require the hands of many. He had concepts but not enough time to see the ideas to fruition by himself. He once organized 100 architects to collaborate. Another time, for the Kassel, Germany biennial Documenta 12, he conceived and facilitated 1,001 Chinese tourists to visit the exhibit, providing them clothing, lodging, housing, and sightseeing opportunities in what he calls "Fairytale."

Perhaps one of his most widely recognized and recent works was at Tate Modern in London in 2010, titled "Sunflower Seeds."

Video of Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seed project

In Sunflower Seeds, Weiwei solicited the help of 1,600 Jingdezhen residents to cast and paint 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. Jingdezhen was once a bustling porcelain factory town but no longer exists as such with many out of work. Over the course of two years, the sunflower seeds were created and then installed at Tate Modern. The symbolism of the sunflower seeds is directly related to the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao, who saw himself as the sun and his followers as the sunflowers. But there is also a dual meaning. For Weiwei, sunflower seeds were shared and eaten amongst people - a symbol of nourishment, friendship and nostalgia.

The sunflower project is particularly interesting to me. On one level, I connect with it because I am a potter. I know the process and I can easily imagine the painstaking work involved to make so many intricate items. Interest was also piqued because of the number 1,600. Here in Lubec, that is our approximate summer population. I imagined the whole of our town being involved with one single project, one single goal. That led me to thoughts about the once thriving canning factory industry that employed so many people here, and the huge negative economic impact it had on the families when the factories closed. I understand that it was not just a loss of money, but also a loss of personal identity.

Weiwei's work moves me. Critics lean mostly in favor of his work, commending him for not only exquisite details and craftsmanship, but also for his social/political statements. These commendations come, perhaps, more so from critics outside China. Within China, there seems to be those who disdain his vocalizations and consider him more of a showman, or in some cases, a threat. I view it as an artist using his gifts to grab the attention of viewers so that he may educate and inspire. Would I ever go to such lengths? My own artwork is often political, but I have not given in, not yet anyway, to the idea of spending time in jail or putting my life on the line for my values. That's not to say that I have not contemplated civil disobedience, but for now, I prefer to do my work from outside a jail cell. I do, however, have the utmost respect and admiration for Weiwei's perseverance and passion. Having thought about my own role as an artist, the following quote resonated with me:

"If artists betray the social conscience and the basic principles of being human, where does art stand then?
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 27)

Weiwei's discontent with the Chinese government has landed him in a quite precarious position. He has been beaten by police to the point of suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. His studio in Bejing was demolished by the government citing that he did not have proper permission to build. He was recently (April 2011) detained by authorities and held for two months without an official charge. When later released, it was announced that he owes nearly two million dollars in back taxes and fines, all of which Weiwei denies.

What draws me most to Weiwei is his smile. I think of all these obstacles that he faced and still faces, obstacles which would kill the spirit of most human beings, offering nothing more than a sense of defeat. Yet, I see interviews and photos of him...smiling.

There is a flood of articles and videos out there. He is an addictive sort to study, myself spending many hours perusing the Internet for anything Weiwei. I recommend starting with a google image search. Begin with the powerful images then move onto the reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the quick read "Ai Weiwei Speaks: with Hans Ulrich Obrist" (Penguin Books, 2011). The book was captivating for me because it was in Weiwei's own voice. Next on my list, the translated blogs. The PBS video "Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favor" is definitely worth a watch.

I leave you with one last quote - and perhaps a hope that you will think about the Occupy Movement here in our own country - not merely as a group of people whining about their conditions, but as a movement that by the very nature of being vocal is helping to protect all our rights and freedoms associated with personal expression.

"A nation that will not search for its own past and not be critical of it is a shameless nation."
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 14)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pottery, Poetry, and Amazing Feats in the Realm of packing

Cobscook Pottery & Fiber Arts
Annual Holiday Sale
November 18-20, 2011
Friday 3-7PM, Saturday 10AM-5PM, Sunday Noon-4PM
North Lubec Road, Lubec, ME
Pottery, Weaving, Fine Art, and Jewelry

My Cobscook Pottery wares on display at the United Maine Craftsmen showing at the Augusta Civic Center last weekend.

Honda should hire me for a product testimonial. This was the first loading before I cut the boards for better mirror visibility. You should have seen the car AFTER I loaded ALL the boxes and my luggage!!!! Seriously, you sure can fit an awful lot into a teeny little Honda Fit!

Bouli...unknowingly sporting cream on her nose after sneaking into my plate on the counter and assuming I wouldn't find out!

Congratulations to my husband, Chris, on his recent poetry chapbook release!
Click link below to order "Rebellion"

I returned last night from four days in central Maine. I just gave my hand at vending the United Maine Craftsmen show at the Augusta Civic Center. This past summer at the Blueberry Festival and this past weekend in Augusta marked my return to vending after nearly ten years. Those who peddle their wares at festivals and other venues know what I mean when I say that it is hard work! Not only did massive quantities of hours go in to creating the work, but the packing, driving, setting-up, and breaking-down consumed enormous amounts of energy and time as well. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Vending in Augusta returned me to my old stomping grounds and I was able to reconnect with folks that I had not seen in quite some time. Friends from near and far visited me at my booth and family sauntered in and out throughout the weekend. I was grateful for my sister's help with set-up on Friday night and during the first day of vending. Mom stopped by to watch the booth so I could have breaks, and my dad (poor guy!) agreed to help me load the display unit in the car on Sunday night...only to discover that he had been wrangled into carrying numerous heavy boxes and objects out to the vehicles.

Spending time with other potters while at the show was wonderful. I love how eagerly everyone shares their knowledge and expertise. Potters tend to have a peaceful and caring aura (at least the ones I know!) and I feel so honored to be part of their "circle". I do hope that our paths continue to cross over the years.

I returned last night good season and Chris unpacked the boxes into the shop. Bouli poked around the barn a bit while I rearranged the displays and began preparation for this coming weekend's annual holiday sale. The rest of this week (when not teaching) I will be consumed with preparations but do so happily. I always enjoy this weekend when many of my Lubec friends stop by. The spirits are joyful.

After this weekend's sale, I will disperse wares to a couple shops then perhaps load a few items onto Etsy. I hope to have an official website in the not too distant future, but for now, while I am running ragged while juggling a myriad of commitments, I will make do with the resources at hand.

This is a short blog this week as the hours are few and the to-do list is long. I need a good night's sleep to recoup my energy for the days ahead. Meanwhile, enjoying this beautiful unseasonably warm weather and sharing in Chris' celebration of his recent poetry release. Congrats Chris!!! You've worked hard and deserve it! Order his recent release at:

And....if you're in Lubec this coming weekend - be sure to stop by for our annual holiday sale! Hope to see you!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Friends, Celebrations, and Pottery Galore!

From kiln to shelf, pottery is piling up....back-to-back glaze firings are in progress in prep for next weekend's United Maine Craftsmen show at the Augusta Civic Center
Nov. 12-13 (Saturday 9-5, Sunday 10-4)
Hope to see you there!

Current sculpture in progress.
This is the interior support structure which is so beautiful on its own....It was hard to cover up all that detailed architectural work that will never even be seen on the finished piece!!!!

Reunited with my friend Donna after not seeing her for over twenty years!
Can you tell that it was VERY COLD outside? This photo was taken in Portland just a few hours before last weekend's snowy October nor'easter hit.

United Maine Craftsmen Show
Augusta Civic Center
Augusta, Maine
November 12-13
(Saturday 9:00-5:00, and Sunday 10:00-4:00)
Admission $2 at the door.
Look for my Cobscook Pottery booth!
Honey Pots, Tankards, Tumblers & Mugs, Pasta & Boulibase Bowls, Rice and Tea Bowls, Noodle Bowls, Sake Sets, Vases, and more!

I am enjoying this moment of peace. It seems somewhat indulgent to sit still for a bit to upload photos and blog. As I type, the kiln is firing its fourth load of pottery in less than two weeks. That schedule seems a bit relaxed compared to what is upcoming; six more attempted glaze firings in the next week and a half. A cycle from firing to cooling and cracking the lid is about thirty hours and rest-assured (or rather, UN-rest-assured) there will be more late nights and 3:00 a.m. kiln duties. Two nights ago Chris jumped-in and took over the firing duties come 12:30 a.m. He suggested I try to sleep (it was well past my bedtime) and he in turn watched for the cone to drop. It finally did, but not to well near 3:00 a.m. Work days have been extreme with the typical being twelve to fourteen hours of near nonstop work. On the days I go to school to teach, I return home to change into my messy work duds and head into the pottery cave. I work until usually 8:00 or 9:00 at night, then grab a quick dinner and go to bed, only to wake the next day and do it all again. it's a good thing that I love what I do!!!

This insane schedule is not totally un-typical, but even for me, it has been a long and extreme schedule. I am trying my hand at vending the Augusta Civic Center united Maine Craftsmen show (coming up next weekend!) and then the next weekend is my annual holiday sale here at Cobscook Pottery in Lubec. Two back-to-back events has me stocking more work than usual in a small time frame. Most everything else has been put on hold, especially the past two weeks, while I did that last burst of wheel work, then a mega-glazing marathon. I am so filled with glee that last night about 10:00 p.m. I put away the glazes and cleaned up the tables. For the next few days I will stay focused on loading and unloading, watching temps and cones, and prep for the Augusta excursion, which includes finalizing the display materials. Today is planned for all that busy-type work and tomorrow and Monday I resume work on a sculpture project that I began about ten days ago - even though I was in the midst of mega-vending- pottery production.

Actually, looking back over the past week and a half, I realize that I even slipped in time for some fun. Everything was on-the-fly but you know what they say "all work and no play.....". In fact, in the midst of this insane work schedule, we were treated to a beautiful dinner at the house of friends, traveled to central Maine to see my father for his birthday, hopped on down to Portland for about four hours to see a friend visiting from London, picked-up clay from Portland pottery while there, and even scooted on over to another friend's house to see her studio. Yesterday, I even took time off for a couple hours to visit with friends for tea.

Seeing Donna after over twenty years was fabulous! We first met in (I think!!!!) 1988 in an acting class at University of Southern Maine. Donna was an exchange student from Ireland and we became fast friends. Thanks to the wonderful information super highway (a.k.a. internet and more specifically facebook) we have been able to keep in touch in recent years. Donna returned to visit with her former host family and it just happened that I was going to be only an hour from Portland while visiting family in central Maine. We managed an overlap in schedules that allowed us to hang out for about three hours in the Old Port. After a lunch of Maine "chowdah" we sauntered into Heron Point Gallery on Market Street. What a gorgeous space and beautiful work!!!! One of my pod-mates from the MFA program at Heartwood owns the gallery. So, I even got to see Bonnie during this little excursion! After Donna hooked back up with her host family to prepare fro her flight back to Europe, I called my friend Becky and spur of the moment drove over to her home and got to see the gorgeous new pottery plates that she has been making in her studio. The visit was far too short, but so glad that I was able to do it. I got back to West Gardiner just in time for my dad's birthday supper - and only a few hours before the snowstorm began.

What's up with that anyway? Snow before Halloween? And I'm not talking a dusting: it really kicked up with wild winds and big flakes that blanketed the ground to the tune of about six inches by morning. Needless to say, this delayed our travel back to Lubec by a few hours. By noon, we hit the road and travel went smoothly, even with our kitten Bouli (a not-so-little 9-pounder!!!) who took turns at slumbering in our laps for the long return home. We had no snow in our yard in Lubec, but things sure looked dark when we pulled up the drive. Apparently power had been out for several hours. We spent the rest of our evening removing food from the fridge and placing it in a freezer and cooler with ice blocks. Ironically, we had just bought a week's worth of groceries on the way home. The house was extremely cold so we heated stones on the stove which were later placed in the bed for warmth. I slept well toasty warm.

This concludes my morning of blogging leisure. I am going to hit the shower, grab some breakfast, and begin the list of the things I must finish today in order to be ready for the Augusta show. I have a feeling the list is longer than the hours that I have allotted!!!!

It's turn back the clock time tonight - I think?! This means extremely early darkness (maybe 4:30 p.m.????) I LOVE it!

Cobscook Pottery & Fiber Arts
Annual Holiday Sale

Lubec, Maine
November 18-20, 2011
Friday 3:00-7:00, Saturday 10:00-5:00, Sunday Noon-4:00

Honey Pots (and Lubec Bee Honey!!!), Tankards, Tumblers & Mugs, Pasta & Boulibase Bowls, Rice and Tea Bowls, Noodle Bowls, Sake Sets, Vases, Soap, Weaving, and Jewelry by The Indigo Iris.
Beautiful packaging ready for gifting!

If more info is needed, email me at