Monday, January 30, 2012

Finding Flow

Last Thanksgiving I started this sculpture, which is still a work in progress. A colleague who's a professional sculptor who teaches at BU, was teaching the last class before break. Not many students were there. She asked me to join in the studio that day.

Finding Flow

With clay, there's "throwing" and there's throwing. This sculpture, which I made out of a couple of large pieces of wet clay, was thrown, quickly, curved in my hands, laid on large and small, hard newspaper balls, and put to rest. I think Kitty was surprised at how quickly I worked. At least that's what she remarked to the students.

Finding Flow Detail

My goal with this and other recent sculptures is to find flow. I want to engage in the clay at a scale that's challenging...almost too large to keep control over...and find a resting point where I'm satisfied with the shape. For me, satisfaction depends on balance, randomness, abstraction, and a state of the clay in which it looks like it might have taken shape naturally. Obviously the piece has to be able to support itself once it's dry and fired.

Finding Flow

In this piece I was experimenting with perforations, which I'd like to explore more. The piece just after it, which I recently published as "Portal to Nature" was itself a large perforation. Lots to work with here, and I'd love to hear your comments.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


One of my favorite ceramic pieces at the Museum of FIne Arts in Boston is this wonderful 12th century vessel. It was designed to resemble a bamboo shoot.

Bamboo shoot ewer

My attraction to this piece is the skill with which the potter depicted a plant form. It is graceful, beautiful, and it reflects nature.

Later I learned that pieces like this were treasured for their material purity as well their aesthetic beauty. The exquisitely refined materials like porcelain and the celadon glaze used in this Korean piece were unattainable in European craftsmanship until the 18th century.

When I was at Medalta I learned more about porcelain and celadon glaze, materials that are not only pure in their raw state--the best ones are fired at the very highest temperatures for even further refinement. I had a chance to play with porcelain and it was the finest, most luscious material I ever touched.

Spider's Dream


Two Porcelain Bricks

Material and process are both so important in making art. We think of a finely thrown pot as a highly refined object. But aren't there other types of process in making ceramic art that are just as refined?

At the end of my time at Medalta Janet came out West and rented a car. Before we went to the Canadian Rockies we spent a few days touring around southern Alberta. Here at Writing-on-the-Wall Provincial Park I had a chance to think about how much my art imitates nature and natural process.

Inspiration Stones

Clay Pose

Back in Boston this fall I became preoccupied with clay material and the way it forms itself in patterns that recall its natural origins.

Shard Moment

Failure and Success

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sculpting the Land, Scarring the Land

A few weeks ago I applied for an environmental art residency that asked for a short essay about sculpture and landscape remediation. I've been thinking about that question ever since and woke up this morning with some new ideas about landscape and sculpture.

One of the most amazing places I ever visited was Xoximilco, a community at the far south of Mexico City. Xoximilco is at the southern edge of what was once Lake Texcoco, which Mexico City was built on. Since time immemorial the southern part of the lake has been used for a unique style of canal- and island farming, the Chinampas. The pre-Conquest people who lived in this region farmed food crops and flowers on man-made raised beds that they built between canals. Contemporary people continue this tradition.

This enormous floating garden was a true "environmental" sculpture that incorporated human and non-human communities in a long-lived symbiosis. Humans have worked for millenia to replenish the islands and maintain the canals. The Chinampas succeed down to the microscopic level, where photosynthetic bacteria add nutrients to the water and soil, sustaining the system with nitrogen and other nutrients.

Chinampas model


Chinampas, Xoximilco

Fast forward to the 21st century. The setting, San Francisco. The sculpture, the roof of the California Academy of Sciences. The cost, hundreds of millions of dollars. The results? The "green roof" at the Cal Academy was an experiment in excess. The plantings didn't work. The drainage system failed. The harsh rooftop environment proved unpredictable in terms of sustaining a plant community that lived up to the specifications of the architects. Aesthetically beautiful as architectural sculpture? I guess. Did it remediate? I don't think so.

And if we think about the level of technology, the capital expenditures, and the scale of the project, it compares poorly to the Chinampas, in both its scale and its performance.

Green Roof at the California Academy of Sciences

Green Roof at the Cal Academy

Green Roof and Skylight at the Cal Academy

Whether the "green roof" at the Cal Academy "worked" from a biological perspective is one issue. I guess you could say from an aesthetic standpoint it was more of a sculpture and less of a scar. How about this series of land "sculptures?" They are part of a continent-wide effort on a gargantuan national scale that cost billions upon billions of dollars. They "work" to transport people, but at massive costs to the environment and the human community. From any perspective I think they scar, rather than remediate the landscape.

Back View

Bring on the warming

Wasting Energy

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Metacognition--a big word for "looking at what you're doing and understanding why you're doing it." In a way metacognition is thinking about your thinking. I have studied, written, and presented on metacognition, which I think is an interesting approach to engaging students in scientific problem-solving. The idea I've worked up is that scientists, who build models, visualize the natural processes they study. The models are a tool for communicating their ideas to the rest of the world. A couple of weeks ago I compared this with the way artists produce work that represents their way of thinking about the world.

For the past few years I've asked my non-major students to "model" scientific concepts by creating short videos that they post on YouTube. The results are varied. Some students seem to "get it," and their videos reflect time, energy, and thought that they put into the project. Most students seem to make videos that don't reflect much time or energy and the results are disappointing.

I've changed my outlook a bit and I still have students do videos, at least during one semester, but my work in the clay studio has taught me a thing or two.

Students in ceramics are taught to do pinch pots, coils, and slabs. All of these recall the human origins of working with clay. They are the bedrock of traditional ceramic practice and they are thousands upon thousands of years old. Since ceramic work must have started as a way to make vessels, these traditional methods are perforce ways of making pots. Glazing is another technique that is essential to making useful vessels. But are any of these methods necessary to building ceramic sculpture?

I'll get back to that question in a second but it brings me to another, connected thought. Why must science learning involve the orthodoxies that people in high school and college struggle with in order to master biology, chemistry, and physics? Aren't there ways that we can educate people about science without putting them through the paces of classic science practice? Not that these aren't useful, and they certainly are historically important, but are they necessary for a grasp of the processes of nature?

Back to clay. The student results of coiling, slabbing, etc. are very often cutesy cirliqued confections, hearts, squids, flower petals. Then they get glazed and they look like an 8th grader did them. I know students put "time" into them because I see them at work. But the results are something like the unsatisfactory videos many of my students make.

Why don't we train students in a ceramic sculpture class to look long, hard, and deeply at nature before we even have them touch the clay? Similarly, why can't science training be based first and foremost on observation of the natural world? And I don't mean laboratory.

Why this screed on science and art learning? It seems to me we need to encourage a different kind of learning for non-majors. This applies to students like mine who are in their last required science course for the rest of their life. I think it applies as well to students who are in their final semester of college-now finished with their requirements and finally taking an art elective that happens to be ceramics.

We need to let students engage our disciplines at a level by which they can observe their world, take it apart through their own eyes, connect nature with practice, and create work that's both original and mindful. It doesn't matter whether these students can balance an equation or throw a pot because these students may never be scientists or ceramicists. But by leading them through a process of self-conscious observation and practice, albeit informal, we will let them discover their own voice, perhaps leading them to understand why they do what they do. Metacognition.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Yesterday I was talking with my friend Neil Gore about the experience of creating art. I asked him whether he thought there is anyone who doesn't want to make art. This seems like kind of a silly question I guess. There are plenty of people who are not interested at all in sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, or for that matter music or literature! 

I asked Janet the same question today. She doesn't make art but she prepares wonderful dishes with grace and simplicity. They are works of art. 

She said there are lots of people who don't want to make art. Then she described half a dozen activities that she seemed to call "not art" like washing and shining your car (we don't have one) until it gleams. Or, as she put it, some people put their energy into house cleaning. I started to think of my years as a field biologist, the time I spent botanizing in nature, my many hours of preparing specimens in my basement lab at Harvard, and how much "centering" or "honing in" was involved in those activities.

So it got me to wondering, if it isn't art, can it still be "art?" In other words, if we look at art as a centering activity, one that commands focus, attention, and calm while providing relaxation and the opportunity to "get out of oneself," can we recognize some kind of relationship between "art" and "non-art"?

I actually had a similar conversation with Lucy the other day when we talked about focusing on a math problem, or a young child focusing on a play activity. The kind of intense, intimate channeling of energy, call it "centering," that is nevertheless totally outside of this a similar cognitive space to the one in which art is created?

Maybe there's a way to further break down the question. For one thing, leave the product out of it and focus on the process. So the process of intense focus that makes art or inspires you to polish your car...what is it?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Art in Hidden Places

I was preparing a lecture for my students on the hidden places where new species might be discovered. As a botanist I've discovered about two dozen new lichen species, usually in unexpected habitats and often, surprisingly, right in front of my nose. In nature, just about wherever you look is a niche where things grow. You just have to look. For example, this scanning electron micrograph of a moss reveals a lichen (the popcorn ball looking things) growing on top of it, using the moss as a surface to gather a little extra light.

In this picture in I took in the moist uplands of Chiapas State in Mexico numerous species of orchid, spanish moss, and other species, are hanging from a tree branch. Who knows what smaller species, probably microscopic, live in the hanging bundles of epiphytes?

What does this have to do with art?

Before on these pages I've discussed how art is an extension of the human brain and body, a kind of biological extension of the artist. Maybe it's because I've spent so much time in recent months squeezing clay, but it seems to me that art is something that gets squeezed out of the artist, something that lives in and with the artist, something that moves from the hidden recesses of the artist out into the open. Part of the strangeness of art I think is that it comes from such a private place. And at the same time, once the work is finished it is "out there" as an expression of that hidden place it emerged from.

Imagine if all the small critters hidden in the plant bundles on the branch marched out and lined themselves up under a microscope. We would learn something about the habitat, the life cycle, and the evolutionary history of each one. My thought for today: Maybe the work of art reflects a similar set of realities about its maker.

I made this sculpture in the fall. I call it "Olmec Baby's Dog." It's very thick hand-squeezed clay with a pigment and wax finish.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Details, details...

I posted my new sculpture "Heart's Portal to Nature" the other day with a minimum of verbiage and with only a couple of pictures. I don't know all of my readers but I figure a quick fix is as good as a long essay in your busy days. I want your daily scroll to be a pleasing one.

A couple more photos of details on the Heart's Portal sculpture. One of my challenges has been how to balance these large pieces of clay to make them both free-standing and reflective of their increasing size. I started to make bases for them, similar to this one.

Here's the point of attachment at the base of last fall's "Phospholipid" sculpture. I think the moment between base and the main sculpture is surprisingly provocative and exciting.

The base plays a dual role of support and highlighting the main sculpture. What do you think? I also wanted to show you a detail of the surface on the base from "Portal." I fired on some of my own recipe...a black clay slip with sand, bicarbonate of soda, and some cobalt blue glaze. When I painted near it with very light blue oil paint (thinned) I got a nice interplay between the rough stuff and the very smooth paint. Another point of provocation and challenge. Lots of movement too, and it looks geographical, which surprises and delights me.

Today I applied for a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. A wonderful community and a superb opportunity if I'm lucky enough to be admitted. Maybe it's just another snowball's chance but I became incredibly excited sending in the application. Like I recognize something in myself. As an emerging artist I think I have a lot to offer, a body of work that shows an increasingly cohesive voice, and a strange, vibrant energy that translates into my work. Not to toot my own horn but it's an exciting way to launch into sabbatical year.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Heart's Portal to Nature

Last Thanksgiving I opened a bag of clay and formed this sculpture. It needed several weeks to dry--there are about 25 pounds of clay here, and then with the busy end-of-semester firings I couldn't get it into the kiln until just before break.

I call it Heart's Portal to Nature not because it's shaped roughly like a heart. Instead, I want my outdoor sculpture to draw one's vision and heart to nature.

So, I'm pretty happy with this piece. It stands about 30 inches tall. But I'd like to go on and make similar work that's about 10-12 times this size. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Power of Fire

Yesterday I mused about the ephemeral nature of sculpture. Maybe I underestimated the power of clay. Just as geological forces have formed clay deposits, so have they influenced the structure of rocks and minerals. 

Friction, pressure, and heat play such an important part in the formation of our physical world, and not just the terrestrial environment. One truly amazing experience is to see meteors close up. They are the product of extreme heat, which condenses, purifies, and molds the physical world. 

This little sculpture reminded me of meteors. I fired its two parts separately in salt and soda kilns at Medalta last summer. The refreshing, almost charming result belies the intense physical processes at work on this piece. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ephemeral Sculpture

Clay was formed and deposited all around the world over a series of geological epochs spanning hundreds of millions of years. The clay we see in the ground may have been formed by shifting, depositing, scraping, and smashing of minerals.

It is the product of crust instability, continental movement, glacial flow, and many other phenomena large and small. Sometimes at a nearly unimaginable scale.

We mine the clay and we make a cup. Or a sculpture. We can see clay objects in museums as old as 8,000 years. But most of the clay objects that are made by the hand of humans are much more ephemeral.

The other day someone asked me whether my garden sculptures are suffering from the freeze-thaw we’ve been having the past few weeks in Boston. I’m sure they are. But my bottom line thought is, “they’re pieces of clay.” The joy was in the making of the objects.

It got me to thinking: Isn’t there a place in the cycle of making ceramic art for its dissolving back into the environment? It seems natural.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back to the Studio

The long imposed break is finished and today I ride my bike back to school. The studio is open again and I’ll check in, either before or after my lecture and lab on Environmental Science, which begins the new semester.

I’m looking forward to finishing a couple of big pieces I pulled out of the kiln just before the studio closed in December. Both sculptures are a new direction for me, more in the spirit of what I’m hoping to accomplish in the upcoming months, and I’m very excited.

My son Ben’s girlfriend Molly asked me to make a sculptural piece for her sister’s wedding in May. They want to use it for a candle lighting ceremony and I’m excited that I’ll be able to contribute.

As a bit of an exchange Molly offered to rent a zipcar and drive me down to Standard Clay in Braintree, where we’ll pick up the 500 pounds of clay I hope to make into sculpture this semester. Sounds like fun!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Erosion and Flow

Continuing the conversation between art and natural process. A sort of variant of flow is erosion. Wind and water flow around a surface. Particles of the surface are carried along with their flow or forced into the flow of gravity. 

How cool would it be to make unfired ceramic sculptures and watch them disintegrate due to erosion? The natural process of erosion in nature provides so many beautiful shapes, full of randomness yet highly patterned.

 Death Valley Colors 

Death Valley Path 


This is the Valley of Fire 

Ceramic Abstract

Hopefully this year I’ll have a chance to do some unfired outdoor sculpture and document the effects of weather on the green clay. I have a feeling I’ll be in for a few surprises because in nature, clay is more resistant to the elements than other soils.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Art in Conversation with Nature: A Moment or Millenia?

I like to think about how sculpture reflects natural process. It’s one thing to think about form, which the static sculpture presents at first look. It’s something else to think about the processes that make the form happen in the first place.

When we look at art, just like when we look at nature, we are seeing a “snapshot” of a moment in time and space. We can take it at face value or we can look deeper at the object (or the ecosystem) to try to discern its evolutionary history.

In the case of an artwork it may have been created over some hours, weeks, or years. When we look at natural form we are looking at anything from a moment to hundreds of millions of years.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Art and Environmental Remediation

I was thinking about how art might play a role in remediating developed landscapes. This is different from wholly natural landscapes, where art might highlight or complement the shape of nature but not take its place.

Tree Rings

Consider the beauty of a “specimen tree” or any tree in an ecosystem, and its role in the landscape. The sculptural element of the tree speaks for itself.

Olive trees

But what about in the built environment? Can art “remediate” the developed landscape? It’s a question we can look at from several perspectives.

When I was a teenager living in Chicago we got a trio of monumental pieces of art in the center of town: the Picasso Statue at the Cook County Building, the Chagall Mosaic at what was then LaSalle Bank, and, west of downtown, the Claes Oldenberg Baseball Bat. All three of these pieces did do something to highlight the landscape. As focal points they ameliorated an otherwise rough urban environment. But as works of major artists they stood on their own too. They had little to do with the places they were installed, and nothing in common with the non-human natural environment of the city. Had they been placed in parks it might have been a different story but would they have achieved the "glory" (I add this tongue in cheek) that they demanded as works of major artists?

Fast forward to the upper Midwest. A few years ago I was at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin. The center of town was dotted with what I considered to be pretty awful cow sculptures, decorated, bejeweled, painted, lighthearted, silly. They highlighted the social landscape of Madison as the capital of the cheese state. But did they remediate?

Consider the famous Smithson Jetty in the Great Salt Lake. Another masterpiece. Another art star. A statement. Connected with nature or plopped down in nature? A remediation?

So, thinking about art and how it can remediate the developed environment, I’d like to propose an alternative. Perhaps art can provide a portal through which viewers can come to understand their place in the world more thoroughly. At the same time, maybe they can come to understand nature in a more complete way.

I guess I’m arguing for less “star” art (the Chicago trio or the Jetty) and less “cute” art (the Madison cows). What about art that frames the landscape, providing people with a focal point that allows them to think “I stand here” visually and phenomenologically?

I’d like to argue that such art need not be monumental. Perhaps even small pieces can act as focal points.

Shapes in the Prairie

Larger pieces, perhaps installed in patterns, could also provide a sense of place.

Prairie Installation at Sunset

Lots of potential points of discussion here. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


I am addicted to color. As a scientist I use color to understand so much about the natural world. In my teaching I try to incorporate color to bring a feeling of comfort, inclusion, and interest to my students who otherwise might not feel so engaged in science. We see color in nature in so many contexts:

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

Alpine Forget-me-not

Accessory pigments

When I started in working on ceramics I wanted to make things in vibrant color. But the glazes at our studio were muted and “natural,” beautiful in their own right and sometimes exciting, but not vibrant. At Medalta this summer I saw one of the artists-in-residence, Koi Neng Liew, using regular latex paint on his work. This led me down a whole new path. I experimented with color a lot this past semester.

Painting it Pink

Orange Olmec Baby Study

Orange Olmec Baby Surface Moment

On a Yellow Clay Cushion

Get off My Back