Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010
Articles & Reviews
Linda Sormin, Rhode Island School of Design
My questions and motivations tumble out of the awkward, groping, messy interactions that I am experiencing in ceramics. For the past six years, I have made objects and installations that deal with issues of fragility and aggression, vulnerability and trauma. Using ceramics (including elements that are hand-built, thrown, slip-cast, fired, raw and found), I have collaborated with people from different communities to shape meaning and material presence in the context of their own, particular environments.
When Salvage closed, I dispersed all of the exhibition pieces to my collaborators‘ homes. Currently, sixteen people are reinventing the work. Every now and then they send me images of our fragments and forms that are resituated in their studios, houses, and backyards. For some these ceramic parts have become material to re-use in their own artwork.
As an artist and educator, I strongly support the development of depth and fluency in art practice, as well as engagement in interdisciplinary approaches. In the classroom and gallery, through inviting other people to build and un-build structures with me, I’ve been asking myself, ‘Why collaborate?’
Clay in Context
For this last project, I supported the work of Industrial Design senior, Mike Hahn. Through assignments and self-directed research, this highly motivated young designer immersed himself in the haptic approaches and idiosyncratic culture of ceramics in the RISD studio. Mike was particularly interested in how ceramic artists generate ideas and forms, how we organize and communicate within groups, and how we engage the transformative processes of kiln firing.
Calling his project ‘Slugs’, Mike reached out to the local community with striking posters and combined hands-on clay research with his ID knowledge of blow molding. Fig.6 He designed a mini-kiln, constructed a series of prototypes and invited classmates and other local people to participate in designing, recycling and reinventing plastic milk bottles as planters for a neighborhood greening initiative. Mike engaged local passers-by by setting up a participatory booth on Benefit Street (Providence, RI) in the context of a RISD art fair. Fig.7 This work has been published online by the ID journal dvice (see video at http://dvice.com/archives/2008/04/reblowmolding_t.php).
Mike’s ambitious collaborations also include working with a computer programmer to design a responsive, kinetic web-based organism that connects RISD and Brown University professors, staff and students with each other for the purpose of exchanging ideas on research. Through group discussions, critiques, and hands-on, ‘wet clay’ brain-storming, our ‘Clay in Context’ class was able to support each individual’s work, expanding and deepening their projects - often through a non-verbal exchange of ideas.
How is it possible for me to navigate through the discomfort and ‘wrongness’ of working in a setting where obvious hierarchy determines nearly every interaction I might have with collaborators? As a teacher and an artist in the classroom and/or gallery, I am clearly in a position of power. What might it mean for me to make myself vulnerable and open throughout this process, or at the very least, how will I collaborate responsibly?
All of the participants, including St. Luke’s students, were invited to self-document their building and un-building processes with a video camera. They threw clay, made drawings and paintings, smashed ceramics and wrote their names and phrases on the gallery walls with slurry and vinyl lettering. One of the 9th graders, Leroy, boldly verbalized challenges to other makers as he was breaking objects. He had an excellent eye, quickly and astutely choosing to work with fragments and pieces made and donated by artists Rory MacDonald and Greg Payce.
Taking his turns as videographer and as subject, Leroy was keenly aware of the camera as his classmate, Jasmine, documented his actions and words (see Interpreting Ceramics, Issue 9, http://www.uwic.ac.uk/ICRC/issue009/articles/02.htm ). Leroy’s physical and verbal call for response from Greg Payce has deepened my interest in relational aesthetics and dialogic practice. Playful and aggressive, he crushed pieces with a hammer and then his foot, saying, ‘Take that, Greg Payce, or whatever your name is… come to Regina, buddy!’ That message has since been passed on to Greg Payce, and perhaps he will accept the invitation sometime in the future.
After Leroy enacted his dramatic call for response, his classmate Charlene calmly took center stage on the same wooden platform (from which pieces of pottery were flying moments ago) and began to build quietly with shards and wet clay. She and Jasmine, along with many other collaborators, chose to work with material using rhythmic hand-building and intuitive drawing or painting approaches. Personal narratives were central to most everyone’s efforts, and marks of many people’s hands overlapped my own.
Wet Space/Digital Space
Professor Better and I created assignments that would integrate our core studios. Here are two examples:
This project demanded rigorous self-critique and intensive communication between collaborators, Harmony Hill staff, teachers and counselors. The act of collaboration can be confusing and anxiety-producing, particularly when people are from very different backgrounds, professionally and otherwise. Throughout the process, my students were asked to keep a journal. Here is an excerpt from the journal of one of my ceramics students:
Last time, Phillip was in a bad mood and resisted everything that I asked, I was worried and even tense. I kept thinking I need to be strong in front of Phillip!
He brought many drawings and most of them were floor plans of his dream house. He even let me read his poems which moved me a lot. Some of them made me very sad because I could see how he felt and his moroseness. It made me want to give him a big hug and console him, but of course I could not. Because they have a strict rule which I need to keep a certain distance with him, which made me more sad. Anyway, Phillip was enjoying showing me all of them.
In addition to being a springboard for class discussions and inviting active support from peers, professors and Harmony Hill staff/counselors, the student journals also created space for critique of our process, the course structure and the nature of our interactions. Here is a terse entry written by one of our ceramic seniors:
On the day of installation the project had changed again, and was drastically different form the original form or last idea … I felt that this solution was not as aesthetically pleasing as the previous solution and deterred from the design.
I felt the craftsmanship was shoddy and parts of the screen looked unintentional.
Over the past few months, it has been a privilege for me to participate in a nomadic conversation with Mary Drach McInnes and diverse panelists. Meeting each other, many for the first time, through tele-conferences and then in person at our roaming panel (CAA in Los Angeles and NCECA in Phoenix), the participants are artist-educators from seven institutions across Canada and the United States. Together, we have been sharing our various perspectives – in some aspects resonantly similar, in other aspects starkly different – on collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches in our classrooms and in our own practices. It is our hope that this forum will open up new questions and possibilities for the education and practice of artists in ceramics.
© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated
Boundary-Work Issue 12