December 2011

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sweet dreams


~French Butter Dishes by Keith Phillips


In the Seinfeld episode, “The Heart Attack” (season 2, episode 8), Jerry goes to bed after watching a science fiction B-movie, only to wake up in the middle of the night laughing.  He then writes down the joke for his stand-up routine.  The next day, he can’t read what he wrote down.*

This episode reminds me of when I was first learning to throw and work with clay.  I would practice; struggling for hours in the studio to learn the skills I needed to be proficient with the tools and materials.  Our professor, John Arnold, would watch us work and then ask, “Are you dreaming about clay, yet?”  His proceeding comments suggested that once the ceramic process invaded our dreams, we’d find our inspiration; follow through with our creative ideas; progress.

I’m not sure how much follow-through I was willing to apply back then, but lately I’ve been dreaming about clay.  However, I feel the need to qualify my subconscious efforts in part because I’ve been away from the studio and perhaps a little drug induced.

My absence wasn’t completely unplanned…well, it was hoped for.  But, not for this long.  Short.  Minimal time away was the thought.  Nothing is as we wish it would be.

A few days after final grades were posted, I was scheduled to have minor surgery on my arm.  Emphasis on the minor.  It was outpatient.  The doctor said no lifting for a week.  I can do that.

By the evening of my surgical encounter, my body began to betray me with a reaction to the anesthesia.  Nothing serious – though increasingly uncomfortable as I approached my follow-up appointment four days away.  After seeing the doc, with a prescription in hand, I felt like everything was under control.  We were headed to see family for a few days.  I’ll be good to go as soon as we return.  Ah…”the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”**

By Christmas Eve (with one day left on my Rx) the annoying reaction had become more than exasperating.  Harassing me day and night. (ugh!)

Four days later, I found myself in the doctor’s office with the telling signs of an oncoming cold and the ever growing Andromeda Strain that occupied my every thought. (please, just make it go away!)  Two weeks since surgery…another round of meds…AND my head is now heavy with snot.  I guess I won’t be hitting the ground running.

Nonetheless, my fitful sleep brought on dreams of clay.  Butter dishes to be exact. (very odd)  There are a number of potters who make butter dishes.  But, since most people buy a butter-like substitute that comes in a handy plastic tub; butter dishes seem part of a bygone era when folks actually used a table clothe, place settings consisted of more than a plate with a matching mug, and napkins were placed on one’s lap when dining.

There are numerous creative designs for the forgotten butter dish.  We have the French butter dish (see examples at the beginning of this post).
How it works: (just a bit high maintenance…it’s French)

~French Butter Dish


~Butter Dish by Cindy Gilliland

The thrown circular butter dish.  Hmmm…often these pieces are also referred to as a butter dish/garlic roaster.  (perhaps, because butter is generally of a different geometric form)

~Butter Dish by Liz Zlot Summerfield

The more practical brick shaped butter dish takes a bit more creative energy.  This is where my dreams took me…though, I’m not sure how much follow-through I’m willing to apply.



Go here to see Keith Phillips create the Classic American Butter Dish!





*The episode ends when Jerry remembers what he wrote down – a line from the movie he had been watching.  It’s then he realizes it isn’t funny.
**To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in the Nest with the Plough, Robert Burns, 1785.


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I worked frantically heading into Thanksgiving so I could get a bit of inventory delivered the week before the holiday.  Now, as the semester winds down, I find myself in a strange lull at the studio.  It’s not that I don’t have work to do, I just don’t have the days (consecutive days) available to see the process through.  I’ll likely get new work made in the next couple of weeks, leaving it to dry over Christmas.

So then, in the absence of a hectic studio schedule, I’ve been tweaking and rewriting my Spring semester Sculpture class.  Over the years that I’ve taught Three-Dimensional Design and now Sculpture, I’ve observed students struggle to visualize their ideas beyond the two-dimensional plane.

“If I can draw it, why can’t I sculpt it?”

I believe visualization begins with seeing (go ahead and laugh a little at that sentence…read it again if you must).  Perception.  We miss a lot because we process quick visual cues and then just fill in the blanks.  Our ‘filling in’ isn’t always accurate and often void of details.  We create a good, general image in our head and can probably provide an adequate description.  However, if we really (really) saw, we’d be amazed at what we gloss over.

While searching for some inspiration, I read an article about jump starting the creative process.  Several artists were asked what they do when they need a creative push.  One artist suggested choosing a color and then taking photos of that color in any shape, shade or texture.

I thought this might be fun to try, so I grabbed my point-and-shoot to record the color red for the next half hour.

When I looked at my images I immediately noticed that I kept to a fairly narrow value range (no pinks here).  I can see how this exercise could be expanded (hmmm…thinking, thinking).  Just allowing time to thoroughly seek out a color would begin to push students.  In fact, well after my allotted half hour of searching for red, I caught myself being drawn to the color; accompanied by a mental note that I’d seen it (Where’s Waldo run amok!).  This exercise sparked a renewed awareness of color, surface, texture and even shape.

An exercise in perception that I find myself returning to is creating line drawings (a collection, actually) in my sketchbook for the surfaces of functional work.  These drawings help me see form.  The simple visual cues on the two-dimensional plane suggest spacial relationships as well as speak to the form of the clay.

~sketch for 'Forgive Me for Believing I'm Immune'

The line drawings are an abridged version of the images I draw on paper (really lousy paper) for my drawings on clay.  I develop a detailed image on paper – far more detail than I will ever be able to translate onto the ceramic surface.  This might seem like a waste of time and energy; creating such finished sketches.  But, they help me to really (really) see.  Develop my perception.  Jump start the creative process.

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