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A few weeks ago I had the privilege to speak to a group of students from the University of the West Indies and Guyana, Martinique about their ‘big picture’ view; a discussion (I use that word figuratively since they spoke mostly French and my Spanglish was of little use) that really had much to do with God’s plan and purpose in their lives. Therein lies the big picture.

We began with a big question (or three).

What are you going to accomplish with your life?

then we broke it down a bit,
What is your five year plan?

A five year plan. Not a bad thing to have. In fact, beneficial…unless. No, until the plan becomes an obstacle to the big picture.

Allow me to introduce you to my friend, Bill.
Bill attended the University of Texas at El Paso when I was an undergraduate student there. He was an intellectual sort, a man of faith with a humble approach to every day. Bill was four or five years older than our motley crew that spent precious hours avoiding whatever we could around the dinner table each evening. He was a graduate student in geology (yes, I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from a top ranked mining school)

We always knew when Bill was on our floor (he was dating the RA) as he would announce, ‘man on the floor’ when coming through the door and then whistle a tune with incredible perfection as he walked through the hall (we owe a debt of gratitude to Bill for his chivalrous behavior; saving more than one of us from a ‘most embarrassing moment’ story when a risky dash down the hall from the shower to our room was averted by a show tune whistling through the air)

Bill was never without a book or two and a stack of papers. Always researching. When I enrolled my first semester, Bill was already there. When I graduated four and a half years later, I left him behind. I remember him applying for an extension at one point. Not because he needed more research time, he just didn’t know what he wanted to do when he finished. Bill’s plan was to study. He hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond school. His plan (at the time*) was an obstacle to the big picture. It happens a lot, getting caught up in the study – the process of studying to the neglect of application; the purpose (ceramic people – glaze freaks in particular, might recognize themselves…ahem)

In Martinique, my discussion with the students lent caution about getting caught in the five year plan without ever applying what they’ve learned to the big picture. The third question I posed; What are you doing today that points to the big picture?

To illustrate my point to the students, I showed a drawn study on paper for what would eventually be translated to an image on clay. As the image of the paper study and clay drawing were viewed adjacent to each other, they noted (I hear it often), what I refer to as studies are very finished drawings (on very bad paper) I understand. I see what they see. The drawings could easily be seen as an end in themselves.

~study: Why Do You Make So Much of Me?


Except, I use these drawings to study form, light and dark, textures, and technique. I practice seeing (really seeing) and record detail (stuff I know I’ll never realize on clay) They are only studies. Not my purpose. Not my big picture. The paper drawings are the means by which I learn line, shape, create texture, layer image and process the glaze surface for clay in order to communicate; tell my story. Really, God’s story through me. The big picture.

*My friend did eventually complete his thesis work, then on to receive his PhD.


Mark your calendars

2017 Ceramic Studio Tour
February 25-26

My studio is a host site, #12 on the tour this year.
Sarah Brodie, Sam Hodges, and Genie Swanstrom

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~illustration: Lee McCormick

~illustration: Lee McCormick

A couple weeks ago as I was headed to class I saw something I’ve seen a hundred times over; young almost-adult men on bicycles that are considerably too small for them to ride comfortably. I reason this boy/man to bicycle relationship comes about slowly and organically (read: unplanned). Somewhere around that 9th or 10th birthday, there awaits the gift of a bicycle. The best gift because it amounts to some measure of independence and freedom. Boys on bikes doing risky things: pullin’ wheelies, jumpin’ ditches, racin’ down ravines (events that precede emergency room visits) Life is great!

But, there’s this phenomenon that occurs sometime between the endowment of emancipation and four or five years down the road. The bike doesn’t change but the boy does. The boy use to stand on the pedals to produce the most possible downward force for his 70 pound frame to go as fast as the wind. Whereas, the young man stands on the pedals to keep his knees from relentlessly smacking the underside of the handlebars.

photo credit: Chris Harvey

photo credit: Chris Harvey

It’s a work-around. Instead of getting a new bike you make it work (besides, there’s hope for a beater car in the near future) It’s not as freeing. It’s not as comfortable. And, it’s increasingly more difficult to keep those low slung pants up when you can’t sit to pedal. I believe this is probably an imperative right of passage in American culture for boys.

The work-around is well rooted in our ethic; necessity being the mother of invention and all. However, when necessity finds itself in that slow, organic relationship we tend to spin our wheels (or maybe, smack the top of our knees on the handlebars) We didn’t see it coming. It worked before.

The pain and frustration we feel happens when it doesn’t work any more and there’s a realization that things are different now – girls become women overnight (like…overnight), I need God more than He needs me (but still, He chooses me), math gets really hard, reading glasses (’nuff said),…

I have students paralyzed in their frustration with clay; having employed the work-around far too long. It takes some time, but once they’re aware their battered knees are the result of not paying attention while the assignment became more complicated, grew increasingly sophisticated, the lesson is half learned. The rest lies in a different approach, a change in mechanics, a fresh perspective, a new bike.

Suddenly, the familiar taste of freedom.

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~detail: Undone In the Pursuit of Wild Hares

~detail: Undone In the Pursuit of Wild Hares

When I was a kid I was a huge fan of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. There’s some pretty sophisticated humor coming from those Fractured Fairy Tales. Between shorts, Bullwinkle would occasionally try to pull a rabbit out of his hat. In every attempt, Bullwinkle fails. He pulls a lion, tiger, rhino, bear and once even Rocky. But, no rabbit. Bullwinkle isn’t prepared to pull a rabbit from his hat because he’s always got the wrong hat (there’s a life lesson there).

~detail: Rabbit Sketch

~detail: Rabbit Sketch

This week, just shy of mid-semester, I introduced my beginning students to the potter’s wheel. They have been chompin’ at the bit to get to throw. But, silly me…I insist they start with hand building. I really think hand building allows for a less intimidating introduction to clay. It’s slow. It provides students the opportunity to pay attention and build a foundation in the clay process. While the wheel tends to mesmerize the students and they abandon the details in their struggle to throttle the spinning clay.

When giving a throwing demo I’ll hear comments about how easy the process looks…it’s like magic. I remind them that I’ve been doing this longer than some of them have been alive (seems every year my students, my doctors and the IT guy at Best Buy get younger, but I never feel a day over 35).

~detail: Rough Draft #17

~detail: Rough Draft #17

Here’s a truth they won’t recognize until they’ve gone through a sufficient struggle, it’s only easy…it only looks like magic because of preparation; having what I need to pull the rabbit out of my hat.

During yesterday’s demo, I explained that they needed to pay attention to the details in the preparation. First, wedge your clay! So many student man-handle their clay; not wedging it properly and actually introducing air into the clay (that’s never helpful). Then, there’s this idea that the centering of the clay isn’t all that big a deal – it’s just a hoop to jump through to get to the real magic of creating a pot. I needed to clear that up!

So then, I gave another demo with the clay ever so slightly off center (the wrong hat). As the process continued, I directed their attention to the increasing asymmetry of the piece as I worked against the out-of-center clay. My years of throwing allowed me to get pretty far in the process. Still, the lack of symmetry predestined the piece to fail…and it failed spectacularly!

Nope. No rabbits. Not one.

Get out and look at art folks!

Draw With Everything
Phoenix Sky Harbor
Terminal 4, Level 3, eight display cases
on exhibit now through February 28, 2016

Exhibiting artists: Beth Shook*, Monica Aissa Martinez, Mark McDowell, Jerry Jacobson, Rebecca Davis, Mary Shindell, and Carolyn Lavendar.

*my work is located at the A Gates (American and US Airways)

Make plans to attend!

Empty Bowls
Chandler-Gilbert Community College
Pecos Campus, Student Pavilion

October 20, 2015
10:30am – 6pm

Donations benefit the Chandler Christian Community Center to support their efforts to feed those in the local community who might otherwise go without food.


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I have in my studio a little menagerie of objects. Truth: it wouldn’t take a lot of effort to see that my studio is full of collected things; much I intend to incorporate into narratives. But, this little grouping is different in that, I’ve collected these things because there is something about the character of the pieces that I enjoy. Some of the items were gifts, some were purchased and at least one is a demo from an Intro to Sculpture class I taught a couple years ago.

The latest addition is a small slip cast ceramic bottle that was gifted to me. The piece was a test for a wash application over glaze. My student was disappointed and a little puzzled when I commented on the beautiful lines created when the glaze pulled the washes. From his expression I could tell this was not the intended result. We talked a little about the fluid pull of the glaze, the broken edges of the red lines and…well, he wasn’t buying it.

This entire conversation (and every time I have it…which is often) brings to mind a memory as an undergrad sitting in the office of my sculpture professor. I showed up during office hours to collect some sage advise. I was struggling with focus – couldn’t find my voice. We talked for some time, but I only remember a moment in our discussion. He handed me a book on Larry Rivers (1923-2002, American), open to an image of Portrait of Edwin Denby.

Portrait of Edwin Denby, Larry Rivers 1953, pencil on paper

Portrait of Edwin Denby, Larry Rivers
1953, pencil on paper

My professor asked what I thought of the piece. I looked at the image for several minutes. It was fascinating. The smudges and marks and what appeared to be loose, callous line juxtaposed against refined rendered edges. When I answered my professor’s question I said, “it doesn’t look finished” (::GASP:: I know. I know! yes, those were the words that fell out of my mouth)

All these years later, I remember that meeting because of those words…my words. My response was telling. My 18 year old self didn’t get it…not yet.

I didn’t understand that the quality of the line creates the space; that the activation of the space records the process; that the process communicates. It is an understanding that one element depends on the others for an effective whole. I didn’t see it.

I was looking at the elements in linear thought, when I needed to see them as layers; building on each other to deepen understanding. It took me a couple more semesters to really get a handle on it and become intentional about communication. Art is communication.

Next week I have an incredible opportunity to teach creative communication to other-than-artists (the not-so-necessarily-visual-communicators) I’m looking forward to the discussion and watching students move from linear thought (a story line…see what I did there?) to a layered, expanded (without assumption) understanding.

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~detail: workshop tile

~detail: workshop tile

A few weeks ago I conducted a clay drawing workshop at Phoenix College. I always enjoy the workshop setting. The students are invested in the topic and the process; there’s an opportunity for spontaneous dialogue in a relaxed atmosphere. There is chatter and laughter and goodies. Always goodies. That’s a pretty regular thing for clay folk. I mean, if you’re gonna make plates you should be filling them.

I have an etiquette rule:
Never gift a handmade ceramic plate/bowl/food-appropriate-vessel empty. Fill it with something wonderfully delicious!

I had great fun at the workshop. I certainly hope the students found it as enjoyable.

I always want to introduce what might be new options for the students. Generate ideas. Whether or not they fully grasp the process, I am most concerned with getting students thinking differently about what they are doing…or maybe it’s, doing differently with what they are thinking…either way, different happens.

When discussing the creating of drawn images on clay, I emphasize the importance of good note taking. Get in your sketchbooks! Run through your ideas on paper where it’s cheap and easy (well…easier). Keep track of glazes, percentages, and order of application (not to be confused with ‘order of operations’, that’s a math thing). If you ever want to repeat your success or avoid another terribad* result, you must take good notes (*terribad = a former student’s contraction of ‘terrible + bad’ to describe a disastrous glaze situation).

glaze notes

glaze notes

With a Boy Scout’s mindset, I went about my drawing demo. Referencing my notes and application order for the drawing, I gathered my glazes, washes and tools. The students had a list of glaze recipes I planned to use. We talked a bit of chemistry while I stirred a particularly slushy ash glaze. Then, with a cupped hand, I scooped up some glaze (careful to avoid the the clump in the bottom of the container). Eyeing the image on my tile, I configured my approach and swiftly slung the handful of glaze onto the ceramic surface. I heard someone comment, “I can’t believe you just did that.”

Boy Scout’s motto: Be Prepared.

I’m familiar with the mark a brush will make. I know how the glaze will react thick and thin on my surface. I was anticipating a different edge and perhaps a lovely errant splash from the seeming reckless application.

My methods appear to contradict the thoroughness involved in research and notes. Indeed, it does look a bit loose (even sloppy…wear protective gear if necessary). Preparation permits me to do what I need to do, which isn’t always what’s expected. The time spent in my sketchbook allows me to apply glaze with abandon.


**also worthwhile
Cub Scout’s motto: Do Your Best

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