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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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move on


baking dishes

With a little over a week till the start of the fall semester, a visual inventory of my summer accomplishments leaves me wondering what the heck happened?

Outside a busy summer exhibition season, a turn-around trip to catch up with family, and the chance to dip my toes in the Atlantic Ocean in celebration of a milestone birthday almost two years in arrears; I’ve not got much to show for the hours spent in the studio (except, um…the floor needs a good mopping)

~detail: espresso set

~detail: espresso set

Sometime in May, I became dissatisfied with the very controlled compositional elements of my functional work. It was a long time coming as I’d been tolerating bad behavior from previously obedient glazes. While looking for some resolve to the glaze situation, I became restless. Move on.

During my research and testing I was also creating several clay drawings for upcoming exhibitions. I remember thinking, “I’d really like the surfaces of my functional work to reflect the looseness of the drawn pieces.” (yeah…)

However, a change in surface – particularly one that moves to such an opposing process – generally demands a change in form (…and away we go!)

inspiration from clay drawings

inspiration from clay drawings

I’ve spent weeks throwing cylinder forms until I thought I found a beginning and ending (lip and foot) that I was interested in pursuing. Then, I’d move on to bowl forms only to discard the week’s worth of work. This cycle has played out on repeat all summer long.

Seizing every opportunity to learn from the process; I took risks with the pots destine for reclamation, discovered marks that I want to keep and many that I’ll avoid. I’ve eliminated several compositional possibilities, left room for a few more and worked through firing processes on paper. Once I commit to a form, I’ll send a few pieces through the fire to prove the glaze/surface chemistry.

Until then, my shelves will be empty while the reclaim bucket overflows.

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~detail: Sparrow Three

~detail: Sparrow Three

It’s been a busy summer exhibition season. I’m really looking forward to a more hermit-like studio schedule. To just create without a deadline hanging over my head…at least until classes start up again. I have plenty of work to keep myself squirreled away for awhile.

With a full exhibition season comes lots of openings. Openings generally require more social meandering than my reclusive self is comfortable with. I try. I really do. As I understand it, the objective of an opening is to connect with the gallery goers more than the fellow exhibiting artists or hiding out under the safety of your posse.

Connecting with the opening attendees means a lot of talking; lots of telling about the work, the process, the images, the stories. During a recent exhibition one of the docents pulled me aside to ask about my work. She is a student of classical works and was drawn to my pieces. We talked less about process and more about the compositional elements and their connection to the images and stories.

As I shared the story of Why Do You Make So Much of Me?, she began to cry a little. We connected.

Why Do You Make So Much of Me? clay, wood, found objects, 2015

Why Do You Make So Much of Me?
clay, wood, found objects, 2015

I always…always, field questions about how the tiled images are ‘framed’. I don’t really think of them as framed – more like boxed or confined. Frames are often afterthoughts – add on’s – dismissed as not part of an artwork. I treat the confines of the work as part of the composition.

~detail: Sistine Chapel The Ancestors of Christ: Jesse

~detail: Sistine Chapel
The Ancestors of Christ: Jesse

Let’s back up a bit. I’m always asked about the confines of the images. Because I consider the frames/boxes/confines as an extension of the story, I play with balance and composition in relation to the image.

The visual inspiration for the structures comes from fresco paintings within architectural elements. All those saints squeezed between the ribs of a barrel vault (perhaps a requirement for martyrdom…could they look anymore uncomfortable?)

So yeah…looking forward to spending some time with the clay, where the only questions are the ones I’m asking myself.

To fill out your cultural schedule this summer, my work can be seen here:


Udinotti Museum of Figurative Art
March 15-August 15, 2015

All Art Arizona 2015

Art Intersection
June 2 – July 18, 2015


Tempe Center for the Arts
June 19 – September 19, 2015

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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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