The Mending Manifesto
This is a declaration of ceramic artists: that we patch, mend, repair, and fix imperfections that arise during the technical and complex ceramic process. Patching, mending, and mistake correction during the making process is hardly revolutionary for sculptors in general. However, when it comes to ceramics, we have felt pushback, shame, and silence around this issue within our field. This culture of silence pervades from the classroom to the gallery floor. This manifesto holds that mending within the ceramic medium is not only acceptable, but an essential skill for professional ceramic artists.
Anyone who is familiar with our medium knows that the physical and chemical changes inherent in the process can and do lead to cracks and breakage. We accept that among functional potters, the appearance of a crack or breakage is often legitimate cause to scrap an object and start over. This manifesto will lay out the ways in which we feel it is inappropriate to apply these same standards to ceramic sculpture, and will also offer a discussion on ethical, professional ways that potters may mend work. Read More
Breakage resulting from an unfortunate shipping accident.
If you’ve come over from NCECA Minneapolis 2019, welcome! This is the first of a series of posts relating to a demonstration I will be giving with TJ Erdahl titled “Get Your Fix,” on Thursday March 28th at 4pm in Ballroom B (or, the NCECA Makerspace.)
In 2017, TJ Erdahl was a visiting artist at Indiana University in Bloomington, where I was a graduate student at the time. During his visit, our conversation turned to the topic of patching and mending ceramic sculpture. As a graduate student, I was having to do a lot of crack filling and mending breakage on my figure sculptures, so this topic was fresh on my mind. I had previously talked to Chris Boger about this, one of my professors at IU and a legend in the figure sculpting community. She told me that patching and mending was commonly done among figure artists, even though it wasn’t openly talked about. When TJ arrived, I wanted to confirm what Chris had said, so I asked him if he also mended his figure work. He immediately agreed that he did and soon, the conversation turned from shop talk to a strong feeling that we should do something about the fact that this topic has been treated like an unmentionable secret among ceramics professionals. Thus the idea for our NCECA demo was born.
The demo, and this series of blog posts, is our effort to get information about this topic out into the world. Our mission is both to share information and techniques that we and other artists have come up with through our own trial-and-error experiments, and to dispel some of the shame and silence that surrounds this issue in the ceramics community. We’ve spoken to many ceramic artists who have reported that they patch, mend, assemble, and surface their work using bisque-mend products, ground-up pyrometric cones, epoxies, wood filler, plaster, latex paint, encaustic wax, and other non-clay materials. The debate on mended work and the debate on mixed media and ceramics follow a similar track in the clay community, which is why I mention them together here. Many artists we interviewed for this project enthusiastically added input and shared their own methods with us, including Tip Toland, Beth Cavener, Arthur Gonzalez, Sam Chung, Chandra DeBuse, Susannah Zucker, Hannah Cameron, Ariel Bowman, and Luke Huling. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of these artists from the bottom of my heart for their contributions, and willingness to share on this topic. I will share some of their contributions with you via later entries in this blog series, through NCECA’s blog, and during our demonstration.
If you are an NCECA-goer, I hope to see you at our demonstration. Otherwise, please enjoy the following blog series covering this topic. I hope you find something helpful, informative, or share in our sense of excitement to be having this conversation with fellow ceramic artists.
Hi everyone, I wanted to share a couple of wonderful resources for clay folks that have been making the rounds in our community. The first one I’d like to share is the stellar Field Guide for Ceramic Artisans put together by clay artist and educator extraordinaire Julia Galloway.
The guide has information for people at any stage of their ceramics career. For those of you applying to grad school, it has really helpful information that I wish I would have found during my app process! It also contains info on how to approach galleries, applying to shows, how to pack and ship your work, how to photograph work, setting up studios, applying to jobs and residencies in the field . . . and more! It just keeps going! Julia didn’t write the whole guide herself, rather, it is a compilation of articles from other professionals with great advice to share.
The second resource I’d like to share is Ayumi Horie’s Guide to Using Instagram for Studio Artists. I love both Ayumi’s pots and her photos so her instagram feed is a great way to see lots of both. If you are an instagrammer and don’t yet follow Ayumi, it is a true visual treat! Her pictures are little pieces of art in themselves, always sparkling with energy and fun. As artists we are visual people and Ayumi has some great tips on how to keep your social media practice vibrant and visually appealing.
Admittedly in my own social media practice (I am active on both Facebook and Instagram) I do not follow 100% of Ayumi’s advice. Ayumi explains that her post is geared towards artists using the internet and social media as a marketing tool. Through my blog and social media presence, my main goal is education and information sharing so I sometimes have a different approach to certain items on her list. The biggest is her no-selfie rule. I keep them to a minimum, but I’ve been known to post one when I do something cool like learn to solder! My philosophy on selfies is that when the point of the selfie is to show a cool event occurring or to show off a neat location (rather than one’s personal appearance), then they do have a place on an artist’s social media page. They show a little window into your personal life and I think followers find that engaging. I know that’s how I feel when I look at other artists’ social media pages. I think everyone’s approach to social media will be different, though, and that is okay. I’d love to hear some readers opinions on the selfie, or on social media practice in general, so feel free to share in the comments!
Personally I have already learned a ton from these guides and so I wanted to share them here. Hope they help you as much as they have helped me. I think it is also a testament to how supportive and family-like the clay community can be. We all share a common passion and I love the way that brings us together in solidarity and support for one another. Clay people rock!!
UPDATE: My blog posts about applying to graduate school are now included via link in Julia Galloway’s Field Guide! If you go to the section on grad school applications and scroll down, you can find links to my posts as well as a collection of essays and blogs from other artists about their application experiences.
It’s been a while since I shared an in progress post. I happen to be snowed in today here in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky so since I can’t get to the studio this is a perfect time for one!
First, though. Here is what it looks like outside:
Not least because of that lamp post I was mentally transported to Narnia for a while on my walk outside. I must have read those books a hundred times growing up and the animal characters from the series are a part of my motivation to use animal characters in my work today.
In a lot of my sculptures thus far I have faced the challenge of getting animals to look dynamic and lively while also making sure they won’t tip over or break under their own weight. I love showing animals in dynamic poses while running, leaping, or flying- but these are often tough to do with a sculpture because there is little (or no!) contact with the ground in a lot of these positions. You’ll see lots of illustrations on my mugs of animals in such poses:
I just love the way those back legs kick out! They’re so fun to draw ^ ___ ^
So anyhow. One strategy for sculpting an animal in a pose that doesn’t touch the ground is . . . to make a sculpture that doesn’t actually need to touch the ground. That’s what brought me to create a piece for the wall. I wanted to take the image of the rabbit running in a field of clover that I had created on my mug and transform that into a fully realized sculpture. I began by sculpting a tube-like body and then building some legs off of the main form:
After sculpting these legs, I was totally unimpressed with them. I ended up cutting them off and making new legs. I wanted to show you the “mistake” legs, though, just to illustrate that the sculpting process for me often involves backtracking and re-making parts that don’t go quite right the first time.
The new legs. Much better! Also a lovely shot of the organized chaos of my work space. To cushion my sculpture, I am using a foam egg-crate mattress pad that I just cut up with scissors. You can see some of my mugs acting as tool and water holders, too. Off in the top left, you can see some flattened coils I have made which I will use to build up the neck and head.
The head added. I’ve now got madam rabbit propped up on top of a plastic jar. This was a better vantage point for adding the head, and cutting the wall mounting holes on her other side. At this point, before I’ve added the eyelids, I always think the animals look like they are asleep. Sometimes I like to think of it as too early in their development for their eyes to have opened yet. Like they are still floating peacefully in an embryonic state.
The eyelids added. Good morning!
Next I painted the sculpture black with underglaze and began carving out the field of clover. For perspective, the clover get bigger towards the bottom, or foreground of the image and then get smaller as they recede into the background. I imagined the field of clover stretching out on gently rolling hills.
The carving completed! Clouds and sky added in to the background. I like that the swirling marks that act as the background to the image also double as the rabbit’s fur. In the clover area I made these marks more vertically to suggest grass in the clover field.Shout out here to mosaic art- when I learned about the concept of “opus” ( the way tiles are laid in a mosaic to suggest different types of movement or texture) it let me see that I could use the directional lines of my background carving to also suggest different types of movement or texture. In a way, those tiny carving lines could be thought of as functioning similarly to the small pieces of tile in the background of a mosaic.
You would think that I would have learned more about using directional line from drawing classes than from mosaic making. But for some reason mosaics were what really made that concept stick for me. Life’s funny sometimes.
Next I put the sculpture through the bisque kiln- always the most nerve-racking part of the process for me. The bisque (or preliminary firing) is very stressful on the clay and it is best to take a sculpture like this through the process slowly to avoid cracking or pieces coming off. After the bisque:
You can see how dramatically the color of the clay has whitened and the black of the underglaze has darkened.
Next step: cover the piece in glaze and put it through the second firing- the glaze firing.
Running but not going anywhere for the next 24 hours! The glaze firing takes 8-10 hours or so to get to temperature (about 2200 F) and then another 10-12 to cool enough for me to open it up. To be safe I always allow 24 hours from the time I start the kiln to the time I open it back up. If the kiln is especially full or I have to fire it more slowly, sometimes it can be even longer. The glaze looks white now but the heat of the kiln will turn it clear.
Anything with glaze on it will stick to the kiln shelf if it is touching it. So, the parts of madam rabbit touching the shelf were wiped clean of glaze beforehand. Mainly her shoulder and thigh on the back had no glaze on them.
And, the final reveal:
I was very pleased with this result. In fact, I am inspired to make another wall mounted rabbit sometime in the near future. After the glaze firing, you can see that this clay body becomes eggshell-like in color. If you go back and look at the bisque photo you can see quite a striking difference.
I called this piece “The Land of Milk and Honey,” after the idea of paradise or perfection. It represents our seemingly insatiable human pursuit of that goal. Even when we finally reach one goal, oftentimes we hardly stop to appreciate it before straightaway running for another paradise we’ve envisioned. I made this piece to capture that state of mind.
Of course if you had your own interpretation don’t let my description take that away from you. I’d be interested to hear other takes that people might have on the work.
Hope you enjoyed seeing how it was created! Now to go enjoy some warm hot chocolate and see how much more snow has fallen . . .
I’m not sure about all of you out there, but I am a person who deliberates before deciding on things. And the bigger the decision, the greater the deliberation. I’m not really one for impulse buys, if you know what I mean. So while agonizing is too strong a word, suffice it to say that the decision on where to apply to graduate school was not one I made lightly. If you haven’t yet, you can read about my decision methodology in this post.
Once I had, at long last, figured out where to apply, I started looking into what I needed to do. And let me tell you, it is quite a process.
Dun dun dunnnnnnnnn! Really though, if you stay organized, you can make it through okay. I was reading another blog by someone applying to grad school, and they said that the doubt, confusion, insecurity and stress you might feel while applying to school is a good test to see if you are ready for actually attending graduate school. While I have not yet attended grad school, I’d guess that’s not too far off the mark.
In the last post I mentioned a spreadsheet I kept with detailed information on each school’s program. Now that I was ready to apply, that spreadsheet was converted into a master checklist of due dates and items I needed to submit to each school. The way that helped me best remember what was needed was that each school needed a list of seven items:
1. Application to the Graduate School. This is different than the application to your specific department and contains more sort of general requirements.
2. Application to the Fine Arts Department
Underneath the umbrella of these two applications fall the other five items. Each school is different in how they arrange what stuff goes into the grad school app and what stuff goes into the departmental application. Sometimes you even need to submit a single item to BOTH the graduate school and your department. The other items are:
4. Letters of Recommendation (usually 3)
5. Application Fee
6. Letter of Intent
7. Portfolio of Artwork (15-20 images)
Sometimes there was an extra item:
8. Application for assistantships, grants, or fellowships. If you want to get loans you may also need a FAFSA or other financial type documents. I didn’t mess with that so I have no idea what it entails. But usually the school has a financial aid office to help with that kind of thing.
I have to say that the two things I truly did agonize over the most were the letter of intent and the portfolio. I had actually considered applying to grad school one year earlier but ended up putting it off because I didn’t feel that my portfolio was strong enough yet. I know a lot of people apply right after undergrad with their senior thesis work as a main part of their portfolio, but I waited for five years after undergrad to apply. I wanted to get out in the world and see what I could do, and I also wanted to make whatever work I felt like making for a while, totally free from the pressures of deadlines and such. I waited until I actively WANTED the critique, deadline, studying atmosphere of school before considering applying to go back. I have heard from more than a few people that going in straight out of undergrad can cause some serious burnout, so it seems good to take time off between unless you are confident that you are really ready and have plenty of energy. For me the break time in between was very eye-opening because it revealed just how challenging it is to work as a ceramic artist out in the world. I know graduate school is hard, but in some ways going back to school will seem like a luxury as far as access to studio space and equipment goes. Not to mention that I am very excited for the chance to be part of an active artistic community once again. But back to the application.
The Letter of Intent
I felt a lot of pressure about this letter. Most of the prompts for it from schools were very vague, saying to include “your artistic goals and intent in pursuing graduate study” or some such broad description. I combed the internet for advice on writing it, but most of the advice I found was for people applying to MFA programs in creative writing. Nonetheless, I still found this post by writer Nicole Basaraba very relevant and helpful. Plus it contains a picture of a cute kitten. Always good!
I had to laugh, then, when I tried to ultra-casually ask one of the professors from a school I visited what they wanted me to put in the letter. By then I had written and re-written the letter four times and had had some friends read and edit it for me- thanks Sadye and Kate!! The professor’s response- “We just want to see that you can string two sentences together and that everything is spelled right.” I think she must have caught my hastily concealed horror though, because then she added that they really wanted to know how I thought about my work and what were my goals for developing it, etc. This conversation taught me that I shouldn’t overly obsess about the thing. It is definitely good to edit ruthlessly and stick to the prompt as much as you can, especially if your school’s prompt is more specific than most of mine were. And having others edit is even better. In the end my letter opened with a little bit of history about my professional background, then launched into the motivation, technique, and philosophy behind my work, and finished with reasons why I wanted to go back to school and why I thought that particular school was a good fit for me.
Oh. One other thing that professor mentioned in her answer was, with a dramatic flair- “Don’t say, clay is my liiiiiiife, it’s my passion, I love clay and that’s all I want to do, blah blah blah.” I’m sure committees must read that all the time. I hadn’t put it in my letter because I thought the fact that I was applying to an MFA program in clay kind of made it obvious that that’s how I felt 😉
Now this was The Big One. I had heard, over and over, from very trustworthy and knowledgeable people, that the portfolio was the number one factor in the school’s decision. And that makes sense. You’re going for a Master’s in Fine Arts, so naturally your current art is of great interest to the school. They want to see what kind of potential you have. The problem was that I had also heard a lot of conflicting advice on the portfolio. Submit only your best work, submit only your newest work, no, the committee wants to see evidence of growth so submit something that shows that, submit lots of different types of work, no, submit a cohesive body of work, and so on.
Ultimately I submitted a group of my newest and strongest pieces that all went together as a cohesive body of work. I submitted them in backwards chronological order, most recent to oldest. I included several detail shots in the portfolio. I also did something that I had gotten mixed feedback on, which was to put some functional items in an otherwise sculptural portfolio. Looking at the portfolio as a whole, I felt that the functional and sculptural work were sufficiently related, and even informed one another, so that merited their addition. You can judge for yourself by looking at the work in my 2013 gallery I also submitted some older work.
And now we wait
So, that was the end! After I was done I triple checked to make sure everything got where it was supposed to. Many schools have messages on their websites that say, “the school is not able to confirm receipt of application materials” which is basically to discourage people avalanching them with questions about if their application got there or not. Luckily most parts of the process are online, and they have little confirmations built in, so you can go back and check, say, that all your recommenders responded or that your transcript was sent to the school. The graduate schools also sent emails confirming they had received their part of my application.
So now I settle in and wait for a few months. Think I can stand the suspense? I’m sure I can because I plan to spend it busily working in the studio! Cheers all for reading, and of you are a person applying to an MFA program in visual arts feel free to ask any questions in the comments or you can email me too. It’s quite a process and as I learned, it’s better to do it with help from some friends! One last thank you to anyone and everyone who has helped me out with this. Even if I don’t get in anywhere I have learned a lot and am eternally grateful to all of you. Much love!!
The final application has been completed! After two years of research, portfolio building, school visits, and letter writing, I’ve reached the other side of the river that is submitting graduate school applications!
After much work and deliberation, I ultimately applied to five schools, to their Master of Fine Arts in Ceramics programs. I don’t know whether I will be accepted or not so I’m not going to name the schools here. But during my application process, lots of people asked me- what’s the big deal with these applications? Why are they keeping you so busy? What do you have to do anyway? I also know that there are probably other people like me out there who might be looking for advice or at least want to hear what someone else did in their application process. So, I wanted to make a post about applying to MFA programs in ceramics, and what my experience was like.
Of course, as I mentioned, I have no idea if I was accepted into any of these schools since it is only January, and from what I have heard schools do not send their replies until March or April. So it’s too early to say if my methods were successful or not. However, I do feel as though I sent in my best possible materials, so even if I am not accepted, I will have no regrets whatsoever about my portfolio or any other part of my application. From what I have heard, the field of people applying to MFA programs in the visual arts is a competitive one, and oftentimes it is hard for schools to choose because there are so many qualified candidates. People who apply to MFA programs do not do it frivolously, and are usually very motivated and passionate about their work. To add to that, art can often be a subjective thing, and with the portfolio being one of the largest factors in a school’s decision, it may come down to a question of whether the committee responds to your work or not.
Knowing all this, I wanted to make sure I was as on the ball as possible with this whole grad school thing. So here I will share some of the things I did that I found most helpful in choosing a school. In part 2 of this post, I will describe the actual application process. So if you’re not interested in how I chose my schools, skip on ahead to the next post!
Research, research, research!
I began looking into schools almost two years before I ended up applying. I don’t think everyone necessarily needs that much time, but there are a lot of schools to look at. I found this list of schools with ceramics programs by Digitalfire helpful- though not all the schools listed have MFA programs, FYI. I also was helped out by Ceramics Monthly’s MFA Factor feature they have been running, which profiles different schools’ MFA ceramics programs. There are a few factors I looked at when choosing schools. Everyone’s priorities will be different, but mine were:
1. Professors. Is there at least one professor who is a figural sculptor? That is what I want to do, so it made sense to me to seek out a mentor.
2. Money. Does the school offer any assistantships where you can trade work for a tuition waiver or other benefits? Many schools do, and in my opinion, gaining work experience as a teacher or studio tech while also getting tuition waived is a double win.
3. Location. Is the school in a location where I would be happy to live?
4. Length of program. Is the school’s program two or three years? Personally I wanted to stay in school as long as possible, in order to learn and develop my work as much as possible while there, so I sought out three year programs.
5. Ranking. How is the school ranked? Now here I have to say that ranking was one of the least important factors for me. I say that because I personally believe that a school does not have to have huge name recognition to give a truly excellent educational experience. But I did check the US News & World Report rankings nonetheless. In my opinion a better barometer than rankings is to go on the school’s website and see what kind of work current grads are making, and many schools also post lists of their past grads. If you see a long list of artists you admire and recognize on that list (which I did for several schools), then that is a good indicator of the school’s “rightness” for you.
Once I started narrowing down my list to the schools that fit the above conditions, I think I got to about 20-30 schools. Then I whittled that down to top 12, then top 6. I used an excel spreadsheet to list all of the five factors I mentioned above about each school so I could compare them easily side by side.
So how did I narrow it down? Some schools had programs that technically offered ceramics, but didn’t seem to recognize ceramics as its own area. You could “major” in it, but your degree would be called “Sculpture” or “3D practices.” Something didn’t feel right to me about that. I wanted a school that recognized ceramics as its own area worthy of mention right there on the degree. So a few schools were eliminated that way. Some schools were eliminated because none of the current grad work resonated with me. Some schools had programs whose setup seemed either too open-ended or too regimented for my liking so they were crossed off the list. However it is hard, because most of the information I was getting was coming from the schools’ websites, which admittedly is a rather impersonal way to learn about a place. Which brings me to the next step:
Once I had my list down to the top 12, I began asking questions of anyone I could to find out more about these programs. I am sorry to say that many schools’ websites can be confusing to navigate and it can feel like a wild goose chase trying to get certain pieces of information. Most times the websites do list a contact person for the department and they are usually very helpful and fast in answering questions. Don’t be shy about emailing them! I was lucky enough to work at Arrowmont and Penland over the summers, and there were many people there knowledgeable about the various ceramics programs I had chosen. I even had the good fortune to meet some professors from the schools on my list, and all of them graciously agreed to answer my questions. Also, my undergraduate professor from Truman State, Wynne Wilbur, was a huge help in giving advice and linking to lots of great articles with more information. Thanks, Wynne!!
Once I had it narrowed down to the top 6, I began planning which schools I would actually go and visit. If you can, I recommend visiting BEFORE you send your application. If you don’t like the school after the visit, you can save yourself the trouble and application fee. And if you DO like the school, the professors there will already recognize your name when your app comes in. That can’t hurt! Personally I visited three schools. Two blew me away and one ended up seeming like not a great fit for me. So it was helpful knowledge to gain. If I would have had the time and money I would have liked to have visited all my schools. Personally I think the visit can tell you the most about a school so I recommend it highly!
Most schools have information on their website about who to contact about a visit. Lots of times you can ask to stay with a grad student so you don’t have to worry about getting a hotel room. While on your visit pay close attention to the attitude of the grad students and their relationship to their professors. I was looking for an environment where everyone worked hard but also got along and supported each other. If possible I wanted a place where people actually enjoyed each other’s company into the bargain.
After my visits, I had made up my mind on my final five. Then began the application process. To follow me through that part of the journey, click over to the next post!