Reflections Retrospective 1992-94

Posted by Diane Sullivan on

1992-94 Seattle, Washington. I crossed over the continent in the summer of '92 to do my Master's at the University of Washington. I am sparing you the first series of work I did in Seattle, it was just plain weird. In this next work series, created in the fall of '92, I was trying to reduce my scale and to use a more sensual approach to building the forms, rather than a literal application of the goddess imagery. So these forms were hand built out of a lot of little slugs (puffed hollow) of clay. I made candleholders and ewers or pitchers. To get the clear silhouette on this piece I actually made some moulds of the form I wanted then lay the little slugs in to the moulds, joining the slugs with more clay on the inside of the piece. It's a significant method of creating the form that will directly impact the next work I do. They stood between 14"-20" tall. I made about a dozen different pieces in this series, they were very popular, got me in to a lot of juried exhibitions, and all of them sold. The slugs however quickly drove me crazy as a building technique and I happily moved on.

 In the fall of '92 I had a critique with Akio Takamori, one of my advisors in the MFA program in Seattle, that changed how I viewed my work, well, forever. He asked me how I felt about historical pottery. Up to this point, my vessels as metaphor for the human form had all been liberally based on historical Greek, Italian and Chinese forms, but for the most part made almost human in size and gestural in nature. Why pots? It was a question I embraced and spent the next decade answering. I love pottery, and I especially love historical pottery. Classic forms, ornate decoration. This critique immediately impacted the rest of my work at grad school. I let the gestural nature of my forms go (it was a 1980's trend anyway), but I hung on to the vessel as metaphor for the human form a bit longer. This work, "The Blue & Whites", was a series of 3 vessels, 41" tall, created in the same manner as the earlier "slug" work of yesterday; I made a mould of the shape of a meiping, which is a classic Chinese shape, then filled the mould with 1.continuous snake/vines, 2.simple spirals and 3.architectural decorative details known as "arabesques"; delineating the development of a decorative motif from inspiration through rudimentary abstraction to advanced civilization. Yes, I was creating form out of the decorative language again. But they were only half a pot, as I wasn't giving up on the body reference totally yet. The title of the piece of course referred to the historical blue and white hand painted Chinese porcelain. This is still one of my favourite pieces.

 Summer of '93 in Seattle. "Passage" stood 10' high. Another and final metaphor for the female body, this was another meiping cut in half, but built hollow this time so you could actually stand inside the back of it, like a free standing sarcophagus. The surface decoration is earth goddess imagery. This was a major engineering feat on my part. I ended up building it twice, so it took me 3 months to complete. The first time I built it I didn't think it through and the piece never made it to the kiln. Second time was a charm. Oh ya, clay was NOT free in grad school, so a lot of this was clay I got from the first year undergrad class' reclaim bucket. That's a lot of clay. The most exciting thing about this piece in retrospect for me is that it literally silenced me in it's all consuming demands. I found peace in it's construction. This piece is history. A work of this scale needs a lengthy career or an institution behind it to sell. It was in a number of exhibitions at the time, then was portioned out in to local Seattle gardens. While a building feat it lives in photos only, but has been seen on the cover of a ceramic magazine in the ‘90s.

 1994, Seattle, these are some of my thesis pieces (say that 5 times fast). Part of the Master of Fine Art (MFA) graduation requirement is a thesis exhibition. For a number of reasons unrelated to my studio work I was stressed to the max in my final year of grad school. I was working 3 jobs, 2 under the table (as I was in the good ol' USofA), and eating a lot of root vegetables. It was a dark time for me, but one that made me focus, focus, focus on what I wanted to get out of my education. My reason for returning to school in 1989 had been, simply, to become a potter. After 5 years of stretching the limits in terms of scale, I hunkered down to create a body of work for a domestic space, rather than a public space. I also embraced an entirely different firing temperature. All of my earlier work was low-fired, with the new body of work I went high fire and reduction; I was determined to be a Master. I built them in a similar fashion to the Blue & Whites, making a prototype, making a mould, then press moulding slabs of clay in to get the main shapes, combined with thrown pieces (mostly the necks and foot rings). This way I could get a substantial piece quickly (they were 24" to 16" in height) and focus on the surface decorative carving. But what to carve? My roommate, watching my downward emotional spiral in second year, started waking me up at 5 in the morning on Sundays and taking me in to the Cascade Mountains to hike. She was in med. school learning latin names for everything, so to entertain ourselves we started identifying all the rainforest wildflowers by their latin monickers. It was a space of solace for me in a turbulent year. I took out a huge tome of Pacific Northwest wildflower identification from the university library. It lived on my studio desk, whenever I felt stress coming on I would open the book and look deeply in to the petals of my favourite wildflowers. I remember the moment when I thought, I wonder if I can take the most cliched of decorations, flowers, and make them something new? And thus began a love affair with carving wildflowers and foliage on to the surface of my pots that continues to this day. This body of work took a good six months to make. Developing a glaze palette is a lengthy procedure, but the glazes I ended up with are ones I use to this day. My thesis exhibition was appropriately titled, "Mountain Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest". When the gallery technician came to check on what I needed for my "installation" I responded, plinths. Plinths he said, puzzled, what are you making? Why pots, I said! I had turned so strongly to the historical tradition of pottery I had become ground-breaking; my MFA program in Ceramic Art had not shown pottery in a graduation exhibition for many decades. After graduation a friend came to Seattle and drove me and my pots to Alberta, where I had been accepted in to an artist residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. The pots were accepted in to a local Calgary gallery, where they were featured in an exhibition and quickly sold out.

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