Thursday, December 29, 2011

Love and Labor

One morning in Kohler, when I had NPR on, an interview captured my attention. In it, a woman with a microphone traveled the country asking people from all walks of life to answer three simple questions for her: "What do you live for?" "What would you die for?" and "What would you kill for?"
Aside the philosophical/existential comments of highly educated and little-lived 30-somethings, most answers had to do with family, one's partner in life, and achieving fulfillment in one's profession or job. But mostly, answers named a person (or persons), loved by and cared about deeply by the interviewee.

The radio piece made me think then, for reasons that only became clear to me much later.
For a while I've been digesting the same topic: Love and Work. Emotional and physical attachment. How they are fundamental to us, human beings; to our being human. How they each can become the driving force and the end result of one another. The expression "Labor of Love" kept floating through my mind.

Love is hard work, a constant maintenance in the same way one might tend a garden, build a house, bake a pie, keep fixing the same rotten junk of a car, or make a piece of artwork.
Labor we think of as the tool, the means to get to something, the token. I wonder if work is only satisfying, only fulfilled when it comes from loving what we do.
Many examples come to my mind for how Labor and Love are intertwined in immensely complex ways. I watched my mother grind her body with repetitive, "dumb" labor for decades; first in a factory, then at home with housework, then in the few different but always physically demanding jobs she held before finally retiring. I can't say she loved these jobs, but somehow the motions of doing them brought a kind of affirmation to her life. Athletes understand intimately how love and labor depend on each other. Distance running is like that for me.

The finished project may feel like a kitchen sink of these ideas for now.
I had made all the pieces at Kohler I felt necessary for an installation that addresses the relationship between Labor and Love. The glazed ceramic pieces are the casts of the broken plaster molds. They look like a field of semi-precious gemstones, partly polished, partly rough. I can also show them on pedestals, isolation and elevation making the individual objects even more precious-looking.
There are accompanying text pieces on tiles, on plaques that attach to the pedestals, and as free floating gold lustered ceramic calligraphy on the wall.
It will be a while for the installation to be shown in its entirety. By then, some things might change, I may have more clarity or at least a better way to talk about it. But I think I've got it right for the most part already.

Here are some images of the finished work (photography by Jeff Machtig of John Michael Kohler Arts Center). Please visit my website for more.

hundreds of pieces of glazed vitreous porcelain cast from the broken mold fragments. the smallest fragment here is about 2" and the largest is about 20"

Monday, December 19, 2011

The good-byes

The final week has come and gone. I'm writing these last few posts on the plane to Seattle and uploading them from home.
The frenzy of finishing my project, packing the work, and exiting the program lasted with intensity into the final day. By Friday noon, I had everything that I made, along with my molds and tools packed and paletted at the loading dock in the factory, and we watched it being put on a truck to start its journey to Seattle.
Everything I made is boxed up and ready to put on palettes for shipping.  40 boxes, 1790 lbs. total weight

I cleaned out the studio for the next resident and, on my way out, disposed of the safety glasses and the "clown shoes" (clumsy, heavy, steel toed work shoes) that we all have to wear at all times in the factory. My badge expired at 5pm and, after that, I could no longer enter the factory. The residency was over. "The Garden of Eden" is closed forever. Kind of a sad moment, especially considering that the factory was a home away from home for 13 long weeks. It has been a place in Kohler I was the most familiar with, where I was the most comfortable at, and where most of my social interactions took place.
Finally, exchanging these...

...for these

Going from a newbie who does not know anything or anybody, screws up, gets in the way, and generally clueless about the world of the factory, to be accepted and welcomed, showered with questions and silly stories, greeted by smiles and small talk every time I walked through the factory. Being addressed by various versions of my name (the idiosyncrasies of pronunciation of which I would always find entertaining, while being appreciative of the sincere effort) and being looked after by these rough and gruff men of heavy physical labor made the factory a very comfortable place. They joked on my vegetarianism and petite physique; fixed my bike; fed me from their lunchboxes; kept tabs on my comings and goings, on how much I worked and how little I rested; wanted to know what an artist does and how much money it makes (zero?!); what my life of university teaching was like; and how we "out there" in the state of Washington are doing in this bad economy.
I learned to love the factory, and to very much appreciate the workers and their lives.

In late November, I realized that a natural next step for me is a second but no less involved project that uses the same molds toward a different conceptual direction. One that directly addresses the laborers. When we talked, the associates often complained about their perception of the management who sits in their high ivory towers and of being treated by them not as individuals but as numbers and parts of a machine only designed to hit a certain quota of production.
Day after day in talking with these men, it became clear to me that the sluggish economy is an undertone of all these conversations. The labor that they do and the respect and pay that it receives are in the forefront, a concern for their families and for the negative health effects of the repetitive and heavy physical work are much on their minds.
The idea for the new project occurred to me in an instant: Taking beautiful portrait shots of the associates and accompanying them with pieces of these mold fragments that are personalized by using the graphics of the worker's favorite work shirt. I talked to them about the fact that the molds were tools being used for a while then discarded after no longer being found useful. I often wondered if they  understood this to be a metaphor the same way as I did, as an analogy of their own lives of physically consuming labor.
ceramics pins I made as good-bye presents for the associates

I was amazed when I got the go ahead Kohler (most of the factory can be red tape galore!) and then received the help to make the photo portion of this project possible. Getting it all organized in less then a week was no small effort, which required all the diplomatic skills and connections of the wonderful A/I program assistant, Cara Camp, and amazing pottery technician, Shari McWilliams. Out of the 16 workers I asked to let me take their pictures, most obliged and we took the photos in two sessions on the week before my final week of residency. Two photographers helped me to make it possible, Brad Allen, of Kohler, and Jeff Machtig of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

one of the casters, Jerry in his (and my) favorite T-shirt
and the same graphics inlaid with color slip on the piece
Each associate posed somewhere around his own work area. The poses reveal powerful and manly characters while the actual photo-shoot  will always be memorable for me for the awkward exposure and intimate momentary connection created by being stuck on either side of the camera's lens while the shutter opened.
I only had time to make one test piece, out of one of these photographs (see above). I would need months of testing and execution to develop the work into what I imagined in my head.
 For that, I would have to come back to Kohler sometime soon, or attempt to finish the project by holding on to the initial inspiration at home.

biking home from the factory in early December with the sunset in my back


Repetition is in the heart of casting, while repeatability is the cornerstone of any manufacturing process.
Days and weeks blur together during art residencies, losing the track of time completely. Much happens during a workday, sometimes by mid-afternoon it feels like I've lived three full days since the morning.

But much of every day is a returning pattern of getting up, biking to the factory, casting, glazing, cleaning, assembling, moving, finding people to do some kind of specialized task for me, (one of the perks of the factory is the experts crew of workers doing spraying, epoxying, finishing work etc. who would often times help out with things like covering the large surfaces of my pedestals evenly with glaze, fixing pinholes and glaze faults after the firing, or would cut fired ware with a diamond blade to the size and shape I need), having it done, loading or unloading the kilns, more glazing, more loading and unloading and finally biking home to crash for a few hours in the horizontal position until the alarm goes off.
On, and on, and on...
One of the side projects is this large tile with a pattern made with hundreds of barcodes I had fished out of a dumpster (work in progress. the yellow color is that of the plastic film of the barcode decal)

In the final two weeks of the residency this pattern seemed to be on a fast forward. I completely divorced from the circadian pattern and set on a pattern of kilns firing up and cooling down. I would leave the factory at 3am or 5am regularly, returning again at the start of the workday (9am). On one occasion, on the final week, I left at midnight to take a quick nap at the house, then went back to the factory to get something out of the kiln at 3am, which I glazed with gold luster until 9am so that I can pop it back for the next round of firing. Then I stayed on working for an entire day, leaving again at 11pm exhausted to the point of not remembering where I left my bike when coming in.

The nature of my projects dictate a certain kind of repetitiveness too. For the installation, I wanted to create as many pieces as I possibly could, resulting in a series of processes done over and over. However, as much as I had expected the final weeks to be repetitive and predictable to the point of boredom, the numerous side projects I had started but haven't yet finished, and the new ideas for pieces to add to the installation that seemed to uncontrollably flow out of me in the last minute created a welcome break from the predictability (but added to the burden of multitasking).

hospital ware molds on the casting floor adjacent to the A/I studios. look at these perfectly organized rows of molds

the same great form, but each mold has a different personality that is only known to the caster working with these molds

casting cones

The casting floor is a striking visual environment full of repetition. I finally managed to take some images (see above and below)  and got an OK on using them in my artist lectures. Whether it is the gigantic molds laid out in neat rows, or greenware on the conveyer belt, or the casting cones stacked on their racks (plastic cones to be inserted into the pour holes on the molds to store extra slip in order to create a positive pressure in the mold), this visual repetition is seductive to me and my artwork and aesthetic sensibility clearly reflects this fact.
The repetitiveness in the making process or daily routine and the repetition in a visual pattern is attractive for the same reason: There is a promise of organization with a hint of chaos. There is a huge seductive power to the organized pattern that is almost, but not completely, the same throughout. Small distractions, misalignments, and flaws make the uniformity of pattern even more obvious and the tension between the perfect and the almost perfect both jarring and irresistible.
more cones on the rack
more repetition of molds and finished casts  (the ware from the previous day is drying slowly under the shrouds. what was cast today is still in the molds)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Trails and Side-tracks

With the approach of Thanksgiving, the steady pace of production had slowed down a bit in the factory. On Wednesday before the holiday, the sense of excitement in the air was unmistakeable. Most non-essential associates left early for their holiday preparations and it became more difficult to get anything done that was not strictly limited to my studio.
For the first time in two months, I took a day off.

On Thanksgiving day, we went hiking to the northern section of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, around the Greenbush area. The Kettle Moraine has a unique and beautiful rolling topography (moraines) and pitted landscape (kettles).
trail in the Kettle Moraine

Terez, Kristen and me on the hike.

The plants and tree varieties here are distinctly different from those evergreens of the Pacific Northwest; there is a real sense of fall when hiking in Wisconsin. Another thing that signals fall around here is the deer hunting season. Only after we got out of the car in the forest we realized our huge mistake: did not have blaze orange vests to signal our human presence to the hunters that are undoubtedly out there hiding away and waiting for the bush to move. Hunting is as much part of culture in Wisconsin as concealed guns, motorbikes, cheese, the Greenbay Packers, and game day cupcakes frosted with frightening yellow and green.

cupcakes and buns in local colors (this pix is from some time ago, still during Brewers baseball season)

All week, the news is full with efforts to recall the union-busting governor; but Kohler Village is as dormant as the castle of Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale. When we talk, associates grumble about the work and job security, about cuts to benefits and bargaining rights, about no pay raises for the past many years. There is a general feeling of the workers being taken advantage of due to the recession. Every day, at least half of the associates wear their UAW Local 833 T-shirts emblazoned with Harley-like logo of orange flames to work.

The issue of labor and unions is very complex, historical yet pertinent, and I don't claim to understand it. I listen when they talk to me and I answer the best as I can their questions about our sluggish economy in Washington state. On a funny note: Every time during our conversations, the workers are surprised when I tell them that I teach. In their minds, the artist who come here on a residency come to make money on what they produce. And in their minds, similarly to their industrial production, the more I produce the more money I make. So it makes good economic sense to them that I'm in the studio all the time.

How different reality is!
With a strong will I focus on the blushing plaster fragment project now. I cast all my molds on certain days, the smaller ones twice, which gives me non-stop work of filling molds and then opening, cleaning and reassembling them, taking out casts and fixing the pour-holes on the clay well into the night. The result is about 30-40 casts. Cleaning and glazing that many pieces takes another few days while everything else has to be on hold. This process feels very mechanical, (even to a discipline-queen like I am) and I'm aching to dot this schedule with at least a few side projects that yield to unpredictable results. Doing this casting routine once or twice a week takes so much energy that I always decide to do just a few molds next time, so that I can do other things during the workday. It has gotten so bad this last time with yet another new mold (plus the pedestal and tile molds), that I could not even open some of the molds in time, resulting in casts way too dry by the time I got to them, which cost me more time having to fix cracking around the tougher places.

Studio on week 10: pedestals, small pedestal mold and more molds. There is barely any floor space or work surface left uncovered with stuff drying, waiting to be glazed or finished.

I guess, because of the relative monotony of the casting process and also because my time at Kohler is drawing near, I could never not fully give up the interesting side-tracks. Let's admit it: I'm now finding myself looking for distractions. Whether it is digging up boxes full of discarded barcode decals from the trash, or going through the metal cull for interesting shapes to be used for making plaques for the pedestals, or carving pictures of the local weeds into tiles, or plotting a project that honors the individuality of the workers I made friends with; - I welcome the opportunity that arises to do something else interesting while I'm still here. It's too premature to talk about these projects. They are not finished yet, and due to the lack of time to really develop them, none of these would become a full-fletched project for the time being.

On the other hand, I'm getting beautiful results with the glazes. The colors are heart-stopping in a very bodily, and, as it was commented on, "evocative" way.
Just out of the kiln this week.

There are 4-5 layers of pinks and reds sprayed on very thin to get the blush and I never know what it will look like until it comes out of the kiln. So is the excitement of ceramics.

This past week possibilities for the title of the project occurred to me just out of the blue. I definitely have the words that would be used to describe what the work is about. I'm still trying them out in various combinations.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mood Indigo

In recent days, two books are on my mind: The Wind-up bird chronicle by Haruki Murakami and Mood Indigo (also known as Froth on the Daydream) by Boris Vian.  Both of them were favorites of mine at various ages.
After returning from whirlwind trip to Hungary I had a rougher than expected transition back to the factory-life. It's interesting what a few days of pause can do to the ingrained work process; I had to make tremendous efforts to remind myself of how I've been doing things. The first mold I made after returning was a complete disaster. Looking back at it, it was riddled with bad timing (on my part part) and curious accidents (on the part of the plaster positive, which kept falling apart). The mold works just fine now.
The week I returned, they started covering the large window panels at the factory to protect the ware from the cold drafts that inevitably sneak in during winter. Even though the days were sunny outside, one could not get a sense of it in the inside. Humid heat building up in the casting shop and the light haze through the oppressing plastic dampened my mood for a few days.
With being gone the residency reached its turning point. I have a little over 4 more work weeks left.

The days are short, seems like the nights are even shorter.
I'm barely getting more than 4hours of sleep. I have to constantly remind myself that I need to stop doing side projects, like the constructing pedestals or the little buildings (see pics), playing with the color slips and conducting other experiments with Kohler's unlimited possibilities.

I think I'm having a hard time giving up certain mental versions and iterations of the project I've thought I could accomplish. The only thing need to be focusing on now is to keep casting the broken fragments I already have molds of. Setting the fragments up in an installation was the idea that brought me here and that is the result I ultimately want to be leaving with.
There are 23 shapes already (23 molds made!!!), - a good enough variety. I'm the only one who would notice if I had ten (or even 2 more) shapes, - meaning that I still need to make 10 new molds.
In order to have the necessary volume of objects for an installation, my energies need to go towards casting: every mold, every day. That pretty much necessitates excluding any other project. I'm slowly forcing myself into this mindset but it does not feel right because the raison d'être of being here is that of constant innovation and of playing with the unlimited possibilities.

On the plus side, I had a few of my wonderful friends visiting this past week and I got to give several lectures to college freshmen from Millwaukee. This latter reminded me of interacting with my students, which I duly miss. A photographer came to my studio to take some artist-at-work shots. After a brief but inspiring conversation about my project we decided to frame the shots with the casting shop in the background, which I feel is completely appropriate considering the subject of my work.

Finally, here is the Duke playing Mood Indigo.

sunset over the factory, November 5

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Notes on Time

Many readers of this blog asked for a detailed account of the factory environment and life. The factory, and within it, the pottery, is a very unique and interesting place, which I will try to describe in this and in forthcoming posts. It's also important to note that Kohler does not allow photography within the factory, so I will not have pictures of the factory on the blog. I don't think that the pics could reflect the true sense of the place, anyway. One has to be here to see, hear and smell it. So, come and visit!
For one thing, it's utterly unreal, a strangely wonderful and wonderfully strange universe of its own. In Kohler village, I cannot avoid to feel a pronounced sense of the put-on: the town feels like a stage-set with its manicured yards and pleasant but drab Mid-West style sleepy homes. Never a soul out and about. No children playing, no noise making. Barely any traffic except for when the shifts are changing in the factory and workers arrive or depart for home.
There are three things I wanted to write about on the account of time: factory time, clay & time, and some personal side notes on time.

Factory time
The factory has a life of its own, independent from what's going on in the rest of the world. It never stops. I can be in the pottery at 9am, 9pm, or 2am in the morning and be sure to have others around, workers attending their tasks. When I bike out I can smell the foundry and listen to the rambling sound it makes. It's going, constantly. There is something comforting in this reliable rhythm of things. It's a like a clock that tells me the time: I look over at a certain hour of the day to the casters of the first shift and I know before turning my head where at they are going to be in their various tasks. They come in in the morning, fill their molds, move down the floor on a series of molds in a choreographed sequence, one by one flipping molds, opening them, joining parts, cleaning joints. Lifting out finished pieces, cleaning and dusting the molds, then assembling them for casting the next morning. Then they move on to the casts of the day before for final checks before they are carted away to the dryers.  They take their few short breaks like clockwork and start banging their tools and buckets together 15 minutes before the shift is over as a signal to start the day's end cleanup and sweeping. This is the first shift from 5:30am to 2pm. These days, in the second shift, only the pressure cast machines are going, with much fewer workers attending to them. Their rhythm is a faster beat: taking the sinks off the machine every few minutes, checking for flaws and wiping them clean. Over and over hundreds of times a day. While a caster who works manually does only 20 to 50 but very complex shapes, the pressure casters are churning out their simple efficiently shaped ware. It's amazing to watch the casters: they move around efficiently without hesitation, like a dancer moving through a well rehearsed movement. Even though they mostly are big guys with big bellies and big arms they move gracefully and with a good sense of rhythm. Most of them have been working for Kohler for 15+ years, sometimes spending as long as 10 years casting the same toilet or hospital ware. 
So, the pottery does not stop. The soundtrack of the morning shift is a contemporary rock-pop station over-flooded with syrupy songs of love and heartbreak (still a welcome change after weeks of heavy metal and '70s hard rock). After the first shift is over and all the manual casters, design, development and administrative people leave there is still much going on: sprayers glazing, loaders and unloaders attend around the kilns, metal cars loaded with unfired ware are being pushed around on a series of ceiling tracks. Night shift workers have their individual soundtracks playing near their stations, accompanied by the bass from compressors, conveyers, forklifts, and moving ware carts.
The evening rhythm is just as reliable metronome as that of daytime. Maybe there is a little more breathing room, space to chat, less confusing movements, if for nothing else but simply for the fact that there are less people around. At 6am and 2pm, like clockwork, swarms of workers are leaving and arriving with their plastic lunch boxes.
Visitors on factory tours like to ask me about my own work schedule: They shake their heads in disbelief when I say that apart from a few hours of eating, sleeping and running or swimming, I'm at the factory 14-16 hours a day. From 8:30am to often 2am or as long as it takes.  We joke around with the associates saying that the resident artists work all 3 shifts. The studio has this effect of sucking you in, and even at 2am it could feel like that I haven't managed to finish everything I planned for the day.
This brings me to the next theme:

Clay & Time
Everyone who has worked with clay understands the importance of time / timing in making.  Clay is this great material that goes from liquid to a hard brittle rock and capable or incapable of doing things in certain stages of its life. For each clay body, this behavior has to be figured out in order to be working with it. The differences can be minute: it could be only 5 minutes drying time between being being able to slice and assemble large forms, (I'm making ceramic pedestals this week for my sculptures.) between the clay being just fine for attaching it or being too dry to do so. So working with clay is like nursing a baby. Especially when it comes to casting. It matters how long the clay slip stays in the mold, how soon I can pour out (creates a certain wall thickness), how long it's left to dry in the mold before taking the form out to patch it up. Each of my molds is a unique shape, size, dampness or dryness, concave or convex, I have to assess them daily and pay attention what they like and don't like in order to successfully cast them. The casters tell me that they have the same experience with the large and seemingly uniform industrial molds. They keep track of each' unique personality and baby it accordingly.
What's true for clay is also true for plaster. I've watched Tom Spleth (see previous post) to build his positive for a new vase form by troveling setting plaster on the floor.  In a plaster class we usually encourage students to make a box into which they pour in the liquid plaster and only remove the box after the plaster is set into a hard block. Working the way Tom does gives one a good understanding of how the material changes over time as the plaster goes through the chemical change of setting and solidifying. Making a mold is a good exercise in timing. Again, even minutes make a world of difference between workable and a torture for my developing carpal tunnel. I can hardly think of another materials that depend so much on time like clay and plaster do. And because of this it's hard to find time for a break when in the studio. There is always something that needs tending; catching in the right stage or coaxing back into it by controlling drying or rehydrating carefully. 

Personal side notes on time:
Some of you might have noticed that I skipped a post last week. I was about to type up the above when I got a phone call from Hungary that my father has passed away unexpectedly. He was in a hospital for a miserable week prior to that, literally between life and death. He was 67. His passing made me consider the passage of time over and over this week. Among other thoughts, it reminded me how much I enjoyed spending time with him when I was little. We would always be doing something creative together: Bauhaus style collages, photography, making up silly songs and word plays. This was before he divorced mom who raised my brother and me by herself. That was also the end of collage making and game playing.
I'm writing this while at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport waiting to my connecting flight to Budapest to attend his funeral service. I just left the pottery at Kohler at 7am and now I'm sitting here idle several hours and two flights later. Airports and airplanes are heterotopias where time is suspended. Kohler is such a heterotopia. A village stuck in time, a factory that has been operating for over 120 years and never stops (apart from two union strikes that are significant part of US labor history. Read about them on Wikipedia.) Residencies are also heterotopias: while still preserving a sense of normalcy with daily and weekly routines, in every moment, I'm keenly aware that this is not my normal life of social, professional and personal obligations. These periods devoted to the studio solely are a privilege.

a set of ceramic pieces

my studio with 20 molds, a couple of pedestals in the making

new pieces with the pink blushing glaze on a newly finished pedestal

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Colors of Autumn

After 2 weeks of stormy, windy and drenching weather an Indian summer is treating us all in Kohler with sunshine and warmth. The trees of the factory yard are turning color: intense hues of red, orange and yellow against the bright blue sky. During work hours, the warm weather is not a blessing though. Fans, heaters and humidifiers keep the casting room at a constant 80 degrees temperature, from which the only relief is to find a spot next to a slightly open window. On these warm days of late autumn, the air inside does not move and it's a numbing sweaty experience.
Funny side note: we had a group of distinguished guests visiting this week. By the time they were through with the factory tour and arrived to our studios for the "much awaited" visit and demo, most of the ladies decided that the heat and dust was too unbearable for them and took their leave.

Before I go on, I have to introduce my new studio and house mate, Mr Tom Spleth of North Carolina. Tom is a distinguished artist of many talents, and an seasoned mold maker. He came here to do color and got me swept up in experimenting with colored clay bodies.
Technical note: It is possible to put ceramic pigments directly into clay resulting in intense colors when fired. The advantage of this is that the piece does not need a glaze, the color is already incorporated into the form. For a studio artist, it's an expensive way of working but at Kohler there are available resources. 
Tom does a very interesting technique for getting a pattern onto his large vase forms: He pours colored slip on his disassembled mold parts so that the casting surfaces are covered with drippy dynamic lines, then he assembles the mold and fills with the regular slip to make a cast of the form.
Tom Spleth developing a new form by pouring plaster on the form then scraping and piling tall...

...there are many more steps to go but the form is starting to take shape.

On his first day at Kohler as I was describing my project to Tom, I realized that with all the delicate textures on my forms, glazing may not be the way to go. Kohler glazes are thick and meant to cover, they tend to make surface details disappear (see previous posts). What I wanted to do in the first place was contrasting surfaces of bone-like dry unglazed clay and high gloss glaze, white with a touch of a pink blush. After many disappointing results on test tiles and our conversation, it was easy to convince me to be sneaking up to the glaze lab and mixing bucket after bucket of color slips for "experiments".
So, the week started out with the promise of playful colors of blues, yellows, greens, as well as more somber grays and black.
Color made my casting process more complicated. I decided to do a double layer wall: by pouring the colored slip in and immediately pouring it out, I could get a skim coat of color to stick to the mold walls first. Then this is followed by pouring in regular slip in order to make a structural wall. This process means rotating the mold one additional time while a jelly-like thickening veil of slip if clinging to the mold wall on the inside.

the molds being filled with casting slip (on the cart in the back is the "library of forms" - the chunks of broken industrial molds that I would like to make molds of)

With every complication in the process you take more chances. And so it happened that I had to face the fact that there is a certain percentage of error in this process. Molds would blow up leaking slip all over the floor (this actually has nothing to do with color but a lot with the fact the the thick rubber bands that I use for strapping the molds together unexpectedly relax over time). The walls of the fresh cast would occasionally collapse together, making a sad deflated mess out of the form.  Working with so many colors all at once, it was also harder to fix cracks and flaws.
I tried to comfort myself with the fact that these losses were minimal and to gather enthusiasm by describing the potential with these colors to the factory tour groups that come around in the mornings.
Except, that I should have known better: I'm not really interested in getting a variety of colors. My pursuit is pink blush against pristine white. I don't know why. But I needed to get it.

And then my luck turned: I got into the spraybooth one night with all my pieces and started spraying glaze. I tried to be calculated and layer what in the tests had given me the best indication of some sort of pink... But then I got carried away (or went rouge?, or got greedy?). In addition to my own test glazes, I also scavenged some of the production glazes and at that point continued spraying with an abandon: thick coats for the smooth parts of the form and thin for the textures, layer after layer of a quick puff of color.

I put them in the kiln with dread the next morning. It's not enough that I went crazy with the glaze and could not even remember what I put on any of the pieces. But they may as well stick to the kilnshelf for good, or explode, or fall over in the kiln.
A necessary technical side note here: The firings are done in the factory's main tunnel kiln. This is a kiln that runs the entire length of the floor: could be as long as 300m  or more (I should really find out). Ceramic ware travels in it on a cars that run on a track kind of like a freight train. Each car has shelving set up to place the sinks, urinals and toilets. As ceramics travel further down the tunnel the gas burners pump in more and more heat, by the middle of the tunnel reaching cone 10, around 2300 degrees F.
When loading the kiln at Kohler, I have to make room on the shelf without interfering much with the loaders' work and the production schedule.  Carefully placing 22 little pieces with no flat bottoms while the car keeps jerking forward was an anxiety filled event to say the least. A good reminder that I have to plan for efficiency for the next round. But everything was on the shelf at last and my pieces went off on their scorching 27 hour journey.
They came out yesterday. When I went to rendezvous with them at the unloading station I could see from afar that all the guys were circling my cart grinning and pointing and probably making some jokes I rather not want to hear. What's really great is that they did not touch anything until I got there and then they handed me the setters with the pieces on. Wow!!! The late night rampage in the spraybooth was not all that crazy after all!  I got my pink blush, several different versions of it and I love it!!! It makes these clunky chunks of plaster forms look very feminine and sexy in a weird but not totally unexpected way. "Of course", - said Sandor, "you are making them, so even dumb chucks of plaster look bodily".

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dirt and Water

It's only the end of the second week and I've lost track of time already. The parameters of my project are taking a solid shape, and besides that, there are many smaller side projects I would love to pursue in the next 11 weeks. With every ceramics place I've visited as an artist in residence there come a set of opportunities and a set of limitations. At Kohler, these are materials and finishes allowed by the factory (I will probably discuss these in the weeks to come...) as well as technologies that fit into their very own industrial process. In other words, I'm going to have to use what fits within these limitations, and in turn, using what's available generates new ideas I would have never thought of otherwise. One of these creative cul-de-sacs is the limited production-line color palette. For my project, the main color finish I had in mind was a sexy hot pink blush in contrast to the sanitary white. The glaze tests came out this week, - looks like there will be no blushing. Similarly, the '70-es vividly "Bold look of Kohler" colors are no longer used in the factory due to lead silicate (a very common but, in unfired form, deadly ceramic ingredient). What's left is old-lady-pastels, and basic B&W. Comfortingly, these latter are thick and luscious.
To test the strength of the Kohler clay and methods for joining, I slapped a few little house of cards structures together last week. Against the odds they survived (everybody thought they were too flimsy and fragile) and became adorable little sculptures. So there is one enticing side-track already.

As for my main project:  
A reminder: I'm taking old, broken industrial molds, which look nothing more than chunks of plaster of an interesting shape now and will be remaking them in clay. See previous post.
This week, I've started making molds. Each plaster chunk is such a complex shape that it difficult to get away with molds less complicated than 5-6 pieces. It's not uncommon that certain shapes require 7-8 mold parts. When the tour groups come around, they are baffled by the sight of me playing with putting together a 3D jigsaw puzzle that seemingly requires more than the two hands I got. As a nice elderly lady revealed to me on Friday, even though I'd described the project, she and her friends did not understand what the plaster pieces are for until I started to put them together to show that the hollowness the moldparts enclose indeed gives the negative shape of the chunk of plaster I was showing earlier.
a 7-piece mold disassembled, with its positive (the slightly more yellow chunk)

the same mold assembled with its positive

This is really the first time for me for working on molds of this complexity, and in such a large numbers. Every day, I make one new mold, if I make it a long day (13 hours +) I can finish two of the easier ones. With this rate it will "only" take 2 months to make molds of all of the chunks I have. Nice!

the smallest chunk, it's complex enough that it still requires 5 parts

ready to pour part #2 with plaster

plaster in the cavity, 3 more parts to go

Having to make molds every day is not as dull as it seems: Some people do sudoku, mold making is my way of fighting off early dementia. Each mold is a new mental challenge of successfully breaking down the form to surfaces without undercuts.
Technical side-note: an undercut is a recess in the surface that does not allow the mold to be pulled away without breaking off some part. For example: your neck is an undercut relative to your head when taking of a sweater with a tight neckline. That is, unless you literally are a pinhead.
As a side-effect of the long hours of mold making, by the end of the day I look like I'm thoroughly dusted with powdered sugar (it's plaster, of course). With a deep trench on my cheeks from the edge of the respirator digging into it. Factory issued steel-toed boots caked with plaster. Ceramics is a DIRTY business!

And here comes the part about water:
- Oh, the waters of Kohler!!! As an artist in residence, I was offered a membership to the town's gym, Sports Core. Being used to the IMA at school, I was expecting utilitarian  facilities and crowds but was looking forward to resume weekly swimming at last. It turned out that I'm the only one using the 25m "competitive swimming pool" (that is the pool that has lanes and no babies with inflatable rubber duckies). I go to the pool nearly every day now after work. It's addictive. Floating in silence in the aqua blue rectangle looking out to the stars I feel like Juliette Binoche in Krzysztof Kieślowski's  Blue. (Rent it if you don't know what I'm talking about.) It's a weird thing to be alone in the entire swimming pool. No noises of splashing or staccatos of breathing. I can't get over how strange it feels.
sunset (in the factory)
At Sports Core, there is also a large outdoor Jacuzzi on the deck with a fireplace. The view is to the small lake, woods with songbirds, peachy-purple sunsets turning into the inky night sky. Unbelievably peaceful and beautiful. And to top it all, I must describe the shower in the dressing room: True to Kohler fashion, it features pretty much every type of showerhead that there is. There are 4 showerheads all together, in every stall. One for each third of the body + a handheld. Each with functions that can be set to massage or shower in any combination. Unlimited hot water with complementary fancy toiletries.  No signs of signs about conserving water and saving the planet. The do-gooder, earth-saver-Seattleite conscience cringes about the wastefulness of all this luxury but I can't resist the extensive shower ritual after the long and dirty day at the factory.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

KOHLER: "What?" "Where?" "What are you doing there?"

I should probably start this year's blogging by answering these questions.
I've just started a 3month long residency at the Pottery of the Kohler Co. in Kohler, Wisconsin.

Among artists, clay people, the opportunity is known as the coveted Arts/Industry Residency, administered by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. The artist workshop is on the casting floor, barely private, noisy and hot, which takes a bit getting used to.

Kohler is the leading manufacturer of sinks, toilets and all kinds of bath and sanitary products both in clay and in metal. The Kohler iron and steel foundry started in 1873 in Sheboygan, producing farm equipment.

The story goes that visionary Mr. Kohler enameled a feed trough, put 4 feet on it and started to market it as a bathtub. Riding the wave of interest in personal hygiene of the late Victorian era, the business proved most successful, moved a few miles out of Sheboygan, and grew into the current factory. By the 1910s, Kohler invented the first built-in bath with apron, and started designing new forms for sanitary ware in both cast iron and vitreous china, which (and this is very revolutionary) had continuous shapes where germs could not hide.
By 1917, the Olmsted brothers (see also Central Park, in NY) were hired to develop a long-term building plan for Kohler village. It must have been the most beautiful factory town of its age, and by now the only remaining one of its vintage. Its wide avenues edged with old trees, its curving streets and cute single family houses are very lovely, indeed.

And finally, what I'm doing here: This early into the residency I can only report about my intentions. What it ends up being by December is a complete mystery for me (as of yet) and I'm open to the adventure.
I'm in the casting shop, which means that I have plaster and clay slip in an abundance at my disposal. I had proposed to do a project that uses the old, broken production molds. In a way, my project salvages and redeems them by making molds of the broken plaster mold fragments and then making casts in multiples ("clones" of the original broken mold parts) in vitreous clay.
*Just a quick technical note: the clay casing slip used at Kohler is referred to as "vitreous china" because it is not a porcelain clay body, even if it looks like that fired and glazed. I will refer to it as "vitreous" in the future.
The broken plaster mold pieces have wonderful sculptural qualities, - I was hoping to use these ceramic "clones" in larger installations.

The first week slipped away fast as I was familiarizing myself with the many shops and departments at the Pottery. By Friday, I managed to find some retired molds which may or may not prove to be useful.

In the meantime, I was keeping busy by getting to know the clay and the glazes.
*Another technical note: Clay is amazing!!! Every claybody, - a wet mixture of clay minerals containing various percentages of ingredients, behaves differently. Kohler's vitreous was developed for a specific industrial process and scale and that's what it does best.
All week, I've been playing around with forms and construction methods, glaze colors and combinations. Most of the experiments are a complete failure but I learn a lot from them and every once in a while there is a result quite interesting. I really don't feel the pressure to go into production mode, as most artists would and do do when they get here. Being here is my opportunity to explore these materials and come up with new ideas that can only be done with these materials.
...Hmm, come to think of it: Can I have a swimming-pool filled with creamy white clay slip?