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.
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|