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 KieĊ›lowski'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.