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)