Does an artistic education ever end?

I started my college education majoring in architecture. This made perfect sense, really. I’d been spending hours upon hours, of my own accord, after school and during the summers drafting floor plans for houses since the sixth or seventh grade. While my friends went to parties or played ball (granted, I loved to play football or tennis or ride bikes with them too), I was often in my room, at my desk, putting to paper some sort of ingenious home design.

After two years pursuing architecture formally, I ended up changing majors for tangential reasons — reasons not related to my love for architecture, which had only grown. I switched to fine art, largely because it seemed like a logical step at that point in time (as much as college students are able to deduce such a thing).

I started studying graphic design, since it was the practical course within the fine arts degree and since my father, like many others before him, asked regularly how I was going to make a living in life. However, the graphic design professors at my university were positively awful teachers. One fell asleep in the middle of class on multiple occasions while beaming Wolfenstein onto the screen in front of the class, another had a fetish for magenta (among other things, reportedly) and a third took an independent study approach to teaching and our class only met about four times during the course of a semester. Needless to say I didn’t feel as though I was going to learn all that much more from them in the upper level classes.
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I often refer to myself as a wannabe storm chaser, but a more accurate description would probably be that I’m an aspiring storm-gazer.

When a person here’s the term “storm chaser” they automatically think of someone, in this era of cable TV, who is trying to get as close to a tornado as they can without dying. I don’t need to see a tornado to feel as though I’ve had a successful outing storm-gazing, although tornadic storms are often the most picturesque. In fact, in most cased I’d rather be miles away from the storm, looking back at the supercell in full. I want structure such as the updraft, anvil and mammatus to be clearly visible so I can sketch or photograph them and put them into clay.

I’d like to be able to chase storm-gazing opportunities, and have made very mild attempts at doing so a couple of times the past couple of years. Storm-gazing from home, from Grand Island, has been very poor so far this season. We’ve had a few storms roll by, but it’s either been at night or while it was overcast to begin with.

Yesterday evening a nice little supercell formed just south of Grand Island, and in my unfortunate hurries I somehow missed its birth until it was more or less just a gray anvil overhead. The rear flank was visible to the west, but it wasn’t photogenic with the bright, late afternoon sun still bearing down on it, aiding in the storm’s development.

A couple of hours later some of the structure was quite nice, though, as the cell slowly floated north over Grand Island. An acquaintance from high school posted this stellar capture to Facebook, and I stitched together the following panorama taken from my driveway with DoubleTake.

Another affirmation of the Great Plains

Cody Jean Carson Brown's Migration

One of the things that makes central Nebraska really unique is the Spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes. All sorts of events go on during the month of March in response to the roughly 500,000 cranes descending on the Platte River Valley. Earlier this week my wife and I enjoyed the opening reception of Stuhr Museum’s annual Wings Over the Platte exhibit.

It’s quite a good show, worth seeing if you’re in the area. I was glad to see acquaintance Doug Johnson getting Best of Show. His recent work is going in a creative and wonderfully unexpected direction, which is sometimes lacking in Midwestern art shows. Another fascinating piece was the mixed media (but mostly ceramic) wall sculpture by Cody Jean Carson Brown pictured to the right.

However, the most interesting thing at the exhibit was not visual. It was the bio/artist statement from featured artist Jason Jilg.

Born and raised in Broken Bow, [Nebraska], Jason could not leave the Great Plains fast enough. The world pulled with all its exotic lands and cultures, so Jason joined the Navy and traveled the world to see these locations . . .

. . . If I were given the choice of traveling Europe or some location in the American Plains, I’d probably pick the Plains . . . This part of America that is “in between.” In between the American West, American South and the very different American Midwest in terms of not only geography, but also time, place and memory.

This is interesting to me, if you haven’t figured it out yet, as yet another validation of the plains, the prairie: Lampooned by so much of America, loved by so many that have taken the time to observe it.

Jason’s photography is some of the better photography I’ve seen in recent memory. The exhibit wasn’t perfect; it lacked a focal point as a whole and some of the prints were pushed a little too far — a la Ansel Adams. But it’s obvious Jilg possesses the necessary skills to excel at the craft. He’s careful about choosing and composing his subject matter and uses the frame very well. His sense of scale shooting on the prairie as a subject is also very acute. I’m looking forward to seeing more of his images in the near future.

Christmas VII

The first measurable snowfall of this winter graced the central Nebraska prairie early this morning. Not enough to warrant sledding, but plenty to provide the mystical quiet that comes with the white crystal earth-insulation.

Composition: Snow on kiln brick

The same storm system produced a tornado in a very small town about 12 miles south of Siloam Springs, Arkansas where we lived until last July. Reports now say five people died. The community doesn’t have any civil defense sirens.

Christmas IV

A handmade Christmas

Our tree, exponentially smaller than last year’s beautiful giantess, boasted handmade ornaments solely this year. Some we made, some our grandparents made, some from our childhood, some we purchased . . .

Some are clay, some are fiber, some are wood. Some are knitted, some are china painted and some are tied together. Two are nativity scenes, many are icicles and a few angels. One is an unglazed porcelain cloud, just for fun.

A couple are carved, a bear is felted and a proclamation is cross-stitched. The star on top is of questionable origin, but being out of cardboard we’ll call it OK.

In the Studio: The first head

I actually started and bisque fired this piece before moving back to Nebraska, so it’s been waiting for some kind of finish for about two years. It made it through my first pit firing, and a few weeks ago I finished it with a little gilding. I’m very happy with the result.

I’ve continued with the heads now that storm season is over. (A number of my cloud forms didn’t make it through the recent bisque or pit firings. Some were a porcelain I was trying out that just didn’t work with this kind of dynamic form.) They will be my winter project, in essence. I’m happy with the four or five more I’ve carved out so far and have tentatively begun sketching the human form again in order to hone my craft and inform the series — which for the moment is being referred to as “Us.”

There are some gorgeous results here from the pit firing, very subtle variations. The lack of detail in the face is intentional, a result of using a groggy clay at a small scale (about 7″ tall). This also makes the work a little less personal and more representative of the series’ generalized title.

Sculpture for the Christmas tree

I’ve been getting quite a bit done lately in the artistic department (if you hadn’t noticed by my recent posts), including some work on ornaments.

The wife and I started out with the ornament idea with a specific goal — combining her fiber craft with my clay craft — but it’s ballooned beyond that. The most recent Christmas tree ornaments from my ceramic corner of the house are represented by the following three images.

As I find myself doing more and more often, these were inspired by a texture created with a found object. The object was found in my backyard while playing with the puppy, and couldn’t be more plain. It’s part of a stick, or twig, a very tiny part fallen off of a rotten hackberry branch. Not even as big around as my pinky.

I rolled a slab, used the weathered stick-part to pattern the slab and then cut around the pattern as I saw fit. The resulting texture reminded me of wings so I’ve tentatively titled these “Abstract Angels.”

The red is what I had left of a Duncan underglaze purchased roughly 10 years ago. This is the sad part of this post: I’m now out of this color and I’m not sure Duncan is making it anymore. What I like about this underglaze is that it fires over greenware like a glaze. It comes out glossy and mottled (with a few bubbles from time to time). If Duncan’s quit making the color or changed the recipe, I’m going to have to see if I can formulate it myself. All I know is that it contains cadmium.

I’m very smitten with these 14 abstract angels. I don’t know how many I’ll be able to part with, but a few of them will be for sale in downtown Grand Island at The Milestone Gallery.

Amy Smith plates at Lincoln Berean Church

I saw these plates yesterday in Lincoln, Nebraska at the Berean Church. There wasn’t a tag for any of them, but I’m confident in saying that they were carefully crafted by one of my favorite ceramic artists (maybe my favorite potter), Amy Smith. I’m sharing the photos even though my cameraphone blew them out multiple times.

There is a glaze on the white plates, a fabulously delicate one with matte and crystaline qualities — from what I could tell where I stood anyway. The plates stood on a shelf over my head, out of the reach of church children racing through the hallway.

In the Studio: Metal leaf over clay

Finally getting around to working with metal leaf. Here I’ve used it on a wall hanging inspired by the pillowy mammatus that float over the prairie. I love the way it broke over the textured clay. There’s a glaze (I think it was an opalescent recipe that didn’t turn out as opalescenty as I hoped) surrounding the piercing.

I’m not exactly sure where my interest in gilding — as well as gemstones — began (this is actually “imitation” gold leaf), though it may stem in part from an interest in the idea of an icon, a sacred object. I haven’t thought about this at length yet; I should in the near future.

This piece is for sale with a few others at The Milestone Gallery in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Pit firing two


The last pit firing didn’t go as well as the first. Almost everything cracked. I may have to put off any more until the weather warms up again. In all likelihood the failures were on account of heat stress — some of which is to be expected in this kind of firing.

And I may just revert to electric smoking for the next five months, although the kiln is out in the garage which isn’t heated and has zero insulation as well. Only thing between the elements and the space is the siding.

I did use an old kiln shelf in this episode, in order to fit in some longer, flatter objects. I don’t think that had much to do with the cracking though.