Stories of My Life
by Frank A. Gosar
A TERMINAL PROJECT REPORT
Presented to the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Oregon
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts.
Approved by Richard C. Pickering, Faculty Advisor
Acknowledgments and Dedication
A project this extensive could not have come about without a lot of help. I'm very grateful to the members of my committee for ideas, advice, questions, and some great discussions. I'd also like to thank all my friends and colleagues in fine arts for their interest, advice, and concern, and especially for their help in lifting, loading, unloading, moving, installing, and in general willingly providing the prodigious amounts of physical labor needed at every stage of a project this size. Thank you all.
Lastly, this project would not have been completed without the influence on my life of two special people: my friend Marina Belovic', who's much better at believing in me than I am myself, and my grandmother, the late Mary Remsgar Gosar, who told me stories. This paper is dedicated to them.
I once told a group of junior high drama students, to whom I was giving a talk on storytelling, that storytelling is a license to lie, cheat, and steal.
A storyteller is concerned with the flow of narrative, not the accumulation of facts. Thus he may exaggerate, minimize, or, in cases where the facts elude him, make them up, rather than interrupt the story. In a word, lie. He'll rearrange events into a smoother, more logical, or more dramatic progression, i.e. cheat. And a storyteller steals other people's experiences, sometimes their own stories, and makes them his own.
A terminal project report is not a thesis; it is not a scholarly presentation of argument and fact. Rather, it is a narrative, a report about how the terminal project, and the artist's work in general, has come into being. It's a story.
I've always been a storyteller, since long before I knew what a storyteller was. I was the kid who preferred shaggy dog stories to knock-knock jokes. I collected them, elaborated on them, picked up accent and dialogue and subsidiary punch lines. With the proper audience, I could stretch out "The Pink Gorilla," or "How St. Patrick Drove the Norwegians from Ireland" for nearly 25 minutes.
In college, I got interested in folk music, and through that, was exposed to storytellers like Gamble Rogers, Marshall Dodge, Garrison Keillor. Even then, I didn't a feel a very close kinship. These were professionals, performers; I just told jokes well.
Then I met a real storyteller--He stayed with me during the local Folk Festival. I'd like to say that he changed my life, inspired me, taught me the secrets of the storyteller's art. in fact, I didn't even like him much--he was fairly obnoxious, demanding, and the closest we came to even discussing storytelling was an afternoon spent trading ethnic jokes. (Norwegian jokes are western Wisconsin's major folkloric product, and he was eager to take some back to New York with him.)
He did, however, mention me to two children's librarians with whom he gave a storytelling workshop at the festival, and when Marge Loch-Wouters and Carol Erickson started looking for local storytellers to appear on Earticklers, their public radio children's show, I was one of the people they approached.
So I began telling children's stories on the radio... Well, to be honest, I cheated, and read most of them. There was no live audience besides the engineer, who was eager to get them recorded in one take. Most of the stories I told were original, things I'd written especially for the show, so I hadn't learned them all that well. A few, though, were "family stories," stories I'd heard my grandmother tell when I was a child, and later began to tell myself.
Grandma came from Europe, you see, when she was a girl of eleven or so. She lived with a half-sister in Waukegan, Illinois, for several years, teaching herself to read and write English while working as a waitress. Eventually she married my grandfather, and shortly after my father was born, they bought some land in central Wisconsin and took up farming. My father was the only son of eight children, so when he married he and his wife stayed on the farm, taking an upstairs bedroom in his parents' house. Thus, although Grandpa died when my eldest sister was still a baby. Grandma was always there when we were growing up.
It's great having your grandmother live with you. She had time to make dessert when mom was too busy doing barn chores or fieldwork. She taught us Slovenian words for animals, food, our own names (I'm "Francisek," "cis" for short.). And she'd tell us stories. Not the magic tales of witches and kings and princesses one associates with eastern European folklore, nor the epic heroic tales of Marko Kraljevic' common to the Serbs. To this day I have no idea what indigenous Slovenian folktales are like, nor what effect such stories would have had on my imagination had I grown up hearing them. But I didn't. What my Grandma told us were anecdotes, true stories from her childhood in Slovenia, or the "old days" here in America. Stories like the time the dancing bear came to town, or the old woman's unusual butter pot, or the time little Joe Rakovec was playing with coals from the stove and burned the thatched roof off their cottage. I started retelling these stories to my friends in college, and eventually a few, including "The Dancing Bear" and "Palmer Vinger's Horse," were worked up as Earticklers stories.
I've always been one for multiple, wide-ranging interests (my bachelor's degree had a double major in art and mathematics). At the time I started taking storytelling seriously I was also working full-time as a graphic artist, spending 20-30 hours a week making pottery, and drawing a weekly editorial cartoon for a Catholic diocesan newspaper. The cartooning job ended first, after four years, with a change of editors; Earticklers eventually went into permanent repeats, victim of rising copyright fees; the graphic arts job began to seem less a creative effort and more a case of trying to second-guess unreasonable and annoying clients; and my involvement with clay kept growing. Increasingly, my job was getting in the way of my work. So I took the only path I saw: I quit my job and went to graduate school.
I wasn't really sure what to do when I arrived. I'd deliberately set out to break the ties with my past. Old behavior patterns, expectations of others, the accumulated history of my work, all that was 2000 miles behind me. I'd put myself in a totally new and totally fluid environment, where I was totally free to experiment--and I didn't know where to start.
So I fooled around. I did glaze tests. I played with melted glass, with salt-glazing, with wood-firing, raku. I made deliberately non-functional—even anti-functional--pots. And I watched very closely what other people around me were doing. A lot of the work was highly personal. This intrigued, but also frustrated me. How could the viewer ever really know what was going on in a piece, if the meaning was so convoluted, hidden?
Much of this personal work consisted of dream imagery, often with concomitant Freudian or Jungian subtext. I've never been overly introspective, nor analytical; I like to keep the workings of my subconscious private, even from myself. I wanted to do personally meaningful work, but I didn't want to go "subconscious skin-diving." Perhaps it's an extension of my natural squeamishness--I don't want to know how my insides work, either physically or mentally. So dreams were out. Besides, I seldom remember mine anyway. But memories...
Memory is a funny thing. It works in layers; the original impression, the mind's interpretation of that impression, later reinterpretations in light of new experience, all get embedded together, and accepted as fact. Psychologists and lawyers will tell you stories of eyewitnesses swearing to perfectly impossible things because of the difficulty in separating what they saw, what they believed they saw, what was suggested that they saw, what they think must have happened. (I suppose in this way, memory is a storyteller. Lie, cheat, and steal...)
I was intrigued by the idea of "excavating" memories, trying to remove the layers of interpretation, to get as dose to the original impression as I could. I felt like an archaeologist, although in truth I was probably closer to the zoologists in Munich who successfully recreated the extinct aurochs by selectively breeding back from its modem descendants.
My first "excavation" was the memory of an excursion my brother and I made when I was four and he three, slipping away unnoticed to visit a neighboring farm, throwing parents and family into a panic. It's become family folklore, this trip to Mrs. Kuclar's, retold and embroidered endlessly, but when I concentrated on it, it broke down into seven scenes, seven discrete memories, all that the four-year-old me really recalled of that visit.
I'd earlier complained of artwork so personal that it couldn't be understood without subtitles. Now, in my own first attempt, I decided to include subtitles as part of the piece. I had a rubber stamp alphabet from my "fooling around" phase; with it I pressed words into my clay slab "pages" while building figures and landscape out from them. The result was less like captions than mutual illustration: the words illustrated the images, images illuminated words. And I had a seven-page story, formed in day.
And a couple of discoveries. First, that other people were strongly drawn to this work: each new "installment" of the story was eagerly awaited by my classmates. More important was my reaction--not only was I pleased with the way the piece came out, but I actually put off finishing the last page for several days, because I didn't want the experience to end. Once I realized that, I did the only sensible thing. I made more.
I was startled to realize one day--I'm not by nature introspective, remember--how neatly the "story-tiles" tied together different aspects of my experience and interests: childhood, storytelling, page design, clay; even the simplification of figures while retaining texture and detail recalled methods I'd developed as an editorial cartoonist.
Only one thing bothered me... It may sound trite, but it still bothered me. I mean, it felt good making this stuff, people were responding to it, but was it art? That can be a very important question when you've gone from part-time pottery to a fine arts/ceramics program, and are still unsure of yourself, I was still talking about my work in craft terms, because I wasn't sure what ceramic art should be. In fact, by any standards I had ever absorbed about art, I wasn't making the stuff. None of the theory or criticism I'd read seemed to apply. Analyzing my work was difficult. I didn't seem to have the vocabulary. I tend to think in analogues, models, but I'd never seen any art anything like the stuff I'd been doing.
I was stuck.
Once, while I was working as a graphic artist, I attended a one-day workshop on brochure design and production presented by the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison. The workshop came well-recommended, was well attended, and the two guys presenting it had obviously been working together for a long time. As a result, they probably did a serious amount of damage to the graphic design potential of almost everyone in the room.
I was lucky. I'd been working in the field, in a high-pressure, high-volume publicity office for a bit over a year already; I already had some confidence in the quality of my work. I'd also studied graphic arts under an instructor who'd cut his teeth as art director for a department store chain. He'd taught us, in addition to the myriad technical details of preparing camera-ready art, a bit about the theory and aesthetics of commercial art design. I knew, therefore, that there were different styles of design, different schools of thought. I loved the names: Arts and Crafts, specializing in tightly interlocked combinations of words and type with traditional typefaces, dropped capitals, no wasted space; Circus, a flashy, overblown style that mixed type styles, photos, and graphics with mad abandon; Swiss style, with its scientific adherence to the underlying grid, its carefully placed white space, and its preference for modem type faces like Helvetica and Futura; and New Wave, just coming into favor, combining unsettling angles, colors, geometric forms, typefaces--sort of the Miami Vice of design, new and cocky.
Well, this workshop I was attending focused on a variation of Swiss style the presenters called the Grid System. They were rigorous, vigorous, spent most of the day going over the simple, scientific rules of design in this style. Only they didn't call a style of graphic design. They called it Graphic Design. No options. No alternatives. And no one in the room but me knew that they were passing off the Epistle to the Swiss as the entire Bible.
And so, having spent most of the day indoctrinating us to the wonders of the Grid System, they proceeded to the critique.
We'd each brought a couple samples of our own work to be critiqued. Naturally, being human beings, we'd brought our best stuff. We assumed that the presenters would look at our work, point out flaws, suggest improvements, show especially nice items to the entire group, share ideas, and in general hold a useful critique session. But three-quarters of the pieces were dismissed with the comment, "Well, it's not on the grid." Nothing more. No discussion of appropriate or inappropriate typefaces, readability, graphics or photography. Just an abrupt dismissal of the piece from consideration because it wasn't aligned according to the grid. A few of us were bold enough to demand further comments: "OK, besides it not being on the grid, what do you think?" And they'd humph a bit and say, well, the headings should all line up at the top, and t he white space should be concentrated on the bottom, and various other remarks which, translated into common English, meant, "It isn't on the grid."
As I said, I was lucky. I'd had enough outside experience, heard enough other opinions, and had enough confidence in my own decisions that this experience didn't transform me into a little Swiss clockwork figure, diligently grinding out my carefully gridded publications. Oh, I used the style--it's particularly suited for corporate annual reports, because it can be stuffy and conservative while appearing clean, modem, and rational--but not exclusively.
I tell this story as a fable, a cautionary tale. I was fortunate that time, but I recently discovered a close analogue to it in my art education; there, however, I was not so lucky.
I studied for my bachelor's degree at a small, private liberal arts college. It wasn't a large department--five faculty members sharing three full-time teaching positions. All were good artists and good teachers. They had one thing in common with the fellows at the brochure workshop, however: They weren't teaching what they represented themselves as teaching.
They said they were teaching Art, of course. Capital "A." More specifically, a classically-based art education, with a strong grounding in figurative work, drawing skills, and the like. What they taught, and how they taught it, however, was strongly influenced by a post-modernist aesthetic called formalism.
Formalism, in grossly simplified definition, states that the essence of art-making is in the calculated relationship of forms within a composition. In its mildest interpretation, it's a compositional theory, a means of arranging the subject matter for artistic presentation; at its most radical, it suggests that the subject itself is unimportant, except as a generator of forms. It's a very abstract, intellectual system, attractive in that it can be applied equally well to figurative art or abstract, bridging a gap that, in those days and that place, yawned wide.
In our classically-grounded education, of course, most of the work being done was realistic in nature. Oh, we talked about other ways of making art. Abstraction was fine, provided, of course, that you paid attention to formal concerns. Pattern painting was beginning to make its appearance in the Chicago galleries, but too much of it ignored formal values and was "merely decorative." My painting professor had heard of narrative art, but seemed to think it had died with the Paris salon, and that most modern attempts were anecdotal, a word even more damning than "decorative."
So it's hardly surprising that my story tiles left me in a quandary. By my definitions, I was either making bad art--"illustrative," "anecdotal,"--or not making art at all. Sorting out the situation was stymied by my critical vocabulary. The formal structure in these pieces was mostly intuitive--the figures pinched out and modeled by feel, the layout of words and images, after five years in publications design, almost automatic. Besides, it wasn't the formal values that appealed to people. It was the stories, the sense of memory relived, the shared experiences. Even when I did analyze my work formally, it seemed I wasn't getting anywhere of importance.
I dodged the art question for a while, by concentrating on storytelling. I took a folk narrative class, and learned not only about different narrative traditions, but about the storytelling that goes on within our contemporary culture, including family folklore, stories and anecdotes kept alive in the family by retelling, stories like my Grandma's, or even my own visit to Mrs. Kuclar's. I also learned a lot about how a traditional storyteller works, learning stories, not word for word, the way our text-oriented culture assumes, but event for event, scene for scene. A storyteller recreates, he doesn't recite. Events, plot turns remain constant, but characters, locale, descriptions are all drawn from the teller's own stock of experience. They also change from telling to telling. Scenes are added or edited out, descriptions become more elaborate or more abbreviated, based on audience response. Traditional storytelling is a collaboration between storyteller and audience (a fact which, along with the mutability of the stories themselves, raises hob with the folklorists' attempts to collect texts). I learned much of this with a sense of recognition; I seem to learn and tell stories in much the same way.
It's an interesting experience, finding oneself in relationship to others, to an organized system. Sort of like seeing a map for the first time as a kid and picking out your hometown. Comforting, in a way. As a culture we prize uniqueness, but it's scary, too. It's nice to know you have a place--however small--somewhere in the big picture.
A place in the art picture, as well. Another class I took was a seminar on feminist art and criticism. There, I discovered that a whole generation of artists had had experiences similar to mine, caught in a strait-jacket formalist education. Many went underground, putting hidden meanings, personal symbols, images and allegories in their work, but discussing only abstract formal relationships in their studio critiques. The few who brought up questions of "content" were shushed violently, or else labeled "anecdotal," "illustrative."
When the revolution came, at last, against this dogma of severe, restrictive formalism, it was led by feminists, women artists who by damn weren't going to go on pretending that this form or that was just a form, and didn't have--to the artist and, often, to the viewer--a social, political, or sexual meaning. They were making art about something: narrative, or ritual, or subject, or symbol. The feminist theorists weren't as dogmatic as the formalists; nor, fortunately, were they as prone to absolutes--welcoming diversity of views and ways of making art has been a hallmark of feminist art theory.
So once again I found myself on the map, I'm out amongst the feminists, busily making art.
My MFA proposal, it seemed to me, had all the classical elements of a fairy tale--a message in a dream, enchanted mice, magical worlds. Hardly surprising, of course. l am a Storyteller.
At the time of my proposal meeting, I'd been telling stories in this new, narrative sculptural form for about a year. The "story tiles" combined my interests in day, storytelling and memory, along with skills in typography and page design. Drawing together different parts of my life as they did, they'd been very valuable to me, and I felt that they should in some way contribute to my Terminal Creative Project.
But a good terminal project, it seemed to me, needed a structure, like a good story. A beginning, middle and end, if you will. The story tiles have the rambling, continuous quality of a folk epic. How could I delineate a particular chapter, label it "Terminal Project?"
The answer, believe it or not, came to me in a dream. I tried to dismiss it as ridiculous, but the images were strangely persistent. I'd always thought of these tiles as landscapes and vignettes, to be looked into, across, and through, as well as pages to be read. And I have mice in my studio, and often wonder, while cleaning their leavings off the tiles, what it would be like to have a mouse's-eye view of them, on a one-to-one scale. Installation pieces intrigue me; experiencing David Nechak's "ephemeral space," Transparent Silences, reinforced my longstanding interest in art you can walk into, art that creates its own world.
So it's not surprising that I dreamed that, for my terminal project, I'd decided to create a life-sized story tile. It was a vivid, detailed dream. I know which story I chose, how the figures were formed and fired, how I installed it in the gallery. I must confess I woke up before I learned how I'd constructed the cow...
The idea persisted, in part because of the intriguing qualities of the end product, in part because of the challenges it offered me, challenges I felt the need to meet before I left this graduate program with the degree and title, Master of Fine Art. The first challenge was technical: in my years in ceramics, both as potter and storyteller, I'd never worked in anything but an intimate scale. Large-scale ceramics are new to me, and dream notwithstanding, I had a lot of technical problems to solve. Oh, I had indications, possible directions to follow, textbook data. But I had a year's hard slog ahead.
The other challenge was personal. I needed to know that I had the stamina, commitment, and organizational skills to tackle a job that couldn't be completed in an afternoon, a day, a week. A job that was large in time, as well as other measures of scale. I believed I had the necessary capabilities, but I'd never tested this belief. I guess I had to prove something to myself.
I tried to leave myself an out, of course, an escape route. I decided that if the technical challenges of building a life-sized ceramic cow proved insurmountable, I'd scuttle her, do the piece without her. After all, the focus of the piece was the figure of my father, carrying the calf, wasn't it?
Except I couldn't keep my big mouth shut. Part of being a storyteller, I suppose, is that you're unable to turn down an audience. I told a lot of people about my project. And the thing that caught everyone's imagination, without fail, was the life-size ceramic cow. I got to the point where I'd built up the audience's expectations too high. I was committed.
At my committee meeting, we came up with a lot of hard questions; most of them, one way or another, related to the change in scale. The figures of the small pieces were pinched out all at once. How would this translate into the laborious, a-bit-at-a-time process of building at larger scale? Would the gestural qualities of the smaller pieces be lost? How did I plan to treat the surfaces on the larger pieces? I didn't want to include too much detail, but how much is too much? When you increase the scale twenty-fold, a tiny feature becomes a square foot of surface. What would I do with all that space?
On a less tangible level, what would happen to the engaging quality people seem to find in my work? How much of it derives from their being "little stories?" There is a big difference between art you can encompass and art that encompasses you. Speaking more generally, how do people react to art that size? It seemed to me it could present either a welcoming or forbidding aspect: forbidding, like George Segal's characters, who seem so self-involved as to exclude the viewer, or welcoming, like the bronze lions at the Chicago Art Institute, whose tails have a mellow gold patina from being pulled by generations of school children. I wanted my piece to be inclusive, to draw the viewers into it. Would it?
The committee also wondered if one story, no matter how large, was enough to constitute a project exhibit. I'd reserved Gallery 141 for my terminal project show, because I didn't expect to be able to fit "Sometimes A Cow" into the Art Museum exhibit. Did I plan on having any smaller pieces in the show? Well, actually, I did. We agreed it would provide a context for the larger piece, a point of reference. Also, I think these pieces are at their best together, in a group. They refer to each other, illuminate each other, like the words and images do within each piece. Having smaller pieces might also give the sense of a book, with one page enlarged for particular scrutiny. I liked that image.
As for the other questions, the only answer I had was, try it. Experiment. Wait and see.
At the end of one episode of the BBC radio series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in the closing credits following "Radiophonic sound and music by Paddy Kingsland," the announcer goes on to credit "Further technical jiggery-pokery" to someone. I forget his name, but have remembered the phrase for seven years now. I like it. Whereas "engineering" has connotations of cool, calm, controlled manipulation, "technical jiggery-pokery" has the flavor of someone thinking on his feet, improvising madly to keep ever-so-slightly ahead. I can sympathize. There is a lot of technical jiggery-pokery in this project.
Take the clay body, for instance. I'd never done any large scale clay work; even my thrown jars rarely exceeded fifteen inches in height. So I'd never used anything but a reasonably smooth, reasonably plastic, grog-free clay body. I knew this wouldn't be adequate for large-scale work--too much shrinkage, not enough green and dry strength. Not being able to afford pre-mixed sculpture clay, I'd have to mix my own, about three-quarters of a ton of it.
To make clay mixing a little easier on me, and as a public service to the shop, I decided to recycle scrap clay from the shop stoneware, mixing it as a thick slip. To this I'd add grog--crushed fired day--to improve shrinkage and strength. After comparing several recipes, I decided on a conservative twenty percent grog, ten percent medium and ten percent fine. I also added ten percent Red Art, a red earthenware day, as a means of adding more iron oxide, hopefully improving the fired color.
To determine the correct quantity of dry materials to add to each barrel of slip, it was necessary to know the dry weight of clay suspended in the slip. To do this, I used Brogniart's Formula for finding the weight of materials in a suspension. (Actually I didn't, quite: Brogniart used English weights and measures. It's easier to re-derive it in metric units, where the specific gravity of water is equal to one.) The formula is W= [C x (S - 1)]/(C - 1), where S is the spedfic gravity of the slip, C is the specific gravity of dry day, about 17.36 in this case, and W is the weight of dry day in one milliliter of slip. Once I had the weight of clay for a certain density of slip, it was fairly easy to mix slip of consistent thickness. I was usually within .01 or .02 grams per milliliter.
Once the dry materials were thoroughly blunged in, the slip was dried to working consistency in plaster bats; in winter, this often took a week or more. At one point I tried to speed up the clay mixing process by wedging moistened grog and Red Art directly into plastic shop day, but the resulting material had virtually no plasticity or wet strength.
That the pieces would have to be hollow-built from slabs seemed obvious from the start. Building solid and hollowing out later might have worked with the smaller pieces, but would rapidly prove impractical at the larger sizes. Coil building was a possibility, but slab building seemed clearly superior--fewer joins, more consistent thickness, greater height gain with each addition of day. In addition, the simplification of forms into curved planar surfaces provided by slab building was particularly attractive to me as I worked from small scale to large. The over-elaboration of all that surface was a danger of which I was constantly wary.
Another difficulty in changing scales was keeping proportions constant throughout each figure. In small story tiles this is easy. Characters are pinched out all at once; proportions are a matter of pinching off or squeezing out day. At life size, where I started from the bottom and worked on only one part at a time, I needed some kind of reference. Thus, before I began each character I drew a full-size working drawing of it, face-on for the humans, profile for animals. I marked horizontal lines at six-inch intervals for quick reference, and hung it on the wall behind my work table, the drawing bottom level with the tabletop.
|I begin by making a full-size working drawing. Arrows and a small top view indicate orientation of feet, torso and head.||The drawing is pinned up behind the worktable, and construction begins, 6" at a time. Shown is two days' work.|
|When the legs have been built up to the right height, a bridge of clay connects them, and I begin building the torso.||The figure is cut off level at the waist, and a flange joint is installed. Note the internal bracing.|
|The upper section is built in place atop the lower. Plastic sandwich wrap keeps them from sticking together.||The upper torso is removed once strong enough to support its own weight. The drawing is also moved down.|
|Stacks of wood blocks and brick support the completed torso and hold the arms and hands in position until leather hard.||"Big Brother," finished and standing in the studio. Color differences show that the feet are already nearly dry.|
I rolled out the slabs with a slab roller, about 1/2 inch thick for the small figures, 5/8 inch for my father and the cow. Fresh rolled, they were too moist to support their weight; they had to set up overnight, covered with newspaper and plastic (later with newspaper only, as winter brought increased humidity). Sections were cut from the stiffened slabs, scored and slipped (with slip reserved from the clay mixing process, to ensure consistent color), and attached to the growing piece. Joins were reinforced with clay on the inside, scraped smooth, then paddled, on the outside. The paddle, a rounded-off two-by-four, was wrapped in canvas to restore the texture imparted by the slab roller. The paddle soon became my primary--in fact my only-forming tool. A scaled-up fingertip, it helped maintain control of surface detail, while being a surprisingly sensitive forming tool. (The calf's hooves, head, and muzzle were entirely articulated by paddling.)
I could generally add only six to eight inches of clay height at a time; any more would be too much weight for the wet day to support, and I used no armature more elaborate than temporary rolled-newspaper props. At the end of a day's building, I covered the top edges with moist strips of paper towel, draped plastic over the whole piece, then rolled out slabs for the next day. In a day, the newly built section would stiffen enough to support another eight-inch addition, and in fact, the feet of a figure would be drying visibly by the time the head was completed.
Except for the dog, all the figures were built in sections, to fit in the kiln and to simplify loading. The humans were built with a simple flange joint, rather like a covered jar ("Human as vessel," someone quipped in my studio one day). At the appropriate height, the top edge of the figure would be cut off level. A flange was constructed of slabs around the inside edge, smoothed and angled slightly inward with a rib, to avoid troublesome undercuts. Plastic sandwich wrap was smoothed over the joint, and the next level of slabs built in place. When firm enough to rest on its lower edge, the upper section was removed and the pieces dried separately. (In at least one case, this caused problems. The top section of the big brother shrank more than the bottom, and a piece broke out when I tried to reassemble them when dry.)
The cow presented a wholly different joining problem, of course. The human form is more or less monolithic, so upper sections would be held in place by gravity. The cow would have to be divided horizontally as well as vertically, however, and while clay is very strong in compression, it is considerably less so in tension. How to suspend the stomach between fore and hind legs, I had no idea. Even worse was the notion of supporting that long, stretched-out neck. I had vague ideas of internal bracing, two-by-fours along the spine, for example, but that didn't seem viable. The difficulty in predicting shrinkages to precise enough tolerances to permit a wood or metal substructure seemed insurmountable, not to mention designing such a system to allow its being assembled from the outside, while remaining invisible once installed.
The answer came in two parts, bottom first. I've been fascinated by Medieval architecture since I taught an art history survey course several years ago, and one day it occurred to me to consider the bottom sections of the cow, not as a span supported between two piers, but rather as an arch. By dividing it in half at the center, rather than in three at the leg joints, the two sections would lean towards each other slightly, like the halves of an arch. The weight of the upper sections would tend to solidify the connection, as would a few bolts, which would only be stabilizing, not load-bearing, so should never need to be tightened enough to risk breaking the piece. The inclusion of 3/4-inch thick wooden "washers," each four inches square, would further distribute the pressure. Temporary, pipe-like props, placed just ahead of and behind the stomach joint, would support the sections while building, drying, and firing.
Once I began to think of it as a structure, the solution to the suspended neck came soon after. By placing a joint at the middle of the shoulder, rather than across the neck itself, as I'd originally planned, the head and neck could be bolted to the back section, and so be cantilevered out into space. If the weight of the back section was an insufficient anchor, the hindquarters could be bolted to the back; otherwise, they'd rest of their own weight. Once again, the bolts would be stabilizing only, not load-bearing. (While working on this problem, I was also reading D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, which studies living structures using the laws of chemistry, physics, and engineering. A few days after reaching my cantilever solution, I was surprised to find that the same situation occurs in real life. Thompson's treatment of the horse head and neck as a cantilevered span whose fulcrum is the forelegs is a marvelous study.)
|"A curious combination of nautical and pastoral," the canvas and rope sling supported and helped form the cow's underbelly.|
Building the cow began in much the same way as the humans, constructing the four legs separately, standing in their eventual finished positions. Joining the pairs of legs at brisket and udder was simple, much the same as building the crotch and waist on the humans. Connecting the front quarters to the back was a rather more difficult proposition. Since the stomach would have to be installed horizontally, I'd either have to work dead slow--add, say, two or three inches a day, then wait until it stiffened enough to support the next horizontal addition--or figure out some kind of support and add the entire underbelly at once.
I thought of a canvas sling, supported by sawhorses on either side. Dick Pickering suggested suspending the sling by ropes from the ceiling instead, and this is what I did, running 3/8-inch nylon cords from each corner, through eyebolts in the rafters, to cement block anchors. Tacking strips of one-by-two board to the edges of the sling on either side stiffened it longitudinally, creating the correct curve for a cow's underbelly. A large slab of clay was placed in the sling, raised into position and anchored, and left to stiffen overnight before I began bridging the space from stomach to leg sections. After several days I cut the central division in the stomach and slid in strips of stiff plastic to prevent the edges from rejoining.
I'd done a lot of interior bracing on the larger humans, particularly in my father's torso, tying together opposite walls with strips of day. Few of these clay stringers survived the drying process--shrinkage pulled one end or the other away from the wall, no matter how carefully I tried to match moisture levels. For the cow, therefore, I decided to minimize the number of full spanning supports--just two, built flush on either side of the central division, pierced for the stabilizing bolts. For the rest, I used ribs of clay, like those of a boat, or a violin, most running side-to-side, a few running lengthwise to serve as springing points for vertical ribbing as I built my way up the flank. I didn't expect the reinforcements to do much good in the green state--dry, unfired clay has appallingly little structural strength--but they helped hold wet slabs in the proper curve while building, and I hoped they might help prevent sagging and twisting during firing.
These ribs also were useful in completing the cow at the top. They became clay analogues of spine, ribs, hip and pin bones, over which I laid and paddled the clay slab "skin," allowing me to finish the closed forms of back and rump without needing to reach inside and support the moist slabs.
|Internal bracing became clay bones...||...Supporting the thick slab skin.|
While flanks and hindquarters were growing up, the neck was reaching out. By this time the stomach was leather-hard, supported by the two temporary props, so I could use the rope system to support a smaller sling under the outermost end of the neck. After each extension, the sling moved further out, so the neck was supported at its ends, resting on the shoulders at one end, lifted by ropes at the other.
That was the theory, anyway. Then one day I was building the head, and so moved the sling back under the throat to allow access to the muzzle. The phone rang, it was for me; I stopped to talk to someone in the hall; and by the time I returned, the whole head and shoulder assembly had crashed to the floor.
Well, not crashed, really. What seems to have happened is this: The sling must have been just about at--or a little behind--the center of gravity of the neck section. The section must have tilted forward, freeing the shoulders from their support, then fallen slowly, counter-weighted by the cement block at the other end of the ropes, to the floor. Without the sling, the damage would have been much worse.
At that, it was bad enough. The neck was twisted and cracked, the brisket smashed, the shoulders spread apart. It wouldn't fit back in place, nor stay put long enough to repair it. I tried cutting it into sections, to be replaced piece by piece. In this way I salvaged the shoulder girdle; the rest was warped and twisted beyond recovery. I was worried about plastic memory; clay has a tendency, in drying and firing, to conform itself to the last shock it has received (hence the value of paddling as a forming method). I feared no amount of paddling would make salvaged neck sections "forget" their contact with a concrete floor. So I rebuilt the entire neck and head from scratch, using two slings this time, one lifting straight up, the other up and towards the rear, and this time there were no untoward incidents.
Of course the characters--people and animals--weren't the only part of the story, although they did pose the biggest challenges. There were still the words, however, some 115 letters and three punctuation marks. I wanted to use the same typeface as in the small story tiles, to emphasize the scale change. Rubber stamps provide the letters in the small tiles, so I stamped the necessary letters onto paper, copied them onto a transparency, and used an overhead projector to transfer them, reversed, onto 1/4-inch masonite. The letters were cut out with a band saw and glued onto plywood backing the size of the finished tile.
Once the letterforms were made, it was a simple, albeit tedious task pressing (hammering, actually) each letter into prepared slabs of clay, and trimming around the edge of the plywood backing board with a fettling knife. The letters were dried between boards to minimize curling.
|Forming the letters.|
Firing is probably the most hazardous part of a project this size. Not because things might "blow up"--the pieces were hollow-built, thoroughly dry, and I intended to heat them up awfully slowly--but because dry day is more fragile than either wet or fired, and these heavy, awkward, fragile pieces would have to be moved from my studio to the kiln before I could fire them.
The smallest pieces, dog and boys, were easy to load; one person could carry them out to the kiln and set them in. Even a piece as large as the torso of my father, I could lift by myself into the kiln. The rest of him, not to mention the segments of the cow, would require more elaborate measures.
Dad's head and shoulders were a two-man job, partly because of weight, but mostly because his elbows barely cleared the kiln door. With one person on each side to lift and stabilize, it was fairly easy to set him onto a pedestal of bricks and shelf inside the kiln, high enough to give his elbows and the calf's legs clearance.
His legs were another problem entirely. I'd been transporting them to and from dry storage on a hand truck, so thought I might be able to load them with it as well. I wanted to use the forklift to raise the leg-laden truck up level with the kiln mouth, then place a ramp across, and roll the leg section right into the kiln. Unfortunately, the idea proved unworkable. Disastrously so.
To begin with, the concrete slab on which the kiln stands only extends a short distance in front of the mouth; beyond is gravel and mud. On this surface, it was impossible for the forklift to move forward smoothly. We therefore decided to load it in place, using it only as an elevator. Once again, problems ensued. Between the structural supports for the kiln door and those of the roof, very little room was left to maneuver the hand truck into place once the forklift was in position. I succeeded, nonetheless, and was jockeying the truck around to face forward on the small lifting pad when one of the wheels slipped off the edge. The shock broke the legs apart, wishbone style. Since each individual leg was light enough to lift, I loaded them, separately, by hand.
In retrospect, it might have still been possible to use the forklift for loading, had I placed the legs on a pallet in front of the kiln and drove the forks under it. But it would have been simpler still, and probably safer, to have had two people, lifting in unison, load the piece.
The top three sections of the cow were all loaded the same way. A piece of heavy corrugated cardboard was first placed on the kiln floor, in the front of the kiln. The sections were then lifted, by one person or two, onto the cardboard. The pieces could then be skidded on the board across the grog-covered shelves to the back of the kiln without grinding or chipping the green clay of the bottom edge.
The two leg sections were the worst, at least in anticipation. Larger than anything else, top-heavy, perched on an inadequate-seeming tripod of legs and prop--I had visions of them shattering irreparably somewhere about half-way between my studio and the kiln. I put off firing them until last, partly out of fear, but partly so I could learn as much as I could about loading large pieces before I tackled them.
I consulted everyone in sight--Doug Kaigler was particularly helpful, having had experience in loading large, though not so tall, pieces in the past. The plan I developed from this mass of advice seemed Rube Goldberg, even to me. A sheet of 1/8-inch masonite was cut to the approximate size of the kiln floor, minus an inch or so on each side. This was placed on a sheet of 1/2-inch plywood of the same dimensions on the heavy-duty cart used to move dry materials in the ceramics studio. Five volunteers were recruited. One would stabilize the cart, four would lift the section of the cow--two lifting at the legs, two the belly--while I retrieved the prop from under the piece and placed it in position on the cart. In this fashion, the leg section would be placed atop the masonite and plywood on the cart, then slowly--have you ever seen newsreel footage of NASA moving Saturn V rocket boosters from warehouse to pad? That slowly--wheeled through the studio, out the back door, and around to the kiln. Everyone would stay close to stabilize the piece, lift the the cart over rough spots--the back door ramp, especially. At the kiln, a platform of oil drum and bricks, topped with particle board, had been built, its top carefully levelled to the sill of the kiln door. Four people, lifting in unison, would transfer the leg section, still on the masonite and plywood sheets, onto the platform. The plywood would slide forward until it butted against the 1/2-inch kiln shelves, then the masonite, with cow atop, would slide into the kiln. The masonite would have to be left to burn out in firing, but since it was only 1/8" inch thick, the chances of a leg settling early and twisting the piece seemed minimal.
The actual loading was a triumph of theory over inexperience. Everything worked exactly as planned, nothing crashed or shattered. Four days later, with five new volunteers, we loaded the hind legs, equally successfully.
The pieces were fired to cone 2 in reduction. I'd hoped that heat deformation would be minimized by underfiring the cone 5 clay body, and the tests I'd done seemed to agree. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten scale effects--the weight deforming a 1/2-inch slab in a life-size ceramic cow is much greater than in a small test strip. I should have used a much thinner slab in my tests, possibly even weighted it in the middle, to simulate actual stresses. Deformation did become a problem in two instances, where broken edges no longer fit together after firing.
Because the kiln I used to fire these pieces is newly built, without an established firing history, I will include a sample firing record here. This was my fourth firing, and aside from the fact that I candled two days instead of one, it is fairly typical. The kiln is very responsive, but extremely sensitive to draft, I've found--either too much or too little will encourage it to stall.
Most of the pieces came out of the kiln covered with a white scum. By the way it concentrated on edges,1 judged it a soluble salt in the clay carried to the surface in drying. Comparing notes with others in the studio pointed to Red Art as the culprit. Fortunately, most of it came off with wire brush and water.
Virtually all of the breakage in this project was due to handling in the dry, unfired state. (The major exception was the pair of cracks, one on either foreleg, that allowed the cow's brisket to sag in firing, and were caused by the inadequately supported weight of the head and neck while building.)
In all cases, the broken pieces were fired and reassembled later. For small repairs I used four-minute epoxy. For larger joins, reassembling the father's legs, for example, I tacked fragments together with the quick-setting epoxy, then reinforced the seams with fiberglass doth dipped in a 24-hour epoxy that was available in pint cans. This epoxy, used to repair fiberglass boats, is tricky to use. Resin and hardener must be measured out exactly, or the mixture sets improperly, or not at all.
Gaps, missing pieces, and rough joins were patched with auto body filler. The stuff is grey and metallic in color, pasty in consistency, and is only workable for five or ten minutes. After it begins to set, it has a waxy consistency, and can be pared and trimmed away with a fettling knife. At about fifteen minutes it can be sanded, although particles will stick to the sanding doth. This is actually the safest time to sand, because dry sanding liberates a lot of free silica, and should only be done while wearing a filter mask.
|Cutting off a broken flap with the masonry saw, preparatory to rejoining the broken edges.|
A few pieces had shrunk in firing, so that joints no longer fit. In these cases, I ground down the flanges, and ground out the insides of the top sections, using a cement/masonry grinding wheel on a hand-held auto body sander/grinder. I also used it to grind smooth some of the rougher repairs. Grinding fired clay liberates silica dust, so in addition to the normal protective clothing and goggles, a dust mask should be worn.
As I mentioned earlier, a couple of pieces had deformed in firing so that the broken edges no longer met. In one instance, the broken flap was cut off with the masonry saw, the broken ends rejoined, and the sawed gap filled with body filler. In the other case, the sander /grinder was used to score a line across the cow's sagging brisket, after which a hammer and chisel was tapped along the groove to break it loose. The brisket was then glued back level and the gap filled with fiberglass and body filler.
Once broken pieces were mended and filled, the repairs were hidden with a thin scrubbing of oil paint, earth tones mixed to match the mottled clay surface.
I should note that all these repairs require a well-ventilated studio. Epoxies, oil paint, and especially body filler contain hazardous solvents. Sanding and grinding also liberate free silica, so in addition to good ventilation, protective masks are a must.
The entire last section dealt with the "technical" aspect of building "Sometimes a Cow." By interpolating, one can also get a good idea of how the smaller pieces are made. But what about the "technical" aspect of writing them? Where do the words come from?
What generally comes first is a memory. Talking with someone will jog something loose, and I'll jot down a note on a scrap of paper, something like "Silo singing," or "Carrying home the calf." Later, I'll sit down and write out the entire story, edit it, count words, estimate how many lines it will fill. I'll have a fair idea by then of what the figurative component will be, how it will be arranged on the tile, but nothing is settled until the piece is being made (often long after the initial writing—I store up ideas and plots like a squirrel does nuts). I frequently rewrite or change wording as I'm stamping out the tile.
The narrator's voice is an evolution of my original idea of excavating nearly pure memories. I was very conscious of using words, grammar, and logic (or illogic) proper to the age of the me who was remembering the story. With time, these choices have fused with my normal style of writing and speaking to become second nature, my natural voice, much as, say. Garrison Keillor, after telling Lake Woebegon stories for thirteen years, now finds it hard to write in any style but "Minnesotan."
|The finished piece installed in Gallery 141.|
Once my exhibit was installed in the gallery, I spent a lot of time there, watching the people, watching the art. And thinking about the questions we raised when I started this project.
Scale problems seem much less important in retrospect--most solved themselves. Problems of gesture and surface were answered in part by scaling up the forming tools--a paddle for a fingertip. The overall canvas texture and mottled brown and tan coloring also seemed about right for the surface, active without being specifically descriptive. Like finger-marks on the small stories, they're an honest surface, artifacts of the forming process. Building eight inches at a time turned out to be less difficult than I expected, as well. The pieces seemed to develop their own logical proportions as I built them; occasional reference to the working drawings generally showed things pretty much on track.
The humans and animals seemed to assume their new size quite naturally. Figures create their own scale, it seems to me. Only close up, when I realize that the father is actually taller than I am, do I realize what a leap in dimension they've made. The letters, on the other hand, are immediately startling. We're used to letters being small; at this scale, each one demands individual attention as a form.
But in general, scale seemed a chimera, an imaginary threat. The fact that a form, or part of one, took two quick pinches in miniature but required half a day of planning, building, and paddling at life size is irrelevant. It's the attention to the form that's important. The rest is just follow through.
Not that the large piece became merely a scaled-up version of the small model. I think I agree with Laura Alpert's estimation of how much a maquette corresponds to the finished piece, i.e., not at all. But it works on its own terms, not a reproduction of the original story tile, but a translation, perhaps, in both the mathematical and linguistic senses.
And I think it does work. A gallery-goer told me, "It's as if the small piece had come to life." Another admitted feeling precisely like a mouse on a story tile. Clearly, on the scale of engagement I described in my proposal, I'd come much closer to the bronze lions than the plaster diner. Except that people didn't walk into it. They hugged the fringes, walked around the back to get a close look at the cow, but they stayed outside. Possibly for fear or kicking or stepping on the letters, possibly from our cultural imperative to Don't Touch The Art Work, only one person in ten accepted the invitation to "read between the lines/" and walk into the story's space. (The placement, filling exactly half of Gallery 141, west of the central pillars, may have also contributed to the psychological cordon around the piece. I would like to see it installed permanently somewhere, with the letters flush to the ground, to see if people would be more willing to enter. I'd also like to see some unsupervised kids in it, see their response.)
Other reactions included Linda Danielson's comparison of the large and small "Sometimes A Cow" to versions of a traditional story, the smaller one a written text, the larger a performance of same. This seems to me to reflect the difference I see in ways of apprehending the work at different scales. The small pieces can be encompassed in your view; you can contain them with a glance, although prolonged examination brings to light details of form and texture, figure and landscape. The larger piece, like a good storyteller, encompasses you. While you can still get a sense of the overall pattern with your first look, the whole story unfolds itself as you walk through it, puzzling out the text, seeing me characters from different angles. The pieces do the same thing--hold the audience's attention--but in different ways. The smaller pieces reward the careful viewer with unexpected details: the shoe under the bed, the apple hanging on the lip of the basket, the silo singer, completely hidden until you're close enough to look inside. The larger piece forced your attention; you have to walk around it, if not through it, to apprehend the story. It used the stick, not the carrot. But it still held rewards; viewers who explored to the far back comer of the gallery were treated to an almost comically accurate view of a cow's backside.
And boy, the memories that doesn't bring back...
I had to call a friend in Lubbock, Texas, one night, to find out where she'd managed to find pint cans of epoxy. To avoid getting such phone calls myself, I thought I'd include this appendix on materials availability.