I love seeing the journey of a piece of art. From idea, to draft, to final work, pieces of art evolve. It feels so good when a work reaches a “resting” place–that spot where a work has grown into something decent, but it is not yet perfect. In this state a work invites both artist and viewer into conversations around material, technique, and themes. I love that place.
Yesterday I reached that place with my print. It has changed a lot since my initial idea. Originally I wanted a 3′ x 2′ embossing of a Tall Grass Prairie ecosystem, overlayed with a print of a grass lawn.
I carved the embossing plate and printed a few. I also made a linocut print for my lawn and experimented with colour and pressure. But I wasn’t quite happy.
On Tuesday I approached my professor for her thoughts on maybe adding a third layer. Just her look in response to my question told me I needed to parse it all down to the essential elements.
I am glad I did. I cut the embossing down to a 3rd it’s original size. I also completely redesigned the grass from something natural, chaotic, and random, to something rational, measured, and austere.
This is exactly the change that needed to happen. I am ready to present this work at critique and see how other people respond.
The final project for sculpture requires that we suspend something created with wire and tissue paper from the ceiling which will “hover” over a plastic form containing multiple objects, found or created. Content is our interpretation of the title, “Hover.”
So for the past three weeks I have pondered what I might make… And finally, I have created my proposal:
This sculpture explores the space between lived experience and official documents. The passport hovers over the oath taken by new citizens of Canada. Each page is made out of tissue paper and is covered with stamps recreated with pointillism—alluding to the series of events leading up to significant moves and migrations. Below the oath lies a collection of official documentation. The documents below and above the citizenship oath are the material remnants of a life lived. Each document speaks to immense human emotion, each piece with its own long story. The glass oath is both tangible and fragile—suggesting the journey to citizenship is a goal that, while achievable, can still be shattered. The gaps between the passport, oath, and documents is the space where the human story can be found in the viewer’s imagination.
I think some of the best advice I received last year was that the best art comes from a place of knowing. I may not know what it is like to be have lived in one country all my life, but I sure as hell know what it’s like to live in limbo, hovering between one country and the next.
I am three weeks into my semester and I have already been pushed to my limits. On multiple occasions this past week I have felt like screaming, I have cried over my work, and I questioned whether I even have what it takes to be a professional artist.
Is this normal in the first few weeks in the second year of art school??
Well, it’s my normal anyway. Second year has upped the workload and the expectation of students. Whereas last year I was the driving force pushing myself to achieve more than the requirements, this year I feel like I’m struggling to keep my head above water.
Most of my energy has gone into my Beginning Wheel Throwing class with Grace Han (See her work here). Our first assignment, due yesterday, was to throw 40 even walled cylinders between 12-15cm in height and with their foot carved.
When I read the syllabus I was at first shocked and daunted. With only one [very brief and unsuccessful] experience with the wheel this summer I wasn’t quite sure I would be able to close the gap of knowledge to complete the assignment. But, obviously, I was going to try.
“Practice, practice, practice!” Grace said multiple times. To make 40 cylinders we would have to make more than 40. “Make bold mistakes!” she told us. In the second week she encouraged us to not be afraid of making a mess on our wheel and reminded us that the only way to get better was to spend lots of time in the studio.
So, these past three weeks I have clocked many hours on the wheel. I have worked through 150 lbs of clay. My arms, back, and shoulders have all been sore (and presumably strengthened.) I have learned how to wedge, center and reuse clay. I have learned how to throw a 16 cm even-walled cylinder. And, probably most importantly, I have learned how to troubleshoot problems on the wheel and now know what it is like to push through creative exhaustion.
I worked through the hours of agony feeling like I was attempting the impossible. I worked through the tears when, after making 36 cylinders, I was seemingly unable to center clay. And with the words “your work is indeed dismal” echoing through my brain, I just kept going regardless of how ugly I felt my work to be.
10 minutes before critique I dropped a shelf of 14 cylinders. In three seconds I went from rage to tears to acceptance. We cut one cylinder open to see if it had an even wall. Not quite. Good enough?
Is anything good enough when you are an artist? What is the line of striving for excellence, failing and being “ok” with an imperfect piece? Is that what it means to “study” art at university? You try, you learn, you grow, and given what you know about the word of your subject, you understand there is so much more to grow into.. Is that what it means to be an artist?
I don’t know what other people’s experience of art school is. But week three of year two is a wild range of emotions accompanying work that is, “meh” with a sore body and bruised ego. For now, I will bandage my wounds and keep trekking. I am committed to this artistic journey.
The pottery of Maria Martinez (1887-1980) marks the beginning of a renewed scholarly interest in indigenous southwestern pottery cultures (Peterson 95). Her groundbreaking rediscovery of an ancient technique to render red earthenware ceramic pieces into highly polished “black-on-black” ceramics gained her national and international attention in the 20th century (Peterson 70). During her life, Martinez earned dozens of awards and two honorary doctorates, and was recognized as one of “the best potters anywhere in the world” (Spivey, xv). Yet for all her commercial, artistic, and cultural success, Martinez maintained a “simple life” one rooted in her traditional identity as a Tewa-speaking woman of San Ildefonso, New Mexico.
Space does not permit a full investigation into her multifaceted life and work as a ceramicist. Instead, after a brief synopsis of the colonization imposed on Pueblo cultures, I analyze and contextualize two aspects of Martinez’s work. Viewed against a colonial backdrop, This paper argues that her decision to make pottery collaboratively and informally, and her integrative identity as an artist, subverted the assimilation and appropriation of Pueblo culture.
To understand Martinez’s profound commitment to a traditional lifestyle and her decision to live as a Pueblo woman it is necessary to examine the social context into which she was born. The colonization of Tewa-speaking peoples took place under the occupation of both the Spanish and American settlers. San Ildefonso—or Powhogue, in Tewa—was a flourishing community before Spanish occupation. Rich in cultural traditions, religious ceremonies, and agricultural production, the peoples who inhabited the eastern bank of the Rio Grande thrived in the area since 1300 (Spivey, 1). However, between 1598 and 1846, Spanish colonial occupation imposed religious and cultural oppression through warfare, disease, and dislocation (Spivey, 2).
Further oppression occurred at the hands of Americans as colonizers pushed westward, with their ideologies and assimilation policies in tow. The impact of colonization included the loss of the Tewa language and traditional lifestyles, as well as a growing dependence on employment outside the local community (Raat 37; Peterson 82). Population collapse and the implementation of the United States government’s reserve system meant that traditional pueblo culture was severely threatened (Raat 36; Peterson 85).
In addition, there were more insidious forms of colonization through appropriation, which further threatened indigenous communities. Government assimilation policies, aimed at “civilizing” indigenous communities, moved westward with American settlers. These attitudes were often enforced in the classroom. For instance, colonial educators encouraged indigenous students to pursue their traditional arts, believing the activities could be used as a civilizing force to “[supply] Indians with a viable means of ‘bettering’ themselves” (Jacobs, 194).
In contrast to this was an equally problematic concern by ethnologists to preserve and revive “authentic” indigenous cultures and traditions. These concerns were often oversimplified and based on stereotypical understandings of indigenous ways of life (Jacobs 192). Through the 19th century these views manifested in the form of “human zoos” within larger World Fair exhibitions. Fair organizers hired Pueblo peoples as entertainers to perform their traditions and on artificially constructed sets modeled after a traditional Pueblo village. These roles confirmed and conformed to stereotypes of Indigenous peoples (Bokovoy 138).
One scholar suggests that the act of participating in such a fair requires a more nuanced reading: “As Indians assumed the roles of the primitive and the vanquished in the triumphant script of American progress, one must ask how Indians ‘creatively’ exploit[ed] the roles they were cast into to realize their intentions and express their reactions” (Bokovoy, 116). In any case, the Pueblo people were caught a difficult bind: on one hand, they had to fight to maintain their indigenous identity against assimilation, while on the other hand they had to fight nostalgic stereotypes and cultural appropriation.
It is into this context that Martinez’s pottery took shape. For present purposes, two aspects of her work stand out. First, Martinez did not teach pottery in a formal environment. Instead, she taught her whole village to make pottery (Spivey 35). Essentially, Martinez taught the art of pottery the same way she had learned it: by direct observation. In this way, Martinez not only facilitated a grassroots economic revival in San Ildefonso, but also placed the small reserve community onto the national and international art scenes.
Martinez’s creative process was also collaborative by nature. While she built the pots, others painted them (Spivey 20). Notably, her decision to make the pottery collaboratively with family in an informal environment conformed to the traditional gender roles of the Pueblo people, and stood in stark contrast to traditional European artistic methods. While other American and European artists might seek out formal art education and sign their own work as an individual artist, Martinez shared her skills and knowledge with everyone and signed the pots together with the painters. These simple acts effectively subverted Western notions of individual artistry, and replaced them with an indigenous understanding of communal creation.
A second important dimension of Martinez’s artistic production was the non-central role it occupied in her daily life. While Western artists often devote considerable amounts of time and energy to learning, refining, and expanding their artistic skillset, Martinez spent a relatively small amount of time making pottery (Peterson 80). Instead, she lived out her traditional values as a Tewa-speaking woman by participating in many cultural activities. Central to Martinez’s life, and to the community of San Ildefonso, were sacred ceremonies and dances. Martinez practiced these dances often, and was the drummer for many of them as well (Paterson 80; Spivey 3). Commitment to her community’s spiritual, economic, and social health took precedence over her artistic achievements.
Martinez’s commitment to art as a means of bringing health to her community is illustrated by a conversation recorded between her and her partner Julian in Alice Marriott’s narrative work on Martinez’s life. Martinez tells Julian that they will need to make some “new old bowls” for the white people who want to purchase them (Marriott 167). This simple exchange displays her subversive approach to pottery production. While capable of performing her identity as indigenous artist for white commercial expectations, she displays an ability to, as Marriott notes, “creatively exploit the roles they were cast into to realize their intentions a means to their own ends” rather than a commitment to art for art’s sake (Bokovoy, 116).
In short, Martinez was able to use the commercial interests of white tourists to achieve her own ends. This allowed her to make a home in San Ildefonso, and pursue interests that were of importance to herself and her community.
The pottery of Maria Martinez is a remarkable accomplishment on many levels. Her pottery widened the boundaries of ceramic art and she developed new methods for firing. Her teaching methods were participatory and open to all, and her art was fundamentally collaborative. Today, her pottery is recognized as some of the best in the world, and even during her lifetime she was honoured with many awards. When her work is situated within the legacy of Pueblo colonization, her genius is found not only within the pottery itself, but also in her ability to quietly subvert inherent cultural dynamics of power and appropriation at play during her lifetime.
Bokovoy, Matthew. “Chapter 4: A Heritage in History Forever. The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940, edited by _____, University of New Mexico, 2005, pp. 114-140.
Jacobs, Margaret D. “Shaping a New Way: White Women and the Movement to Promote Pueblo Indian Arts and Crafts, 1900-1935.” Journal of the Southwest, vol. 40, no. 1, 1998, pp. 187-215.
Marriott, Alice. Martinez: The Potter of San Ildefonso. University of Oklahoma, 1948.
Peterson, Susan. The Living Tradition of Mária Martínez. 1st paperback ed., Kodansha International, 1989.
Spivey, Richard L., Martínez, María Montoya, and Lotz, Herb. The Legacy of Martinez Poveka Martinez. Museum of New Mexico, 2003.
Raat, W. Dirk, and Michael M. Brescia. Mexico and the United States. University of Georgia, 2010.
Ceramics is kicking my ass! Yesterday, after critique I decided to rebuild my project–for the third time.
My second piece was too fragil and there were too many design flaws for me to be satisfied. I received comments like, “You are asking a lot of the clay,” “what you are doing is very risky,” “I’m concerned about this area…” etc, etc, etc.
So, I took a deep breath, fought back the urge to cry tears of frustration, and opened my second bag of clay to start over. I forgot to eat supper. I forgot about knitting night. I plunged into the project with much more respect for clay, knowledge of what NOT to do this time, and a clearer sense of what I need to do to make the piece stable without compramizing its sensibility.
On the bright side, when I decided to start over my professor said I had the “stubbornness of a ceramicist.” I took it as a compliment.
By the end of this class I’m going to have a damn good idea of everything I should not do with clay!
When you ask your professor for their opinion on your piece and they lead with, “ok… I’m going to be really blunt with you…” you know you will experience a [possibly painful] learning moment in a matter of seconds.
This happened to me yesterday after spending 5 hours in the ceramics studio completely restarting my first project.
What I learned:
Water weakens clay (yes, she mentioned this in the first lecture, but was I listening?? On the bright side, she told me to leave it alone and go drink a coffee😊)
My piece is delicate… it might fall apart.
It will not be functional as anything other than a sculpture.
I may have interpreted “vessel” too loosely even for an artist.
So, I have grown as a ceramic artist. Critique is next Tuesday.