Extreme Tea

Teapot Forest by Sewa Singh and Sewa Kaur

Teapot Forest by Sewa Singh and Sewa Kaur

In about 3 days a playful and exciting ceramic teapot exhibit opens in the Gallery Space.

Why teapots? For one thing, the exhibit is running in conjunction with the 46th annual NCECA — the Conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts — which for the first time is being held this year in the Puget Sound area. The theme for this year’s NCECA is “On the Edge”. Tea as a beverage, crop, commodity and currency is richly woven into culture, binding us to Asian, European, and Middle Eastern societies. And teapots are some of the most difficult forms to create successfully in ceramics, as well as some of the most beautiful, balanced and emotive.

Why create in clay? How sexy are dirt particles held together with water molecules? We have become so enthralled with the artistry of glass blowing that we forget how seductive is the process of clay. If glass blowers are the Aries or Leos in astrology, ceramic artists must be the Virgo — as they knead the earth’s dirt surface and then fuse the particles in an inferno reminiscent of the planet’s core. In a gas kiln (firing at about 2380 degrees farenheit), pieces are transformed chemically, as well as in size, shape, and color. Rolling open the kiln several days after it is loaded is a process leaden with anticipation — of both expected and unexpected consequences.

Teapot and cup by Akio Takamori

Teapot and cup by Akio Takamori

Working with clay is the wealthy aunt to making sand castles. Wet clay gives the best pliability and adhesion, but unlike sand it has limited structural integrity. But like sand, as a clay piece dries, it becomes increasingly fragile; an accident waiting to happen — like the dry sandcastles that become fodder to exuberant kids and dogs running along the beach.

Building in clay is not as simple as forming a lump of material into the shape desired. Like I said, clay dries, and in doing so the size of the material is reduced. This can cause problems when attaching pieces together — for example, when attaching a spout or handle to the body of a teapot. The two pieces want to separate as moisture leaves the two facing surfaces. Potters plan their approach to building a piece as the amount of moisture in the clay at any given point will decide what kind of procedure can be done next.

Scale is a limiting factor. A thrower working with very wet clay cannot throw a very tall piece. Pull the walls beyond a certain height and they just fall back to a point that can be supported by the clay beneath. On the other hand, dry clay is fragile and neither transports well nor accepts attachments (with the exception of porcelains which can sometimes be healed with a dollop of vinegar on a brush.) An artist will determine what best tool or technique gets them to their goal — be it hair dryer, heat gun, sand-blast gun, pressure sprayer, squirt bottle, time under a plastic tent, the addition of synthetic fibers or paper, paddling with a tool, rubbing with a stone, using clay in a water state (called “slip”), flipping clay like a pastry, the use of spatulas, knives, brushes, needles, credit cards, molds, supports, gravity (for example, hanging a piece upside down), or even the sun.

Firing a piece is not like baking cookies. The fusion occurring in the kiln can also cause a catastrophic event. If pockets of air are left in the clay the air molecules will expand and, finding resistance, cause an explosion. If that happens, all the potters whose work is in the kiln are likely to be unhappy. Artists will use multiple firings, primarily at different temperatures, to effect changes in material (either clay body or clay, glass and metal surface adornment) working from the core of the piece outwards through the surface. So many opportunities to screw up.

Pottery has an ancient and rich history. We need pots. Pots have improved our lives since early humans figured out how to bake clay in fire pits.

Ceramic artists might not appear as exciting as the choreographed glass artists in high-top boots, threadbare jeans, tie-dyed T shirts, and Ray-Bans. Potters tend to eschew sunglasses, and they get a lot dirtier. The medium is also fairly heterogeneous — some processes requiring quiet, intense precision and very careful chemical hygiene so as not to contaminate work with other materials, and pieces can take days, months or years to complete. Watch a ceramic artist building a piece — on the wheel, with coils, casting, as sectioned pieces, creating life-sized or miniature slab constructions, or via a process of their own — and you marvel at the ability these artists have of looking into raw, amorphous clay and envisioning a work of entirely different color, form, and expression. The vocabulary of these artists is very rich.

Naval Blockade by Patti Warashina

Naval Blockade by Patti Warashina

Have I spoiled the mystery of clay for you? I don’t think so! I’ve found people on the whole tend only to look at a work of art for a few seconds, but if there’s an explanation of some of the challenges in creating the work, that opens up a willingness to be engaged. And the whole point of the artwork is to engage the viewer. 

Here’s to Tea!

Tess McMillan
Bellevue College Gallery Space
Tess McMillan, thrown, coiled and carved porcelain

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Dust to Dust

Recycled pavers made at University of Oregon

Recycled pavers made at University of Oregon

Of all art media, ceramics seems the most organic.

Beginning with something as humble as dirt, the artist grapples with gravity, centripital force and atmospheric issues, finally birthing a piece by firing to temperatures that mimic molten lava. Ceramicists, troubled by the paradox of using earth resources to create earthly pieces, were among the first to establish procedures for sustainability. Ceramics as an art form depends on shared resources, and not surprisingly, ceramics recycling processes are being created to solve larger, community issues.

At the University of Oregon, a dialog between faculty, staff and the community on reducing the environmental impacts of the art program led to a glaze waste recycling program more than ten years ago. In the UO ceramics glaze room, there is no running water; students instead use a series of rinse buckets to clean utensils, and the insoluble glaze waste is later reclaimed after siphoning off the water. Today, one of the first tasks for beginning ceramics students is to fire paver bricks made by combining the recycled glaze waste with waste clay. The perforated bricks are about 10 inches square and 2 inches thick, and fire to a rich apricot color. The pavers are used around the school and are also donated to members of the community to teach students not only about environmental stewardship but about generosity.

In California, since 2004 the Integrated Waste Management Act requires large state agencies to divert 50% of solid waste from disposal. At Humbolt State University in Arcata, fired ceramic waste generated by students is being collected along with other masonry-compatible sculpture waste and taken to Kemen Construction, a local company that crushes and grinds masonry and waste for use in building foundations. The university saves money with this system, because solid waste disposal rates far exceed the cost of transporting the masonry debris to the recycling site.

Shippensburg University’s drip feed system for waste vegetable oil.

Shippensburg University’s drip feed system for waste vegetable oil.

Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania is the location of an innovative program to create a kiln system using renewable fuels. The process began by processing waste vegetable oil from campus food services to create biodiesel. A grant from the University Foundation allowed research into vegetable-oil-based fuel burner systems for kilns, and a local company donated fire brick for construction of the kiln. The kiln was engineered to work with different burner types and today, students are exploring vegetable oil, biodiesel, and glycerin as fuels. Faculty are also exploring the use of solar cells to charge a small battery bank and human bicycle power to charge a small motor which powers the blowers and burners — in an effort to completely remove the system from the power grid and dependence on fossil fuels.

It just takes community and a shared need to create a solution; not surprising that ceramicists — people used to countless unpleasant surprises, constant problem-solving and the un-glamour of always being dirty — can be at the forefront of the action.

 Tess McMillan, Gallery Space

NCECA, the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, will be holding its conference here for the first time in the Pacific Northwest. In March, educators, and community from all over the Puget Sound basin will gather together to celebrate the heights of ceramic artistry and to share new ideas and processes. Bellevue College will be hosting two events: a teapot exhibit and a lecture by Gloria and Sonny Kamm — a couple who have put together the largest teapot collection in the world with over 17,000 examples (including many antiques.)

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New Paradigm

Watercolor homework - what color was the light?I believe art should be a core competency for any student pursuing higher education. I’d like to see us promote the idea that studying art sharpens a student’s processes of observation, builds problem-solving skills and self-reliance, and opens up entirely new ways of seeing the world. In my opinion, studying art is at once a study of ourselves, of nature, and of what’s possible.

The process of carefully documenting an object brings an intimacy with that object that vaults us over our plain assumptions. My first still life included a major error in observation: I had painted the shadows gray because I assumed they were. After the exercise I began to learn more about color and realized that shadows appear in the complement to the color that is illuminated — so for example my yellow bananas needed purple shadows instead of the gray. Imagine going through an entire life with the assumption that all shadows were gray?

I can vouch for a new student’s trepidation in anticipation of their first group critique. To have one’s work displayed alongside the work of others and receive judgment from a variety of viewpoints is painful. We are exposed, and then forced to communicate — to describe our choices in making the composition. Surprisingly, there seems to be a strong accord among students within these critiques; criticism is delivered honestly and with a sense of support and encouragement, in recognition of the vulnerability of the situation. Discussing a composition involves the use of a common language, a language aquired by any student of art regardless of background or physical ability. Art itself is primarily a visual language that crosses all manner of communication barriers as well. 

We tend to associate art with beauty. It’s worth remembering that beauty has a biological source. For example, the Fibonacci sequence or golden mean which is the basis for the growth pattern of a nautilus shell can also be used to create the graceful proportions of a man-made Parthenon or a cellphone. Just as scientists observe nature, artists observe nature; why should the two be separate disciplines? One could argue an artwork is a different way of displaying data.

The study of art can be as laborious and painful as it is rewarding. It is by investing time in grappling with a design problem and by endlessly practicing and honing techniques that a work of value emerges.

Artists tend to be frugal and conscientious about toxins, byproducts, recycling, and waste. Consummate problem-solvers, artists apply their work process not just to solve design problems but to create tools, containers, methods, and improvements. Sometimes a playful intersection between beauty and need ends up in a bright solution to a common problem.

I have been impressed at how open and tolerant the discipline of art is to individuals who work in a non-traditional style, or who have a disability. While discrimination still exists in the world in general, and while groups share a common tendency to profess their view of the world as the right one, artists in general avoid evangelism. Artists have processes that are meaningful and preferential to them, but they usually stop short of requiring others to see the world the way they do. Rather, they serve as evangelists for thought and ideas.

We would do well to require all of our students to acquire the methods and skills of every new art student. Who knows what further heights of creativity and collaboration this would foster?

Tess McMillan, Communications “vector” &:-) for the Bellevue College Gallery Space

BC Gallery Space on Facebook

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Time/Space Mystery

Pinhole photo - Self portraitI love light.

Light is magical and mystical. It can awaken a healing energy within me or create a confusing sense of deja vu.

In the winter I enjoy being outdoors at night in my garden just to appreciate the light. When there is a full moon visible in the sky, the entire garden is bathed in a luminous glow. My perception of familiar landmarks and textures becomes altered. As a gentle, diffuse blue light settles on the grass it creates snow; leaves and twigs stand eerily in the dimness — angled and stiff as tombstones or grave markers.

And there are shadows. During the day, shadows are a playful artifact. On a moonlit night, shadows are still and eerie as the silent and ever watchful sentinels in my garden.

It is enough for me simply to ponder the faint moonlight as it surrounds my hand. The light has a depth and density missing during the day and my hand floats in the light, rather than being illuminated by it.

When I look at a star and realize I am not seeing something that is — but rather something that was, I feel as if I’ve set foot into another dimension. Standing in the present and in the past at the same time, past and present become connected. It is that moment of connection I like to explore.

My favorite expression in photography is shooting in darkness, working with a subject I can’t see and creating compositions in the camera over which I have little control. I leave the shutter open for an extended period of time to collect light — much as a scientist would collect data, algae, or water. Then I move the camera to another location and collect more light.

Maddie, me and red hous

In my compositions I can intend for certain elements to be visible, but they are never expressed in a way I expect.

It is a thrill when the film is developed and an image is revealed. The compositions that appear represent nearly cosmic connections between present, past, intent, mischief, and sometimes mystery.

I’ve preserved a wrinkle in time and can revisit it again at any time by looking at the print.

Tess McMillan

Tess McMillan is the Communications “Vector” for the Bellevue College Gallery Space. She planted more than 80 trees and 100 shrubs to build a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary certified by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

self portrait

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