In Pursuit of Form,
by Kristin Doner
My journey with clay has often been a process of discovery and rediscovery. At times the process has been forced, leading me to produce works that I consider over-engineered, works that stand out in contrast with those that emerge from a more intuitive process. When I allow my work to develop through an intuitive process, I disengage my conscious thought and allow my subconscious to speak directly through my hands. The result is a more satisfying ceramic expression, one that speaks from a deeper part of myself. I am often surprised how conscious and intuitive inspirations interact to produce unexpected outcomes.
For example ancient history has been an inspiration for me. The sense of excitement I feel while examining an ancient artifact or antique connects me with the past, realizing that the item in my hand was likely an integral part of someone's life centuries ago. I am also fascinated by the impact of time and environment on the surface of these artifacts. Organic textures and earthy colors appear in a random fashion, having developed from centuries of exposure to the elements. The subliminal effect of these passions become an influence on my work, as witnessed by my choice of glaze treatments and my classical use of form.
An esthetic which could be summed up in the axiom, "less is more" also makes its quiet statement in my work. I try to reduce an expression to the pure essentials, to focus clearly on the main point of my work, form. Therefore, my goal is pure simplicity of form achieved through sensual silhouettes of gently sloping lines and as few distractions as possible.
To develop my sensitivity for form, I used to sit with pencil and paper sketching half-silhouettes. These half silhouettes trick the eye in a wonderful way. Building upon the visual information of one half of a form, the mind completes the other half. The result is an instant critique of the essentials. Zeroing in on an intriguing form, I used to sketch out every aspect of the completed piece in full detail, then apply the appropriate techniques to bring the expression to life. These conscious exercises were interesting to a point, but they lacked the spirit and vitality that I hungered for in my work. Eventually I put down the pencil and started working from my intuition. Letting go in this way allowed me to develop beyond the limitations of over-engineered ideas. It liberated my senses for an increased appreciation of form.
As I repeatedly turned to the pinchpot technique, I fell in love with the simpler, smaller forms that came naturally. I decided to start producing these personally inspiring forms on a larger scale. I was determined to retain the simplicity of form while emphasizing its essential elements. As I allowed my intuition to take charge of developing form, I was able to focus on technique in a more active way. When I began working with two or three pound balls of clay for each pinchpot, the increase in mass demanded entirely new strategies of technique. I found that use of a paddle, the size of the paddle, and balance between drying and working times, all had an impact on working with larger amounts of clay. To create these larger forms, I applied the hammer and anvil technique. Starting with an elongated ball of clay, I opened the ball with normal pinching methods. Then I stroked and stretched the inside of the form, while paddling the outside, using a rhythmical beating. After being allowed to dry somewhat, the same method was used to thin out the walls and develop the form, alternating between drying and forming. Using an eight pound ball of clay for a pinchpot has become second nature to me, and as a result, the forms have taken on a life of their own.
As an elegant form developed, I encountered the challenge of how best to present it. Since the rounded bottoms of these pinchpots were an integral part of the overall statement, it was essential to incorporate a foot that didn't detract from the form. I realized that the simple act of placing any item on a pedestal immediately lends importance to it by presenting it as an object to be admired. Therefore, elevating the form on an understated tripod emphasized the sensual form without the visual intrusion of a traditional foot. This also brought into play the idea of negative space by subtly framing the simple roundness of the bottom. With the main form and presentation issues worked out, the next puzzles to tackle were the handle lugs and lid.
Originally my forms were much rounder, more elliptical in shape, using handle lugs to secure an arching handle over a low-lying lid. When the vessels took on the more elongated shape, the arching handle created a visual conflict against the more dominant form. Also, the introduction of a peaked lid mirrored the curves of the body. These new elements inspired me to lower the handle until it touched the lid making it "work" visually, while expressly denying use. At first I rebelled against binding the lid to the vessel, but ultimately I was too intrigued with the result to stop doing it. Then I started feeling differently toward the vessels entirely. I began to identify with the sense of mystery they created. Upon consideration, I realized that binding the lid underscored the ritual aspect of the vessel as well as the concept of the vessel as an art form. However, the possibilities for handle lug treatments still seemed endless, even after I decided to tie the lid to the vessel. The handle lugs needed to compliment the feature of the bound lid without interfering with the lines of the body. As a solution I repeated the shape of the legs for the handle lugs, keeping the number of new elements to a minimum.
Another concern in following through with form, was glaze choice. After exploring the more traditional raku glazes, I settled on two basic glaze treatments for this form: a lithium based glaze, and reduction stenciling (see CM February `92). While the lithium glaze is fascinating on its own and lends an ancient look to the piece, it still allows the fullness of the form to be the dominant feature. The form is even more pronounced with the use of the reduction stenciling technique. By leaving legs, lid, and handle bare of glaze, I achieved a contrast that further accentuated the form. The use of terra sigillata and colored clays expanded this glaze pallet yet maintained simplicity, allowing the form to remain the focus.
The final considerations were firing issues. The tripods caused considerable difficulty to the removal of ware from a traditional raku kiln. The likelihood of jarring one of the legs while setting it down needed to be eliminated. The fact that I had to fire my work without an assistant exasperated these problems. However these problems were solved by building a removable fiber fire chamber with a stationary fire box in a sand pit. After the firing chamber is removed, the reduction material is placed in the fire box. Then a large galvanized trash can is placed over the ware, sealing the rim with sand. Making the sand pit large enough to accommodate two fire boxes allows one load to reduce while the next load is firing.
By allowing my passions to influence my work, I have developed as a ceramic artist in a direction that I most likely would not have intentionally chosen. In all this, I have enjoyed an exhilarating journey which I hope has only just begun. During workshops I have been asked how others might cultivate their own personal styles and approaches, maybe find their own intuitive sources. An important step is for artists to trust and pursue their passions whether these explorations are found in clay or far afield from it. Many people feel unsure of exactly what their passions are, so I would like to suggest some avenues through which you might explore.
Keep a journal or album of anything and everything that piques your interest, from poems to photos from magazines. After adding to it for a while, take a look to see what has accumulated. Something is bound to jump out at you. It may be something visual, such as texture or color, or it might be a concept or topic. Continue to pursue these threads, and after a while, you'll notice these new influences creeping into your artwork.
You could also try seeing with child-like eyes again. It may take some practice, but try to see things for the first time again. For instance, instead of simply recognizing a tree and a bush standing side by side, try to see the shape between them. This technique had a significant influence on my development, because it allowed me to get excited again about things outside of clay. It also increased my sensitivity for any number of things, such as form, that I had relegated to my subconscious.
Think of inspiration as that little voice inside you. It often doesn't follow the rules, or make much sense at the time. But listening to that voice will lead to new discoveries about yourself and your influences, which in turn become the building blocks of your personal sense of style.
Copyright 1998, all rights reserved.
Last revised June 5, 1999