ceramics, social media and italy - a personal journey

When I first moved to Italy, we worked hard to find a place for me to be able to have a pottery studio.  I had, at the time, five years of study and two of having my own studio behind me, and was anxious to use the newly discovered freedom in Italy to develop my ideas, whatever they might have been.

It took two years for me to get a functioning pottery studio in Italy.  There were myriads of problems.  Getting the high-tension electricity into the barn required a staggering amount of money and permits.  I lost hope in the process many times along the way.  I had no idea whether I'd ever be able to make back the investment; I wasn't even sure exactly what kind of ceramics I really wanted to make.  I had learned, in my German apprenticeship, to make stoneware. And stoneware glazes.  This means firing at an extremely high temperature and making ceramics that are very durable.  The colors are muted - at least more muted than the color of ceramics that you find here in Italy, which are low fire, painted ceramics. In the beginning, when I was first establishing my studio here, people would ask me things like:

Can you do red floral patterns?

Can I come and paint ceramics for you to fire?

Do you do raku ( a process of taking bisqued pieces and firing them in a certain type of oven, removing them from the oven while hot and dropping them in cumbustable material such as saw dust or wood chips)?

Can you teach me how to throw pots?

The fact of the matter is, the answer was no to all of the above.  I needed to start where my own training left off, and learn myself where Italy and this experience would take me. I was scared.  I had no idea if I would have what it took to be a potter.

Although I have always known that I'm a creative person, it really took Italy to shake loose my real desires with art.  Germany was the land where I learned the technical side of the craft.  I went to an excellent school.  But it was a school that had a very specific way of doing things and venturing out of that specific area of ceramics was not really looked upon favorably.  There was, in retrospect, too much rigidity and judgement in that school and it had blocked me from being free with my craft.

 

Unlike Germany, Italy was full of creative freedom.  I had my own hill!  It overlooks vineyards and is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.  People are kind, gentle, and encouraging.  The only one to stop you here is yourself.  And that was where I ran into my first roadblock.

My first studio here was humble.  It was in the barn, and was uninsulated -- cold and damp in the winter unless I heated it up with the rustbucket wood burning stove I had in there.  The floor was raw cement that we had poured in a frenzy and there was no water inside - I had to go out to the outside faucet and use ice cold water to reclaim the clay and throw pots.

But I painted it yellow and it became a cozy enough place for me to unpack my supplies and start to work again, after a two year haitus. I started to throw but I had no idea what I really wanted to say with my work.  I was all tied up inside with anxiety from  having put so much on the line.  I would try to create and would stop, blocking myself from really sprinting.  I had all the stuff - the wheel, the kiln, the clay, the chemicals.  But what I didn't have yet was freedom - the kind that you need to grab for yourself from the recesses of your own soul.

 

 

I worked and made glazes and perfected a couple of formulas, while failing miserably at a few others.  Glaze development takes calm, patience, good measurement skills and focus.  Between being booked from April to October and doing major structural renovation between October and April for six years, focus, patience and calm were in short supply.  We decided, somewhere along the line, that the vaulted brick ceilings in my studio were simply too beautiful for the space to be used as a workshop.  We wanted to make what was now my studio into a public space - and determined to make it into a kitchen, but also to create a space in the back for me to work.

So in October 2007, I packed everything up once again and stopped doing pottery to run a construction project which saw catastrophe after catastrophe.  The builders made huge errors which caused the roof of the barn to collapse and threatened the integrity of the entire barn.  That's right, the building almost collapsed, right before my very eyes. Finally, in May of 2008,  I moved, exhausted and having to cope with a fully booked B&B season, into my smaller, but insulated, dryer and brighter pottery studio, which is where I work today.

All of these false starts and moves and ensuing panic from construction gone mad and prepping hundreds of breakfasts and washing mutitudes of sheets and towels  left me wondering - often - if it's even worth it.  I could barely keep up with the work at hand as an innkeeper.  The construction management overwhelmed me in every sense of the word.  What could possibly be left for art and creativity?

All the time, Italy was whispering over my shoulder.  Relax.  Have patience.  It will come.

But I didn't know how to relax.  Pottery and art became another pressure that I put on my own shoulders.  I wanted to excel but I lacked the time and the focus. More than anything, the years of nothing but building work and struggle had started to take their toll. So often I would sit in my studio and cry - out of exhaustion and not knowing what to do or where to begin. And to even begin to think about breaking the creative restraints I had learned at my German pottery school - just that thought exhausted me to the point of tears. Pottery seemed like a luxury in the far distance when all I could do was keep my head above water dealing with the bureaucracy of Italian historic renovation and holding up the standards of a B&B that was fully booked and had fantastic reviews, not to mention trying to have some semblance of a normal life with my husband.  It was all, quite simply, too much.

But in the last year or so, I've come out of that confusion and to the conclusion that the value of things is not necessarily extrinsic or obvious.  We can't always see, in the moment that life is happening, whether what is happening is worth it in any sense.   We took a winter off from renovating, a decision that was absolutely necessary for our health and well-being.  I decided, for better or for worse, to dedicate myself to the creative process and improving myself in the areas I knew I was technically in need of practice.  I spent days and days throwing different sized vessels, wearing out the skin on the fourth finger of my right hand to the bloody flesh almost every day.  I weighed out test glazes and started thinking:  ok, I love stoneware and that's where I belong.  But what can I actually do within the parameters of high fire clay?

I made time for it because it became that important to me.

As I experimented and experimented, I came across Lindsay Emery on line.  I can't actually remember where I saw her work first - probably through my friend Holly Becker's blog.  In any event, Lindsay works in porcelain clay - a world of difference to the clay I use, much finer and softer and translucent after it's fired - and found a world of inspiration waiting for me in her work.  Her work led me to other potters and soon I was bubbling with new ideas about where I could take my stoneware: out of the realm of what I had learned in school and into the artistic playground. We communicate regularly about glaze formulations and how substituting one raw material for the other might lead to new possibilities.

It's very inspirational to have other artists to exchange with through social media.  I live a relatively isolated existence, which, in one way, is good for my work but does not allow me to expand my ideas as much as I need.

I took the risk of adding bits and pieces of Venetian glass to glazed pieces before they went into the oven.  I had no idea what would happen - there are so many unpredictable factors in glazing and melting temperatures of raw materials.  But this simple addition has given me a new platform from which to start experimenting creatively.

I love Lindsay's latest post where she talks about taking our "mistakes" and celebrating what they bring to our work.  It goes along with my concept of not resisting - but rather accepting what is.  I could not agree more.  By accepting our mistakes as part of our own creative path, we embrace the individuality of our own work.  It's those mistakes that lead to the next step in our own process.

So now, as I look at how my path has developed, at how hard I have had to fight to keep going creatively, I accept that this must be very important to me and I owe it to myself, despite the roadblocks and hurdles, to keep pushing through if for no other reason than for me to see, with my own eyes and heart, exactly where it will take me.

I would love to hear about your creative struggles.  It does not matter if you've overcome them or not.  Maybe you'll see something in the discussion that can help you.  In any event, I send you all my best wishes for a beautiful, fulfilling, creative week.