Friday, May 30, 2008

Butter Keeper and the Tool

Butter Keepers really aren't hard to make. After you catch on to how they fit together and how to measure the top and bottom parts in such a way to guarantee they will fit well, you can easily throw them with confidence.

A good butter keeper should have a large flat area on the top so that when it is opened and the top, which is filled with butter, is lifted out of the base, the top will sit flat on the table and not wobble when the knife is inserted into the soft butter.

I make a measure tool similar to a Japanese tombo ( I use it at the wheel to measure the inside volumes for the water-bath bottom half and the top lid in order for them to fit together neatly.

Take two skewers (they must be pointed at one end) and tie them together using a twist tab. You can snip off the blunt ends to make them shorter and easier to use. This photo is a close-up of the knot. It must be loose enough to allow the sticks to slide up and down and from side to side easily, but also stay put. The pointed ends give a precise placement at the center of the bottom and the edge of the inside rim.

Sometimes when I get a size I particularly like, I will take a waterproof pen and mark a line on each stick to keep that measurement just in case it might slip out of adjustment.

Or you could have a master set of skewers and just glue them together to keep them rigid. A set of different sizes could be used as a "master" set and compared periodically with a "working" set.

(I'm showing how to measure the base and top with a finished butterkeeper, but you would do this with raw clay.)

Throw the base first. This will establish the size of the butter keeper. Keep in mind your clay shrinkage and that the lid, although smaller, should hold at least one link of butter compressed.

With the base still on the wheel, line up the sticks so that the vertical is perfectly centered with the center point at the inside bottom, the horizontal piece level. Adjust the horizontal stick so that the point is lined up with the inner edge of the inside rim.

Keep that measure. This will tell you the inner volume of the area that will hold the water-seal part of the butter keeper. The butter chamber in the lid must slip easily inside and not rest on the bottom or floor of the base. You need to have space for the water seal to cover the butter and keep the air out.

When you throw the top, you can eyeball the clearances by holding the skewer in the same way and guage how the measurement of the top is smaller in height and check that the width is narrower than the bottom. If you wish, you can make an "inside" tombo to use.

Another check of how well the two parts will fit together is to invert the top while it is still on the wheel and hold it over the base and look to see if it appears to fit.

Also, don't forget to allow for wiring off the top and bottom and be sure to make those parts just a tad thicker and you want the finished product.

Sidenote: How do you get skewer sticks to stand up in a butter keeper base? Muffin to the rescue!

The next two diagrams are from a hand-out I give every person who buys a butter keeper.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Against Happiness"

Funny how things happen. After posting "Reflection" in the blog, this just came in my email this morning. It's from a painter who publishes a twice weekly email newsletter on art.


"Art and Happiness"

In the recently published "Against Happiness," popular writer Eric Wilson disparages our current love affair with putting on a happy face. With our "feel good" culture and the widespread use of happy drugs, everybody's trying to be cheerful and there are no decent dollops of melancholy and sadness, he says. When this happens, art becomes bland, unchallenging and redundant. Dr. Thomas Svolos of the department of Psychiatry at Creighton University School of Medicine thinks Wilson is right. "When you're melancholy, you tend to step back and examine your life," he says. "That kind of questioning is essential for creativity."

I think they're onto something. Life's not about getting free of pain, but rather finding happiness through service to some process with links to a higher ideal. A state of thoughtful melancholy and sensitivity breeds an elevated creativity and a more profound happiness. Here are a few of my own keys:

Work alone and be your own motivator.

Take time for private wandering and nature's gifts.

Dig around and explore purposefully.

Serve others as well as your own passions.

Look for potential in all things and all beings.

Face life's deeper meanings squarely and truthfully.

Move through thoughtful understanding to pervasive action.

Know you are partner in a great brotherhood and sisterhood.

Accept sadness as part of the human condition. 

Know that in the big picture you are not important, but what you make and do is.

Rogert Genn


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Theme Shows

I was just thinking in the context of past commissions - making an object in accordance with subject matter or theme and art shows that require applicants to make work that relates to a certain theme or specific title.

I must admit, usually I knee-jerk at the idea with a negative reaction. I'm repulsed, nay insulted by the kind of arrogance that assumes they can dream up some theme and make everyone dance to it. Who knows why a show has to have a theme. For marketing? I think that sort of mind-set reveals a basic ignorance of the art for it's own value and an ignorance of the creative process. It dishonors the artist.

Now, if I happen to have, on my own, created a piece that could fit into the 'category' or theme requirement that's fine.

The two commissions I have taken on were done because the subject intrieged me and because the driving force behind both of them was education-related. And I find that a most worthy cause indeed.

I have made and contributed pieces with a dog and/or cat themes for a charity sale that supports a women's prison inmate program to train guide dogs. Also a very worthy objective, as is Empty Bowls sales. The focus is on the charity and the contribution to the cause, not jumping through an advertising hoop.

"20th Annual Glass and Clay Show" or any other title that is repeated every year and the collectors know it will come around at a certain time is a 'way better marketing idea than "The Purple Show".

I recently asked for a prospectus for an outdoor festival-type event. A one-day show. Acceptance is based on 10 samples of work (photographic examples would be okay, it said). The paperwork stipulated the artists must set up their booth on the morning of the show, which means an arrival at around 5:30 a.m. or so. Although entry fees are not too high, a one-day event means you must make back the entry fee, expenses incurred getting to the show, possibly two or three meals, transportation costs, other costs like business cards, display equipment, etc. AND make a descent profit within 8 hours. But an 8-hour show really means half a day for loading the tent, display, business materials, merchandise; packing it all up and breaking down the canopy and shelves; getting there and back and unloading it all--probably as much time as the actual selling part of the show.

But the icing on the cake is the organizing committee requires that all participants come in a Specified Theme Costume.

That is a bit much. I think I'll give this one a pass.

But it isn't just this particular event that I blame. It's the whole problem of the way shows have evolved. When did we hand over this kind of control to organizers who sometimes only regard us as window-dressing for their event? We need to take control back. There are a few shows or events which are organized and run by artists who do understand, but unfortunately, they are not the majority.

Can you imagine Salvador Dali knuckling under to a committee? Vincent Van Gogh (that poor man) or the American treasure, Andrew Wyeth?

Who knows what Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo could have done if he didn't have to always find and please a patron?


I feel better now.

This totally has nothing to do with the above, but this drawing lived in a not-too-often-used closet for quite a while.

Why? Because I wasn't too sure I liked it. Whenever I opened the closet, I would see it anew and so it was a fresh image every time.

It's called "Reflection". Nobody in particular, just an old woman looking at herself in the mirror, thinkng.

I finally decided that I did like it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Drawings--rough drafts

I've been doing a fair amount of rifleing through some old work at an attempt (Notice I said 'Attempt') to better organize my environment and I ran across a couple of things I did for projects.

This is the plan for a wax of "Tracking the Thunderbird", a project that was a collaboration between the local water board, the library and the schools in order to bring awareness to the various sources of water in our area. And believe me, in the Pacific Northwest water is everywhere. It was brilliant.

The idea was to set up teams of three people: An illustrator, a story-teller and an artist to design a large bronze plaque. The plaques would all have the same basic motif--the stylized head of a thunderbird.

As each story was developed, the artist would modify the design of the thunderbird head to fit the different chapters of the study book. We met as teams and brainstormed ideas for each of the chapters. My group was Estuary. The writer wrote a story which the illustrator worked into the book drawings and I carved the wax blank for the plaque design.

Thunderbird bronzes which were cast using a sand mold process, were mounted on concrete bases and then placed or hidden in various areas that illustrated each of the locations and sources of water. The task for the children was to find the bronzes using clues in the book--a kind of science scavenger hunt.

It was a rather nervous project for me because I got one and only one wax blank. No re-dos allowed. I drew and drew, tweaked and tweaked the design. The main story idea was a giant snake controlled an estuary of the fresh, brackish and salt water and all the creatures that lived there and depended on it. He held them in the coils of his body and lay with his tail in the fresh water; his head in the salt water. (The Estuary I was illustrating was a very twisty-winding creek.) The upshot of the tale was that a brave sea gull marshalled a band of sea gulls to drove the snake from the estuary so all the creatures could live and thrive. Hey, I didn't write it, okay?

Does the snake look a little familiar?

One of the tricks is that there are 12 birds hidden within the design.
Can you find them? Hint: Think positive and negative images. And don't forget the Thunderbird.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Saga of the Safari Chairs

These are our chairs. They come from Pakistan, manufactured in Pershawa around 1970 by a man named M. Hayat. They are made of leather, rosewood and have brass fittings. The chairs totally disassemble and can be transported in canvas bags.

The original chair design came from India during the British Raj. (At least that is the time the chairs became known among the British community.) They are sometimes referred to as a Rookhee chairs. The concept of a compact, portable chair expanded into other household pieces of furniture as well. Even canopy beds, as the photo shows, were designed to be taken apart and transported easily from the hot summer lowlands of India to the cooler mountainous regions.

Those Victorians took everything with them. One source says:

"Campaign furniture is primarily military, often multi-purpose with folding or separable parts. A sofa-cum-bed was first seen amongst Campaign furniture. Legs were made to unscrew, and the chair backs came off.

Made in British India from the late 18th century through the 19th century, this kind of furniture consists of such pieces as chairs, tables, settees, chests, desks and beds. While it provided comfort, it also maintained the prestige of the officers. It evolved during the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras of Great Britain.

The only catch was that the more portable the furniture became, the more the officers ordered it. Reports suggest that "60 horses, 140 elephants, two or three hundred baggage camels and bullock carts without end" were used to transport the Governor-General and his two sisters up the country from Kolkata.

You could get a portable billiard table, folding chessboard and a portable shower."

Assembling one of these chairs makes me think of something akin to saddling a horse. The leather seat has lacing on the bottom and is slipped over the front and back supports. The front and back also have leather belt-like straps that tighten. The leather backrest slides down over two upturned side pieces that pivot and the armrests are leather straps that attach from the backrest to the front legpost. The chair is designed so that when a person sits on the seat and leans back, the weight of the sitter creates tension making a very sturdy, supportive and comfortable chair. The original chairs had enough flex to adjust to uneaven ground.

When we were stationed in Bahrain. I saw a couple of these chairs at a friend's house and got all the information about the manufacturer. I called Mr. Hayat long-distance in Pakistan, to asked about the price and how to go about ordering. Mr. Hayat said he could ship them to me via Dhow and they would be ready in a few months. I ordered four. (I'm sure I couldn't have paid more than about $20-25 dollars for each chair since at that time, we didn't have a lot of money.)

After a good bit of time, I got a call from the Head of Customs in Manama, Bahrain, requesting that I come down to his office at the port to 'talk something over' with him. After scratching my head for a minute, I realized that the chairs had arrived. I assumed that some kind of import tax may be due, so I loaded my children up in the tiny car we had and headed downtown.

I was welcomed into the Head of Custom's office and we were made comfortable with soft chairs, sweets and casual chit-chat while a man went to get the reason for my visit. He arrived with a large canvas bag which he placed on the floor and stepped back. We all looked at the bag. The Head of Customs asked if this was my shipment. I said "Yes, I think so," sort of puzzled by the whole production. I said there should be three more bundles just like this one. Mr. Customs asked if I would please open the bag. Puzzled even more, I said, "Sure" and then it dawned on me.

My chairs had been made and shipped from the area in Pakistan famous for handmade rifles and other firearms. Guns were forbidden in Bahrain. I was under suspicion of being a gun-runner!

I could hardly keep my amusement under control. I said, "It's a Chair! It comes all apart and fits into the bag. Here, let me show you." and while they (more men had trickled into the room by then) all took another step back, I opened the bag, pulled out the legs and supports, unrolled the leather back and seat and gave a demo, with running comment, on how to fit together a safari chair.

We've had the original four chairs since and, in the course of raising teenagers, one chair was enthusiastically flopped into and the back seat support got broken. So, it and the other three chairs have been stored in the basement for years. One day while cruising the net, I happened to see an exact duplicate set of two chairs listed on an antique site. An Inquiry about price caused me to almost fall backward away from the screen. It sent me to the basement really fast to take a look at mine. I had wanted to replace the one, but couldn't even think of buying two (they Had to be sold as a pair). The asking price was incredible. Even with the wheedling I did with the seller got me a price reduction, but it was still just too high, so I shelved the idea and considered finding a woodowrker who could either repair or replace the broken piece.

Within a few weeks, ANOTHER chair came up for auction on eBay. And this one included the ottoman shown in the picture. I had never seen an ottoman before in the Middle East and certainly not here either. I won the chair (at a considerably lower cost than the ones in the antique store) and after a space of 26 years, had replaced the broken chair and got an ottoman to boot.

But it even gets better. After the sale, I found out that the man who had it lived within a short driving distance of our house. We arranged for a central meeting place for us to pick it up and had a very nice visit with him and his wife to boot. Turns out, he was very relieved because the chair had never been disassembled and he was worried about packing and shipping it.

But wait, there's more! Within about another week, YET ANOTHER Chair appeared on the web. It looked awful. But only because whoever had put it together did it incorrectly. The seat was looped around the side supports instead of the the back and front ones. The result was the chair sagged and the seat and back looked like they didn't fit. I bid on and got the second chair at an even greater bargain.

Footnote: The chair that had never been apart did disassemble easily. The only difference between it and my originals was a metal name plate attached to the back.

Since the spate of Safari chairs on the web, I haven't seen another listed. Occassionally, ones supplied with special edition Land Rovers, some canvas versions or or light brown leather ones designed in Denmark in the '50s and '60s will appear, but so far, no more black leather, brass and rosewood ones.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sleeping Child

"Sleeping Child" is a small terra cotta sculpture that does not photograph well. I don't know why. It looks much better in the real.

I was inspired to make this after I read that early in his life, Michelangelo made a lot of 'sleeping putti', carvings of chubby, angelic sleeping children.

If my memory serves, these early carvings have never been found or, if they still exist, were never identified as his work.

This piece is rather old. It was molded from a solid piece of clay which is then allowed to stiffen to nearly leather-hard and using a cut-off wire, sliced in half. The insides of the halves were carefully carved out using various sized loop tools until the thickness of the clay was no more than 3/4 to 1 inch in any one place. This is so that the clay will dry in a uniform way and hopefully not develop cracks.

The two halves were joined, the seam worked to make it disappear and the whole thing was allowed to dry very slowly before firing at a cone 5/6 oxidation. After firing, I applied several different finishes to enrich the color and create dark areas. Brown shoe polish sometimes is just the thing to deepen the color of the clay and give it a rich burnish.

The base is the result of a trip to a tombstone maker's bone yard. I found this great piece of marble and asked him to cut one edge to make it even--it was a fragment of a larger piece of marble. After I explained that it would be a sculpture, he was delighted to do so and invited me to prowl 'the back lot' anytime I needed another one.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Lately, I've been converting old slides to digital files and came to realize I've done a fair bit of sculpture including a couple of commissions--one for our local library and another that is installed in an estuary park in a town nearby. (I keep telling myself I HAVE to get back there and photograph it.) That's for a later time.

The library commission started with a quotation:

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Francis Bacon, 1561-1626

Making the piece was a great challenge. After I found the quotation, it was a matter of a lot of thinking-time to figure out how to show the idea in a visual way. Now, librarians might cringe at the thought of books floating around in soup, but the unspoken idea of alphabet soup was just too good to pass up.

The book tidbits are like short stories on a plate--a little sweet bite to be savored and enjoyed. I thought long and hard about adding "Curiosity" to the handle of the spoon. And in the end, decided it was a good thing to do. Intellectual curiosity is a valuable quality to have and the tool to learning new things. I made the base from a clay that fires black.

The photo was taken before the piece was mounted on an additional, larger birch wood base. I wrote the quote in script lightly in green at the top and bottom of the wooden base. The work rests quietly in a conference room in an acrylic case.