finding my voice, literally…

On Monday of this week, I attended and participated in my first gallery show since college. The show is part of a process that I am going through in order to be juried into the Artisan Center of Virginia. As a way to bring the jurors to the show and allow them the freedom to view the work on their own schedule, the ACV put the show together. The artists in the show consist of those artists that are already considered a “professional artisan” with the ACV and a few of us who are trying to become “professional artisan”.

I arrived a bit late to the reception and the room was full of students of Mary Baldwin College, the school that is hosting the show. The show is called Artisans & Agroecology:The Cultural Connection Between Craft and Rural Life and is in the Hunt Gallery. I wasn’t expecting the room to be full and just expected to mingle around with the artists and whoever might be stopping by. In the back of the room, I hear the ACV director, Sherri Smith talking, explaining to the students how they are important to the ACV as the next generation of artists and craftsmen. Part of the discussion at the conference back in August was how to get the younger generation involved and this was the perfect audience for her to address with this plea.

When Sherri finished and had had all the participating artists to raise their hands so the students could recognize us, a woman asked if the artists would each come forward and tell a little about our work. It was at this moment that I realized I wasn’t sure what I would/should say.

As we worked our way to the front of the room, I had lots of things going through my mind but wanted to be brief. I am very self conscious about my North Carolina accent and that always is in the back of my mind but now I was going to have to say something about why I was there and what I do. Luckily, I didn’t have to go first so I was able to get an idea of how to do this by listening to a couple of artists that went before me.

So, basically, I said, “I am Susie Wilburn and I live in Toms Brook, just north of here. I am not considered a “professional artisan” yet but hopefully after this show that I will be. I have been in the printing industry for the past 26 years and after losing my job, just over a year ago, I have reverted back to my college love and trying to reinvent myself as a potter. I am experimenting with different clays and glazes and forms and am still trying to find my voice”. I didn’t discuss the fossils, frogs, how I come up with my ideas, a philosophy of why I do the images or my processes. I could have discussed the work in more detail but I am see myself as a newbie and don’t really see myself as having much to share. I think I need to rethink that.

I felt that I did okay, but the more I think about it, I am probably going to have to work on this some. I had one of the students approach me, not because of my work, but because she is originally from Strasburg so she want to just bond with someone from home. In talking to her, I realized the impact that I probably could’ve had on the students with my words. She was taking a ceramics class and they had just done pinch pots so I was able to talk craft with her some. For the most part though, I think that the students were there as a requirement and really not interested in me or my work. I didn’t see that many students really approach the artists to pick their brains for inspiration.

I have to also put a plug in here for the school that I went to 30+ years ago. In talking to the student, I was asking her about the art program at Mary Baldwin. When she told me about her ceramics class, I asked if they had a pottery and were they teaching the students how to throw a pot. Basically, it sounded like a very simple class and they didn’t have the extensive program that I came from. In explaining Berea College to this student and listening to my words, I realized just how lucky that I was to have had the experience to have a college that not only provided such diversity but to require that the students work and how inexpensive my four years actually was. I explained Berea’s goal to help the poor students of the Appalachian region attain a college education and that they didn’t charge tuition but only charged for room and board. She then volunteered that Mary Baldwin College costs $34,000 per year. However, the ranking page with US News lists the college tuition costs at $28K. Room and Board is an additional $8K. WHOA! I know that at current rates that Berea is only about $980 tuition per year and the room and board about $6K putting the yearly costs at about $7K.  What is this student really getting for that $34K? Have her parents taken on that debt or is she? If she is going to major in art, how is she going to pay that amount of money back and what kind of program does Mary Baldwin offer to help those students become employed after college to help relieve that debt? This would be a totally new post that involves lots of questions, not answers, I’m afraid.

So, as I go forward and see myself in more situations where I will be asked about my work and my processes, I need to work on this. Many times, I feel like I just do what I do and don’t really think about explaining it to someone else. I need to start thinking about breaking down the process better, thinking more about explaining where my ideas come from, why I use the images that I use and share more about why I love my new life as an artist. Hopefully, a “professional artisan” soon.


Constructing a fish…

Looks great John, are you okay in there?

About 5 or so years ago, Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, the group that I do a lot of volunteer work for, devoted an entire Saturday to brainstorming for the groups future. They invited me to attend even though I was no longer a board member. During the day we discussed our problem with getting local individuals interested in our group. The past history of the group was one of combative advocacy and that was one of the issues we were discussing.

Locally, in Shenandoah County, parades are a really big deal. When Herb and I bought our house it happened that our closing was on the day of the Fireman’s parade in Tom’s Brook and we couldn’t get into town to even get into our new house. We had to wait for the parade to end. So I made the suggestion that our river group begin working on a parade presents with a mascot or a group of mascots with a whimsical and funny take on the problems the river is facing. I suggested having a fish with an IV, maybe a clown fish throwing water (confetti), some folks inside a canoe that the bottom had been cut out of and have an entire troupe of fish that attends events and parades. This, I thought, would put the group into a more friendly appeal with a sense of humor but also with an interest in the water quality problems that the river was facing. It would make us more approachable.

So the idea was shelved until later.

The Science committee chair, John Holmes, approached me later and said that if I would make the costume that he would wear it. It just seemed that I never had time for such an undertaking and when looking online at costumes, none of them seemed to fit our pricing or look. So finally, last spring, I decided to dive in and tackle the costume. So I thought I would share the process of constructing a fish.

After consulting with Terri Fluker, a Berea College alumni, who designs and creates costumes in Hollywood, I bought upholstery foam at Jo Ann’s Fabrics and assembled the fish as if it were a quilt. Making a quilt sandwich for each side and planning to add the fins into the seams. Essentially, a pillow case like container that would slip over someone’s head and look like a fish.

Many hours spent quilting the sides of the fish was the hardest part. It was just extremely time consuming and difficult to push around under  the sewing machine.  The head was stuffed and a wooden embroidery hoop was sewn into the neck area to hold it’s shape. I also added some long sash pieces inside the neck to wrap around the shoulders of the person wearing the fish and bring around to their waist and tie it like an apron in order to stabilize the head so it doesn’t flop around and will stay put. Armholes were added as well to give the person inside a means to get water and for safety purposes. John determined that they were good to have but he was going to keep his hands inside.

The assembled fish was then painted with gesso as a primer to accept the paint. Using a photo reference of the Stoneroller fish,  acrylic paint was applied to the overall surface. A gold glitter paint was used to draw in the quilted indentions and metallic paints to add a sparkle and shine. And the screen “look through” area was spray painted white to recede it into the belly area.

Now that he is finished, we see things that we can do to help the person inside and add to the illusion. Adding some elastic into the belly area to pull the sides together will allow the fish to look less belly dominated and maybe adding a small skirt area under the belly to hide the pants. Also, I may try and add some lips on the face. I’m not happy that the fish appears to be looking up all the time. If, and that is a BIG IF, I ever do another one, I would try and have the fish head so that he is more facing forward.

I want to thank the following for the help and support they have given me for the past year as I assembled this beast…

Hopefully, “Stoney, the Stoneroller” will help to bring smiles to some kids faces, help to educated the local population as to who he is and how he lives in the Shenandoah River and his purpose and his message of helping to clean up our precious river. He is now ready to take on all those parades and festivals that are coming up in the summer months and into the fall and winter.
Of course, he’s a little worried about the fish fry in October

Berea, Berea Beloved…

This is the Official Berea College Logo. It is...

Image via Wikipedia

In 1976, I was accepted to Berea College and really had no idea how my life was about to change forever. I’ve been thinking about Berea a lot lately. I have reconnected with many Berea alumni through Facebook and that has really been a wonderful thing. Berea people seem to all have a lot in common.

I have a friend from high school, (one of only 3 that I have allowed into my Facebook page) who has a daughter who is a Senior in high school and in the winter was looking to find the right college fit.  I had her look at Berea to see if she might consider Berea as one of her choices. Due to the less expensive cost for the education, Berea is unique, because if you make too much money, you can’t get in. It is primarily for students from the Appalachian Region who have the brains but not the financial means to go to school. In my case, I paid a full term bill because I was receiving Social Security money from my father’s death when I was 13. I didn’t have the grades to get in and got in on letters of recommendations. But once there, I managed to become a dean’s list student. I needed to get away from a home life where there was no emphasis on education. And I needed to see the importance of education on my life. At any rate, I paid about $4,ooo for a 4 year education. The cost of Berea is much higher now. but is still very affordable for students without the funds to go to college at all.

Melvin, (Steven's partner) Susan Strickler-Polstra & Steven Summerville

When I graduated from Berea in 1980, I had met the love of my life, had experienced classes that allowed me to think critically about things that I never would have thought about, and make valuable friendships that I hope to keep for the rest of my life. Thanks to Facebook, I have reconnected with so many wonderful Berea folks and I also have to say that has made a big difference too.

Dorothy Tredennick with students in 1980 at my wedding

Recently, I went back to Berea. I had not been there for almost 20 years. My art history professor, Dorothy Tredennick had passed away in February and her memorial was being held March 18th. I rode there with a potter friend, whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. Dorothy was 96 years old and had led an incredible life of travel and teaching and inspiring her students. The service was more of a celebration of her life than a memorial. She was the kind of teacher that expected much from her students and while that kind of teacher can be hard to like, Dorothy was loved by all.

I didn’t make it onto the quadrangle to see much of how that part of campus has changed but made it inside the main block in the center of town. The students all look like a next generation of the students I went to school with. Porter Moore Drugstore, as it was when I was there is now a coffee cafe, equipped with wi-fi and espresso machines and sofas. The fountain counter is now a serving counter full of pastries and goodies with the typical chalkboard menus behind the counter on the wall like you would see in any large city. Yet the students still have the look of being from small towns and full of promise for a bright future after their Berea experience.

back of Boone Tavern, new drive up portico

me, Melvin, Joanna Griffin & Margaret Beasley


The disturbing thing about my visit back to my alma mater though is the change that looks like a marketing ploy. Boone Tavern is no longer owned by the college but by the Marriott Corp and it has the look and feel of a Marriott now instead of a unique hotel full of handmade crafts made by the students. I was told that the president of the college no longer lives on campus with the students but has a home in Richmond, KY, 15 miles up the road and is rumored to own a home in Northern VA. Not really the type of individual that seems to be relating to his students in terms of their backgrounds or needs. And the student crafts are being downsized and are changing, I’m sure due to the recession,  but the college is known for the student crafts as well as the top education that it offers the students. A Kentucky Artisan center has been positioned at a new Berea exit and it makes you wonder if the proximity to the college was on purpose to make it’s success play off the reputation of the college crafts.

On a positive note, I didn’t see that there are food courts and the kinds of additions to the college that I know many universities are spending their money on for the students that don’t add value to the student’s overall education. I saw additions to buildings that were definitely improvements such as a large addition to the music building to allow for a new elevator (which was much needed 30 years ago) and the elimination of the glass walkway on the art building to allow for more hanging space in the gallery. These are both good changes that are adding to the educational value for the students.

Union Church, Sally Wilkerson (fiber arts professor) on front pew

What a great way to spend a reunion! Celebrating a life well lived, reconnecting with friends and seeing change.

No style yet, just fun…

with black dots

It is like Christmas to open a kiln. The excitement, the anticipation, the disappointments. Some of what is inside can be a disappointment and some can really make you smile. This bowl is just that, something to make me smile. Do you think I like orange?

Since Christmas, I have probably had three glaze firings and I am still trying to learn my glazes and how to apply them properly. You can have a really nice pot and glaze it and it become either an ugly pot or a “so-so” pot. This batch, I seem to be getting the hang of things. I seem to have more that are keepers than crushers. I was reading this article by the current head of the ceramics program at Berea College, Tina Gebhart about her work and making pots in general and I have a few hours more to put in before I reach her idea of good work.

For learning-focused making, we have to go through a few tons of pots (a likely equivalent to the 10,000 practice hours of a skilled activity which are necessary to be a virtuoso) to get to the good ones, so accept making lots of bad pots. Every tenth one may be somewhat good, or even every fifth one. Eventually, nearly every pot coming out of our hands may be at least good, even great, or maybe even quite excellent. Don’t loose sight of this, ever, or you may never get there. You can read the entire article here.

So check out the pots below and feel free to critique them. I have already done it many times in my mind. More decoration here, less glaze there. Heavier application next time, don’t even use that glaze again… You get the idea.

I’m thinking that a driveway pottery sale may be in order in the summer. Not sure I should sign up for any real shows anytime soon.

Revealing the “bird”…

Every year, Herb has fun by pretending to have gotten me something really crazy for Christmas and telling me not to look or go into the garage. This year, for a while it was a bird that he had to go out and feed. Then he finally told me he had gotten me a potter’s wheel. A new ploy to throw me off by really telling the truth, but because that has been the previous years’ story, I didn’t believe him.

For 30 years, I have wanted a potter’s wheel and this year for Christmas, Herb was able to find a used one on Craig’s List to get me for Christmas. The photos here were taken in the pottery studio at Berea College in, probably 1978, where I was in the apprenticeship program for a couple of years. Ironically, I decided that I didn’t like doing production and became a TA for the remaining two years. I now do work that requires major productions of  printed items.

So I have had visions of pottery pieces dancing in my head for several days now. I was actually able to throw a pot on Christmas day and out of 5 balls of clay I kneaded up, only one didn’t make it off the wheel. It got two soft and wobbly and collapsed. Another made it off the wheel but was dislodged as I was trimming the bottom, so I now have some practicing to do. Looking to the web for inspiration, I first went to my college pal, Steven Sommerville’s site because he has such awesome work. And then I went to WordPress to try to find some blogs of potters that I could use as inspiration. I went to Etsy but I am not really impressed with the quality of the pots that I found there. Nothing I really want to try to emulate for now.

I want to develop my own style and I am not sure where that will take me yet. I think first I will just throw some shapes and see how it evolves. Vases, salt cellars, functional, non-functional, mugs, bowls, plates, planters.  There are just too many ideas out there. It felt good to get my hands back in the mud though. Herb said he remembers me with muddy handprints on the butt of my jeans and generally looking like a walking mudpie. I never seemed to wear an apron and my clothes were the place to wipe my dirty hands. You could tell by walking around on campus who worked in the pottery because we all had dirty clothes on. I think we were known as mud dobbers.

I’ll keep you posted but I’m definitely not taking any orders yet. And, I am trying to stay a little cleaner these days.