Thursday, April 23, 2015

Let's talk bout it!

I make no apologies for my opinion about making pots in meat trays for sale. I think it is great to introduce students to clay by means of meat trays, dollies and embossed wall paper or whatever texture available. Perfect intro for beginners. Whatever gets them hooked but then move them on.
I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by fine craft all my life. I ate off Shimoaka plates,  Ed Drahanchuk, Jack Sures, Robin Hopper, John Chalke the entire gammit. I have also had the privilege to have taught at a school that encourages critical dialogue about ceramic art. If a student brought a pot made in a meat tray to a critique students would pay admission to see the horror on 6 faculties faces. My best students have collections of other potters work. They have libraries full to bulging with books on their profession. They can name who made what pot from 50 paces. They attend gallery openings, shows and attend workshops.  They understand and respect the profession. They have not paid 3 years tuition to be told everything they make is "sooooooo pretty." I am more proud of my students accomplishments than my own. They do me proud!
Here is a note I received from Chandler. It is loooooooooong! It is continuing the critical dialoque that I believe is so missing in Art Centers, Guilds and coffee shops across our nation.
Tomorrow we unload Lord Baltimore. I got my fingers, toes and t's crossed.
Take it away, Chandler!

Dear Tony,
we have had some good old chats about this crazy profession ours lately. This new chapter regarding creating an invitational show and what that means to the clay community at large is a complex one and of real interest to me. I told you I would try to distill what it means to me having had experience with it.
So here is some more info and hopefully some clarity on this invitational thing...

11 years ago, after finally deciding that our local guild sale wasnt right for me and my work, for common, simple reasons like:
1.most of the participants were part time potters with other income/professions and really didnt need to earn money from selling their work so they were selling them way too cheaply making mine look too expensive. Their prices simply didnt reflect the reality of what it costs to run a studio and be a full time potter. My sales dropped and dropped over the years.

2. most of the other participants had very little training in the craft, were fairly new at it and as such their pots weren't sufficiently resolved or the kind of work I wanted to be associated with. There was nothing wrong with it. Lots of it was really nice and fun and useful. It just didnt work for me.
( I believe it is organizations like guilds/fusion/etc who do a disservice to most new potters by promoting the implicit understanding that if you have taken a few pottery lessons now you are a pro and you ought to get out there and start selling your work: like that is the next logical step. Then the quality of work at these sales ends up being not the greatest: and then the public starts to equate this quality of work with what hand made ceramics is all about. The last guild sale I went to I looked around the space and saw a sea of Rosies Red and Floating blue pots and I knew a huge percent of these pots had been fired by techs at community centres: Wouldn't it make sense that one criteria of being at a stage to sell work is that you make your own glazes and fire your own work?)

3. I really resented the standards committee thing where often people with little expertise were disqualifying perfectly fine pots for really dumb and WRONG reasons. ( I simply trusted ( and knew full well) that the artists in 260 Fingers would come to the show with incredible well made work and display it in a way that would do the show proud..and of course that is what happened.)

4. there was a certain amount of back stabbing, clique -y-ness, complaining and unfriendliness I witnessed over and over.

5. I really needed a place to show and sell my work!

SO I just marched right out and booked a really nice hall and then INVITED the number of artists I felt the space could hold, assuming they had professional quality exhibition displays AND such a number of artists could pay for what I figured the show might cost.
I reached out to the other ceramicists, (mostly friends or at least acquaintances) in a radius around Ottawa who I knew had the same issues as me with the guild sale paradigm or those who were only showing at more far flung shows or not at all due to a lack of a venue for them as full time professionals with a certain reputation for making “good”? “resolved” ? “critically acclaimed”?? clay art.
There was a nice symbiosis in that there were 26 artists initially invited and the hall held us all well, with a decent amount of room to show the work properly and our fees paid for the show.
We formed a non-profit corporation. I was willing to be nominally the “director” as we needed to have a board and an AGM etc which we have in the form of an amazing potluck lunch in an art filled home of of one of members.
The big point to stress here is that from the get-go we have the most fun, problem solve in a very positive, supportive way, help and encourage each other and have formed a very special bond. We are so happy for each others successes and adventures and really step up when one of us needs help in tough is such a delight to know this group and ply our craft in such a respectful, thoughtful, cheerful manner.
On our website is an article called Umbutu referring to what makes our show special. It was written by 260 Fingers member Paula Murray and was published in Ceramics Technical recently. You can see that link at .
Each year there is room for guest artists and we try to bring in new voices in clay from Quebec and south, central and western Ontario. We have had amazing guest artists which will be going up on our site soon.

Now I will address the overstated issue of backlash...I never felt hated for doing this although I heard there was some grumbling to begin with in some quarters. I kinda figured some noses would be out of joint but probably wouldn't stay that way for long. I really couldn't concern myself with that. And after all, MY nose was out of joint at the dumbing down of the craft and the elevation of mediocrity that was so pervasive and accepted.
However this is how I make my living. It was a huge necessity to create a place to show and sell my work that was appropriate for me and we do live in a region of over a million people: I figured there might be room for more than one pottery sale!! It didnt hurt to be in surrounded by artists whose work I admire.
On the opening night of our first show, there was a huge lineup! I was watching closely to see how folks were reacting. It was interesting. I think they were expecting the same kind of experience as going to a regular pottery sale. Well, the expression on the faces of these visitors was priceless. They were literally gobsmacked to be in that place surrounded with display after display of excellent ceramic art and pottery. First they were very quiet, then got their bearings and then the roar and excitment in the place was wild!
Funnily not a lot of our guild members of whom there are many, have come to see the show. Its interesting. I did see a few upside down smiles on a few familiar faces but that quickly changed. It was like they were inwardly saying> “so this is what you were talking about”.
However lots and lots of my students and other potters I know have told me again and again what a joy this show/sale is. They don't feel its elitist or arrogant. They see what its about.
Its not about exclusion. Its just different.
My primary objective was to provide a venue for artists who have worked hard to become noted in the craft. I hope that in creating 260 Fingers, the show has inspired a few clay artists to up their game...I want to create a bar for aspiring artists to rise to.
I feel this has been lacking in Fusion. I really hope a potential invitational show for recognized professionals will create new dialogue and new energy for this organization.
There are so few good places to see really terrific clay art, and let me tell you: seeing a whole bunch of it in one place is quite fantastic! Its a gift to the clay community.
I have heard through the grapevine that 260 Fingers is one of the most anticipated events on the Ottawa arts calendar. I am now seeing some of the more rarified curators, gallery owners etc who usually don't even recognize craft as worth their time coming to the show: often more than once in a weekend.
I am completely unapologetic about having helped get this show off the ground.
I would love to chat with anyone who is having trouble with this. I hope to be invited to any INVITATIONAL show run under the Fusion Banner. And if I'm not, I'll still be there looking for that perfect irresistible object I cant live with out. Yum yum.
Best wishes everyone.
Chandler Swain in Almonte, On

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Meat trays and paper dollies

A friend phoned to ask me to participate in a provincial show he is leading. He wants the show to be by invitation and by juried application. I told him he is going to be hated by every one that makes their pots with meat trays and paper dollies. They will want to be in the show. They expect to be in the show. If they have done any volunteer work they might even expect to be the featured artist.  They will track him down and brand him with heated cookie cutters, slaughter and quarter him and package him in meat trays that are no longer able to be used for slab forms. His hunters will be wearing a war paint of Floating Blue and Rosie’s Red.  The fire will be fueled with paper dollies and used boxes that contained their prepared glazes.   A tip of the hat to you, dude. There are plenty of venues for pedestrian works. Hell, every town and church has a craft show that showcases this work. There really ought to be a place in Toronto (Canada’s largest city) for a show of the best of our country. It is about time! It is happening in America! What do you think Dick Aerni is doing in Rochester and Danny F in Washington, DC?  How about the St. Croix River Valley Potters?  We always seem to follow a few years behind and oh yeah Canadians eat their own so be prepared to have your final resting place be a Styrofoam meat tray.
I send this blog post out as a harbinger of what you are in for. If it goes off like a bomb like my cookie cutter post did you might want to consider dropping it and heading for cover. That post had the most response of any I have ever done by a times of 5.  On the other hand you could give a certain friend of ours near the Nations Capital a call to prepare your defense. Change never happens because of those that say or do nothing. Get some sleep! Our friend escaped with her life and now runs two successful Invitational Shows and is co-owner of the best pot shop in our country- bar none! The General – Almonte, Ontario.
Hey man, why Toronto?  I love The Hammer and The Hammer loves the arts.

Monday, April 20, 2015

R U Happy?

The topic around the firebox over the past week centered around the topic “R U Happy? Answers varied from we’re working hard on it to I am contented but not really happy.
So I took the day after the firing and drove to Toronto to have a belated B-Day lunch and dinner with my daughter Robin. Lunch was with potter friends- a plate by Ryan Marmoseo(sp), beet soup in bowls by Marcelina Salazar,  plate with brie and pepper corns by Deb Freeman,  and plates by Gayle Fairchild.  I was on the table in the form of a vase full of iris, Lesley MacInNally  was in the bathroom and Mary Philpott in the living room.  Robin has a house full of great furniture, fine craft and pots. Her old man didn't pick them for her. She did! It comes from a life surrounded by tasteful things.
She toasted me and said “ Dad, r u happy?” I said what the hell are you asking me that for? She said “ We should be asking that of each other more often.” I raised a clever one!

So I know my thoughtful readers are waiting for my answer. Before I answer the question you have to answer.  If you are genuinely happy then I am so thrilled and would you please share your answer.  It may make you a fortune. If you are not then don’t hang your blues on me or anyone else. Only you can make you happy!
So my answer is – I’m workin’ on it! I’ve learned from yesterday. I lovin’ today. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and I think this afternoon I need to have a wee power nap.  Life is good for those that know that life is good.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


After that week of firing my internal clock is all messed up. I zonked out in the arms of my yellow chair for a few hours and went to the workshop to glaze some pots and try out my new tail. Annabelle gave me an entire deer tail. I wonder if he is missing it?
It took some getting used to using it and it dripped when I first gave it a charge of oxide. You have to commit and get the stroke done quickly. This actually suits me as I have no small motor skills at all. I had to resort to my favourite Ron Mello brush for the finer strokes.
I have never liked flat bottomed cups since they are boring to look at and all potters inspect the bottom of pots. I decorated the bottom of these cups and will use the wadding I made for the wood kiln and wad them in the gas firing. Yes, it is another few steps in the process but as I have said many times "It is what you do when you don't have to that makes good pots better. That's just another take on "God is in the details.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Long awaited cocktail

It has been 6 days since we first started loading pots into the anagama known as Lord Baltimore. It took a day to load the kiln with hundreds and hundreds of pots and another half day to build the step grate and brick up the door. The match was lit on Tuesday at 2:30. I can't thank Chris Lass enough for hosting the Hamilton Potters Guild Wood Fire Mentorship Group at her studio and wonderful kiln. Chris and her husband Mark were fabulous hosts and gave help and guidance throughout the week. To celebrate the final stoke we had a beer and bump or a pint and a gold watch. We all shared a well deserved beer and a shot of Maker's Mark. A fitting brand of bourbon for the marks the kiln will leave on our pots. I am sure the crew is either sleeping or sitting in a chair in some state of coma. We will have to wait till next Saturday to see the fruits of our labour.  Four days of firing and 23 bundles of wood ought to leave a remarkable surface. Fingers, toes, legs and t's crossed.
Talk around the kiln this morning was the high prices we could all charge. Ha, ha! I've been down that gravel road before.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Doin' the crime


If you are going to do the crime you have to put in the time. I have been sentenced to life in prison around a hot firebox. I have spent a lot of time of late questioning whether I should put myself up for parole. I have made a reputation as a hard core criminal and I have to see the last year out working on the chain saw gang since I have the privilege of being King Rat for a bunch of hard core criminals. When I think long about this life sentence of hard labour I think of how it has been so good for an uncontrollable man like me. Look what doing the crime has brought to me. In this next year I am a mentor for 10 great potters. I am a presenter at the Icheon Potters Festival in Korea, the presenter at the International Ceramics Festival in Abersystwyth , Wales, and in April of 2016 a presenter at the North Carolina Potters Conference. Throw in to that mix workshops in BC and Italy plus others in Canada and the US. Wood ( spelled that way on purpose) this have all happened for me if I did the soft crimes would I get these opportunities? Some with a God given natural talent can make such beautiful work from non solid fuel kilns. My work suits wood. It is a life sentence. I am now training a great bunch that will stoke when I can’t.
Here are some of my cell mates. Do they look like they are working hard? Hey I’ve seen Anne Marie the one in the homeless outfit cleaned up and she cleans up very nicely. Back on shift tonight 8pm to 4am. The coyotes were howling last night. Wood I? You bet I wood!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Pope has been chosen!

Well the first smoke came out the stack of Lord Baltimore the anagama this afternoon. The Devil's choir have gathered around to feed the flames of hells fire.  We are escorting our pots through a long hot journey to hell and back.  We are one with the process. They will either be blessed or crucified depending on so many variables- wood, weather, stoking pattern,  packing density, the moon, a slight wind out of the east or maybe the stare of a hawk from the nearby maple tree. Wood firing is so magical in so many ways. The serendipity that can happen to your pots is beyond anything I could ever think to do to my work. But most of all it is about learning to be a dependable part of a team. To be part of a group that needs one another to pull this process off.  I also love hard physical work. It is so much more pleasant than hard mental work. I love to split wood! I love the smell of smoke! I love the crackle of the wood! I love the people I have surrounded myself with. I love you Mr. Hawk. Watch over my crew these next 5 days will ya?