Once a month, I’ll dedicate an entry to a threatened ecosystem or organism… accompanied with sketches and designs related to my work as a potter. This month, I’m logging a brief note about the Ecuadorian páramo.
I’m lying in my temporary residence in Loja, Ecuador, listing to cold, plump raindrops shatter against the skylight. I’m down here supervising a group of eight University of Idaho students, all cranking on a range of ecology projects.
<-- View from our porch, watching my rainpants dry. Note the ubiquitous Ecuadorian concrete and rebar skyline.
People tend to hear ‘Ecuador’ and fasten onto the root word ‘Equator’… with all its connotations of humidity, mosquitos, and tanning oil. The reality is that Ecuador is- in significant part- a country of rock and muskeg… and even a little ice.
It’s also a country where the climate varies by the valley. One ‘Cuenca’ (watershed) can be a dry, floral sort of place… while the next one over can evoke the Hound of the Baskervilles or ‘American Werewolf in London’.
Stay off the moor lads...
Today, we headed up a Cuenca called ‘El Madrigal’ to do some initial surveys for Andean Bears (Oso Andino). Wonderful day out, although it often felt like we were swimming. An ethnobotanist and teacher at a local school fed us on local flowers and berries… all very tart.
Anyhow, I wanted to briefly celebrate the Ecuadorian páramo… a unique habitat composed of endemic shrubs, a bewildering array of bromeliads and yuccas, the mountain tapir, and- of course- Tremarctos ornatus, the Andean bear.
I first encountered the páramo in 2007. My wife and I hacked up a mountain with a good friend named Rodrigo. Halfway up, we encountered the dismembered landing gear from a Boeing 727. It was that kind of place- veiled, precipitous… a place where a plane could easily wander off course and disappear. A vertical Bermuda Triangle.
Not all people like wet, austere places… but I’ve always loved them. The páramo reminds me of Glencoe or Skye in Scotland… except for the primordial looking Puyas that cut through the soils at intervals.
These Puyas, interestingly, are a prime food for the Andean bear (Puya cayata-a small, ramifying species, is a particular favorite). The bears eat the sprouts and basal stems like ice-cream, leaving half-chewed, leafy detritus all across the landscape. Last year, one of our students was experimenting to see whether she could obtain DNA from these fragments… and as part of the experiment, she fed some fresh Puya to a bear in the local zoo. The bear was named ‘Augusto’… and he looked like Pooh in a shop full of honey-pots. I’ve never seen a happier animal.
Note the lovely, Puya-laden scat in the photo on the right!
Here are a couple designs incorporating Puya and mountain themes- I plan to slap these on a couple of pots when I get back to the U.S.
The páramo is an incredible water catchment… the potable water for cities like Quito, Loja and Cuenca flows directly from it’s flanks.
It’s also a garden, with a profusion of orchids, bromeliads, dwarf, bonsai-style shrubs, ferns and mosses. It’s like the Alaskan muskeg mated with a Jurrasic era wetland.
It’s also highly vulnerable. Surprise.
The Ecuadorian páramo- due to its cataclysmic weather and jagged geography, is not as endangered as some Neotropical ecotypes. However, this is starting to change. People are building roads and running ever-larger herds of cattle. The government plants water-sucking Scotch pine trees (see- there’s the Scotland reference again).
More significantly, the páramo has evolved within a fairly narrow window of temperature and moisture… and global climate disruption threatens to change the landscape completely.
The profusion of Puyas, endemic shrubs, orchids… and all the life that they support… these things are support atop inches of viable soil. The area can’t handle changes… this picture from an area near Quito demonstrates what’s at stake.
Ecuador- as a nation and a government- is well aware of the importance of this region… you can’t drive a high Andean road without seeing these things sprouting up. However, good intentions and plans for development don’t walk in lockstep, however, and the Ecuadorians have very little to say about our North American gas guzzling habits.
Still- it’s a region of rough beauty and profound importance… and I’m glad to be able to squelch the eco-alarmism at times, and just slide my rear down a mountainside or two.
I'm currently in Quito, Ecuador, gearing up to head to the South of the country with a group of eight University of Idaho students. We're going to be chasing Andean Bears and 'Coronchos' (Cloud Forest sucker fish) for the next month.
Before I start diving into the Ecology and Conservation of Ecuador (and its relation to the designs on some of my pots) I wanted to post a photo diary documenting the creation of a Japanese-style Lantern.
Lanterns are one of several objects (including fountains, planters, and drums) that fall easily into the 'functional Raku' category. They're quite elaborate... and fun (or devilishly frustrating) to make.
One of the challenges is that traditional lanterns are stone... and therefore pretty much bomb-proof. If you're making one on the wheel, you need to recreate the monolithic out of a nested set of silica soap bubbles.
You also need to decide whether to slavishly adhere to the traditional forms or take a modern slant. I've done both.
Recently, though, I've been intrigued by this lantern (from the Washington arboretum). It's an interesting combination of the traditional (upper vessel and roof) and the modern (the 'doughnut' at the base).
I didn't want to slavishly copy this design, though, so I went through a sketch frenzy.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted a fatter base and a reduced upper section. Something akin to the design on the right.(In part, I love the way that the main basal section evokes the 'Holey Stones' found a range of mythologies... I wrote about this some time ago
).It's amazingly fun to throw 'doughnuts' on the wheel. You need to center and expand a thread of clay, furrow the middle, and then raise two walls. These are then pushed over and joined.I've used these 'doughnut' forms for handles, spouts, legs... the have a nice visual weight, while also conveying a strong organic sensibility.On this project, I used these guys for the main body, the legs, and the handle at the very apex of the roof section.
For some of my previous lanterns, I've build the top section (the 'roof' or 'hood') from a thrown bowl. These top pieces are traditionally solid, however (rather than bowl shaped).
As a consequence, I decided to throw a 'bowl' and a separate platter-shaped base, and join the two elements.
Here's a total breakdown of the elements that went into this project....
#1) Upper 'roof' form
#2) Handle for the apex
#3) Lantern base (the lantern sits on this)
#4) Main body
#6) Top plate to complete the main body
#7) Basal plate for the lantern base
#8) Lantern vessel
#9) Basal plate for the 'roof'
Obviously, that's a large number of sections to compile. It's like an organic, muddy puzzle. Lots of playing with calipers (and even a plumb line).
You slap the sections together using slurry and a little magic mud
. (Lakeside Pottery has a good recipe for this stuff... lowers the melting temperature of clay and helps the bonding process).
I cut and assembled things in three sections... the base (legs, main body, lantern base), the main lantern body, and the hood (plus handle).
There's something kind of barbaric about taking a box-cutter to a beautiful circular form fresh off the wheel.
Getting the base section level required a lot of delicate shaving of the legs, and some careful use of a carpenters level.
Here are the final assemblages. You'll note that I cut a Pacific Cod design into the base... there's also some wave-inspired scroll work on the top of the hood.
I'm modestly pleased with the final result... although in retrospect, I might have strengthened the lantern component (in relation to the hood and the base).
The acid test, of course, will come when the time arrives to Raku-fire this sucker. Thermal shock and complex forms don't always mix... that basal section may fracture like bottle of Jack Daniels at a Skynard concert.
That, however, is another day!
I've been on a lantern binge lately. This one (not finished- obviously) was quite the multi-step project. I'll post some notes on the process later, but for now, I'm interested in what people think about the form...
Just a few Images of fountains, and an associated video clip.
The fountain in the picture above is about 18 inches in height. There's a pump nested in the base pedestal- flow rate is adjustable.
The top vessel fascinates me. Exactly the same glaze on both sides... but differing levels of reduction. Raku is so unpredictable!
This is an alternate design (basal bowl rather than a pedestal). I have several alternate upper pieces for this model- see images below. The design above is a brook trout. The pieces below feature a Giant Pacific Octopus and the (highly endangered) Pacific Cod.
For both fountain designs, I've integrated a planter into the rim of the base vessel. The idea is to plant some trailing foliage in the planter. If water levels are maintained, the planter will then be self watering.
I haven't installed plants in these specific pieces, but here's a fountain that we currently have in the front room of our house. The foliage is wooly thyme- an herb that seems to be pretty resilient in the face of variable water levels. Looks nice too... and you can even dust a bit on your pumpkin gnocchi if you feel the urge.
Finally- here's some video. I recorded this on my ipod, so the sound quality's not ideal... but you get the idea.
I’ve definitely appreciated the people who’ve interacted with this website and blog, and I’d like to inspire a bit more of it if I can. Art is ultimately about communication after all… and it can sometimes feel like isolated labor.
With this in mind, I’m going to inaugurate a quarterly contest.
Four times a year, I’ll solicit a guest entry for my blog. In return, the entry I like the most will get posted, and the submitting person will get a piece of my high-fire work (postage paid- heck… I’ll even mail outside of the U.S. for the right entry).
For the first contest, I’m asking for an entry discussing a threatened or endangered wild creature.
Endangered species have been a recurrent theme in my work (comes of working for a Wildlife department in a western university).
The contest is also loosely based on an ongoing project I’m working on titled ‘Last Chance to See’, based on Douglas Adams’ book of the same name.
1) There’s no hard word limit… but I haven’t posted anything much longer than 1000 words. The entry can be shorter.
2) The entry should be essay-style. It should introduce a specific organism (anything from seaweed to chimpanzee is fine) that is threatened with extinction (I guess this could include almost any living thing on the planet… but starlings or Kentucky bluegrass probably don’t qualify).
2) The entry should describe why this organism is meaningful to the writer. I’m very interested in reference to science, myth, culture, etc. My entry on elephants
can serve as an example.
3) You can include images if you like… but I’m happy to illustrate your entry.
4) You can send me an attachment at firstname.lastname@example.org
, or you can post text into my commissions and contacts page
The contest will run until the end of June (overlapping my annual work stint in Ecuador).
I’ll post the entry that I like the most (assuming I get any!) in July. I’m happy to credit the author in any manner that they wish (links back to their website, etc.).
I’ll also work the organism from the entry into a new surface design for a raku piece.
The winner can choose one of these recent examples of my hi-fire work. Just for the record (because people always ask) these items are dishwasher, microwave, and food safe.
Heck- if Indiana Jones had had one of these, he wouldn't have needed that *&%( refrigerator.
First option is a 'steeper' mug. In addition to the lid, this piece features a perforated insert for holding loose-leaf tea.
There's a carved design on the flank inspired by the coast ranges of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska (with a little bit of Ireland thrown in)
The alternate option was inspired by a friend who came over a month ago. I was giving away a few of my uglier, 'failed' pieces. He took a jar, saying that it would be perfect for 'sippin' whiskey'. He then informed me that I 'outta make a few whiskey flasks'.Idaho- you've got to love it.Here's the result. Not sure if I'll make more of these... but it was fun.The design is my 'stock' grayling carving.
There's a tube running through the upper center of the body- potential attachment point for a strap.
You could evoke all the Minnesota frat boys I remember from the ski hills near Minneapolis, wobbling down the hills with their canteens full of nameless rot-gut.Anyhow- good luck, and I hope I hear from a few of you.
Here's the completed assemblage for the Box Lantern (see my previous entry). Still needs to be fired and glazed, obviously.
I decided to build the 'foot' in such a manner as to mirror the handle on top. In some ways, I think it might have been better not to add the handle... there's something to be said for simplicity.
Once I've bisqued the piece, I'm thinking of a turquoise/red glaze on the exterior, with the tree rendered in white... but jury's out.
It's critical to have a play day in the studio a couple times a month. No repeated forms, nothing 'Commercial'. Just kids playing with the giant mud pie factory that is a potter's wheel.
Yesterday, I decided to build a Japanese style box lantern.
It's always a chancing thing to claim that you're mimicking another culture's forms or aesthetic... and certainly I don't plan to run off a template of a specific lantern.
However, I love the lines and simplicity of forms like the one on the right.
Building anything 'squared off' is an interesting challenge for me, in that I don't own a slab roller. As a consequence, I throw my 'slabs' on the wheel, as if they were plates. This has the interesting tangential bonus of leaving a nice, circular grain on the slab (residue of the sponges activity during the throw). I like this texture.
As you can see, I've assembled the basic elements (photographed on my iPod while watching the Daily Show last night).
Next- I need to decide on a structure for a handle... and decide whether to add any surface decoration.
One of my favorite 'tricks' on the wheel is to throw hollow 'doughnut' forms and then use them as elements in my work. For example, the teapot on the left has a handle built from one of these 'doughnuts'.
For the lantern, I think that I'll build the handle, as well as add legs, using a similar element.
I don't like the proportions in the drawing yet- room for more work.
In terms of surface decoration, I'm planning to Raku-fire the finished piece, and add a bonsai-esque carving of a cedar tree twining up and around the lantern window.
I'm then going to post this out in our yard, and hope that it illuminates the way to Zeniba's house. Or maybe Lantern Waste.
I'll revisit this when I have images of the finished piece.
Fish of the Month: Lingcod- Ophiodon elongates
A pragmatist might ask why I’m adding a ‘fish of the month’ feature to a pottery blog.
Well- I can’t claim to be quite the piscophile that some of my friends are (I’ve got a pal who once kissed a sturgeon’s sucker-mouth on a dare).
However, fish are one of the most variegated, multi-hued and multi-formed expressions of ‘beauty’ in creation. The same process of evolution that yielded the austere grace of a king salmon also gifts us with the Hieronymus Bosch absurdity that is the blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus).
Secondly, fish symbolize wild places in all of their resiliency and terrible fragility. From the Asian silver carp
, tearing a swathe of ecological destruction along the backbone of the Mississippi, to the desert pupfish, hanging on by a thread in a puddle of hot water, fish mirror the health of the ecosystems that support us.
Fish have always been a source of mystery to us. They inhabit a cryptic, hidden world, only marginally opened to us with the advent of aquaria and SCUBA.
Finally, fish bloody fun to draw. I love rendering them on my pots. My basic drawing of an arctic grayling
is a staple of my work… but many of my favorite ceramic vessels from the past year are laced with other denizens of the seven seas.
Anyhow, I’m going to start with one of my favorites.
Back when I was 18, I worked an abortive two-day stint as a deckhand on a Sitka long-liner. I’ve never spent more time retching… it was my only serious bout with motion sickness, and I dearly hope that I never repeat the experience.
For those who’ve never fished the open ocean, the twin arms of a trolling boat drag long cables over the benthos, with nylon leaders clipped to the cables at intervals. When a fish hits a lure, you winch the cable back into the boat. There’s a high level of uncertainty- the leader could be dragging a halibut (back-breaking work with a gaff) a dogfish (break out the Kevlar gloves) or a squirting mess of shredded jellyfish.
However, nothing rears out of the deep with quite the impact of a lingcod. The things are enormous (we caught a six footer during the summer of ’90). They also have a howling, snaggle-hungry stare that makes a person very, very glad not to be a pollock.
They’re not quite the big-ticket item that salmon are, but people do eat them with gusto… to the point where stocks were severely hammered in the mid ‘90s. Things have improved since Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries implemented strict catch limits post-1999.
They’re ferocious gluttons. Interestingly, it’s the males that guard the egg clutches (all 500,000 eggs in some instances). These papas are faithful for up to 10 weeks, and have mauled divers on a couple of occasions.
They’re a wandering fish- females have been known to cover 500+ kilometers in a season. (Males stick closer to home… must be linked to the maternal instinct).
Apart from their googly-eyed, cantankerous personality, however, one of the things that delight me about lings is their coloration. My best compadre and canoeing partner Matt joined me on a British Columbia kayaking trip a few years back. We caught a number of lings, and several (about one out of three) were a vibrant, shimmering turquoise. They seemed to glow as you lifted them out of the water.
This photo (left) from Kawika Chetron’s coldwater images
is a good example.
Honestly, the ones that we caught were too beautiful to eat, and we set them all free. Apparently, though, the color runs beneath the skin. In fact, some people have shied away from eating lings- scared off by the neon green flesh (although- apparently- the flesh turns white once it’s cooked).
I work in a wildlife department at the University of Idaho. None of my fisheries colleagues have been able to steer me to a conclusive reason for the turquoise flesh. Apparently, it’s correlated to a diet laced with crustaceans… but the jade lings often live side by side with red and brown color variants…with no clear reason why.
Anyhow, for those lucky enough to live in the cedar-riven, rain-blest expanses of the Northern Pacific Coast, I hope you have a chance to stare into the vast eyes of one of these frog faces.
I love to draw them, and I love to work them into my pottery… but most importantly, I love to think of them whispering beneath those cruel, azure tidal reaches off the West Coast.
I’ve been a severe sluggard when it comes to nursing this blog along- a weighty shame that I aim to rectify.
(Mind you… blogs are such an exercise in self-gratification that maybe my laziness has simply been a function of creeping humility? Or can you even entertain this question without deep-sixing the premise?)
Anyhow, I’ve been reminded by a couple of people that this blog is, in fact, linked to a business site… and that I’d better try to at least dance around the ceramics theme on a semi-regular basis.
Therefore- from now on, I’m posting an entry a week, even if it’s a un-annotated photograph of an ash-tray.
I will, however, reserve alternating weeks for the weird and the off-beat. This is where you’ll see me professing love to my bouzouki, or arguing with myself about the relative merits of Firefly episodes.
('Ariel' is the best, by the way. Yes- 'Out of Gas' is awesome... but I've got to cut against the grain on this one. Sue me.)
For today, I’ll talk a little bit about the quest for the perfect mug design.
There are a limited number of objects in the world that perfectly fuse functionality and beauty. The best of these have deep, deep roots. The canoe is one such objects (the great Bill Mason famously referred to his 16-foot chestnut prospector as ‘the most functional and beautiful thing ever created by man’.
I won’t argue with Bill, but I think that a good mug is one of these basic, Platonic objects as well.
I say ‘good mug’ because there are many more bad mugs than good ones. I’ve made more than a few myself. Take this gem, for example. I keep it in our cupboard as a constant, muse-channeling irritant.
(Mind you- I also feel a certain weird affection for the thing… sort of like our wretched, grumpy, ankle-biting cat).
Honestly though… it’s got a warped foot, a mal-proportioned body, a hideous, elephant-ear sized handle… and it weighs about 50 kilos.
The surface decoration is unbalanced and uninspired, the attempts at alteration are clumsy... the only thing I could have done to bollox up things further would have been to glaze it with a combination of Lead Bisulfate and Uranium.
Mrrriaorwww!!! Your ankles! Let me bite them!!
(It's the internet. Cats are obligatory)
The scary thing, however, is that equally mutated specimens regularly rear their heads at Ren fairs, farmers markets, and online. I won’t post any pictures for fear of getting sued… but trust me. (The picture on the left is another one of my personal failures... although not as heinous an example as the 'Ugly Mug').
Without diving into the epistemological quicksand of aesthetics, I’d argue that there are some basic ‘rules’ for a good mug.
- The mug’s lip should channel your beverage into your waiting maw without spilling down your fly.
- The foot (or lack of same) should flow from and contribute to the overall shape of the vessel.
- ‘Strength’ is good (and emanates from good lines). Chunkiness is not.
- The handle should be married to the overall form.
- The handle should make your hand feel like the mug is an extension of your arm.
I won’t even touch on the whole questions of surface treatment- that’s a separate topic.
So- here’s a wildly popular design that I’m personally not very fond of. These ‘hand-warmer’ mugs have been propagating like e-coli… I suspect that there’s an unpainted pottery warehouse the sells the basic forms. Apparently, you’re supposed to slot your hand into the cleft. It’s a moderately intriguing idea… but I find it hard imagine that a properly scalded cup of Java wouldn’t fry your hand. Even if you’re working with a high vitrification, low conductance clay body, I don’t really see a place for a counter-grip. We’re given an opposable thumb for a reason.
To be fair-I did dabble in ‘radical’ mug designs early on. I like playing with extreme handle shapes, but none of these retain the kind of balance and ‘grippiness’ you need in a working man’ (woman’s) mug.
My basic working design, for now, can be seen below. Nothing extravagant, but eminently functional.
I do have one newer design that I’m pretty happy with. It’s a play off the classic Germanic ‘stein’ form, and well configured to house a liter of that cold barley pop we all love so well. You’ll note that I’ve dialed back the whacky handles from my early designs, but retained the idea of a ‘trigger’ addition within the handle.
There’s something to be said for a little added leverage when you’re slinging a pint.
(This is a raw version obviously... currently bathed in fire within the bowels of my kiln).
The design I’m currently struggling with is a ‘tea steeper’ mug. I like the idea of a lidded globe- the form appeals to me aesthetically, and evokes a pair of lovely Korean mugs that inhabit our front room.
The problem is that globular forms are fiendishly hard to formulate on the wheel (at least compared to cylindrical forms). The inward curve at the apex of a globe is architecturally weak, and doesn’t cooperate with any kind of rough handling. Thus- adding a ‘sill’ for a lid is a dicey prospect.
And then there’s the question of fitting a handle to a round form.
Most of the round mugs I’ve seen (they seem to be popular with the local baristas) have little pinky loops, rather that proper handles. Fitting a fist-sized handle to a concave surface is almost impractical… at least if you want to retain any degree of balance.
I hate to give up on round forms; however- I find them uniquely pleasing. I realize that I’m opening myself up to all manner of Freudian interpretations here… but I defy all of you black hearted rogues.
Here’s an example of the pinky ring modality. Not bad to look at, but lacking the 'fist-full-of-mug' burliness that you need for soccer hooliganism and singing sea chanties on the deck of the Titanic. However, when you consider a couple of drawings of alternate handle styles, none of them really ‘work’ either.
So… it’s pinky rings for now. Interestingly, a Google search on ‘handmade mug’ didn’t yield many examples of round forms. So- I guess I’m not the only potter to grapple with this.
The search did yield a squawking parade of mal-proportioned, ungainly ducklings, however. Man- there are some bad mugs lurking about the internet. Once again, I’ll refrain from posting photos…
Well- I had a couple minor disasters emerge from the kiln. One fountain base oozed all over the shelf, It reminded me of some of my step-son's ill-advised experiments with banana slugs on Vancouver Island in '03. Another base (like the chalice base from the last entry
) splintered. Big, gaping crack of doom just waiting for Smeagol. Still- I can't complain too much, given the overall levels of success over the past couple weeks. Without too much commentary, here's the current batch.
All of these guys are riffs off my original prototype from about a month back. Although it's the best basic design I've produced, the one thing I'd like to work toward in the future is a bit more asymmetry. Nature is not a symmetrical thing. Rivers wander and purl off into odd little crooks and kinks.
I've got some ideas for designs that should be a bit less tight-laced... but that's something for another day.
In the meantime, the planters continue to propagate. Here are some examples...
This little guy (about five inches in diameter at the rim) is more representational (less abstract) than some of my designs. I tend to like designs that are pared down and exaggerated.
This- of course- is an example of the basic grayling design that I like to endlessly tweak. I was selling at our local farmer's market this weekend, and a vender who was selling North African food observed that the eyes 'looked Egyptian'. Certainly, they don't look like a biologists take on a fish eye.
I should know- I dissected a ton of the things while teaching comparative vertebrate anatomy at WSU this past fall.
This, of course, is a flip back to the representational. Ling cod
) are the most gloriously google-eyed, needle toothed little cutie-pies you're ever going to see outside of Sesame Street. They slither up from the depths looking like a snake hitched a ride on a frog's bum.
I've never managed to get a good photo, unfortunately- my best mate Matt and his big rack of rockfish is the closest I've come. Check the late, great Kawika Chetron's
website for a good image.
I have caught a few of these, but always let them go. They're too bloody cool
to eat.Actually, I almost feel that way about all fish. From here on, just images, no chatter.
OK- I lied again. I need to comment on this planter- which is reduced to the hilt... but still has that nice little streak of oxidized turquoise underneath the Mahi-mahi's belly. The whims of raku strike again.