Sunday, May 23, 2010

Musings on art and artists

Water Lilies, by Bessie Potter Vonnoh, c. 1913

There has been a very interesting discussion on the member forum for the Realistic Equine Sculpture Society about how the equine collectibles community and the artist who work in it are perceived by equine artists working in the fine art world. Some of the comments reminded me of something I saw during my last visit to Brookgreen.

One of the galleries there had an exhibit entitled "Fifteen Women: One Hundred Years of Sculpture". One of the things that has always struck me about Brookgreen is just how many pieces in their collection were sculpted by women. It was also clear that many of the pieces were designed not for galleries, but for gardens. I have often wondered if the work these women did, often portraying children and animals, got the same kind of scorn from the "proper" art world. That proper art world was already turning away from realistic work; indeed, Brookgreen was established in part in reaction to that. Did the marginalized realistic sculptors of that era in turn marginalize these women for making expensive "lawn ornaments" just as some look upon artists in my field as making "toy horses"?

The museum card next to the sculpture pictured above had an intriguing comment:
"At a time when most sculptors produced monuments, Bessie Potter Vonnoh made significant contributions to small bronze sculpture and garden statuary designed for the embellishment of the home. ... Concentrating on sculpture for domestic settings that combined naturalism and elegance, Vonnoh entered a male dominated field creating a pathway to professional success and making high-quality sculpture accessible to a wider audience."
I have never had a lot of concern about whether what I did was considered "art" or "Art" - or even craft. Having been raised by a commercial artist, I was indoctrinated in only one important distinction among artists: starving or not-starving. The idea of a viable market was always front and center among my considerations. But I think the quote above talks about what has kept me involved in collectibles. For any number of reasons, the average person finds Art intimidating and incredibly distant from their day-to-day life. I like the idea that we are making "high-quality sculpture accessible to a wider audience".

Friday, May 21, 2010

Aging gracefully (mostly)

This is the girl that claimed aging would not matter to her. Easy for her! (The picture was taken by a friend twenty years ago because my "new boyfriend" Alan asked for a picture and I didn't have any. The lipstick was a rarity then; it simply doesn't happen now!)

I was encouraged by my friend Joan’s post about aging a few days ago. It is always comforting to know that you aren’t alone.

I always told myself I would accept aging gracefully. This seemed like an easy enough claim to make, since I’ve never cared much about looks. My approach to personal appearance would be more accurately described as “try remember there is a line between being low maintenance and being a slob.” Like my friend Sarah, paint- and mud-covered studio clothes and flip flops are my normal attire.

Obviously this meant that when I started graying, I would simply be gray. Of course it helped that my image of “gray” was formed by the way my mother’s lovely true-black hair turned a cold-toned salt-and-pepper. What I didn’t bargain for was a white streak appearing right at the natural part in my hair. Despite the young people in my life insisting that this was trendy and cool, all my mental images of dark hair with a white stripe are distinctly negative. I would have been okay looking older… looking old even. But I wasn’t cool with looking like I should be kidnapping some nice young couple’s Dalmation puppies. So like Joan, I found a talented colorist.

That may have been a blow to theory about aging, but the really difficult part has been accepting the increasing loss of my sight. I have always been near-sighted, of course. It was pretty moderate when I was younger, so I only occasionally wore glasses. As my husband used to say, we wore glasses when we really needed to see, and didn’t when we need to be seen. (I should note that he does have some personal vanity.) Over time that changed to “not seeing much without them” and then to “needs glasses not to trip over things”. Still, through it all my near vision was fine, which was for me all that really mattered.

In recent years, the near vision has started to go, too. When this changed Joan’s ability to work on small-scale horses a few years back, my husband (an optical physicist) helpfully explained why it was inevitable. I chose to disbelieve him.

But working on Vixen and especially Imp, I know my days doing really small horses are numbered. Ott lights and lenses for close-up work are working for now, but I know that consistently working small is probably not in my future. Even now I can only work on them for a while before my eyes simply stop focusing that close. I don’t plan to stop releasing mini-scale pieces. (I’m still dying to produce Sarah’s upcoming stock horse stallion!) It is still my favorite scale, and I will keep working on small horses for as long as I can. But it is likely that the upcoming Elsie and Oliver will mark a turning point at the studio, with a greater number of larger-scale pieces being released.

If only reversing aging eyes was as easy as changing hair color!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The mud

After the post earlier this week about plaster, I received an email asking what type of clay I used. The question came at a good time, since I was in the process of mixing a new bucket. Since most of the things I make are tiny, a two-gallon bucket of slip like the one in the picture above usually lasts me about a year.

Like most American ceramists making horse figurines, I cast my pieces in earthenware. British pottery companies like Animal Artistry usually work in bone china. I sometimes glaze bone chinas, particularly those produced by Animal Artistry or Marcherware, but anything cast here at Blackberry Lane is done in earthenware. There are things about glazing bone china that are easier, but bone china production is extremely difficult. Earthenware is much more forgiving. (I also like that the fired clay is a warmer-toned white than the bone china. Since white areas of the horse are usually bare clay, and the underglazes are themselves somewhat transluscent, the color of the clay changes the look of the finished piece.)

White earthenware slip is widely available in the United States, and it comes in seemingly infinite varieties. I use a type based on the old Hagen-Renaker recipe. Hagen-Renaker was a pioneer in the production of high-quality, highly detailed ceramic animals. It was later used at Pour Horse, which is how I first learned about it. Having used other commercially available slip, I can't imagine using anything else. The formula has an unusually high talc content, which I'm told is why it fires extremely white and retains an amazing amount of detail. Certainly if I cast something in "regular" slip and "good" slip, I can tell by the touch which castings are which.

I should mention that the supplies in the picture aren't for making the slip from raw ingredients. Since I don't have the space for the kind of equipment that takes, I purchase it from another potter ready-made. It comes in two-gallon buckets which I use to store it. When I am casting, I keep a working quantity in the pitcher. There is a strainer over the top of the pitcher so I can pour the slip from the bucket to the pitcher without getting any dried bits from the rim.

I also had someone write to me about how hard it was to mix the slip by hand. The slip is suprisingly heavy, and it sometimes thickens after it sits, so mixing with a hand tool would be a fair bit of work. I use a cement mixing attachment that fits into my husband's cordless drill. (This is why he can never, ever find this particular tool - it's usually in my studio.) It isn't in the picture, but I also use a small handheld mixer for whenever I need to remix the slip in the pitcher.

The date on the bucket indicates when the slip was made. In this case, it is five year-old slip. Slip works best when it has aged. Since I fear losing my supplier and having to make my own, I tend to hoard it. I use it so slowly, aging has never been a problem here! That might change, however, when I add the larger pieces to the production line later this year.

As a side note, a friend pointed out that I could set comments on moderation, which would allow me to screen for spam. I am going to do that later today, since I really do prefer to keep them turned on. I am a firm believer that conversations among people often lead to new information, and that doesn't work as well when the conversation is one-sided. I love talking to folks who read the blog, but I like it even better when readers can also hear one another.

Monday, May 17, 2010


One of the drawbacks with long-distance learning is that it's really easy to overlook the obvious. For those of us who work in slipcast ceramics, there are a number of things we just take for granted because we deal with them on a constant basis. An email message from someone struggling with mold-making reminded me of this.

Probably the most common problem I've seen among people attempting to make their first molds is something as simple as using the wrong plaster. I know in this blog I use the generic term plaster, as do most ceramists when they are talking about making molds. The problem is that we aren't actually using generic plaster. Ceramic molds - at least the kind used for detailed eathernware castings - are made from a special kind of plaster called "Pottery Plaster No.1". Using the ordinary plaster available at the local building supply store leads to a lot of frustration. I've learned that when someone calls me to say they are having trouble, I need to ask what kind of plaster was purchased.

Pottery Plaster No. 1 is made for this kind of work, but it's also really finicky. If it gets damp it tends to clump, which ruins it. Molds made with clumpy plaster rarely turn out well. Living in the southeast, I end up losing a lot of plaster to humidity.

I try to minimize this by dividing the plaster into smaller portions which are kept in plastic bags that are then stored in a sealed plastic container. I've found that one 50 lb. bag of plaster fits pretty comfortably in two document-holder plastic containers. This way I can pull out just enough plaster for a job, without exposing the rest to the air.

As you can see, I have this set up on a paved driveway. It is important not to let the plaster dust contaminate the clay, and this kind of work is pretty dusty. I like to keep it as far from the studio as possible. I've often wondered what my neighbors think as I make up dozens of bags of white powder, but so far none have asked!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pretending to be a graphic artist again

This past week I had to temporarily trade in my clay for the graphics tablet, dust off my rusty rendering skills and catch up on some promised drawings. This little trotting guy is supposed to get transferred to some tiles for my friend Addi Velasquez and her all-china show "Mud Day". I've never used the transfer technique before, so I'm curious to see how they come out.

In the meantime, my youngest son asked if I would print him out so he could color him. I guess he does look a bit like a page from a coloring book. I recently took a class on coloring prayer mandalas, and had a great time coloring intricate horse patterns on one of those Celtic horse circles. Maybe I should print two copies out and color with him!

I also had to design the t-shirts for the Science Olympiad team I help coach. We agreed that we would just use some simple text since time (and money) were short. But the school's mascot, a cartoon Viking, was just too tempting. He needed to become a mad scientist! Don't all fur vests come with pocket protectors and pens these days?

It has been a fun change of pace, and just what I needed to break my obsession with the horse color book. I have never been a great multi-tasker, so it is easy for something to take over my time to the exclusion of all else. These projects had immovable deadlines, so I had to set the manuscript down. Now I am all charged to get back in the studio and work in the mud!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


"Now I have five monkeys chattering in the studio, the peafowl screaming in the yard and the bears crawling on the other side. As a sculptor I call it an embarrassment of riches but others might not think so... " - Anna Hyatt Huntington

Since I had mentioned the Huntington dogs in the last post, this seemed like a good time to finally post a tour of Anna Hyatt Huntington's home, Atalaya. The name comes from the Spanish word for "watchtower", and the building in the first photo was inspired by a lookout tower in Morocco. The original one was used for spotting Barbary pirates, but this one was a water tower for the estate. It also was designed to attract bats to help control mosquitos.

Anna and her husband Archer had built Atalaya when Anna - who had tuberculosis - was told that she needed a quieter, warmer location. Atalaya was modeled after the Moorish fortresses Archer recalled seeing on the coast of Spain, and it does look a lot more like a military site than someone's home. But it was truly their home and its rooms have always made me think of what my own friends and colleagues might build, were money no object. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to give a virtual tour.

Atalaya sits directly across from the entrance to the Huntington's sculpture garden, Brookgreen. In fact, the drive runs straight to this arched brick entry way. At the end of these arches is the front door to the main house. If you turned around and had really good eyesight, at the other end is this sculpture.

Those are the big fighting stallions that sit at the front gate to Brookgreen Gardens. Anna sculpted these, and they are cast in aluminum, which is why they are such a pale silver color. A road now runs between the two properties (Atalaya and Brookgreen) and separates them.

As much as I would love the idea of having Brookgreen sitting directly outside my front door, it's what was behind the house that had a lot of appeal to the rest of the members of my family. They are standing just a dozen or so yards down the path from the back door. (I believe I took this photo at high tide.)

Sadly, while the house was named a National Historic Landmark in 1992, it hasn't been especially well-maintained. The interior floors are brick, and the walls were whitewashed brick. The whitewash is peeling and discolored, and many of the shutters are missing.

The ornate ironwork on the exterior of the windows is still there, though much of the facade is covered with ivy.

I suspect the ivy was allowed to grow up the walls of the inner courtyard even when the house was occupied, but now it covers much of the building.

With all the exposed brick and little ornamentation, it has always been hard for me to imagine this was the Huntingtons' personal retreat - a place they went to for comfort and renewal. I think I would need something that held heat a little better, even in the relatively warm climate of South Carolina.

But while I wouldn't have carpets, I would have a place to keep my bears!

These are the bear pens. Anna used the cages to keep live specimens for whichever project she was working on at the time. I am fond of pointing out to Alan that taking over part of his garage for my spray booth is nothing. I haven't asked him to build any wild animal enclosures on the back of the house yet.

And the cages were attached to the house. What's even more surprising to me is that directly facing the yard in front of those cages is the back wall of the stables. Mr. Huntington was an indulgent spouse, tolerating Anna's bears so close to his home. But her horses must have been saints!

The grassy area behind this fence, which sits on the other side of the bear pens, used to hold the kennels. Like the bears and the horses, the kennels were also inside the main walls.

Just beyond the stables is Anna's outdoor studio, which is where she preferred to sculpt. I had the guys stand inside to give a sense of size, because the place was too large to photograph whole. The doorway Matthew (in the red shirt) is standing in front of is the entrance to Anna's indoor studio. I noticed that it was more than large enough to get a horse inside.

It was also large enough to hold one - or several! I had an even harder time photographing the room to show its size. The ceiling actually rises at an angle towards those windows on the left. The whole wall on that side was lined with windows.

The ceiling also had these windows to allow in yet more light. The door to the left in the previous photo goes up stairs to the rest of the house. I was amused to see that while it had a large library room, there weren't any formal rooms that one might expect from people of the Huntington's social stature - no ballrooms or parlors or dining rooms. None of my sculpting friends have a place to keep bears, but I know that trading formal rooms for studios is a place where we can all relate!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Changes in the comments

I hated to remove the comment feature, because I like hearing from readers. Unfortunately the level of spamming on Blogger sites has gone up pretty dramatically in the last few months, and I'd hate for someone to click on one of their links thinking it was a legitimate comment. So I've turned off comments for the time being.

You can always send comments to my email, which is available on the studio website and on my Blogger profile page. Most of you send comments this way anyway, so I suspect it's a change that most people won't notice.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Long-delayed correction

Wolfhound, by Zenos Frudakis

Last fall, when Addi Velasquez and Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig toured Brookgreen Gardens, I mentioned in passing that Anna Hyatt Huntington, the founder of the Gardens, had been the first breeder of Scottish Deerhounds in America. The post, which contained pictures of Anna's sculpture "Deerhounds Playing", had been linked on an online Deerhound discussion list.

Sometime afterwards I was contacted by the historian for the Scottish Deerhound Club of America, Clay Finney. Mr. Finney, whose first Deerhound was descended from one of Mrs. Huntington's Stanerigg dogs, wanted to let me know that hers was not the first Deerhound kennel in the States. There were a number of kennels active in this country in the 1800s, long before Stanerigg. He also shared with me some wonderful photos from the Huntington archives, which he allowed me to share here.

This first one is Anna with a group of her hounds, taken in 1939.

He also included this one with a rider and a pair of Deerhounds. I had assumed this was Anna's husband, Archer Huntington, but I realize now that the photo is not identified directly.

I've had a lot of reason to think of Mr. Finney's kind note these last few months as I have worked on the horse color books. The information I had on the Stanerigg Kennels came from an old newspaper article that was part of an exhibit on the Huntington dogs. It illustrates the problems of dealing with contemporary references from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Information was often rather carelessly assembled, and once printed often got repeated endlessly. It has been shocking to me to see just how many equine texts from the late 1800s simply lift whole sections from previous publications, without regard for copyright. What's worse is that these are often presented as first-hand accounts. For a researcher, this is maddening. As a person whose livelihood is so closely tied to issues of intellectual property, it's depressing.

So while I have obsessively checked far too many small details - which explains my absence and distraction of late - I am pretty sure errors will slip through. My experience with the Deerhound post is that sometimes a mistake is the best way to meet someone with new and interesting information.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Spring renewal

I apologize for the lengthy hiatus from blogging. All my writing energy - really all my energy - has been spent on the color books for the last few months, and the blog has suffered.

I am stepping away from book writing for a little while to attend to neglected projects in the studio. The book will benefit from me getting a little more perspective, and I sure will benefit from spending more time with the mud! I also have some long-neglected posts to make here, including a correction and some cool historical photographs a reader shared with me.