Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Life of Ceramics, Chapter Two: Preparing for an Historical Show.

                            Ceramic Vase inspired by Cycladic art, designed by Weston Neil Andersen
(designed sometime round about the 1980's)

Spring 2011 in Maine is cool and sunny with enough rainy days to keep the lawns green and the blossoms blossoming..

At Andersen Studio , we are pulling out the boxes of historical ceramics in preparation for the show at Studio 53 in downtown Boothbay Harbor, opening on May 25th. The work is very delicate and the glazes quite different from what we currently use. There are beautifully cast ceramic forms with double dipped glazes producing an interesting effect.

Pictured above are a pitcher, a vase with a downward sloping lip that can also function as a spout and the large size cruet or small wine decanter. All from the late forties or early fifties.

In contemporary times, creativity and innovation are frequently spoken about as the territory of new technology, leading some to view the world of studio potteries as a cult, albeit an ancient, classic and timeless one. Those who live the life of ceramics do with a personal passion for the process and the art. In the world of ceramics, Andersen Studio-Andersen Design is recognized for its designs and  history . The works which will be presented for the first time in this landmark show at Studio 53 in the picturesque village of Boothbay Harbor have a rarefied value within historical context.
This form is based on the wine decanter.
The lip has been modified so that it
slopes downward and functions as a spout.
The form is dipped in two different glazes
to a very interesting effect.
As many of our personal collectors testify, Andersen Studio has a strong personal and cultural identity. Past enthusiasts rediscover Andersen Studio as an a intimate connection to their own personal mythology and as a cultural icon with the power to evoke memories of long ago times.

When Weston and Brenda Andersen began their career in the environs of New York City , they were part of a young designers movement that included Eva Zeisel, Weston's instructor and colleague, and Russel Wright, who twice invited Weston to apprentice. Then the youthful Andersen's art and design was focused on the functional form. When the Andersens moved to Maine, the natural coastal environment inspired the wild life series of sculptures. Ever since the Andersen's ceramic functional designs and stoneware nature art has been associated with life on the Maine coast.

Brenda Andersen was Weston's artistic partner,contributing sculptures and expressive decoration to the line. Brenda developed many repeatable patterns and she also manifested one of a kind spontaneous art work such as the platter shown above with its rigorous brushwork in the form of a tree.

Many of the ceramics in the up coming show are being displayed to the public for the very first time in over half a century- in the community that started the grass roots Andersen collectibles movement.

See links to other historical publications on Andersen Studio

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ceramic Life- Chapter One- Producing a Slip-cast Mug.

Weston Neil Andersen
Founder of Andersen Studio- Andersen Design

My father, Weston Neil Andersen, fell on the pavement last April and suffered a serious brain injury, from which he is still recovering. He says in a considered tone that they tell him he is 89 years old but he isn't sure that he really believes this. Neither age nor brain injury is a cause for my father to retire, and so I like to tell him, that Eva Zeisel, his instructor and colleague is now 104 years old.

We always serve Weston's coffee in one of the mugs that he designed and Andersen Studio produces. Dad often holds the mug out at arms lengths and with a sly smile he says "Now that guy is a good designer!".

Recently a couple of our favorite mugs were broken and so I decided to cast some new ones, as I too missed having my morning coffee in my favorite mugs. I thought of the pleasure Dad would take in drinking his coffee in a brand new mug.

Three mugs in the fettled green ware state
copyright Weston Neil  Andersen 1989

As I was casting and fettling the new mugs I recalled that shortly before father fell that he spoke of an idea of doing a brochure of just the mugs and using it to market the mugs as a line onto themselves. I thought about how post-injury, Dad is trying to find a way to engage in the business but his language skills do not always meet the ideas he has floating around his head. It was then I decided to follow through on the idea Weston had been engaged in before he took a spill that led him to Maine Medical and then to the rehab center.

Weston Neil Andersen designed a beautiful series of mugs, which has never been made available to the market beyond our retail shop in East Boothbay, Maine. The design of the mugs are not suited to the "cookie cutter " presses used to manufacture mugs in China and other low labor cost countries. These are designs specifically suited to the handcrafted ceramic slip-casting method.

The slip-casting process begins with testing the liquid slip for it's water content using a measuring flask and a gram scale.The ideal measurement is around 176 -180. The liquid slip has to be of a consistency to easily and smoothly flow into and out of the mold's forms. If the slip has the right amount of water but is still too thick to flow easily in and out of the mold, the viscosity must be adjusted by adding a small amount of Darvan.

Once assured that the slip's viscosity is right, it is a wise idea to pour a test cast for twenty or thirty minutes to see the thickness that is produced after the liquid slip is pour out of the object. We find that our cobble makes a perfect testing form as it is an open form that will readily release moisture. After the piece is poured and dumped, one waits until it has dried enough to maintain its form, then one takes a flexible fettling knife that can easily be bent to accommodate any shape, and runs the bent knife along the upper edge of the mold leaving as little excess along the lip as possible. If the thickness looks good then one proceeds to fill the molds.

 Tea Cup with curving lip in green ware state after being fettled.
Copyright 1989 by Weston Neil Andersen

With Mugs I like to have a thin lip but not too thin as then the finished mug will easily chip. Sometimes one can take the green ware and even out the edge of the lip on a slab of marble with water poured over it, but as I was working on one of Dad's designs, what we call the Tea Cup, I noticed that the form is not intended to have a flat rim but that there is a quite graceful and subtle oval dip in the lip on the side of the cup used for drinking. This form has not been cast very often and it appeared that this pleasing detail was sometimes missed by the fettler.

Ideally the exact detail can be achieved by the slicing process that is applied to remove the extra clay from the mold defining the form of the lip. Sometimes, this may need a little adjustment. I have found that a fresh rolled piece of sandpaper is ideal for gently recreating the curve of the rim.

It is easy to break pieces during the fettling process, particularly if they have taken in moisture while working on them. A good fettler must have an awareness of when the form has reached that point of moisture when just holding the form with a slight amount of pressure can cause it to break in one's hands. The fettler must then have the wisdom to set the form aside to allow the moisture to release before finishing the piece

The curves in Weston's mug designs are beautiful and provide great satisfaction for the fettler who removes all the excess clay and mold marks to highlight the beauty of the form.

5 mugs in the fettled green ware state.
copyrighted by Weston Neil Andersen circa 1989


Once one has developed a familiarity with the form and what is needed to highlight the quality of the form, the next challenge for a production fettler  is to develop methods of achieving the quality in the shortest amount of time. This also involves an awareness of how far to go with the detail in the green ware and when it becomes futile because some details will be taken care of in the glazing process. A ceramic production requires synchronized team work. Each stage of the process affects and is affected by a later or earlier stages in the process.

2 mugs in  fettled greenware state.
Copyright Weston Neil Andersen circa 1989

Next - Decorating and Glazing the mugs after Bisque Firing 

This is an ideal project fpr collaboration with a ceramic slip-casting operation. See Andersen Studio's Vison statement.

Photography by Susan Mackenzie Andersen

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Art Of Ceramics : Chapter One: What is Art?

In commencing to write about the art of Ceramics, the question presents itself: What is art?

Art is more than technique and greater than discipline. The social status of work of art is determined by political and cultural forces and at the same time art is nature expressed through the individual man in the context of time, place, culture and politics.

Art is more than aesthetics; it also conveys meaning and messages. Prior to the invention of the printing press painting, pottery, and architecture recorded the stories of history. In modern times art has become inseparable from a continual redefinition of art. Artists make “statements”, artists “shock”, artists express spiritual, religious, intellectual and political ideas.

At the beginning of the history, preferences for unique ceramic shapes and decorative styles emerged within specific cultures and time periods for which there is no other explanation that pure aesthetics. By definition, the function of a pot is filled by any shape that can serve as a small container, beyond that, the choice of the shape and the decoration are purely aesthetic choices- unless they are also created to serve social, political and/or religious purposes.

In the Neolithic era pottery served a function in material subsistence. Raw clay from the earth was used to make baskets air and watertight. When it was discovered that the heat permanently hardened the clay, the art of ceramics was born.

The word “art” can be used in relation to any human activity requiring the development of refined skills and disciplines, which traces back to the etymology of the word, art”. The Latin meaning of “art” translates as "skill" or "craft."

As long as the making of pottery was considered part of the household chores, it was a women’s art. When the market place came into existence, and more importantly the wheel, - one of man’s first “machines”- pottery making became a masculine pursuit. Man was the “provider”, and woman, who gives birth to new generations, historically took care of the home.

As the market evolved, it came to be that the creators of the form and the decorators of the pottery signed their work and so from the beginning of man’s history, the concept of “art” as something above and beyond mere function has evolved as a by-product of the market place. One could provide more for one’s family by offering that which satisfies more than material function and appeals to man’s need for beauty. Aesthetics was likely as much a part of pottery produced by women in the process of doing the household chores, just as the manifestation of beauty is as natural to man as it is to nature, but it was the marketplace that brought a wider appreciation in which the linguistic construct of “art” as separate from mere “function” was culturally articulated.

Art has long been associated with class distinctions. “Blue chip art” is beyond the reach of the ordinary person, and often synonymous with “important art”. It is a symbol of social status for the rarified private collector. “Fine art” is traditionally identified as art for arts sake and by definition excludes art that has a functional purpose. Dictionary .com defines
“Fine art” as "a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculptures, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.”

The inclusion of architecture in the above definition is incongruous. A building has an obvious and primary functional purpose and yet architecture is included in the above contemporary definition of ”fine art”, where as ceramics and other functional objects are excluded. A possible conclusion is that the inclusion of architecture is explained by the larger degree of concentrated wealth involved in creating a larger functional object such as a building. I submit that this is a bad definition of both fine art and design - as if aesthetics is the primary purpose for creating a building and function merely a tangential happenstance or after thought of the aesthetic purpose, in direct denial of the foundational tenant of good design;” Form follows function”.

The power elite are the arbitrators of a society’s “important art”.  Important art is exhibited in high-end galleries and museums. While the power elite may dismiss art produced for middle class or mass markets, the general public often looks aghast at what is presented as art by the power elite, be it Jeff Koon’s 1991  “Made in Heaven” show at the Sonnabend Gallery in Soho, New York City- a show of oversized images of Koons and his then wife, a porn star, in the act of having sex- or the 2010 federally funded Smithsonian Gallery show featuring ““images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen Degeneras grabbing her breasts and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show‘s catalog as ’homoerotic.’ –all in a show that the museum describes as “the first major exhibition to examine the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating modern American portraiture.” It is arguable that the show is functionally motivated - all be it a political function. Thus in accordance with the definition of fine art, The Smithsonian’s gallery show is no more classifiable as “fine art” than beautiful pottery “artifacts” found in ancient graves.

It is quite possible to apply the design axiom “Form follows function” to every work of art invoking some interesting results. Form can follow from a spiritual, intellectual, political, or practical function. All of the arts are expressed through some manner of form. “Art” is an elusive quality not easily defined, always reinventing itself anew.

The definition exposes the meaning of  “fine art” as a man-made linguistic construct inseparably entwined with class distinctions, wealth, and power. It begs the question: “If “fine art” needs to be separated and exclusive of any functional purpose, then why isn’t it also separated and exclusive of social and political purposes such as concentrated wealth, politics and/or religion? What makes art “important” what makes art “fine” What makes art “art”?

I submit that “art” by nature is self-evident. It exists in the eye of the beholder. Art exists in any object that evokes an elevated response from the viewer. If art is defined as that which evokes the emotions, the intellect, or the spirit of man, then it makes no difference whether the work of art is created with gold, silver and rare gems, or from the ubiquitously available clay or wood, or if it is commonly available or only to be had by a rarified elite.

When a collector brings together a group of objects, he creates value. The collector’s eye creates the value.

While there is no escaping the function of art as a maker of status, and the collecting of art as inescapably entwined with the creation of wealth,

A function of making art is that it promotes well-being through meaningful work processes, and so while the art may be owned by a wealthy elite, the function of creating the art serves the larger society.