Make First, Explain Later – Or Not At All

Left to Right: Sheik Abou Ben, Angus, Kiku, Henrik, Mumtaz and Greta


I have a skittish relationship with naming my creator-self.  Saying I’m an Artist, Artisan, Craftsperson, Ceramicist, or even just the tony nom-du-jour of Maker, bothers me sufficiently that shortly after I adopt one I find it uncomfortably limiting, if not damaging.  While each may work as a signifier in the moment, they speedily run smack into the twin problems of demarcations and assumptions which divert, subvert, and pervert.  The root problem I have with labels is sort of a chicken/egg connotative conundrum. Does the Maker’s making (as a pure process) inform the Made’s meaning?  Or…does the Made Thing (a physical product) make the Maker something (as a byproduct of the product?) Humor me while I iron this out.

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Caterpillar Soup

Caterpillar Soup!

Exactly what happens in a cocoon, that organic black box of metamorphosis?  The caterpillar attaches, spins a blanket, and proceeds to digest itself, keeping only a few “imaginal discs” to generate the adult body parts it will need, and using the rest of the resultant goo for food.  In the months since I have last written in this Journal, I have been in a metaphoric chrysalis, happily sipping my own “caterpillar soup” which I am only now able to take a stab at describing.

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Compare and Despair*


Rio Del Mar Beach 2017

Are you jealous of the ocean’s generosity? Why would you refuse to give this gift to anyone? Fish don’t hold the sacred liquid in cups. They swim the huge fluid freedom. –Rumi


The temperamental obstacles of Comparison and Envy, which I haven’t fully morphed out of my life yet, have become opportunities for a transformative practice which helps them dissolve more elegantly. Discernment and competitiveness – generally accompanied by a high dudgeon and despair – were marginally more workable in my youth, what with school and jobs and boyfriends and such. But now, at a gentler juncture, they are entirely unsuitable and, left unexamined, bring little but boring uni-directional angst. Measuring myself against others in any way has outlived its usefulness and I am now quick to notice it skulking around and invite it to dance.  What arrives with the waltz, a “huge fluid freedom,” is where the juju is. So let’s talk about that instead.

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My Back Pages


ceramic centerpiece
“Centerpiece” Clay, Stains, Glazes, 2013


 Up in the attic pawing through tubs teeming with my older ceramic work, I sat chuckling and chucking a goodly portion of it. Then I hauled the remainder down into the daylight to plead its case for retention. Concurrently,  I clicked to the outer reaches of my Artwork Image Folders, creating sleeker organization and curating like hell. (Don’t worry, as of this writing 17,127 files remain.)  This trip through my overgrown creative back pages has served to both inform and to deeply overwhelm. SO much work and so many changes of techniques and styles! For clarity’s sake, couldn’t I have settled, made only one or two styles and just been happy?

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We Nourish Each Other

Artist's Alchemy Set 2018
“Artist’s Alchemy Set” Found and Acquired Objects, Ceramic, Underglaze, 2018


If this was a chapter in my autobiographical how-to book (working title: Fired Up), it would be much longer and charmingly anecdotal, starting with one premise but taking off on profound and oh-so-meaningful tangents before returning to a heart-rending culmination. But, instead, it’s a journal entry and it needs to get in and out in 800-1000 words. I think I can do it – particularly the heart-rending part – and I will tell you the word count at the end.

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All My Clay Chickens Fly Away

Big Broody Ceramic Chicken


As it turned out, three events this Spring in the same town at the same time invited my ceramic works to participate. One entailed making a chicken, any kind of clay chicken, to be shown with dozens of other chickens in a group setting on a lawn. A second asked me to add larger works to those they already displayed in their Gallery Shop. A third was an annual statewide ceramics exhibit, juried, curated and fairly prestigious. I was happily All In with all three and here’s a briefly annotated photo essay so you can be All In along with me.



Nakie Time and Homefire 1957 at California Clay Competition 2018


Starting with the third event, the California Clay Competition – held annually at The Artery in Davis, CA – entices me yearly, yet I have only entered one other time (2012) and was accepted then as well. Like most folks, I dislike being rejected and it takes a special effort to cowgirl-up enough to feel the worth of my entries in that statewide arena. This time I took the leap because the juror was Tiffany Schmierer, a beloved former instructor, and I simply wanted to formally place my recent work before her eyes, even anonymously….even if she did not select it. These two pieces, Nakie Time and Homefire 1957, are from my personal collection and it means the world to me to display them in this venue in a heady group of mega-talented artists, with her blessing to boot.

I went to the Opening Reception, but “forgot” to wear my nametag.  Few know me by sight there, so I had the tremendous joy of watching a man encounter Nakie Time, do a double take, smile broadly, get out his phone and ever so slightly tilt the can to the right angle and take a couple of shots, chuckling the while. I got to watch him fall in love! What a testimony.



Ceramic Cans at the Pence Gallery


Meanwhile, a few blocks away at The Pence Art Gallery, I have many of my ceramic cans: beer, spice and assorted, available in their Gallery Shop. The Exhibit Coordinator asked if I had anything larger to augment the Gallery during  annual Ceramics Conference and beyond. Yep, I did. I selected a few more pieces from my personal collection that I am now willing to part with. It was a pleasant surprise to see them at the head of the stairs on pedestals looking right at home. I’d say it was an honor to bring them there.



Cabrillo Ceramic Chickens


And lastly, there was that lawn-ful of chickens who flew into town for a long weekend. The Cabrillo College Intermediate Ceramics class, plus friends, made dozens of them. There were eggs and chicks and even a fox under the henhouse. They were elegant and thoughtful, ranging from astonishingly realistic to goofy and endearing. It was great fun to wander through the display a few times and discover new angles and personalities. I had dawdled and dithered in making mine until I was nearly out of time. With three weeks left, desperation focused my mind and hands and the Muses/Kiln Gods supported me. I called her Big Broody – she’s up top there – but the Cabrillo crowd quickly dubbed her Mother Clucker cuz she was of heroic proportions and obviously about to hatch something wonderfully badass.

–Liz Crain, who remembers attending the Davis Clay Conference (CCACA) weekend back in the day as an astonished ceramics beginner, never daring to imagine being a participant in the all the exhibits and galleries she was in awe of.  Still feeling a tad like Lizzy From the Block, which is probably a good thing, she nevertheless was right at home this year, a refreshing evolution.


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The After Effects


Messy Studio
Studio “Before” March, 2018


It’s been a jam-packed past year but the greatest push of it culminated throughout the past month. I find myself now in the rain shadow of a solo show, which dovetailed with a massive studio purge and re-org, and followed by a chaser of insights into my creative process.  A Holy Trinity of tensions and releases, really. Then there are the After Effects from all of it. I can name three.

After Effects of the  Solo Exhibit — I created the works for my solo show over nine months’ time. The parts, pieces and possibilities took over my creative space and nearly all my thoughts. It was great fun, actually, to be so willingly swept away. At showtime, however, all those projects left together and the tidal surge of purposeful focus and activity ebbed away, leaving me beached and a bit bereft. Fortunately I have come to expect this and was already looking beyond it by planning the Next Things. That sort of segue really really helps. What caught me by surprise was that my tiny studio was clearly wrecked, as you can see above. (The rest of the space was woefully worse and I could only walk in about 18 inches.) As I half-heartedly began to tidy my way in, it felt daunting: the normal touches of post-exhibit funk combined with literal blockage, not enough space to sort it out and no sane or happy way to begin even one of the projects I had on the clipboard. One cannot organize clutter, but one can purge. So I purged.

After Effects of the Purge — The purge became a total remodel: new huge storage shelves, new task lighting, new configuration of workspaces. It is still in the fine-tuning stage as I write, but enough radical rearrangement has occurred that I can no longer find things automatically, even if nothing is in my way. It’s created an odd Not-My-Life sensation. I bump into the edges of the new configuration, walk to the “old” spot to set something down, and feel like a visitor in my own place. As a kid I used to get all happy deep-cleaning my room (I know, that’s weird…) but then I would sit in it feeling strangely empty, utterly afraid to mess it up again. It’s sort of like that now in the studio and I relate it to the very real fear of a blank canvas. I gingerly started and stopped several new projects, making sure to stow them neatly on my designated Works-in-Progress shelves. But that feeling of needing things to stay unsullied is death to creativity, at least mine, so I spent some time wondering why and how I needed to be creative at this new juncture and had some freeing insights.

After Effects of the Insights I’ll spare you the wonderings and just cut to the epiphany and what it might mean. All this time (decades) I have thought that the art objects that I made, and especially what of them I shared with the world, were the point of my carefully coddled creative process, the crux of the biscuit, as it were. That a favorable reception of the beautiful things themselves – by me or anyone – was the goal.  It’s not.

I realized that the physical objects I make are merely the by-products – sometimes even detritus – of the process itself. Their existence, aesthetics, esteem, and economics are diversions. The classes, art biz books and websites, coaches and gurus, mentors and clay buddies, ceramic sales, festivals, exhibits, competitions and online events are busywork. My carefully defined core values, product families, price points, merchandising methods, and selling style are gimcrackery. The countless artist statements, social media posts and magnificent manifestos? Fluff. I’ve suffered failures, imagined slights, had inappropriate envy, false hope and creative exhaustion, thinking it was all necessary to the cause. Guess what? It’s not.

When these realizations sunk in so deeply that I felt the truth of them in my bones, in my interstitium, in my vagus nerve, I laughed out loud. For me, in this lifetime, Process is the Product! Any residuals are delicious gravy. The core reason I create is to give myself something I want to look at, marvel over, and fall in love with. Nothing more is really needed.

–Liz Crain, who of course reserves the right to carry on with the whole biscuit, apostrophes and all.

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