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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Merely Clever


“Cleverness is not wisdom” ~Euripides


Beware the Pleasure Island of artistic cleverness! It will make donkeys of us all.

I admit, I’m no different. I’ve boogied around that isle, delighted with my parlor tricks and sight gags, elbow-jabbing viewers into acknowledgment of my conceits. “Get it!?” – which surely obliterated any tender scions of artful charm.

And I’m not the only ass here: I watched my artwork rapidly grow its own ears and tail and morph into a One Trick Donkey. Well, then!

As much as I suffered, I lacked enough understanding to dodge this pitfall. Was my work Un-skillful? Under-realized? Tentative? Brash? Or, horrors, Sophomoric? Yet, those descriptors felt tangential. I needed to grasp the heart of the cleverness mechanism so it could become my creative tool to wield with dexterity and intention.

The epiphany came from two related concepts learned at the side of my longtime mentor, Kathryn McBride:

Avoid the Merely Clever and its corollary, Apply Irony.


Avoiding the Merely Clever

A few years back, as Kathryn and I were walking among student displays at the annual California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art in Davis, I heard her snort in amusement, and then wonder out loud if the humorous piece in front of her was “merely clever,” meaning it fell short in certain ways.

She explained that her own MFA work in Ceramics at San Francisco State had received this truthful critique and she’d became a more conscious and confident artist because of it. Decades later, she still found it useful in assessing her own ideas. And by being able to recognize mere cleverness in the work of others, she could guide students beyond the first layer of their creative impulses to a truer meaning.

From that time on, we would smile and rather conspiratorially use “merely clever” as a gentle codename for any work which took the expected and easier road home, even if exquisitely executed.

And at long last, I had the conceptual tool I needed to identify and go beyond visual one-liners myself.


Applying Irony

Yet, there remained works and artists who seemed to dance tauntingly close to the “merely clever” trap, yet not fall in. How? Why?

And why did one of Kathryn’s most successful perennial assignments ask her students to make a work illustrating a Tired Old Cliché? She even provided a list of 80 kickstarter sayings and phrases. Wasn’t this a recipe for a snooze-fest of obviousness? Yet hackneyed chestnuts such as “Let the cat out of the bag” and “Butterflies in the stomach” provided the springboard for some literal yet profound interpretations from students at all levels of artistry. Why?

Only in recent months have I realized the answer. It has come from a sagacious little book titled 101 Things to Learn in Art School by Kit White. Item 94 on the list is “Irony has controlled the stage in contemporary art since the end of Modernism.”

Let me quote the discussion of this a bit more:

To avoid the twin whirlpools of the easy send-up on one side and the sentimental on the other, come to a clear and meaningful understanding of how irony works as a serious factor in the world. As Richard Rorty once wrote, it is the recognition of “the contingency of all things.”

So, there you have it. We can still visit Pleasure Island, just bring along some 21st century conceptual donkey-embracing armor. Irony brings complexity, depth and wisdom to the simple shallows of mere cleverness. A meta-conscious dose of the ironic in our artwork turns the piece, tragic or comic, real or abstract, into a consideration of what it also is not and of what else it could be, evolving the work out of our clever heads into our all-contingent hearts

~Ironically, Liz Crain is a sometimes-narrative ceramic artist who completely agrees with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s admonition to “Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness,” – which Kathryn also knew well, especially when over-tired.


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Takin’ It Outside and On the Road

In terms of ceramic art, mine and others, I did it up royally last weekend. That means I went for maximum effort and uber-luxe spectacle by attending and participating in both the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art AND the Santa Cruz Clay Show and Sale at Bargetto Winery.

Friday: To Davis, CA and back (2.5 hours each way) in 12 hours. The other 7 hours we were NOT in the car, we toured 45 exhibits and demos at the 22nd annual CCACA. What a whirlwind of wonderful work! I’m always dumbfounded by a few pieces and suitably inspired by a great many more. For the first time, I was kinda sad not to have the whole weekend there.

Biggest showstopper of course: Cabrillo College’s outdoor exhibit titled “Hard Times.” Described as “a social comment on the economic down-turn and a trompe l’oeil ceramic art installation.” My all-ceramic aquarium piece, which I have previously spoken of, was made for this. Here are a few shots, a street view and one from the uphill side of things.

It was almost TOO realistic!
Anything not white is ceramic!

All the “pedestals” are pieces of furniture. Everything else is a ceramic treasure. (Well, you already know the aquarium is glass…) It’s daring to take an outdoor space and fill it with such a large concept. And when the sprinklers went on Sunday morning, the aquarium even held some water.

Saturday and Sunday: My first away from my studio outdoor ceramic booth set-up and sale. I called it a Pop-uP Pottery Village. It contained a population of around 25 local ceramic artists. We were all lined up in row and around a courtyard, representing an impressive range of pottery and sculpture, featuring artists old and new to both the craft and the sale. (Me? Definitely a Newbie on all counts, really.)

I found an authentically playful way to engage my visitors and my colleagues, felt surprisingly comfortable and pleased with how it turned out. At the end of Sunday, all my business cards were gone, I added a dozen new fans to my mailing list, made respectable sales, got a couple of leads to galleries (!) and found out I must have a bigger vehicle in order to safely hold the booth, furniture, display shelves and all the carefully packed boxes of breakable work.

Here are two views of my booth set-up, front view and from behind the “counter.”

Yeah yeah, I really need some signs!
I asked my visitors if I was the appetizer or the dessert.

It was probably a good thing to be so incredibly busy because my game got really tight. Not only did I survive some completely new ventures, I was energized and encouraged by them. A few things still need to be put away, the studio needs a good clean-out, but I am happily aware of how getting out there completes the creative cycle for me. Each time round is less scary and confusing and I savor the recharged impetus to make more work. And, best of all, thankfully these two events will NOT be on the same weekend in 2012. Yes!

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“Apparently We’re Not Fish People” A Super Brief Photo Essay

This is the only kind of aquarium I really like ~Liz Crain

“Apparently We’re Not Fish People” is the title of my finished ceramic aquarium piece in the photo above. It’s all ceramic except the actual glass/plastic aquarium.

You may remember my earlier posts about making ceramic aquarium gravel. It was for this piece, and not a live aquarium!

Since those posts, I’ve made the super funky retro diver, the precious merbaby, and wrecked columns, the small Asian boat, rocks, shells and logs. Also the Japanese pump box, old school heater and cord, Tetra Min food cannister, Ph test strip bottle and Ick Rid sample envelope.

It’s all done in time to travel to the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art (CCACA, pronounced SEE-KA’-KA) in Davis, CA this weekend. It will be a small part of Cabrillo College’s outdoor installation entitled “Hard Times.” Photos of THAT coming soon.

I’m completely taken up with the rest of the preparations for not only the Davis conference, but for my first foray into selling my work at an outdoor ceramics show and sale with the Santa Cruz Clay folks at Bargetto Winery in Soquel. It’s packing and pre-packing all the time now…..Day trip to Davis Friday, then Saturday and Sunday in my booth in the Santa Cruz Spring sunshine.

So, off I scoot, leaving you with one more view of my latest narrative sculpture.

The title was taken from a Craigslist ad
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How to Make Your Own Ceramic Aquarium Gravel

Bone Dry Chunks with Bowl and Sieve Labscape

Notice I only said How and not Why.


If you’re thinking of real gravel for your real aquarium, the Why becomes problematic. Why do that when it will take a full workday plus overtime to grind enough gravel to fill a ten gallon tank to two inches? Why ever do that when there are unknown toxicity issues with underglaze and oxide colorants that your prize fish may demonstrate by dying on you?

No, this gravel-making is a completely sculptural endeavor of my own device. It’s one item of many spurred by the Cabrillo College Ceramics Department’s proposed installation at the annual California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art held in Davis, CA at the end of April.

A Magic Realist Ceramic Rock Portal

We’re following up our fantabulous 2010 Cabrillo Rocks Portal installation -pictured above – with a life-sized out-on-the-lawn trompe l’oeil ceramic Yard Sale! Folks are right this minute working on fishing gear, globes, games, toys, linens, shoes, hats, bags, skateboards, dolls, a bake sale and then whatever else we can concoct between now and then.

I’m offering a used aquarium set-up: a real aquarium with clear glass, but with the frame painted white (like all our tables, shelves and props will be) and everything else in it ceramic. I plan delicious tongue-in-cheesy mermaids, sunken ships, broken Greek columns…along with faux warped and stained cardboard boxes containing the pump, heater, filter, and canisters of fish food, medicines and a net. A complete mock set-up! Just needs fish and water. $30 OBO.

Hence the gravel. It’s important to the faux-y integrity of the piece for me to make my own. But HOW???? My first approach was to bust up bisqueware with a hammer. Too hard. Too sharp. Too uncontrollably uneven. It’s much easier to chunk up potato-chip brittle bone dry clay – which is essentially “dust held together by memory” according to one wise kiln tech I have known.

I used a mortar/pestle in the clay lab, but started with the densely heavy 10kg weight as shown below.

Bonedry wares returning to Dust

Then came the pestle which got the pieces to a mix range of pure dust to pea gravel sized.

Crush Just Fine Enough, No Finer

Next, a trip through a series of fine to coarse strainers and meshes straight out of my kitchen. Put the gross chunks through a fine sieve to get rid of the dust and too-teensy bits, pour what’s left onto a pizza screen and shake. The perfect size falls through!

Fine mesh behind; Pizza screen mesh in front

Continue to crunch up the leftover big pieces, then sieve, screen and shake a few more times. Sieve the inevitable dust out of the desired gravelly size and collect in buckets until there is enough volume to acceptably fill the tank. Plan on around ten hours of this in order to have enough volume, factoring in the clay body shrinkage.

Also factor in sore shoulders, upper back and arms, temporarily-impaired hearing from hours spent in the drone of the glaze room’s exhaust fan, and the gag factor from wearing a particulate mask until the creases in your face are nearly time-worn. All pretty unavoidable.

I’m pleasantly aware that making gravel this year is an act of “decomposition” regarding last year’s rocks and am lovin’ the strange parallel.

In the next-related post on this topic: garishly coloring this gravel and making tired boxes and whatever else has come up.

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