What Dreams May Come

Dove at the Cabrillo College “Grave Changes” Exhibit, Davis, CA 2012


The Summer Studio Journal ReRun Posts continue, and I have a longer Preamble to this one:

It’s five years on from this post, originally published June 14, 2012. I have re-posted the true story at the end of it a couple of other times and places, since it is so delicious.

What’s not so delicious is that my mentor Kathryn’s still gone. For lots of reasons I can no longer find creative refuge in the Cabrillo Ceramics Lab. But the undeniably solid one is: she’s not there. There are some of her lovely small works and her photo in a glass case with her name writ large on the entrance doors. I am proud of her legacy, but I still hear her laughter ringing and think I glimpse her moving away similar to the first dream recounted in this post.

 As it should be by now, an artist and teacher who I admire and wholeheartedly support just earned a tenure-track position and will occupy her long-empty former office.

Here at my studio, I have a collection of her fabulous smaller works and lovely handwritten notes, which I keep nearby, occasionally shuffling them about in an afternoon’s agitation. She’s rarely in my dreams now. So it goes. What sings to me currently were her creative dry spells, her doubts. She continues to mentor me in retrospect. I get frustrated with my artistic direction at times, yet know I am compelled to continue, just as, well, just as I saw her do. She, too, wrestled with making meaning. Felt impatient with the selling, the galleries, the shows. Worried about the same stuff. And additionally carried the onus of being a teaching legend, receiving the projections of hundreds and hundreds, most of whom largely misread her humanity, mistaking her most unfairly for a demi-goddess. I hold her utter humanity as a person and a sensitive artist to heart and cry.

And for all that lovably warped humanity, here am I as well, shambling along, telling my tales. Forthwith, here is another worth repeating:

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Beastly Beauty Baseline


celadon teabowl by Kathryn McBride


So, I enrolled in a Philosophy class.  With a taunting title like “Beastly Beauty: The Value That Astounds, Confounds, Perplexes and Vexes Us” how could I not?  It’s basically an Aesthetics course taught by a scary smart über-organized professor. (Uh Oh…she means it and students must too.) And a lyrical comedienne. (Whew, we can relax and be real.)

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Stop Look Do


A front window of Good Life Ceramics,
A front window of Good Life Ceramics,

A few years ago, my friend and clay buddy John Albrecht sat me down and described his passionate idea for a new clay place. What he outlined back then was not just ambitious, it was a little outrageous. It would be a place, he said, that reached out to both clay diehards AND clay newbies. It sounded like my kind of theme park: excellent facilities, enticing projects for spontaneous drop-ins, members’ studio space and privileges, local clay artists available for consultations, date nights, movies, interesting flex hours. Oh, and a gallery with exhibits and work for sale.Read More >

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A Lasting Impression: Hot Out of the Kiln for January 2015

Textured porcelain hand-built teabowl with celadon glaze in front of three bisqued impressed texture tiles, all by Kathryn McBride.


Although I’ve done so a few times, I find it confounding to write about my longtime ceramics mentor,  Kathryn McBride, who died in February, 2012.  Later that year I wrote “What Dreams May Come” about receiving a heartwarming bit of understanding and resolution. Last year I wrote “The Apron” about taking on one of her physical mantles. Regardless of my meager written output, she daily abides in me physically, mentally and spiritually.

Physically: I have many of her tools and materials. And I use them!

Mentally: I call a woven basket she gave me her “In Basket.” It contains small trinkets of hers and when I really need to tell her something, I write it down and put it there, smiling to myself.

Spiritually: Her Christmas Card from December 2011 reappeared a few weeks ago, full of loveliness and hope,  speaking about the coming spring she did not yet know she would never see.Read More >

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The Apron


My first clay studio apron is done for. Look at that threadbare hole with the wood floor peeking through right in the Solar Plexus Chakra!

For that matter, look at the stained and faded rest of it. It used to be as blue as the bottom hem. Looks aren’t all that crucial to me – it’s an apron, after all, and I am more into how it functions – but it cannot do its job now either, and that’s the truth brought home after its last washing. So, I am retiring it to Ragsville, which is actually Fine and Fitting.

In the beginning of my clay work, I did not wear an apron. Too busy. Too cool. When my All-in enthusiasm wrecked a few favorite shirts (Iron oxide wash, I’m lookin’ at YOU!) I found something to strap on in defense: this denim delight. I wore it constantly in the Cabrillo College clay lab for nearly a decade and, like my high school gym clothes, I took it home every weekend to wash.

The demise of this apron got me to examining the other aprons hanging on the back of my studio door. Looks like I will be wearing them more often. And all of them have a story nearly as rich as the one I am letting go of. Here are just a few:Read More >

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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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A Big Bowl of Overlapping Communities

How much can one bowl contain? (Joseph McBride)

Last week I bought this sweet bowl directly out of the hands of my friend, mentor and colleague, Kathryn McBride. It’s not her creation, it’s her young adult son Joseph’s.

Joseph’s work is generally not offered for sale. He was donating it to a fundraiser and this was a scarce moment of opportunity. It’s a generous receptacle; a patiently hand-stamped, piebald copper red-glazed, evenly thrown bowl with a well-crafted foot and a subtle hand-pinched rim. I short-stopped it on its way to the fundraiser and sent my check to them instead.

When I placed it in the center of my round oak dining table, it began whispering, then humming, then ringing as clear as a temple bell, inviting me to not just notice the energies it has as a work of art, but to delight in the connections one bowl can forge in personal, local, and international ways.

Preponderance of the Personal

As a form in space, this bowl is a concave mandala, a vortex of radial symmetry. It dances with the Japanese notan of light/dark and positive/negative. It can hold anything and nothing equally gracefully.

The bowl also contains a few metaphoric miles of my journey with Kathryn, as we parented our similarly-aged sons and shared our personal and creative challenges. That Joseph — despite his many other interests and talents and being “raised in clay” — found his own way in ceramics is delightful and unexpected. I’m among a pantheon of proud Aunties.

Local Hands

Joseph told me he originally didn’t intend to even bisque fire this bowl — since it apparently didn’t meet his sliced-thin standards –but a fellow potter friend disagreed and sent it to the kiln unbeknownst to him. He eventually glazed it differently than his other bowls. It’s a bit of a renegade, this piece, off on another path entirely. A Wilbur the runt piglet saved by Fern. I was pleased that he was pleased I bought it.

An Ocean of Ripples

When the giant earthquake wracked Japan last March, it shook the brick climbing kilns of the ancient pottery town of Mashiko, crashing them to the ground. Like the tsunami waves that were generated throughout the Pacific Ocean, the circles of ceramic concern radiated out, touching the pottery community here in Santa Cruz. Many I know have pilgrimmaged to Mashiko. Those waves continued to England, too, because of the profound 20th century association of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, which changed the ceramic cultures of East and West everlastingly.

Global Hands

Quickly, quickly, quickly a heartbroken but energetic group of Santa Cruz potters sent out the call: Please donate whatever ceramic work you can to a fundraiser, all proceeds going to help Mashiko recover its livelihood. Leach Pottery in England is doing similarly and I’m sure there are more.

Joseph was donating to this event and I bought his bowl. A lot of dedicated ceramic work came into being for what I hear was a supremely successful effort. Joseph’s rogue bowl of loveliness will help more bowls to be made in Mashiko.

All because I listened to it, the patterns and colors of one engaging big red bowl revealed spirographic loops of personal beauty, of friendships, of compassionate local artists and of a globally overlapping web of potting communities.

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