Glynnis Lessing

An Artist’s Blog

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Mata Ortiz Workshop

I have been a huge fan of the Mata Ortiz pottery ever since I learned of it through a children’s book quite a few years ago.  It’s mentioned in my earlier post about Mata Ortiz  where I write a bit more about the story of this small town in Mexico; I received some pots for my birthday one year I enthusiastically wrote a post  about it.

So, when an opportunity to attend a workshop taught by Eli Navarette was offered at the Northern Clay Center, I was thrilled to attend.

finished pots

Some finished pieces by Eli Navarette

Eli was a really nice guy, open, knowledgeable and helpful. He taught the class in Spanish with a translator. My Spanish was good enough to understand him, ask questions and help translate occasionally.

He started out with a plaster “puki” which is a bowl-like mold that really helps hold the pot’s bottom shape. He made a large, fat “tortilla” out of his own clay, which  he brought from the Mata Ortiz area.

While he did that, he passed around the clay which was very different in feeling from the clays I am used to working with here. It was very plastic and yet, somehow drier and also very strong. He said he mixed 3 types of clay together- his own recipe- one for weight, one for strength and one for plasticity. It was a very effective clay for the kind of handbuilding he was doing. He explained how he and other potters get all the clay from that area and how they prepare it. Basically , they dig it up, mix it with water in a 5 gallon bucket and let the heavy particles and stones and other things fall to the bottom. The excess water rises to the top which they pour off and take out the middle part to use.

They also get all their colorants from that area.  More on that later.

After he had pinched the fat pancake up into quite a large part of the pot – and it was not thick! -he added a coil.

1 Eli adds a coil to his pinch pot

I was amazed because I though he would have to let that bottom part set up for a quite a while until it could support the weight and the action of adding another coil.

2 coil smoothed

But I was wrong, the clay, under the skilled hands of Eli, had no problem supporting the next coil.  After adding that coil he smoothed the inside with a blue rubber rib3 scraping the inside and scraped the exterior with a piece of hacksaw.

4 scraping the outside

thencut the rim off to be even again for the next coil.

5 coil added, top trimmed

Then another coil7 completing coil


and voila!  a really sizeable pot all in a very short time.8 finished form drying

While he was working he chatted about how he came to be a potter.

His grandparents were living and working in Mata Ortiz but he was living in Chihuahua (the city) he can remember since he was about 7 years old seeing them working with clay  but it wasn’t until a visit there when he was 22 and had already trained as an electrician that he decided he could  and wanted to make pottery. It took him about 3 years to learn how to do it and now he lives with his wife (also a potter) and 2 children in Casas Grandes about 15 minutes from Mata Ortiz- if you take the new road. Both his brothers are potters, the youngest having started doing it first. He said there are now 3 generations of potters, 600 in all! They’ve been making the pottery there for 50 years. And there are young kids already learning about and working in pottery -that would be the 4th generation.


Next up was decorating the pots. He told us he sands the bone-dry pots with 3 grades of sandpaper, ending with the finest grade. I asked him about what precautions he takes to avoid breathing in the dust, a health hazard, and he said he works outside and/or wears a mask.

He then takes manganese mixed with clay- so, technically a slip, not an oxide- and applies it to the entire surface using a scrap of velvet. He said if you don’t mix the manganese with clay it doesn’t “stick” to the surface. Then after that had dried- a matter of a minute or so, he applied a solution to help with the burnishing.

His recipe  for this burnishing solution was very interesting. He puts  5% finely ground Graphite and 5% baby oil into kerosene (90%) and applies that with his hand over the black manganese slip. There was some discussion about using just baby oil or baby oil and graphite and also soap- both of those work but leave considerably more streaks.

Then he  takes an agate, highly polished –sometimes they sand them- but this looked like it was out of a rock tumbler and he said they used that too and begain to burnish.

9 burnishing w:stone

Immediately the surface was a brilliantly shiny black.10 burnished surfaceHe said he puts 3 layers on burnishing each layer and by the 3rd coat is wearing cotton gloves so as not to put any oils from his hands onto the surface. You can see how reflective it is in the  photos. You can also see that there are some streaks- that is why he does 3 layers.

Next he revealed (from under a cloth) a piece he was working on.13 pot in progress He apologized that the black surface was only 2 coats and began to paint some lines with a brush that looked like just a few hairs but quite long. 14 long brush in action he painted on very fine lines. Here are his brushes!12 his tool set

He brought small amounts of his colors with him; white, orange and red in addition to the black.  These are also slips because they are colored clays.

Despite being so shiny, the surface is still absorbent. After he has put on the lines he goes back in with a much shorter brush and fills in  15 filler brushWe all gathered around him to watch him paint, it was mesmerizing.

He told us it takes 3 days to make, dry and sand a pot, 3 days of polishing and at least 3 days to decorate the surface. I think the polishing days are not 8 hours of continuous polishing (though I could be wrong) but that each coat is applied, polished and left to dry. He was very clear about the surface decoration, 1 full day to paint on the lines- with just a few breaks for eating, stretching, etc. another day to fill in all the spaces and a 3rd day for corrections- that is where he takes a rounded tipped  stick and gently rubs off lines that are mistakes.

So each pot is a considerable investment of time.


Then we made our own brushes! He had just a little hair for us to use16 brush parts but we were very lucky in that one of our participants was willing and generously allowed some of her beautiful straight hair  to be snipped off and distributed.17 hair donor

Here is how you can make your own brush (and I’m sorry I didn’t take more photos- I was making brushes!)  take a stick, like a small dowel or a fat skewer and sharpen it to a point. Cut a straight groove running out to the point to lay the hair in. The hair –which should be about 2” long at least can be dipped in water as often as you need to make it stick together! Lay it in the groove, overlapping the stick about an inch and wrap sewing thread tightly around it, binding the hair to the stick. Leave out a bit of thread sticking out to tie a knot when you are done. When you get to the tip, do one loop just around the hair to keep it together and then wind back down around the stick, now laying the thread right next to itself, covering the stick end completely. When you get back to where you started and left that thread sticking out, tie a knot. You can use nail polish or epoxy to seal the thread and hold it in place. We used roughly about a yard of thread.

We all made at least one brush and used them on tiles to practice some of the techniques he showed us. I will add a photo of my tile when I get it back.

Lastly we talked about firing and how he fires and how the Mata Ortiz potters used to fire.

In the early days, they would be out in the street and set their pot on an already fired cylinder then cover the pot with something like a large ceramic flower pot or a metal garbage can or something that just fit over the pot to protect it from the fuel. Then they would stack wood all around it, completely surrounding the makeshift saggar and on top of it and light it up. They managed to generate enough heat this way to get the pot hot enough to undergo what is called Crystal Inversion which is when the  clay permanently changes and is unaffected by immersion in water any longer. Before crystal inversion, a pot can be recycled and turned back into a lump of clay just by getting it wet.

I confess it was not clear to me whether Eli currently uses gas to fire his pots or an electric kiln. What was abundantly clear was how amazing his clay was in that it could be heated up quite rapidly and cooled incredibly fast. He had a pot (which I now own!) made by his wife (who was ill that day and could not teach with him)  that we popped into an already warm kiln. The kiln was taken up to 750 degrees centigrade (that’s Cone 012-  1382 Farenheit), left at that temp for about 15 minutes and then cooled within an hour and a half to where we could handle it!18 firing fastWe took it out of the kiln when it was at about 450 and stuck it in front of a fan!  The pot was fired in about 3 hours!  Nothing exploded or cracked or showed any signs of stress at all! Interestingly, the colors were dull when we pulled out the hot pot19 dull colorsbut they brightened as the pot cooled.


I think what I love about the Mata Ortiz potters – besides their spectacularly beautiful pottery is that they are working much as their ancestors did. They use simple methods that they discovered themselves. They are always trying new things and sharing knowledge. They work completely locally, using the materials at hand and in doing this, they have dramatically raised the standard of living in their area!





Posted 6 years, 5 months ago at 10:07 am.



[note! the Casserole from the previous post is done- I am adding photos to the previous post]

Tumblers- harder to make than you’d think!

I had a request for tumblers at the last Art Fair and I thought, “Yeah, those are great! No trimming, no handle, I’ll just knock some out!”

Well, I thought wrong.  The problem always with porcelain is getting it tall and keeping it narrow. Then, after that, getting the shape I wanted.

I wanted shapes that were slender but not tippy, graceful and elegant yet would still feel comfortable and balanced in one’s hand. Usually, if you make something that is right for the hand it also appeals to the eye. I thought they should look like they were meant to be tumblers, not mugs missing their handles. Lastly, I had to throw it larger to compensate for shrinkage and have it look right once it came out of the cone 10 firing.

I started with 1 pound of clay which absolutely should have been enough but I had a lot of trouble getting the base walls thin enough to get them big enough; taking Grolleg’s shrinkage rate of near 15% into a account.

But actually it really is okay to have a slightly thicker wall at the base for porcelain as it warps so darned easily.  I learned this from Xiao Xiang Bi.

I also realized after much puzzlement, that one of the reasons my mugs and tumblers were warping when I wired them off was that the bottoms were so darned thin that the wire was compressing the base- there was not enough clay to resist that compression.

So annoying until I figured it out! Now I leave enough clay down there.

I have a few tumblers that  I love and take inspiration from:

This one by Lester is just so beautifully slim and the painted on decoration is so perfectly suited to the shape.

Then I have this hand-built and stamped Tumbler by Chuck Aydlett This, amazingly, is a cone 6 glaze fired in an electric kiln. He even took the time to detail the interior.


Then I have this gorgeous piece by Ryan Greenheck; I have theories about how he got this surface- something to do with slip and a metal rib- but it’s not completely clear. 

I have a very simple shino glazed piece by Rita and it may be the one I use the most. I was feeling lousy one day long ago at Lill and she brought me tea in it and said to keep it and I think it’s just perfect the way it curves ever so slightly in at the top. 

This last tumbler was made by me and you can see how the others influenced me. I made several but I loved this one so much I couldn’t sell it.

Since then, I have made a couple more “birds on a wire” tumblers and because the wire is so hard to get straight and thin, I actually incised a line while I was throwing it and then when it was almost dry, inlaid slip into it. *  Then I added the little dabs that I touched up into birds. I thought I took photos before they sold but I did not. I will just have to make more!

*This is done by painting slip into the line and then scraping off the surface with a metal rib leaving a very clean line

Here are a few more that I did.



Posted 8 years, 5 months ago at 6:21 pm.


Mata Ortiz Pottery

Remember how, in my last blog entry,  I mentioned a store in Hasting, Mn that carried Mata Ortiz pottery?

Well, I am very pleased to say that for my birthday, I received no less than three gorgeous pieces (bought from Mississippi Clayworks) from that little town that lies in Mexico just south of Arizona and New Mexico.

I am so thrilled with these amazing pots that I wanted to write just a little more about Mata Ortiz (what little I know) and to post photos of these amazing pots. I first heard of Juan Quezada when I encountered a children’s book “Juan Quezada” by Shelley Dale. After that I made a specific effort to see a short term exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum and I was stunned. These were incredible pots with intricate decorations. They sold a few small ones in the gift shop but they were beyond my means.

Here is my new personal collection!

This first pot is a small seed pot. the opening is small so that one could seal it agains mice with just a nice flat stone.  It is approximately 2.5″hx 4.5″w

This was  made by Alina Mora- possibly you can see the amazing intricacy of the the brushwork. This one is made of “white” clay so that is the underlying color.

Also she put a bird on the underside!  This is something I like to do too!

A few years ago, I took a workshop from Michael Wisner at Lill Street. He has worked with many of the indigenous potters in the southwest including one of my idols (now deceased) Maria Martinez. He was able to answer some questions- one of which was about the brushes that Juan Quezada uses- Juan found that the hair of children is softest and used some from his grandaughter. Mike told a story about going to her and she just matter-of-fact-ly held up her hair so they could take some from the nape of her neck under her hair where it wouldn’t show!

So I imagine the brush that painted these teeny lines was made of child’s hair.

This is a less traditionally functional pot although the shape is not uncommon.

It is around 6.5″h x 5″ w Lourdes Nuñez is the potter who made it.

This pot was given to me by my mother.  These patterns are all hand painted with such a steady hand!

Inspiration for these patterns come from the ceramics Juan found in while gathering firewood in the 30’s and poking around as a young man.  These shards and pots were  made by the ancient cultures that lived near Mata Ortiz. One group was the Paquime indians who lived in the area from the 1200’s to the 1500’s.

Juan’s interest led him to experiment with clays and soils and minerals that he dug up. He figured if they would make those pots here, so could he.  With no knowledge of clay processing or pottery making techniques, he taught himself how to make similar pots. Then he taught anyone in his town who wanted to learn. Now there are no less than 30 accomplished potters in Mata Ortiz and this has completely reversed the severe economic downturn they were experiencing. This is a great short video about it.

Lastly, I admit, this pot by Daniel Gonzalez captivated me immediately as I pressed my face against the glass of the window of the closed store. It’s big too! Roughly 12.5″hx  11″w.

This pot, in person, spectacular!  It is large, extremely light and the pattern of the snakes is amazing! I love how they are “see through” and the way they curl and move around the curves of the pot, emphasizing and enhancing its voluptous curves.

All the pots have round bottoms and came with little padded rings to sit on. If you get a chance, try to experience these pots in person!

Posted 9 years, 6 months ago at 12:40 pm.



I’m so excited about these new carvings that I am posting pictures of green, freshly carved pots.

I was recently in Santa Barbara, visiting a family member and once again, I saw a lot of kelp washed up.washed up kelp "rope"

Last time I saw it in the water while looking down from the pier. floating kelp It is most likely giant kelp which grows several inches per day!

This time I was struck by the almost formal arrangements that lay in the sand.

formal kelp arrangement

They reminded me of bookplate designs in old books.

When I got home, I looked at photos online taken by people who were swimming amongst the kelp forests.

The difference between beach-bound kelp and underwater kelp is that the blades (or leaves) are floating every which way. Additionally, the blades are often ripped away by the time the kelp has washed up leaving only the rubbery stem and bladders.

In the (extremely copyrighted) underwater photos, you can also see the overlapping as the leaves are actually slightly transparent and although I couldn’t replicate that translucent quality, still, I was really happy with the result.

open vase with kelp decoopen vase versoYou’ll also note that I’ve taken pains to make my carving marks as watery and curvy and flowing as the vase kelp

I tried to capture that feeling of motion; the swaying back and forth with the currents and surf.


I think what makes this pleasing to me and also creates good visual tension, movement and balance is the contrast between these wildly unpredictable twisting and flowing forms  and the dependable regularity of the spacing between each bladder where it comes out from the stem- each one continuing on into a blade. I know there is some correct botanical  term for this…

2nd vase detail

Okay, so I looked up Kelp on Wikepedia I found this:

In most kelp, the thallus (or body) consists of flat or leaf-like structures known as blades. Blades originate from elongated stem-like structures, the stipes. [that’s the word I was looking for!] ……. Gas-filled bladders (pneumatocysts) form at the base of blades of American species….and keep the kelp blades close to the surface, holding up the blades by the gas they contain.

and most interesting to me and other potters :

Through the 19th century, the word “kelp” was closely associated with seaweeds that could be burned to obtain soda ash (primarily sodium carbonate)….The word “kelp” was also used directly to refer to these processed ashes.

and what do you know?  The slip that into which I carved the images of Kelp on contains Soda Ash!!

So I can’t wait until these are fired stay tuned!

Posted 10 years, 1 month ago at 8:19 pm.




Well, after having so many rabbits showing up on my pots,


when I came across an old copy of Watership Down by Richard Adams

I felt I should reread it.

I loved it again and could hardly set it down. 

No sooner had I finished (and urged my daughter to read it) than she found and captured a domesticated rabbit in the park!

Her name is Alice and not only is she beautiful, she’s got a lovely personality.


Now I guess I have a better model than this one who moved into our yard this spring

wild-rabbit-in-our-gardenby the way, the arrow is part of a weather vane in our yard- quite a ways from the rabbit but serendipitously pointing at the rabbit!

Also, he was hungrily looking at our little vegetable patch.

So what is it about rabbits?

Well, we love the Medicine Cards book by Jamie Sands and David Carson.

and what it says about Rabbit is this:

…“Rabbit medicine people are so afraid of tragedy, illness, disaster and being taken that they call those very fears to them to teach them lessons.  …. Here is the lesson. If you pulled Rabbit [card], stop talking about horrible things happening and get rid of “what if” in your vocabulary. This card may signal a time of worry about the future …

The paralyzed feeling which Rabbit experiences when being stalked is Rabbit in the contrary position. If you have tried to resolve a situation in your life and are unable to, you may be feeling frozen in motion. This could indicate a time to wait for the forces of the universe to start moving again.  It could also indicate the need to stop and take a rest. It will always indicate a time when you need to re-evaluate the process you are undergoing and to rid yourself of any negative  feelings, barriers, or duress. Simply put, you cannot have your influence felt until you rearrange your way of seeing the present set of circumstances. It is the way  in which you handle problems that allows you to succeed…”


Watership Down calls that frozen state “tharn” and you can get locked in it

I do feel we are/I am in this state recently and admit, I find it helpful to learn these things- that we’ve got some rabbit energy going right now.

However, I still wonder if that’s why I’m drawn to them right now to put on my pots; what they mean to me personally perhaps without all the reading. alice-on-hind-legs

Certainly I’m excited to see “wild” animals in the city and visually, I love drawing the texture of their fur and their ears and faces.alice-cleans-her-whiskers

I wish I could capture more of their motion.


Alice, when we put her in a little fenced in area outside, does this lovely little leap where she seems to kick out once she’s in the air. It gives the illusion of flight, of a momentary suspension in the air.

It’s wonderful; I wish I could do it.

Ah, there it is, perhaps I’m hoping, after waiting quietly that once the universe does start moving again, I get to fly.

Just a little.

Posted 10 years, 7 months ago at 2:37 pm.


The Old Town Art Fair

I always try to go to the Old Town Art Fair.

Actually, this year I tried to get into it. Apparently, it’s one of the hardest to get into. I’m not surprised, as the work I see in there is excellent. 

Of course I have a few favorites and I collected their cards and will post their links here:

First I came upon Chris Dahlquist who does these exquisite, spare landscapes with luxurious clouds. Her website photos really cannot convey the depth of her pictures because she paints gold tones on paper and digitally prints her photos over them. This gives the photos great depth and light that changes depending on the angle. 

Even though another artist at the fair said “I hate when they come in and say ‘If I only had enough money…’” that’s exactly how I felt about Chris’s work.  I absolutely would have bought a piece I saw with a reflected stream. It was lovely.

Another artist whose work I have actually purchased in the past is Gary Stretar, an Ohio painter who stands out from the crowd of landscape painters. He says he is a colorist if I remember rightly. His work has a wonderful stillness about it like those long hot days in the summer when you are too tired to do much of anything and all you can hear is a cicada droning on. Or in the spring right after it rains and living things haven’t yet resumed scurrying about. He doesn’t seem to have a web site but you can google him.

Winner of “Seriously, just give me 700$ so I can buy this” award goes to Jenny Pope whose work, besides having wild colors and incredible compositions, is also trying to say and do something about the environment. I really love her work and subject matter.

I’ve never quite seen space used the way she uses it and yet it is really balanced. 

I saw her pieces and met her last year and have been following her work since. It seems incredible that these are woodcuts! She has a great website   Even more incredible was the fact that she remembered me  from last year and is a delightful young woman!

On to 3-D.  I was totally blown away by Jennifer McCurdy’s porcelain.

Now I have often called porcelain harsh cruel mistress but of course it wouldn’t have any power over me if it weren’t so seductive. And forgiving in odd ways.

Ms. McCurdy was very gracious and explained some of her techniques.  Most amazing is that these pieces move quite a bit in the high fire- porcelain gets a bit “soft” when it goes vitreous. Take a look at her site.

Then a really nice display caught my eye and immediately after that, the pots!  OMG they are gorgeous. The artist wasn’t around to ask so it was only after I visited his site that i realized these gems are terra cotta! Each one has wonderful  flashing and is unique. I am guessing he saggar fires them first and uses the results to inspire his surface decoration but that is a wild stab in the dark and really just a projection of what I would do.

I do know that sometimes you can add Terra Sig. to a bisqued piece. 

Anyhow check out his gallery. Also, I love his “bowl from earth” statement. 

There were many other great artists there but the 3 additional ones I’m thinking of, don’t have web sites.

Posted 10 years, 9 months ago at 5:14 pm.

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Birch work  -Slip resist with sgraffito’d details..

Because porcelain tends to slump when it is so horizontal, I use stoneware in a slump mold. (I’ve found various delightful molds at the junk store.)painted-stoneware-in-slump-molds

As soon as I put the slab in the mold, I cover the surface with white slip.


Because I am working with two different clays- stoneware in the mold and porcelain slip- there is a slightly different shrinkage and I want the two clays to bond as much as possible when they are the wettest.


After the piece gets near leather hard, I tear up a bunch of newspaper strips and wet them and the surface of the tray. Wetting them helps them to stick down to the piece. The “frondy” edges of the torn paper also tend to stick more than a cut edge.

After they are down I apply a contrasting slip- in this case blue-


and after letting it set up until it is no longer shiny but long before it dries, I pull up the strips.


Here it is with all the strips pulled up. 


you can see places where the blue slip “snuck” under the paper- I will either draw over it or carefully scrape it off the white.

After that, I go back in with a drawing stick and define at least one edge of the tree  (thanks to Stephanie M. for that suggestion)and make all those little marks that are so distinctive to birches.


This one (above)  is not even dry-certainly not fired or glazed. 

Glazing- I thought I would try a clear glaze on one

(here it is- some small  piece of the kiln stuck to it)

small-birch-tray-clear-glazeand on another, some soda ash water for a matte finish with possible orange flashing. 

long-birch-tray-shino-waterI have tried quite a few finishes on these trays. 

I’m trying to find something that enhances it by turning the carved lines brown (as opposed to the gray of the clear glaze above) but without changing the white of the birches. I’ve not been completely successful.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Under Celadon- glossy finish…y’know, I think I painted red iron oxide into the lines on this one and wiped it off.

birch-under-celadonUnder shino and wiped off lightly- matte finishbirch-under-shino-wiped-offunder Rutile Blue and (badly?) wiped off- matte finishbirch-under-rutile-blue-wiped-off


This next one below, took too long and I worried too much. This is shino wiped off and then clear painted on. If those two meet, they look awful together, bubbling, etc. NOTE* upper left corner, you can see where the slip did not bond to the stoneware- it can be a problem- and flaked off. Darn!

birch-shino-wiped-off-and-clear-painted-onbut of all the finishes (and this is just a little too matte) this is probably what I was shooting for.

Posted 10 years, 10 months ago at 5:10 am.

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A lot of my imagery comes from what I see on the surface of the pot after I’ve painted the slip on.  I look at the brush strokes on the surface and they suggest images to me.  Perhaps that’s why I have a lot of birds and fish on my  pots; they are generally shaped like a typical brush stroke. 

Birds have manifested themselves in my subconscious as the caretakers of security, of home; they are the ultimate good and selfless parents and they are omnipresent  (in real life too- the always -everywhere ambassador of nature). 

I also started drawing nests on my pots.

I didn’t think much about it until I started looking at the birds I was drawing with the nests. They sometimes looked menacing such as the large one in No Fly Zone done the first year of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. 


No Fly Zone

No Fly Zone



The nests require a lot of time and energy as I painstakingly draw the individual strands and twigs. It’s not quite the same as building one but it’s the best I can do.



Nests are a wonderful metaphor for home and protection and parenting. The parent birds spend all this time and energy working on this nest, crafting it just so, sheltering the delicate eggs and working ceaselessly to feed the little hatchlings –

 the hatchlings crap all over the nest and eventually jump out and take off. A thankless job to be sure and of course there’s that empty nest there.


Empty Nest



Still beautiful, a bit worse for wear and its purpose is over -depending on the breed – some birds reuse their nests every year; fixing them up in the spring; others abandon the nest and it eventually falls apart. 

Then last year, I made this lovely nest but somehow the bird I saw coming out of it was HUGE.


Too Big for the Nest



That was weird but fine however,  when I made a second one, I had to stop and wonder why. Of course the minute I looked at it-  hmmm a strident bird too big for the nest and I have a teenager  – it became clear.

So the nests seem to be about home, parenting and safety no matter what their various states; one or two eggs or empty or,

surprisingly, filled with a huge loud bird that is definitely still in the nest but not happy about it. I don’t think the mommy bird is too thrilled about it either.

Posted 11 years ago at 7:52 pm.

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Yes, more on branches! Are you sick of branches yet?


 There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.  –  Francis Bacon


I love this quote because it so perfectly expresses that which  was instinctive for me when looking at various trees.

I look at trees wherever I go.

I notice them and their shapes and outlines against the sky, as shadows on buildings, silhouetted by the sun. The best trees are at the cemetery (along Clark Avenue). They are all deliciously creepy and twisted just as you’d expect trees in a graveyard to look.

Why? And by “best “ I mean the most gnarled; they have that strangeness of proportion Bacon is talking about. Those are the ones that look best to me ; look best on my pots, are the most interesting and pleasing to the eye.


I have favorite varieties; Catalpa:

(and note how all last year’s vertical hanging seed pods make such a wonderful contrast to the curves and snaky turns of the branches)


Catalpa Tree

 Honey Locust, (almost everything ends up pointing upwards by the time you get to the tip of the branches even if there are lots of detours along the way- this isn’t even the best example)


Honey Locust Tree

and Hawthorne (crab apple)

I’m not sure what this tree below is but it is one of the most stunningly perfect trees I’ve every seen. It’s possible it was trimmed but I just love all the writhing the branches do before they all agree  reign it in and to end together in that lovely curve.  This is the kind of tree I want on my pots!


– these are the most interesting and gnarled and therefore inspiring trees.

Okay, so why is gnarling pleasing? I think there’s something about the way the branches head off in some completely unpredictable direction only to come arc-ing back for a very balanced composition. There are more curves (which I always find more pleasing) and an innate balance that could possibly be based on the physics of how the tree must grow to stay upright.

In language, storytelling that is, we often find the unpredictable quite funny or exciting. I think the same goes for visual unpredictability.

I dislike Ash trees – they are boring and ugly and I would be embarrassed to put one on a pot- note how they branch symmetrically  that is, the branches come out directly across from each other instead of alternating up the main branch. It kills the movement and life in the form.


Here is another very straighforward predictable tree although I think this is a Maple.



You can see why- nothing happening here- it’s all balanced and pretty straightforward  with straight branches staying on course and ending up exactly where they meant to be. Hmmm, I’m starting to see parallels with life here!

Perhaps I need to do something wildly unpredictable.

Anyhow, many Maples leave me indifferent unless it’s autumn.



What’s exciting for me is that now that I am keeping this blog, I am beginning to look around me with new eyes. I write about my urban environment, and the animals in it, then I look at how trees are … constrained by the environment and also how they appear differently than they would in nature.

First of all, we trim trees to keep them away from our houses or power lines which alters them or conversely, they often stand alone in parks and are able spread symmetrically; forming a “perfect tree”  as opposed to in a woods where they have to grow to accommodate the other trees.

We also plant them, choose the variety, stunt them, water them, and generally affect their growth. They are by definition “artifacts” along with the rest of our environment. How bizarre to be living in an almost completely artificial environment. 

And my pots are all about that believe it or not.


Shadows and reflections

Here in the city, tree shadows are cast onto unnaturally flat surfaces like roads and buildings. I have to say I find it lovely.






 In nature, this only happens on the rare bare cliff


Starved Rock shadow

and  on snowy fields, common only existing in pastoral settings, which are also man-made.

Here’s one distoted and reflected in a stream; also pleasing for it’s perversion of the form of the tree.


Why all this excitement about tree shadows and reflections? Well, a tree is three dimensional. Branches stick out every which way- it’s hard to draw them true-to-life in 2-D without making them look fake or wrong- unbalanced somehow- branches that are actually sticking out of the back or front, look oddly out of place when I try to draw them flat. But the shadows and reflections flatten them out nicely.

My pots look a bit like trees have cast their shadows upon them.


santa barbara shadow

Santa Barbara Eucalyptus



Posted 11 years ago at 8:20 pm.

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What’s on my pots?

My Pots are so much about surface decoration.

I believe in having a very strong, aesthetically pleasing form to put those decorations on but I find myself looking forward to making the images more than the pots these days.

So the question is, what to put on the pots?

I love nature. I grew up on a farm, in the countryside. I wandered the woods and ravines most of my life, often alone.

I read somewhere (and I must find it) that a shared element in the lives of creative people (famous ones) they spent time in nature alone.  One must feel the power and the beauty of nature.

I find there is something soothing and comforting about realizing one is just a speck in the wilderness.

Here, going to the lake renews me, refreshes my sense of being on the planet.


I also love animals.  LOVE them. I was the kid who rescued the baby robin and fed it worms all day every day until it flew away. I was the one, up in the middle of the night with a doll baby bottle, feeding kittens who had lost their mother. I was the one with the boa constrictor in her dorm room in college.

So the things that appeal to me for surface decoration is what little nature and animals I see around me in the urban environment in which I find myself.

Since the dawn of “modern” humanity, artists have represented what they saw around them. From cave painters 40,000 years ago to the more recent petroglyphs of Africa, Australia and the American southwest to the prints of the Inuit Eskimos, to much folk art, we see represented, the animals they lived with on an intimate and daily basis.

Those animals symbolized things to them- we’re not quite sure what- but we can guess that their livelihood depended on some and many had magical or spiritual meaning.

Since I find renewal from nature, I would have to say the animals I see now remind me of natural environments, of living in the moment, of survival.

And they are simply lovely in and of themselves. I find beauty in their lines. I like the curves and forms and textures of animals. (As I do of branches.)



I have deep affection for our little urban neighbors; those who have figured out that we’re no longer hunting them. The biggest danger to them are our cars. Birds, rabbits, rodents, squirrels, raccoons, opossum, deer and the occasional coyote or cougar venture into our urban spaces. They live in our yards, parks and alleys.

I just bought a book for its title; Field Guide to Urban Wildlife (okay that’s maybe not the exact title- I can’t find it!)  I did find another book I also bought for the title; it is called

“Flattened Fauna; a Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways” (by Roger Knutson) which is almost the same.

But I digress.


I want to remind people we still depend on nature, on the earth for our livelihood; we still have to share the planet with animals, we are still earthbound. I also think we are terribly lonely as a species.



Posted 11 years, 1 month ago at 7:01 am.

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