Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cone of Uncertainty...

You might be asking, "where ya been homey?"...well, let me tell you folks...I am living and operating in a "cone of uncertainty"...this is a new term for me. I discovered it the other morning while watching the projections of hurricane Irene. The term "cone of uncertainty" is used for different things, one being to determine the path of a big ass hurricane. Here is my Wikipedia definition that better describes other applications for this term: The term Cone of Uncertainty is used in software development where the technical and business environments change very rapidly. However, the concept, under different names, is a well established basic principle of Cost Engineering.
Now, instead of a business model or hurricane projection, I think this term can be applied to my own personal life...but its not just about me(this time), I believe it has much broader implications. As I was watching the tropical update on the weather channel, and this term was tossed out there, it hit me like a ton of bricks and I have been thinking about it since then. The "cone of uncertainty" is what our current society seems to be living under these days. Uncertain of the economy...uncertain of our leadership...uncertain of the direction our nation seems to be headed...uncertain of the housing market...uncertain about everything. I bring these broad topics up because they are the life blood of our doom preaching media and each morning while I have my coffee I am bombarded with statistics from random polls about our struggling economy, doubts about recovery, and the consistent unemployment rates. After a while this continued coverage of our nation's current failings has started to sink into my brain deeper and deeper. Many of you might say, "don't watch the news", but that's not going to happen and sticking my head in the sand is not really me. Like some of you maybe, I feel as if I'm flailing about in a sea of uncertainty...little did I know that we are all in this vast and dark "cone of uncertainty".

Prolonged periods of uncertainty can be a really tough thing for your mental well being and can also stem other issues related to that sinking feeling. "Fear and loathing" was my going to be my title for this post before I watched the weather channel that morning. I'm not talking about the self induced gonzo paranoia from Hunter S. Thompson but a true deep seated fear for the welfare of yourself and your loved ones and a very unhealthy sense of failure and self loathing. I think these feelings are in great abundance within the cone of uncertainty and act like jagged rocks where you can easily be dashed upon. But in this bleak "cone of uncertainty" how do you steer clear of those rocks and how do you keep the wind in your sails?

Lets come back to that one while I back track a bit...
Admittedly, I am a little obsessed about our current economic floundering. I am profoundly disturbed by the lack of direction and vision our leadership, both at the federal government level as well as my own personal work based administration level, seems to to display. I understand that there is "no money" but what are we going to do about that issue and what might be a reasonable alternative to this problem that will help sustain people and programs that have been working. It seems that the only answer that I have been hearing here in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania cut programs. "Programs" namely being education.

We are now feeling the squeeze across the state. I am the gallery director and adjunct "go to guy" for a small state university here in PA...and I am fortunate to still have a job...even at part time. The state budget for higher education was slashed by what amounted for us to be, 18.9%. That's a whole lot. The art department was asked to find 550,000 dollars in savings...that means people lost their jobs and programs were put on the chopping block. What was once a thriving studio based department is now taking on water and it looks like the lifeboats are going to be lowered. Where are the defenders of our programs?! Is everyone simply "thankful" to still have a job and are now laying low? The big difference in my sinking ship metaphor is that the captain will not be going down...crew and passengers will however.

Not only is this happening in higher ed. but primary and secondary schools statewide too. I understand that we are not the only state where education is the first thing to be pillaged as I hail from Florida and know how bungled their education system is from first hand experience. I taught middle and high school for close to nine years there and was required to fight for my art program on a regular basis. Currently here in PA, I am seeing the same thing happen that happened in Florida ten years ago. The tactics are eerily similar...huge cuts to education, head start programs, and the arts. More emphasis on testing, standardization, and an implementation of a business model placed on the students. Because of course, there will be "no child left behind"...all children learn the same...right? I feel like I am back in the sunshine state under the bucket head'ed government of Jeb of W.

I have seen counties near by that have just recently removed art from their curriculums...that's right, elementary schools with no art programs...county wide. I know people who have been working in good schools that have undergone major restructuring in how and to whom they will be teaching art. And most recently, my wife became one of these statistics that I have been watching on CNN. My wife's job was eliminated from her cyber charter school after 8 years due to educational cutbacks...and she is not even in the arts. The cyber charters are public schools and are also funded like any other brick and mortar school. So now I am feeling the squeeze on my wallet personally. So yes, the arts have always been the first on the chopping block but now it looks as though all of education has its neck stretched out tightly. What is it with cutting funding for this time of recession and turmoil, couldn't we use some smarter, creative, more inventive people? Why is it that our government is continually devaluing education?

Speaking of our crop of inventive people that would like to take up the reigns...conservative republicans like Rick Perry from Texas need a serious wake up call. Prayer is all good and well but I do not think Jesus is going to balance our nation's deficit or create jobs for people. Maybe the big guy might reduce our defense spending and start taxing some of these high profit corporations that case, he's got my vote. Our governor here in PA, Tom Corbett, is one of these republicans...proposing educational cuts at every level...keep the people stupid and keep the gas and oil companies sheltered from taxes. Heck, with no education people won't know better and then maybe he can have a big statewide prayer rally to celebrate new fracking technologies. On the far right, its a wacky bunch and I do not want to get too far in to that cuckoo's nest. Unfortunately, our democratic party seems to also be sailing along in this cone of uncertainty too. This is not what I was thinking about when Obama was talking about "change". He inherited a serious quagmire that has done nothing but continue to suck everything and everybody down.

So what's a guy to do. How do you go on making art and teaching folks? Its a tough boat to sail on such rough waters but there are ways to navigate the cone of uncertainty. First let me explain that my own personal cone has become a little more challenging. Like I said, my wife was let go from her job which directly effects us, but I have also moved...sort of. My family which includes my wife, daughter, dog and cat have very recently shifted our sleeping and eating places to a location that is almost 2 hours away. We are pre-inheriting my wife's childhood home as her elderly father has now moved into a much lower maintenance condo. This is good...its just that I still work for the university until next June as well as own a home in the borough here and share a studio space still with my good friend Nancy Smeltzer at Little Mahoning Creek Pottery. So as we begin renovating our new home(in desperate need of an update) and start my daughter in a new school and commute to work and spend the night in my sleeping bag in what is now the shell of our old home, I must hold tight to the rudder and be very aware of those underlying jagged rocks of fear and self doubt. Which brings me back to the are a few tips.

1. I manage by having a small group of friends that help keep me afloat. Without friends like Nancy, who I have fired and worked with for the last few years, I would surely have sunk. Her continued generousity and sincerity over the years has not only provided me with a place to work but also a better understanding of a love of making utilitarian work and an inspiration to keep making. Recently, another friend, Jim McDowell, generously gave me an older kiln for bisque firing my work. This is what I'm talking about...replacing the swarms of harpies with a good community that keeps you pumping along. Look for others who may be in a similar boat and think about how you can help each other...lash your vessels together and think collaboration. Instead of assigning blame and pointing fingers more can be gained by being proactive...let's hope Washington catches on.

2. Focus on family...when you are in distress, your crew might be too. Get out and do stuff together.

3. Health without wealth is still good. Exercise is my favorite de-stresser. I became more active with a regular gym schedule during the winter months and have been able to keep going at it even during my move and 2 hour commute to work. I feel great both physically and mentally after working out.

4. KEEP MAKING WORK...I'm working on this one as I type. While I am back in the greater metropolitan of Indiana, I am making time to go up to Nancy's after work at the university. There I am continuing to throw and fire the wood kiln. In fact we are firing the kiln today. Nancy started this morning and when I leave here (because I'm actually "at work") I'm heading up to take my shift. I understand that making work is very imporatnt to my mental well an artist and educator it is also important to my carreer. No matter what, I will find a way to make work.

As our country sails into the murky waters, I have to remind myself and others out there in my same situation, that there are ways to navigate the cone of uncertainty, its not an endless void. Doing it just requires a new skill set sometimes and a great deal of perseverance. Right now I'm just trying to not end up with that cone of uncertainty rolled up tightly on top of my head while I sit alone on a stool in the corner.

I promise more pots next time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Turn down the lights...

Turn down the lights and lock the door... I've got some sexy pictures I want you to see.

We unloaded a very fine looking kiln yesterday. I fired it in 12 hours after an overnight of candling. Nancy came and helped me introduce about a 6.5-7 pound mixture of soda/soda ash and salt into the kiln on thin wooden planks. Honestly, that's all we could get in before cone 11 was bending... but I'm glad we stopped there, it looks like the perfect amount especially after a fairly heavy reduction.

It has felt very satisfying to be making strictly utilitarian pieces lately. I made my pieces from 3 different clay can see the difference in most of the images...porcelain(where the glazes are bright and body white), a darker stoneware(dark body,iron spots, slight orange peel on surface), and a sandy stoneware that responds really well in atmospheric kilns(highly pebbled surface). Each clay body yields a specific look in the soda/salt ...hey, there's something for everybody here. And as nice as these clay bodies look, I will be making new work from a very white stoneware for our upcoming wood kiln firing. But that's enough of the chit chat...lets get down to looking at some of the highlights. The images that follow are from us unloading...tumbler set by Nancy Smeltzer...slip cast porcelain tumblers by undergrad art student Talon Smith...and heads by my friend Sarah(the one who came and helped us raku) and the rest of mine I shot at home. Light some candles, put on something more comfortable and look it over.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dirty, Stanky, and Wet...

Now that's a post title...I will probably be getting some new visitors that might have been Google searching for something very different... but the title is very appropriate for the content of this particular post.

I'm waiting for the rain to taper off this morning so I can go and load the soda kiln over at the university. Nancy is meeting me around 3:00 to lend a hand, hopefully by then the rain will have stopped. I'm firing a bunch of larger space eaters of mine, a couple dozen cups and more of Nancy's, and a handful of student work too. I plan on candling the kiln overnight and firing it off tomorrow. The work will be a nice addition to my growing pile that I will be showing up at Little Mahoning Creek Pottery during our October studio tour. Mark your calendars now...its never too early to plan ahead to buy some nice pottery...maybe the guy who does the website for the tour will even put my pics and info back on the site(since he has had all the info for the last couple months almost)...maybe.

So while I wait for the weather to change, here's some shots of our raku firing I did with my beginning students this past Thursday night. My friend Sarah came out to lend us a hand and we had a double barrel firing...two kilns going at once...after we unloaded one the other was ready to go too. Raku is indeed dirty, smokey, and stinky but it is a true hook for many beginning students. It was originally what got my juices flowing for ceramics back in the late 80's. In the mid to late 90's, raku was all I did. I taught secondary art full time but also kept a studio in the small downtown area of Ocala, Florida. I tried to do at least 5 festivals per season...Fall and Spring Florida during this time had no shortage of pretty decent art festivals. I would teach all week and then pack up the van and head out to some town(hopefully near the ocean) and set up the booth and run my mouth all weekend. But these days I only do raku for others...I think I have huffed enough toxic green smoke in my life and I have moved on to making my own work in other ways...just not as immediate.

Enjoy seeing the pics from the raku firing and not having to smell like a raku firing...salt fired pieces unloading next week!
Stanky raku smoke fills the me its better from where you're sitting.