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feeling the heat down at the Florida Heat Surface Workshop

I’m in that no sleep buzzed mode of post-workshop headed home travel. I swear I’ve been at this exact gate in this exact airport in Minneapolis before, but it’s more likely just the happy blur of travel memories that flood me at times like this. You see I just left the Florida Heat Surface workshop at the Morean Center for Clay and I’m caught between the need to sleep and the need to put some thoughts down on digital “paper” about this last week. Thanks to amazing friends like Ben Carter and Adam Field I added another page to my “ceramic passport” – a term I first heard from Carter (who tells me it’s origin is from Merran Esson) to describe the lucky life of an artist that gets to see the world through work opportunities abroad. When I was first invited to be a presenter at FLH Surface I thought it was a joke, then I was convinced it was a mistake, but alas it was instead the support of such great friends and colleagues that got me here.

Florida Heat Surface Workshop (FLH) is the brain child of both Carter and Field working in partnership with Matt Schiemann at the Morean Center for Clay in St.Petersburg, Florida. In it’s forth year, the invited artists represented both functional and figurative work with a focus on a variety of techniques and surface treatments. I can’t even begin to describe the talent in the room at this workshop. The diversity of conceptual and technical approaches to material alone was overwhelming. I highly urge everyone look into future FLH Workshops and to take some time to look into the work of all of the participating artists from 2017.

adam field

Co-founder Adam Field is known for his intricately carved pots which bring beauty and symmetry to simple daily acts of eating; creating space for ritual and reflection. Adam is a pro workshop presenter. Well worth going out of your way to catch a chance to see him in action. He’ll even be in Italy later in the year if you want some really amazing travel to go with your workshop experience.

Meredith Host’s layering of dots and dashes alludes to more industrially produced work, but is in fact a highly skilled multiple layer technique of bringing imagery onto the clay surface. Her color sensibilities and subversive humor are on point in her work. I won’t divulge her pattern influence, but it’s worth really having a look at her work and seeing if you don’t find all those dots and dashes far more familiar then you’d think….

Thaddeaus Erdahl’s work blew me away on a number of levels. From the mastery of skill apparent in the surfaces he creates to the emotional engagement of his figures through their subtle gestures and their soul searching eyes. Narrative, politics, iconography and pop culture mash up in these exquisite pieces.

Now Matt Metz is an artist whose work I’ve long followed and admired for the richness of his surfaces to the boldness of his personal style and iconography that has defined his aesthetic. Having the chance to see the stages of his process really broke down visually the strength of his forms and how they are truly unified and working collaboratively with his surfaces. Simple techniques focusing on carving, layer slips, and allowing the materials their visual voice makes his work rich and timeless.

(above image by Linda Christianson)

So many of these artists I was meeting for the first time and I am always so moved by how much we as artists are reflected in our works. Our sensibilities, our personalities, our approach to life as a whole. Hearing Linda Christianson speak about her work and influences was by far one of the best artist talks I’ve been to in years. Such honesty, love of life, searching for beauty in everything around her, truly aligns with how she approaches her pots. These pots that are both humble and evocative, functional and contemplative.

Floating in the worlds between design, high craft and stand alone art object, I have always found Sam Chung’s work to be beautiful, but was really moved to see such a large selection of his work together in the FLH exhibition, wherein all the subtleties of space – both positive and negative, volume, fluidity and narrative come together.

I’ve known Ben’s work for years and have had the pleasure of watching him work a few times now. His attention to detail is something and I am constantly inspired by his work that is very intentional, pre-conceived, yet open to experiencing the moment of creation. Responsiveness to how the material speaks is a language in his work that blends so intuitively with his chosen imagery and mark making. The balance of form, function and surface is always so fluid. Definitely one of those artists that makes it look easy when it really is so considered.

So what did I make at the workshop? Well, when I was invited to be a presenter it was with the knowledge that I would be presenting and discussing my sculptural work. I was super eager to do this….and then November 2016 happened. Suddenly the idea of travelling to the United States to talk to folks about making political and social commentary through my work took on a whole new level of seriousness and challenge.

For many North American artists 2017 started out with a lot of uncertainty about what the future would hold, not just in terms of arts funding, but in terms of human rights and legislation in new uncertain political times. And here I was, some white priviledged girl from Canada, travelling down to the USA to talk about making political art. It kept me up at night trying to figure out a way to have these necessary, yet vulnerable and challenging conversations.

So I froze. I barely made work for a few months. I retreated into my past work and tried to reconsider my position as an artist investigating and presenting political and social commentary. I have always attempted to position myself as a recorder of events, an active questioner of the world around me, and not some sanctimonious or authoritarian voice on current events. You see I’m just as confused, frustrated, overwhelmed, angry and ready to fight as everyone else, and I really struggle with how best to do it.

This past week I found myself, at the FLH workshop surrounded by some of the most incredibly talented artists of my generation, all sharing process, techniques and insight into their work. It was incredible. Then my turn came and one morning there I was, in front of a crowd of 40-50 folks. There was no avoiding the difficult topics. I needed to be genuine and vulnerable and thus there I was, working on a sculpture about Trump’s Mexican wall. I couldn’t turn back, and at that moment as much as there was fear and uncertainty of how the room would react, I was also very welcoming of whatever discussion was going to come.

(above image by Adam Feild)

I truly believe in art as a catalyst for change. I live and make work based on the notion that small actions can have large reactions. That every small jab in the rib of the establishment, of the government, of those in power, can begin the process of breaking down, of wearing out and of shifting the things that are wrong in our societies. So that’s what I talked about at FLH. Sure I shared my technical how to’s with the group, but more importantly I shared my fears, my struggles, my mistakes and weaknesses. I talked of the blinders of priviledge. We discussed how to not tell others stories for them, but to speak from our hearts from the position we are in. Any fears I had about these discussions, of offending people, of saying the wrong things and being out of line quickly faded.

The result was a weekend of hope. I shared stories and learned from so many beautiful souls in Florida that I have come away feeling positive about art and life for the first time since November 2016. I have been renewed with resistance and eagerness to fight. I have learned from the experiences of men and women who were at the Women’s marches and who are still organizing protests in their local communities, from letter writing campaigns to days of action. From one particularly generous soul that devoted her life to fighting for human rights for decades, I learned more about the importance of humor and satire and how to find the means to make our voices heard and not ignored. From her I found forgiveness for the fact that I am not always in the trenches fighting. She helped me to confirm the important role of art at such times. We spoke of the multitude of ways to fight and how to stay safe and protect our families at the same time as we fight. I spoke with participants who shared their fears about making political art and how they now felt empowered to go into the studio and speak their minds. We all walked away still uncertain about the future, but with the backing of a community of like minded folks.

This isn’t what I would normally expect to take away from a ceramic workshop. But these aren’t normal times. Art might not save us, but it sure as hell gives us a voice; it gives us purpose, it reminds us of beauty and what is worth fighting for in our lives. And it gives us the means to fight back. I can’t thank these people enough for sharing their stories with me, for confiding their fears and for their willingness to work towards positive change.

So while in Florida there were many walks on beautiful beaches, long conversations, amazing food, art that stirred and moved the soul, friends old and new that I will forever cherish; it is the hope that I am filled with that takes me into the studio now that I’m home. I am forever indebted to Ben and Adam for this opportunity. You guys work so hard and give so much to our clay community. My heart and mind have grown in this last week. To my fellow artists and presenters, I cherish this wonderful time we had together and I look forward to future encounters to build on our friendship and to see more of your incredible work. I am beyond inspired.

(above image by Adam Field. From L-R Kyle Carpenter, Linda Christiansen, Matt Metz, Adam Field, Thaddeus Erdahl, Carole Epp, Meredith Host, Sam Chung, Ben Carter)

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