Art School: Semester 6, Week 6

Jeff Powell
13 min readOct 13, 2019

Half the term is done, more or less. Already. And I feel like I’ve been run over by multiple trucks. It’s quite the adventure this time, and the coming week or two will be very “interesting” on the class front, but more about that below.

This weekend sees the arrival of Canadian Thanksgiving, which means an enforced day off (or at least a day when going to campus is not possible). I’d say I need that, but as you will read below it turns out I have homework to do.

Obviously there are things to discuss, so…

Advanced Ceramics

When last you peeked in on this class I was working on the first project, a sculptural work made from thrown bowl forms. It had been bisque fired, and was to be glazed next. Well, it’s done. Here’s the work after glazing and before the glaze firing:

Sorry about the colour balance in the upper left photo. The central bit really looked bright red-brown as seen in the other pics. Also note that in that upper left photo the base is upside down so you can see inside it. The green stuff around the bottom of the base is a wax resist, so the glaze doesn’t stick the work to a shelf in the kiln.

The glaze firing was a bit hotter than the glaze firing which produced the bowls (and glaze tests) from before. The piece survived (something I am always worried about) and here is the result:

My honest impression: meh. It sort of works, but not as well as I wanted. The glaze colours are different from what I’d planned (or hoped for) and while the end result isn’t awful on that front, it’s not right.

Having looked at this thing a few times now, I have the following takeaways from the first project:

  • Work larger. This piece needs to be bigger to do what I wanted. In my defence, I was re-learning how to throw on the wheel, and I was pushing things (for me) even with these forms. In fact, I deliberately tried working smaller than normal in this case for the fun of it, but I see now that was an error. I’m happy with what I threw in terms of shape, thickness, and how even the walls were, but I definitely need to spend more time getting comfortable on the wheel and throwing a lot, particularly larger stuff.
  • I need a ton of practice to get good enough at working with clay in general, not just on the wheel. My handling of clay is sloppy and amateur at best right now. I know many people prefer work that is less than perfectly handled and created, but I don’t usually feel that way. I like work that is technically good, that shows the artist has a command of the medium. That definitely isn’t me with regards to clay at this point.
  • Use simpler glazes and glaze combinations. There are six different glazes (or combinations of glazes) on this piece. That’s too many. The fact that you might not notice all those glazes is just dumb luck in this case. The KISS principle applies even more in ceramics than I had anticipated.
  • Never, ever, count on glaze behaviour. At least not in a gas fired, reduction kiln. The tiniest difference in temperature, air flow, weather conditions, shelf position, and who knows what else can cause things to change in uncontrollable ways. Maybe someone who is in full control of their kiln and has used it for years will know more about outcomes, but I clearly have no clue what any end result will be.

Overall, one of the things I am pondering from this class so far is that ceramics might not be the best medium for a control freak like me. That’s an interesting observation, given I enjoyed my intro class two years ago.

Another thing about this class: after six weeks I am only now starting to get a tiny handle on the instructor and her desires/expectations. My previous interactions with her had been limited and in very different contexts. Turns out I am wound way too tightly for this class, and I need to ratchet things down considerably. That is another interesting observation, and I will do my best.

In related news, though, I am already failing at that ratcheting down thing. What a surprise.

Project 2 is here. I think I mentioned it before (though I cannot be bothered to hunt up last week’s post and check… sorry). It’s the body project, in which we’re each assigned a body part, create something based on that, and they are all displayed on the wall as a big figure in the end. We’ll be raku firing these things, with very limited glaze choices (white and — maybe — a copper based glaze that can produce iridescent colours). The firing process turns unglazed clay black with smoke, which also penetrates cracks in the white glaze. That’s the palate we have to work with.

I got the right thigh, and I started working on something already. I was trying to play with negative space, lightness, and so on. Yesterday I got to a certain point with the piece and stopped. I hate it. Not just dislike… hate. It’s not me, and it’s not even good. Feh.

I set it in the back corner of the shelf to dry, but I may pull an Ai Weiwei with it. I really don’t like it. And no, there are no pictures. I had a couple from the middle of the process and deleted them.

After a long conversation yesterday with some of my fellow students, I am going to try again in the coming days, working from a totally different angle. An entirely new concept. With luck, I won’t hate this one, and the first will just disappear forever.

As you can see, I really am wound too tightly about some things, and I am sure that drives the instructor crazy. I will do my best.

Public Art

There is better luck here, thankfully. The individual project is coming along nicely. I’ve cut the steel, folded the hexagons, spot welded them, and polished up the welds to reduce the burrs. My hands are covered with small scratches and cuts from this work, but I have 100 hexagons ready for priming and painting now, along with 4 tests that are probably in good enough condition to use in the end as well.

Here are some photos of the process to date:

From left to right and top to bottom:

  • Cutting strips on the treadle shear
  • Cutting strips to length on the treadle shear
  • Two images of the cut strips; the 4 on the top are the test pieces
  • Folding on the box bender (also called a “break”)
  • A pile of folded metal
  • Spot welding
  • A pile of welded and cleaned up (at least on the outer surfaces) hexagons
  • The final hexagons stacked on a shelf in the sculpture studio

In addition, I got out my magnets and did a test assembly of a subset of these things, just to figure out how they were going to work in the end:

This was just fooling around, and I know the background is terrible, but it did what I needed. I know the pieces can work together, that I have plenty of magnets to do the job, and that I can create interesting shapes with them. This will work.

I am way ahead of the other students in this project in the class. I worry a bit about how much work most of them have left to do and the limited time available, but that’s their business, not mine. Late in the coming week I will start priming these, I suspect. Paint will happen after that. I am still working on the colour choices, but I am close.

The other project in this class is the window treatment for the 49th street Canada Line station, and progress is being made there. One of my fellow students created a lovely image of a rider on the train which was otherwise full of plants. It’s cute and funny and makes you stop and think. Last week we all played with that and I happened to be the one that found an interesting orientation of that image that people seemed to like. Refinements are in process, and my own role is probably going to wind up being the digital guy that keeps track of everything. I might also be the one to do the final computer layout of the work as well, though that isn’t certain yet. No images to share yet, as they really aren’t mine at this time.

Finally, the instructor has started discussing the third project in this class, which is the presentation of an idea for a large, wall hanging, outdoor art piece at the Canada Line same station. This term everyone will come up with an idea and make a presentation about it. We’ll vote for our favourite and the winner will get fabricated next term. I have no clue what to do for that yet, but I have lots of time and am starting to admire the problem.

Cultural Theory

Sadly, I am really starting to loathe this class. Not the instructor — she’s fine — but the material. I’ve had the hardest time getting my head around this stuff, probably for several reasons:

First off, it’s awful reading. None of the writers we’ve covered can write a simple, expository sentence without making up terms (and failing to explain them clearly, if they bother to explain them at all). I know what they are trying to get at is hard, but clear communication is much more important than any of these people understood.

Next, I have no clue why we’re reading this stuff — a pile of Marxist and Freudian theory, most of which has been completely discredited as far as I can tell. There have been hints that it matters in the art world somehow, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how. If I need to justify my art with reference to these theories and people, I will — honestly — skip it, and thus skip participation in the organized art world. I can imagine nothing less relevant to the vast majority of humanity than what we are attempting to read.

And finally, I have no high level view of this material. No plan, no outline. I am a big picture kind of person. I like maps and high level discussions that provide overall direction before I get down into the weeds with a specific argument of almost any kind. None of that is present here. Even worse, we’re reading tiny extracts by these people, so if there are foundational texts that would provide such an overview, we don’t see them. (Well, I suppose I could attempt to find them on my own, read them each week, and thus get that knowledge on my own. But if I have that much free time I should also be curing cancer, solving the climate crisis, and making world peace a reality.)

That combination of issues is deadly, and I am completely disinterested in the course material at this point as a result. I read it, and I do the homework but I really dislike it, and I feel like every second I spend at it is wasted time.

This coming week we have the midterm exam, worth 20% of our final grade. The instructor’s approach to the mid term is interesting. She hands out the questions in advance so we can prepare. Her reasoning is that this stuff is so difficult we can’t really keep it in our heads. So we prepare in advance, show up on the day of the midterm, and write for an hour, essentially from memory.

She gives us a slew of options on what we can write about. Each thinker gets a section on the exam and a set of questions. We only have to write about one of them.

I had pondered sharing the exam itself here since I have it, but that feels like a bad idea. It’s kind of proprietary stuff, even if she hands it out in advance. What I can do is share her summary of one of the writers we’ve read, to give you a taste of what we’ve been discussing. Here’s her summary of the work (at least that part of the work we’ve discussed) of Jacques Lacan:

Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the structuring of desire claimed that the psyche is not intrinsically male or female. Lacan insists that the body as a visual projection or imaginary formation produced during ‘The Mirror Stage’ cannot be sustained except through submitting to the Symbolic Order otherwise known as the Law of the Father. Sexual identity is constituted through Oedipus and the castration complex that are also situation within the phallocentric order of language.

Trust me when I say I will not be writing about Lacan on the midterm. His was the least intelligible of everything we read, and her summary (and even her lecture and the ensuing class discussion) did not help me understand it. Sadly, I can find nothing redeeming in Lacan, or in any of the other stuff we’ve read, really.

Thankfully the final section was by Michael Foucault, and while it’s still a weird mishmash of words and concepts, he completely dispensed with the awful lingo the other writers had been using, and wrote in sentences that almost made sense. I will be prepping answers for his section of the test as a result. What I will do about the final (where we will have a similar test with a new crop of writers to select from) I have no clue.

All I need to do is pass, though. I really don’t need anything more than that. I hate thinking that way, but so far this material pushes me in that direction without fail.

Anyway, as hinted at in the intro, my enforced day away from campus will be spent working on exam prep in large measure.

Other Stuff

Some of you know there is a Federal election coming here in Canada. I think it’s in another week or so. We cannot vote, but it’s amusing to see it going on around us. I tripped over an article discussing the candidates running for parliament in the local ridings (think of a riding as something like a congressional district, if you’re from the USA). I was amused to discover that one of the local ridings has a Rhinoceros Party, which seems to be a joke or protest party, somewhat along the lines of the Monster Raving Loony Party in the UK (which, itself, seems to have been inspired by the Election Night Special from Monty Python, in which there was a Silly Party).

There are also independent candidates in a couple of local ridings. I had no clue that was even possible — since up here you vote for parties at some fundamental level — but apparently it is. When time allows I need to figure out if any independent candidates ever win, and if so how they function within the government. Seems an odd fit to me given my limited knowledge so far.

Anyway, it’s interesting, and with all the kerfuffle both the Liberals and Conservatives have been having, I have no clue who is going to win. Time will tell.

Harbour News

It seems cruise season is over. I haven’t seen a cruise ship at Canada Place in at least a week now, so there is no news there. And the rest of the harbour has been quiet as well. All in all, I have little to report here.

Oh, wait… there is one thing.

The local transit authority ordered a new SeaBus a while back. These are large catamarans that are used to ferry passengers back and forth across the harbour from North Vancouver to Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver. A while back it arrived and was undergoing trials, during which they determined it sits too low in the water. I guess there are complications with bringing it into the SeaBus terminals as a result.

To fix it, it has to be retrofitted with larger pontoon hulls, which will make it sit a bit higher. They claim it will still be within budget thanks to earlier cost savings, but it will miss the planned launch date. I think I read it will be ready to go sometime next year as a result of this change.

For the time being we live with the existing three vessels and see how they hold up to the new schedule that requires all three to be operating during rush hours Mon-Fri. One of the existing fleet is pretty old, and I suspect the amount of maintenance needed is an interesting proposition when they are all in use at the same time.

And In Conclusion…

I have no conclusion this week, friends. I need to finish this off, publish, and get on with other things. Like prepping for my mid term. Wish me luck!



Jeff Powell

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.