Friday, 23 August 2013

Stephen Benwell and Cerebral Accretions

I have had a little break in my writing to accommodate some other cerebral activity. Our bodies don’t grow evenly but a little bit on one side and a little bit on the other so at some stage we might be in sync but at many times we are striving for that balance.

My mind has had to take on some new learnings, of the IT kind because my regular band of clever helpers were not available at the precise moments of my crises. It meant I had to nut things out alone and that was a good thing because I now know how to use some new applications and with more practice I will look experienced by comparison. It took me longer than a digital native but I am happy to say my mind is still able to take on new things which means my mind grows a little more on one side or other and that is a good thing.

When hand building with clay especially fine porcelain, it is a matter of constantly adding even weights and thicknesses of clay and giving the clay time to consolidate before adding another piece just like adding new learnings to a brain. An expert in this field is Stephen Benwell who is exhibiting at Heide Gallery.
His forms are outrageously large and finely built and a mystery of construction if you have ever tried it yourself.

His earlier works are quite muted colours because of the clay he used and the fact that in Australia in the seventies there was not much advice about firing coloured work which he discovered was better in an oxidation firing than reduction. I made the same mistakes at the beginning of my course. In those days he decorated with geometric forms on quite classical shapes. There are legs and feet on many vessels and at one stage he goes through quite a zoomorphic phase based on Pre Columbian figures. You will have to visit the exhibition to see those forms because my camera hiccupped at that point.
Here is one with feet though.
Being a pioneer of a form is a hard road to hoe but it is also free of rules and Stephen Benwell has used that lack of guidelines to his advantage. He has learned like a child whose default mode is to always be a learner and discoverer. Firing stoneware to earthenware temperatures and firing pieces up to 30 times to see what happens is a true adventurer's spirit. He is so closely involved with the clay but at the same time detaches himself from the object by exposing it to a gamble.
As he acquired more understanding of clay and firing and how glazes work in different firings his colours gradually come to life. The stiffness of his forms loosens and the surface also loosens and sings with colour and texture. The white surfaces become canvasses for luscious colour while the classic influence is directed more at the imagery on the vessels in repetition of classical tiled Roman walls.
Eventually the sketches of forms on the surface metamorphose into the actual figures without the vessels and have the quality almost of porridge which he accomplishes with layers of slip and glaze over the already slipped and glazed surface with just hints and smudges of the underglazed colour showing through the misty surface. A kinder way to describe them is to say that they are made of cloud material but if I said that I would feel pangs of jealousy because that is what I have always wanted to achieve! A couple of the pieces worked this way remind me of Cy Twombly paintings.
While viewing this exhibition someone asked me how one person can make a figure out of clay and for it to be a success and yet another person cannot. My answer in Stephen Benwell’s case is by adding a touch of tenderness. It reminds me of the old Milton the Monster song where the mad professor adds” just a tincture  of tenderness ..but not too much”
The expressions drawn out  in the facial expressions or bodily gestures have a magical quality that can only be put there by transferring a bit of one’s own soul into the creation. Many years ago I interviewed Melbourne naive artist Anne Marie Graham and she not only kindly tolerated the presence of my four children in her tiny apartment but she directed half of the interview to them in order to pass on her secrets. One of the most important gems was that no matter what you are painting or creating whether it be a rock or a bird, you need to inhabit that thing for that moment of creation, so that if you are a rock you know its heaviness on the earth and its drape of muscles and if you are a bird you know the flightiness of its perch. When you work like that you leave a part of yourself in the work. Stephen Benwell’s works breathe with a part of him.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Persepctive and Channelling Pollyanna

It's been a week of taking stock. Someone took mine or rather the proceeds of some of my stock plus other stuff in a handbag snatching. So all week I have been vacillating between anger and resignation as the real world reality of a snatched bag impacts on my life.  Actually I wouldn't say anger but puzzlement. The sort of person who snatched my bag is so far from my existence and yet now marches beside me every waking moment. I argue with him in my head, I try to look at his family photo album that I have created in my head to see the moment that he lost his way. If only my thoughts could communicate with him or at least make him itch and think!

 But they don't and I just have to channel Pollyanna and her good view of the world always looking for the right handle on life.

Every Cranky Ceramics post begins with an itch or something that bugs me and by sorting out my thoughts I can free myself from some of the anger or over excitement so that I don't look so cranky all the time. In other words I try to put the world and our impact on each other into perspective.
I have always had difficulty in handling perspective in drawings and paintings and maybe it is also a reflection of my mind.
This is one of my very(very) old paintings and I can see now on reflection, where it went wrong but I just haven't had the urge to go back and fix it. Sometimes going backwards and trying to change outcomes can make things better, but other times the mistake is a good lesson to sit in front of and learn from.
Skill takes constant practice and attention.
It also takes effort and study to produce a balanced ceramic vessel but sometimes the physical state of our bodies affects the outcome. Many years ago, I was involved in a car accident which resulted in a number of spinal fractures which have permanently changed the behaviour of my spine. Some days are worse than others if muscles are not worked evenly on both sides and often my pots have a giddy lean. I have come to embrace this aspect of my work as representative of who I am now, but at the same time fight it because it indicates that I need to do more stretching to prevent the decline in my spine and all the impact it can have on my internal organs.
So when my mind leans too much one way, it is also a warning to me that maybe my perspective is out of whack and that I need to do some physical , mental and dietary balancing.