Thursday, January 29, 2015

Art for whom? vs what art, and by whom?

Most art laws tries to bring together

two opposing objectives, 

the pursuit of professional excellence 
wider community participation.

Classic Us vs Them, or Them and Us binary thinking.

But we are not alone in Australia with this problem.  

Tribal Revolt (1994) by G. Hay.  Ceramic earthenware paper clay, plaster,  54 x 47 x 46 cm.  Photo: P. Northcott.**

Seeing our common dilemmas from another culture provides a fresh perspective.

"Freshness" does not garantee a solution for ourselves, but, at the least it may make it easier to live with our dilemma.

A Finnish  artist wrote

"...  I was invited to take part in a panel to discuss the topic of ‘for whom should art be made?’ 

The discussion centred on whether art should be made for a professional arts audience or for a wider public, and what the need was for applied arts and societal arts in today’s society in general. 

I remained silent for most of the discussion, as I felt I could not grasp the point of the question. 

The question seemed to portray art as a specific kind of a ‘product’, which was manufactured by professionals and then distributed to consumers. 

The structure of this art distribution was analogous to that of any product, where demand, market value and consumer expectations were driving the development of product design – in this case, the strategies of art funding.

Finally, I tried to raise my voice, and proposed to shift from the question of ‘for whom should art be made?’ (which presupposed a one-way deliverer–receiver structure) to the question of ‘who can make art in society?’ 

Following this, I proposed that, if we had societal funding structures such as a ‘citizen salary’, people could participate in creativity and art-making, and questions about the status of professional or amateur art or boundaries between popular culture, DIY communities and fine art would become trivial. 

Then, the follow-up question would be: ‘what kind of art is made, and made possible, by the people?’

As one might expect, my proposal was met with minimal response, as leaders of art institutions continued their debates on the distribution of governmental art funding to established institutions. 

The problem did not seem to be how to deal critically with the economic structure, which increasingly defined art and art-making, but how to get as much funding as possible from this structure. 

Slight panic seemed to be filling the atmosphere, as pressure from diminished state funding, on the one hand, and increased reliance on private funding, on the other, forced institutions to blindly fight for survival. 

For the artists, the question of DIY or amateur art posed a threat to the professional league, which also had to prove its expertise and irreplaceability in the face of the system.*

For me, this was a clarifying moment. 

There I was, at the very core of cultural funding, amongst these high-ranking decision-makers, and not even they had any power over the rhetoric that comes, direct and unmasked, from neoliberal economic language. 

There seemed to be no other option than to accept what was put into action, from the top down, by the government and make the best of it...

But it doesn't have to be this way...

*emphasis added by myself
 ** From The Ways of the Seeing Places exhibition, Arts House Gallery, Northbridge,  Perth, Western Australia, 7 - 19 August, 1994.

Extract from Terike Haapoja's paper "At Least We Now Hear Them Talking: Art and the animal other in the era of neoliberal dogma", from Corcoran, K., Delfos, C,  Maxwell, J.  (Ed), Art Futures: Working with Contradictions in Higher Arts Education, The European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA), p. 43.  Read it online: Thanks to Chamber of Arts and Culture Western Australia for providing a copy to to members.
Chamber of Arts and Culture Western Australia

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I have no idea what I'm doing...

One of the most embarrassing things after giving a paper clay workshop is viewing video of my demonstrations.

Luckily the cringe factor diminishes slowly over time.

I've just re-discovered some video from a workshop over two years ago, that I gave in Khnemu Studio, Michigan, USA.

In a fit of madness I had decided to demonstrate how to make something I had made over 14 years ago,  and only once since,  for a demonstration 6 years ago at Desert Dragon Pottery, Phoenix.

Paperclay, 43 x 38 x 16 x  cm, Artist: Graham Hay (Aus/NZ), Photo: Victor France
Hug, 200012Ceramic E'ware & T'cotta Paperclay 43 x 38 x 16 x  cm, by Graham Hay,  Photo: Victor France

I'm now unsure what induced the madness, but a throw away comment I made during the video motivated this blog.

The orthodox for demonstrations is to show what you're good at, which means showing techniques you have used thousands of time in the studio over the last decade or so.

There's one serious problem with this safe route.

It makes the technique look very easy and the result fantastic, but is very difficult for audience members to duplicate successfully, particularly beginners.

By making a "wonky work" I showed how things do go wrong, that the studio process involves hundreds of hours of failure and dead ends, and the amazing works presented in slideshows and magazines, only just through to that point by the skin of their teeth.  They oh, so nearly ended up in a dog's dinner on the floor.

This problem of giving too polished demonstrations first struck me many years ago while teaching at the Ceramic Design Studio at Pakistan's peak National College of Arts, in Lahore, were I was working with some of the brightest students ever.  Compared to myself, they had a better command of english, new technology and were more widely travelled.  Despite their obvious capacity to quickly learn whatever I demonstrated, they weren't "getting it".   

The solution I finally fingered out was to make and show them a slideshow of just my failures! 

What I think this did was, show that to make masterpieces requires taking risks, sometimes huge risks, in the studio.  That my unusual work was the result of over a decade of making, what I though at the time was, ugly art.  That their current accidents and failures would eventually pay off.  

This slideshow didn't show them what to make or how to make it, rather it showed that I was no different from them.  It motivated them to keep going.  That even though I was "an expert" I was still struggling, and enjoying the process, perhaps even more than the final work.  I believe that this slideshow motivated them more than one of slick, amazing work.  They went away and tried all sorts of things that I had never thought of, and created wonderful work.

So, getting back to the video...

What I saw in the video, which I now like, is that I was obviously struggling to make the challenging piece in Michigan, that I invited the audience in to help me try to make the work.  This removed the physical, and psychological, gap between us and hopefully made it more interesting, and stimulating.

Hopefully it has had a similar postive impact on the workshop participant's motivation in Michigan.

So, bring on the edgy workshop demonstrations!

Friday, January 16, 2015

The 2015 US paper clay "road show"

2015 US paper clay workshop and Symposia dates are now confirmed for Philadelphia, Boston and Phoenix.

 Beat the rush, by online enrolling via links from 

Reload/refresh your browser if you have previously visited that webpage, to see the more up to date version.

Do be quick as sometimes we can't squeeze in additional workshops (to accommodate late comers).

Note:   I do accept late requests for workshops from other US groups.  I do check with the first workshop organisers, and sometimes it does happen.

If interested, please do contact me immediately via the above webpage link.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hot tip for aspiring artists.

Thermal Shock Artists Group in the dim dark past.

Over the last dozen months,  I and a group of other artists, have been digging out

old newspaper articles and images from when we first started exhibiting together at art school

and for a dozen years after.

This nostalgic action is also a gesture,  a hope that it might give emerging artists ideas/tips.

When we started out I created webpages for the events.

These were then taken down again after the event.

So it's now easy to upload them to thermal shockers webpages

Hope these give you some ideas, inspiration.

1) If you're looking, and found this blog entry then you're on the right track.

2) Find others and stick together as long as you can.

3) Plan an exhibition, share the load organising it, support, criticise and encourage each other.

The rest will come from just simply doing this.

I wish you all the best!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Are you Different?

While unloading a kiln today, on a holiday weekend, I was thinking about my students attitude towards clay.

It constantly surprises me when new students become "over excited" about clay. 

Sometimes I forget how I first felt over 40 years ago, when I first started my own clay journey.

I began seriously working with clay at a time when I was developing a sense of my own identity as a teenager.

(image: c. 1973)

Initially pottery / clay sculpture, was within Art at school, although somehow I ended up taking it as two subjects.

(image: c. 1979)

Then at teacher's college I specialised in Art and Craft,  but negotiated to major in ceramics, and live across the road to the studio with out of hours access.


(image: Subiaco dining table 1989)

Later I attended evening hobby classes at Subiaco and Applecross TAFE, and also made at home.

Then I went back to university and retrained as a professional, specialist ceramic, or clay, artist

Now, my private hobby is also my public occupation.

A few creations :) at Wellman St Studio 1999

The result is that is impossible to mentally separate myself from my occupation.  

It is what I do, regardless of likely income or day of the week.

It is a ritualistic part of who I am, and what I do.

Consequently it is very difficult to stop myself from doing something "clay-ish" everyday.

Even if I don't go to the studio to doodle, make or fire, I find myself reading, thinking, writing (case in point), uploading,  ordering, researching or talking about clay.  

Clay is just an everyday thing for me.  It is an extension of me.

I don't know anything else.

What's your experience?

The studio artists and students sometime discuss their art/clay experience.  

I summarise some of these below.

Which of these do you relate to?

Are you a neophiliac?

For many students, clay is somewhat different.

 It is a completely new experience.

This is initially, as well regularly as they become more ambitious with the medium and their ideas.

Personally, I have found I have to make a new idea an average six times, before I succeed.

Novel experiences demand our complete attention.

It provides something that appears to be missing from our lives.  I'm unsure whether this is just because the we enter the "zone", or "being in the groove", where we are completely and deeply focused on what we are making.  This is a deeply satisfying experience and when we exit it, we often feel considerably refreshed.  Doesn't satisfying work give you this?

Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” according to research by psychiatrist C. Robert Cloninger.

TLC anyone?

There is a theory that all art is therapy.

It is a solitary activity (despite often being carried out in a social environment) which forces our minds to settle, and focus more closely on what we're doing, feeling, thinking and then express it.

Creative self expression is seen as beneficial, a sort of uncorking of the bottle.

It may be a lifesaver in an overcrowded, high pressure, time poor, competitive urban environment.

(Spending most of my life making things in clay, I personally have no idea of it's impact.)


Because it is hands on, using both hands and often all parts of them, it must engage more of the brain.

 This is in a contrast to much of our work life where, via the narrow, physically limited pen, keyboard or mouse, we focus only scratching out / typing single letters, words, abstract symbols or ideas.

Clay is tactile, sensual, and sometimes sexual experience.

Plus for those more ambitious with scale, it provides a healthy, and creative physical workout.  Try it.


The majority of people buy everything they need from complete strangers.  Everything  that they eat, wear and use, is coldly standardised and mass machine produced in the millions.

An "alienation of/by objects"?

Potters sometimes use this argument for why people should buy their handmade wares:

we have a personal and emotional (some say spiritual) relationship to handmade objects around us.

I suggest an even better solution to "alienation of/by objects":

Make them yourself.

There must be a huge difference in a life lived surrounded with objects handmade by others, compared to being surrounded with objects you've make yourself.

They might not be expertly made, but you'll feel much better, while making them.

Moreover that feeling may surpass the satisfaction of looking at, and using them.

Escape to the country?

I grew up on a farm where we grew and made much of what we ate, wore and used.  Living on a remote and sometimes isolated farm we grew / harvested / hunted mutton, beef, grain, venison, eggs, milk, trout, salmon, ells, wool, honey, wood and so on.  Moreover, we processed our food and fibre, built fences, gates and even complex farm machines, repaired and serviced them.  so I have no romantic ideas about the long hours and hard labour, that a handmade life entailed.

Third Room?

A studio becomes a space separate from your work and domestic responsibilities and commitments.

This creates a mental window enabling you to bring more space or a refreshed perspective in a hamster-wheel or rat-race existence.

2nd, 3rd, 4th childhood?

Clay may enable you to reconnect with the child within, or revisit your childhood.  Reconnect with a joyful, playful part of yourself.  Regular exposure  rekindles a playful attitude, and develops lateral thinking fitness.

My own primary focus in the studio, is on the satisfaction that comes from making, rather than having and using objects that I have made.  Perhaps, as a child I became addicted to the satisfaction that comes from making things with my hands, rather than possessing handmade things (mind you, in the past I renovated a house, and it was difficult to leave).


When physical contact has become restricted, or overloaded with significance, guilt, tight social codes, conventions and uncertainty, it may be tremendously liberating to push, pull, fondle, stroke, poke, slam, slip and slop clay.

Just zero anxiety / guilt free clay play.

Even more fun, sharing with others doing the same.

Like me?

Classes voluntarily bring together like minded people.

Because I provide a flexible attendance framework, you only come when you want to, just like professional artists.

You only attend when you are feeling happy, healthy, receptive and sociable.

The resulting ethos is more conducive to create activity, compared to more regimented classes.

An environment making you more receptive to learning, particularly self-directed (creative) learning.

My buzz, your buzz?

Of course I get excited when telling others about paper clay.

It has make my life, and others, so much easier, compared to conventional,  “conservative” clay.

Described by past students and writers as a "passion", it excites and inspires others.

Which brings me back to my new students excitement about clay.

I also feed on your enthusiasm for clay,

which reminds me not to take it for granted my own early love of clay, and it's personal impact over 40 years.

What effect has clay had on you?  


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