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Kick Your Work Up a Notch: Announcing the Ceramics Monthly Master Class!

Posted By Simon Levin On March 8, 2010 @ 12:59 pm In Criticism and Aesthetics,Daily,Features | 16 Comments

Today I wanted to point out a new feature on Ceramic Arts Daily: the Ceramics Monthly Master Class section. If you haven’t noticed already, you’ll find a link to the master class section on the right side navigation on CAD. The articles in this section contain advanced technical and critical content from the pages of Ceramics Monthly magazine. Topics can range from glaze chemistry and kiln construction, to firing techniques and aesthetic criticism, and all come from the top experts in the field.

Today I thought I would share an excerpt to give you an example of the types of articles you’ll find here. It is from a great article by Simon Levin on critiquing your work, a skill that is often stressed at the college level, but is good to learn and practice at any stage of the game. In this excerpt, Simon explains his “Suck Factor” method of gauging a piece’s success and gives some sample critiques on his own work. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


I use one tool everyday, on every pot or sculpture, whether I made it or not. This pervasive tool is critical analysis, and I use it to assess the pot I am currently throwing, the work I made yesterday and the work I made years ago. Like a bite of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, having an understanding with which to assess pottery cast me out of the garden of blissfully bad pots into the struggle of evolving a voice in clay. My work and view of pottery has never been the same.

In a hotel room one night preparing to give a slide lecture, I decided to graph my pottery career. On first glance, it looks as though my career has been one of steady decline, but let me explain. I needed a unit of measurement to plot. I thought back to my early pots-the ones that were trying to be novel for the sake of originality-and how much those pots sucked. It seemed natural to graph the amount my pots have sucked over time. Hence, the birth of the Suck Factor Unit or SFU.

The next decision was to set the parameters of the suck factor, how much, or how little, can a pot actually suck? It occurred to me that a pot can suck all the way around; therefore the maximum is 360°.

The graph then charts milestones where the suck factor changes course. Starting around 350°, the pots started to become better in 1991 with my introduction to wood firing. This is not to say that wood firing makes pots suck less, but my being connected to the process of making helped to reduce the SFU in my pots. Looking at the chart, you can see the SFU plummet when Linda Christianson and Michael Simon became my teachers. My understanding of clay as a form of communication, my own critical analysis and attention to detail are all due to their teachings. You can see a rise in suck factor during graduate school. Trying new things, the influences of many voices and outside pressures all served to make my pots suck more. This continued for the year after grad school when I didn’t have access to a kiln. Since building my own kilns in 1999 and trusting my graduate training and self assessments, the pots have become more my own and the SFU has decreased to around 80°.

 

This article first appeared in the pages of Ceramics Monthly.
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A Sampling of Simon’s Self Critique

Blowfish Pitcher, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, fired in an anagama with sand, 2004.

Blowfish Pitcher, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, fired in an anagama with sand, 2004.

I love how fat and full this pitcher is. It swells so generously with lift and heft from a small base. It has an almost comical austerity. I also enjoy the puckered liplike quality of the spout; it reinforces the humor of this swollen birdlike form. Looking at the detail below, I really respond to the roundness of the handle. I like the relationships created between the width of the handle and the width of the spout. The curve of the handle connections beautifully mimic the opening of the pitcher. But the side of the handle creates an edge that is unlike anything else on the pot. It is a clean sharp line that distracts from all the other things this pitcher communicates.

 
Combed Jar, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, with dry slip, fired in an anagama, 2006, $350.

Combed Jar, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, with dry slip, fired in an anagama, 2006, $350.

I have been making these large thrown jars for several years now and they have evolved nicely. I am drawn to how the swelling surface is accented by lines that broaden and flatten toward the widest point and narrow at the neck and foot. I use a dry slip technique to soften the effects of shiny ash and I love the misty movements of flame path across the side of this jar. The suggestion of symmetry in the form gives the vessel breath and life, and makes me want to take the journey around it. The weak point for me is the lip. The edge of the lip is a nice echo of the wandering edge on the foot, but the point at which the texture ends is muddy and unclear. I need to find a clear way to think about the rims of these jars, but because they are an anachronistic form I struggle to justify direction.
Swiss Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005, by Simon Levin.

Swiss Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005, by Simon Levin.

I am disappointed with the edge of the lip of the cup to the left. The handle is full, the belly swells nicely but the lip is so sharp. The handle also fails to continue the line created by the belly.

The mug to the right offers a much better relationship between handle and lip treatments. The wad mark on the side is a nice echo of the negative space of the handle. The soft flashing is like the wandering lines of lip and foot, yet the bottom half of the handle feels thin and rigid. Imagine if it were more plump.

Lush Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005.

Lush Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005.

 

Click here to read the rest of this article. Or browse through more advanced technical and critical content, in the Ceramics Monthly Master Class section!


 


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