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GraphicPower: Terry Gess Makes His Mark

Posted By Katey Schultz On October 7, 2009 @ 4:24 pm In Ceramics Monthly,Functional Pottery | No Comments

with Monthly Methods: Slips Marks, by Terry Gess — including slip recipes

Blue container, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, thrown and altered white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Blue container, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, thrown and altered white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Over the past thirty years, Terry Gess has developed a
personal logic that allows him to engage fully with the world around him. The
short version of the story is this: Whole life, whole potter. The long version
has to do with learning how to see, touch, and hear the nuances of daily life,
then intuit a light-handed, rich response through clay. It matters that Gess
plays the piano, dabbles in painting, takes creative writing classes and can
tell you five Southern Appalachian ways to say, “He’s not from here.” It
matters that when Gess sees an African wall hanging he hears polyrhythmic
music; when he studies a piece of sheet music, he sees the patterns in black
and white but understands that these flashes on the page do not come to life
until they are played-in other words, until they fulfill their function.

This sort of synesthesia lends itself to a body of work
whose beauty reveals its secrets slowly. Gess’ work can be seen, touched, and
used in daily tasks. But his signature saturated black marks across a layered
palette of earthy browns and ivories are what keep unfolding long after the mug
has been washed, the plate scraped, or the vase emptied and put back on the
shelf. Like a flash of pattern behind closed eyelids, these marks are intuitive
and sudden. They are seen but also felt, tapping into an archetypal language
across histories and cultures.

To see Gess move around in his studio is to understand the
freedom with which he makes these universal design marks. When he recounts a
past experience, there is a gentle and honest quality to his gestures that
seamlessly morphs into full-bodied, accurate impersonations. Rather than
narrate an entire trip to France, for instance, he’ll summarize the influential
people on the trip in one or two lithe gestures or sayings. These flashes of
movement and cadences of speech are seen, heard, and felt in much the same way
that his mark making on clay can be experienced.


This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly.
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Striped melon vase, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, white stoneware, thrown in sections, with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Striped melon vase, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, white stoneware, thrown in sections, with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Gess calls this “graphic power” and has the critical
distance to trace experiences of this throughout his life, naming some sources
for the work he makes today. “I was a camp counselor one summer and the cabin
had this zebra pelt on the wall,” says Gess. “I remember it because it was
real, graphic, bold, exotic, and patterned. I think, on some level, that was a
fundamental experience of what I was interested in-that graphic power. Early
on, I was influenced by things like this that percolated for years.”

Working with nine basic marks, Gess breaks up the space on
each piece in a different, spontaneous way. The spiral, line, circle, dot,
ellipse, square, rectangle, zigzag, and cross can stand alone or function in
chorus. Multiplied or patterned, these marks alter the way a piece is
experienced. “Pattern is of great interest to me-the way in which space is
ordered and adorned logically, intuitively and randomly,” says Gess. “A mark
repeated becomes a pattern. The negative space comes into power and the pattern
becomes invested with meaning. Patterns have religious meanings and spiritual
or esoteric meanings. Pattern has a life of its own and moves through all
cultures.”

Squared plate, 9 in. (23 cm) square, thrown and altered white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Squared plate, 9 in. (23 cm) square, thrown and altered white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Rather than replicating these patterns exactly-or imposing a
rigid, false diversity- Gess treats each piece like a cousin of the one that
came before it. Glazing and marking a series of bowls, for instance, one
thought leads to the next. This progression appears on the surface of his work
so that a piece can stand alone or work intuitively with others in a set. More
complex are the five-piece canister sets that Gess began working on a few years
ago. These pieces are wheel thrown and hand altered and look rugged and bold,
yet subtle in their surface design. “The challenge,” Gess explains, “is to take
a shape and [vary] it in size, up and down, larger and smaller-to play with
gaining and increasing scale while maintaining a relationship to form. The next
trick is to take a surface pattern and integrate it into a number of pieces
that can work together as well as individually.”

Just as significant as his mark-making are the forms Gess
chooses to make. His favorite pottery has always been the “spirited, populist
styles,” such as Medieval English jugs and fifteenth-century Islamic tin-glazed
wares. Much of this work was made in large quantities with little regard for
each piece as an individual statement. Insistent upon leaving the mark of the
handmade, Gess finds value in the occasional awkward base or sloppy lip. This
is tempered by his desire to make forms that function fully and properly, the end
result being a body of work that evokes his historical influences, adding a
touch of modern finesse.

Teapot, 8½ in. (22 cm) in height, thrown and altered white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Teapot, 8½ in. (22 cm) in height, thrown and altered white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Ultimately, Gess seeks to create work that is infused with a
spiritual function as well. The clearest way to summarize his intention in this
regard is to quote Daniel Rhodes from the first chapter of the first edition of
Clay & Glazes for the Potter. Gess has the quote, as follows, committed to
memory: “Pottery, at least to those of us who make it, seems to have a quality
which is something quite beyond the sum of its usefulness and beauty. There is
in pottery a connection with the earliest traditions of civilization and
culture, and pottery forms symbolize in a particularly direct way some of the
most fundamental human activities. Any piece of pottery, no matter how crude it
is, seems to share in the glory of a craft which, at its best, has succeeded in
filling profound human needs, both practical as well as spiritual.”

Growth and experimentation are among these human needs. “It
is very difficult to move beyond what one has spent considerable time and
effort developing in order to find new ways of working, but the search is
critical to the creative process,” says Gess.

Throughout 2009, he has slowly integrated his new work into
exhibitions. This work has a clear celadon glaze that turns blue when fired
over a black glaze. Like his already established work, the use of layering is
still prevalent. But in this case, the universal design marks are painted on
top of black glaze with a wax resist. “It’s two different ways of thinking, two
different ways of approaching the mark,” he says. “The other work was done with
mark-making as well, but this way the wax disappears and the mark is what’s
left behind rather than what is put on.”

Sake set, to 5 in. (13 cm) in height, thrown, altered and handbuilt white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

Sake set, to 5 in. (13 cm) in height, thrown, altered and handbuilt white stoneware with multiple slips and glaze, salt fired to cone 10, 2009.

The year is also scheduled with teaching opportunities for
Gess. “The challenge for me is to teach people how to improvise-how to live and
learn to make pottery that is of their own self, their own nature or instinct
or personality,” says Gess. Much like improvisation in jazz, the spontaneity of
mark-making has to come from within. What keeps Gess teaching is the fact that
it’s fulfilling to give back. “When I work, I don’t analyze every step for
myself, but when I teach I have to articulate things differently.”

Three decades of life and studio experience cannot be
summarized in one workshop-or one essay, for that matter. Poignant experiences
of graphic power can’t always be replicated. A teacher cannot simply tell a
student to live a full life. All of this, however, can be embodied. It can
inform everything from reading sheet music to telling stories. It can foster a
critical and delightful view of the world, one that provokes the senses with a
nod toward the spiritual. It can lend itself to a whole life, a whole potter.

Terry Gess lives in Bakersville, North Carolina, with his
wife and textile artist Carmen Grier. He is represented locally by Southern
Highlands Craft Guild, Penland Gallery, Crimson Laurel Gallery, and more. To
learn more, visit terrygesspottery.com.

 

the author Katey Schultz writes from her home in
Bakersville, North Carolina. To learn more, visit
katey.schultz.googlepages.com.

 

Monthly Methods: Slips and Marks

by Terry Gess

The challenge and subtle beauty of slips are of great
interest to me. Potters firing with salt, soda or wood kilns often employ slips
on the exterior surfaces of their work to achieve thin, skin-like surfaces.
These slips are related to glazes, but they are comprised primarily of kaolin.
The slips will record the nuances of the kiln’s flame, combustion and
atmosphere. The result can be similar to the blush on a peach or the subtle
patina of a weathered wall. It is, however, a most fickle process, and results
can be difficult to reproduce.

On any given piece, I use up to four different kaolin clays
in individual slip recipes in order to achieve subtle variations in the surface
treatment. There are a number of different kaolin clays available from around
the world, and they all have different qualities and benefits. I apply the
slips by overlapping, dipping, layering, pouring, using wax resist, and other
basic glaze application methods.

 I apply my
slips onto bisqueware. Bisque gives me the opportunity to experiment, make
mistakes, and to change my mind and wash everything off without destroying the
pot. The greatest technical challenge to this approach is shrinkage. The slips
need to be watery-thin. (If the slip looks wonderfully thick and creamy in the
bucket, then it’s much too thick for bisque.) I standardize the process by
using a gram scale and graduated cylinder in order to carefully measure and
record the specific gravity, or weight-to-volume (density) comparison of each
of my slips. To measure the specific gravity, divide the weight of a given
volume of your slip by the weight of the same volume of water. Most of my slips
are 1.2 specific gravity (meaning they are 1.2 times as dense as water), while
most glazes are in the 1.6-1.7 range. Adding approximately 2% Veegum Cer (which
is a mixture of synthetic and natural gums) and 1% bentonite to the slip helps
with glaze suspension and also binds each layer of slip to preceding layers on
the surface of the pot.

 

 Recipes

Helmar Slip
Nepheline Syenite . . . . . . . . .  15
Grolleg Kaolin . . . . . . . . . . . .  20
Helmar Kaolin . . . . . . . . . . . .  65
Add:    Veegum
Cer
2
           Bentonite 1

 

Tile 6 Slip
Nepheline Syenite . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  20
Calcined EPK Kaolin . . . . . . . . . . . .  20
Tile 6 Kaolin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
325-mesh Silica 10
Add:    Veegum
Cer
1
           Bentonite 2

 

70/30 T6 Slip
Nepheline Syenite . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  30
Tile 6 Kaolin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70
Add:    Veegum
Cer
2

 

 

 


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