by Paul Soldner
Before there was ART, there was drawing. In dark caves people made marks on walls, leaving behind a treasure of images. Beautiful, mysterious, childlike, yet profoundly drawn, they were full of wonder and awe. Others scratched geometric designs: repetitive, inventive, symbolic. And they drew on everything: bark, bone, hides, houses, stones, parchment, even themselves! When pots first appeared, they drew on them too. The clay, its many colors, the plasticity and the surface, all seemed to invite drawing. One actually feels that it must have compelled them to draw. If early people found it so easy and natural to draw, what is it that compels us today?
Shouldn't drawing be as natural for us as it was for the early people? Why devote a whole issue to drawing on clay? Is it because so little technical information about it exists? I doubt that. Is it because "classical" drawing itself is not being taught much these days? That's possible. Does more status accrue to one who "draws" than to one who does not? In fact, does the act of drawing legitimatize and break down barriers that seem to exist between crafts and the Big "A"? And to be accepted, does one have to draw in an approved "art school" manner? Will such a professional look tie it to the larger Western Art tradition and make it easier for art historians to include clay in their fail-safe system of catagorizing art?
What is or isn't drawing? Defining drawing is as difficult as defining art. All barriers have been broken. There are no absolutes. Presumably, today we are free to do whatever we wish and to call it what we wish; and since drawing occurs in so many media, we can assume that if ever there was a universal art form, it could be drawing.
There are many reasons why we draw. For some, it will be to enhance an object, to add additional embellishment to the basic form in order to make it more appealing. We may draw to communicate, to give information, to say something, and the message can be drawn as blatant graffiti or obscurely hidden in personal symbolism and elaborate complicated designs. Or it can be intellectual, formal, carefully conceived following accepted academic conventions. Still others draw as an emotional response. This kind of drawing will be intuitive, visceral, and organic. The beauty of line itself, that which we call calligraphy, is equally challenging for many of us. The rhythm, flow, and movement of a single line can suggest mountain ranges, a persimmon or plum tree in bloom. Its quality is poetic, harmonious, and in the context of the Japanese tea ceremony, an elite experience as well. Names like Michelangelo, Picasso, Degas, Kollwitz, Jasper Johns, and Koyetau all serve to illustrate the depth and breadth that is possible in the realm of drawing.
To understand the importance of drawing on a single work, try to visualize a Voulkos platter devoid of his marks, scratches, torn and broken edges! The totality of it emanates his personal passion and absolute need to draw. Without this, the platter simply would not be more than a thrown large plate, maybe useful for collecting mail, very little more. Of course, we can learn from historical styles and the various movements, but it is important that we have the freedom to innovate and evolve our own unique qualities.
Often we begin with the desire to emulate: We try to remake what our parents, teachers, and historians led us to believe was the best of the past. In clay this may have been Sung Porcelain, a Greek amphora, Scandinavian Good Design, the Bauhaus style, Japanese tea bowls or any other valued tradition. Eventually, we have to make a choice. We either continue to repeat the past, or we start to explore the future.
To work in the future, we must let go of the past. Don't value too much what was so painstakingly learned. The wisdom of this was made clear to me many years ago by a drawing teacher. It happened in the last week of the semester. After complimenting me on having achieved a high level of proficiency and mastery of the drawn figure, he added, "Now let's see what you can do with your other hand"; keep searching for every question; don't trap yourself with mere facility! Walk that delicate line between knowing what one is doing and going beyond to explore the unknown.
In this connection, it is helpful to understand the Zen-like state of emptiness. Or, putting it differently, clear your mind of preconception, which can be likened to erasing a chalkboard before new information can be written on it. In the field of science, the ability to leap from a known concept to an unknown idea is called invention. In the field of art, when the same leap takes place, we call it creativity.
To be creative, there are two qualities which, if developed, will encourage the process of innovation to take place. Perhaps the most important is to be curious. To be curious is to ask questions. It is not only necessary to question the way something has always been done, but to also ask, how else can it be done and then go ahead and try it! Doing something new takes "courage" and that is the other important part of change. Too often we seek permission to teat a new idea. Too often teachers discourage nonconforming effort and ideas. We are so conditioned to not waking mistakes we lack the courage to fail.
To illustrate this point, whenever I tell people how I use an oxygen-acetylene welding torch to melt "drawn lines" into my fired clay pieces, they immediately say with horror, "You can't do that". They fear that the thermal shock will break the pot or possibly blow it up. That kind of fear stops them from ever even trying. I too was cautious the first time I tried this technique, but was willing to sacrifice a piece to find out. By going ahead, albeit blindly, I now know that although the flame is intense enough to turn the clay to glaze instantly, it is so localized that it does not affect the rest of the piece! This experience has allowed me much freedom to push the limits of drawing in ways beyond that of a brush, pencil, or stencil.
I have yet another story to illustrate how work can change by curious observation and patient testing. It has to do with the "halo" effect which happened unexpectedly many years ago on one of my Raku pots. I had decorated the piece with a strong stain of iron and copper oxide over a white slip, but after it was fired and smoked, I was surprised to find a white line had been "drawn" around the black stain and between the smoked background. Mysteriously, it had not been done by me. Because the halo line was so beautiful, I was curious to understand how it had happened. It took more than fifteen years of trial and error until finally I learned that it was a post smoking, re-oxidation phenomenon and could be reproduced.
This attitude of curiousity coupled with courage, sets one free to attempt all kinds of "off the wall" investigation. Other nonconforming experiments I have tried were the textures of running shoes, perforated plastic containers, auto tires, floor mats, etc., pressed into the clay and resulting in a "drawing" of a different kind. Additionally, I frequently pour molten metal directly onto the clay to achieve a calligraphy not otherwise possible. In the heat of creativity, I have dropped concrete blocks on freshly thrown pots, have purposely thrown them upside down and worked "off center" in order to discover a new form.
Not to be overlooked, is the calligraphy achieved from the flame itself. Although it is not precise or directly manipulated, the line quality created in the kiln by fire, smoke, and vapor flowing over the work gives an effect that cannot otherwise be produced. The tore direct stacking of the kiln with combustible materials such as magazines, plant life, or non traditional things like rubber tires, wire, etc., all leave their mark. How the mark was made and tools used for making narks are essential unimportant. How it appears and what it means is more to the point.
The freedom to try anything is as exhilarating as any adventure can be. In this spirit I once saw a friend "remake" a diamond engagement ring by melting the gold ring, diamond and all, then casting it into a damp clay mold! Common sense would say, "It won't work", but it did and beautifully.
The struggle is to use anything and everything in order to find one's way, and on the other hand, to avoid the cliche and cleverness of easy solutions. There is often a misunderstanding between how something is done and the aesthetic of the final result. This is the difference between the well crafted object and a work of art. The well crafted object is often limited by being beautifully decorated or superficially marked, but the real struggle is to go beyond this: to try to leave a personal mark that reflects the maker's values. When it works, the attributes of mystery, enlightenment, energy, surprise, provocation, and searching are likely to be memorable and satisfying over a long period of time.
The point of this discussion can best be clarified by the following anecdote. At one time as a student of Peter Voulkos, I tried to mimic his brush work on one of my pots. I must have missed the mark badly because as I was unloading the kiln, Pete gently said, "You don't need to draw on your pots unless you have a reason to do so; unless it will make the piece stronger". Humorously, he added, "Anyway, don't do it on your best forms; practice on your "dogs'. At least you might make those better!" We leave our mark, fired in clay.