In the 70s I went to Sheridan College School of Design and Crafts here in Ontario. In our foundation year we tried out lots of different crafts and, in the latter 2 years, I specialized in ceramics. While in school I made ceramic sculpture and, after graduation, I went on to become a potter. Life took some odd turns, the way it does, and I lost my creative way for many years. Now I’m firmly back on that path and I find that that craft training I had back in the beginning is very central to my way of creating.
I understand now that the way I was taught to be a potter carried with it a particular philosophy and aesthetic. At the time I was just an 18, 19, 20 year old having fun making pots. It was the early 70s and so some of the ideas I received at school were part of the hippie zeitgeist of the times - handmade was good, natural materials were good, mass production and plastic were bad. We were taught that making objects well mattered. It was as important to make the underside of a teapot, chair or rug as finished and beautiful as its public face. We were taught that Form followed Function. One defined the purpose of the object and then found the simplest form that met the purpose. We were taught to know and respect our materials, that the material itself, the clay, wood, silver or wool would guide us in the making of the finished object. We were taught that techniques mattered, but that they weren’t an end in themselves. Design and ideas were equally relevant. In ceramics we followed the tradition of Bernard Leach, the English potter who had studied in Japan in the 1930s and, in the mid to late 20th century, was considered the father of western studio pottery. Chinese, Korean and in particular Japanese aesthetics were held up as the paragon of beauty. No curlicues or ornamentation for us. The Japanese Tea Ceremony was preached, though, I confess now, that my understanding of it was rather sketchy - falling vaguely in my young psyche somewhere between English high tea and Catholic high mass (with some kimonos and hand made pots thrown in). We particularly took to a concept called Wabi - that the imperfection that happened in a creative moment was as important as technique and that an object that showed its Wabi - its mistakes - was more beautiful than a perfect one. Yet this couldn’t be done with artifice. The idea, the design, the making and the materials were really all one integrated act and the truly beautiful object would reflect this integration. I now see that it was all rather Buddhist.
The art scene at the time I was in craft and design school was busy throwing off technique and was embracing conceptualism and by the by, disdaining us craft types. We, on the other hand, felt as if we had secret knowledge about beauty and how things were made. We secretly believed that there was no difference between craft and art.
Fast forward 25 years or so. I found my way back to art and, to my great surprise, found that the computer was my central tool. Working in Photoshop involved an almost vertical learning curve. I plowed through all that technique because I was so seduced by the immense visual possibilities offered. Early on I noticed that as I struggled (and oh I struggled!) to learn what particular tools or techniques were doing, my images were being shaped by the techniques. When I understood that Levels was controlling the shadows and highlights, I began to see the tonality in my images more clearly. Layer masking allowed me to melt my image components together seamlessly and lo and behold I was madly melting images together. As I dug deeper into the software, I secretly began to think that it was all rather like craft. If you don’t do your selections well, the image looks shoddy. Sometimes I felt as if I was shaping the pixels with my hands.
As my work developed I became interested in printing with all its attendant possibilities, techniques and problems. This led to what I’m up to these days – mixed media digital printing. I struggle to find a way to make acrylic paint and digital printing work together and as I do that – which is really an endless series of technical/design problems to solve – my images are shaped by that journey.
Now that my image making includes a large component of analog techniques, I’m working with my hands again. I’m preparing substrates, making patterns with goopy modeling paste, staining backgrounds with acrylic washes and discovering new ways of applying acrylic paint on top of digital ink. I love the feel of the tools and the materials. I love how the time passes as I roll coats of protective varnish over the final images. Recently, I’ve even starting studying Japanese brushwork, Sumi-e; so that I’m right back to that striped down, essential Japanese aesthetic I learned about in craft and design school. I love that the more present I stay with my materials and ideas, the more powerful the work is. However, my 70s sensibilities have taken at least one major hit – ironically I work now almost totally in plastics. So much for the natural materials.
The images I make grow profoundly out of the tools, materials and techniques that I use whether they are digital or analog. My art making is a synthesis of my physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual selves. I love doing it because I have to be so present & connected to make it work. This way of making images is grounded deeply in the craft education I received at Sheridan. I really am a material girl.