Monthly Archives: January 2014

Din Phao, Din Phao: ดินเผาดินเผา

Dankwean Dinpaw , the sales area on the road is hurting. Based on quick appearances……..There has been an incredible building of sales malls. People are still building them despite lots of vacancies. Perhaps, hopefully, people believe that sales will improve. The old large potteries are falling into disrepair. Umdang is closed essentially and the business that they do is via phone sales and visits to sites where they design installations, murals and bas reliefs. The have almost no road sales except perhaps tiles.
Chao Din (people of the earth) seems to still be producing murals, but the bustling stream of visitors and buyers seems to have ended. Its once immaculate display area is getting funky. The fish pond is full of algae and the air and water pumps not working. The koi are oblivious, but as a visitor it is not nearly as nice looking.
The old professors are dead. Ajahn Pit who was always welcoming and nice to me died a few years ago and his daughter and son took over for a few years. I am told that they are now in the US. Like Chao Din the once brilliant and organized display of Ajahn Pit’s Din Phao has seen better days. Eddie McGrath wrote that there is a tendency in restaurants to rather than keep up on maintenance to just “let it go” and sell out to someone who wants to sell cheaper food and build a newer restaurant. The tendency may have some similarities here, but it is not working, Only a few nik-nack shops across the street seem to be doing well with street-side sales. I have seen several places packing work up for sale elsewhere.

Ajahn Wirot from Din-Dam has been dead for some time and his once chaotic display and museum is hard to see among the weeds and behind the distracting buildings. It would surprise me to find out that any sales at all were going on there.

Across the street from Umdang there is a place where tour busses stop because the displays are clean. They sell espresso there for 45 baht and about 100 yards away it is only 25. There apparently are people buying little nicknacks still.

The hand skills on the “traditional” carved surface Dankwean pots have continued to improve. There is truly some incredible carving going on. I hope that the scrafitto workshop really takes hold as this would help create an opportunity for these skills to translated to fired surfaces. That said the painted surfaces look better and better every year I visit.

Breath and the Brute

Breath and the Brute: Exhaling Stone in Thailand

Potmaking, making real pots, is a good educational track for future sculptors. Former makers of real pots, assuming these are pots with breath,  go on to make sculpture with similar life and erumpent form.

Chris Berti’s carved limestone sculpture shows such breath apparently descended from his potmaking. The sculptures have a taut skin. They look as if a prick in the skin would lead to a fountain of limestone squeezing out; the skin hangs on the volume. In these forms the tight skin creates the feeling of erumpency, a readiness to burst forth, also know as pregnant form.

I have been thinking of the obvious visual differences between the form of pottery and that of traditional European stone and bronze sculpture and the basis for this difference. The great stone sculptures shown in traditional Western art history survey courses have skin on muscle and bones, the muscle and bones being the structure upon which the skin is stretched. These sculptures never deny mass, you sense their weight, their density. If you were to squeeze them you would sense muscle, and bone. The muscle bone and sinew sensed through and reflected in the nuance of the skin reinforces our knowledge and understanding of the mass inside. In pottery-derived form the mass is denied or minimized, the skin seems stretched on volume, a moving kinetic volume of air, or perhaps another light fluid medium. Squeezing volumetric form, at least squeezing it in your minds eye causes a sense of increased or decreased pressure, of air movement, or in some closed forms a sense that the form will “pop”.

I am not convinced of the superiority of either paradigm, these paradigms of mass or volume, but I work in a University studio next door to a sculpture studio and notice the shift when I travel just a few feet. It is not the materials that change but the eye, conventions, and aesthetic. This is not to say that volumetric form is unknown in sculpture (or for that matter mass to the potter). In fact sculptors working with volume, in the potter’s paradigm, seem to gain recognition on its account. It is just that this kind of form is harder to get in concrete media than truly plastic media. Mass is what stone is about. Denying mass and stressing volume is apparently difficult to do but it can make work dynamic. When one paradigm informs another it makes both stronger.

Several years ago I had the good fortune of returning to Thailand. I had been thinking of Clary Illian’s book on potmaking. I visited the remains of a bronze foundry that had been relocated outside of Thonburi, a suburb of Bangkok. The old factory specialized in Bronze images of the Buddha. The sizes ranged from 6 inches to 9 feet tall. The sinuous limbs and lithe but full form of Thai Buddha images sculpted in wax on top of plaster cores have kept my mind returning to this foundry. These wax forms had no sign of the underlying bones and muscle, no structure. What they had was erumpency, the breath of inflation, a sense of the volume within. The skin was taught. Visiting the factory and revisiting the process gave me a clue to what I believe is the reason. I have ceased wondering if the sense of fullness in these forms is related to the importance of breath in Buddhist religion and meditation. I now believe that breath was imparted consciously by the sculptor.

Several years ago I returned to a bronze foundry in Thonburi Thailand after an absence of 8 years. The old factory specialized in Bronze images of the Buddha. The sizes ranged from 6 inches to 9 feet tall. The sinuous limbs and lithe but full form of Thai Buddha images sculpted in wax on top of plaster cores have kept my mind returning to this foundry. These wax forms had no sign of the underlying bones and muscle, no structure. What they had was erumpency, the breath of inflation, a sense of the volume within. The skin was taught. Visiting the factory and revisiting the process gave me a clue to what I believe is the reason. I have ceased wondering if the sense of fullness in these forms is related to the importance of breath in Buddhist religion and meditation. I now believe that breath was imparted consciously by the sculptor.

Most traditional bronzes in the west start as a clay model often with a wire or wood armature, a mold is taken from the model and then it is cast creating a thin skin of wax inside the mold. The hollow interior is formed by pouring plaster investment inside the thin skin of wax. The outside is then also invested in plaster. In large scale Thai Buddhas the core (volume) is modeled out of investment first. This looks a lot like a Buddha, but the artist has to visualize the finished form. Detail is left off. Over this core, this image of the internal volume of the figure a skin of wax is applied. Then details such as the curls representing hair, fingers, and other thin details such as folds in the robe are added. The finished images, like well made pots have the sense of kinetic volume, and a dynamic volume like that talked about in Clary Illian’s book. The skin although just wax has a sense of elasticity. In ceramics this dynamism of surface comes from the process and materials but requires skill to enhance and conserve. This sense is easy to kill. In wax it seems to come solely from finesse. Lots of finesse.

Back when I was in school in Kansas City we used to grunt about pots. Our ideas were at the state where we did not have many words to describe them. Victor (Babu) with brilliant hand gestures would do minimalist dances describing the positive, negative, or lacking attributes of our pots. Victor would talk about pots, springing from within, as blossoming and would talk about pregnant luscious form. With the dance and gestures the words had great meaning.  We went on a dictionary quest for more words for Victor’s use and found the word erumpent. He wasn’t much impressed. It may have been that I defined it as, “Ready to burst”.  It may have been the lack of positive connotation. These words, blossoming, luscious, erumpent, pregnant, kinetic are all variations on a theme. They seem to reside inside the overarching term of what is now called breath. Even in pots, this term breath seems to speak of life-force. In a less spiritual language breath is the word to describe an active skin/volume relationship.

I am not a big fan of sentimentalism in discussion of art but when you talk about art you necessarily tell lies, what some of my Catholic friends might call lies of omission. The words trim off essential nonverbal meaning. I tend to think that a lot of what is said is vacuous, words with no insides, like pots without breath (Dancing while speaking, gesticulating, give words greater fluency). While in school I always had a suspicion about all the talk of the inside hand, feeling the form from within, sensing the volume. My suspicion was that it was poppycock. I could not have been more wrong. I had begun to be converted sometime in the mid to late eighties. It could have been a small series of pitchers by Josh DeWeese while he was between undergraduate and graduate school. To really see it you have to look at bad pots, next to good ones. Photographs only carry traces of breath. I became convinced of the primacy of volume over form in potmaking while working on inflatable teapots for the Las Vegas NCECA. We put together some not well-made inflatable clear plastic teapots the size of travel trailers, and put an audience inside them while we subjected the audience to a tortured story about Alice’s life with Lewis Carroll. Looking at the skin while inside a teapot was a big education. I learned volumes.

I now talk about throwing from the inside, the volume, breath, erumpency, the inside form, with my students. I see the same look on their eyes, “what a bunch of sentimental art talk without substance”.  I wish for them a visit inside a teapot, a good look at a Thai Buddha, and the clarity that comes from a good deep breath. Breath is there to see, once you look

Louis Katz Breath and the Brute: Exhaling Stone in Thailan

Volumne, axis, centrifigualforce as the replacement for bones and mass.

Up Wind

I am preparing to go to Thailand. I have lists and even a list of lists. I have packing lists, lists of paperwork to duplicate, lists of people to contact, letters to write, and files to transfer to the laptop. Oy.

But there are other preparations I have to make. They may be more important. I must slow down, remember the Thai manners, the cool heart – jai yen, slow, controlled not too excited. I have to remember to slow and greet people properly, the smile and the ability to let things roll off my back with a smile on my face. It is not just smiling that I need to do, but the smile state of mind.

The idea that desire is the root of suffering, that grasping creates disappointment, is at the heart of this change. It is a part of Buddhist philosophy but, it is so widely accepted and implemented in Thailand , that you have to succumb or find yourself swimming upstream. I no longer can swim upstream for months at a time. I have to smile, go with the flow, allow the troubles, the hurry, frowns, worries, to flow away, to touch perhaps but never stick. I have to learn to “mai pen rai” . To activate the phrase “its not a problem or worry” you have to make it a verb.

I have a huge agenda. It is work. It is too much. It would be good if I could get it all done. It is almost certainly undoable.  An agenda like this can add an off flavor to everything. It can prevent months of work from being productive, too much stress on doneness not enough flex to contemplate, think, digest,,,. I have to start by doing “mai pen rai” by turning off the worries and allowing the future to come. You can only swim upstream so long.

I  have to even stop my little social concerns. Did I fail to slow down and say Sawasdii, did I remember to call them “elder”, was I polite enough. I have to do this because really the first politeness in Thailand is to mai pen rai. It is a necessity like air. When you do this, the little stuff comes easy, and the hard stuff is easier.

 

downwind

Down Wind

In t988-1989 I spent 10 months in Thailand with a Fulbright Senior Research Grant documenting Traditiona Thai Pottery from the point of view of an artist.
Twenty four years downwind of this event I can see some of the positive effects of this fruitful grant.

1. Potters in the western world know that Thai pottery exists. People run tours of Thai potteries. People visit and work at potteries in Thailand. Most notable of the people who have worked in Thailand at least in my eyes is Daniel Johnston. I can’t take much credit for it in any direct way but I was at least partly involved. Daniel was an apprentice of Mark Hewitt. Mark was aware of Thai pottery before I went to Thailand but I believe my video, articles and slide shows helped him to suggest to Daniel that he go to Thailand to learn to coil throw.
He suggested that Daniel contact Louise Cort, now curator of Asian Ceramics at the Freer gallery of the Smithsonian. Louise, a real expert on Thai pottery would probably have found the pottery at Phon Bok without me. But she contacted me a few weeks before I left and arrive a few weeks after asking for some leads to potteries. Phon Bok was on my list of pottery making villages, and that is where Daniel went at Louise’s suggestion. My list of suggestion to Louise turned into my 38 page booklet on Thai potteries that many people have used to find pots on their travels.

Kurt Weiser’s trip to Thailand during our stay was instrumental in his imagery. In some ways pottery was just part of the lure, but I also think the near magical or “Disneyland”® (trademark of Walt Disney) aspect of  Dankwean Village and the “Oz” quality of Muang Kung along with the temples and lush tropical scenary played a part in the development of his work. He mentions this trip frequently in talks on his work.

Also on the list is the work of Rosie Wynkoop. She also visited us in Thailand and her work makes me wonder if she is not influenced by Thai temples and perhaps Bencharong ceramics.

The effect that I am most proud of is the survival of mortar making in Ubon Ratchatani. Stoneware mortars are critical in Thai cooking. You need them for grinding spices, but they are perhaps most important in bruising papaya for som tam, green papaya salad most common in the Northeast. Visiting Ubon in 1989 I was asked what they could do to lower the temperature needed to produce vitreous pottery. Ubon did not seem to have a close supply of feldspar, glass frit in clay is hard to manage, I already had a bad experience using waste oil. It was a difficult problem.
What they really wanted was a hard surface. I suggested that they salt the kiln, throw 20 pounds of salt into the firebox near the top end of the firing, and it would volatilize and create a glaze on the pottery.
They thought I was crazy. “Salt does not burn” they told me and proceeded to ignore my idea. Perhaps it is a fault, but I usually do not argue with people unwilling to take my advice or suggestions, so I let it go. A few weeks later an engineer and I were talking back in Dankwean Village and he asked if I had any ideas about what they could do in Ubon. I told him, and he told them.
Sometime after returning to the US I began seeing mortars, clearly made with Ubon Clay and with Ubons smooth rim on the inside of the form, that had obvious salt glaze on them. Ubon has since nearly monopolized on clay mortar production. I feel like I had a positive impact on many peoples livelyhood and lives.