Interview by Zoe Allison, recorded by Nathalie Worthington
Z – When did you begin your creative work with clay?
C – The first time I worked with clay on a wheel was in 1989 at Pottery 7 in San Francisco, located near Golden Gate Park. That was 30 years ago! My earliest clay memory was as a child making a mold of my horses’ footprint from the earth in the dug out. I’ve come a long way from those early mold-making days on the farm!
Z – Since that time what were some of your experiences with learning more?
C – My first raku experience was with a Japanese American in San Francisco who didn’t speak very much English. The clay spoke through him. I thought he was pretty close to the source!
Next, I was lucky enough to be a student of Valerie Metcalfe in Winnipeg Canada. She’s a National Treasure of the country and studied in Japan. Her influence got me into working with porcelain. I also studied under the Korean professor Yun Don Nam (Nam) at UNC Chapel Hill. I learned sculptural techniques in independent study in the Art Department. By far, the strongest influence on my work was working with Paul Soldner, in Claremont, California and in his studios in Aspen, Colorado. In 2000 I co-produced an award-winning documentary film (with David Kasper) about Raku. (The Courage to Explore). I worked with Paul Soldner as a studio assistant “special” (as he like to call us) and was fortunate to work with him on the lecture circuit, assisting his teaching across the USA.
Z – How do you reconcile your career in the medical field with being a raku artist?
C – I’ve struggled my whole life with this. How to be solely a ceramic artist? When I depended on teaching and sales of my work, I’d get so poor it was unbearable to live. I would increase time in my other profession, which is a community health nurse. I believe in preventative care and health screenings. I also see patients who are on home care or hospice, and help people make the best of the inevitable.
So I make art with clay and I help people go back to the earth. It’s a wonderful balance, the aesthetics of dying beautifully and making beautiful art is a nice parallel in my life work. I thought about the raku ceramic connection. They both are high sensory, and also both are very spiritually demanding ways to make one’s way in life. Raku is about the acceptance of imperfection. It’s the beauty of imperfection I strive to recognize. My heart lifts when I discover this in whatever job I do.
Z – Do you have a sense of a mission with your clay work?
C – Assisting people with the art of dying and the art of living surrounded by beauty is a common theme and appears to be my mission. I never thought of it this way! Thank you.
Z – Please mention some of the history of raku.
C – Raku means serendipity! It refers to a traditionally fired drinking vessel in the Japanese tea ceremony used by the Zen Buddhist Monks. It ‘s origins embrace the Zen Philosophy of simplicity and naturalness. With raku all the elements of nature are utilized; earth, fire, air and water. The process evolved and the technique was modernized in the 1950’s. Paul Soldner was one of the pioneers of the discovery of the decorative ceramic ware we now call “American Raku”.
Z – Raku doesn’t hold water well and it’s not a vessel for utilitarian purposes. It’s poreous and impermanent by ceramic standards. What does that mean in relation to your raku creations?
C – It’s for the beauty, the shape, and the pure aesthetics. It’s food for one’s spirit. It’s for the moment.
Z – How do you arrive at your prices?
C – With raku, the best pieces are serendipitous. So are the prices. The clay shows when something is contrived and I certainly endeavor to avoid that. Each of my pieces is unique. No two are the same. I can’t guarantee the colors, because I combine my glazes and make them originally. I’ll put a higher price on some work until I understand how I got to that look or aesthetic. Then I might let the piece go for a lesser price or donate it. The process is reciprocal between me and my work. I price it as a reflection of where I am along the path to mastery.
Z – Are there galleries you supply to?
C – I’m sad that my 20 year relationship with the retail store Jane Tyndall Gallery ended and I’m now working with her online gallery. I also sell through City Art Gallery in Greenville, NC owned by Torrey Stroud.
Z – Tell us a bit about your process.
C – I work on a wheel and bisque (first fire) the clay at another satellite studio. Paul Soldner taught me to use all the tools around me and I incorporate many unusual techniques. That makes the process fun after many years of doing the same thing. And I’ll fire just about anything and try a lot of new techniques in the kilns. If a pot on the wheel is done, it’s time to stop. There ‘s a two-way communication; between my creative flow – the energy it takes to make the art, and the art which tells me it’s done because it might flop, or not withstand the rigorous firing process of raku or even my own patience. I do wedging, centering and throwing. A curvy vase or wavy tea bowl! I’ve been doing this for so long, I have a sense of experience with it that now feels very consistent. Then I bisque fire the piece in an electric kiln. It becomes hard enough to glaze, with a combination of commercial underglazes and my own raku concoctions. The next stage is in the raku kiln useing propane and firing each piece to about 1700 degrees F. When the pot is red hot it gets removed with metal tongs and put into a reduction chamber (garbage can with filled with combustible materials and a tight fitting lid). The pots cool down and the result is always a surprise!
Z – What inspires you?
C – I love nature, contrasts, and really extreme things. Growing up with Canadian winters will do that to you. And travel. I don’t go to normal places… I like locations that stretch my comfort level and expand my view of the world. They’re often not very tourist accommodating. I made a trip to Russia and Finland this summer. I’ve got a few stories to tell! ha ha
Z – What do you hope people will get by purchasing or gifting your raku pots?
C – That feeing of being elevated, spirit lifted, calmed, serene. Some of my pieces are lively, but they might be inspired from a different perspective. They’re all a little fluid. People often put my pieces in a prominent place in their living space. I like to think they will be reminded to see the beauty in imperfection and have more acceptances in their own lives.
Z – Have you always lived in Chatham County?
C – Whew! I’ve lived a lot of places and was very nomadic until I moved to NC. I’ve been in Chatham County for 7 years now with my husband Billy Cummings who also make’s sculptural raku. It was love at first sight, as we both had the same Kilns! I resided in San Francisco, Winnipeg, and Erlangen, Germany to name a few of the most memorable studio’s I shared.
Z – Do you feel the Chatham Artists Guild has been a good venue for you?
C – The good thing about the guild is meeting really interesting people you might not otherwise meet. A clay artists life can be quite remote…I’m out in the woods… and other artist are separately working away at their art. The guild brings us together to share and have some camaraderie about what we’re doing. Not just on the Internet, but with meetings and events.
Z – What is it about this area that inspires you?
C –Nature, especially the abundance of interesting insects. The people, whom are both interesting, educated and curious about the arts.
Z – Has the political climate affected you?
C – It’s taken some of my energy away because the news-world is a pretty sad place. If everyone cooked each other a meal and made art from other cultures, there’d be less conflict in the world. Are people thinking truth, light and beauty as a focus when they listen to the news? If they’re thinking about wars, or conflict or natural disaster they might not want to buy art. They look for other ways to lift their spirits.
Z – Have broader changes impacted your work?
C – The internet. I get pressured to sell through that venue. Yet my work is tactile and 3d. The pots smell like fire for weeks after they come from the kiln. I’m unsure how to transcribe that onto the screen!
Z – Any other messages for us on this beautiful day out here among the trees and your kilns?
C – This a very inspiring place. I come out here (motioning to the area where the clay comes out of the raku kiln) and excavate some lost pots hoping to find inspiration to start my next collection or focus. Sometimes I see wild things (like a bobcat/lynx last week) coyotes and other nocturnal carnivores near the kilns at sunset. It’s amazing that even here, in the country, nature is closing in on people. The wild life is becoming cultured!
I’m moving my work towards more conceptual pieces, as I become more seasoned as an artist. I like to use the pots as building blocks to communicate a larger message of universal truths and dealing with our inevitable finiteness. The large and tiny pots bring joy to people… and are a wake- up call. I hope to raise the level of people’s awareness and elevate their consciousness.