Thursday, December 17, 2015

UMASS Dartmouth: Artist-in-Residency: Chapter 1

The New Bedford chapter in my life began strange, not at all what I had expected. I had booked an apartment, but when I actually landed here none of the things, which the landlord had promised to fix, was done. The basement apartment was not even clean. My friend had booked me in a B&B (Devenport House) nearby for that night. I left my bags at the B&B and spent the day cleaning the apartment. The Devenport House owners were members of historic society. The basement apartment I was supposed to stay was right next to the Nathan and Polly Johnson’s house, now a historical monument and a property of NB Historical Society. That evening I had already spent about 6 hrs cleaning the place, the more I cleaned I found more dirt and black mold. I was almost in tears; an old t-shirt tied across my face a big broom in my hands when the main door opened (oh that’s when I learnt the lock was broken) and there were 5-6 board members of the historical society standing there at the door. John Centeio one of the owners of Devenport House saw the place and immediately said “oh you are not saying here girl, we treat our artists better, you are going to stay with us till you find a better place to move into”.. My whole New Bedford chapter would have been totally different if this dirty apartment wasn’t part of my adventure!

The next couple of days spent at the Devenport House both John and Marlene fed me yummy bread puddings; we spent time exchanging stories and cooking together and I spent the mornings searching for a new apartment. Marlene loved people so her way of opening her beautiful home was to run a small comfortable B&B. John seemed like had many lives from a rock singer in a band touring all over the country for several years to now being an extremely progressive open minded pastor, teaching and helping the kids of the community. One of those evening conversations they both wanted to see what my work looks like. I showed them some images and John immediately said “oh these look like monoliths, oh those look like the stonewalls of South Dartmouth”. That made the whole process easy; I didn’t have to “describe” what they meant! John told me he had a friend who from the last 40 yrs have been quietly building stonewall around the region and he would take me to his house right away. Dr Robert French, has a Harvard PhD in anthropology, now works with children at Northstar Learning Centre, NB and spends quiet hours year after year building the stonewalls. I also discovered he built the stonewalls near the Allens Pond Audubon and the Horseneck beach area, the exact stonewalls I admired every single day biking down the lane while I worked at Chris Gustin’s studio last year!

Long story short, I got an apartment, I moved in I started working in the studio. John and Marlene kind of adopted me! I spent time with them, visited Bob too while he built the stonewalls, walked around those walls watching him collect every tiny pebble from the beach to support his wall.
With Bob French and John Centeio, out in the Horseneck beach, behind us is part of the stonewall built by Bob. 

When my clay arrived and I was beginning to start the work, I was reading Robert Thorson’s ‘Stone by Stone; the Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls’. These walls have been a source of inspiration for me for few years now. Also as I have been coming back to the same/similar place and have friends whom I revisit, I have developed a special bond with the East coast. The next morning I called John, and I told him I wanted to make something for the NB Historical Society as I felt everything later on in my stay here was influenced by how the journey began. All these people I met and developed new friendships with I felt happened at the corner spot of 7th Street. I told John I wanted give something back to that corner. John told me they had a couple plans: One of those plans was to clean up the empty plot in that corner right in front of The Nathan and Polly Johnson house and make it into a community park and later work with Bob to build stonewall around that. I decided I would take it a starting point and build a form which could go in sync with Bob’s stonewall. In this process I rediscovered the millstones, a form that I always admired.
Robert Thorson’s ‘Stone by Stone; the Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls’

An actual old Millstone now leaning on a rock-bed, seen all over New England; Image from internet 

All of a sudden I had a whole project, a new focus, a new form to work with.
As I continued to work with the form I also made several tests. I was working with a new clay body. I wanted to make sure it would stand being in the outdoors. I first did the shrinkage test, then the color test, then several glaze tests, water absorption test, freezing and thawing tests.. All this while I built the first piece.
Various clay tests: glaze, slips and naked clay

Various shrinkage and absorption tests

The time I was finishing the form, I was reading about the maps tracing the stonewalls of New England. So without much effort, after one discussion with a friend, the map took its shape on the form. I went back to the Mishima technique to draw the map, later going back to working on the minute details on the form, making the surface look like stone as well as a torn page of an old map..
First Millstone taking shape

Carving and the map

Mishima forming the map

working on the texture I want

The first piece had a central crack and I very easily broke it into two halves after the bisque. First thought was “make a back up piece before its too late”. I started working on the second piece. As the first month was already gone and in some ways I had moved on to playing and fooling around with other forms (and I was increasingly getting excited about one brand new form I was developing) I decided to build the second millstone differently. First I decided to make a lot of tiny holes on the surface of the large slab so that it has plenty of breathing space. But as I developed the piece what started off as a technical decision slowly became an aesthetic one: the repeated action of making the holes and how the tiny center of it resonated with the circular form of the millstones made me put in a lot of pinholes on the piece. Jim Lawton’s tip about the paper pulp and vinegar mix to use as the attaching slip and Sharbani’s tip about using the wax resist to slow the drying process on the outside both helped.  I took every step while making to drying to firing to get this piece out in one piece and it seemed to work!
But in the meanwhile I had fallen in love with the cracked piece. Cracks and breaks have always been a part of my work, but this piece especially felt very close to putting together two pieces of stone to make one wall, without any mortar in between.

Two stones coming together like the pieces of a puzzle, a section from the stonewall Bob was working on..

Second Millstone

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In between all this, I collected several photos from the many trips I took to the junkyard with my flat mate Sarah. I was looking for the feel/warmth/color/agedness of the rusted metal when I was looking for a glaze for the millstones. So I decided to extend that thought. I made several maquettes and tried various slip/glaze applications on them. I fired both the millstones in the Geil kiln at the department, based on the previous glaze tests I had done layering the piece with iron based slips and later a very thin layer of glaze and heavy reduction firing. They turned out to be exactly what I imagined them to be.
Sarah Southwick at Cody and Tobin junkyard, NB

The color I was looking for, scrap metal at the junkyard


Final maquette/ test piece

A couple of layers of slip and a thin watery layer of glaze, all ready to be loaded into the kiln

Just before closing the kiln door

The day John and Marlene came to see my work in the studio, the Historical Society confirmed acquiring the property. They were starting a new project of renovating the property into a park soon. The park was to be named after Fredrick Douglas. And John told me; the main symbol of Fredrick Douglas was ‘the Wheel of Freedom’. It was almost like the idea of the millstones was meant to be. This corner was an epicenter of history. NB Historical Society writes about this corner: “Nathan and Polly Johnson, prominent African American abolitionists in New Bedford, sheltered escaped slaves in this Underground Railroad ‘station.’ It was here, in September 1838, that Frederick (Augustus Washington Bailey) Douglass found freedom, a new name, and with his wife Anna, his first home in freedom. The Nathan and Mary (Polly) Johnson Properties at 21 Seventh Street and 17-19 Seventh Street have been designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior because of the owners’ role in ante-bellum efforts to eradicate American slavery and assisting escaped slaves, and, in particular, their connection with famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. After escaping slavery in Maryland, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and his wife, Anna (Murray), arrived in New Bedford on September 17, 1838, fortuitously met in Newport, Rhode Island by Quakers Joseph Ricketson and William C. Taber. Nathan Johnson, one of New Bedford’s most active abolitionists, gave him refuge in his home at 21 Seventh Street and the name Douglass by which he was forever after known. The Nathan and Polly Johnson House is located within the County Street Historic District and was listed in both the National and State Registers in 1976. The Johnson House was purchased by the New Bedford Historical Society, with assistance from the Waterfront Historic Area League (Whale), and the Massachusetts Historical Commission in December 1998.”

This morning I went with Bob and John to Westport where Bob is currently building a stonewall , to get some photographs. They both now will design the park and my millstones will be incorporated with Bob’s stonewalls. I am excited to be part of this project.

Millstone 2, detail

Millstone 1, detail

Millstone 1, in front of the stonewall Bob is working on, Westport

Millstone 2, in front of the stonewall Bob is working on, Westport

John and Bob with the piece

The New Bedford chapter for me began in that corner on the 7th Street and I am now leaving a part of me behind there…

In front of the stonewall Bob is working on, Westport

I want to thank a number of people who helped me in various ways during this project:
Jim Lawton, for giving me the opportunity of being the visiting artist for the Fall 2015.
Robert French, John and Marleen Centeio for making collaboration happen.
Forrest Gander, Malavika PC, Sharbani Das Gupta, Aarti Vir and Ray Meeker : for all the feedback and critical input.
Some of the grad students at UMASS Dartmouth: for sharing the muscle power to help me move/load and unload the Millstones.
And finally to Bean who made me feel at home and centered.
Bean at 12 Market St, NB

Sunday, June 28, 2015


As I will be busy being a clay nomad for the next few years- traveling and working out of various studios in the world- I thought I will use my Facebook Studio Page for my work updates. Or you can go to my Website to see all the new work.

Monday, April 21, 2014

work work work!

Since July 2013, I somehow have not got any mind space to update my blog, as I have been working non-stop all these days. Now, I have got two weeks before I start travelling again. I started this blog started for that reason- to use the space as a logbook, keeping record of my work. So much has happened since the beginning of 2011 (a big change in my life / career when I went to attend Woodfire Tasmania) that I sometimes feel I have lost the sense of time, and I keep finding myself going back this blog to check what happened when!

End of July 2013 I went to Fuping, China where a group of Indian ceramic artists were invited to create a body of work as a part of a residency and leave behind all the produced work for their permanent collection. At the same time I was short listed for the Emerging Artist category at the ICMEA conference at Fuping and I got to be a part of the India Ceramic Artsis’ group too. We worked there for six weeks and despite all kinds of constraints when the final day of the show happened we all felt proud about how wonderful the show looked. The place of work despite the shortage of facilities and language problems was great, as we could make all that what we wanted to make, there was plenty of clay, everything was new so it was a good challenge. I am fortunate for two things: one, I got to fire a wood kiln with Tim Rowan who was there for a residency and to receive the first Janet Mansfield award. I got to see how he does the reduction cooling, about which I have been very curious. Two, I got Aarti Vir as my roomie. So despite not getting hot water for shower, having to sit on the hotel corridors searching for Internet signals and the pretty bad hotel food, Aarti and I enjoyed our stay, we even got to share the studio space. Our evening drinks in the room and the constant discussions about the work (and everything under the sun) that’s perhaps the only part of the whole trip, which I feel nostalgic about!
And yes, the work felt good. I also realized a few things in this trip, mainly understanding that having worked in different studios since 2011 had helped me a great deal, much more than I could imagine, in order to deal with the material and come to quick decisions and to adapt myself based on what was available.

 Aarti and I sharing the studio

 Firing the wood-kiln with Tim Rowan

 Opening of the show

I returned from Fuping, to two main events. One, I was showing my work at United Art Fair curated by Heidi Fitchner, in New Delhi and I wanted to fire my kiln before I left for my residency at Chris Gustin’s in October.

I was in touch with Chris Gustin for over a year till we finally met at the NCECA Huston, 2013, at the Dirt Bar! I remember trying to look for a street without having a map or a GPS in the middle of the night, trying to meet up with Chris. Thankfully I also met my friend Eric Knoche there, and we both met Chris. It was so wonderful to finally meet him I decided to go visit his studio after I was done with the residency at Flynn Creek pottery in Mendocino. Around the same time, I was offered a chance to do a solo show at Newport Art Museum in 2015, and especially around the time when NCECA would travel to Providence and Newport Art Museum was trying to show more ceramics. I couldn’t believe myself when the curatorial director asked me the question, I so wanted to so say yes, but all I could think of was “how the hell am I going to put together a show in the US where I don’t have my studio?” so I asked her for two days time.
The very next day, I was meeting Chris Gustin and Seth Rainville for a lunch. As we were chatting I told them about the possibility of the show and Chris immediately said, “why would u want to bring the work from India, just come and work in my studio” I immediately took his offer and told the Newport Museum my answer was yes!

So I came to Horseneck Road in October, South Dartmouth to work in Chris’s studio. Very soon I was working 10 hours a day and filling the studio with work, and I was honored with a title “Clay Hog!” When you start working in a new studio you never know how that’s going to be. The relationships of people who are already been there for long, their dynamics, their work rhythms. I usually go with the flow, observe everything for the first few weeks and see where I fit in. It was however so easy and organic to feel as a part of the Horseneck road community. Jim Lawton, Steve Murphy, Dan whom I missed this time, Seth Rainville, Chris Archer, Nancy, Rose, Ryan and of course Chris and his cat, Rango- I felt like they were my community. They made me feel so welcomed and loved and special, am so looking forward to seeing them all and firing with them again.
In October and November I made so much work, also large-scale work, which I had to leave behind in the studio raw, and wait for them to dry slowly. I high fired only few of the pieces in the November firing and got some amazing results. Chris was kind enough to bisque fire the rest once they were dry. Now I will go back in another two weeks to slip/glaze them and fire them in Chris’s June firing.
Chris and Seth also made me a part of a wonderful group show at Artworks in Newbedford. Jim Lawton welcomed me to give a talk at UMASS ceramic department. Seth and I started collaborating on a project for a show during NCECA 2015. So much happened in two months that for the first time, when it was time for me to leave I was not ready to leave!

In the last two years I have struggled each time I have come back to Pondy. Not that I don’t like it here, not that I don’t have a community of clay people here. My home, which I have built, just the way I wanted is here. My Mojo is here, this cat is special in my life, I miss her everyday when am away. Now the puppy Butter has forced his way into my life and now I am totally falling for him too. Two of my best friends Deepi and Mal are here. But I feel a disconnect each time when I return. Dealing with the horrible neighbors or the Tamil rowdies on the street seems that much more difficult each time. The only way I feel centered and I deal with the world is when I start to work again. So as soon as I came back mid November I started to work, and did a firing in my kiln. The whole of December to now, I worked non-stop- in my studio, preparing for a firing, in my garden and eating out of my garden when I can, swimming everyday, doing yoga and having my precious coffee conversations with Mal, dealing with cold wars between Mojo and Butter and loving them…From last two days I am beginning to feel its time to move again.

 Steve Murphy's gift- Conenator!

 Mojo's birthday

Its tough not knowing how the work is going to turn out. To leave behind work half done, in another continent and not think about it or wake up with nightmares about them breaking! I have made so much work that I have a vague feeling I am going to earn the title “Kiln Hog’ this time! But I should know by the end of this residency in July 2014 about how much work I have for my show, and am looking forward for knowing that.

Suddenly as I write down all the things happened in the last 8 months, it all makes sense and begins look as a whole.