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

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