Endangered Species Project

Recently I have become curious about endangered species. I am interested in making things that are generally unseen, seen; in making things that are vulnerable, visible. In my youth I saw the Names Project: the AIDS Quilt in Washington DC, and it made a huge impression on me. The visual impact of such loss was deeply stirring. The AIDS Quilt made something that was societally (initially) unseen (ignored), into a tangible acknowledged reality.

This past spring, I was walking through the Minneapolis airport half listening to a podcast about the Wondering Albatross. It the largest of the albatross breed, measuring in at a wing span of 11 feet and can keep a loft in wind currents over the southern oceans for a month without returning to land. This bird’s population is dwindling on account of industrial line fishing; the Wondering Albatross is being decapitated at the rate of a bird every five minutes. Right there, in the Minneapolis Airport by gate C15, I was actually brought to my knees, stunned by this bycatch carnage. But what can I do about this? I am a potter and a teacher? Quit my job and head out for civil disobedience? Throw myself in the path of those industrial fishing factories? Oy vey. Not very effective or realistic. However, I am a potter and a teacher, and I can make something generally unseen, visible.

Making pottery is how I understand the world; I am making a covered jars, urns really, for endangered species. Urns are traditionally used to hold ashes from cremation so the size of these jars are determined by the resulting ash mass of each species. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker would be a small urn; the California Bear vessel would stand almost three feet tall. I intend on displaying these all of these pots in a large grouping in one large gallery. The urns will be display empty, as the species are endangered, not extinct and in their emptiness lies hope.

The list of extinct, endangered, vulnerable and concern species is significant. I anticipate this to be a 3 to 5-year project. The word ‘extinct’ was coined during the industrial revolution, around 1790, so that’s where I am starting. In addition, I am researching animals in North America, in my back yard. My job is to see and record these species, give them space and time. I want to find and share the beauty of each species by drawing a portrait on the surface of each urn. I cannot save the Wondering Albatross – I am a potter and a teacher. However, I can make an unseen thing visible and show you how beautiful I think this bird is.

Shown here are the first studies of how to make these jars, technically, aesthetically and compositionally. This is not an exhibition ready cohesive body of work – rather a display of a creative process with successes and failures.

First Initially I was drawing the animals using inlay slip. It was to heavy handed and made the drawings feel more like cartoons rather than portraits of species. In addition, the lids with handles looked like cookie jars and were actually kind of funny.
This is my studio with images and list of the endangered species. Over the summer I took a painting class at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center to better understand how to paint. I have a long history as a decorator – with this project I need to approach the surface with a different intent, this is portraiture.
I tested just about every underglaze made today, comparing color and surface as well as the effects of mixing one underglaze with another. The challenge is to get an accurate image on a form without losing the great beauty of glazed surfaces and inherent qualities of ceramics. Somehow keeping the revered qualities of porcelain and viscous melt, and still capturing the identity of the species
These are some of the first samples / studies of endangered species jars. These are decorated with underglaze on greenware and then fired at c5 midrange, in a salt / soda kiln, oxidation atmosphere. I was delighted that these did not really look like ‘my’ work, I was developing a new aesthetic. However, problematic – they looked a lot like tourist ware made on Cape Cod
Alabama Cave Shrimp: Study Number 2
The success of this jar was from the interaction of the salt / soda atmosphere in the kiln on the underglaze surface, not the beauty of the shrimp. The underglaze was applied to the jar when it was a stiff leather hard and the subtly of the colors washed out, losing the delicate transition from white to pink across the crustrations shell. In addition, I want the pottery itself to be beautiful; strong in form and how it meets the lid and the table – a potter’s pot. The knobs gotta go!
Alabama Cave Shrimp: Study Number 4
The success of this jar was the phenomena of the inlay slip drawing slightly melting and moving with the glaze on top. This historical technique produces beautiful surfaces, however does not support the content of the project. I notice the rich glaze surface of the materials before the beauty of the crustration. In contradiction, the form of the jar is rooted in Asian ceramics and, to me, is far more satisfying visually and no longer resembles a cookie jar.
Appalachian Cottontail: Study Number 1
The use of both underglaze and china paint on the rabbit is starting to get a little closer to the fur. However, my lack of skills is really showing in this little rabbit! The environment (leaves, sticks) are done using slip inlay technique and are a lovely decoration, but calls to much attention to itself – as decoration it is over bearing and not related to the form. I need a background surface that is not distracting and gives the species context of environment and scale.
Appalachian Cottontail: Study Number 3
On this jar I carved the composition into the surface of the porcelain, but did not inlay slip. This is more sensitive to using underglaze and flexibility in color. I lustered the piece around the drawing to flatten the back ground out – to ‘pop’ out the content. Though this is an improvement, visually it is very demanding surface and would not work visually in a large group of urns.
Appalachian Cottontail: Study Number 6
The porcelain jar is carved with the composition. I glazed around the rabbit with clear than pooled slightly in the carving. With some success, the cottontail itself is painted with underglaze and then fired to cone 5 in a salt / soda kiln and then layered with china paint. However, the composition on the surface does not relate the form of the urn. In addition, the form of the jar is pretty lifeless and has lost the sense of being hand made.
Amargosa Toad: Study Number 3
The combination of craving and underglaze is starting to develop a clear image of a specific toad. I floated the image in platinum luster to highlight the toad, however this has the opposite effect and the surface competes with the image. In addition, having no clear location around the toad, there is a loss of scale and environment creating an alienating atmosphere.
Amargosa Toad: Study Number 4
On this jar, the black inlay lines defining the animal and environment around it. This is adding some structure to the composition, though it does remind me of coloring book drawings, waiting to paint by numbers. I am ambivalent to the nature of salt / soda firing chance effect on this glaze surface for this specific project. The gold luster on top of the atmospheric ‘orange peel’ salt / soda surface is beautiful but with no glaze melt, the surface is less interesting.
Amargosa Toad: Study Number 6
The imagery is carved in with underglaze color applied after the jar is bisque. The general ‘brushy-ness” of the underglaze is distracting though the salt / soda firing helps the atmosphere of the surface. The leaves look flat and lessen the depth starting to develop in the toad. In addition, the form has a weak shoulder, and the frog seems to be pointing right at this, since the image has no other relationship with the form itself.
Amargosa Toad: Study Number 8
I think this is one of the more successful jars. I like how the toad is wrapping itself around the jar – the form making the toad look bigger, and the toad making the jar look bigger. In addition, you can see the toad clearly, and still need to move around the piece a little to best understand it. The underglaze of the surface is as subtle as the toad actually is and the carving and the underglazes are not in conflict. The form of the jar itself has a to narrow shoulder, and lid a little big, it does not sit on the table with grace and is lacking the soft look of some thrown pots.
Amargosa Toad: Study Number 8 – detail
In this detail of study number 8, the clear glaze is pooling in the carving on the surface. The toad itself isolated on the jar, the viewer is not distracted by the back ground. The toad is still in an environment but not alien. However, this clear glaze need to be beauteous! I need the beautiful viscosity of melt, the subtle glaze move so it pools in the carving, creating depth and atmosphere to show of the great beauty of feldspathic melt on porcelain next to the flat painterly qualities of underglaze and rendering.