It’s January 20th, two weeks into winter semester.

Diana doesn’t teach winter session, but will return from Florida every few weeks to offer critiques and see what we’re making. (She’s traveling to present at the “Extrudaganza” in Texas in a month or so.)

Lee is teaching now, and while he has the same straightforward style of critiquing, he offers a new way of working, as well. For the first few weeks of this semester, he has challenged the grads to “make whatever we want” — saying that he will offer no comments unless asked to do so, at least during this “grace period”. His goal is to get us thinking about making the work our own, and finding our voices.

Ironically, a lot of the things I had missed doing when I was working on assigned forms, no longer seem very interesting, or useful, or appropriate for the university studio. My old ideas had been clever, in a marketable sort of way — but that’s no longer my goal, at least not for the MFA. As a result, I have no idea what I want to make, or how to go about it.

I seem to be stuck on teapots, because I can make rows of them, each different, each an experiment. Every teapot requires me to make several decisions about spouts, handles, lids, bodies, feet and how they go together. I can facet with springs, slip-paint and expand, hand build some parts, try on ten spouts until I find the right one. Some I’ll wood fire, some salt, some gas, and each needs to be designed for that kiln. It almost seems like an impossible number of combinations, and I suspect I should get more organized in my approach. For now I just keep making more.

Lee has been asking me to help do demos for beginning throwers, which has been a lot of fun. I never know what he’s going to ask me to make, and am always a bit nervous about whether I am up to it. I’m typical firstborn, though, so I do my best under pressure and in front of an audience. I like the challenge, and also enjoy helping newbies figure out how to center. They can be so frustrated when it isn’t working, and so thrilled when suddenly it is…

Meanwhile I have begun my first printmaking class. The prof is a nice man with a good sense of humor, and was willing to let me take the class at grad level based on some background with @D design and lino cuts and such.

That meant I checked out a stack of textbooks (EMU has a lovely new library) and spent several late nights teaching myself the steps of lithography, the tools for etching, the difference between dry point and soft ground. I bought my supplies on line ($pendy!) and was so eager to get started that I designed and completed most of a wood cut on a square of birch plywood, at home, on the Monday when class was cancelled for Martin Luther King day.

When I went back to class, I showed the prof my sketch for the etching I am planning (rows of beetles on pins, as in the old collections) and he thought that was fine. Then (with some misgivings) I pulled out my woodcut. He looked it over carefully before handing it back and saying, “You know, you can flip this over and start the new one on the back…”

(Wow, that good, huh?)

I stay in Diana’s guest room on Tuesday nights, now, and on Wednesday mornings the kids pack lunches and go to work with their dad. He’s teaching a hands-on science lab for 15 homeschooled kids on Wednesdays, and the kids are having a great time doing short and long term projects with their lab partners. It’s nice for me, too, because they are getting old enough that a fully equipped science lab provides more than the “kitchen science” homeschool stuff they loved when they were littler. Like, we don’t have a tissue grinder or spectrophotometry equipment to measure chlorophyll in a leaf, or several aquaria to set up experiments with earthworms, fish, plants, molds and mini ecosystems.

I’ve been battling a case of the midwinter blues since the holidays, and the grey rainy skies we’ve had for weeks have not been helpful. I walk a mile a day on the treadmill while reading a book about managing stress and worries. I work under full spectrum lights, and have supplemented my diet with extra B vitamins and fish oil. Someone suggested St. John’s Wort tea as well. Frankly, I don’t know good science from voodoo, when it comes to mood-stuff, but as long as it can’t hurt me, I’ll try it. Every day I’m doing a little better, but I don’t know if it’s the supplements, the days getting longer, the busy routine of being back in school or just my normal optimistic perspective growing back.

The fam had a good time last weekend, driving to Chicago to spend the entire day at the Field Museum of Natural History. It was like time travel, walking with my kids past the same dioramas my parents had taken my brother and I to see when we were kids. Molly and I talked, on the drive home, about how some of the exhibits were beautiful and a little creepy at the same time. The taxidermy animal specimens were both a whirlwind tour of wildlife in their varied ecosystems, artful and unique — and kind of a morgue, full of glass eyes and stuffed skins, dead trophies from safaris, collected fifty years ago.

The Egypt exhibit was the same. We walked quietly past the mummified babies, children, cats, falcons, and the gorgeous tomb art, pots and jewelry in cases (collected back before it occurred to colonial minds that it was looting, and these were human remains.) I found Connor standing wide-eyed over an unwrapped mummy. It was brown and leathery with teeth showing through dried lips… I leaned over and whispered, “people jerky” to make him laugh.

Gorgeous Maori war clubs (called “skull crushers”), carved and polished and decorated with designs, were the same kind of lovely and gruesome. Molly told me she had read in a book that the beautiful, fragrant Lotus flower grows from a slimy, ugly root under the swamp. “It means you have to have the ugly with the beautiful”, she explained. (Someday I hope to have the wisdom of an eight year old.)

My favorite was the walk through evolution, from the fossil sea-lilies and trilobytes (90% of earth’s history was the precambrian era!) through the early crawlers, to dinos. I love the yards-long fossils of fishy and gatory things, and the towering dinosaurs like Sue the T-Rex, but my favorites have always been the amazing early mammals: towering prehistoric elk, impossible sloth skeletons the size of small houses, and the round bony armadillo-shelled thing as big as a volkswagen. Eohippus was there with all its ancestors, plus the mammoths, and early lizard-birds (which I still think look pretty reptilian).

I could look at fossils forever, and sea life as well. Sea cucumbers and jellyfish amaze me. My kids will tell you that mom’s favorite animal is a leafy sea dragon. If we’d had another day and the budget for a Chicago hotel, we’d have gone to the Shedd aquarium as well, but that will wait for another trip.

As it was, we’d arrived at the Field at opening time and stayed until closing, and still had to make choices. On my own I would likely have spent hours in the Asian artifacts and pottery, but I was just as happy to follow the kids through Innuit art, whistles and rattles, a Native American earth lodge, Pacific Island exhibits and varieties of bats. It’s a marvelous, diverse creation we live in, isn’t it? We left feeling like our heads were on overload, and it would take days to process all we had seen.

Things bubble up later in weird ways. My etching will be rows of beetles, and my pot handles have started looking like trilobites…

When we drove home from Chicago we started to see salt trucks, and the weather predicted that it would finally drop below freezing for a while.

On Tuesday when I headed for class, crossed into Michigan, and got maybe half an hour North, I saw a remarkable sight: every twig, branch, trunk, bush and fence-wire was coated in a perfect layer of
ice. The sun was setting behind me like one of those absurdly Max-Parrish-colored paintings, and the light reflected off every icicle in a sparkle of color. It was lovely. The roads were salted and dry, and there didn’t seem to be branches broken or ice storm damage –just that thin coating over everything. Walking around campus those two days was just remarkable: I wish I had taken a camera along.

Off to bed with me. My husband said to a friend about my blog, “Kelly writes well”… the friend said, “It looks like she writes well into the night!” It’s almost midnight now, and we have to get up in the morning to go pick up my eldest, who is at an overnight retreat with his youth group at the UU…

I’ll try to put up photos of class work soon. I have to give a slide show for Lee’s class next week and will see what I can find worth showing off.