The stars aligned perfectly.
The fine folks at Notre Dame offered a free workshop featuring Chris Gustin on April 5th and 6th. Ordinarily I would have missed this fine opportunity. Or I would have had to take a personal day (or two!) from teaching but this workshop happened to be right in the middle of my spring break.
So Tuesday morning I packed my bag and set out for Notre Dame. I parked off campus and made the 10 minute walk to Riley Hall. As I came in the door, I found Bill Kremer coming down the stairs. He pointed me to the ceramics area.
I found Dick Lehman in the hall and later chatted with Zach Tate. I met a few new pottery friends while we waited for everything to start. Mel (@craftandchaos), Holly (@hollyjonesceramics), Chris, and Ryan are all from the Indy area. Mel and Holly are both on Periscope so they broadcast most of the workshop on day one with Chris’ permission.
Chris Gustin has been working with clay for longer than I’ve been alive so he has a lot of great stories and insights. I took two and a half pages of notes while listening. So instead of trying to write a complete narrative, I’ll probably just type out most of the notes and include some of the photos and videos. So, everything below might be out of order and/or disjointed.
To see all the photos see the album: Chris Gustin Workshop at Notre Dame.
Chris started the workshop throwing a couple bases for some sculptural pieces. He said that he usually starts on the wheel to make the base and then transitions to coils to build up the walls of his sculptures.
Knowing what he wants to end up with or how he wants to fire impacts decisions from the very beginning.
He uses ribs a lot to compress the clay. The particles need to be really tight for later altering. He also talked about the memory of clay. He doesn’t want the memory of process to be a part of his pots. He wants different analogies in his work such as body, landscape, etc. Throwing rings and other process marks would interrupt these analogies.
He likes to have a dialogue with different parts of a piece. He uses coils instead of slabs because slabs cover too much at once to have dialogue.
He talked a lot about curves. Curves have energy and there is tension between them. A sphere has the same silhouette from all directions. Pots are different from each perspective.
He uses short, relatively thick coils to create the curved walls of the pots. The ends were cut at angles to create a smooth line along the top of the wall instead of stair steps. He pinched the coil onto the top of the wall and then smoothed it with his fingers and then compressed it quite a lot with a rib.
He made a lot of comparisons of his work to landscape. He told about how he saw some mountains from the window of a plane and they influenced his work. He also showed how the human body can influence his pots.
For potters, it’s not about individual pieces, it’s about the whole. You don’t make 1 teapot, you make 50 teapots. The power of one teapot comes from the whole.
One of his former instructors had some very strong opinions and it took Chris years to “get over” his instructor’s opinions to find himself. You have to keep the good parts and reject the other parts.
Chris runs a tile business for cash flow. You have to figure out the cash flow of your business. Rarely does the big work that he makes sell enough to pay the bills. As he was talking about his tile business he mentioned that he has a glaze library of about 500 glazes!
I think of glaze as the skin of the pot.
He doesn’t share his glaze recipes because he doesn’t want his glazes on anyone else’s pots. He also wants you to do some research and learn the chemistry and process yourself.
My new friends from Indy and I had a good discussion during lunch. On one hand, we liked how Chris wanted others to do their own research and really learn something well. But we also felt that it would be sad if all the research that Chris has done never gets passed on to anyone in the future.
When considering glazes the color, surface, light transmission or reflection all have different meanings and lead you in different directions. Some glazes are like a glacier. They are frozen movement or energy.
He wants groups of pieces in a show to play off of each other but still stand on their own. He tries to put everything that he has in his big pots into his mugs and cups which are more accessible for many people, especially students. Students learn from pots.
It’s important for students to see teachers vulnerable, problem solving, working things out. Just as they do in the studio.
Back in the 70’s Chris got rejected from everything. Back then there were only craft shows and he was setting out to be a studio potter.
The gallery world is dying out. It is a paradigm shift, a whole different world. Selling retail is way better than wholesale. His studio costs about $70K per year to operate. You can’t make it forever if you only stay in the clay sphere (sell only to the NCECA crowd). You have to branch out, find new buyers to make a living.
On Wednesday I parked on campus so the walk was a little shorter. Three of the ceramics classes watched in shifts throughout the morning. At one point there were about 40 people watching Chris work and tell his stories.
In the afternoon a few new people arrived including Todd Pletcher and Anthony Schaller.
He told one story about when he was first starting out. He was interested in making stuff and asked someone who had just pulled a tall cylinder on the wheel how long they had been doing it. They said, “a year” and Chris felt that this was something attainable. If they had said, “10 years” his life might have been completely different.
Chris talked about “rules” for creating pottery. The rule is usually only there to teach a skill. After you have the skill, you can throw the rule out. For example, he mentioned having even walls in a pot. Teachers tell you to have even walls because they want you to master your throwing skills. Once you are able to control the wall thickness you don’t have to have completely even walls.
He talked about how he wants work to shift references with changing light. For example, something that looks like a torso becomes a head in different light. He is trying to trigger the viewer’s memories, not his own. He wants viewers to connect their own feelings, emotions, experiences.
My work is in the emotional world.
To understand your work you have to understand yourself. But if that’s where you stay, it’s more ego driven. You can have ego but the work shouldn’t be about ego.
He recalled an assignment for which students fill up a blue exam book writing about one piece of art that they have connected with. The student has to get through the block (after 10-15 pages) and then starts to make personal connections.
World War II vets understand the power of art because they’ve seen the destruction when beauty is removed from life.
Present art has to be a quick hit and catch people’s attention or else they walk by. Everything is faster. He made a comparison to movies. Scenes are shorter and there are more scenes in movies now.
Being good at something can kill you.
If you get good at something you get complacent. You don’t ask new questions.
Great pieces or objects work on three levels: across the room, standing next to it and up close looking at details.
He made a lot of interesting connections between pottery and architecture. He told us to think about how huge cathedrals stand up with no I beams or other visible support systems. Big pots are similar because you have to build them so they don’t collapse while soaking at ^12 for 36 hours.
After glazing pots Chris said that he sprays them with a 50/50 mix of water and white glue for shipping and loading into kilns. This mix keeps the glaze from coming off and burns away when fired.
Time affects what you make. Take something that you make and then make it in half the time. Then spend four times as long on it. When a student asks how to change work he rarely talks about the idea. He often just tells them to make it quicker or slower. The work completely transforms. You can also change the shape, proportion or technique.
For lunch on Tuesday I was in the right place at the right time and got invited to go along with Zach, Bill, Dick and Chris. First we made a stop at the Snite Museum and took a look at the Voulkos piece and some of the other art and pottery on display.
Then we met up with Ramiro? who works at the museum and we all went to a great little Chinese place near campus.
One other small detail which made the whole thing amazing was Bill pulling out his guitar and playing some live music in the background and to fill in some of the parts where Chris was concentrating on his work and not speaking.
After the workshop finished we walked upstairs to a presentation room for a slide lecture.
After that, Zach said they were heading across campus to another building for pizza and drinks. I went along and got to talk to the guys and some of their families for a while.
So, some of the stars of the ceramic world came together, and I was there to witness it. Looking back, I can barely believe how fortunate I am. It was an amazing and inspiring experience. Thanks to Zach and Bill and all of Notre Dame for putting together a top notch event. Thanks to Chris Gustin for sharing such great insights and tips. Thanks to Dick Lehman for asking great questions and showing that even the masters keep learning. Thanks to all the new people that I met for being part of this great event. And last, but not least, thanks to my wife for watching the kids while I was out having a good time!