Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dog, be my valentine

It is a bit of a love story really.

A few days ago, my local dog training facility opened an agility training area. A couple of the myriad of reasons I quit agility was the cost of all that gas to get to the nearest center (40 miles) and the time it took to get there through traffic, often right around rush hour (45 minutes to 90 minutes). So yes, years later, here's Ahimsa opening up a mere 4 blocks from my house, with padded rubber floors, brand new equipment and 'rent it all to yourself for an hour' rates. For my budget $30 is more than I can afford weekly, but for a monthly treat, I can see doing this for a change of pace!

Many years ago, I was actively competing in agility and traveled to 7-8 trials a year. I loved the sport, my darling Stella competed right up to the Master's level in AKC agility. There is no feeling quite like doing agility with your dog - when it is going right you soar alongside your dog and they seem like mind readers, it's so effortless. Really though, it is because the dog gets so used to working with you, trusts your judgement (or melts down into barking to let you know you messed up with your timing) that she sees every twitch of the hand, hears the slightest inflection of your voice, even where your posture is pointing.

Stella passed away in August 2010 at age 15 - she'll always be my special dog. I still have Namio and ostensibly I raised him to compete in agility, but it ends up genetics rained on my parade and that my little guy has a heart murmur and hip dysplasia. Not that either of those conditions slow him down- like most Australian shepherds he is whip sharp, brimming with energy, loud, easy to train and wants to please (not always in that order). Early on, I competed with him at Novice level agility, gaining the jumpers with weaves title with ease. Then I started to notice something wrong with his gait and he gets out of breath easily - more examination by the vet revealed his health issues, and I stopped training him for competition, though we did keep going to class, doing lower jumps and so on until economic and time reasons drove me away.

So today I rented an hour for a special Valentine's Day frolic. Walking Namio to the arena, I had a lot of trepidation - would he remember the equipment, would he be afraid of the new space and refuse to do anything? Would there be other dogs to work around, lots of distractions (Namio is fearful and reactive around other dogs)? No such problem, we really did have the arena to ourselves.

Namio is ready to go!
He remembered almost all the moves, and so did I. I set up a simple jumps ( 8 inches to keep it easy on him) and tunnel circuit. He was so excited that he barked non stop for about ten minutes until I remembered that if I just use hand/body signals and no unnecessary verbal commands, that forces him to concentrate on me instead of barking. Like magic, the barking switched off and we were doing rear crosses, pinwheels, flips and pivots, all with body motion and hand signals (and me with a messed up ankle - so he did all of it with minimal motion from me - I can't currently run!). Namio remembered "Go" - which meant he would follow the flow of obstacles without pausing for instruction. He remembered 'here', 'out' and 'turn'. I am curious what else he might recall with some of the other equipment, but I feel his hip is probably too far gone for games with the dogwalk, weaves and a-frame.

Namio obeying the 'Go' command - 2 jumps, out to tunnel, some 60 ft away from me. Impressive for over 6 years away!

Namio constantly volunteered the tunnel - he loved that thing and made it so slobbery I wiped it down before putting it away.
Tired Aussies are a GOOD thing!
After he tired himself out, we did hide and seek, find the ball, find the food and lots of impulse control exercises where I had him lie down and wait while balls were rolled past - the reward being a release and getting the ball. We had a lot of fun and it brought back really wonderful memories of  Stella and Namio's glory days in the ring!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Making Votive Dishes with Biscuit Cutters

This is the way I make little votive dishes. There are probably better ways but I like the way these turn out still looking sort of rustic but symmetrical.

I use Seattle Pottery's CKK6 Cone 6 porcelain. You will need - some slippy water (starring here in one of Ceci Capen's lovely speckly yunomi), a set of biscuit cutters - the largest 4 inch size and the two next smaller sizes, a small sponge that will fit inside the biscuit cutters, stamps for making designs if you want them, tools for slipping, scoring and cleanup. I make my slabs for this 1/4 inch thick.
Stuff you need to do stuff that I do.

Cut out your 4 inch circles from your slab.
C is for cookie, that's good enough for me! 
Stamp your piece, clean up and compress the edges with your fingertip to stop any splitting in the clay.
This fishie is one of the first bisque stamps I ever made.
Now decide if you want a shallow or a slightly deeper dish - for the shallow one, select the biscuit cutter that is one size smaller, for a deeper one, go 2 sizes down. Now align the flat piece over the cutter and use the slightly dampened sponge to push the clay evenly down into the cutter.
Okay, it looks a bit of a pig's ear but I got better after this!
Push the dish out using the sponge. Make sure you push the bottom to a nonstick surface so it sits well as it dries. Wipe the biscuit cutter clean each time you make a new dish because it will become sticky!

Work that sponge!

Let the clay set up for a while - in the case of my clay it was about 15 minutes, during which I made more dishes and lined them up. Once it is less floppy, clean it up and add any edge decoration.

...meet hungry otter

So I made more - you can see the difference between the horse dish on the left and the one on the right - the horse one used a cutter 2 sizes down.

and I fired them

and put votive candles in one

And here's the otter with his fishie -

The end results are about 3 inches in diameter and about a half inch deep. They fit votive candles perfectly, but of course they are perfect for all sorts of trinkets, tea bags etc!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Questions Answered

Questions about Song and Branch's business practices, habits etc. The subject and thrust of questions have been changed to protect the innocent. Do note that not all of these questions were asked on etsy, as it appears that the Fremont Market is a hotbed of curious people.

Q. Why is the cute adorable standing fawn more expensive than the cute adorable sleeping fawn? They look just as detailed.

A. As cute adorable fawns go, the sleeping ones have less potential energy than the standing ones, that is, I can make 4 sleeping fawns and know I will have 4 when I unload the kiln, and make 4 standing ones and end up with 3. Porcelain droops and causes legs to warp, also just the weight of clear glaze when I dip a standing piece is capable of breaking off a leg if I hold it too tightly. I love the standing figures though, so it is worth a little bloodshed in the glaze firing to bring them to you and for $2 - 4 more I think that's a bargain!

Q. Why can't I have my bowl in a week?

A. Because my big kiln holds about 200-300 pieces and is most efficient when full, this means to finish your piece I must make, fire to bisque, glaze, fire to completion all 200 pieces along with your own piece. If all goes well, a cycle takes me about 2 weeks, but more often it is 3 weeks.

Q. I wanted some miniature birds and I saw some on your site  for $10 a pair. I want a pair of rose breasted grosbeaks and you quoted me $20. WHY?

A. I make fast-selling birds like bluebirds and cardinals in lots of 20, which means I can more or less economize the speed. Unfortunately,  I will probably have to make 4-5 of them to get two that you will like, thus, a commission costs a bit more.

Q. Can you make me a Hello Kitty?

A. No. I do not make copyrighted characters.

Q. Can you paint a dog wearing a Star Trek uniform in a pinchpot for me?

A. Yes, I am fine with humor or parody that is not a direct rip off of a copyrighted item, since artists are allowed to do that without being sued in most cases (though I would be very leery of any Disney character - their legal team is something else).

Q. Will you giftwrap my item and add a note for my loved one?

A. If you are fine with tissue paper and ribbon in pastel colors, I can do that free of charge. I don't do sharp corners though, or pretty paper or anything since I am a bit of a slob and it's frankly embarrassing. The note to your loved one will be on the back of a hand-drawn ACEO card with appropriate subject matter.

Q. Can I have that rock in your photograph?

A. No. I love that rock or I would not photograph it so much. It is Jurassic limestone from the south of England containing hundreds of tiny ammonite fossils. I absolutely love it. My sister found it on the beach at the town of Beer (yes it is a real town) and gave it to me - so in addition to being sedimentary it is sentimental.

Q. Will you, for the love of god sign your pieces?

A. In the excitement of creating my work, I often forget to sign my work. I am always happy to sign or initial my sculptures with sharpie. Sorry about that, I still haven't made a chop that I like and I have been through about a dozen...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Etsy vs Fremont Sunday Market

Observations are fun. For the last month I have been going to the Fremont Sunday Market and I have sold on Etsy for almost three years now. The venues are very different.

Market: You Have to be nice in public.

I could be having an awful day and selling online and no one is going to see it. On Etsy I can have a little snark session over someone offering me $2 for a piece worth $12, but in public you have to thank them for their offer and then refuse politely because the public is watching. At the market I have to be the nice, smiling person that I am not. This isn't to say that I am wildly vicious or mean, just that I am a poorly socialized nerd who doesn't always cue into subtle body language. I really have a hard time making eye contact, I am self conscious about the fact that my teeth aren't normal and also I stand crookedly and my neck is stiff so I feel like a bit of a freak. Honestly though, people don't seem to notice.

Etsy: You have to know time zones

Etsy is an international venue. I know a few folks don't sell internationally but when asked I always encourage people to sell to ANYONE who wants your art. In general, exchange rates are good for people outside the US, so even with shipping your piece still looks like a bargain to them. The thing is when they start asking questions about stuff - make sure you check what time it is in Australia or Ireland because it will save you some "did they get my message?" issues. Typically, the minute one of my regular international buyers shows interest in a piece, I put it on reserve right away, because they might have gone to bed and we'll resume the sale in the morning - a reserve shows that you care :)

Etsy: Photography, Writing, Promoting

You get bonus points for hanging in there on etsy. It's a very crowded venue that is contingent on  things that as an artist you never signed up for. That is - to get noticed you must have wonderful pictures, to keep the customer interested, your description must capture their attention, to even get the person looking at your shop, you must have attracted their attention in some way. I feel a wee smidgeon of guilt that I do pretty well on etsy and I am not the best ceramic artist out there - but I am aware of the hurdles you have to cross to sell even one item on etsy - you have to pick up additional skills and then keep at it day after day after day.

Market: The Character of the Place

Fremont is known as a hippie, freaky, far out, silly, nipple baring, artist loft cuddling area of Seattle. Its market is known for flea marketry, cheap but pretty decent food, beads, fresh baked goods and lots and lots of stalls filled with crafters that try once, get horrified by the driving wind and rain and leave for good. At first blush, this looks like a terrible place for me. In fact, I poo-pooed it for a year. Then, I came to realize that my pieces are small and a lot of the rummage tables are like that - they attract people that love detail and spend time browsing. Sure enough, when I go, I sell lots of small detailed things - not the big pieces, not the art pieces, but things that can be tucked into a purse as they continue shopping. The wonderful thing is that I sell pieces from six year old girls (little bunnies) to 80 something year old grandfathers (little frogs). 

Etsy: The Character of the Place

On etsy I am simply not going to encounter the six year olds and 80 year olds. Market sales are largely incidental and etsy is somewhere you go on purpose. On etsy I sell just about anything I make and some items I absolutely cannot sell at the market are popular on etsy. My current favorite example is drop plates - thin porcelain plates made in a wooden mold and finished off with a couple animal sculptures. I can barely keep them in stock on etsy and they are currently my most common commission item. What does Fremont Market think of them? They are soap dishes. What's wrong with soap dishes? Well, the moment someone says it is a soap dish, about $20 has to come off the price tag, because in neighboring stalls there are vintage soap dishes selling for $5.

Market: I can talk about it

I know that if I don't put a measurement on a piece within the first two sentences of a description on etsy, there is a chance that when the person gets the piece, they will be shocked at the size. At the market, the pieces are as-is, and if a person is interested, I can fill their heads with all the technique information, inspiration and fun facts that I generally don't add to a description. These conversations are fun, and I love some of the questions I get. Other ceramicists can thank me later for explaining why it takes so long to make a piece, what cones mean, what porcelain is and why stoneware is different, because in the last few weeks I have regurgitated a good portion of what I've learned - and it's been fun.

That's it for now, gotta go take pictures!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Creating a Farmer's Market Table Display

After going to a business seminar last weekend, my personal consensus was that since I live 15 blocks from Fremont Sunday Market, I ought to set up at the market, if only for the research opportunity it represents. This particular market has a low barrier to entry - you simply need to show up at 7am on Sunday, sign in and pay $40, which includes a sturdy table (this time of the year it is in an underground parking lot).

I didn't want to just go and throw a nasty looking table cloth on a table (which I have done before with fairly shocking results), so I started drawing my dream table with the helpful ideas from the seminar. My pieces are small and bright colored, so I ended up choosing black. Also because the pieces are small, I wanted a display that would literally get in your face :)

I got a humongous sturdy black tablecloth from amazon.com for $11, and then took a trip to the University Bookstore for large sheets of black matting and some black foam core.

There followed much cutting, polishing and anguish over the fact that black does a great job at looking uneven unless you are really good. I think the results are pretty good. I set it up on a 4 x 3 table. It will look a little more spread out on a 6ft table (I will add some of my drop plates and a newsletter sign up sheet).

All that's left for today is to complete my inventory list, pack the extra/duplicate items and make some price signs.

The full set up.

The tall shelf comes up to eye level on me and has lots of cubbies that hightlight small pieces, plus a 'scenic' shelf for really tiny items.

Larger scale shelf to feature some of my anthropomorph and goblin figures.

"Rummage" basket with pinch pots that contain lots and lots of different beads and pendants.

The 'scenic' shelf of the tall shelving - it looks nicer in person!

The grid area of the big shelf, showing how each piece is nicely framed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

You've worked a while at ceramics when -

  • You drop a piece and don't get that upset because you figure you can make a better one
  • A person says they could make what you make. You observe their beautiful well-manicured fingernails, their make up and lovely new clothing and smile. Go ahead, make my clay.
  • Mud is a good word
  • It hasn't been a good day unless you scrub at the sink for at least 10 minutes because you keep finding new places where clay or glaze landed.
  • Wherever you go, you see textures that might make a good stamp
  • Wherever you go, you see things that might make great tools
  • Upon observing a clay soil, you wonder what it would look like fired.
  • If you see ceramics in a store, you instantly turn it over and look for signs it was hand made. Any sign you find that indicates a human worked on it makes you happy. This is akin to the feeling I used to get when I saw bear tracks in the forest. Look! A ceramicist was here and they left their sign!
  • Drywall is not just for walls
  • You view all loose hair as the enemy while throwing and when the inevitable hair does get in the clay, you swear you will cut it all off and then you don't because you think you can stop it from happening this time
  • You like that damp musty smell in your studio that indicates your clay will be nice and pliable
  • You have your own language for the texture and consistency of clay and glaze. My celadon tends to be green-buttery, my toshi brown is moossy-goosy and one of my stonewares tends to mump (get bumps when wet). My glazes also get mold, which I have dubbed 'glold'.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Space Shuttle Discovery

I love the space shuttles. Way back when, when I was in highschool, I competed the art contest to give an insignia to Space Shuttle Columbia (lost of course, didn't even make it to any semi final). I was standing in my livingroom, just about to walk to high school when I saw Columbia's launch and destruction. The next day I and the other science nerds (a small number of people in my small school) were going to tune into Sally Ride's lessons from space. It never happened, of course, but if anything that regret made me love the shuttles more, so I continued following their missions and mishaps, I cried some years later when Challenger burned up on entry - this time announced while I was competing at a dog agility meet. I can't remember the competition, even though I still have the blue ribbon medallion from that day - Stella honored my tears and ran her heart out, the time on the ribbon reads 00:36:48, probably longer than the time it took for Challenger to fragment in the atmosphere over Texas.

There is and was something fantastic about the shuttles - real spaceships, not just rockets and orbital modules, they flew like airplanes, they ran on technology from the '80s and all things considered, that they lasted into this decade is a marvel of engineering. Of all things American, I was always proud of NASA, even when they confused metric and imperial measurements, sported a murderous woman in space diapers, when the occasional satellite burned up, I cheered for them; I loved the story of Apollo 13, I treasured a silver dollar with the eagle and the moon etched on its surface. Now, NASA is fading away like Opportunity and Spirit, to dust, despair and obscurity, wandering feebly with a few programs, no longer the muscle of the International Space Station but just a subsiduary.

So it all makes me sad. I hear rebuttals that it's too expensive, that it's wasteful, that we could finance better schools, better food distribution with the money and that NASA is just part of the dreaded military industrial complex so just shut up about it. All of these things are true of course - to an extent. I would argue though that NASA is a testament to the will of all that is progressive, intelligent and inventive in the US, that it was a place that in all my days in school I could dream about when my future looked like it would be full of drudgery, heartache and poverty. NASA helped me dream beyond my little town, my little family and my country, too. I just wonder what kids get to dream of now, if the stars are no longer on the agenda.

I guess this is to say that things like the space shuttle remind me that things can be better, they can be exceptional, they can take us to the stars. We can dream of a better place on earth, because every few months I could tune in and look down on this planet with the crew of the space shuttle, without seeing borders - just the great wide oceans, the golden plains of Africa and the white swathe of Siberia. I am thankful they repaired the Hubble Telescope, so at least for years to come I can still enjoy the awesome beauty and mystery of its images. Anyhow, I loved those stubby winged ships!