carole cluer

Art, hope and self acceptance

Category: Art

The art of trying

“You’re not obligated to win. You’re obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day”

Marian Wright Edelman

Since last September I have been going to pottery classes, I think you are meant to call them ceramics classes but that doesn’t seem right somehow, after all my aim when I started was to learn to throw a pot.

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to use a potter’s wheel. I am old enough to remember  the ‘interlude’ clip on the telly between programmes that showed a potter raising a vase out of clay.

At school there was a potter’s wheel that was kept safely out of harms way along with the good paint and paper that we were never allowed to use. It gained a mystic for me, something other people got to do.

As part of my work I have researched the Japanese craft of kintsugi and the tradition of tea bowls. I have been inspired by the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi ( more on that another time maybe).

Last year as part of my degree I went to a talk by Edmund de Waal, the way he talked about his work was inspiring and it gave me the final push, after all I had changed my career and life, surely now I could learn to throw a pot.

You see that’s what is scary about dreams, even small ones. If you don’t ever try to realise them they remain safe. Whilst I had never tried to make a pot I could always imagine that if I did I would be brilliant, people would stand around amazed at my natural genius, by trying I was also risking failure.

Now you don’t often get the opportunity at 48 to try something completely new and I seem to be making a career out of it so I set off to find my pottery class.

It didn’t take me long to find Penny Withers at an open studio, she is a brilliant ceramic artist who has turned out to be a very patient and encouraging teacher.

Her classes have reminded me of the pleasure of learning a skill and are filled with others who create art just for the joy of it. That’s something that is easy to forget when you are coming to the end of your degree and are overwhelmed by deadlines and assessments.

At first when asked what I wanted to try I vaguely said I didn’t mind, whilst eyeing the row of wheels in the corner. It took me four weeks to summon up the courage to try  and unfortunately no one stood around in awe of my god given ability – it was difficult! What Penny made look like effortless poetry was a stressful and strength sapping wrestle with this solid lump of immovable clay.

But, and this is where I get to the trying part, I didn’t give up.

Most of my efforts didn’t make it off the wheel, except to be scraped back into the recycle bin. When after what seemed like dozens of attempts I raised a very wobbly and lumpen bowl from the clay the relief was immense. Yes relief, the fear of complete failure had haunted me, I didn’t want to be bad, I might never be good but please just don’t make me bad.

Any pot that had managed to stagger into life, however poor a creation, was fired and glazed, I wanted to chart my progress. Each pot makes me smile, I use them for soup and cereal and as the tea bowls I initially set out to create. They are far from perfect, but their imperfections make them sweeter to me, they remind me that imperfection brings with it its own beauty.

I may never manage to throw my perfect tea bowl but I will keep on trying.

Penny’s website http://www.freeformceramics.co.uk/

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New work

I recently completed  my first public work. It was a live art drawing which sounds quite dramatic but actually it was quiet and unassuming.

A few months ago I had one of those ideas that just keep going around and around in your head.

I had seen an article about the numbers of people who had been diagnosed with a type of cancer the year before and it made me think that somewhere there were statistics that contained me. You tend to forget that when you read about mass numbers that each one is an individual.

So I sent off a few emails and the kind people at Cancer Research uk supplied my with the data.

In 2004 45704 people were diagnosed with breast cancer, that included 9 men.

Think of it, 45704 families affected

I was already interested in the tattoos that you get when you have radiotherapy, I had been researching the work of American book artist Martha A Hall who created a book called tattoo. I had also been looking on forums and people really seemed to hate those tiny tattoos, I know it might seem such a tiny thing to worry about when you are fighting cancer but it does feel like you are being permanently branded.

A member of a club you never wanted to join.

Also the process of radiotherapy is pretty dehumanising, before you start you have a session where you are measured, you are left alone in a darkened room, wedged in by heavy cushions to immobilise you whilst laser lines are beamed across your body. The staff were great but you do feel alone and frightened.

Anway I decided I wanted to use the tiny blue/black dot you are tattooed with to symbolise each person.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to create my work in the Cantor building of Sheffield Hallam University, if anyone is interested its on the second floor.

I marked a cm grid using the traditional art of goldpoint, you actually drag a fine gold wire across the surface to deposit a tiny amount of gold. The line looks very ordinary, a bit like graphite pencil.

Like life its preciousness is easy to overlook.

The grid measured a little under 3 metres by 2 metres and took 30 hours. Next I placed a tiny dot of blue/black ink at each intersection until I had done 45704, one for each person diagnosed.

Initially it was difficult to see the lines but as the number of dots increased it gained form, it’s still delicate and lace like and perhaps easy to overlook but its also, I think, quite powerful. The number of dots is quite overwhelming, they seem much bigger than a number.

Having never worked in public before I was pretty scared but actually that was the best bit. The students and staff (none of whom were artists) that walked by were interested and took time to chat. They understood that the endeavour and labour was integral to the work, that its delicacy was given weight by the investment of time. Their reactions were better than I could have hoped for.

Lots of my fellow students came over to support me which was lovely.

The work took me about 46 hours to complete and is awaiting a permanent label, it wasn’t easy as because of my treatment I find it painful to hold my arm up for any length of time, but it was definitely worth it.

I am now working on an artists book based on the same subject and would love to take the work to other locations.

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The solace of objects

“It seems that the soul… loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon.” Michel de Montaigne, ‘Essais’, 1580

I recently visited The Wellcome Collection in London to see the exhibition ‘Charmed Life: The solace of objects’, it was the result of the artist Felicity Powell’s engagement with a collection of 1400 amulets, gathered by Edwardian Edward Lovett.

Felicity Powell – Charmed Life: The solace of objects – Wellcome Collection.

The cabinets were full of strange found and created objects believed by their owners to protect them or those they loved, some were beautifully carved as if the endeavour and skill heightened their power.

This connects closely with my own work  (see Art as Talisman page) and my interest in how we use objects or routines to comfort and reassure us and how we can use art, our own art, to help us cope with life.

I think this is particularly true in times of difficulty when we are unable to control our world, our vulnerability and fragility can become overwhelming, and if we aren’t able to gain reassurance through science or logic then we turn to more ephemeral sources of comfort.

In the past when medicine couldn’t see your child safely to their fifth birthday  parents would give them red coral to signify long life or blue beads to protect from bronchitis.

Even today most of us will own an object whose importance is far greater than its intrinsic value. A lucky mug or our grandmother’s left over knitting, or perhaps it’s the blackbird you see each morning that makes you feel well with the world. When we encounter problems and feel cut loose in a sea of uncertainty those objects can become even more important.

For me, the weeds that I saw quietly and yet determinedly growing amongst rubble or through frozen earth gave me my own determination. Now I am attuned to them and I watch for their appearance in my life. I am not giving them supernatural powers but just allowing them to reassure, they have become a small part of my own private scaffolding that supports me.

Even Edward Lovett who collected these objects through a purely anthropological interest and was dismissive of their powers when faced with his youngest son going to the front in The Great War tied a talisman around his neck to protect him.

When despair threatens we are programmed to protect ourselves with hope.

How old is too old?

Last week I sat through a four day conference designed to help us plan our future. I try to be a pretty positive person but as the week progressed I began to despair. Out of the nine or so speakers eight of them repeatedly spoke of our USP – our youth, that is what we had to offer our future employers, its what gave us time to travel, work in Tesco or go on the dole (yes that was a career choice) whilst we built up our art career.

That’s great but I am a mature student, I wasn’t hard to spot as I was sitting on the front row with three other mature students – when you get to my age you have to sit on the front row due to failing sight and hearing.

How old am I? Forty eight (okay I admit it I’m nearly forty nine), now I realise at this point some of you have made a sharp intake of breath but there may be others who have managed to stagger from their recliner chair that think I could have a few good years left.

On line opportunities seem full of young artist groups and competitions for new artists under thirty five. Why should new artist mean young artist? Surely its self limiting  there may be less of us but don’t we deserve a go?

I have to say now that the staff and students at my uni have never been other than supportive. My peers who are in the main in their very early twenties have always treated me as an equal, encouraged and helped me.

I think I have a lot to offer, hopefully I can show you when I have figured out how to upload my images with a watermark. I know I have my own limitations, some of which are age related, but they are mine for me to overcome, I don’t need others putting limitations on me.

Now I am off to organize my Turner Prize submission – you have to be under fifty to be nominated.