event, and all of her events, the crowd's attention was exclusively
locked on her filthy but masterful
hands. Steady but smooth actions guided the obedient clay mass from an
awkward fist of thickish, chaotic mud into an orderly mound
smoother and more symmetric cylinder. "This is when I start hearing the
murmurs," thought Grace, "here is where I win their hearts and minds."
As the object rose out of the gyttja, a grayish but malleable bolus, the crowd's attention remained focused on her hands. They were manipulating and directing this aggregated clump into the obvious but early beginnings of something beautiful. After a few moments, a vase began to appear with strong, uniform sides complete with an subtle texture made complete with a variegated pulse from her grip. Once satisfied with the balance and balance, Grace clicked off the wheel motor and allowed the slowing rotations present yet another winner to the group. She could do this all day long but she learned a long time ago, the audience always had to come first.
Grace carefully placed the wet vase aside to settle while accepting a litany of compliments from the assembled art class. She had been doing introductory art classes for many Saturdays and the first demonstration usually was all that was necessary to firmly establish her role as the expert. While these were adult learners, she still had to deal with poor listeners, tardy attendees, multi-taskers and the alway well-meaning but clumsy amateurs. The lack of talent was assumed but she hated the lazy and unengaged; either jump in and make a honest effort or get out. These classes showed some people wanted to desperately create and for that, she made an honest effort for all who wished to truly try.
As all professionals know, most endeavors are a healthy balance of art and science. Architects know that the science keeps the house up but it is the art makes it distinct and unique and bakers know it has to taste wonderful but without the correct mix of 100-60-1-2-1, nothing is going to be able to be enjoyed. That balance had to be followed and respected but no one other than the artist ever cared to consider the delicate dance between the pretty and the necessary. The trouble with the necessary components is based on their assumed mundane nature; the dull preparation coming from the creative process is never perceived as exciting. No one wants to measure out the ingredients or clean the kiln, they just want to rush to the end and declare the process magical.
Lucky for the Rikarts Arts Center, Grace realized the importance of the behind the scene efforts as each attendee came into a pristine studio and was presented with a complete package of instructions, tools and an apron with an individualized name tag. Those small details were critically important to the overall event and while the ultimate delivery of a standard vase was the money shot, the real beauty was the end to end elegance generating from an educated and stable plan. Grace never liked the artist which ignored the details in the pursuit of the art because too often, the lovers of that art were the ones who ultimately suffered from incomplete and lazy attempt at working behind the scenes.
Working with clay and plaster had always calmed Grace. She was a natural within the medium and even as a child, she showed a patience and a proficiency when first given the opportunity to work it. Surrounded by dozens of screaming grade school classmates, Grace locked onto the assignment and delivered a solid and impressive first work to the collective amazement of her teachers. The art teacher, long broken by unruly and incompetent students, was impressed that Grace could create something out of nothing as she dodged flying hunks of clay and the tears of her less-focused classmates. Her regular teacher, Mrs. Goodman, was amazed at her feat of concentration because Grace's legacy was one of well-intentioned attempts at focused study but her natural curiosity usually pulled her to other related topics with regularity. Mrs. Goodman encouraged Grace to work faster so that time savings would be better used for Grace's unique learning adventures and for the most part, it seemed to be working. However, with the clay in her hands, time seemed to slow down as she allowed the form to be guided in subtle ways, in stark contrast of the ham-handed attempts of others to punch out a workable vessel with no investment in thought or pride.
"Grace," said Mrs. Goodman, "that is a very nice vase."
"Thank you, Mrs. Goodman, it felt good from the start. I like it a lot. I will think I will keep it."
Both teachers nodded with quiet surprise; in spite of every intention of cruel and confining mass public education, Grace's artistic touch shone through the piles of poor and clumsy attempts at pottery which surrounded her. Before she could bring it home, her vase was proudly displayed on the teacher's desk for several weeks; Mrs. Goodman secretly enjoyed seeing it as it gave her a confirmatory purpose of the individual as well as quietly reassurance that she really was a good and effective teacher. But thanks to the days of dulled down group-think and the one-size-fits-all mass curriculum, the unfortunate inefficiency of lecturing a classroom full of ten year olds, rarely gave her a confirmatory indication which signified talent and quiet perseverance.
Grace's ascension continued with attendance in summer arts classes and discoveries of terracotta warriors and Da Vinci's Gran Cavallo only encouraged her to learn more about the medium of sculpting and clay modeling. Her interest was not enthusiastic but more one of assurance that elegance and beauty came from all sources. She always trusted her hands more than her eyes which was reinforced as she continued to engage the art form with no fixed destination. "The fun is the journey," said Grace on many occasions, "most of the time I don't know what I am making until it begins to appear on its own."
As she grew into a young adult, Grace began to wander away from traditional pottery and small sculpture work to experiment with small, painted clay blocks which were assembled as random pieces. She saw the creation of the art from several perspectives as interesting and had no fear to cause one piece serve a second piece which resulted in an assembled third (or fourth) final presentation. Some of these pieces appeared to be a random pile of similar cubes but after some concentrated focus, one could see complementary colors and subtle hues which gave the piece opportunity to take on surprising depth. Grace's works, called "Pieces within Pieces" earned her regional fame and a partial scholarship to Slippery Rock University in western Pennsylvania. Slippery Rock was further from home than she had originally planned but the fascinating name of the school and the money mitigated most of those concerns away.
"I think it is a great name for a University," always said Grace when asked why she chose it. The Art Department had a reasonable faculty but Grace had no desire to be a one-trick pony. Art was a great distraction from other disciplines and her natural ability to easily create was constantly confused with her ultimate desire to be a Renaissance Woman. "Just because I am good at it," said Grace, "does not mean I want to do it all the time."
After the class, Grace found herself alone in the studio cleaning up. Wet newspapers, open cans of glaze, clogged brushes, empty soda cans and other related garbage was either thrown away, sealed or cleaned before the lights were off. Grace secured all the supplies into the correct bins and headed out with yet another box full of clumsy but well-meaning art projects. Some of the students would leave their bowls, ashtrays (who uses ashtrays anymore?) and vases because they assumed some to-be-named valet was collecting them or because they completed their obligation. Either way, Grace would salvage any non-horrible ones and quietly distribute them with unknowing friends inattentive coffee shops but was not afraid to bust the worst non-glazed offenders into "clay accumulate." She sorted the dry colored chunks and then slaked them when time permitted. It was not a shortage of clay which motivated her to recycle but a hope that that clay deserved another opportunity to become something useful; and it was also beautiful, that was even better.
Slippery Rock was a pleasure; she did well academically and socially but never felt rushed to make any decision. One of her majors was Art so most people assumed she was destined for some grotto, surrounded by sculptures and she did the whole starving artist thing but other disciplines including fashion, literature, psychology and history seemed more appropriate. And Grace still had no interest in making art a vocation; she liked how she felt when she created but did not view that feeling significant enough to build an entire life direction around it. There was no burning desire to create the next masterpiece; Brancusi was the last great one and he did almost sixty years ago. The world was not clamoring for any new sculptors and it was obvious there were enough clay-fired bowls to go around for the next several centuries. As the college experience drew to a close, she had made some great friends and decided a career in psychology was a priority so the next step had to be graduate school. The absolute minimum starting point in Psychology was a Master's degree so she had to be creative to find something that paid the bills while the journey to her chosen profession was underway.
When you are seeking a plan to generate extra money, you need to go with your strengths. One can grab a part-time job at a coffee shop or basic retail operation but those hours are usually brutal and full of seasonal peaks and valleys. When Grace got her first job working for the state in the Patient Care System, she started at the bottom. Surrounded by long-term public employees, she was thrown into the thankless position of being the face of the department. Being the face is not a compliment, all the wandering walk-ups would show up, take a number and their first human was Grace. Even if this was the crucible all new hires endured, Grace enjoyed the interactions and helping the people who needed it most. In a work environment pressurized with union rules and adversarial relationships with management, she improved the intake processing, cleaned up decades of inaccurate data through simple database tools and continued to act as an advocate to anyone she met. While the downside was lower than expected hourly wage, the upsides included a rich benefit program including tuition reimbursement, overtime starting promptly at 37.5 per week, numerous recognized holidays and guaranteed wage increases. In other words, she could work full time without breaking a sweat, attend graduate school for free and pick up a few art weekends for spending money. It was not the express lane to fame and fortune but it suited her current frame of mind and allowed her to pursue any interesting path; the less traveled, the better.
One morning, without any warning, the phone rang quietly in the corner of her apartment. It was odd that the land line rang at all because her cell phone was up until this moment, the exclusive method of contacting her. Other than a few solicitors, only a few friends and family would call the land line as a last resort. She had been entertaining the removal of the line, as it was a redundant and old-fashion costs to maintain but her mother was adamant that it remain and even offered to pay the cost to assure her of a second option of communication. She never trusted technology and felt a phone was cheap insurance; the debate occurred, Grace lost and each month was sent a twenty-dollar bill as compensation.
"Is this Grace ?"
"Yes, this is Grace."
"Did you have Helen Goodman as a school teacher back in the day?"
"Yes, I did. She was my fifth grade teacher."
"Last question, did you give her a glazed clay art project of dozens of multi-colored cubes?"
"Yes. She liked it so much I let her keep it."
"The piece was really sixteen cubes but it was..."
"I know the piece, each of the pieces, like the back of my hand. You do not need to describe it." Her tone was not rude but the power began to shift as the surprise of the phone call began to fade into the background. She noticed the discussion balance equalizing and kept her tone civil and collected. Specific pieces never leave one's memory; she might not remember each detail about the 500th basic vase she created but she knew all about all her key pieces. and she imagined the cube work in her head as clear as it was yesterday.
"We still need to talk."
"Why do we need to talk?"
Grace had every intention of talking but wanted to add some counterbalance to the discussion. One minute ago she was thinking about dinner and now, she was in the middle of a urgent conversation with a stranger who wanted to talk about a twenty-year old art project and she didn't want the anticipatory momentum of the surprise to set the tone of the discussion. Anticipation was one of Grace's weaknesses; she had jumped heart-first into a variety of relationships before any discernible pauses, she raised her hand too often before the request was qualified or detailed and she had made far too many decisions become cluttering up the issue with facts. Today was the first day of her new strategy to think before jumping headlong into the next big thing but since she had a little time to play with him and that comment was a nice start.
"We need to talk because I just purchased the piece at an estate sale and it is great."
"You don't understand, when I say something is 'great,' it is really great. This is what I do for a living."
"Which means, when the curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center reluctantly accompanies his aged mother to her last surviving enjoyable activity of estate sales, and buys this piece for twice the advertised price, you should listen."
"I appreciate it but..."
"After purchasing it, I spent two hours with Helen Goodman's daughter, going through her papers until I found the award certificate with your name on it."
"I guess we should talk."
"Are you still creating things?"
"Yes and no."
"Good enough for me. When can we meet?"
Four days later, at a locally-owned coffee shop, Grace sat nervously at a window table. She had her laptop with approximately two dozen pieces of which she was most proud. When left alone, she felt she was at her best to experiment with modeling and sculpture. Clay was the easy and cheapest ingredient to use but she had worked with many materials over the last two decades but was always coy with what she presented to others. She knew exactly what it took to earn a top grade in school so many times she purposely low balled her original idea to an extent of getting the grade but never showing what she really had. Similar to a card player holding onto a four aces; if all she needed was to show a pair, she would, take the pot, bury the rest of the cards into the deck and move on.
Creating ideas alone were the most engaging; she had gone through numerous variations of the cube theme until she got it out of her system. It was interesting playing with interlocking pieces which created innovative silhouettes but once she mastered it, she grew bored with it and again, moved on. She always felt bad for great musicians; forced to replicate their most successful songs over and over again. No matter the greatness of the item, it made her weary for them to be forced into the familiar and dull repetition per the demands of the paying audience. Either way, the man was nice enough to contact her about a piece that was truly her creation and common courtesy demanded that they sit and talk.
Right on time, a dark, expensive imported sedan pulled up and a pleasant man, carrying a box got out and headed towards the door. He walked in, acknowledged her with a nod and ordered a cup of coffee. While it was being drawn, he walked over with the box and introduced himself as the man who had called her. He left the box on the table and went to retrieve his coffee. Grace stared at the box, her 20 year old art project had finally made it home. She started to feel nervous as her third act was about to get started and she had no idea of her opening line. This was unfamilar territory for her; she always worked best behind the scenes with only herself to entertain and impress. As he walked towards her, she smiled again and non-verbally welcomed him to the table for the love of discovered art and starving artists were everywhere.
"It that what I it is?" asked Grace.
"Yes it is," said the man, "but before I show it to you, I bet you can describe each cube."
"Not only each cube, each color, where each one fit and which ones I would love to re-do."
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