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The Muse's Storage Box

The Muse's Storage Box
Copyright Diane Lou.

Alchemical Dreams and Disparate Realities

Rust and bones, broken toys and old text, game boards, gears and nests. Even as a child such odd, unwanted items evoked a pit-of-the-stomach response that bordered on exhilaration.
While I make no attempt to conjure up specific feelings in the viewer, the ambiguous juxtapositioning of familiar materials creates art that evokes half-forgotten, dream-like visions that beg to be interpreted by the viewer. There is a sense of deja vu (the already seen) tempered by a sense of jamais vu ( the never seen, or the illusion that the familiar does not seem familiar), and this contradiction asks the viewer to dig deeply, to look inside her own repository of wisdom, intuition and experience to find her own meaning in the familiar objects she sees.
The once-private discards of people's material lives that I collect for my art seem to carry universal memories with them, memories that can engage and mystify the viewer. Their beauty lies within the rust, the erosion, the wear, and the mere fact that they were once possessions.
I play with abandon and with no forethought. Each piece of detritus seems to suggest to me a relationship with some other piece, and I begin to put them together and wait for the mental "buzz" that lets me know I am proceeding as I should. Even at this point, I continue to remain in the play state and will not allow myself to direct the outcome of the piece, a process that requires complete trust. The outcome often mystifies me as much as it might any viewer.
Remember when, as a child, whatever was in reach became the instrument of your creative exploration? That is my life. A rusty, flattened piece of metal on the street, a gnawed bone by the roadside, a unique twisted branch from a tree, a fallen nest, a broken egg, a snake's skin, a dead butterfly...all will be added to my collection and eventually have their beauty honored in one of my pieces. The resulting art creates a new story with its own imagined history, one that invites the viewers to lay some claim on it by allowing themselves to be enveloped by the sight, the history, and the ambiguity of the realities before them.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cupid #5

Cupid #5 is the title of this piece, a tiny 5x7" creation.  It was one of those that truly put itself together in moments from a series of scraps, rejected pieces and leftovers from my work table.

The background is the lid of a wooden box which I had much earlier spray-painted black.  The angelic face showing through the center was a inkjet copy (yes, I keep a copier in my studio at all times) which I then roughed up with sandpaper.  This face is actually the uppermost part of the cherubic body that appears more clearly in the right side of the work. Interestingly the image portrays a young female, but the model is actually a boy.  The simple finish to the piece was the addition of a sanded metal chess board from one of those magnetic travel games, a #5 cut out from an old Ritz cracker tin, and a torn and distressed old photo on the left hand side.

Cupid #5 is a perfect example of how a piece can be an effective composition with a sense of mystery with only a few components, sometimes as few as 3 or 5 .  In teaching, I often find that when students gather the pieces they are attracted to, they want to include them all in one piece.  Knowing when to stop is a key skill, one that I feel is intuitive.  The artist needs to listen to the Muse that says "enough", while the artist is thinking "oh, just a few more things".  Eventually this listening becomes second nature, and the artist instantly knows it is done and puts it away. Similarly, the artist knows when it isn't done, and waits for the perfect ending, usually just one little piece that will appear eventually.

In my studio, this "knowing" takes the form of a piece either being placed far out of the way, perhaps high up on the studio walls, when I know it is done....or it stays on my "working" wall while it waits for the finishing touch.

(Photo: Cupid #5, Copyright 2008 by Diane Lou.  5 x 7" .   Photo by Nils Lou)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Anagama opening photo

For some reason, Blogger wouldn't let me add this to today's post, so here is a photo of the early stages of the unloading.

Anagama opening

An overcast sky and slightly chilly temperatures greeted the potters as they arrived Saturday to await the opening of the anagama firing, a firing which ended a week before.   The door which hid the treasures inside was unbricked, and I couldn't help but being reminded of archeologists  opening an ancient tomb.   Everyone bent down to get a peek at the pieces in front and to snap pictures of the event.

The ashes were swept out, and after 6 cords of wood being burned, one would think there would be lots and lots of ashes.  But, because of the extreme temperatures and because much of the ash ends up being swept through the kiln with the flames, it melts and forms glazes on the pots instead of collecting in the firebox.

Those who have been a part of this potter family for years all agreed.  It was probably the best firing ever.  Yes, there were a few "kisses" (where pots fall against each other and stick as the glaze melts) and a few things that cracked, but out of the probably 600 or more pots that the two kilns held, nearly all turned out well and many turned out spectacularly.  It was a happy outcome for everyone.

Several years ago, there was a not-so-happy opening.  Sometime during the course of the firing, a shelf within the kiln collapsed and tumbled into more shelves and pots that collapsed and fell forward.  At the end of the firing, a look inside the 2400 degree glow told those who had tended the firing that all was not well.  Cindy said the next few hours were like attending a wake.

Even though they knew there was a collapse inside, there was nothing they could do until a week later when the kiln had cooled.  Despite the damage and destruction,  there were also treasures within.  One of Nils's pots had been among those that tumbled into the firebox, and it came out looking ancient and crusty and magnificent, as if it had been unearthed after being buried for centuries.  Others also had unlikely surprises.

I'll post pictures in few minutes.  Thanks for following the story!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Family history

This is an appropriate piece to show today because my brother Don and his wife Shirley are visiting us in Oregon for the first time in 16 years. They live in Kansas, where we grew up.

Tomorrow they'll watch the anagama kiln being opened, and the hundreds of pots emerge from the fire.  There is real sense of anticipation this time, perhaps more than other times, as the firing had an almost magical momentum to it. It flowed smoothly, almost without direction, and it reached temperature easily and relatively quickly.  We'll all be watching eagerly to see how our creations fared in the fire.

Family History (right) is a piece that was created from an old dovetailed wooden box.  The tiny torn and ragged shoe and the egg with cracks on it were the first to let me know they should be together.  They soon rested on a small box with a transparency map on top.

As the piece needed to see, the antique optometrists' testing lenses, which I had been hanging onto for years waiting for the perfect time and place, finally were called into use.  A detailed, finely crafted picture of eyes from an old engraving was enlarged, then printed on tissue paper to give a slightly transparent look, and that paper was glued on the back of the lenses, giving a sense of the watcher being watched by the piece, and perhaps by their own family history.

The piece was completed with a vintage document in the background (and yes, it was added after almost everything else was in place), and a very large brass stencil #8, as well as a red wrench (It seems a bit of red finds it way into nearly every piece I make), a vintage decorative handle on the bottom, and an old piece of leather harness on the top.

It is a piece that has held wide appeal to almost everyone who views it, even though the interpretations are often very different.  It is also a personal favorite of mine.

Garden update: the tiny carrot seedlings are now joining the peas, radishes, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, and green onions that are already up and growing.  It's a beautiful thing, seeing our garden come into being as the earth springs back to life with the longer, warmer days.

(Photo: Family History, copyright 2008 by Diane Lou.  8x6x4".  Photo by Nils Lou)

Monday, April 20, 2009


Much is lost in trying to show Sacrifice in such a small format.  It is hard to see the dessicated dried frog at the bottom, the rusty nails in one compartment, or the evocative face just above the shoe form wings, but it one of my favorite pieces. 

It began with the base of a case that held old optometrist's lenses, thus the compartments with the white labels that list the various strengths of the lenses. Things saved long ago as well as recently found equal space in this piece as in most of my work.

There is a slightly religious sense to the piece although that was certainly not my intent when it began.  It just ended up that way and surprised me, as I would probably never intentionally do anything with a religious slant to it.

As this process of doing found-object art continues to unfold for me, I do find references to life (my life), childhood, distress, family, upbringing and maturing entering unbidden into the work.  Each viewer takes these bits and pieces I have put together and interprets them in a unique way based on his or her own experience.  If it seems mysterious to you, then I have succeeded in creating the art I want.
(Photo:  Sacrifice (10"x24" box area, with hanging pendant and tag at bottom 32" high) Copyright 2008 by Diane Lou.  Photo by Nils Lou) 


The past few days have been heavenly as we have finally gotten a hint of what summer will be like.  Sun, highs around 70, ahhh...  After a long hard winter (that story another day), I am ecstatic to have good weather, feel good and energetic and see the seeds coming up in the garden.

The anagama firing ended on Saturday afternoon after one of the smoothest firings ever.  Two high schools and two colleges were invited to this firing, and the students turned out in impressive numbers to stoke the kilns, split the wood, eat and socialize.  We had over 67 different people here during the cycle of firing, and many of those came 2 or 3 different times.  Young energetic guys and gals split firewood and hauled it to the kilns in a seemingly endless chain, and stayed up to stoke in the wee hours in the night.  Lots of clean up and fix up work also got done, a bonus.

Saturday at 10 a.m. the kilns will be opened and the still warm pots will be pulled out one by one, the heavy kiln shelves will be handed out and stacked, and the whole yard will fill with the bounty that resulted from many peoples' energy and creativity.  

Off to the new garden Nils and I created this year.  The sun-warmed earth is perfect for germination, and new seedlings appear every few hours.  The maple leaves are just unfolding their little wrinkled selves, but a few more days will have them fully unfurled.  The dogwood is fully budded and promises its usual spectacular but fleeting display. New plants have found homes where the difficult winter took its toll, flowering trees continue their sequential bloom, and we continue to clean up the debris left in the forest by a record-breaking two feet of snow that hung on the trees for 10 days this winter before starting to melt (or before the branches broke under the weight).   The cycle of life.  I love spring!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Anagama firing continues

This picture shows one of the four side ports on the anagama during firing (below).  Yes, this is what you are looking at right before you have to open the concrete port to drop in 2 sticks of kindling every couple minutes.  And if that much flame is coming out before you open it....well, you can imagine what it is like when you open it (above).  Very dramatic, slightly scary, but heaven to pyromaniacs, which most woodfirers are (but in a good way).  

The kiln is cooking along nicely after a perfect start by Scott who worked all night on Wednesday.  We had a soaking rain overnight last night, good insurance against any of the 3 firings we have going today starting an unwanted fire.  And then, the prediction of sun for the rest of the weekend.  We couldn't have asked for better than what we are getting.
Cindy will start a pitfire today, and the smaller wood kiln was started yesterday.  The huge wood piles that have accumulated gradually dwindle, until, at the end of the weekend, there won't be a lot left. Then the whole cycle will begin again.
(Photos courtesy of Cindy and Don Hoskisson)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Anagama firing

To say it is amazing and impressive is probably an understatement.  Standing by the kiln in the dark, watching flames shooting out of the ports and the stack, takes you back in time.  You sense the ancient connection, the primal quality of taking mud from the earth, forming it with your hands, then giving it up to the fire.  No other artistic medium is quite like it.  You do all the work, make the best pot imaginable, then, when you fire it, it can crack, or explode, or turn out horribly...or magnificently.  You never know.

My husband Nils Lou has been a ceramic artist and teacher all his life, and over 20 years ago, he built a large
anagama kiln, the East Creek anagama, on our property.
 What, you may ask, is an anagama?  It is a replica of an 8th century Korean hill-climbing kiln which is fired with wood.  It is built into the bank of 
a hillside, holds about 500 pots, uses 6 cords of wood to fire it, and requires crews of people to stoke it 24/7 for several days.  It has now had over 100 firings done in it, and tomorrow the warming fire will be started for the next one, and by Thursday a.m. the serious stoking begins as we work towards getting to 2400 degrees by Saturday night or Sunday. 

 Last weekend a crew of potters came and helped with the loading, which took all day Friday and half of Saturday.  Each potter has several of their creations in the firing, and will be actively involved in the endless wood-moving, kiln-stoking that goes on during the firing.

For days, approximately every 2-3 minutes, split logs are dropped in the front door of the kiln while tiny sticks of kindling are dropped into each of the 4 side ports.  Doing so requires a leap of faith to get past those childhood admonitions of being told to stay away from hot this case, very, very, very hot things.  When a potter lifts the heavy concrete port door to put in the kindling, she must lean way back or risk an instant singe job on her hair!

It will take a full week for the kiln to cool enough to unload, so the following Saturday, all the participants will stand around expectantly as the door to the kiln is unbricked, the ashes are swept out, and the long process of handing out pot after pot after pot begins.  There are oooh's and aaahhh's, as well as  oh no's.  Each piece is passed around and carefully inspected because everyone wants to see the outcome.  Interestingly much of the glaze color comes from the ash, so the end result is highly unpredictable, but is often breathtakingly beautiful.

This twice a year event marks the spring and fall seasons, when the forest is wet enough to ensure no flames will ignite a fire, and a time of twice-yearly reconnection with fellow artists, students, and friends as we share hard work, good conversation, and yummy food....and the final step for our artistic creations.
(Photos courtesy of Cindy Hoskisson)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dark Angel

Our art comes from unexpected sources most of the time, and that is the joyous, Easter-egg-hunt (to use a seasonal analogy) kind of surprise that keeps our art fresh and unplanned.
I love that most of what I use in my art is something that has been rejected because it supposedly no longer has any value to anyone.  It is also good that I love and am inspired by these things that no one else wants, and so they are available to me...often for mere pennies.

Such was the case with the foundation of Dark Angel, pictured above.  On a trip last year to the Goodwill bins (Goodwill Outlet store...the end of the line),  I spied this very, very old tattered, falling apart sleeve pressing board.  It was starting to detach itself from the backing board, the fabric cover had evocative stains and rips, and was, in fact, useless.  I nearly gasped at my good fortune!

I would  never have thought of trying to find an old sleeve pressing board for the basis of an art work, but when I saw it, I had that gut feeling, the pit-of-the-stomach jolt, that signaled a real find.  

It was the same with the rusted and discolored metal that winds its way around the board.  Last year Nils and I had a beautiful new studio built, and during the course of construction, the builders obviously broke a metal measuring tape and quickly threw it into a pile that would later be burned.  Months later, I spied the small remains of the burned pile of debris, and again gasped when I saw the beautiful patina on the now burned and rusted remains of the measuring tape.  I am always shocked and pleased to see such amazing beauty and intrigue in such discards.

As someone recently said when they visited my studio, "There is really nothing you wouldn't use for art, is there?"  and then quickly offered to show me where a complete skeleton of a possum now lies, bones bleached and clean.  I'll be meeting with her soon, again with that gut feeling of having found a treasure that will end up in my art.
(Photo: Dark Angel, 24" tall.  Copyright by Diane Lou 2008.  Photo by Nils Lou)


After allowing myself to be intimidated by creating a blog for longer than I care to admit, here it is in its beginning phase.  I am emboldened (what a great word) now to move on to creating the long-overdue website of my art as well, as well as expanding the blog.  

What pops up and out of my mind on a given day will be what is on the blog.  It could be a picture of a new project in progress or completed, or a mini-lesson in some technique, or just a glimpse into my day.  I hope some of you will find it interesting enough to visit often and offer comments when you feel compelled to do so.

Thank you for joining me!