Artist Date 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

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Artist Date 43: It Never Occured To Me I Was Good

I used to hate Harry.  Not him personally.  Just dancing with him.

And not exactly hate.  More like fear.  Dread.

It’s not like that anymore.   It hasn’t been for a while.  But that came later.  Much, much later.

andersonvilleSo it was a pleasant and still somewhat unexpected surprise to find myself pedaling to the Andersonville Arts Weekend, specifically to see his work – Artist Date 43.

Harry is like my friend J, who I have written about before (as have other bloggers – cursing his talent).  An artist savant.  J made Mission-style bedroom furniture his first go at woodworking.  He didn’t even know what Mission-style was.

I imagine it is like that for Harry too – that his fingertips simply release the art locked up in the canvas, the stone or metal.

I am not this kind of artist.

Consider my recent foray into clay, my first in more than 25 years.

I enrolled in a first-time potter class at Lil Street Art Center.  Bought my bucket and toolkit.  Attended all of the five, three-hour sessions.  Came in on the weekends to practice.  And never came close to mastering centering.

Or even getting the hang of it.  Which is problematic as centering – which is exactly what it sounds like, getting the clay centered on the wheel — is pretty much essential for anything of beauty to emerge.

I didn’t have much more success with trimming – cleaning up or “editing” my pots.  Ditto for slab work or glazing.

I left the class with a few sad pieces I have scattered around my house – doing utilitarian duty.  A tray I lean spoons on when cooking.  A tiny bowl with salt in it, sitting on top of the stove.  Another sitting on the window sill of my shower, filled with stones and glass I collected at the beach.

2013-10-17 22.48.20A cylinder glazed white, where my sponge lives.

I realized this work would be work if I wanted to be any good at it.  Or even just better.  Like dance.

While dancing always felt natural to me – at clubs and at parties – moving across the floor in a structured class was something else entirely.  Which is probably why I avoided it for so long.  For fear of not knowing what I am doing.  Looking “stupid.”  Not in control.

The take away from my early years regarding art, music and sports was that talent was innate.  Period.  There was no talk of practice.  Learning a craft.  Or of doing for sheer joy.

I learned those lessons late.  First, from my step-mother, who began painting in her 60s.  I recall her early efforts – shared with me in cards and notes.  Then seeing her work, in her home studio, years later.  Whimsical watercolors of cows on oversized paper.  Framed.  I wanted them for my wall.

I learned them again, a few years later, in dance class.  I have a visceral memory of my instructor Idy going right and me moving left.  Him reaching up, and I, down.

“Like this, Lesley,” he would say.  I swore I was doing the same, but clearly I wasn’t.  Again and again.  Looking at one another in the mirror.  Me giggling.  Them him.  Until I fell on the floor in a heap.

Learning to laugh at myself.  To feel the drums.  My bare feet on the floor.  The joy and wonder of my body leaping.  Contorting.  Flying.

That is, until I met Harry.  He was, and is, what I call a teacher’s teacher.  Reaching for rightness.  What is correct.  He filled in when Idy traveled.  I hated it.

Walking into the studio and seeing him, my heart would sink.  Frustrated by his seemingly constant corrections, I would bite my bottom lip to hold back tears.

One January, when Idy returned to Senegal, Harry led the entire session.  Driven by my frail ego and fear of being found out as a “dance fraud,” I did not enroll in class.  It was the first time I would not dance on a Sunday in more than a year.

I missed it.

I talked to my friend Lisa at length about it.  She suggested I pray.  For the resentment to be removed? To be right sized?  To be teachable?  I don’t recall her exact directions.  I just remember, being desperate.  Praying.  And things changing.

I found I could dance with Harry.  And I could even enjoy it.

Especially when I nailed a step, or a series of steps.  He would stand in front of me clapping his hands shouting, “Yes! Yes!”  I was both thrilled and embarrassed at the same time, grinning ear to ear.  Then losing my footing.  And laughing.  I knew he wasn’t lying.

Or when he had me demonstrate a step, moving across the floor, with the other dancers following.  Because I “had it.”  This happened just once.

Truth told, I developed a little crush on Harry.  The safe kind.  I was pretty sure he was married and had been for a long time.

I found out for certain on Sunday, meeting his wife – who showed me his jewelry.  Rings with enormous oversized stones – too big for my tiny hands.  A copper and silver band that made my fingers look long.  A snaking chain of tiny stones, each marked with a symbol.  I wrapped it around my neck again and again until there wasn’t anymore.  Heavy.

2013-10-13 16.19.58We talked about dance and artistry.  About marriage.  And giving one another space to grow.

I saw Harry a bit later that afternoon, showing his paintings and sculpture at a different location.  He waved to me from inside the store as I was approaching.  And once inside he introduced me to his daughter and told me about his work.  His inspiration.  His process.  I listened.

And then I told him how I used to feel about dancing with him.  And how today I love it.  That I am a better dancer because of him.

His response floored me.

He told me he can’t stand idly by when someone is so close.

It had never occurred to me that I was close.  That he pushed me because I was good.  Not because I was bad.  That if I were hopeless, he wouldn’t have bothered at all.

He saw me, right-sized.  Teachable.

(Video: Dancing with Harry)

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151412384026731&set=vb.554046730&type=3&theater

Artist Date 33: Done. Saying Goodbye to Nin.

nin

I didn’t want to glaze tonight.  I was done.

Done.

With my day.

I’d already snagged decidedly gorgeous, flimsy, French panties and bras on sale.  Seen a Tina Turner impersonator on Michigan Avenue.  A pretty good one.  And connected in that profound way that strangers sometimes do with Yahkirha, a Red Cross worker fundraising across from Millenium Park.

Done.

With my pottery class.

It ended two weeks ago, but I still had two mugs and a woefully off-center bowl to glaze and finished pieces to pick up.

So I went, anyway.  My ex called while I was walking there.  As soon as I picked up, I knew something was off.  I could hear it in his voice.

“I have to put Nin down.”

nin 3Nin is our 19-year-old cat.   Correction.  She is now HIS 19-year-old cat.  She looks like she is wearing a tuxedo, with her black body, white chest and milk mustache.   Her sexy, sleepy eyes reminded me of Anais Nin – ergo, her name.

We adopted her in 1999.  Our friend, Tim, arrived home that day from a year’s sojourn in Chicago.  He called from Tahoe to say he was on his way, and drove his truck straight to Berkeley to meet us for brunch.

After, the three of us wandered into the pet store next door.  And I walked out carrying cat number two.

According to my ex she’s having trouble using her back legs.  She can no longer pull herself up on the bed to sleep with him.  Today he came home and found she had peed all over herself.  As we were talking, she went to the litter box and simply lied in it.

Uncontrollable tears streamed down my face. “Put her down. Put her down.” I repeated the words over and over like a mantra.

He thanked me.  Said he needed to hear me say those words.  To make it ok.

Another piece of our shared life together fell away.

I thought about changing my course, turning around and going home.  But something wiser in me told me to keep walking, up the ramp and into the Lill Street Clay Studio.

Robert, my teacher, was giving a demonstration to the new class.

I wandered back to the carts holding fired pieces.  Some complete, some bisqued – waiting for glaze and a second fire.  I began the tedious and time-consuming process of locating my work – picking up every stoneware cup, bowl and tray, looking for the etched LMP on the bottom.

Melanie was doing the same.  She traveled to Seattle during our five-week class.  I sent her to Flora for dinner and Molly Moon’s for ice cream – honey lavender.  I was happy to see her.

Sifting through the pieces, I admired other’s work.  A deeply tinted bud vase, kissed with a tear drop of shiny blue.  A sculpted hand.  Melanie’s star-shaped badge, stamped with the word “rock.”  She wasn’t thrilled with how the glaze turned out.  I thought it looked awesome.

Kevin was there too.  A principal dancer with Hubbard Street and a fine beginning potter.  I got to know him a little bit one Saturday evening when we both went in to the studio to practice.  I watched bowl after bowl come off of his wheel while I just tried to master centering.  I never did.

And Lori.  We met a couple of weeks ago.  She was glazing a lidded pot with a brush.  She had etched cherry blossoms on to the side.  It was elegant.  Lovely.  The kind of work I dreamed of making but felt years away from.

That same evening, she showed me some tea cups she made.  Delicate cone shapes with carved out handles that looked like wood. Porcelain – glazed yellow salt.

She’s been throwing for just 10 months.  It looks like 10 years.

2013-08-03 16.47.16Eventually I found my pieces.  The slab tray buckled.  It was too thin.  But the bowl that Lori helped me glaze looked pretty good – my best piece yet.  She said my mug looked really good.  I told her it wasn’t my work, that Robert made it and gave it to me to glaze.  We laughed.

I told her about Nin and not wanting to glaze.

She told me about her best friend unexpectedly dying and how she wanted to cocoon but knew he wouldn’t want that.  That he would want her out in the street calling his name.  So she did.

We talked about pottery and writing and relationships.  She helped me glaze one of the mugs, filling the inside with one of the variety of whites.  And when it was dry we lowered it into a vat of rutile blue, then turned it upside-down and “kissed” the glaze a final time around the rim.

I watched her glaze several more lidded pots, a large tea-cup like the smaller ones she had shown me, and a tall, thin bottle – lowering it into the vat with her finger tucked inside.

I watched the patience and care she devoted to each piece.  I do not have that patience.  I am not so exacting.  At least not in this moment.  Not about pottery.  I realized this is what anything “good” requires – attention, time, care.

The same attention, time and care I take with my writing, my food, my clothing.  The same attention, time and care my ex takes with the cats, Nin and Maude.  The very reason I left them with him.

I put my pieces on the cart to be glazed.  Wrapped my finished bowl and tray in newspaper and put them in my bag.  I thanked Lori for her help and said goodbye to Melanie and Kevin.

Seems I wasn’t quite done.

Turns out, neither is Nin.  I talked to my ex.  He couldn’t get an appointment with a vet until Sunday.  He said she seems comfortable.  Slow, but comfortable.  Purring.  I trust him.  I trust his attention, time and care.  I always did.

Artist Date 32: In Between Dates. Some Things You Just “Know.”

2013-07-28 13.50.19I’m standing on the corner of 4th and Main in Royal Oak, Michigan.

I had breakfast with my old boss, Bill, a couple of hours ago.  We met at the restaurant he owns, where I used to work.  I was employee number seven.  Or maybe it was six? Nine?  We’re not exactly sure.  We decide seven sounds about right.

I haven’t seen him since my divorce.  Since he met DD.  We wax nostalgic about the early days.  Toast that came out 20 minutes after the eggs.  The decision to hire a cleaning service because I didn’t want to scrub the toilets.  The handsome photographer upstairs.

I spent years in this city.  As a teenager – thrifting and hanging out at Patti Smith – not the musician, the other one.  At her clothing store – talking, listening to music, wanting to be a grown up.

After college, I moved here and lived in an upstairs flat with my friend Mona and her two cats.  I worked at a weekly newspaper, waited tables on the weekends, and drank my tip money.

I haven’t been here in a number of years.  And alone, probably never.  It seems the perfect destination for Artist Date 32.  That’s what I had in my head when I planned my trip “home” a few weeks ago.  Except I didn’t make much time for alone.  I never do.

I just left coffee with my 17-year-old niece.  I found her waiting for me on a concrete planter outside of Caribou – which wasn’t Caribou when I was 17.  I remember “punk rock” kids getting dropped off here and walking down the street to meet their friends – as if their parents had not just dropped them off.

I tell my niece I used to hang out here 26 years ago.  She’s floored.  As she is when I tell her what 17 was like in my house.  That it wasn’t so different.  That I too felt grown up in so many ways, but still a kid in others.  How I just wanted to go – to New York..but Royal Oak would do.  And how sometimes I wanted to stay – in my bedroom with the blue shag carpet…forever.

Mostly, we agree that 17 is hard.

I’m due to meet Danny in a half hour.  We met at a Jewish retreat the summer before we entered high school.  He was funky and quirky and a good dancer – like me.  Perhaps he too felt like a black, drag queen trapped in a small Jewish body.

A half hour isn’t really long enough for an Artist Date, but I decide it’s kind of like exercise – a little bit is better than none.  I let go of all the “why didn’t you plan for your Artist Date” chatter and spend the next 30 minutes absorbing this place I used to call mine.  The clock is now ticking.

2013-07-28 13.47.12There used to be a bank here, just south of this corner.  I made out with Joe A. in my maroon Chevy Corsica, parked right in front of it.  He moved to Tucson not long after.

I see a guy sitting on the patio at Tom’s Oyster Bar.  He has the shiniest black hair I’ve ever seen.  Beautiful, with waves.  He looks like Joe’s musical partner – who I also made out with.  But later.  A couple of years later.  Just before I moved to San Francisco.  I cannot remember his name.  He looks up at me.  We smile at one another and he returns to his book.  I do not know if it is him.

So much has changed.  And yet, a lot is still the same.  The independent stores that serve as anchors –Haberman Fabrics.  Incognito.  Noir Leather.  I once bought an erotica book here and popped it in my lover’s bag before he headed out of town, with a dirty letter I penned tucked inside.

Bright Ideas – a modern, cool, functional interiors store.  It’s been here as long as I can remember.

I walk in and my head quiets.  I am sucked in by what is in front of me rather than what is in me, in my head –Joe A., his partner, my niece.

2013-07-28 13.54.46Detroit drink coasters.  Symbols of my childhood.  Drink Faygo Orange.  Better Made Potato Chips.  The iconic scrawl of Sanders – hot fudge and ice cream shops, and Vernors – better and spicier than any ginger ale you can imagine.  It used to be used medicinally.  Quintessentially Detroit.  All of it.  I am smiling.

There are tiny bud vases in a variety of colors, thrown on a potter’s wheel.  They began as a fundraising activity and blossomed into a business.  I think about my own somewhat disappointing foray into throwing.  Disappointing because I had expectations.  I thought I’d be good.  Immediately.  Because I worked with clay when I was 17.  Because I have no patience.

The vases are made in Seattle.  I am wistful.

There are low-slung couches with chrome and clean lines.  My nearly 5 foot 3-inch body sits comfortably in these.  At home my feet dangle off of the pricey futon.  I bought it because I had a notion that I would sleep on it and my bedroom would be my massage studio.  That’s not what happened.

I wonder if I can fit one in my hatch.

2013-07-28 13.47.28There are pillows with birds painted neon pink and green and blue.  An orange flower is growing out of another.  Several are felted, with messages “seemingly” just for me: “Let’s Make Out.”  “Happily Ever After.”  “Think Big.”  “Breathe.”

Yes. Yes. Yes and Yes.

2013-07-28 13.48.32There are yellow, leather “Star Trek” chairs.  Body hugging, with matching ottomans.  On the wall are grey circles with the letters S,M,L.  Like the three bears in Goldilocks.  I wonder which one will be just right for me.  In chairs.  In all things.

I look at my watch.  It’s time to meet Danny.  I feel surprisingly and strangely refreshed having taken these 20 minutes alone.  A little lighter.  A little clearer.  Time apart.

I find Danny down the street and throw my arms around him.  He is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and shoots me a big smile – a cross between a 5-year-old’s pure joy and “I am up to no good.”

I tell him I’m hungry and he takes me to Astoria Bakery – formerly Cinderella’s Attic, one of my early thrifting haunts.  He orders a walnut roll.  I get a cookie laced with honey and a flirtation of anise.  His is better.

We catch up on our lives post-divorce.  He is a year ahead of me in the process.  He tells me about his kids.  About dating.  I tell him about not dating.  About my inability to compartmentalize.  My wish that I could.

I do not tell him about my Artist Dates.  I am not sure why.   I figure he already knows.  In the same way that I already know.  It’s just like that sometimes.  With some people.  In some places.  Like here, right now, with him.

Artist Date 27: SHAME Throwing

What I was doing when I thought I'd be "throwing..."
What I was doing when I thought I’d be “throwing…”

I just got home from a gelato date.  Three flavors is a piccolo (small).  I filled my cone with pistachio-almond, yogurt-granola and rose and sat in the square watching children run back and forth and forth and back over a star pattern on the ground – my friend Ernie took a picture of me in this space when he was visiting in the fall.  He thought it was a Star of David and wanted me in the center.  It isn’t.

The sky is pale blue, silky – like underwear.  Clouds like cotton.  The weather has been unsettled for the past two days, and I too, along with it.

I feel acutely alone in this moment, which is strange as I spent the better part of the day with people I love.

During the winter I often spent Saturday nights alone – by choice.  I looked forward to cozying in, midnight blue outside my window – cooking, writing, sprawled out on the shiny, moss-green futon.  Summer feels different, like all the world is out – together.

I remember when my friend Teresa found herself “suddenly single” after a many-years long relationship.  Understanding why, on Monday, I was making plans for Saturday.  “If you don’t, you end up alone,” she surmised.

And yet, I chose this “alone” – for Artist’s Date 27.  But I never quite made it.

I thought I’d throw pottery at Lill Street Art Center.  I attended my first, First-Time Potter class on Wednesday.  Studio time – every day from 10 to 10—is included in the fee and students are encouraged to go practice.

But I didn’t go.  I talked on the phone with Chase, then Monica.  I went for gelato.  I told myself, and Chase, that I was tired.  That I needed to take it easy.  Maybe.  But mostly I think I was afraid.

What if I don’t remember how to start the wheel?  What if I can’t get the tray that sits around the wheel collecting water to snap into place?  (I had trouble on Wednesday.)  What if the wheel is running in the wrong direction – clockwise, like how they throw in Japan, instead of counter?  I vaguely remember Robert, the instructor, telling us the wheel turns in both directions, to make certain it is running counter-clockwise.  He did not tell us what to do if it is not.

My friend Mark recently told me an acronym for SHAME.  Should Have Already Mastered Everything.  Genius.

I get caught up in my pride and it stops me from moving forward.

And yet, I am moving forward.  I signed up for the class.  I went.  I kind of sucked – I certainly had not Mastered Everything.  And I loved it.

I was afraid that night too.

Afraid I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the painful callous that developed on the side of my hand the last time I tried to learn to throw.  Afraid I wouldn’t like it.  Afraid I would be an utter failure.

I didn’t develop a callous.  The wheel wasn’t painful against my skin.  Different clay, I was told.

I wasn’t an utter failure.  Two of four pieces will be fired and glazed.

I did like it.  All of it.

Will the final week of class look like this?
Will the final week of class look like this?

Buying my supply kit and writing my initials on each piece with a Sharpie marker, my full name on my blue water pail.  Picking up a 25-pound bag of clay and splitting it with a partner – separating the four vertical logs from one another, each of us taking two.

My clay “partner” is here with two of her friends.  They just graduated from high school and live in the suburbs.  One of their mothers dropped them off here.

They seem so young, so brave.

I run a wire twice through my logs and place four disks of clay in front of me.  Robert teaches us to wedge the clay, to take the air out of it and prepare it for use.

I roll one wedged disc into a ball, stick a thumb in the center, and form a pinch pot.  As we get acquainted with the clay, we introduce ourselves, sharing a bit about what brought us to this moment, this studio, this canvas table.

There is a couple taking the class together.  A woman who just moved from Minneapolis and thought this would be a good way to meet friends.  A woodworker.

I mention that I always wanted to go to art school.  That at 43 I can send myself.  The words tumble out of my mouth.  They feel profound, true.

I remember my friend Robyn saying our parents tie our shoes until we can tie them ourselves.  Throw us birthday parties until we can throw our own.

Robert moves to a wheel and we gather around him, watching him craft a simple bowl.  He shows us how to throw the clay on the wheel – “throwing” pottery.  How to center.  How to bring it up, bring it out.  He tells us to keep our clay wet.  Shiny.

We nod our heads.  Fill our buckets with water and go to our wheels.  My mind is blank.  I put my foot on the pedal.  Nothing.  The woodworker is sitting next to me.  He smiles and points to the “on” switch.  I smile back.

I throw the clay and press it down, pour water on the wheel.  I am having difficulty bringing it up.  Robert shows me how.  The bottom is too thick.  He shows me how to thin it out.

It is rising.  It looks good.  I don’t stop.   It collapses onto itself.  I throw it onto a board and put my initials in the clay with a tool.  I will let it dry out and re-wedge it to use again.

My second bowl goes better.  It is small.  Imperfect.  A reasonable effort.

Robert calls us to him again and demonstrates another bowl.  It makes more sense now that I have been on the wheel.  We return to our stations.  I remember things he has said.  To angle my finger at 5 o’clock to widen the bowl.  It feels like arriving home for the first time in a new city, without getting lost.  Without using a GPS

My third bowl collapses onto itself.  The fourth joins my second on a piece of wood, hydroplaned on.  I cover it with dry-cleaning plastic wrap and put it on my shelf – the one assigned to me for the next four weeks.

Cleaning up, I watch the potters in the advanced classes.  Their work is beautiful.  Elegant.  Effortless.  Perhaps I will be like them one day.  I am over my SHAME.  I know there is no reason to believe I Should Have Already Mastered this.  Or anything else.  Not even my Artist Dates.

Artist’s Date 25: Following Breadcrumbs and Cleaning Up My Insides

Andrew-Gilliatt-April-2013-60-300x300
Bowl by Andrew Gilliat

I believe in “following the breadcrumbs.”  Like Hansel and Gretl, noting the obvious signs and trusting that I will always be led – if I listen.

I was on the fence about my destination for this week’s Artist Date – Number 25.  My friend Kiki mentioned she might drop by a reception at Lillstreet Art Center – one of my considerations.  Her noncommittal musing was just enough to point my compass.

I’ve been to Lillstreet just once before, for a fundraiser.  I imagined I would return here often, but I have not.  I pass it all the time and I think about going in.  I pour over the website trying to decide which class to sign up for.  I am intimidated and ultimately do nothing.

This is ironic as I am greeted by a most friendly staffer at the door.  She tells me the photography show opening today, Midwest Contemporary, is on two floors.  That beer is on the main floor, wine is on the second – in case that helps guide my decision in terms of where to begin.  It doesn’t.

But the pottery does.  Porcelain slab platters etched with lines that look like a teenage girl’s cutting.  Bowls and plates covered with repeating whimsical patterns.  Forks and knives, swings, balloons and birds in matte glaze. 

I’ve considered the First-Time Potter class here but have been leaning toward Drawing-into-Painting.  Pottery is messy and I don’t really have “pottery clothes.”  I can draw anywhere.  Yet I keep picking up the fired clay.  Running my fingers over it.  Cupping it in my hand.

I remember ceramics class in high school.  Mr. B and I argued about everything – even about how often I peed.  He said I was a sloppy student.  That I didn’t clean my edges, my insides.  It sounds true – of my work.  Of my blurry boundaries and the messy parts inside of me.

I did craft beautiful pieces in his class though.  A platter with a teal drip glaze.  A coil vase with a long neck – large and genie-like, big enough for Barbara Eden to pop out of.  My mother displays both of them in her home.  

I look up toward the photography on the wall – my chosen medium in college until I switched my major from fine art to journalism.  There is a large, creepy photograph of a doll’s head – battered and old.  I don’t like it.  I read the artist’s statement.  She photographs vintage dolls.  The cracks in their exteriors representing the broken parts in us all – some that might never be “fixed” in this lifetime.  I still don’t like the picture, or the doll’s eyes.  But I like the idea of it.

There is work from an artist who earned his MFA from Michigan State University – my alma mater.  It wasn’t known for its art department when I was a student.  I wonder how it has changed.

There is another of a trailer park along the Russian River in California with a big Paul Bunyan figure looming over the camp.  It is part of a series chronicling the photographer’s vacation destinations as a child.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been here.

I wander up to the second floor.  There is a second photograph of trailers, this one from Williston, North Dakota.  Hydraulic fracking boom town.   Michael and I drove through here on our way back to Chicago from Seattle.  It reeked of testosterone and crystal meth.  Unsettling.

There is a photograph of a young African-American man looking straight into the lens.  Into me.  The photographer is from Saginaw, Michigan – where my mother grew up. 

midwest contemporary show
“Elliot,” by Sarah-Marie Land

I feel alone.  I go downstairs , returning to the pottery, and strike up a conversation with another woman, also alone.   She likes the bowls and goblets adorned with animals.  Anything with animals, she says.  I do not, but say nothing.   As the room fills up I am acutely aware of my single-ness.  I think about staying and listening to the live music, but I’m not sure where to perch myself.

I decide to leave instead. 

This is the first time my Artist Date feels lonely, that I don’t feel filled up by it.  On the way out I stop and talk briefly with the friendly staffer who greeted me.  I remember Kiki mentioning her friend’s reception is private, on the roof – that I would have to ask to get up there.  So I do.

I am directed to the back of the building, through the music and pottery and photography, through double doors. I ask a tall man/boy with a red beard and glasses if this is the way to the roof. He says yes and we climb the stairs together. Two of mine for every one of his.

It is sunny and clear.  People are drinking wine.  I do not see my friend.  I turn to go back down.  The bearded man/boy says, “Yep.  A lot of roof.”   We walk down together.  I am not sure why he has come here.  I ask him if he has a studio here.  He does not.  He peels off to a classroom on the third floor and I go down to two.  There are open artist studios.  I missed them my first time up. 

I walk into one.  There are slabs of clay with what looks like hieroglyphics on them.  The artist is talking with a couple about her work and they rope me into conversation.  I ask about the tall, smooth pieces with wild insides.  They are wide.  Almost as big around as I, and climbing higher than my waist. 

Each represents a character from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”  The blue queen is smooth outside, but inside “she is mourning.”   I see it.  I see the glazed clay crying inside, rounded discs turned down upon themselves like leaves.  I wonder if this is what I look like inside.

A second character is smooth and orange-y outside, fiery and sharp inside.  She is angered by how the king has treated the mourning queen.  A third is green.  A girl child left in the woods, raised by a shepherd.  She is smooth inside as well as out.  Peaceful.

I return to a jewelry studio I couldn’t make my way into before.  Too small.  Too many people.  Edith Robertson is talking with a friend.  She has a blonde-ish/white-ish bob and turquoise eye liner.  She immediately greets me, inviting me to try on whatever I like.  She puts her hand on my arm.  Warm.

I pick up a choker made of gathered strands of thin wire with a long crystal hanging from it.  It looks like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite?  A piece of lapis lazuli adorns the back side – a hidden surprise.

I think of my friend Julie and the days I spent with her after her mother died, offering massage and bodywork to her family.  Of her friend Karen whisking me off to her house, plopping me into an overstuffed chair and placing a crystal in each hand. 

The effect was immediate.  Electric.  Like a volt of energy seizing my body.  I imagined smoke coming off of me, as if I had fried a chip.  I was out.  When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I felt like I had been put back together.  I wonder if this crystal would do the same for me.

Edith and I quickly realize our paths have been crossing one another for the better part of 30 years.  In Detroit.  In San Francisco.  And now in Chicago.  That the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

She tells me that making jewelry is her second act.  I tell her about mine.  About my Artist Dates and my return to writing.  We talk about Germany – her birthplace.  The first place I traveled overseas.   She has the same last name as my ex-husband.

We talk until a couple walks in and I hand her over to them.   I sign her guest book, leaving her with my email address and her necklace.  Perhaps another time. 

I walk down the stairs and out the door, thinking about connections.  About clay classes and cleaning up my edges, my insides.  About breadcrumbs.