Getting to Cowgirls

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
– Mark Twain, a Biography


The longer version of my last post Why Cowgirls?

Growing up in suburbia Pennsylvania, younger sister to an all-around all-star, for a long time I could easily lose myself in distractions safe under the responsible eye of big sis.  My blurry lettered t-shirt proclaiming “stay focused” was a loving family joke about my incessant head-in-the-clouds syndrome.   My thoughts would easily move in and out of a wide variety of ideas, but never quite landed on the idea to call home when I was out later than expected or check-in when I was asked.

I got lost in my imagination often manifesting itself in sketches and drawings, and eventually other mediums.  I wanted to make something out of anything I could get my hands on, crafting, gluing, sculpting, painting, weaving…  And though I come from a family of scientists and doctors, I gave up on my pondering a future in medicine.  I was lucky to be supported in my pursuit of the visual arts.  Plus it was the only subject Karen chose not to spend her energy on.  Still looking up to her, the competitive sibling in me pushed in vain to be as good in academics, sports, music, and clubs.  I wanted to do everything and be good at it too.

I chose art class over the conflicting time slot of Latin class and that was where my scientific path left off.  I was all in, inventing ideas I could bring to life and copying ideas and imagery I wanted to learn more about.  I copied a lot.  (The guilt over reinventing other peoples’ ideas dissolves quickly when someone like Mark Twain says “There is no such thing as a new idea.”)

I still wanted to keep my options open so when it came to choosing a college I went with the big state school and signed up for an art education degree.  I heard that most students change their minds multiple times before graduation and I knew what an indecisive bumblehead I could be.

In my ceramics studio my professor Liz gave an assignment with pretty broad parameters; create a sculpture that was functional, metaphorical, personal, and incorporated human or animal form.  I racked my brain and finally came to class with the idea of making a dragon chiminea.  The fire in the belly would be my metaphor for being so passionate.  When Liz asked me if I was passionate about dragons I nearly laughed out loud and realized pretty clearly that I was on the wrong track.

I went home that day and asked myself what was I passionate about?  At the time I felt like even art making was something I could give up if I stumbled upon something else as intriguing.  I was easily taken with wherever I was and with whatever it was that I was doing.  It turns out that I am fed by a variety of different interests, and those interests are in turn fed by my involvement in them.  I brought the idea of my octopus punchbowl to the table and was given the ok to go forward on my project.  Each arm was treated differently carefully holding a small cup that formed the head of eight different creatures.  I was so engaged in the idea, the physics and logistics of making such a complex piece, and the function of the final product that this and assignments like this inspired me to add a fine arts degree to my schedule.

After my final semester student teaching it was clear I was not cut out to be a teacher in a public school.  I jumped on the opportunity to stay at a friend’s apartment outside of Washington D.C. while he was away for 2 months so I wouldn’t have to stay with my parents hunting for a random job I wasn’t sure I wanted.  I got my first job waiting tables and spent nights on the floor and days volunteering at various ceramic studios around the area.

I saved up and hit the road to see how the rest of the country was surviving with arts degrees in ceramics.  I checked out grad schools, residencies, potteries, and working artists and landed in Taos, New Mexico trading labor for room and board, waiting tables, teaching skiing, and piddling in clay at any chance I got.  I wasn’t making much work, but I was watching and learning as potters and ceramicists in the area were eking out a living.

I regularly attended a weekly live model session just to keep my hands in clay and eventually started renting my own studio space to work in clay and whatever materials inspired me.  One day I decided to recreate a new version of the octopus punchbowl and as was my habit I listened to a book on tape while my forms slowly came together.  This time it was Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and my thoughts swirled in and around all the amazing women I had known throughout my life, particularly the incredible women I had come to know here in New Mexico beating the odds and making their way.

The octopus punchbowl soon had a rider, hand shadowing her brow, seeking what lay ahead.  It took some time but eventually I started sculpting cowgirls in all manner of gesture and pose certainly informed by the many days modeling the figure, that first cowgirl riding a giant sea creature, and of course very much inspired by the women I have come to admire.