Fire up the pot(s) – a festive gathering

Last Friday, we got to participate in an amazing experience at Andy and Virginia Bally’s Studio near Canyon Lake. We had talked about planning a pottery pit fire for several months, and thanks to the Ballys’ hard work, it actually happened!

A pit fire is the oldest known method of firing pottery, dating back to 29,000 BC. It works as a kiln using a hole in the ground as insulation and fuel to reach temperatures around 2000 degrees farenheit.

British potter Jane White says, “The process of pit firing has endless possibilities, the pieces seem to have been created by nature itself, by the organic material, and the fire, which transforms the surface of the clay into a myriad of different patterns and colours, and each piece that is unearthed from the ashes is totally unique.”

A motley crew of potters and friends gathered outside the Bally Studio to watch the spectacle.

The pit was impressive. It was almost two feet deep and covered on the bottom with a deep layer of sawdust.

Here, I’m taking a photo of just the first third of the pit as it is being loaded with clay objects. The pieces are covered in all sorts of crazy, experimental stuff, including tamale shucks.

We also experimented with different colorants and chemicals on the surface of our bisque clay before adding them to the pit.Here, Julie and I are painting on Mason Stains (powdered pigments made of a combination of oxides and frits) and spraying on various chemicals including insect repellent and organic weed killer (!) to see how they would react with the flames.

Everyone kept a close eye on the fire – Andy was the Fire Pit Master and added oak in a steady, slow controlled process.

There is something about a communal fire that is exciting and sort of ancient. And we were all anxious to see how our clay would turn out, even though we knew it would take several days to cool and we wouldn’t get to see the results any time soon.

When the flames died down after several hours, the pit was covered with metal to keep in the heat and allow the pieces to cool slowly.

There was so much to learn and to experience. We all took lots of pictures. After Andy and Virginia opened the pit two days later, they pulled the pots from the ashes and cleaned them. Then they sent photos of our work.

I had fired some face shards in the pit, thinking they would come out looking like ancient relics, and the did! Here are several of my pieces.

The face on the bottom left had Mason Stain applied before firing, and the face on the bottom right has traces of smoke “clouds.” All of us wish we had taken better notes so we could duplicate the results next time!

You can see the whole process and many more of the pieces in the video below.


There is also a You tube video of a Masterclass in Pit Firing by Jane White at this link. You’ll learn more about the process and be amazed by the results.

Jane White’s Masterclass Video on Pit Firing

No matter what our age or circumstances, we can resolve to keep on learning new things in the New Year. Participating in the Pit Fire experiment reminded me that creative learning and seeking out new experiences makes life rich and meaningful. It connects us to our past and makes us more resilient for the future.

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas-time and looking forward to being with you in 2022!


I would be remiss . . .

Just in case you haven’t heard of The Enso Circle, a virtual Artists’ Residency program that Michelle Belto and I founded a year ago, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that it’s open for application until January 10th. If you’re accepted, you’ll be notified by January 12th.

Here’s a copy of an email I sent out last week – the Circle may be for you, or it may not be, but it’s the kind of experience that really can influence your art and your way of thinking about it. And you can tailor it to your own studio practice. Just sayin’ – 🙂

The door is open for application to the Enso Circle —  accepted now until January 10, 2022.
Thank you for your interest in our workshops and our studio offerings. We want to let you know that the door is open for application to The Enso Circle, a ground-breaking virtual Artists’ Residency program that is now in its fourth term.
The Enso Circle is an invitational art residency, a dedicated three-month time period in which you will join a community of creators for a specific self-chosen  goal that is unique to you.  The online residency provides the comprehensive artistic support that you need to focus and strengthen your work.
It costs nothing to send in your application, and no payment of any kind is involved until you are accepted. There is a limit of twelve Artists-in-Residence for each term.


If you already feel a sense of connection just from this short email message, this may be your time to join. It is a wonderful way to begin a new year. Please explore the links below to learn more about our community.

We are always happy to answer your questions and hope that you will apply for the upcoming Spring Term, which begins on January 18th and ends on April 30, 2022.
Sending all good wishes to you,
Founders, The Enso Circle


A self-critique can be excruciatingly thought-full

I’ve been invited to show a series of paintings in an upcoming GAGA exhibit, which should be good news, but I haven’t done any painting in quite a while and am feeling rusty. Unlike riding a bicycle, you can kind of forget your two-dimensional painting skills if you don’t do it regularly. Or at least it stops being as intuitive as it once was. Take a look at my steps and thoughts as I try to make this piece work.

First, here’s a little snippet from my concept for the series, which will be called FULL-NESS:

“I’ve given a lot of thought this past year about the resilience of the collective human community. The result is this series of six 24×24” mixed-media paintings on wood, each one based on the idea of Full-Ness, which is the quality or state of being “filled completely or to utmost capacity.”

I have always incorporated words in my work, and for this series I’m adapting six words for the six works that describe positive resilience and balance: Hope-Full, Peace-Full, Play-Full, Grace-Full, Joy-Full, Thought-Full.

The first step was to prepare six 24x24x2″ birch cradle boards. I taped the edges, then divided each one into roughly three sections – two sections were painted textured “rust” and one section is gold leaf for contrast.Then I stenciled the word “FULL” on each one.Here’s a detail. It looked pretty good! But  couldn’t just leave it like that.

Next, I looked for random non-copyright  photos of faces that would give me a clue as to what “FULL” word to use. The face below, transferred with Silkspan tissue to the substrate with adhesive and acrylic varnish, looked suitable for the word “thoughtful.”

In this first stage (above) you can see the gold leaf, the rust texture, and the face – none of it really hangs together, but it has potential.

In this version (above), which took me quite a while to get to, I am at that horrible in-between not-finished stage which looks good enough but NOT good enough. I liked the parts, but again, it needed unity. So I did a mental inventory of what worked for me and what didn’t – it’s hard to do a self-critique, hard to be objective.

What was working: The face, the diagonal paint lines, and the white circle were good, all keepers.

What was not: The white “thought” letters weren’t working – they looked like a title and not part of the painting. I wanted to incorporate letters like Jasper Johns did, but these looked too contrived. The white spatters added nothing but empty technique. I also was determined to keep a bunch of the gold leaf showing, which wasn’t really helping. Sigh.

So with all of this in mind, you can see what I finally did, below.

First, I painted completely over the letters “thought” and then started adding layers of color veils over the painting, including some areas of stencil patterns. These translucent layers unified the girl’s face with the lower third of the painting by suggesting a figure. 

I brought in more white and repeated the white circle on the right. That helped me realize that  the letters that said “thought” shouldn’t be white, but should reflect the colors of the layers and look much more random, like shapes in their own right. And I painted over most of the gold leaf, although it shines through very subtly. Yay!

It takes a relatively short time to describe this process, but there was a lot of cussing and fussing in the studio as I went back and forth with this for many hours. Art is about problem solving, and while there are many “right” answers, finding the “right” right answer is sometime like looking for needle in a haystack.

This completed piece doesn’t look a lot like I imagined it would when I began, but I like the result. And the next five paintings should be easier and a lot more fun since I’ve got a “thoughtful” prototype! Self-critiquing should be easier going forward.

These six finished (I hope!!) FULL-NESS pieces will be on view in the Main Gallery at the Kerrville Center for Arts in Feb 2022, details to follow.  There are 16 of us in this group show, including amazing painters Roberta Buckles and Mary James. Wow, the pressure! 🙂

In the meantime, stay joyful and thoughtful and hopeful this holiday season!!