My last class from Artfest this year is Pretty Vial Things with Michael deMeng. Our mission was to alter a bottle into something more interesting, but these words barely convey the extent of alterations these bottles endured.
It's been a few years since I laid my hands on tools as beefy and vigorous as the ones we used in this class. Michael gave us a guided tour of the tools and rules before we set off ... how to (or how not to) drill, burn, scrape, paint, attach, detach and puncture nearly every material imaginable, what sticks to what (and what doesn't). A good refresher for me.
And then we set to working with our amazing variety of shapes and sizes of bottles. Some of us came with something like a clear plan of what we wanted to do to the bottles we'd brought with us. Some of us were busy rifling through our bulging containers of random bits and pieces hoping a juxtaposition of materials would activate a lightbulb over our heads.
My bottle was supposed to be a "practice bottle". I thought I'd tinker with it until I got a clear idea of what to do with a lovely (and rare) tapered squarish bottle I'd brought. But the practice bottle somehow took on a life of its own. Michael's supply list had included some materials I'd never worked with (apoxy clay, primarily), and I set about a little task to test its strengths and weaknesses. My test was to raise up the bottle off the table by creating a "fence" of hairpins around the bottom. I wanted a space underneath to put something (I wasn't sure what at the time). Not only did the apoxy clay work ~ it worked fabulously, although it did take some time to dry. As for what went underneath, well even I didn't see that coming.
The day went by very quickly, each of us hard at work on our own little creation, and Michael flitting about the room answering questions and offering assistance with the more dangerous experiments involving sharp revolving metal things and/or fire. He also gave us a really in-depth session on how to mix those crazy paint colour combinations he comes up with. I have to admit that learning his paint mixes was a huge motivation for me choosing his class and he didn't disappoint. I indulged in one his Shades of Alchemy swatch books - it's just the sort of thing I'd create if I'd come up with paint names like Serial Killer Red and Verdigris Crunch.
Somewhere along in the morning Michael reminded us that he would playing music all day, but at 4:00 (sharp!) he'd be playing the theme music to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and we'd be expected to bring our creations (at whatever stage of completion) for a group show & tell and critique. I must admit that the first few times he said this I didn't really get the full import of his statement, and didn't even catch the ironic humour of the song title. Bruce and I had just re-watched The Good, The Bad and The Ugly a few weeks before Artfest, and my first thought was how cool the music was. Somewhere after lunch (when he said it again!) I finally got it. Also, my piece was definitely headed for the Ugly category at that point in the afternoon. Okay, maybe not "ugly", but definitely not "done".
At the appointed hour (4:00, as I mentioned) we all gingerly placed our ex-bottles (which were now sculptural to the nth degree) on a long table and gathered our chairs to see what Michael might make of our efforts. It's been awhile since I've been in on a critique session. Okay, there was a writing workshop with Lynda Barry, but her critique (as promised before the writing exercises) was simply to say: "Good! Good!" with genuine enthusiasm and move on to the next reader. So what would Michael say, I wondered. Firstly, I give him full marks for asking each person "Is your piece pickupable?" before gently holding it up for us to see. I can honestly say he never once said anything negative, even when the creator in question (including me) was not so confident about how exactly to finish off. I thought my piece was a little "light and frothy", especially compared to some of the darker pieces in the class, and Michael said not to worry, to finish it the way it wanted to be finished. I'm glad I listened, I kept it light, tending towards a kind of weathered Victorian ornamentation rather than the aforementioned Serial Killer Red.
If the variety of bottles before we started was exotic, the variety of things we'd done to them was astounding. The question I asked several times of the artist whose work was being held up was "HOW did you do THAT?!". There's something about the layering of paint and texture that can completely obscure the methods and materials, and that's pretty darn exciting when you're an artist ~ that you can make masking tape look like worn linen, that you can make glass look like rusted steel, that you can make plastic netting look like metal mesh (which is what is wrapped around my bottle).
I hadn't finished my piece by the end of the day, and I spent a few hours after class getting it ready for the Big Show & Tell at the end of Artfest (where all the students are encouraged to show the results of their 3-day adventure). When I bumped in Michael doing the rounds at the Show & Tell, he asked me if I'd finished. "Of course," I said. He asked me to show him what I'd done, and I have to say that even though I was pretty happy with what I'd done it was icing on the cake to have him *really* look at it and appreciate the final result. He looked almost as pleased as me, and then he high-fived me, which I think is quite possibly the first time in my life I've ever been high-fived and even thinking of it now makes me grin.
I'm not sure what to call this piece, although the name that sprang to mind while I was working on it was "Where Sweet the Late Bird Sang" in honour of a Kate Wilhelm SF story. It's been awhile since I read Kate's story, but in some ways this piece reminds me of her writing. You think you're reading about one thing, and then you find yourself aware of some darker undercurrent that's actually been present all along. At the Artfest Show & Tell, just as I was about to pack away my things, a young woman came along with a friend and said: "This is the one I was telling you about. You think it's all pretty, and then you see the hands underneath and you get a little chill ...". I smiled to myself and thought of Kate ... ah, *just* the affect I was going for.