Ceramics Senior Project Binder

Posted by Shannen Luchs on

I actually have a three ring binder for my Ceramics Senior Project (as opposed to the sketchbook and notebook and folder I kept for my Painting Senior Project).  I would classify my organization level before college as mild.  I really loved college - I started to feel academically challenged, I was invested in what I was learning, and I became more and more organized as time went on.  I didn't really care about my grades or my GPA before college, but somewhere along the way the overachiever in me kicked into high gear and got to shine.  This is part of what hit me so hard on my painting senior project - it seemed there was no way to adequately prepare for it.  I took these lessons to heart and amped up my game for my ceramics senior project.

If you've ever seen Brooklyn Nine-Nine and are familiar with the character of Amy Santiago, this is essentially who I became.

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"The best defense is a good offense" as the saying goes, right?  So I prepared to attack my second senior defense aggressively.  

The Binder and the Background

I remembered - vaguely - that it had a series of sketches on grid paper on each piece I intended to make for my senior project with notes on texture, materials, and glazes.  This is much more intense that I remember.  The entire binder is stuffed almost to capacity - and almost everything in it relates directly to my ceramics senior project.  There are five main tabs - each transparent plastic in a different color and filled with sayings from the signs hanging up around the ceramics studio.  


My battered, clay and glaze splattered glaze notebook is what I usually kept track of my ceramic projects in.  It is filled with crude scribbles of various pots - with just enough detail for me to tell which one is which with some reference images and templates stuffed into the pocket.

I was already an aggressive overachiever in Ceramics.  In Ceramics I Freshmen year I made at least double what was required for our final portfolio - with the exception of mugs which I think we needed 3 and I made about 20.  When the Student Fine Arts Association was revived my ceramics teacher added access to the ceramics studio if you were in the club for me and another ceramics major.  Thus I was able to have studio time even when I wasn't in a Ceramics class.  I had a key to the studio too so I could go in and work whenever I wanted.  

Ceramics I Final

Ceramics II Final

Ceramics III Final (it was an actual class not just senior project time as it was in painting)

Ceramics IV Part I

I did not finish many ceramics pieces in the fall of my senior project (I took Ceramics IV twice because I could).  I focused mainly on my Painting Senior Project in the fall (I don't know how they expected me to have time to work on anything else with everything I had to throw into it), and I got almost nothing physical done on my Ceramics Senior Project.  But I knew in advance I was taking it again in the spring and I had planned to take just Ceramics IV then so that I could give it my undivided attention.  I fell in love with Ceramics my Freshman year and it was the class I was most excited about throughout college.  I had initially planned to do a project with sacred vs everyday objects (hence the piggy bank) but my ceramics professor thought that was too vague and she was right.  So I brainstormed some more in the fall and ultimately decided to focus on only one type of ceremonial object - funeral urns.  

My binder is split into approximately five sections (with subdivisions) with the following headings:  Schedule, Influences, Urns, Project, and Ceramics.  


The schedule tab has a few general pages as a preface - a flyer about that semester's field trip to the National Gallery and a memo to all senior project students in studio art with critique and exhibition dates.  There were about 20 of us this semester and we had 4 shows of a week each (as opposed to the 5 of us being in 1 show in the fall).  

The rest of the pages in this section are a week by week breakdown of the semester with all my classes pre-filled in and covered in notes about what I was working on, meetings, plans and chores and items crossed off as they were completed.  I planned every moment of my time.  My classes and notes are all color coded.


This section is full of nothing but photographs of urns and textured pots and artist biographies of potters.  I have stars and sticky tabs on pages that feature artists who make urns or had particularly nice textured pots.  I poured research into finding appropriate influences for my project this time around - I even have an article on a potter that mentions her Etsy shop - which was the first I'd heard of Etsy.


This section is filled with details about the volume and dimension of urns (and how to estimate what size you need) as well as more photos of various styles of urns.


Skipping ahead a section here, this section is filled with every handout I ever got in every ceramics class I'd taken.  There's a sub section on glazing with details on chemistry and mixing your own and a sub section that is a potter's handbook that I think I found for free online.  


The first page is an initial brief summary of my project, the second is the same marked up by my ceramics professor, the third is the revised form of this document.  The fourth is what I suspect is the earliest version of my artist statement.  It is only one page (see next section).  Page 5 is a printout of an email that I sent to my Sociology of Death and Dying professor giving her an update on how my project was going early on in the semester.  She was the non art professor I chose to be on my Senior Defense panel.  I really loved Sociology of Death and Dying and was delighted to be able to include my professor in my project and demonstrate some of how I was applying what I had learned in her class.  

The remaining pages in this section devoted to the actual sketches and plans for each urn, detailing the dimensions, texture, sometimes showing multiple views, listing construction techniques, type of clay used, and glaze choices.  There is also a paragraph and a photo on each piece talking about who it is intended for and explaining my design choices.  I made ten urns for my senior project and each one was designed and personalized for a specific person that I knew - most of whom were still alive.  I had 6 regular sized urns, 3 keepsake urns, and a pet urn.   

Artist Statements

This is the fun part (for me anyway).  If you read my posts about my painting senior project you know how I struggled with it and struggled to find and keep my voice in the chaos I endured during it.  I threw out the minimum three page statement and kept the tidal wave of overthinking and careful decision making that went into each piece to myself unless prompted during my defense.  I think a combined fear of putting myself out there coupled with the idea of art as a language that should speak for itself and the push-back I got on that project kept me from baring everything I put into it.  I did not make that mistake again.  My binder has an initial one page statement in it.  I have a folder on my computer with five versions of it.  The first is the one page version.  The second is the three page minimum.  Minimum is what we were told, though it turned out to be more of a suggestion than a rule.  The next version is cut back down to two pages.  

Version 4 is the full thirty page document.  I wrote about everything - every thought I had going into this project.  I wrote about my grandfather's death which helped inspire the subject matter, I wrote about Sociology of Death and Dying.  I included a family tree.  I talked about who I picked to make urns for and why.  I talked about my urn research - about how most funeral urns were pretty and impersonal and how I chose to make textured ones that engaged your sense of touch to help comfort you when grieving someone you can no longer reach.  I talked about the technical aspects of making each texture and the significance to each person and the relevance of the influences I picked to my project.  I rambled on about the different types of urns and the preparations I made going into this project. I wrote a lengthy paragraph on each urn - the type, the planning, the making, the significance to who it was meant for.  I talked about other classes that affected my work on this project, shows (about death) I watched while working on it, books about the afterlife that I loved, the playlists I made to listen to while I worked.  I talked about how I came up with the name, how I chose which image to put on my show card.  I talked about the number symbolism of how many parts it took to make each piece.  I talked about the symbolism of the stamp I was using to sign my work at the time (a triquatra - a symbol of life, death and rebirth) and the history of that symbol.  I talked about the process of making and firing ceramics pieces in the context of symbology of the underworld.  I talked about how each piece, though personal, represented problems we all face.  I turned the full version into my ceramics professor and she shared it with my painting professor (the head of the art department at that time).  They said it was okay but suggested I cut it down.

I cut it in half.  I turned in half to the four professors on my senior defense panel - I want to say at least a week early.  The rest I read to them at my senior defense.  

Critiques and Senior Defense

I don't remember my senior critiques for this project that well - they were relatively drama free.  I remember being nervous before the first one after what happened at the first senior critique the previous semester, and a little worried that my fellow seniors would be creeped out by my incredibly morbid subject matter.  I did get one or two looks of revulsion, but after I finished my presentation a few of my colleges came up to me and shared their interest in my project and personal stories about how death had affected their lives.  So on a personal level for this particular project, things went pretty well for me.  What I do remember is watching the other art majors - particularly painting - get torn apart by the staff and being increasingly frustrated by this.  There was some really great work that were very harsh on and it bothered me a lot. 

I have since purchased several books on art history, philosophy, and ones that pretend to address what makes art good or bad.  None of them have provided a satisfactory answer.  I wanted to know how it was decided what merited inclusion in a museum and what was considered low art, crafts, folk art, that which is unworthy of a senior project in studio art.  The books I've read don't get into the real question here - what they do is present famous art throughout history without explaining how each style really came to be widely respected.  The impressionists were snubbed by the art snobs at the time and yet are popularly beloved today.  Van Gogh wasn't famous until after he died.  One of the pieces we learned about in art history was a urinal turned on its side.  Art does not seem to be judged on a universal scale - some pieces are elevated based on the technical skill, on the work involved, on the meaning it conveys (some pieces seem to be more valuable based on a very narrow context or become popular based on the individual meaning each person who consumes it reads into it).  I am more absorbed by what I didn't learn in class than what I did.  You could put all these things into a work and still have nobody like it.  Even the artist themselves can work on a piece and be satisfied and even proud of how it turns out and then look at it again  the next day or years later and hate it and condemn it as trash that's not good enough.  I became disgusted with the subjective nature of art evaluation.  The internet has been more fulfilling than my scholarly pursuits - reading posts by people who oppose the established system has provided closure in a way my extra textbooks have not.  They talk about the classist (crafts), racist (folk art), systemic diminishment of work that otherwise may be skillfully or meaningfully done.  Despite the research I've put into the subject I'm still not satisfied with what I've learned. 

I was talking about art with a friend once, and mentioned my art degree in the gist of some kind of achievement.  She said something along the lines of that I'm not a good artist because I got a degree; I would have been an artist anyway and what I learned on my own did more for me than anything I learned in school.  I think she's probably right.  

Senior Defense

All my musings into art theory and dissatisfaction with the system aside, I went into my senior defense over-prepared.  I mentioned in my painting senior project posts that I was terrified of public speaking.  During this semester I had more presentations than the rest of my time in college put together.  I had chopped my lengthy artist statement in half - pulling the personal parts and piece by piece analysis and leaving the overall analysis and bits relating my project to other disciplines.  Instead of the brief overview I gave for my painting defense (which all the professors involved with were already familiar with anyway), I was prepared to give an in depth presentation on the works I had scattered around the room.  I remember chatting amiably with my ceramics professor, painting professor, and Sociology of Death and Dying professor before the last member of my panel came in for my defense.  He came in screaming at me because he didn't have time to read my 15 page artist statement beforehand (that I had turned in early just for this reason - this is the same guy who told me I shouldn't be painting at all in my previous senior project).  My ceramics professor was quick to jump to my defense saying she had known about it beforehand and cleared it with my painting professor/the head of the art department, and also mentioned that I had cut it down significantly.  All assembled and ready to go I recited the other half of my artist statement to them, dragging them around the room to examine each piece as I talked about it and stopping to explain things I'd left in the half of my artist statement I'd turned in that the one professor hadn't bothered to read.  Once I got going I was too absorbed in my project to be nervous and I talked for over an hour.  Once kicked out, the panel deliberated for only a few minutes before my ceramics professor came to tell me I got an A+.  

The Show - "Touching Souls"

I brought my stamps and test tiles to the show so that people could actually feel the textures I'd used without touching the finished urns.  After the show when I was packing up this table one of the staff members who worked in this building stopped me and told me how affected they were by my show.  I'd never had a stranger tell me my art had meant something to them before and it was an unexpectedly sweet moment after everything I'd gone through to get to this point.  Looking at these tiles I can almost smell the WD-40 I marinated my clay in when I was making the impressions.


Again my camera was really terrible at the time, but luckily I have some other photos of most of the pieces.  

My grandmother's urn was front and center for this show (and featured on the show card) because the symbolism and texture of her urn was related to her love of genealogy and a reference to our family tree.

I have cropped the sketchbook pages to remove the photos of the people the urns are intended for and other personal information.

My grandfather was the only person who was dead when I made these urns.  I felt really disconnected at his funeral and those feelings helped inspire this project.  I made him both a standard size urn and a keepsake urn - keepsake urns are usually designed when the ashes are shared among multiple people.  The big urn is shaped like a scroll and I transferred one of the letters he wrote to me on it.  The smaller one is imprinted with the texture of one of my boots - referencing the big feet I inherited from my tall grandfather, his love of hiking, and the hiking trail his ashes were actually scattered on.

My parents' urns reflected their interests - technology for my father and gardening for my mother.  The bottom of her urn actually blew up in the kiln and instead of completely remaking it I decided to incorporate it into my project as symbolic of her fragile health.  She ended up putting it the yard as part of her garden afterwards anyway.

My aunt's urn had the texture of a chain and was shaped like a scale to represent the way she kept us connected to each other and helped mediate between some of us.

I did a keepsake urn for a friend - she selected the shape and I used a ring she gave me fore the texture.  I also did a keepsake urn form myself covered in doodles and in the shape of a project that fostered my interest in Ceramics in the first place (I think I gave it to another friend, but I've been explicitly forbidden from dying before her so she'll never get to use it as intended).


The last two are my full sized urn - texture and shape inspired by the myth of the goddess I was named after, and the pet urn for my cat (happily she is still alive and healthy and I hope she will be for many years yet).  I used one of her favorite toys at the time (she prefers catnip toys now) for the texture, and glazed it to reference the book character her name came from.


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