Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rick Mahaffey: Offerings from the Spirit

Rick Mahaffey is an Art Instructor and Head of the Ceramics program at Tacoma Community College in the greater Seattle area. He has work in museums in the United Kingdom, Kenya, China, Japan, Turkey, Korea and Mexico. He has also taught workshops in Europe, Africa, and Asia. As you read this interview, you will be astonished by Rick’s varied interests, all connected by his humanitarian and artistic world view. He and I go far back, all the way to elementary school, and have recently reconnected on FB. When I began this interview series, I knew that Rick would be one of my must-haves.

tp: Please tell us about your own ceramic work, your style and what is inspiring you now.

RM: I am a potter; I make most of my work on the potter's wheel. My main inspiration comes from the work of potters done during the Momoyama period in Japan (the late 16th century). I find the work that is used for Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony, to be very interesting to me. It has been said that a good tea bowl (Chawan) can contain an entire universe.
 The aestheic of the Wabi tea as done by Sen no Rikyu is one of natural beauty as opposed to a mechanical perfection and one that I find to have lasting interest to me. The concepts of being completely present in the practice of tea: being aware of your surroundings, of others in the room with you and of the seasons, is something that we have gotten away from in modern life. What with texts, cell phones, being connected to the web and being insulated from the seasons, these are all things that make it harder to be in the "present" and aware of our surroundings in a complete way.
Tea Bowl

I do most of my firing in wood fueled kilns. I am part owner of an Anagama kiln which is a large single chamber kiln of ancient Japanese origin. An Anagama is not efficient with the use of fuel but it does give the opportunity for the fire to have a large say in how the work comes out. The firing over 5 to 6 days puts lots of fly ash onto the ware in the kiln and it combines with the clay to create a glaze or to alter a glaze that I have applied. This process requires 24 hour-a-day tending as well as lots of wood splitting and stacking prior to the firing. We usually have about 7 to 9 people on the crew. It requires that we work together and in a sense live together for the duration of the firing. We become a family for the time of the firing. Many of us are working other jobs so we end up putting in double shifts.

 6 cords of wood went into this firing over 5.5 days. We then waited a week for it to cool before we returned to see what the results were.
I like the fact that the firing and the actions of the crew contribute to the final outcome (unless someone breaks a piece while throwing wood into the kiln, but that too is part of the process) and that each piece is unique because of the type of wood, the weather, how the firing went, and so on. The fly ash can be heavy near the areas where we stoke the wood and lighter in other areas.  

tp: What else do you like about working with students?

RM: I love the fact that students from Turkiye feel comfortable asking me a question by email and that I have the freedom that their own professors don't have for various reasons. I am also honored that my colleagues overseas are comfortable with me giving advice and information to their students. I am very pleased that some of the students I helped over the last 15 years are now teachers themselves, sharing what they have learned from their teachers.

Huatulco, Oaxaca
At a community college a large part of what I do is help to build confidence in my students and help them see what they have done well and find ways to get to where they want to go. In my lecture class I try to help them become an "expert" in a small area of art hoping that they will carry that confidence with them into other classes. 

tp: You co-founded the International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange which is based in Tokyo. Was that the beginning of your travels?

RM: Let me begin a bit earlier than that, with some background. I first went to Japan in 1982 with my wife and her grandmother who was returning to Tokyo after an extended visit. We were in Japan for three weeks on that trip and we spent 8 days visiting pottery sites and other sites like Kyoto (my wife tolerated so much clay stuff with good humor most of the time). It was a great adventure and I thought a once in a lifetime trip. Later in 1989 or 90 I was part of hosting summer workshops at the University of Puget Sound, where I was a part- time instructor, presented by the former First Lady of Japan, Miki Mutsuko san. Miki san invited the head of the ceramics department to do a project in Japan for one year. He decided that a full year was too much time away so he asked if I wanted to do the second half of the project -of course I said yes- that was in 1995. So Ken Stevens went to Japan to work at Naruto Education University in May of 1995. I went to Japan in December of that year and stayed until June 30. During the first month of living in Japan I was invited by Professor Shimada of Tokyo National University of Art to participate in a firing at the Tokyo U satellite campus in Ibaraki ken. It was during the three days of firing and spending time together that Professor Shimada
Crusty Jar
    asked about bringing students to Tacoma Community College where I was also teaching part-time for two or three weeks so that his students could experience the "open, American way of thinking about clay". I was all for that, having my students work alongside his for a couple of weeks influencing eachother and sharing so I emailed the Art Department Chair, Frank Dippolito and my dean Gael Tower who were both enthusiastic about the idea so we put it together for the following August.  

While hosting Tokyo U of art the second summer in a row I said that my students would like to come to Japan and work in a program like the one were to doing with Tokyo U some time. Professor Shimada said, "OK next summer you will come to Tokyo". I was stunned but recovered quickly enough to say yes. While in Tokyo in 1998 with my students Professor Zheng Ning of the Central Academy of Art in Beijing was there doing a summer residency and he joined with the Tokyo students and my students. He invited all of us to meet in Beijing the following year. Again I said yes. As our program was coming to an end Professor Zehra Cobanli and President Engin Atac of Anadolu University in Eskisehir, Turkey arrived and saw what we were doing and wanted to join us in Beijing. That was the start of what is now called the International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange or the ISCAEE. 

    I am now the International Vice President of the ISCAEE. We have member schools on five contenents and at our last meeting in Tokyo we had some 280 attendeess. Member institutions come from Japan, Korea, China, Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Australia, Mexico, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and the USA. All of the institutions are Universities with one community college _Tacoma Communuty College (my school).  We host lectures, exhibitions of faculty and student work, have specific activities for students, and demonstrations by the faculty.

tp: What meaning does this travel bring to your life?
RM: My opportunities to travel have been beyond my dreams as a kid growing up in the Upper Noe valley of San Francisco. I never had the idea that I would get to travel overseas let alone live in a foreign country and have the chance to make true friends in other countries. 

Potter in Sorkun, Turkey

The more I travel the more I realize that we have much more in common than we may think we do. I once talked to someone at a conference who had to walk for 24 hours to catch a bus for another day-long journey to get to that conference. That made me reconsider the difficulty I had getting from the Pacific Northwest to Nairobi. That same individual who needed 48 hours to travel from Tanzania to Kenya gave me a chance to share something that I could easily get (my pottery tools) with her - she acted like those tools were the most precious things she could have been given - and perhaps those tools would help her make more and better art and will allow her to take better care of her child. I always look to give my tools to the host school or to a student or two, hoping that they will make a difference in their work.

tp: Speaking of tools, you also like to work on old motorcycles and cars. What are some memorable experiences?

RM: Memorable experiences.......making an old vehicle come back to life after some time of dormancy, hearing it run and seeing it move again are some of the best parts. Also, learning about the engineering solutions that were devised and seeing what can be improved without changing the character of appearance of a vehicle. In a way I sometimes feel that by working on an old bike or car I am communicating with the designers and builders of the vehicle. Going to club events driving an old car or bike, sharing that interest with some great people. The sharing of knowledge and ideas is quite stimulating for me. Taking friends for a ride in an old car is like sharing a view to the past. The children of a friend were excited because when they were riding in one of my cars, if they waved, people would wave back at them. That was fun.

1946 Model 18 Norton. It is a pre-war bike made just after WWII was over with the tooling left from 1938 or 1939
With these old machines  I feel the need to preserve them and make sure that who ever is their care taker has something of history to work with. Since I started out in college in engineering I like to apply some of the things I learned in the engineering classes that I took before I changed majors to art in my senior year.

tp: You have so many strong interests: ceramics, teaching & working with students, and travel. Does one stand out, do they complement and strengthen each other, and how do you have the time and energy for them all?

RM: I always see lots of connections (that are not necessarily linear ) in my life and in the things that interest me. I like to be a connector, someone who helps others make connections and see things in a different way. I like sharing knowledge and love when I find a fact or story that helps me make connections in teaching my students. I really don't see my interests in ceramics, teaching, travel, and old motorcycles and cars as separate interests. It is about learning and sharing. Of course I try to learn while working with clay every time I set to make some things and then when I really understand something I can share it with my students.

I have great respect for my teachers in Ceramics and value what they taught me. I like that I can pass on what they shared with students and in a small way I am keeping their teaching and them alive by sharing the things that they taught and adding the things that I have discovered along the way. It is the same with travel and working on old machines. Sharing what I have been shown and what I have learned ensures that those ideas do not disappear.
Working in clay has taught me a patience and calmness that I bring to bear when I am in a foreign country or trying to figure out what made the car or motorcycle stop running. I am not always successful with the machines when it comes to patience. I am however better at using my patience overseas.  
Flower Vase
    While living in Japan my mantra became: "Everything will become apparent in the fullness of time" because I could not speak much Japanese and could not read it at all other than a few words and numbers so I had to be prepared to find out about things with only 15 or 20 minutes before they happened or I was to go somewhere. One example is when one of the people in the International section said are you ready to go to dinner with the University President? I asked when and he said in 20 or 30 minutes. I was covered in clay at the time so I had to stop what I was doing and rush to my apartment and change and get back to school. I was only 4 minutes late.

The time and energy part is the tough one. I use my breaks to work on making art and working on the other interests in my life. most of the time the motivation comes from small successes along the way but it often comes in the form of a deadline. With teaching I have tried to make sure that any work I do outside of class has a meaningful result for my students.

tp: This has been fun, both catching up and learning about the different parts of your committed life. Any last thoughts?

RM: Recently I read an article in the Washington Post  about a potter, Malcolm Davis, who said:  “What we do with the clay, what we create with our hands, what we offer from our spirits may not end racism or stop injustice, but it may just help keep our culture human.” 

Saggar Pot

In Art and in many other areas of our lives the things that are most precious are those that are most fragile. Usually people place painting at the top of the Art heap, in part because it is fragile and must be cared for but also because it is a visual representation of an idea or story. I think that ideas are our most precious commodity and I know that ideas are very fragile if we don't share them and make sure that other people learn about our knowledge.

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