Saturday, June 30, 2018

Good Influence: Wayward Machine Co.

Bobby and Kacy Middleton and the 18,000 lb Press Brake

Less than 3 years ago, Bobby and Kacy Middleton were living in a house in the suburbs with a yard the size of a football field.

Bobby had made a name for himself building vintage motorcycles under the name King Kustom. Over 15 years he’d won awards and been invited to build for the Born-Free vintage motorbike show for 3 years in a row. He had a social media presence and a following — kids who followed his work on instagram and aspired to make a living building award winning bikes.

But life in the suburbs left something wanting.  They didn’t particularly like yard work. “We were really bored,” Kacy says.

When their friend Daniel moved into a cool storefront on Morgan Street, they told him “If you see something else like this, let us know.”  A few days later, Daniel called to say that his landlord had bought the building on the corner of Morgan and 32nd Place. They drove in to see it that night. It was a shell of a building with cratered floors, a retail storefront and a garage large enough to build motorcycles.

Leaving a house they owned to rent an apartment, moving a whole shop of machine tools, seemed like a risk.  “We were asking ourselves ‘ Are we really going to do this?’”

Five weeks later the landlord had built out an entire apartment, the Middleton’s had rented their house, they shipped 10,000 pounds of machine tools to Bridgeport and opened the doors as Wayward Machine.

They’d brainstormed the name with friends.  They wanted something with attitude, and broader than motorcycles, something open to the possibilities of the space.  Maybe they’d open a lifestyle clothing store.

Meanwhile, Meg McMorrow, a good friend, had asked Bobby to build a couple restaurant light fixtures for Siren Betty, the design firm she was working at.  The fabrication jobs just snowballed from there.

Wayward Machine has spent the past 2 and a half years growing furiously by every measure - employees, shop space, tonnage of machines.  And not least in social footprint which has taken on dimension with a videographer on staff, and their street presence in a real neighborhood.  Every contact they refer to in the Chicago restaurant industry industry is also ‘a good friend,’ or ‘a great guy.’

“He’s figuring it out,” Kacy says of a good friend who runs a complementary business, like Wayward is doing.


Milling Machine - the Tool That Could Reproduce Itself


Wayward Machine opened with the tools Bobby used to build motorcycles: a lathe, a bandsaw, a welder and an antique Bridgeport mill (from Connecticut) that’s so versatile Bobby says it could reproduce itself.

They worked out of the garage at the back of their apartment.  As positions opened up, they drew on Bobby’s social media media followers - other bike builders who knew how to weld - or on neighbors, the barista at the coffee shop who knew auto CAD, the young woman who lived upstairs.

Then Meg, their friend at Siren Betty, took a job at Heisler, a restaurant development machine responsible for the Queen Mary Tavern, Estereo and Bad Hunter.  Heisler advertises its work on forward trending projects, a design aesthetic of “rawness of refinement,” and a desire to “mentor and champion the people they work with.”

In its first year of existence, Wayward Machine Co. was busy building furnishings for Bad Hunter for the better part of a year.  They built chairs in the hundreds, they built giant back bars, kitchen partitions, dropped ceilings from steel frames inset with wood, or with frosted glass to look like skylights.  They built a lot of steel and glass doors.

Steel and glass, for doors, windows and walls, has turned out to be a big moment in the interior decorating world.  Wayward builds them for a growing list of private residences too.

To keep pace, Wayward Machine has added staff; they moved the shop to 1100 West Cermak Road in Pilsen, a space large enough for work stations, fabrications tables and an office, and they’ve filled it with machine tools from old industry machine shops going out of business.

They’ve bought a punch press, benders to shape tubing, and an 18,000 pound brake press.  It puts down 100 tons of pressure to bend uniform angles into thick steel plate. They bought a sheer that slices 10 gauge plate like it’s cold wax with the push of a button.  Cutting it by hand would take someone 15-20 minutes with an abrasive grinder.  It would also be a screechingly loud, filthy job, and even without error or injury, the cut wouldn’t be clean.


"Like a giant mechanical paper cutter"

The tools themselves are all analogue technology from the 60s and 70s, “We can’t afford half million dollar machines,” Bobby says.  “We had to mess with them to make them work, because they’re old.” But they work well for the scale of Wayward’s jobs, and analogue has other advantages for a skilled mechanic.  “I never hooked up a press brake before, but I can make stuff work,” Bobby says,  “I’m not afraid to jump in there and figure it out.”

They still draw on some tried and true contacts in the suburbs - a certain chrome shop, and a certain powder coater. “His paint is perfect, no bullshit,” Bobby says.  “But we have to pack up the truck and send it to Addison.”

That’s one big advantage of their urban location.  Their steel supplier is just down the street.  Since founding Wayward there have been more connections close by, a 3-D printer, a foundry, a stamping company on the far south side.

Especially around the restaurant industry, they tend to describe their associates as people they’ve become close with, like the mill worker who makes wood tops for Wayward’s metal table bases. The electrician they use is doing all the hip restaurants. He doesn’t advertise, Bobby says. “Everybody just knows him.”  Wayward Machine built metal for his house; when Wayward moved the shop to a much larger space in Pilsen this Spring, he wired the new shop.

Their upholsterer, is a young businessman in West Town.  “He’s one of our best friends, we love him to death.” He’s upholstered every barstool Wayward Machine has built - over 300 of them so far. His father ran a cottage scale upholstery business, Aaron saw opportunity to grow.  Father and son still work together at the new business, Urban Craft Custom Upholstery.  Urban Craft is 7 years old, with 20 employees.

“We thought that was shocking,” Kasey recalls.  Now they’re half way there themselves.  They’ve got a project schedule 50 jobs long, they can point out 6 different jobs in progress from where we stand on the shop floor.

As the jobs multiply, the problem solving gets more complex.  There are endless calculations of dimensions, quantities and costs, of schedule and logistics, of keeping 5 or 6 jobs moving timely from one phase to the next. Not to mention the problems involved moving really big, cumbersome objects through space.


A Shop Full of Windows and Walls

Bobby points out a large steel structure that’s been built to fit an industrial size window for a loft conversion in Wicker Park.  “We could make this in 3 pieces,” Bobby says, “but we’d put it in and it wouldn’t look as good as it does now.

“So me being a psychopath, I say ‘Let’s make it one piece and we’ll just figure out how to get it there.’  So we’re going to figure out how to get it to Wicker Park.  We’ll put it on a trailer somehow, move it late at night.  We’ll figure it out.”

There will be more problem solving when they do.  The building is an old warehouse, so none of the floors are straight, none of the windows are square, it’s built of old brick that will start to come apart as they’re working it. It’s going to take a lot of patience to fit it in just right.

Bobby says problem solving is the part of the job he likes most.  He says Stephen Adzemovic excels in that area too, if you’re wondering what he’s up to since leaving Bridgeport Coffee.  They hired him because he could draw in autoCAD, but a lot of people can use software. “We work really well together,” Bobby says. “We bounce ideas off each other all day long.”

Kacy problem solves on the marketing side. “I make sure that we’re visible to the people that I know need us,” she says. “I can steer what our jobs are.  I know if we post a picture of a brass hood, and we post it in enough places or in the right way, tomorrow we’re going to get an e-mail from somebody who wants a brass hood.”

Last year, she started shooting video of the crew working on the shop and posting that on social media.  Now they have Nicolette Nunez, a full time videographer who follows them around with a video camera.  She found Wayward Machine on instagram, she’d offered to work for free. They said ‘Let’s try it for 2 weeks and see what happens.’  “She made herself invaluable,” Kacy says, “so we hired her full time.”

Street Presence


There’s something about the thought of a lot of people who may never have worked in a factory, who may never have reason to weld 2 pieces of steel together, wanting to watch video of other people doing it, that seems almost wholesome. 

We often use the word ‘lifestyle’ with a wink, to refer to appearances not connected to real substance.  But if we don’t resent being social creatures, we can’t reduce the way we watch each other, the various social cues we read, and send, as if they only work as status markers.

The Middletons have been communicating an attractive lifestyle since before they opened Wayward Machine.  King Kustom's social media accounts built on a shared an appreciation of a common object.  Wayward Machine’s communicate a style of life tied in to a style of work, one where something additional to cash is in circulation. It spills out from the social media accounts into their work networks, and from their house in Bridgeport, it spills out into the street.

The building on Morgan and 32nd Place had a sweeping mural across the street-side wall before they moved in.  Bobby and Kacy didn’t like all of it, so they engaged friends to repaint parts with motorcycles, wrenches.  They installed goose necked lighting so the sidewalk is bright at night.  They engaged Pat Finley, an elder sign painter, to paint the Wayward Machine Co. sign at the center of the wall. 

“He just paints, he doesn’t do any vinyl stickers,” Bobby says appreciatively. “He draws a big stencil on paper, uses a pounce pad that leaves an outline, just as a reference, then goes and paints on there.”

And they sit on the stoop with friends, and talk to anyone who pauses to chat as they walk by.  They’re out there a little less this year.  It’s been cold, they may be working all the time.  But that’s why they can tell you about a half dozen creative businesses going on behind curtains and storefronts on Morgan Street.  Appointment only vintage clothing shops - one for ladies a block or so north, and one for gentlemen just south, a print shop, urban gardening, documentary film.  Other folks who are figuring it out.

Since they moved the shop to Pilsen this spring, the house on Morgan Street is bigger than they strictly need to live in.  They use the storefront as an extra living room; they’ve installed kilns in the garage.  Kacy uses them to make art and household objects that look like geologic curiosities.  They run on the electrical that Wayward Machine used for welding.

“We definitely struggle with whether it makes sense to stay in the space financially, because it’s so large,” Kasey says.  “But we love it there.  As long as we can afford to pull it off I think we want to stay.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Job at the Coffee Shop




You might not have known this when he was serving your breakfast order at Bridgeport Coffee, but Stephen Adzemovic has lived across the US and around the world, he’s lived longer in Chicago than he’s lived anywhere else in his life, and it might not be an exaggeration to say the coffee shop job helped keep him here.  “My life in Chicago is 90% Bridgeport,” he says.  And that is directly tied to connections he’s made at Bridgeport Coffee.

So when his other part time job told him they needed someone full time, Stephen wasn’t sure leaving the coffee shop was the right decision, even though the other job involves doing Computer Assisted Design work for Wayward Machine Co., a funky metal shop that builds custom furnishings for restaurants and other commercial interiors.  “My Dad is really glad I chose the metal shop,” he says. When he told his customers at Bridgeport Coffee he says they’d congratulate him like he was moving up in the world --“I was really surprised.”  His hesitation might make you think twice about what makes for meaningful work.



Stephen’s father was an immigrant who’d come to New York with his parents as a child, and who worked his way into a career in international banking.  Through a series of mergers and opportunities he’d moved his family all over the world, with especially long stints in the Middle East that started when Stephen was 12.

There were some things Stephen didn’t like about the Middle East.  He had that American itch to question received answers, which wasn’t common practice there.  “In some countries you’re legally not allowed to question; in others, people are allowed, but they don’t tend to do it.  Or they don’t talk about it, if they do.”

On the other hand he came to appreciate that people are people, wherever you go.  And more unusual, he came to appreciate the feeling of being out of his element.  “I liked that feeling of being outside,” he says. “Where I don’t fit in, and people don’t treat me like I fit in.”

That’s not a feeling most 12 year olds enjoy, and he admits he might not have enjoyed it right away.  But he came to appreciate the perspective, “even when it’s confusing and harsh, it’s also exciting.”  He says he expects to live internationally again, though he does wonder if it will be different, having come to appreciate the stimulations of parochial life. “It was new, I hadn’t experienced that before.”




Stephen moved to Chicago in 2011 to study architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and to Bridgeport in 2013, following an ad for an apartment on Craig’s List.  UIC has a great reputation as a theory school, and that’s what attracted him.  He wasn’t so interested in style or aesthetics, as in the power the architect has to make decisions, but decisions that were not arbitrary, decisions that are calculated to try formal ideas.

“Form follows function” is the classic theory of the old Chicago school, articulated first by architects whose designs were streamlined for modern office and manufacturing functions, without pretending to be from some earlier era.  They came to wear their steel frame structures as an aesthetic, without a lot of prettified details pasted on top.  Stephen says architects are pushing new limits with the terms “form” and “function” in the post digital era, but that’s not the problem that interests him personally.

“Initially it was a social thing,” he says of the kind of theory he wanted to pursue: the architect’s power to create space that affects people without them realizing, or paying attention.  He describes the feeling he got in an airport he visited recently – it was a vast space with a high ceiling, but the ceiling swooped up at the edges, so it was concave, it felt like it was bearing down on you, making you small.  People tend to feel small in cathedrals too, but cathedrals soar upward toward the center, drawing your eye into the vastness.  “It’s not about you and how small you are,” Stephen says.

Stephen’s not sure he’s interested in building a lot of large structures, right now he’s more interested in smaller spaces, where he can design an environment, especially since that’s the scale that’s accessible to him now.

He recently joined up with friend David Ramis to build an experimental project at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, the gallery just down the street from the coffee shop, where they’d helped reorganize the basement in return for use of some of the space.

They built two walls, joined at a 5 degree rotation.  The walls were built out of regular sheetrock and studs, but it didn’t quite reach the ceiling, the 2 walls met at that odd little angle, the sheetrock was cut and distressed up top to make a pattern in relief.  “It’s made of all the things a wall is made of, but it’s to make fun of walls, it’s about finding ways to re-imagine something we take for granted.  It forces you to pay attention.”

Stephen was very happy with the results, they invited friends and local artists to see it, and some of Stephen’s architecture professors came to see it too.




After school, Stephen considered the kinds of things most people do just after architecture school.  They go straight to graduate school, or they get a low level job at an architecture firm.  Neither of those options seemed all that compelling.  He took the job at the coffee shop while he was considering his options. “If you’d asked me then, I’d have told you I’d be there for 6 months.” He ended up working there for 2 and ½ years.

“It’s more about the people than my passion for beans.  I really don’t care about coffee beans.” The coffee shop is where he came to appreciate life in a small neighborhood.  “I’m not anonymous,” he says. “I know people here, and I’m known.

“I don’t think it would be the same if I worked at a coffee shop in a different part of the city.”  Sure he would have had regulars, sure he would have made friends, but the people would probably be more transient. “Neighborhood, community, those are real things in Bridgeport.”

He lived on Lloyd Street for awhile, where all his neighbors had been born there, not just in Bridgeport but on that street.  “The neighbor next door had been there for 80 years.”

Meanwhile he was interacting with a constant stream of people at the coffee shop.  He couldn’t choose who came through, though he had some control over how much he engaged with people, which he sometimes exerted in a playful way.

“There was one guy who took years to warm up to me,” he recalls.  “He’s one of the grumpier people, a gentleman who always came in and got the same order.”  Stephen made a point of being extra friendly “partly as a way to take some power back.” Eventually the friendliness took, especially after they ran into each other outside the coffee shop.  Now Stephen will show him projects he’s working on to hear what he thinks – he trusts his opinion. “We’re interested in engaging in the same conversation.”

He’s made scores of other friends and acquaintances that way, a professor at the School of the Art Institute, staff from the restaurants and bars nearby, transplants and people who’ve lived or worked in Bridgeport all their lives.

Sometimes someone would make a comment or a joke he thought was “on the less cool side of the line.” Not necessarily about race, it might be homophobic. “Something that I don’t want to smile at,” as Stephen puts it “but not so serious that I’m going to take myself out of the role of smiling server to say ‘Hey, don’t say that.’”

He says he’d smile, and disagree.  “I’d say ‘I don’t think that way.’”

Which, if you think about it, might have more influence than an actual argument. Especially now, when social divides seem so wide that even people of good will talk right past each other, that kind of soft exposure might be exactly what we all need to make incremental shifts in our point of view – like the kind Stephen might exert on a patron, or the kind the neighborhood has exerted on him.

Soft influence is possible here, in an old neighborhood with new people moving in, and the coffee shop is one of the places, like a tidal pool, that we swirl through and brush shoulders for awhile.  But that mix is fragile too.

Stephen says he’s never had trouble with the young gang bangers or drug dealers or occasional shootings that also happen around Morgan Street, because the people engaged in that understand he’s “not part of the mix.”

Where he has felt tension, it’s been from people who see that cluster of businesses on 31st and Morgan as an engine of gentrification that will force their families out.  And they might be right.
Stephen points out that lots of patrons come from outside the neighborhood to Kimski’s to see what Korean-Polish fusion is, or to meet friends at Bridgeport Coffee, and they see that it’s friendly, they know that the rents are cheap, and they find the neighborhood seems pretty safe. 

“I’m probably helping gentrify the neighborhood,” Stephen says “but I’m gentrifying myself.”
That’s the great neo-bohemian dilemma: the service jobs of the people who staff the establishments that make neighborhood life dynamic don’t pay well, leaving them among the most vulnerable to being priced out.

That might be more an accident of labor history than natural law.  There’s no inherent reason service jobs couldn’t be organized and well compensated.  The services might cost more.  In the meantime, patrons can contribute directly to the stability of their servers at the coffee shop, or the bike shop, or the take-out counter at Johnny O’s by making good use of the tip jar.

And there’s another factor at play.  Small landlords who live on their properties are a diminishing breed across the city, even in Bridgeport where the owner occupied 3 flat has been well represented.  But they still persist here more than elsewhere.

Stephen has lived in 3 apartments in Bridgeport, each one of them owned by landlords who had a family member in the building, or they lived there themselves, or, at his current place, the owner lives next door. The fact that none of his apartments were owned by investment groups or distant landlords in the suburbs may be a factor in the cheap rents that drew him here.  It might also help keep some rents stable in the longer term.

At one of his apartments, the rent was so cheap, Stephen wasn’t sure he shouldn’t tell the owner she could be charging more.  But she lived in the building, she wanted good tenants who didn’t demand a lot but might stay awhile.  He was pretty sure she was charging one of his immigrant neighbors something like small change to live there, because she’d once been an immigrant too.



When the guys from Wayward Machine Co. first started coming to the coffee shop, Stephen recalls with some amusement that he thought there was some weird power dynamic going on, because the boss always ordered first.  At one point, he made a joke about it, and they all thought it was pretty funny.  “Now, knowing them better, it wasn’t what I thought.”

One day, they were all standing around outside the coffee shop, talking about a big project they had coming down the pike that they knew they would need a lot of drawings for, and they asked “Do you know anyone who knows CAD?” Stephen knew CAD. “A few hours later, I was working there.”

“They care about the neighborhood.  They’ve done a lot of projects here,” Stephen says.  They also seem to be thriving.  They opened the shop in a large garage space at 32nd Place & Morgan in 2016. They’ve just moved to Cermak and May Street because they needed more space.  Stephen started full time when the new shop was ready.

He won’t be doing metal fabrication himself, though having a better understanding of how fabrication is done is definitely one of the perks of the job.  And the scale of their projects is a lot like the kind of design he wants to do: building restaurant and other commercial environments.

“Working there is really cool,” Stephen enthuses.  “But I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll work in the service industry.”

#     #    #

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Jay Strommen - Bridgeport Art Potter



You can’t quite see in this picture how beautiful Jay Strommen’s ceramics are.  The picture shows color, shape and texture – even the contrast between clay and glass, earth and translucence with all its gradations and flaws might be visible in high resolution -- but depth is hard to show.

Strommen says these tablets were inspired by the view of the river from his studio window at the Bridgeport Arts Center.  So yes, that must be Bubbly Creek, an abused slip of muddy scenery, given some gravity here.  The watery surface is made from a ground glass powder called ‘frit,’ he collects it by the bucketful from an industrial user.  In the kiln it vitrifies, as it cools it crazes, so it’s crackled with light.  On the wall, its depth is changeable, depending on the light and where you’re standing.  If you hold it, it has weight.

Strommen studied fine art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He honed his craft at Shigaraki, one of the ancient kiln sites of Japan.  So his work embodies two major tendencies in post war pottery.  One is abstract expressionism, with its painterly concerns with the vision of the artist.  The other brought with it a different set of concerns – with tradition, humility and accident, the nature of the materials and how they react in fire and air.

Strommen points to a shelf of vessels on the wall.  “Someone familiar with pottery could look at those pots and tell you what period in Japanese ceramics they trace back to.  People have written dissertations about traditional techniques.”  But Strommen says he was brought up short during his studies in Japan. 

The kilns at Shigaraki were anagama kilns, wood fired chambers built on a slope into the hillside in the 16th century, using technology that dates back to the 3rd or 4th the century AD.  Firing them could take 2 to 12 days, stoking the fires was a collective endeavor.  The kilns were packed artfully, the pieces inside were unglazed, or else the glaze was spattered on in irregular patterns.  They would be painted with fire, with melted ash and volatile salts, depending on how the fire hit them as it roared up the kiln. 

The collective aspect of keeping those fires stoked seemed important, the results were beautiful in their unpredictability as much as their rustic forms.  But at some point it struck Strommen that he couldn’t expect to participate in all that as completely as the Japanese potters did.  “They’re burning wood that grew from the clay they’re firing in the kilns,” they were part of an ecological unit.

So he came back to Chicago and established the Chicago Ceramic Center, in an American setting. The studio has been built in an adapted warehouse, the gas fired kilns inhabit a giant elevator shaft for ventilation.  It’s art pottery, but also a small scale manufactory, a school for teaching students, and a gallery to show pottery as both craft and fine art.


The Dolni Vestonice Venus
Pottery has depths in pre-history – it counts among man’s earliest efforts to manipulate the elements into durable forms.  Clay figurines of voluptuous women like this one, dug from ash in the Czech Republic, are thought to be about 30,000 years old. That’s roughly the same age as the world’s oldest paintings, glazed in calcite over centuries, deep in Chauvet cave in France.  Though archaeologists count them in different industrial eras -- such periods don’t advance everywhere in the same way.  More recently they’ve evolved as different categories of art.

Paintings from Chauvet Cave

Pottery has long been as much a technology as an art.  The heat required to effect the ceramic change, where it can’t be softened back to clay anymore, is roughly equivalent to the heat you need to cast bronze; the heat for making stoneware could cast iron.

In Europe, potteries were among the first crafts to be industrialized.  The English potteries at Stoke on Trent employed some 20,000 workers by 1785.  Potteries were also part of the movement that arose against the industrial revolution’s impoverishing effects.  The arts and crafts movement wanted to restore a mode of labor where independent workers design what they make, and an appreciation of handmade objects, over fancy goods that could be cheaply mass produced.

In a 20th Century retrospective of British art pottery, curator Oliver Watson used the term ‘ethical pot’ to evoke the cult of the simple vessel, lovingly made by traditional method.  Both the labor of the potter and the pot itself embody a spiritual and moral dimension.

John Ruskin helped set the stage for the arts and craft movement in the 1850s, in his writings on architecture, and especially his romantic view of European Gothic.  He claimed that he saw a life in its decorative effects that was absent in the symmetry of Classical structures.  He thought it reflected the independence of the medieval craftsman to express the vitality of his imagination, where classical architecture had been built by slaves laboring to fulfill a more static vision.

But Ruskin was no champion of equality among men, or their labors.   He believed a healthy society was a hierarchical one, where each man applies his gifts according to his station in life. “My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others,” he’d once written.  He believed that fine art, especially painting, is the expression of the spirits of great men, and can only be fully appreciated by their peers.

The distinction between the humble honor of rustic crafts and the visionary authority of the painter has been persistent in the modern west.  Though the stature of the rustic, in pottery at least, would take nuance from encounters with Japan.




The most famous proponent of the ethical pot was the Englishman Bernard Leach.  Though Leach didn’t coin the term, and he wasn’t born in England, he was born in Hong Kong in 1887.  He studied fine art at England’s Slade school, but he returned eastward in 1909 and lectured with the Shirakaba Group, which was trying to introduce western art to a Japan that was opening its doors to foreign influence after 250 years of isolation.

In Japan, Leach met Yanagi Soetsu, the father of the Japanese mingei movement that would emphasize the beauty of everyday objects, made by unknown craftsmen with traditional techniques. 
Soetsu’s mingei aesthetic was partly informed by a trip he made to Korea in 1916.  He described what he found there as a “beauty of sadness” that he traced to Korea’s long history of foreign invasions.  He thought the Korean potter expressed it naturally in the “sad and lonely lines” of his pots.  

In the 1920s, Leach returned to England.  He built the first anagama kiln in England and taught Japanese techniques, but he also expounded on pottery as a philosophy, a way of life. Decades later, some scholars would question Leach’s legacy as interpreter of eastern craft for the west.  Edmund de Waal would argue Leach’s encounters had been limited to a few educated Japanese, that they had created something hybrid, informed by western arts and crafts as much as Japanese tradition.  De Waal also saw nationalist sentiments in the mingei movement, like the nationalist ideals supported by folkish theories in Europe.

Aesthetically speaking though, mingei seems to echo an appreciation for the rustic, in pottery at least, that traced back for centuries, persisting as an alternative to the polish of porcelain, even after Japanese potters had mastered both.

The Japanese have had a long standing respect for the skill of Korean potters, and Koreans helped advance both aesthetics. It was Korean immigrants who brought anagama kiln technology to Japan in the 3rd or 4th century, and introduced Sue Ware, a high-fired stoneware, barely glazed with ash, that came out of them.  It was Korean potters brought back by Japanese invaders in the 16th century who found the first kaolin deposits in Japan, enabling a Japanese porcelain industry that would supply Europe when Chinese ports were closed.

Sixteenth century Japan was restless with internal warfare among competing strongmen and their samurai.  The mobilizations of war actually improved lines of transportation and communication across Japan during the period, they channeled patrons to new merchant and artisanal guilds.  They also coincided with a resurgence of Buddhism, with its understanding of impermanence and suffering, and its capacity for tranquil acceptance.

The 16th century was disruptive in Europe too, with the Protestant Reformation and the savage wars of religion that ensued. Enlightenment thinkers determined they needed more reliable sources for their beliefs about the world.  Descartes concluded that authority had to start with himself, as a thinking subject.  Some say the turn to European modernity started there, with a dramatic change in self understanding.  The modern subject gave up trying to orient himself in alignment with some divine or cosmic order, mediated by tradition, and became self-determining.  Or he believed he did.

His perspective on the world would become cooler, he’d become expert in objective observation and instrumental analysis.  But he’d also place great value on self expression, and the artist, as visionary, would climb to the top of that new self regard.

In Japan, Buddhists pushed cultural change a different way.  Their vision of impermanence and suffering inflected their vision toward emptiness, and the absence of self.  They used the term “wabi,” first to describe the loneliness of the isolated seeker, living in nature.  Over centuries, wabi came to connote simplicity, quietness, even an aesthetic of understated elegance.

Zen masters practicing the quiet, ritual intention of the tea ceremony preferred the humble Korean tea bowl to the sophistication of Chinese porcelain.  They found wabi in the roughness and asymmetry of pottery that came from the anagama kilns.

Japanese Sue Ware Bottle

Strommen says pottery took off in the United States after World War II, and that several leaders in the movement were U.S. servicemen, back from the war, who went to art school on the GI Bill.  The towering example of the returning GI turned art potter is Peter Voulkos.  He’s credited with starting the American “clay revolution.”

Voulkos went to art school in his native Montana and taught in California, except for the fateful summer of 1953, when he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  He encountered some influential Abstract Expressionists there, and followed them back to New York in the fall.  Before that, his work was functional earthenware, “elegantly thrown,” according to a review of a 2016 exhibit of his “Breakthrough Years” – the exuberance was all in the brushwork and in decorative techniques borrowed from printmaking.

Afterwards, it transformed into something else.  His sculptures were reminiscent of vessels -- he’d start with a shape turned on a wheel, then break through the leather hard surface, slice, smash, crush them together.  This sculpture, called Sevillanas, is almost 5 feet tall, it’s one of his breakthrough pieces, finished in 1959.  The original was destroyed in a recent California earthquake, Voulkos remade it in bronze.  Collette Chattapadhyay calls it a “totemic mass of compacted and compounded pots” in Sculpture Magazine.

Peter Voulkos' Sevillanas

Voulkos said he was particularly impressed by Jackson Pollock, the action painter known for throwing paint on the canvas, for the way he challenged academic tradition.  “Voulkos’ bold handling of clay are provocative in a manner similar to Pollock’s handling of paint,” Chattapadhyay observes.  They were both interested in art as it embodies process, in accident that mirrors the role of chance in human life, in unconscious patterns expressed.

Though Chattapadhyay draws contrast in the course of their careers. Pollock might represent the terminal trajectory of the artist as visionary, pursuing self expression until it hits a wall.  His paintings generated lots of sound and fury in the 40s, but by 1952, the critic Clemente Greenberg thought he’d lost his stuff, and Chattapadhyay says he had few direct successors.

Jackson Pollock in the Act

Voulkos by contrast had a sizable student following, she names at least 8 of his students who became “significant” artists in their own right, and Voulkos’ own work stayed vital until months before his death in 2002.

She suggests the difference might be partly the artistic climates of the west coast relative to the east, and also qualities of the medium -- clay’s humble earthiness, its malleability and toughness, its inherent age.

She describes a 2001 exhibit of Voulkos’ work, including buckets, bowls and plates, encrusted with chalky pigmentations and soot from the firing process “like relics from some unknown prehistoric civilization.”

There are giant stacks of smashed pots, built from up to 50 pounds of clay, fired in industrial size kilns.  They only “allude” to vessel from a distance, up close you can see their interiors, “dusty, deserted,” daylight filters through the fractures like it might have entered cave dwellings from the distant past.

Jay Strommen Tea Bowl

Strommen says the number of kilns in the United States has multiplied a thousand fold since the 1970s.  He remembers accompanying his mother to her pottery class at St. Cloud college as a kid.  At the time, Japanese Raku was a hot technique.  Rakuware is heated rapidly, pulled from the kiln quickly when it’s still hot.  The exposure to air, and rapid cooling, changes the colors of the glaze.  Strommen still remembers the elemental impression of watching those pots pulled out from the fire with tongs.

Years later, he’d talk his way into a job at a pottery manufactory in Florida where he made useful objects by the thousand until his fingers “got very smart.” He made his way to Chicago through the School of the Art Institute, studying with Bill Farrell, and to the Bridgeport Art Center, partly through connections he’d made at school.

Today he’s interested in themes of community, inspired by the collective processes of wood fired kilns, and of transmitting the craft, but also with themes of mass production.  The anagama kilns had been designed for the mass production of objects for everyday use.

The Chicago Ceramic Center started as a school, with some interest in working as a pottery factory of some sort.  He opened the Gallery in 2016, after the Perimeter Gallery closed.  It had been known for crossing the unofficial divide between decorative and fine arts for 35 years.


Since opening, the gallery at the Chicago Ceramic Center has featured some of the major potters of the Midwest, including Bill Farrell and Warren Mackenzie.  In 2018 Strommen plans a new series of 3 exhibits featuring master and apprentice, pressing the boundaries of art as craft, and expression, as they explore ways to scale up.

Jay Strommen Bowls - photo from Strange Closets

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On The Point



If you are suspicious of the liberal elite, especially the intellectual variety that seems to pick apart everything that is good and valuable to people, reduce it to a lot of power dynamics and hidden agendas, then you might be glad to know there’s a gathering wave of young liberal intellectuals who aren’t satisfied with that project either.

Some of them publish a magazine right here in Chicago.  It’s called The Point, as in Promontory Point, the lakefront park at 55th Street.  Or as in ‘There is a point’ – to reading literature, to engaging earnestly in history, in politics, in life in general.  Six months ago they held a conference called ‘Reimagining the Sacred and the Cool’ to discuss what that might look like for literature scholars.




The ‘cool’ literature critics of the 1980s and 90s were skeptical that real meaning could ever be arrived at. They thought their job was to see through the polished surface of ‘the text’ to the latent dynamics the author wasn’t being honest about, even with himself.

It was invigorating when it first came out.  It was a sharper tool for dissecting tradition and prejudice, for prying open the canon of great books to let new voices in.  It seemed to re-activate the old liberal education, by really illuminating how values are socially constructed.  Not so students could toss them all out, necessarily, but so they could participate in a clear eyed way in the endless project of revising them.  At least, that’s what a traditional liberal education is for.

Except that once you set it rolling, it’s hard to put limits on skepticism as a method for reading, or for life.  ‘Deconstructionists,’ ‘poststructuralists,’ scholarly critique in general moved from taking apart the text, to taking apart the author, and the reader, to dismantling the very idea of the coherent individual, capable of independent judgment.  From that vantage, sincere expression, truth and morality aren’t just impossible to achieve, they become embarrassing to pursue.


This is also one point where scholarly critique starts to sound like a lot of fuss over issues that aren’t real problems for regular people.  When is the last time you worried if you had a coherent self or not?  Or whether you are capable of making real moral decisions?

It is possible to argue as if all human discernment, from our taste to our conscience, are just codes for striking a social posture, or internalized demands of the surveillance state.  As if reducing any human expression to something legible in utilitarian terms is really the most honest way to approach it.  If that is true, than opportunism really would be the best strategy for life.

But from experience, we know that’s not true.  Or we know that it’s part of it, but that it’s not all there is.  Intellectuals and artists are supposed to help us with this – that is help us to look at ourselves and our situation honestly, in its complexity and fullness.  Part of the job is to expose weakness and illusion, but the other is to appreciate the potential, even dignity, in our condition.

If they have painted themselves into a corner where they can’t see dignity in our condition, then they abandon that job to those who are willing to deal in less nuanced terms.



That’s what was cool about the conference: it suggested that young scholars are unsatisfied with the project of deconstruction alone, that they see the potential of literature to summon up something of value.  Not through Nancy Drew mysteries about ideal characters solving a world where the ugly facts of reality are suspended, or easily overcome.

But a literature that deals in ambiguities, one that recognizes a multitude of competing principles, all of them aspects of what is true and good in the world, but aspects that are not neatly reconciled with each other either.  Drawn in abstract terms, carried too far, they conflict with one another.  At which point, some inner voice that we still have protests.

The first speaker made the case for that inner voice, a seat of conscience that is “meaningfully autonomous”, even though it’s “socially informed.” She spoke of developing it through spiritual practice, carving new neural pathways through meditation and prayer. 


All the speakers argued for sources of critical discernment other than the voice of traditional authority or disengaged science.  One described an imagination activated through poetry to move back and forth between the landscape of the material world we know, and something that transcends it.

Another suggested that critics might model themselves on Biblical commentators, whose method is not to describe literature from a distance, but “to enter into its point of view, to think alongside it.”  Whose claim is not to settle questions decisively, but to illuminate the possibilities, to feed into the pool of collective imaginary that a reader may draw from, pulling out the commentary that resonates with his situation.



Articles in the magazine often argue for similar discernments in the real world.  They acknowledge ambiguity, and multiple points of view.  But just as important, they value the need to step out from a critical stance of endless equivocation, they believe in the reader’s capacity to engage in matters of meaning, and in the scholar’s ability to point him in promising directions.

They call for a history unembarrassed to explore deep themes, or describe a narrative road map for a general public.  For a politics willing to argue in terms of deep values (like whether it is true that all human beings deserve some measure of respect or not), rather than skate over them with centrist arguments about the best techniques to achieve economic growth.  And for a literature that is ‘conducive to a feeling of aliveness.’





In an early issue, editor Jon Baskin describes finding just such a literature in the novel Infinite Jest.  He knows it’s sometimes read like other “difficult” novels of its milieu, a cool study in ironic alienation, its characters exhausted by the impossibility of being a real person in a thoroughly commercialized United States.  Baskin says Infinite Jest is just meeting the reader where he is.  So its first character is creepily familiar, “the grieving white male of high education and questionable maturity,” he’s literally stuck in a self-conscious feedback loop that’s made his speech unintelligible, his head into a cage.

But another character has found escape through Alcoholics Anonymous.  Baskin says that’s what makes Infinite Jest different, it presents the insights of AA un-ironically, as a real antidote for the postmodern condition. “The addict seeks refuge in his substance,” he observes, but “his true addiction is not to his substance, but to a highly reflexive and indulgent way of thinking.”  It’s much the same for the reader, savvy in the tongues of “satire, theory and reflexive sophistication.”  What he craves is a literature that points a way out from that reflexive cage.



You can’t just switch from irony and alienation to na├»ve sincerity and embedded-ness.  Once you’ve seen the human capacity for bias, spite and self deception, you can’t un-see it. But you can turn your attention to the human capacity for other things. And there is no better place to start than here.  The urban neighborhood is the perfect scale for seeing how people are complex. It’s large enough to be diverse, close enough to see your neighbors face to face. 

I like to ask people about their work because a lot of times they find a lot of dignity in it.  I don’t think that diminishes large scale concerns about the widening gap between the rich and poor, the narrowing of economic opportunities, and the serious threat those dynamics pose to our national well-being.  Bridgeport is a neighborhood where you can see close up what good union jobs have done for people; it’s also got a significant population who will probably struggle hard for not very much their whole lives.  But among them, all kinds of people seem to want more than wages, they want their work to mean something.



Much has been written about how the art world produces meaningful work on the superstar scale – especially how the players work together to cultivate the authority of an artist and the market value of his work.  Of course art is supposed to have a non-commercial value too, but that gets obscured by fabulous prices.  It might actually be easier to see it on a local level among artists who are still feeling their way toward an audience.  How do they do that? In conversation with what?

The neighborhood is also an ideal scale for talking politics, especially a neighborhood like Bridgeport, which has Bernie Sanders supporters and Oath Keepers, voters for Obama and for Trump in near equal parts. We see each other face to face, though we don’t necessarily get into one another’s point of view.

In fact, that’s exactly the topic of one of my favorite recent articles from The Point magazine.  David Alm knew white nationalist Richard Spencer in graduate school, before Spencer became a major figure on the national stage. Back then, Spencer’s views weren’t fully expressed, but they still made his fellow students uncomfortable.  In his article, I See a Darkness, Alm recalls that he and his friends mainly avoided engaging Spencer when they got a glimpse of his illiberal views. Now he wonders if they should have engaged.

To do it, they would have had to have been willing to consider a worldview they found deeply wrong alongside their own tacit assumptions. Do you really believe that all human beings are worthy of some measure of respect, for instance? And if you do, how is that best expressed in matters of public concern?


It’s hard to argue in those terms without shutting down, or walking away indignant.  But if there’s a place to try it, that place is here.  And the more intractable national politics becomes, the more that conversation, held face to face, may turn out to be fundamental to everything else.