Master's Theses



Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


In preparing for a trip to Mexico in 1983 and writing a paper about Pre-Columbian art, I discovered an art that was mysterious, spiritual, yet possessed an honesty I admired. The Pre-Columbian approach to art can best be felt in these lines from an Aztec language Nahua poem: The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless, the true artist, capable, practicing, skillful, maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind. The true artist draws out all from his heart: works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity works like a true Toltec; composes his objects; works dexterously; invents; arranges material; adorns them; makes them adjust. He who gives life to clay his eye is keen, he molds and kneads the clay. The good potter; he takes great pains with his work; he teaches the clay to lie; he converses with his heart; he makes things live, he creates them; he knows all, as though he were a Toltec; he trains himself to be skillful. This attitude towards art appealed to me and I felt pulled to explore the power of this ancient civilization, its mythology, and its art. Here was an art of universal images, one that showed an interaction between clay, poetry, and the whole of their culture. A sense of mystery, ritual, and mythology permeates these pieces. Although their clay was left Unglazed and decorated only in slips and cold pigments, their craft was technically precise and creative within a set cultural style. This art fascinated me, and I began to internalize its powerful symbolism and mystical approach to life. The first major pieces to emerge out of this study were my Embracing Couples. Modeled after a burial ocarina or flute from Peru, these interlocking double figures expressed my concept of male- female unity, two combining to create a unified whole. In the back the couples cross arms in an embrace. Both heads face forward, but I incorporated a profile on the side of each face to symbolize the "true heart" or true personality which the ancients felt could more readily be seen in this view. To them a straight forward face could be a mask behind which one could hide his true feelings. I began working with these couples in stoneware with inlaid colored clays, this time-consuming process lead to a use of clay slips colored with Mason stains, and eventually to raku firing techniques. For the next couple of years I continued to experiment with raku on a variety of forms, but the Couples were my main focus. In my thesis, I attempted to combine my interest in the power and mystery of Pre- Columbian images with the organic forms of nature to create a unique personal vocabulary from which I could express my own private mythologies dealing with birth, death, and the range of living, both physical and spiritual in between. I included human figures into this format to bring the act closer to the viewer and to draw a connection between the past and present while stressing our kinship to these ancient people. To create this vocabulary I isolated patterns and images from the Codex Nuttal, a screenfold book made of animal skins coated with lime and paint containing Mixtec genealogical and historical information. To these symbols and images I assigned personal meaning. For instance, the jaguar half flesh- half bone depicted death, while the feathered serpent represented creativity, art, and civilization to me. These images might stir different emotions in other viewers, as art is subjective and each person reacts out of his own experiences. In these mystic settings I placed realistic female figures to interact and respond and create their own reality. I carved these images of forms which I felt would enhance the impact of the subject. Many were organic shapes based on rough slab stone monuments or stelae, others were free-form vessel shapes. Yet others had a particular significance to the burial I created inside a structure resembling a Pre-Columbian temple. I chose raku as the firing method most appropriate for my intimate myths. Raku allows me some control over decoration, yet provides a spontaneous, rich variety of surfaces for the backgrounds. I learned a great deal while working on this thesis, mostly about myself on an emotional, psychological and spiritual level. Since the female figures are self-portraits I traveled into the worlds they entered: I faced the Jaguar Death god, I worshipped, I experienced the metamorphosis of creativity, I gave birth, I danced with joy, and enjoyed the peace of contemplation. I also grew deeper in my relationship with clay and raku. The majority of my pieces are slabs, some draped over mounds, joined and paddled. After the shape is formed I usually carve a design to suit that particular form and create interesting negative space. The piece is then bisqued and carefully glazed with colored engobes or clear crackle glazes in the design areas. The design is then blocked out with liquid latex and a background surface is sponged or sprayed on, the latex is then removed and the piece can be fired. I raku from an electric kiln and reduce in cans lined with newspaper. I like pieces that take chances and raku gives me that opportunity to create a piece better than myself. The journey I traveled to achieve the colors seen in my thesis has had many bumps, curves, and surprises. Clear Crackle was the first glaze to fit into my work. As it is clear, I began by placing it over colored clay slips. When smoked twice, it produced a lovely delicate crackle over beautiful soft color and the carved lines of my design, left unglazed, were smoked black. One big problem emerged when this glaze covered slip had a tendency to pop off the body during firing. After some experimenting I began adding 10 to 20 percent Mason stains directly into the clear crackle glaze. Now I had bright colors and the crackle I needed to create a feeling of age. Next I began working with low fire engobes in much the same method as the clear crackle. To the basic white Walter's engobe I added enough Mason stain to produce the desired matt color. These engobes are very dry and stable at cone 07 or 08 and seem to unify with the body, but do not crackle unless fired higher, where the Mason stains are less predictable. When dabbed on thickly with a sponge, the engobe leaves a rough surface similar to volcanic stone, yet when thinly applied through an air brush it resembles a smooth stone. Engobe colors are much duller and more subtle than their clear crackle cousins, but are quite effective in producing a softer, quieter, more intimate statement. Of all the raku surfaces I used Matt Copper was the least predictable. When fired between cones 07 - 08 and quickly reduced in an air tight can, the surface was a dry soft orange. When fired slightly higher, left in the kiln to cool down, and reduced in an atmosphere that was definitely not air tight, the surface created areas of color and an organic patina that is strikingly rich. Intimacy, excitement, and interaction with the firing and the piece, all make raku the firing method most effective for my artistic vision. It offers both control and spontaneity and I will continue to explore the possibilities of this and other low fire surfaces. I also want the development of my personal mythology to continue to grow and develop so I can more effectively communicate through my art. I look forward to a future in which I can continue my relationship with earth baked in a fire of love.


Darrell McGinnis

Date of Award

Summer 1986

Document Type

Thesis - campus only access


© 1986 Linda Ganstrom


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