Green Task Force Conference Recap + Interview with Amy Joy Hosterman

Green Task Force Conference Recap + Interview with Amy Joy Hosterman

Written by Harry Levenstein – IG:@harrison_lev

The smell of sustainability was in the air this year at NCECA Portland! With topical discussions on ceramics and climate change, reducing our carbon footprint as makers, renewable energy options in our studios, and even firing kilns with repurposed vegetable oil! At the Green Task Force booth, Robert Harrison signed copies of his “book that every studio should have,” Sustainable Ceramics. University of Oregon had their ram press operating at full throttle, giving hands-on demos of their project of repurposing clay and glaze slop to make functional paver bricks. I even attended a few shows around the city with their themes set on environmental awareness. It seems that many makers are keeping sustain on the brain and that is exactly what we like to see.

A highlight of the conference for me, was making the acquaintance of a sustainably driven artist who runs a near-wilderness artist residency on the UP (Upper Peninsula) of Michigan.

Yes, you heard me correctly… An artist residency. Near the wilderness. Focusing on sustainability. Epic.

Amy Joy Hosterman, a ceramic sculptor from Minnesota, approached me in the NCECA Resource Hall with an “I get stuff done” kind of look in her eye. She proceeded to enlighten me about the Visitor Center Artist Camp in Ewen, MI, the near-wilderness residency which she and her colleagues have been building over the last decade. Amy is a Co-Founder, currently serves as Co-Director, and teaches local-clay workshops at the compound.

Stoked about their project and philosophies, we interviewed Amy to find out some more.

It’s about working together, being resourceful, and developing an art making practice that’s as do-it-yourself and low-impact as possible.

Q: How do you define sustainability?

Amy: A practice that is sustainable is one that is flexible, and adaptable to evolving environments and situations. Sustainability is not an absolute term, when looked at practically. Something is only sustainable as long as the energy exists to power it, so the infinite expansion of an industry based on nonrenewable-resources is never sustainable. Sustainability is about adapting our practices to our changing environments, repurposing waste-materials, and using what is available locally.

Q: Would you tell us a little bit about your current project?

Amy: This has been a longterm project of myself, Margaret Coleman, and Joshua Hosterman, in addition to many other artists, craftspeople, and local residents. It’s been an evolution throughout the last ten years, so I’d like to tell you the story of how it has grown into itself.

It began with the opportunity to reclaim an old Forestry Service A-frame cabin that was going to be demolished. A handful of artists gathered in the Upper Peninsula, disassembled it, and moved the pieces to our site in Ewen. The next year we had around a dozen artists there to rebuild the A-frame, creating our first structure for what we decided should be a place for artists to camp, work together, and make art in the wilderness.

Repurposed A-frame and barn studio space.

As our artist camp developed, we partnered with a local barn-builder, Mel Seeger, an amazingly talented craftsperson and retired logger. Mel built an amazing barn for us at the Visitor Center, with wood he milled himself. This is our indoor studio workspace, and it was the key piece we needed to begin to host artists for residencies and workshops.

Q: How about your residency and workshops?

Amy: We host artists each summer for a Sustainable Practices Symposium. This includes workshops in digging, sculpting, and firing the local clay, casting recycled aluminum with molds made of locally-sourced sand and environmentally-friendly binders, as well as woodworking and building using reclaimed and locally-sourced materials. It’s about working together, being resourceful, and developing an art making practice that’s as do-it-yourself and low-impact as possible.

Our clay workshops started out in 2014 by building worktables, framing pieces of window screen for sieving slip, and wrapping boards with canvas for work surfaces. We crush and slake the clay, mix the slip in buckets with a paint-mixer from the hardware store, and use homemade plaster bats for stiffening it. We have treadle wheels for wheel-throwing, and hand-building tools collected from the kitchen sections at thrift stores.

Fun!

Q: In terms of art making, what facilities and equipment do you have to offer?

Amy: We have our studio workspace in the barn, all the clay you can dig/process, buckets, screens, mixers, etc, for clay slip processing, two treadle potter’s wheels, plaster clay-drying bats, a large work table and canvas-covered boards for hand-building, barrels and pits for primitive-style firings, portable propane-fueled kiln for low-fire glaze and raku firing and all the necessary safety gear, various basic throwing and sculpting tools, and some low-fire glazes. During our Session One Building Workshop, we will be constructing a new drying shelter for storing and processing all our clay, drying our work, and for firing the portable raku kiln in inclement weather. We have also acquired the University of Minnesota “baby kiln,” a 13cu ft outdoor hard brick raku kiln, and are currently fundraising for propane burners and kiln furniture.

Q: What is important about what you are doing?

Amy: Hands-on experience is very valuable for anyone interested in learning more about any process. The science of the ceramics process can be far removed from the artist’s work, if one chooses to only use commercially formulated clay and glazes. I believe that it is very important to keep this knowledge of the process alive. So many things now are done for us. They’re mechanized and produced in such a way that is so far from handcraft, that the process is abstracted for most people. It is also a very different thing to read about or study something, than it is to do it yourself, with your own hands. There is no substitute for the experience of problem-solving your own specific situation. Personally observing the transformation of natural materials as they react to physical and chemical manipulations greatly enhances one’s understanding of the ceramics medium, as well as of our environment’s natural systems. First-hand education brings empowerment, and inspires further investigation.

Q: When should we apply for the residencies/workshops?

Amy: We have extended our deadline for applications for this summer’s VCAC residencies, so applications are now being accepted through June 25th.

Hot Raku kiln at night.

VCAC has been created by artists, for artists with a strong dedication and investment in environmentally-concious processes and community-building. “Many other local residents have helped us a great deal as well. Whether it was lending their tractor or forklift, donating materials or funds, participating in our public events, or sharing their expertise, the local community around Ewen, Michigan has played a big role in our ability to make the Visitor Center Artist Camp a reality.”

Personally, two of my favorite things in life are being in the wilderness, and making things with clay. It seems as though VCAC provides the opportunity for a holistic synthesis of both all the while being surrounded by like-minded and inspired company.

Head over to www.visitorcenterartistcamp.org to learn more about pricing, logistics, and financial aid opportunities for applicants. The deadline is June 25th , so go there today!

And finally, I’d like to thank Amy for the time she took to thoughtfully answer our questions, and for the admirable work she and her colleagues are doing with this project. Cheers, Amy!

Harry Levenstein

IG: @harrison_lev

Ten Tips to Reduce Studio Waste

Ten Tips to Reduce Studio Waste

Written By: Harry Levenstein

Just as there is an art to working with clay, there is also one to working with clay in a more sustainable way. Here at the NCECA Green Task Force we are continually working to bring awareness to the increasing importance of sustainability in our lives as artists and makers. In no particular order, here are our top 10 tips for reducing studio waste:

1. Sponge washin’ is fun washin’

We’re all guilty of turning on that faucet and mindlessly washing our tools without realizing just how much water is being used. When the time comes to wash your tools off, rather than blasting the water and leaving it on during the whole process try simply wetting a sponge and cleaning them off with that. No running water necessary. If you just finished throwing you could even wash them out with the leftover water in your bucket. This goes for your splash pans too!

2. No more paper towels

Honestly, I don’t know why they even still make these things. They are so easily wasted because they are so easily accessible and seem as though the supply is never-ending. Many-a-tree will be grateful for you making the switch to real towels for drying off hands. If you must keep paper towels in your studio, try obscuring their access to make them a bit harder to reach. One of our team members places an actual plant in front of her paper towel dispensers for a very literal reminder of where they are coming from.

3. Reclaim your clay

We’re pushing to make this standard practice in all studios! Get yourself a bucket and collect all of your trimmings, clay slurry, failed pots, etc. Dry clay will need to be slaked. When you’re ready pour it out onto some plaster, wait for it to set up, wedge it back together, and voila! You get more clay to play with, and the studio tech has less slurry to deal with. Everyone wins! I like to throw with a small plaster bat nearby to put my slop directly onto for easy reclamation!

4. Smart glaze mixing

Mix an appropriate amount of glaze for the amount of glazing you are about to do. If you end up with extra, think of a better way to use it than just dumping it out. Maybe a friend wants some? Check out our upcoming blog post about reclaim glaze if you want to take it a step further!

5. Don’t cottle with clay

Try to avoid using an excess amount of clay when making plaster molds. Rather than cottling with clay, four pieces of a 2×4 can be screwed/clamped together in many different ways to form a good outside mold form.

6. Cut plaster waste

Much like mixing a glaze, try to only mix the amount of plaster that you need for your task. That being said, we know it is better to end up with more plaster than not enough, so instead of tossing the extra plaster, have some extra molds ready to dump it into. Nothing else to make a mold of? You can use it to make plaster slabs for your clay reclaim project. Pie pans are great for this.

7. Sink Bucket System

This system will conserve a substantial amount of water in your studio. Place a large bucket in the sink with a few holes drilled near the top. When washing off clay, do so into the bucket. The slurry will collect at the bottom while the water drains out of the drilled holes at the top. Once the bucket has filled with water you can use that water to wash things rather than running the faucet again. Alternatively, you could forego the sink altogether and set up what is known as the “4-bucket system” where four buckets of water are utilized as rinsing stations and the scraps from the bottom can be collected and recycled.

8. Reuse clay bags

Have a storage area for students to put their empty clay bags. These can be rinsed out and reused for reclaimed studio clay.

9. Reach Out!

One maker’s trash is another’s treasure! Getting in touch with local businesses or even individuals can be a mutually beneficial way to deal with waste products. You never know what those around you may be in need of. For example, we have donated excess slurry from our studio to some local folks interested in building cob ovens!

10. Reminders!

A very effective way to communicate important messages is by posting reminders with eye-catching colors/text. There should be a note by your sink reminding users to be water wise! A sticker on your paper towel dispenser reminding users that they come from trees will help reduce usage. We’ve all heard the ‘yellow mellow” rhyme…

Working in a medium such as ours that depends so much on natural resources, it is our responsibility to be extra aware of the impact that we are having. Incorporating these 10 tips into your day-to-day studio practice will help you start lowering the amount of waste in your space and begin to plant seeds for greener thinking and processes in the future. Like anything, it must start on the individual level. Taking on and considering responsible choices yourself, and once people begin to see and feel the positivity that comes from it, they will soon follow. Feel free to print the following poster to put in your studio to remind yourself and others!

Solar Powered Pottery Kilns

Solar Powered Pottery Kilns

 

Dawn Soltysiak began firing her pottery kilns with the help of solar panels. She explains how a small change can make a big difference for sustainability.

 

Barn Road

Owner/artist Dawn Soltysiak operates the 30-acre sustainable farm, where she runs Khnemu Studio and fires her kilns on solar power. Visitors to Khnemu Studio on Fernwood Farm, about forty-five miles southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan, would likely note the typical Midwestern rural farmhouse. A walk past the house, however, would reveal something unusual about the long barn that extends into the back pasture. All along the pitched roof lay 78 solar panels, absorbing sunlight and converting it to just under 25,000 kilowatts of electricity each year.

Solar Panels

solar panels powering pottery kilns

Fourteen years ago Dawn and her husband Rob purchased the small farm and made the commitment to live a more sustainable lifestyle. They raise much of their food, including grass-fed beef and pastured poultry.

With Fernwood Farm well-established in its sustainable agricultural practices, Dawn started to think about alternative energy sources. She says, “I’m a pottery junkie. I have many kilns and have always been concerned about the quantity of energy which my lifestyle consumed.”

dawn tendril

Intrigued by alternative energy sources, she wrote a proposal to the USDA’s Rural Energy for America program (REAP) and was awarded a grant that provided 25% of the cost of renewable energy for rural small businesses. Her north/south positioned long barn offered the perfect place for solar panels and installation of the 17.94 kilowatt-hour solar array of 78 230-watt panels was completed in 2012. The electricity produced by the system is used to power the studio and the kilns. The daily average production is about 68 kilowatts a day, with a yearly average of 25,000. Dawn says that the average household uses about 10,000 kilowatts per year. She explains that the production is managed on a credit system: if on a given day, her production exceeds her needs, she earns credits. The energy is channeled into the nationwide “grid,” and is not stored in batteries. Dawn says, “If I make more than I need, why shouldn’t I share that with my neighbor? I would rather share it than store and potentially lose it – storage is limited and eventually lost.” On days when Dawn uses more than she produces, her credits make up the difference. For the most part, the system has met her needs, except for periods of excessive firings, for example, to meet a large commercial order. She estimates she will recoup the $53,000 cost of the system within five years, including the grant funding.

Energy use

example of energy use

 

Over the last 14 years Dawn has been making changes toward a more sustainable ceramics studio.
She recycles scrap clay, fires to cone 6 and now uses green energy to fire her kilns. She realizes that this solar project may seem unattainable to most, but she explains that she does not see a difference between paying an electric bill, or paying a loan payment for the solar installation; both are the same money going out the door. However the solar payment is toward her goals and the array will be paid off in 6 years, which then will provide energy with no cost to her, except occasional maintenance. Dawn says “I never dreamed I would be able to able to convert my studio to solar. When the opportunity for the REAP grant came, I thought I have as much chance as anyone else to be awarded the grant. If I do not try, I will never get it.”

This solar array provides the energy Dawn needs to run her pottery studio and gallery, where she teaches classes and workshops, as well as creates pottery production. She offers classes at her studio in a continual year-round cycle. For more advanced instruction, the studio offers workshops and hosts two visiting artists each year for weekend workshops. Over the summer of 2014, Dawn hosted hands-on workshops with Blair Clemo in June, and with Chandra DeBuse in September.

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 www.khnemustudio.com

www.fernwood1891.com

INFORMATION ON GRANT AND SOLAR ARRAY

Rural Energy for America grant (REAP) for small businesses through the US Department of Ag and Rural Development.     Small businesses and farms in communities of 50,000 or less qualify for this grant which covers up to 25 % of the system. For more information click here.

The system was engineered and provided by John Wagner.