Master of Fine Arts Thesis
Deft Perception: Action and Recording with the Body
Submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirement for the degree of
Master of Fine Arts, School of Art and Design
Division of Ceramic Art
New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University
Alfred, New York
“Whether we are concerned with my body, the natural world, the past, birth or
death, the question is always how I can be open to phenomena which transcend me,
and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that I take them up and live
1 Ponty, Phenomenology, 423.
Awareness comes through the body. A hand moves through clay, rubs skin with
charcoal, tongue tastes dust, ears hear the scrape of mass dragged across the floor. Body
feels the pull of muscle. Material experiences are perceived directly through action.
Physical awareness is essential, bringing specific knowledge of the body and
environment, of one’s state and manor of being. The premise action is given. It is
situation, internal compulsion. A body must act.
Because action: record. Physical awareness is essential, but it is a quale, a
qualitative subjective experience, difficult to translate. Records of action externalize the
subjective experience. If a body acts with material, then record. The record reveals the
momentary action; the fleeting and invisible become visible, physical. Specific properties
of material produce specific records. If a body acts, with clay and sandpaper, then dust
and shape record. If a body acts, in a white room, with charcoal, then drawing, and trace
These records are pared-down to basic materials, direct movements. The results
are elemental and raw, not digested or translated. They exist to reveal the actions that
created them, to reveal the body in action. They offer a means to get outside oneself: to
live through phenomena (such as gravity, friction, and material) and be able to reflect on
the experience. The work relates the experience of a body outside the body itself.
I use my body as an instrument to measure our individual selves against the world.
In the work, material, friction and gravity are all addressed through the physical body.
Bas Jan Ader addressed the relationship between body and transcendent forces by saying,
“I do not make body sculpture, body art or body works. When I fell off the roof of my
house or into a canal, it was because gravity made itself master over me.” 2
It is not enough for me to know that gravity is powerful theoretically; I must
subject my body to the force to demonstrate its power, to live out my relationship with
the transcendent forces of nature. The actions I undertake to explore this relationship are
recorded. Through empathy, they reach for the collective experience of body. It is a
plight that is intuitively understood; the pain and embarrassment of falling, the
romanticism of engaging one’s body to feel alive in the world. The work connects with
the power and fragility of living physically.
2 Spence, The Case of Bas Jan Ader, 2.
The most profound personal experiences for me have occurred in the dramatic
landscape of south central Alaska. The work retains aesthetic remnants of these formative
events and their environment. There is a vastness about large flat paper that references
open space, alpine plains and snow. Colors are desaturated like winter light, high contrast
forms and shadows. Between clay and charcoal there is a story about living outdoors that
recalls time spent alone far from other people. I do not design my work to resemble
landscape, but my decisions about what looks right; about composition, color, texture and
scale cannot escape the time spent moving through Alaskan landscape. Climbing
mountains, or crossing open water, one can see how far they have come, and see the
distant horizon at the same time. Elation from strength and achievement combined with
exertion, struggle, and acute vulnerability. The landscape provides a grand scale against
which I measure my own insignificance.
Anthrokinegraph is a word invented to describe the mark made by a human body
in action. Anthrokinegraph III is a drawing of the body, how the physical circumstances
of a drawing define the result. For this piece, a nine-foot by twenty-foot sheet of paper is
hung in the corner of the gallery space, extending along both walls and creased to remain
flush to the corner. A two-inch flat metal ledge is mounted along the upper edge of the
full length of paper. To make the drawing, I coat myself with charcoal, smudging the
joints and folds of skin and clothing. Then I climb up to one end of the ledge and begin to
traverse the length of the paper hanging by my fingers. As I inch and swing along the
wall, my motion is recorded on the paper in dark smudges as a drawing. I proceed as far
as I can before falling, and then repeat the action, falling earlier each time as my strength
diminishes. The action is not performed for an audience, but the record is displayed to
represent the act.
The physical challenge of making Anthrokinegraph III demands acute physical
awareness in the moment and causes the mark making to be experiential and kinesthetic,
escaping analysis until the action is complete. The action is not a defiance of gravity; it is
an illustration of its incredible force, the futility and necessity of our struggle to live with
it. Through the body, we collectively understand this struggle.
The wispy dark marks of the drawing itself disguise the physical exertion. They
hang, light and airy on the wall, resembling something cloudlike, a drawing of mist or
smoke. The incongruity between action and record veils the struggle. Through the record,
the direct action is transformed to something less clear, and softer. The observer’s ability
to recognize the action determines the read of this piece. Aware of the physicality, the
work is an action of struggle, but unaware, the drawing represents a floating feeling, as if
gravity did not exist at all.
Records and Limitation
Drawing to Dust II is a drawing in clay dust on the floor, a few inches deep and
roughly ten feet in length and width. On a nearby wall, a video projection shows a figure
dragging a head-sized piece of raw clay across a large sheet of sandpaper on the floor. In
the gallery, Drawing to Dust II exists in two forms: as artifact and as a video projection.
In the video, the figure explores many movements and body positions, using both
hands and sometimes feet in various efforts to move the clay. The sound is coarse and
gritty. When the clay moves, light dusty lines are left on the dark background, composing
an abstract drawing. As the action progresses, the lines begin to merge into fields of dust,
covering the surface of the sandpaper and building up into piles around the edges.
Toward the end of the video, the depth and pattern that the figure is creating begins to
resemble that which is in the gallery space. When the raw clay in the video is transformed
into simplified geometric shapes, the figure stops and the projection fades to black.
In this recording, the physical action of labor is primary. The angle of the camera
is low, centered on the movements of the figure rather than the marks being drawn. The
shapes and movements of the body describe effort, force and repetition. The sound is
grating and harsh, accentuating each movement across the sheet. The observer is shown
the work in relation to the body enacting it, and what is revealed is the vitality of the
labor itself, how the body bends and flexes to create force and respond to it.
As an artifact, the dust patterned on the sandpaper gives the observer first hand
perception of the material. We can walk around it, bend down close to it; envision the
forces that formed it. The formation of the artifact required the destruction of the original.
This is the destructive nature of physical recording. The original piece of clay is
irreversibly altered by the friction of mark making, reducing the material to flat-sided
forms and layered piles of dust.
The video recording is not destructive, but it is incomplete. The projection
reveals the figure and the sound of the action but removes the material qualities, the smell
and texture of dust, the ability to walk around the piece and observe the composition from
multiple angles. Recording in light and sound does not physically alter the work, but it
also does not capture the full experience. Together, the twin records (artifact and video)
expose each other’s limitations, revealing the loss between action and record.
Recording in dust is itself a precarious act. This is not the sort of record that lasts
for generations. Whatever information and feeling is contained in this piece now will be
destroyed and recreated if it is displayed again. The fragility of this record is evident and
embraced, creating a more privileged moment of observation. The more ephemeral an
event, the more precious it is to capture and to observe. In For the Time Being, Annie
“Digging through layers of books yields dated clouds and near
clouds. Why seek dated clouds? Why save a letter, take a snapshot,
write a memoir, carve a tombstone?”3
Thinking about records in a larger timescale allows me to place more weight on
“transient” phenomena, by showing that all phenomena are in some way transient. It is
common to think of a record as preserving something, but how long must the
preservation last? It is crucial to embrace ephemerality, because ultimately, there is no
other choice. This concession reduces the importance of archival methods and expands
the limits of what is important to record and what constitutes a record.
3 Dillard, For the Time Being, 47.
Because action: reaction. When a body pushes, what pushes back? Clay is a
malleable, tactile material when mixed with water. Its responsiveness records the dance
of action and provides a sensual reaction. Opening is a mound of dark wet clay piled on a
low cement plinth. The pile is covered with finger marks dragging up the side toward two
large voids in the center. The voids have marks from knee joints and folds of skin, made
from two legs, which were buried in the pile. The wet clay records the momentary
struggle of a body working its way out.
The psychological pull of such a void is strong. A dark dampness, soft and
yielding, yet a crushing weight, act alternately as a lure and a trap. As with
Anthrokinegraph III, an observer may empathize with the body that made the mark, and
imagine their own touch, their own submergence and re-emergence. The sensual appeal
of wet clay is the classic enticement for many ceramists: the push and pull of the body
and material. Direct contact, clay moving and responding to touch; it is an ideal material
to record footprints: records of action pressed into the earth. We can see ourselves in
these marks. The symbolic power of burial and excavation of a body in earth addresses
the central questions of life. How do we exist in this world, above the ground for a short
Pendulum is a bronze cast attached to the end of a long metal rod hanging from
the ceiling. The bronze is dark and amorphous, a root-like form that upon closer
inspection is recognizable as a hand. The form is narrow and distorted in the upper
section, expanding in mass and complexity toward the lower end. In the lower section,
skin wrinkles and cuticles are visible on three polished fingers, which extend downward
toward a raw clay basin on the floor. The basin is round and white with a gritty texture. It
is filled with sandy clay dust of the same type that fills the basin so it is just slightly arced
toward the center. The bronze finger extends toward the dust, but does not disturb it.
It is the human hand, reaching.
The motion of the piece contradicts the normal function of pendulums. To record
time accurately, the periodic swing of a suspended mass is maintained by mechanical or
electronic means to be periodic and regular. The scientist Foucault proved the rotation of
the earth by observing that the pendulum’s mass swings on a stable axis as the earth
rotates beneath it. Such scientific instruments require idealized forms and specialized
mechanisms, which are not present here.
Pendulum will swing only a short time before air and mechanical resistance
reduces the motion to stillness. It is a human gesture, reaching, touching, drawing, but
incapable of eternal timekeeping or measuring the rotation of the earth. Although
pendulums often record endurance, this pendulum records limitation and impermanence.
IF: the records are elemental and raw, not digested or translated AND: the work
relates the experience of a body outside the body itself, THEN: The work requires
interpretation and must relate to other bodies to be complete. These works are successful
when they allow an imaginative sensorial experience. How it would feel to… Through
empathy and active perception observers may expand their own body awareness.
My works are records of engaging actions, and what I find engaging is the
kinesthetic experience of landscape. The experience of vast landscape defines the
structure of the work: feeling strength while being dwarfed by the forces and matter of
the world. Records of action are made through the body, but attest to the power of larger
This document began with a quote from Merleau-Ponty.
“Whether we are concerned with my body, the natural world, the past,
birth or death, the question is always how I can be open to phenomena
which transcend me, and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that
I take them up and live them…” 4
His question is also a prayer. He starts with what is available to us (body, nature, time)
and he asks to be open- to be aware. It is not clear the target of this request, but he seems
to answer it himself. The phenomena he seeks are only available to him through his own
experience, for there are no other options. He must “take them up and live them,” to
make them real. Ultimately, it is a call to action.
4 Ponty, Phenomenology, 423.
Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge
Classics, 2009. Print
Spence, Brad. “The Case of Bas Jan Ader,” in Bas Jan Ader, ed. Jan Spence Irvine:
University of California Irvine, 2000. Accessed March 2, 2016.
I choose archetypal materials, things that read clearly as what they are: clay as
earth, dust, and ceramic, paper and charcoal as drawing, sandpaper as a grinding surface,
plaster as a direct casting medium. I gravitate toward the elemental in the classic sense:
clay/earth, water, charcoal (fire). Using these natural materials signifies the material as a
whole: just that one piece of clay, but also all clay. This one, specific drawing, but also
the Drawing that describes drawing. Raw materials trigger these strong connotations.
While the pieces in the show are singular and specific, the archetypal form is also
apparent. In this way my material selection supports universal connection in the work.
One may not know the specifics of this clay, but we know earth and we know dust. I also
use manufactured materials: stock steel, large rolls of paper, industrial sanding belts.
These too, are archetypal. I do not draw a strong distinction between “natural” and
manufactured materials; rather I focus on the clarity of their form as a symbol.
The clay I use comes from the Stancills Incorporated mine in Perryville,
Maryland. At Stancills, there are many different layers and colors of clay with various
properties. The company is very supportive of artists and is the clay source for Peter
Callas, Margaret Boozer and others. I took two thousand pounds of dark gray, sticky clay
from a vein near the surface of the mine. I found it to be uneven and difficult to
manipulate when used directly out of the ground, but after reclaiming and mixing the clay
it was quite workable with few stones and little grit.
The Stancills mine is located within sight of the Chesapeake Bay, at the outlet of
the Susquehanna watershed. Canacadea Creek in Alfred flows into the Canisteo River,
which feeds the Susquehanna watershed. I used this inherent location information of the
material in several pieces to engage systems and ecological cycles in the work. In the
thesis exhibition, the location information is less important than the dark color and
creamy texture of this raw clay.
The touch and feel of this clay, and clay in general, is what inspired the bronze
cast for Clay Hand. The piece was made by reaching into a mass of wet clay, removing
the hand and narrowing the opening at the wrist to give a vaguely teardrop-shaped void.
Into the void, hot microcrystalline wax was poured to create a positive. The wax was then
cast in bronze using the ceramic shell method.
The basin beneath the bronze cast was made with white clay, high in molochite
and containing nylon fiber. The piece was thrown on the wheel, then trimmed dry to
match the arc of the pendulum suspended above it. The trimmings were collected and
used to fill the basin.
For Anthrokinegraph III, the finger ledge is a 20’ section of 2” x 2” x 1/4” angle
iron. To prepare, I installed an 18’ practice section in my studio and began recording my
physical training to increase my strength for this specific project and measure progress.
As of March 1, I could move my hands along the ledge a total of 16 times before falling,
approximately 12’ of distance. As of March 15, I could make 30 movements at a time,
approximately 20’ of distance. As of April 4, I could traverse the practice ledge a total of
10 times over the course of 2 hours.