FROM THE NOTEBOOKS: thoughts on working

Asolas: work in progress during the COVID-19 quarantine

In early June, I began a new sculpture with the working title, “Quarantine”. This came from the title of a painting I had worked on during March and April 2020. It pictures a figure and a cat in a window, representing my personal experience of adjusting to strict isolation. The painting served me especially well as a way to survive the frustration and worry of those first months. As I planned the sculpture, I decided to use the same iconography showing a lone figure and a cat, and to continue using the title as well.

But at this point I noticed the tremendous number of writers, musicians and artists also responding to the coronavirus with works entitled “Quarantine”. This was both funny and predictable. It did push me to consider what individual aspects I intended to address with my planned five sculptures, and this proved a fruitful investigation.

Finally I chose to call my piece “Asolas.”  As always, I started by looking at the etymology of the word. It intrigued me that asolas not only means alone, but especially in the sense of undertaking a journey, task or adventure alone. I read that in archaic Irish (ancient Gaelic) the word solas meant light, as in moving toward the light. I also thought about how solace in English is a homonym for solas, because I find such solace in working, even when isolated. These definitions combined carry meaningful ideas for me and provide inspiration as I work on the sculpture. This is my solitary journey toward the light.

“Reading”  shows a figure sitting at a table reading a book, with a sleeping cat and a cup of coffee.  You can see the sketch below.

Sketch for “Asolas”, front view. Seated figure with cat, coffee and book

asolas. alone/ going it alone, as a journey or adventure.  

sol·ace. noun: comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness.          

solas. light/ toward the light. Archaic Irish. Dictionary



The Diviner was made at Vulcan 5 Studio for the 30 Ceramic Sculptors exhibition, in conjunction with the 2006 California Conference for Ceramic Art  held annually in Davis, California. The figure is life-size, made of clay with special engobes formulated by the artist. This begins the long series of signature landscape figures, which continue to evolve today.

The word ‘diviner’ has an interesting place in American history. A diviner or dowser was a person with a special ability to find water. Such people were respected, and got paid for their work, and they were regularly employed by farmers and ranchers. Holding a Y-shaped ‘dowsing stick’, the diviner would walk the land, sensing the presence of underground water where a well could be placed.

I find it fascinating that this mystical practice holds such a practical place in the American West, particularly in the Great Plains states.* Diviners themselves did not think they were anything special; they didn’t get rich, nor did cults build up around them. For their clients, this was simply what you did when other forms of human endeavor had failed. It is also interesting that Popular Mechanics published an article about divining in 1998, suggesting that it is not a hoax, simply because it works – 96% of the time.**The respected Farmers Almanac, published since 1818, posted a thoughtful article by Amber Kanuckel in their Weather section, including instructions for doing it yourself.***

Artists know something of the mysteries of divining because we work from inspiration, that invisible wellspring of imagination and ideas that can take us by surprise. The Diviner represents the late winter hills of California. Sere and arid, the hills will soon burst into color with the coming of the spring rains. The figure’s crossed arms and fused hands represent the dowser’s forked stick; on the head is an empty bucket, a sign of hope that it will be filled. The underpinnings of the piece are about how we seek out unexpected, spiritual sources when our common human endeavors have failed us. We cannot explain how it works, and we don’t have to.

*Grace Fairchild and Walker D. Wyman, Frontier Woman: The Life of a Woman Homesteader on the Dakota Frontier. University of Wisconsin-River Falls Press, 1972,
to see the image:


Published by Susannah Israel

City kid, public education powerhouse, activist from birth. Thinking about life in all its vast complexity.

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