Two Articles on Projects with the Kansas City Bengali Association (KCBA)–Finally published in completion in 2 articles, by Laura Harris Gascogne

Below is the content of both articles, (separately published and duly noted) in their entirety with corresponding photos featured in each article. A caveat: This format is not the exact manner in which the article appears in Neue Keramik Magazin, but how I put the content together on my blog for easier reading.

A First in Cultural Bridging: The Saraswati Project

(First article published  in Vol. 5/2013 of a leading German Journal on Ceramics Neue Keramik Magazin, pg. 66.  The article is published in English and German)

 Doors Opened:

In the late part of 2010, I was introduced to a member of the Kansas City Bengali Association at my office where I teach Ceramics at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. The member of the local Association was Mrs. Bhaswati Ray, who told me she had come looking for advice or a means to make a Hindu deity for the Saraswati Puja in February of 2011. Saraswati  is the goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, and one of the foremost goddesses in the eastern Indian state of Bengal.

My friendship  with Ray began after I shared accounts of my post-graduate travels in India during the late 1990’s to go “temple-hopping” and to pursue my longtime interest in Indian sculpture, which had been influential in the development my own figurative work. For nearly two decades, I had been enamored by the twisted and contorted figures that adorned historical Hindu temples whose main purpose served as a visual narrative to those who could not read.  After we spoke, I enthusiastically told Ray I would make the piece. At first she appeared both shocked and relieved.  I then realized that it might not be appropriate for me, a non-Hindu, to make a ceramic sculpture for a religious ceremony. I voiced my concerns to Ray, but she seemed more concerned about the time frame to make the piece than whether I was qualified. In Bengal, most deity sculptures are made out of terracotta over an armature that is never fired. Historically, sedimentary or riverbed clay has been so widely used in Bengali art and architecture because it is a ubiquitous material. The state of Bengal is comprised largely within the Gangetic floodplain, an area very rich in clay soils. During pujas, unfired deities are paraded through crowds of pilgrims in the streets to the temple where they receive blessings by Brahmin priests. The sculptures become “transformed” in the process from a material thing into the embodiment of the deity itself. Following the ceremony, the sculptures are carried down to the Ganges, where they are immersed in the holy river and allowed to disintegrate, a symbol that the cycle of life is flowing and not stagnant. Such practice has taken place for thousands of years by devout Hindus, but never a non-Hindu like myself.

Beginning Project #1: The Saraswati Project

There were only two months to create and fire Saraswati, which meant it had to be smaller. Over the next few weeks, I met the president of the KCBA, Debashis Haldar. I was given some parameters to follow to insure the piece would fall within proper religious protocol. It was expressed that the figure had to be light in color, carrying her symbols of the arts and wisdom.refining detail

above: refining detail

moulding the figureabove: moulding the figure; below: adding clothing

propping the figure Saraswati using porcelainous stoneware that I use with my larger figurative pieces. I proportioned her out of be about two feet in height, using hollow parts put together. I did a lot of reading and studying on her to get to know my subject before I commenced moulding the basic elements, such as the base and general pose of the piece.

Frontal face Saraswatiabove: face

rough detailing of Vina and handabove: rough detailing of vina

Double arm detail saraswatiabove: torso detail

Base detail saraswatiabove:Base detail of Saraswati

Saraswati’s Transformation

The puja ceremony was a very moving and intimate experience for me. Even though I had visited a number of Hindu temples in  India as well as a few in the U.S., I had never been invited to be part of such a sacred rite. I was surprised that it got the attention of Hindus and non-Hindus alike, who attended the ceremony and approached me.  During the event and in the weeks that followed, I was interviewed by the local newspaper and by Vern Barnett, an interreligious leader for CRES (The Center for Religious Experience and Study) in the community who requested that I give an interview to put in his website. During the puja, I was asked to stand next to the sculpture and accept the blessing of a Brahmin priest. He did so, and then blessed the sculpture by marking it with pigment and adorning it with a special saffron cloth. Members of the congregation then told me, “It is no longer a sculpture; she is now a transformed goddess.”

Bengali Sculpture / Laura Gascogne

Above and below: Formal photos of Saraswati

Bengali Sculpture / Laura Gascogne

Saraswati with Bhaswatiabove: Gascogne and Bhaswati Ray

Second article features: The Durga Project

Durga side detail(The second article featured in Vol. 1/2014 of a leading German Journal on Ceramics Neue Keramik Magazin, pg. 62.  The article is published in English and German)

 Several more local articles covered the unusual  and unprecedented Saraswati Project . A month or two afterwards I was again approached by members of the KC Bengali Community. The asked me to make a Durga, for the largest and most auspicious religious ceremony to Bengali Hindus. I was given months of lead time, and was given the go-ahead to begin construction out of terracotta. The Durga Project would be the largest, most complicated  multi-sectional piece I had ever created.

Building Durga

The base alone for Durga and her lion consisted of 75 pounds of clay, which I partially hollowed out and carved after it set up over a week.

Lion baseabove: the 75 lb. base of the sculpture

Secondly, I built the body of the lion upside down, using a cardboard tube that I wrapped a slab around, letting stiffen before removing the tube. Afterwards, I commenced making the legs of the piece, by inserting a dowel rod through  large solid coils of clay. Later, I flipped the lion’s body upright so I could begin building Durga and determine her proper proportions  and positioning.

Durga Lionabove: the head of the lion added with support;

below: the lower half of Durga added to the lion’s back


The lion remained very heavy after it was flipped upright, but I was able to refine the musculature and to visualize how Durga would be positioned. I started her bottom half, unattached, on the lion’s back. The weeks that followed were spent doing an intense amount of detailing and proportioning to insure the piece would be balanced and symbolically correct.

Durga partsabove: parts of the the ten armed figure; below: refining the details once together

Durga upper torso detailingHer ten arms were each individually made and positioned with the corresponding weapon or sacred object. Each of the sacred objects was researched and then created with mixed media, mainly clay and brass.

IMG_6957above: sculpting Durga’s face;

below: detailing the face of the lion

Lion face detailing

Firing a multi-part Sculpture

Once the figure was completed, I separated the statically side-seated figure from the lion, and separately loaded both of them at leather hard into gas cart kilns where they dried out for three weeks. Once the pieces had reached bone dry, the firing was allowed to candle for three days and then fire for two days.

Durga fired in kilnabove: Durga in the cart kiln

Durga Serves a Different Purpose

The ceremony, held at a local high school, was much larger than the Saraswati puja, comprised of local vendors, a huge langar, or lunch, following the blessings, and various bustling activities for the kids. There were two Durgas, as well as other members of the Hindu Pantheon, all richly adorned.  The purpose of my sculpture this time was not so much to be a part of the sacrament, but educational. It served as a reminder to Bengalis about the importance of interfaith tolerance and outreach, as well as cultural education, and the important use of terracotta as a material in Bengali Art.  These  aspects were addressed by a local public radio station during the event. In the final night of the festival, I was presented with the first ever Interfaith Award at a hugely attended presentation in the school auditorium. In a world so steeply divided on religious and cultural differences, I was humbled to be a small yet positive part of mutual change in the status quo through donating “The Saraswati Project” and “The Durga Project” to the KCBA.

Durga formal shotabove: Durga with weapons

11260_30above: Bhaswati Ray, Durga, and the artist

From Boon to Bane: rosa multiflora

Above is an example of rosa multiflora in the Mark Twain National Forest. A century ago it was imported from China due to its vigour and usefulness as a windbreak; later, multiflora rootstock was used as the foundation for many grafted rose hybrids, a use which continues to this day. For example, it is used as a rootstock in the overly used and celebrated Knockout series of roses which flood every home improvement store in the growing season. Their seeming invincible quality and need for virtually no maintenance have convinced the blackest of thumbs that they are able to grow roses by just dumping the plants into holes in the ground…and sure enough, roses on multiflora rootstock often will grow and flourish beyond a black thumb’s dream. My cynicism steps up and says—a boon such as this is not without consequences of a less positive nature…as the saying goes, “if it sounds too good to be true…” But average Joe Consumer is so seduced by the belief that they can have a real rose in their yard for eternity, along with a vision of old world European gardens and whatever else their imagination allows…Because, unfortunately, imagination is all there is after all is said and done. Beyond the vigour and repeating bloom habit there is very little in the way of “old world” rose quality. These roses lack the bloom form, the growth habit variation, bloom variety (grandiflora, floribunda, etc) , color, and last, but perhaps most important—they are completely odorless; people often wonder why modern roses lack a smell but they do not bother to do the research on why. What you do have are a few shades of pink, white and yellow: bright pink, white, dark pink (called RED on labels–hah!),  and pale yellow–blooms that repeat and repeat and repeat. Aside from very little options in appearance, and no smell, you have a rose that is virtually impossible to kill. People love a “what you see is what you get” rose and will sacrifice smell and something unique for no maintenance. And moderns hybrids repeat! Many heirloom roses lack the repeat bloom, but they have amazing perfumes that vary like the finest wines, from musks to citrus, sweet to dry and complex. But many of the most durable, boring, odorless modern hybrids outweigh all these benefits to consumers in the mass market. And that’s it…or wait…is it???? Unfortunately, no…I hate to be the bearer of such depressing news for fans of this marketing hype, but multiflora and hybrids on its rootstock don’t come without further price. A BIG price that might cost the rose world it’s complex and fascinating heritage. A century ago, no one foresaw that multiflora would bring along two things that might prove to be disastrous to the rose world. One is its invasiveness. All one has to do is visit the Mark Twain National forest in May to see how invasive multiflora is. It climbs, winds, seeds EVERYWHERE it establishes. It establishes very very rapidly with a massive, suckering root system….and it is not alone. It’s  a favorite host to a very very tiny tiny mite, called the eriophyid mite. It seems such a harmless, small creature, leaving only minor cosmetic scars on plants it feeds upon…this would not be such a concern if multiflora weren’t a main susceptible carrier species for a deadly virus called RRD, “Rose Rosacea Disease”. RRD is fatal to all roses that get it.

The Eriophyid mite is so small that it cannot travel far on its own. It relies on wind currents to carry it—-to other roses, all of which are vulnerable to the RRD virus, especially those grafted on r. multiflora rootstock, such as Knockouts and many modern hybrids widely sold roses on the market and in every other backyard. Just when knockouts seemed invincible, they now are possible pathogen carriers/ attractants/ and Eriophyid hosts and spreaders of RRD. No rose is immune to RRD, but “own root” and old heirloom roses are a bit more “resistant” for what it is worth. That is why I grow own root roses, but until there is a cure, it is just a matter of time before my own root roses contract the disease and have to be destroyed. It does not stop me from growing roses, even as RRD creeps closer and closer. There are already heavy cases in Kansas, and most of the ones I have seen are on Knockout roses outside unwitting owners of restaurants, shopping malls, apartment complexes and commercial establishments that probably would not remove the affected roses anyway. The good news is that massive stands of r.multiflora  in the wild are dying from RRD, but rosarians are wary and not celebrating just yet…another slow but sure and positive factor is that many folks are beginning to look into heirloom roses once again, and in some cases, bringing back some that were once thought gone forever, such as rosa Gallica, a very durable species that has been around since Roman times.

To read more about RRD, please click on the links below.

2013 Reflections…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year


2013 was an interesting year. We had a good gardening season… asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, peas, sweet potatoes, tomatillos, peppers, and Nick’s favorite, (NOT!) …okra! Later in the fall we got a HUGE crop of raspberries. Lucas and I did taekwondo all summer & Lucas spent most of the summer swimming in Back to Back Swimming Lessons. He is now at level 3…YAY! We took our first family camping trip—- to the Ozarks—with our German Shepherd, Ari—first to Mark Twain National Forest. It was beautiful, but we did not escape without massive ticks all over!


Playing with bugs in the National Forest…no iPad, no phones….just nature!

(Above) Swimming in Mark Twain Nat’l Forest and (below)

1014842_10151643454572052_1865176833_oa break from campfire food at Table Rock Lake and a boat ride around….

After not seeing a soul for 20 miles in any direction for 2 nights we headed South to Table Rock Lake for some civilization and a hot shower! Then we went to Eureka Springs, Ark. What a cool, eccentric place!
Resting in a grotto in Eureka Springs….


Lots of Photographic opportunities! It’s built on a series of wooded terraces…with hidden pathways, grottoes, and hidden Victorian gems…and lots of really good food!

1014842_10151643454562052_504862457_oA “typical” B&B in Eureka Springs….LOVELY!

Lucas admiring the view coming down a path in Eureka Springs.

A few steps from here, we found an all local eatery that welcomed our dog on the porch to dine with us. Everyone in this whole area was very dog friendly!

1064043_10151643449842052_866793407_oAn example of “Yard Art” in Eureka Springs.

streeteurekaAnother picturesque home…..

I returned home to tend my own garden…this summer was much more forgiving!


With Lots of opportunities to take pics…Lucas took the one of me above!


(Pinata Rose and Cardinal Rouge clematis growing up the sideof the house…)…We also built a Grape trellis and installed over 100’ feet of wood fencing…two 80lb. bags of concrete per post…

Lucas always loves helping!….and eating the rewards! Here he is hoping these grapes grow rapidly….they are his favorite fruit!

1399399_10151941383822052_1606182753_oYUM! Raspberries!


I got into rose collecting when I met a rare rose Collector in Lawrence. He gave away a number of his roses to me, some of which are almost unheard of…but many had amazing fragrance you just do not have in modern hybrids .



As usual…we got a great Lavender crop, too.
Lucas is doing great in School. To our surprise, despite his “spoken word” challenges and eccentricities…he is the top speller in his class and gets a A on every spelling test! He also loves math…thank goodness! He is now a red belt in Taekwondo and that means he might be eligible to test for black next December. He and his mom went to the Ozark Invitational tournament in early December (a week ago) and stayed at the nearly empty Tan-Tar-A resort…it was single digits on
Tournament day! He did great!
Winter Break will keep me busy working on the JCCC Student Literary Magazine.
We had some superb student artwork this year that deserves some great recognition!
We continue to take care of Lucas and Anna, my Mom’s Siamese cats…Lucas at 10 years old rules the cat roost!

Love and Best Wishes for the New Year!