Back to making mugs

I hadn’t thrown any mugs in over a year, because there were bins-full in the kiln shed. My niece had gone through the bins a few months ago to bring with her to Sato Salon Organics, an all-organic salon where she works, and where my pottery and mixed media pieces are displayed and offered for sale.  Some of the mugs she left with that day were for use in the salon, for customers to enjoy a cup of coffee while they waited, while other mugs (and various pottery) were designated specifically for sale. Last week my niece called to say someone liked one of the coffee-designated mugs, and wanted to know if I would throw a new set for her. So yesterday,for the first time in over a year, I was throwing mugs.

I threw a dozen stoneware mugs, half in white and the rest in speckled brown. After trimming and attaching the handles to the white stoneware mugs, I trimmed the speckled brown ones and wedged up some clay for more handles. Now, I’ll go out to my studio and finish the rest today. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed throwing and ‘handle-ing’ mugs.

Making a hand-built milk can

Constructing a large slab-built milk-can requires a bit of planning and plenty of work space. Using bristol board sheets to construct a mock-up of the overall form and I then took it apart to use the pieces for templates. The large slab roller in work made quick work of rolling the largest template shape, which was roughly 30″ by 17″ – for the barrel of the milk can. For transport, I rolled the 15 lb. slab within heavy canvas and plastic sheeting, then placed it inside a rolling suitcase to bring it to my home studio. Once in the studio, I unrolled the soft slab to allow it to set up a bit.

Once the slab was no longer soft, I draped it over a 5 gallon bucket and a wheel bat placed at either end, with heavy canvas between the clay and the supporting structure to allow the clay to set up in a large arc without sticking to the bucket and bats.

The slab sat like this for several hours, checked on from time to time, to determine when it was strong enough to hold its own weight. Once it was strong enough, I stood it up and began to form the cylinder for the barrel of the can. While the large slab had been setting up, I had rolled a smaller slab for the base of the can and let it firm up on a plaster bat, so when the barrel of the can was ready, I attached it to the base and positioned the form on a masonite  board.

After wrapping the form in plastic sheeting so it wouldn’t get too dry,  I began to roll and cut the slabs for the upper sections of the milk can using the bristol board templates.

After forming the upper sections of the can I placed each part on a plaster bat to set up. Getting these sections leather hard didn’t take too long, because the warm sun and gentle breeze on the back patio provided the perfect drying environment.

After the upper sections were firm enough, I attached them to the barrel, and added a coil to the joint of each upper section, then a handle on either side.

Wrapping the lower portion of the can in plastic allowed the upper section to dry a bit more so some fine tuning of the form’s surface could be dealt with at a later time. Lastly, I took some measurements to record the amount of shrinkage at leather hard -and later at bisque and glaze- since I’d never made this form before.

The potter’s manicure

All my life my hands have been relegated to the unadorned among us. Oh the toenails saw some lacquer in the summertime, don’t get me wrong, but my hands always found themselves in too much water, sawdust, grout, or reduced by length and banned from polish due to someone’s rules and regulations.

From the dress code in high school to similar restrictions as a nurse in a Catholic hospital, my nail polish went underground,  inside my shoes. A later career change to teaching art kept my nails short and color-free as practicality won over vanity. I could count on less than two hands the number of professional manicures I’ve had. Once, when I returned home with a French manicure for a special occasion, the eye rolls from my daughters confirmed my suspicions that painted digits weren’t ‘me’.

Today during the day I still teach art, although it’s all digital – graphic and web design- but I’m a potter at night, on weekends, and holidays. Potter’s hands take a lot of abuse from having their hands in water, not to mention the sanding effect of the grout in the clay, and the incredible drying effect of stoneware on the skin. So, to keep my hands ready to wedge pounds of clay, plunge into buckets of water, and grind over grog-filled stoneware on the potter’s wheel, today I follow my own rules and regulations about short fingernail length and polish-free nails.

PVC Photo booth

Setting up the photo booth was easy once I saw that post about using PVC pipe to create the structure.

Using my chop saw made quick work of cutting the pipe to the dimensions I needed; the 3-way fittings and elbows worked great to not only build the box but to make it stable. I draped a few yards of muslin over the top and sides, then stood a piece of matt board at the back. I ran a roll of tracing paper across the ‘floor’ of the booth and up and over the matt board – folded the paper over the top of the board to hold it securely in place, then left the paper uncut on the roll in the front of the booth so it could easily be replaced as needed. With a lamp placed outside the muslin ‘wall’ I was ready to shoot some pottery images. The whole task took about 20 minutes from start to finish. An added benefit is that the PVC is very lightweight which will make it easy to move and quick to disassemble and reassemble should I ever need to do so.

Square Footage Miracle

It wasn’t the most stylish way to move thirty-some pieces of framed work, but it was the most efficient. Three suitcases, one very large, one medium sized, and one small, along with one canvas bag, did the trick. My niece, Kelly, picked the work up yesterday and graciously offered to hang it all in the Sato salon organics, in the West End.

While picking up the work from the series, “On the Outside Looking In,” Kelly thought some of my wheel thrown pottery would nicely complement this framed hanging work, so out to the kiln shed we went to rummage through my tower of glazed-fired pottery in bins. While selecting a few crates-ful of pottery, Kelly had the idea that when bringing coffee to the Sato patrons, she could pour that java brew into one of a collection of my pottery mugs. So, we went through the bins again to select a group of coffee mugs.

When it was time to load up her car, I wasn’t sure that the suitcases would fit into the tiny real estate of her compact, and now with multiple crates of pottery added to all the artwork, I was even more skeptical of a successful outcome. Somehow it all came together. Who knew you could fit so much into so little square footage?

Pining for Porcelain

Lately I’ve been considering pottery work with porcelain. Mostly because the translucent characteristic of this clay body lends itself to all sorts of interesting outcomes. It’ll be trial and error for a while I’m sure, but therein lies the joy. Curiosity for how this medium will respond to various hand-building, printing, and wheel throwing techniques serves as the driving force.

The porcelain arrived quickly from the Ceramic Shop (Philadelphia, PA), so I tore open the box to check it out. From the outside of the bag the clay felt a little stiff, but from what I understand from YouTube videos, once the clay is well wedged, it softens up. I was careful to wash the surfaces, tools, sponges, buckets, and anything else that had previously come into contact with stoneware. Again, a YouTube video recommended washing tools, etc. so that no iron bits would contaminate the porcelain clay body.

I used a brand-new wire cutting tool and wedged the porcelain on a heavy piece of clean cardboard, since my bamboo wedging table’s surface was thoroughly embedded with stoneware from previous wedging. With only a pound or so, tried throwing a little vessel with a tiny spout. The clay handled nicely, was very easy to center and form – left the bottom a bit thicker for trimming a nice foot. Next, I threw a little one pound bowl and tried to make the walls as thin as I could without risking collapse. Again, I kept the base thicker so I could trim a deep foot.

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From the Outside Looking In

So, today I consider myself a potter,but a few years ago I was working on a mixed media series called “From the Outside Looking In,” which was inspired by Tibetan prayer flags. I was intrigued by the premise of these prayer flags as they are meant to invoke words and images from fragmented, separated, territorial, and barrier-driven belief systems of the world in an attempt to harmonize these philosophical divisions. The un-hemmed flags, left in the wind to disperse their intentions, fray to disintegration and are then burned to release every last vestige of prayerful hope.

Art as a temporary entity has always been part of my practice – I’ve left sculpture to disintegrate outside in the elements, I’ve burned or thrown away countless drawings and paintings, because after the process of art making I’m never quite sure what to actually do with the result. Years ago I had work framed but that only lasted for a while and eventually that work was either destroyed or given away. My philosophy about art is the same as my philosophy of life – it’s temporary.

The series started a few years ago when I was teaching an introductory fine art class and was alarmed by the amount of art materials that would go to waste after high school students had created their respective masterpieces. I decided to not only re-cycle, but to up-cycle the waste and create this series of flags. The series grew as the fine art waste churned out scraps of fabric, dyed, inked, batik, or painted, along with leftover paint blobs and scraps of paper. After assembling a flag I would add tiny stitches or an occasional bead to bring tiny pieces of materials to an artistic resolution. Eventually the series grew to over a thousand flags, so I began to consider how I would exhibit these little marvels of trash-picked artistry.

Hanging all of the flags at once in an outdoor space to allow them to float and flutter in the breeze and eventually disintegrate, as the Tibetan prayer flags are meant to do, was one option. However, I had become somewhat aware that the flags possessed an individual simplicity. So, the flag framing began, hesitantly at first, because I wasn’t sure how their delicacy would be influenced by the hardness of a frame surrounding them. Today a number of the flags are in frames – we’ll see how long they last.

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Recycling and repurposing clay

When throwing on the wheel, there tends to be ongoing maintenance due to the extra clay scrap and slop that is produced. Without a pug mill or a mixer, I’ve tried a variety of ways to repurpose the scrap clay.

The process I now use is to pile the wet clay and slop onto a plaster bat and then sandwich another plaster bat on top. When the clay has set up a bit, I wedge it up and roll it out into a slab. Then I create a series of somewhat rectangular but loosely organic shapes, and use my drawerful of stamps to create different patterns on the surface. Lastly, I punch a hole through one end of the shape for hanging.

After bisque firing the slabs, I use matt glazes to finish the surface of each one. When the glaze firing is complete, I tie string or use leather strips for hanging.

Most of the pieces are sized for small wall hangings, the longest being about 8 to 10 inches. However recently, I’ve started to make small pendant-sized pieces and use jewelry clasps at the end of the cording.

Pots that go pop

I should have known better. The bottom of that jug was heavy; I’d convinced myself I liked it that way and scaled back the amount I’d trimmed from the bottom. The problem was that I’d fired it along with the other ware that I had thrown on the same day. So, why I was surprised to see that shattered form in the kiln on Sunday morning was anyone’s guess.

Having taught high school ceramics for a few years, I’ve learned to read green ware (un-fired dry clay) for its readiness to be fired. Occasionally, student work blows up in the kiln, but it’s usually due to attachment mistakes – where air becomes trapped between two pieces of joined clay. Every once in a while a piece is fired that is not quite ready and that little bit of moisture remaining in the clay seals its doom. When firing hundreds of clay forms a week, a system is needed to determine which pieces are ready and which are not quite bone dry.

The surface of dry clay will feel dusty, but more than that it won’t feel cool, unless it’s been stored in a very cool room. Sometimes comparing the hand held temperature – as the form feels against the palm of your hand – of one form that you’re sure is completely dry with the questionably dry form, will reveal the difference. If I still can’t tell if a from is dry, I place that questionabe form against my cheek, a telltale cool sensation will reveal an ever so slightly damp form. I usually only use this technique when the hand held comparison method hasn’t helped me to decide on a given form’s readiness to be fired. This usually happens when I’ve unloaded a couple of kilns and my hands are very warm from handling all that warm pottery.

Working in an outdoor studio has its own set of challenges when drying pottery. Many humid days in a row can delay drying time significantly, and cool damp nights can have the same effect. Additionally, when the ware has taken on the ambient room temperature it can feel deceptively warm, as if it’s dry and ready to be fired.

I (finally) decided to create a system to address the extra drying time needed for that outlier form that is more dense than the rest of the lot. I’ve designated a section of a drying shelf for that one or two pieces of heavier ware to remind me to delay firing.

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Clay delivery

Delivery day is here.

That big white truck backed into the driveway and in a matter of minutes ten boxes of stoneware were stacked and ready for the next part of the journey. Thanks to my sturdy hand truck I had the clay stacked in the studio in about ten minutes. I’m no spring chicken, so I usually only transport two boxes (100 lbs. total) at a time. In five quick trips the clay was in place and that placement matters. Due to that once-a-summer deluge of rain, I stack the clay boxes onto an unfinished IKEA pine shelf-top; assuring that the boxes remain dry should a heavy rain seep across the floor.

One last step before the job is done is to clearly mark each box with the type of clay contained within. Perhaps if I were more fastidious, I’d place each box with its printed clay type  information clearly visible, but I’m usually just focusing on moving those 500 lbs. of clay.

Since clay shouldn’t be frozen, it can’t remain in the outdoor studio during the winter months, so I usually transport it inside and store it in the indoor studio from about late October through March. For now, it’s ready to use. Time to get to work.