Ambition could be the title of the hopeful list of ware to be included under the next craft show tent. But I’m taking things one day at a time; throwing a dozen bowls one afternoon, and a clay brick’s worth of mugs on another. Large bowls next, and yesterday, it was teapots – only four teapots, to be exact.
I needed time to allow for personality, teapot personality. Cane handles were a must, but the rest was up to the flurry of happenstance and the what-if’s that come about when throwing has ended and hand-building commences.
From a utilitarian point of view, how would each member of this little quartet function? To fill, to pour, and to carry when tea is about to be served? How would this dark brown clay enhance the series of glazes I plan to use? Thoughts pause hands to consider these and other things, as little periods of grace make room for the future possibilities of each teapot.
Of course my aim leans towards some image of near perfection, yet the spirit of authenticity, with all of its foibles, resides in my pottery. I admire what I consider to be the perfect balance in others’ ware, never in my own, though. I’m brutally honest about it – seeing through to the hand in the work beneath the finished glazed surface. I inspect with care until I uncover the flaws that lead me right back to making more.
Some things happen in tiny increments of time, especially those less glorious tasks. Fun jobs like planning and gathering, then using a mitre saw to chop wood into usable pieces for portable shelves occur in a time warp of effortless bliss. Framing shelving units – not so much.
So, I had researched long enough and had to prepare for the eventuality of the craft event. It was time to stop procrastinating; the shelves were going to happen. There would be no distractions – shelves would be built.
And they were. It took less time than anticipated and of course they aren’t perfect – they have fallen over once, taking a dozen or so pots to their doom. However, with some minor adjustments for improved stability, these two sets of shelves should serve their purpose and function, for they are lightweight, portable, easily set up and taken down, and will hopefully not continue their villainous rampage against my pottery.
So, there was another hiatus from most things pottery. Only the rare occasion of throwing occurred, while new endeavors in my career as a high school design teacher elbowed their way to the forefront of each waking hour. A few years ago it was translating and teaching a high school web design coding course as a college level course – great for the high school students, opportunity-wise, and great for me, as a professional/intellectual challenge. I’m always up for a new challenge.
Last spring, another opportunity dropped into my somewhat-already-occupied lap. Yearbook advisor! Of course I applied for the position; smiling when asked why I thought I’d be better than the other candidates for the job – there were no other candidates. You see, yearbook advising squeezes like a boa constrictor on your free time. So, the next time I looked up from yearbook work, I heard song birds chirping in the spring morning sunshine and knew I had to return to my studio. That window of pottery time appears smaller now, and makes my throwing and creating time all the more precious.
Little corked jugs are curious forms. They nestle into any space and seem perfectly willing to take up permanent residence there. A case in point: some of these little guys have been on display for sale at SATO Salon Organics for a while and recently we figured out that they look so comfortable in their spot on the shelf that they avoid moving day. So, they’ll soon be placed in a new location at the salon, but my guess is that they’ll settle in comfortably once again.
That Chuck Close quote is my go-to saying, especially as a high school art teacher, but also as my personal artistic mantra. While I haven’t experienced Close’s seemingly life-long non-stop prolific profusion of ideas, I’ve encountered blinks of time when I believed ‘inspiration’ had eluded me.
When I look back on those snippets of idleness, I realize what appeared to be a lack of inspiration was in reality a form of quasi self-doubt. So I was curious to figure out how that doubt took up residence in my thought process in the first place. Why at times in my life, was there even the hint of a notion that I wouldn’t make art?
Well, that question brings me to another point, one I share with my art students all the time, specifically the difference between product and process. Usually it goes like this: I ask my students to identify themselves as either a product or process person. The product people tend to focus on the end result throughout their art-making, while the process people travel from one possibility to another, never wanting to finish. As an art teacher, this distinction of contrasts between product and process helps me tremendously to understand my students’ motivations as they engage in art making, and the preliminary product/process discussion also establishes a basis for dialogue when we talk about their approach to their work. Of note, I’ve rarely seen a student, who identifies as a process person, ever struggle to get going, although I’ve had countless long conversations with students, who identify as product people, to help get them started. More often than not, I’ve discovered through these conversations that the product person believes getting started requires them to have the finished work in mind; in a concept-driven art course, this rigidity of thought impedes the emergence of creative energy at the outset. The process person meanwhile, is off and running, allowing their creative energy to take them somewhere, anywhere. This brings me back to my question: why at times in my life, was there even the hint of a notion that I wouldn’t make art?
And there was the answer. These days I revel in my creative process and, in the spirit of Chuck Close, I just get to work.
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.
After seeing a wheel-thrown altered pot on Pinterest, I wanted to try making a few. I threw a form on the wheel with about 4lbs -5lbs of Standard white stoneware clay and after each form was leather hard, used a needle tool to mark the four corners of where the cuts would be created. A fettling knife was used to cut out a little square and then stamped with one of my home-made clay stamps. Then I used the needle tool again to mark 8 holes – 4 holes outside the cut shape and 4 holes, one in each corner of the little cut out square. I made sure the holes were large enough to allow for passing twine through after firing shrinkage. Then I replaced the cut-out shape into each wheel-thrown form and allowed the clay to dry. After bisque firing, I applied underglaze to the cut-out shapes on both forms and when they were dry, applied a coat of wax resist. I also applied wax resist inside the openings created with the needle tool to prevent the glazes from accidentally getting ‘brushed’ into those 8 holes. Next, I applied underglaze to the pot rim and base (shown on left), allowed it to dry and applied clear transparent glaze over the whole pot surface. For the pot on the right, I used Amaco Textured Tan glaze very loosely and unevenly applied. After glaze firing at cone 5, I used garden twine to ‘tie’ the shapes to each form. This was clearly an exercise in procedure and now I’m stoked to try variations on this idea of an altered wheel-thrown form.
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.
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’.
Now, during the day I still teach art, although it’s all 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 them in water, not to mention the sanding effect of the grog 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.