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.

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.

What is artistic?

This question is not often asked, but rather shared as the statement, ‘I’m not artistic.’ Dictionary.com offers that artistic is: “1. conforming to the standards of art; 2. showing skill or excellence in execution: artistic workmanship; 3. exhibiting taste, discriminating judgment, or sensitivity; 4. exhibiting an involvement in or appreciation of art; or 5. involving only aesthetic considerations. So, it looks like there are several ways to be artistic. But how did ‘skill or excellence’ become equivalent to replication representation as a means of defining one’s artistic ability?

Usually when my students or friends share their perspectives about their lack of an artistic nature/ability, I discover that they’re referring to a perceived lack of representational replication skill in their completed or expected execution – notably of a final product. This eye-on-the-replication-representational-prize perspective can get in the way of the ‘space’ needed for artistic creation – for making and creating art may require decision making, a discerning eye, analysis, and modification, but more importantly, it demands the freedom of happenstance. While discriminating judgement is necessary, and confidence in that judgement needs to be nurtured, serendipitous discovery occurs during process rather than deliberate map-following to a pre-determined end product.

Confidence is the fuel that moves artists forward and allows risk-taking action that moves us past a simple conformity to the standards of art and catapults us into the realm of real artistic possibility. Confidence can be present in artwork long after the artist hand leaves the paper, canvas, clay, or stone; just look at Dali’s line drawings of well…anything. The confident energy of an artist’s hand is embedded in that bold line, daringly pounded brushstroke, or unrepentant application of glaze; for self confidence in one’s artistic nature documents concrete evidence of human creative energy.

Simply put, developing an artistic nature requires the ability to allow plenty of room for our self confidence, as we respond with our senses, to our surroundings.

Setting up a home studio

A friend of my niece is going to set up a pottery studio in his new house and was asking what he would need to get started.

My work area has evolved since the beginning, so I thought about the basic components I gathered when I first set up my potter’s studio.

Besides a good potter’s wheel, having access to electric, adequate lighting and ventilation, and easy-to-clean flooring /horizontal surfaces are a must.

Speaking of clean, easy access to water, a bunch of hand towels, a good apron, sponges, and a scraper are working and cleaning essentials.

Storing work and ware makes bags for storing unfinished projects; crates and shelves for carrying and storing bats and ware; and vessels to stow tools an organizational necessity.

A wire cutting tool, ribs, sponges, a needle tool, and trimming tools serve as the very basic throwing tools.

A yard of heavy canvas, a rolling pin, a fettling knife, an old kitchen spoon and fork, and a slip container can be the basic hand-building tools.

As far as glazing brushes go, I used 1″ and .5″ hardware store utility bushes for the first couple of years.