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.

Altered wheel-thrown form

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.

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.

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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The potter’s soiree

If a soirée is an elegant evening gathering , is it posible to have a wheel throwing soirée? Well, that’s what I called those eclectic gatherings of multigenerational socials held for the purpose of getting hands muddy and making art.

During the first soirée, each guest had a chance to try their hand at making art from the earth. Each person took turns donning an apron and sitting at the wheel, taking minimal instruction and finding their way to the form that suited them. To the delight of the guests, many wheel thrown pots were made that first evening. As the summer progressed, they returned to glaze their ware at the next or other soirée. We had a lot of fun with great conversations at each of those gatherings.

The idea of inviting friends and relatives into my studio – or any artist studio for that matter – isn’t some brainchild of mine; the open studio (day or concept) has been around for a long time. What I like about having guests in my studio is infusing working isolation with some social interaction.  My studio tends toward an environment of working isolation, if you don’t count the dogs, so having the occasional guest or guests brings an energy to the space that lasts for a while after they’ve left, and I kinda like that energy.

So, now my studio has the traditional working areas alongside a conversational area for studio guests. It’s a nice balance.

 

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.

Helping a young child to throw on the wheel

It can be daunting working on the potter’s wheel when you have tiny hands. Little ones just don’t have the strength to center clay, even when the clay is soft. When I throw with my grandsons, I use a couple of techniques to help them center, drill a center hole, and raise the walls with relative ease – even with the 5 year-old.

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When centering it’s essential that the clay is already formed into a cone with relatively few lumps or bumps. The child places their wet hands over the clay and I just place my wet hands over top of their hands and voila! Centered clay.

When drilling the hole in the center we work together to figure out where the center is and then I make a slight depression in the clay for them. Then depending on the age they either use their thumb to drill the opening or we drill together if needed.

To open the floor we work together and hand-over-hand we draw the floor open.

To raise the wall again we use hand-over-hand, counting slowly as we raise the wall.