When pottery moves in

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.

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.

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.

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.

Clay mix-up

It’s not the first time I’d ordered something that I didn’t intend to purchase, but this time it would have been 250lbs. of something I didn’t want or need.

The purpose of the call was routine, to schedule delivery of the 500 lbs. of clay I had ordered. The representative on the phone asked if I really intended to buy dry clay mix instead of wet clay. No! I replied and thanked her profusely for her interception; the time and energy she had just saved me with one simple question was golden. Customer service counts.

This experience should teach me to pay attention to the details, but there’s a lot of things I should do.

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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.