Monday, August 17, 2015

A Pot of Many Uses

I like to make functional pottery.  I love the idea that it will be used, abused, loved and yes, perhaps even broken because then it will have served a positive, happy purpose in the world.  When people ask, "what is that pot for," I generally reply, "anything you need it to be for."  Mugs are great for soup and cereal.  Tortilla warmers are even better for microwaving veggies.  Little bowls are good for almost everything from holding jewelry, dip, paper clips or even marbles.  Pitchers make the prettiest utensil holders.  Every now and then I get a text or email with a picture of one of my pots in its new home, I love to hear from people.  Here one of my favorites!  Oscar the Bunny's new hangout.

Friday, June 12, 2015

1/3... 1/3... 1/3... - My way of throwing bigger, thinner pots!

I am not that strong.  There.  I admit it.  So I throw with fairly wet clay and also use clay with a low grog content.  It is much easier for me do.  It also has its challenges. 

The biggest problem for me is that of torque - especially on larger pieces or very thin pieces...and I like big pieces and I like thin pots.  After much trial and error, I came up with a way to get the height and thinness I like without having the pot collapse - I throw the pot in thirds.

I center normally.  I open the pot normally, but as I make my first pull, I thin the top 1/3 of the clay very close to the point where it will be when the pot is done.   With the next pull(s) I again start at the bottom, but focus on making the center 1/3 of the pot as thin as I will want it.  With my last pull(s) I work the bottom clay up, focusing on getting the bottom 1/3 of the pot as thin as I want it.  

1/3... 1/3... 1/3

This is NOT the way I was taught to throw, but my motto is, if it works for you, it is probably not the wrong way to do it!  This works for me.  If I try to keep my pulls fairly consistent, I need to put way to much pressure on the top of the pot which leads to torquing in the bottom of the pot.  My clay is simply too soft and does not have sufficient grog (structure) to withstand the torque.

I have taught this technique to students for some time now, and with great success.  So if you are having problems with your pots collapsing or torquing when you get too thin or too tall, give it a try and let me know what you think!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I'm Going to Wedge Those Bubbles Right Out of My Clay

Non-potters are often surprised at just how much physical effort is needed to make pottery. And there really isn't anything more physical than wedging clay. Wedging involves hand-rolling and folding raw, wet clay onto itself over and over again until all the little air bubbles in the clay have been worked to the surface and out of the clay body.

This is a basic and critically important part of making any piece of pottery because not removing the air bubbles usually results in the destroying the pot because the air expands as the kiln heats up and then it explodes. Even the best of potters has it happen occasionally and it's always disappointing because it's a waste of both time and money. In the worst cases, the exploding pots destroy a few other pots in the same firing, which only makes the whole thing worse.

In fact, it just happened to me recently and I thought I'd share some two views of the same pot at the bisque stage so you can see the havoc that a few little air bubbles can create.

So the next time you are admiring a platter, pot or any piece of ceramic art, imagine its humble origins as a lump of wet clay giving the potter a good upper-body work out as they rolled and folded all the little air bubbles out of it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What to Look for in Form & Function

One of the things that excites me the most about creating functional pottery is that I see it as an opportunity to integrate beauty into an otherwise everyday object. But we all know what happens when something is very pretty but doesn't function well - it stops getting used and then what's the point. So function is important to me, and it's very closely tied to form.

Here are the thoughts that bounce around inside my head whenever I am making a particular type of pot:

•Mugs: not too heavy, handle fits hand, rim fits the lip and doesn’t dribble.

•Pitchers: breaks flow of liquid to pour cleanly, handle fits hand.

•Vases or pencil cups: bottom-heavy to prevent tipping, tall enough to work.

•Bowls: nice, thin walls and smooth continuous lines that look nice.

•Dinnerware: need to stack and have sturdy edges to prevent chips.

•Platters: big enough to function but small enough to fit in dishwasher.

To me, those are the must-haves for each of those kinds of pots. If they don't function in those ways, I won't bother. And in our house, if a pot doesn't function well, we break it with a hammer and use the pieces in the bottom of one of potted plants or trees to keep the drainage gravel from dribbling out the holes in the bottom. I suppose that's also a function - but not the intended one, so it doesn't count...

Glazes - Why do they Matter?

Here are some tips that I hope you find useful as you consider the glaze on the pot. As with the firing temperature, shape and other factors, the choice of glaze should fit the intended use for the pot. Think about this:

•Glazes provide attractive decoration, but also the key waterproofing for the pot.

•They can be matte or shiny, but the shiny ones are better for use with knife & fork because it won’t show marks.

•The thickness of the unfired glaze varies based on the proportion of water to dry chemicals needed to deliver the desired color.

•Not all glazes are safe for food storage or serving. Always check before buying or using a pot with food.

I hope you find this helpful. Please leave a comment with your own thoughts about glazes, or to let me know if you'd like to hear more.

What's in a Firing Temperature?

Firing temperature is another part of the puzzle when considering making or buying a pot. Your first consideration, of course, is to think about how you plan to use the pot and then you'll know what to look for. Things to keep in mind include:

•For a pot to be durable for everyday use, you want it to be high fired (cone 6 and cone 10) because the clay body is less likely to chip or break in a microwave or dishwasher when fired to those temperatures.

•Pieces that are not dishwasher or microwave-safe are often low-fire clay body used as a decorative palette for color, but the clay body is still porous.

•Approximate temperatures are 2,345°F = Cone 10, 2,232° = Cone 6, and Cone 04 = 1945°, Cone 011 = 1,607°.

Try to be sure you match the firing temperature with the intended use for the pot and you'll get the best results that way.

Ever Thought About Clay Maturity?

If you are about to put that mug in the microwave, you might want to think about it. Here's why:

•A mature clay is stronger and better suited for every day use with food and liquids because it has a water-tight structure.

•The maturity is important because if you microwave a pot that’s not fired to maturity, it gets too hot to touch. That happens because immature clay has small pockets of air left in the clay body, which over time will capture water droplets that heat up in a microwave.

•Clays used for pottery are formulated at different temperatures, and the most common “high fire” clays are “cone 10” and “cone 6.”

So this is a good question to ask a potter as they show you their wares and you consider which one is right for what you need. If the clay is not mature - you're in for a bumpy ride...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Clay as Poetry

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sally Buckner, poet and retired English professor at Peace College. I was helping fire the kiln at the community center where she lives and found out she had written a poem about clay. It is a wonderful poem that captures essence of the historical interrelationship and interdependence of clay with farming in the North Carolina Piedmont. Most early North Carolina potters were farmers. Pots were often made during light farming periods as a means to supplement incomes and to make necessities (storage jars, butter churns etc.) that could not be easily imported. Early North Carolina pottery was wood fired which requires a tremendous amount of wood and effort, an alchemy of the elements that Dr. Buckner captures with her alchemy of words. I hope you enjoy it!

CLAY by Dr. Sally Buckner

The sun, a one-eyed taskmaster, jabbed
Grandpa's shoulders humped above the plow
that leapt its jagged way through Piedmont clay.
Urging his reluctant mule across
the russet field, Grandpa dreamed a green
landscape of tobacco stretched from barnyard
to the bluest rim of horizon.

Come July, that sun sent stern reminders
of its hard power: drove right through the bonnet
shielding Grandma's carrot-colored curls:
pulled a sheen of sweat to her three sons'
near-naked arms lost in the sticky jungle
her husband had envisioned, bedded, nurture:
pried white blooms wide, released the sweetish odor
which claimed their kin: petunia, nicotiana.

August cropping: hefty sheaves of leaves
dangled in the rough-hewn barn-turned-kiln,
surrendered moisture to the savage heat
that ranged beyond two hundred fierce degrees.
Smiling, Grandpa fingered golden leaves,
dry as the greenbacks he had yearned for
all those days in fields of clay.

Those greenbacks, savored, hoarded, passed on down
from Grandpa's soil-stained hands through my father's
frugal fingers, filled my cabinet
with stoneware spun by Carolina crafters.

Lifted from earth, dropped on a turning wheel,
embraced by sturdy fingers, clay forgets
its years and centuries as ground, as bed
for that which would be green, then, later, gold.
Whirling in response to knowing hands,
it rises, thins, curves, opens
in silent, sweet ballet, assumes a shape
far removed from the random spread of field.

Partnered then with fire stoked each five minutes,
twenty-five hundred degrees, forty-eight hours,
the clay confirms its form. Cloaked in glazes
of rutile, cobalt, iron, it glows almost
as brightly as the flames that fill the kiln.
Lifted from its oven, once again
it glows in sunbeam and in candlelight,
an elemental transformation, like that
wrought by the miller's daughter in the fairy tale
who spun a pile of common straw to gold.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Want to save your neck and back from the up down up down up down bobble-head bob that happens when you are trying to finalize the profile of your pot on the wheel? Put a mirror in front of you and you can see it in reflection. It takes all of about one day to get so hooked on it that you miss it when you don't have one!

My grandfather used to say, "you are never a finished product." Just when I start to feel like I have a fairly good mastery of clay, an idea like this one comes along and reminds me. I have taken hundres of classes and seminars, apprenticed, read about pottery all the time, visit studios, watch videos on YouTube, but this one came where I didn't expect - a beginning pottery class I was required to take to get a studio card at my local community pottery center.

When I first signed up, I almost did an eye roll. Surely I could just throw something real quick-like and prove my potting prowess. But rules are rules so I found myself in a class with Deborah Harris - a wonderful person and fantastic potter in Chapel Hill, NC. Day one she talked about conserving energy and showed us this trick. At that point I had been making pots for over 20 years. I am still amazed I never ran across it before.

Just goes to are truly never a finished product.

Monday, January 4, 2010

You Win Some, You Lose Some

I applied for a grant, and was disappointed to learn that I did not get it. I had a pretty good chance as about 1/3 of all applicants who apply get them. I thought mine was well written, compelling with good photos and recommendations.

Grants are great, but as anyone who has applied for one knows, they are a LOT of work. To add insult to injury, the only notification was a PDF posted on the website of the winners. Us poor losers did not even get the courtesy of a letter tell us we did not get it. Whatever I did was clearly not compelling enough so of course, I called to find out what I could improve for next go round. Left a message and did not get a call back. Still not sure what to do better next time.

Lesson: artists, like professionals in any discipline, need thick skin. Before pursuing pottery full time last year, I spent 25 years working corporately. So much of what I learned then applies now, but perhaps the biggest lesson is to not take things personally. With art, or any endeavor in which you invest so much of your heart and soul, rejection feels personal. With so much invested, the lows are much lower, but the highs...SO much higher.

-------fast forward to last Tuesday. A wonderful friend and unbelievably talented potter I apprenticed to many years ago came over with her husband and grandson. We drank out of mugs I made, but I did not tell her that I had made them. She held it, looked at it, felt the weight of it and said, "did you make this?"

"I did," I replied.

Then she said, "It's a great mug."

All disappointment and doubt left me. Someone whose opinion I valued understood everything I was trying to do with the pot - from its glaze, handle, weight, shape and proportion.

I hope I get the grant next year. I could really use that $1200 slab roller for a number of things I want to do... but I ended up with the bigger win.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Waxing Poetic

To wax or not to wax, that is the question...and I do both, depending on the foot.

I generally prefer trimmed feet. On most forms, it looks better, reduces the overall weight of the pot and provides a cleaner overall aesthetic. Because my trimmed feet have contours that can capture glaze, I find that the time it takes to wax the foot is more than made up in the time it would take to get the glaze out of all the nooks and crannies in the clean up...but I have exceptions.

Also, there is a real advantage to mixing Alumina Hydrate with the wax you use for the bottom of pots - especailly in public studios where the shelves tend to take a beating. It provides an extra layer of refactory (does not melt) material that keeps your pot from sticking to the kiln shelf.

That said, my mugs and some of my sculptural work have flat bottoms and these I do not wax. Instead I have modified a really cool process I learned about 10 years ago when visiting my husband's family in Hódmezővásárhely, Hungary. Hódmezővásárhely, btw, roughly translates to "beaver field/meadow marketplace," I think. It is a beautiful small town in south east Hungary and home to my husband's Aunt and her family...but I digress. Back to glazing.

Knowing that I made pottery, my in-laws took me to a local pottery that made Hungarian blue folk pottery. When cleaning up the bottom of a glazed pot, they dipped the whole piece in glaze then immediately rubbed the bottom several times over what looked to be a canvas covered sponge. When I got back to my studio, I tried this technique with a regular, large cellulose sponge that was very saturated with water and it worked wonderfully. The process no only completely cleans the bottom of the pot, it also feathers the bottom 1/8-1/4 inch of the glaze which helps prevent the glaze from running. You can do maybe 3-4 pots before you have to rinse the sponge.

So to wax or not to wax? Both.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Getting Started

I have now been making pots for 23 years and every day, I learn something new. I tell my husband John my fun factoid of the day and he tells me, "you need to write a blog." So after many moons of "you need to write a blog," I decided to take him up on the suggestion.

This blog is a catalog of my thoughts about pots... and life - as the two are often interrelated.

Take what you can use, leave the rest. Enjoy the journey.