Saturday, November 17, 2007

Death to hard clay and wobbly bats!

I had a frustrating Friday evening in the pottery studio. The two worst enemies of the potter were striking me at once! I suppose from the title of this post that you can guess the culprits.

The wobbly bat is a constant annoyance to the potter. It usually accompanies any attempt to use the common black bats, which look like this:

The problem is that these holes get worn out and larger to the point where they don't fit the wheel pins any more. Then as you're putting pressure on one side of the form, it, well, wobbles, keeping you from centering the pot and making any progress on it. The wobbly bat sounds like this - thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump - until you're crazy with irritation!

Now, what is the solution to this constant problem?

Paper towels. Stop what you're doing, get up, get some bits of paper towel, and cover the wheel pins with them. Then put the bat back on, and hopefully the paper will have tightened hole around the pin. Another solution is to try a different kind of bat, which I usually have more success with. This type looks like this:

On to the hard clay. I splurged on a bag of fresh clay last night (as opposed to the stuff you recycle from the slip buckets and trimmings) and it was hard as a rock! I almost killed my hand trying to cone up and down. I returned the clay, but if you don't have that option, well, you might as well give up on throwing for the night. That's because there's no really good way to soften clay without some good old-fashioned time.

One trick I do is cutting out a smallish piece (maybe a pound) and wedging it together with some throwing scraps that are too wet. But if you don't have any too-wet clay, your best option is to cut the clay up into even smaller pieces (a quarter to a half a pound), put them in a bag and spray the hell out of them with water. Then let them sit for a day and wedge them back together.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The secrets of glazing (unfortunately, not the sugary kind)

The other day a new ACC member was ready to glaze, and he faced a dizzying glut of options, all of which were new to him. It looked something like this:

Daunting, I know. The first thing to know about glazes is that they're not paint. Underglazes, popular with paint-a-pot places like DoArt and The Studio, are the thing to use if you want what-you-see-is-what-you-get color and a glaze that won't run or combine with other glazes in surprising ways.

True glazes are much less predictable. They're made up of three basic ingredients: silica, or glass; modifiers, which adjust when the glaze will melt; and chemicals that give the pot color.

They can be applied in many ways, the most popular of which is airbrushing, because it covers the pot evenly and allows two glazes to blend nicely. Other options are dipping, brushing and pouring.

Some hazards of glazing, of which there are many: If the glaze is too thick, it will crawl. Sometimes this is the desired effect, as in this photo of a crawl glaze. But if it's not your intention, you'll be disappointed when your glaze is bumpy and not food safe. Before firing your glazed pot, you must make sure that you've dry footed (I like to think of this as wiping the pot's bottom, like you would a baby). Your pot should be glaze-free anywhere it will touch the kiln shelf, and you should leave a little extra room above where it meets the kiln shelf to protect yourself from runny glazes. If you don't do this, your pot and the kiln shelf will be joined for all eternity. Another hazard: ugly glaze combinations. Don't couple two of your favorite glazes on a favorite pot. You never know how they'll turn out. This is where your studio community will come in, with popular, well-tried glaze combos. Some of the favorites in our studio are Seafoam over Plum Base, White over Ebony and Lydia Yellow over Floating Blue. If you're trying something new, be sure to try it on a test tile.

Finally, to show how different the glaze is before firing and after, I have some photos for you. Nothing like paint!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Potters and the Peace Corps

As Jerry Seinfeld would say, "What's the deal with that?"

I applied for the Peace Corps early this year, planning to leave for service in January or February after my graduation. Then a wonderful job offer intervened, and my plans are, for now, postponed.

Since then, though, I've discovered that there are at least three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who regularly work at the ACC. Laura, a doctoral student in forestry, served in Ecuador just a few years ago. Lynne became a supervolunteer (someone who signs on for an extra year of service) in Africa. And Nancy was among the first ever Peace Corps volunteers in the early 1960s. She served as a teacher in Latin America.

According to the PC, about 190,000 Americans have served since the first crop went overseas in 1963. That's out of 300 million people. I did the math to try to figure out the percentage and got a lot of Es. So let's just say that RPCVs are overrepresented at the ACC.

This is much more than a coincidence. But what could it be? I think that the types of folks who are attracted to the Peace Corps are also the types who like pottery. It's hands-on. It offers satisfaction for your creativity. It's an ancient art form that has been practiced by most of the world's cultures. It's a little bit unorthodox. Instead of catching prime time TV, we potters are chatting about chemicals and plasticity in a windowless basement. We're oohing and aahing over a dish that took 10 times more time and money than it would to pick it up at Wal-Mart. We're hippies.

Perhaps the attribute of hippies that best explains this phenomenon is the importance of community. I've often pondered as I get closer to leaving Gainesville how much the ACC has meant for me. I made my very first Gainesville friend at the ACC. To quote Cheers, it's the place where everybody knows your name. It's a place where people with very different lives (an elderly nude model), many different ages (college students and retirees) and many different ethnicities (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Spain are all represented) come together to talk on the same level. Where competition is put aside and an individual's experience benefits all. These are people who, like Peace Corps volunteers, believe in the principle of community and probably couldn't imagine life without it.

A fine one they have built.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A sill full of cups

Now that fall is upon us, I am prepared. The mugs I've made over the last few weeks are out of the kiln, and we now have more options for containers to drink tea, coffee and hot chocolate from than you'd ever need. The collection grew so large we had to move it to the window sill. As a bonus, a few of them double as beer steins. We are in college, after all, and this is Florida, after all. There are only so many steamy bevs you'll want to drink before you start hankering after a frothier brew.

The latest duo of mugs I made, the prettiest of which is below (Lydia Yellow sprayed over Floating Red, for you ACC folks out there), are a little tall. I knew that at the time but decided I didn't care. They're very attractive, in my opinion, but aren't terribly functional as mugs. For one thing, you'll be shaking like a crack addict after drinking the amount of coffee that fits in this cup. Not to imply that this photo is of a crack addict. It's my boyfriend, Casey.

Monday, October 22, 2007

My pots are going into the whaaa?

This week I've gotten a lot more pots out of the...

Which brings me to the subject of my post. I had always heard the word pronounced "kiln," just like it's written, from my high school days huddling in the kiln room in winter because it was the only warm spot in the studio.

Then I come to the ACC and our beloved Mary Ann Bonner says "kil." First I thought I was just hearing it wrong, but it's been long enough now. Besides, I'm quite positive my friend Thom, former clay guy in the basement, also pronounced it in a way that suggests it's a place where pots go to die.

So I thought I would use the glory of the Internet to settle the dispute. (I should add that I have etymology on the mind since I'm taking Chaucer with the famed R.A. Shoaf). Wasn't to be. American Heritage lists "kiln" as the most accepted pronunciation. But Random House says it's "kil" first. And where does Merriam-Webster weigh in, you journalists might ask? "Kiln."

On the other hand, there is a place called Kiln, Miss., and my boyfriend's grandmother is from there. They pronounce it "Kil."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Complementary colors

My very first babies of the semester are out of the oven. I've been working with red clay because of its earthiness and lack of grit, and I started out with a glaze that I know works well on red clay (Thanks to Reisa, who discovered this combo). It's called Ice Blue in our studio, and it tends to be fairly runny and translucent. It brings out a bright red tone in the clay and complements it well where thicker.

I was especially pleased with how this bowl came out. I had the idea of carving this after I noticed the shape of the bowl reminded me of a flower. The Ice Blue was perfect for this piece because I carved and texturized it. Really shows off the details.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ceramics: Nietsche's eternal return?

Thanks to my course in the Intellectual History of Europe, I can't get my mind off Friedrich Nitzsche, a powerful philosopher and writer who appeals to my doubts about religion. One idea in particular I found relevant to a thought I've had about potting for a long time.

Clay is a mysterious substance, because it allows complete control but later is perpetual. Let me explain. Nothing is more malleable than plastic clay -- one of the lessons pottery teachers will hammer home is that any move you make, any contact you have with the clay, will be recorded. Pulling your hand off the rim too quickly will make the form wobble off center. Forgot to cut your fingernails? The clay will remember with tiny crescent moons. If you don't fix these things, they will be remembered forever by the clay once it's fired. I have an example for you -- a pot that (like most) recorded my laziness about glazing.

See those fingerprints? They'll be there when the archaeologists of the future dig up what's left of Gainesville.

Nietzsche comes in with the idea of eternal return, which wasn't his originally, according to Wikipedia, but he reintroduced to the 20th century. In physics, the concept is that the universe will contract and expand infinitely, so that each configuration of the universe and time is repeated. For Nietzsche, it was more a thought than a belief, a sort of device that allowed you to see life more clearly. If a being came and announced that your life would recur endlessly to you in your loneliest moment, it would seem a curse. If it came in a moment of light, it would seem like a blessing. For Nietzsche, this is the "heaviest weight," one that places incalculable importance on every experience we have. Every decision, every move, carries a hesitancy if you consider life in this way. The notion appears in Czech writer Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being and in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

It seems to me that the nature of clay is parallel to this idea and maybe even a metaphor for it. Life can be as open to possibility as clay is. But the moment that you place a pot on the shelf to be fired, you have to consider whether the work you have done is worthy of lasting forever. If something endures, is it the same as eternal recurrence? It seems to me that it is so.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Autumn arrives

I know, I know. It's hot as hell outside. But these bright blue skies have got me thinking about fall and the storage vessels, mugs and soup bowls that come with the cool weather.

In the lidded vessels class Mary Ann is teaching, students are learning to make soup bowls with handles and lids. Not only are they functional and perfect for the cold weather, but they're cute as hell! Lynne pointed out that they'll take up more cabinet space, but you can design them to stack pretty well if you put the handle on high up, like this.

This week I continued with my megalomania, throwing this monstrosity and thinking all the while of famous cases of the disease: Icarus, the Tower of Babel, and Lucifer. When you've pulled all the way to the top, and you're wondering if a shaky hand is going to throw a wobble into the pot, it's easy to see the connection. But throwing big is addicting and I'm likely to keep it up until the cost of clay becomes overwhelming.

I also realized that the first two glorious weeks of the semester are gone. Why so nostalgic? Well, leisure courses have started, which has cut out about 2/3 of the free studio time at the ACC. Also, my first batch of pots is out of the bisque firing. That means it's time for the dreaded glazing phase. I better start doing some test tiles if I want my preciouses to come out anything other than poop brown. Herb came out of the oven, and his bum looked so adorable I had to take a photo.

On the bright side, less studio time means more outdoor time. Enjoy this gorgeous weather!

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Last week I was thinking big. Although I usually try to stick to basic functional forms (vases, bowls and mugs) last week I hunted the white elephant of ceramics - large vessels. They are, figuratively and literally, burdensome: difficult to throw, not terribly functional and heavy. But every potter knows they're the hardest form to do, so we throw ourselves into the task, griping as we go along.

My greatest challenge in making the following forms was fighting with the new clay that the ACC sells. In high school, I was spoiled by having a clay mixer that my tenacious instructor acquired. Not only was the clay cheaper, but it was also more plastic, a must for throwing big pots. Of course, plasticity is always important in throwing, but you'll find yourself much more sensitive when you're trying to move up 10 pounds of clay.

Another pottery type I tackled last week was agateware. Inspired by the agate stone, this is a technique in which you use two or more colors of clay to allow the natural rhythm of the spinning wheel twist its own pattern in the clay. It's easier to show you what I mean.
Many potters create their two colors of clay by using a base white and adding colored slip to it, but I usually take the simple route and use the colors of clay available in the ACC -- red, white and brown. There's a lot of variety available even with just two colors, depending on how much you wedge the clay. If you take two equal pieces of clay, slap them together and throw, you'll have much larger, bolder and more contrasted patterns. If you wedge the two colors for a while, being careful not to actually blend them, you'll have a much more stratified effect, like in the one I threw. I love agateware because you can study the patterns and see how the clay moved as you threw the pot. It's almost like a record of the pot's birth.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

in internet exile

No thanks to Florida football, the Arts & Crafts Center has been closed the last two Saturdays for home games. That's left me with a jonesing for clay between my fingers. And where do you go when reality just won't cut it? Why, the World Wide Web, of course.

There are tremendous resources for potters online. Like lots of niche communities, this one has thrived by sharing specialized knowledge across many borders.

I hope to update you on some of these resources throughout these few months. To start, I figured we'd go with the big picture: the world. I've been watching YouTube videos of potters doing their thing and let me tell you: in education as in pottery, the Japanese have got us beat. Don't believe me? Watch this:

And this:

If you can generalize from two videos of Japanese potters, I'd like to note a few things I thought were interesting. One, they throw on Shimpo wheels known for their whisper-quiet motors and which, I've just learned, are products of a Japanese company. Both potters throw off the hump and directly on the wheel head, a practice I have come to envy after fighting with wobbly bats for the last two weeks. I also learned from a little Internet perusing that throwing off the hump is more common in Eastern cultures than Western, which places more emphasis on individual designs, rather than limited design and mass production. The potters do an interesting trick when coning down of twisting the cone to the side. I haven't figured that one out.

Here's a video from Vietnam.

In China, pottery is an ancient art developed from the rich ceramic resources there. Dishware in England became known as China, my high school history teacher told me, because of China's preeminent ceramics. Prized was its white porcelain with blue decoration. You can read more about that here.

Here's an interesting glimpse of how it was in the day. An Indian potter using a primitive wheel. and we thought kick wheels were a lot of work!

Another trick I've picked up from watching potters on YouTube is to coat the bat with a little bit of clay before you throw your clay ball onto it. That helps it stick.

So maybe I do have Florida football to thank. I wouldn't have learned these tricks from the masters without being forced from the studio.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

hallowed spheres of clay

This week I've been experimenting with enclosed forms. It's just like throwing a pot, but you collar in until the tiny hole in the top blinks out and you've got a sealed shape. I started with a sphere to make into a piggy bank. I left quite a bit of clay at the base so that I could trim around its curvy bottom.

Once it was leather hard, I squished it a little to make the shape more blimp- or pig-like. Then I scratched and attached some feet, a snout, ears and a cute curly tail. Carved in some slightly sad eyes. At the suggestion of fellow potter Lynn, I christened him. Herb will soon be having the first experience to sadden those swine eyes: He'll be heading into a 2,000-degree kiln. Real pigs have gone worse places, I suppose.

Introducing Herb, in first draft and after the first edit.

In case you're concerned, Herb is equipped with a hole in the bottom to extract the coins without smashing his piggy little self.

The next enclosed form I made was a teapot. This one was inspired by Mary Ann Bonner, the studio potter best loved for being a beam of sunshine in a windowless basement. She showed me a "silly" teapot of hers (still have to ask her why it was "silly") that was an enclosed form. The advantage of this is that you can carve out a lid just like you'd carve one for a Jack-O-Lantern. Not only is it easier than throwing a trimming a lid to fit, but you can make it any shape you want! Usually, throwing confines you to circular shapes.

I probably would have done a circular lid had it not been for that realization. So I went a little wild and carved out what I can only describe as a square with curves. See for yourself.

how to make a short-cut trimming tool

I can't peel my mind off a big beautiful bowl I threw earlier this week. Oh, the curves, the smoothness, the soft, supple body. You should never get attached to your pots in the surprising and sometimes disappointing world of ceramics, but this one's captured my heart. It's going to require a special trim.

So I decided to make a do-it-yourself, short-cut trimming tool.

The situation is this: You've got a lot of trimming to do on a hefty pot. You feel it up, "collecting information" about it (as my high school pottery teacher, the esteemed Alicia Sumner, would say). You flip it over, center and press it to the bat with little chunks of clay. You trim a while, get nervous that you're going to break through the bottom, pick it up, feel it up, put it down, reposition the clay chunks, start trimming again, get nervous....and on it goes. For hours.

You could cheat and use the Giffin Grip. But I find that to be just as annoying as the clay chunk method.

Your alternative? No clay chunks, just winging it with a sole finger pressing the center of the base to keep the pot from flying across the studio. Every now and then, your finger catches the pot off-center and it swings out to collide with the splash pan. Only for the daredevils.

Well, this little tool can make conscientious potters accelerate their turning. It works by providing friction for the side that grips the base of the pot and no friction for the side you press down with your fingers. That way, you can pin the pot to the bat without the friction between your finger and the base interfering.

Making one is so simple I'm embarrassed even to offer photos. But here it is, in three insultingly easy steps.

Step 1

Assemble your materials, all of which you can find around the house. 1) A piece of cloth. I was taught to use felt, but really anything that has some good texture will do. I used an old dish rag. 2) A metal jar lid. You want it to be medium sized and to have fairly short sides. That of a spaghetti sauce jar -- like the one pictured here - works great. You'll probably want to wash it. 3) A good glue. I used Super Glue, but I've also used a glue gun successfully. 4) Scissors.

Step 2

Cut out a piece of the cloth that looks something like the shape of the lid.

Step 3


You're done! Wasn't that easy?

You're ready to go to work with your new tool. And if this doesn't suit your fancy, I also highly recommend using a foam bat, which puts the friction on the rim of the pot. A bonus: The rings on this bat make it really easy to center. Emily Murphy, a Chicago potter and blogger, has a great how-to on making this tool.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

an introduction

Ever since I started throwing as a junior in high school, my pottery teachers have told me to keep a glaze journal. That way, instead of whining about this necessary evil, I could learn from my mistakes and make the process less painful. I never kept that journal religiously. This time, I'm really going to do it -- online. I swear.

There will be other stuff. I'm exploring the online network of potters and finding it inspirational and educational. I'll link to sites and blogs I find helpful and hope that you find them that way, too.

If, by any slim chance, I have readers, feel free to write me or leave comments with your own thoughts and experiences.

This semester my goal is to go beyond the mass-production style I adopted in the spring to practice techniques I've learned, but rarely use. I'm thinking of sgraffito, underglazes, slip, altered pots, agate ware, piercing and carving.

Of course, there will be pictures. And fun!