December 28th, 2008
"Eight, eight I forget what eight was for..." - Violent Femmes
Something about preparing to cross the imaginary boundary into a new year prompts me to think retrospectively, so if you'll indulge me in some redundancy -- a simple scroll down this page would accomplish much the same thing, but with more clutter and less insight -- I'd like to muse on '08 a bit before moving on to '09.
It's been quite a year here at St. Earth, with the usual range of highs and lows, but the extremes this time around the sun were pretty... well, extreme. Our barn collapsed in a freak January thunderstorm, halfway through its renovation, in what would have been its centennial year. My daughter was born and my grandma died. I made a lot of good pots, and somehow managed to have two studio sales. There were a variety of small tragedies, some a bit too personal, and others too mundane, to list here by name. Another good friend moved away, fulfilling yet again the catch to living in a college town (lots of great people, but they tend to pull up stakes and head off to better prospects with alarming frequency). And here at year's end we've made it through the first three months as new parents, which more experienced folks assure me is the hardest part (or is it?). Our little girl is wonderful, growing and changing in remarkable ways. Despite the shambling sleep deprivation and my being an incoherent wreck through most of it, my family, friends, students and customers don't seem to have held it against me (at least, not too much).
I worked full-time at the U. through May, stashing away a small war chest for my next kiln, and then transitioned to a part-time job there, which should be a big improvement in '09. During the fall semester I taught two ceramics courses, which was equally challenging and interesting. I kept up this blog, despite many occasions when it was a stretch to do so, and it seems like there's an accumulation of good stuff here now, archived into the global digital library. I hope it may be interesting or useful to the people who stumble across it in the future.
I made about 350 pots, which is historically low but not bad, all things considered. As usual, I hope to make twice as many next year! Some of the pots were great, most were good, some sub-par, and more than a few went on the shard pile or in the slops bucket. I tried some new things, completed a few commissions, and filled and emptied the shelves several times. I did 8 firings in my soda kiln, and it just kept giving better and better results. It's seasoning with age and I understand its quirks and strengths more each time; I'm more excited than ever about the potential of each new batch. I fixed half a dozen things around the studio, as they succumbed to the rot of time and use: kiln wiring, metal chimneys, electric lines, etc. And I made some good improvements to my process, like being more diligent about keeping "To Make" lists, taking the time to sketch pots while making them, and organizing/optimizing my studio space to make work time more effective.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my pots improved. The next time I update my Portfolio, several of them will come from 2008. Looking back, I see evidence of stronger forms and some interesting new forms, too. Better throwing, with more subtleties and nuance. More skillful decoration: impressions, brushstrokes, marks, patterns, pours, dots. The pots from '08 are better than those from '07, and that's the ideal scenario. I hope to be able to say that each year for many years to come.
December 21st, 2008
"I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first,
And I will drink the clear, clear water for to quench my thirst" - Van Morrison
This was finals week at the U., which meant exams, artist presentations, group critiques, and my last class sessions with these students; then grading final assignments and calculating course grades. It's really good to get the semester wrapped up, particularly with as a challenging as this one's been. There are always a few students who I'd enjoy teaching again, and usually at least one that I'm more than happy to send on their way. So that part's kind of a wash, I guess.
It's gratifying to reach another ending point and to feel that I've done my job well -- provided them with the best opportunities and guidance that I could muster, found the right degree of difficulty and challenge and, perhaps, inspired a few of them to come back and get their hands in the clay again. Most of the things I changed in the intro course were improvements, and the 200 level course went pretty well, given that it was my first time teaching it.
At the end of the week, at long last, I made it back to the wheel. As I've said here before, it's tough to start back in with zero momentum, cold eyes and a few layers of rust on my hands, but so great to get back into the rhythms of the studio once those things start to fade. As usual, I started slow and easy, but using the Turner porcelain clay, which is a whole new thing for me. (I made a series of teabowls with it during the last throwing cycle and they came out of the kilns great, so I'm moving ahead on that front while also getting my chops back. Feels like killing two birds with one stone.) This also meant a symbolic cleaning of the wheel and tools, since I'd left off with stoneware last month, which is probably a good way to start a new throwing session.
I'm also testing a couple other pre-mixed porcelain bodies from Standard Ceramics -- #237 & #130, I believe -- so I made test tiles with those to warm up, then a few groups of teabowls in the Turner clay. It's so purely white that it's a little unsettling to work with it, and I'm paranoid about "contaminating" it with my usual white stoneware, which is coating nearly everything in the studio that wasn't just scrubbed down during the changeover. I really like how it takes the cut of a trimming tool, like when turning feet; so uniformly smooth, and with kind of a surreal consistency. If this keeps heading the way I think it is, I may soon be joining the Cult of Porcelain. Look out.
I'm still due to plan out my Make list for the next couple months -- all the pots I've been dreaming of while busy doing other things, and some sort of overview of what I'll fill the next kiln loads with and how. Perhaps I'll put some rough firing dates on the calendar, too, just to get the lie of the land ahead.
While digging through some stuff in an upstairs closet, I came across a box of things Marj Peeler gave me, the last time I visited her house and studio before she sold the property and moved to town. Somehow, in the midst of moving half the house to prepare the baby's room, we'd pushed it in the closet, and I'd then forgotten it completely. So it was a happy discovery to find this small box of tools, including a fluting tool made by Richard and a couple fettling knives sharpened to perfection. I inherited a lot of studio stuff from them: glaze materials, ware boards, a lifetime's worth of great kiln posts. It's an honor to take these things that have seen untold years of use and continue to put them to work; that's as close to a local potting tradition as one can get around here these days.
There was also a nice assortment of pots she gave to Cindy and I, with her usual generosity and despite my asking her to let me pay for them: a lidded jar by Richard Burkett, probably 20 years old or more, a raku Peeler slab plate with a really nice surface decoration, and a small celadon teabowl, the best guess of its provenance being that Richard brought it home from his trip to Japan in the late 60's, when shooting his educational films there. Not bad for some odds and ends that were sitting around their showroom and which had gone unsold to the end, and quite a find to re-discover months later. (I hope to shoot some photos of them soon, and will post them here when I do.)
December 14th, 2008
"My how you've grown..." Natalie Merchant
While it would have been great -- and quite well-deserved -- to fall into a post-sale coma this week, 'twas not to be. Instead, it was back to teaching for the last week of classes at the U, with finals coming up next week. The trick with teaching ceramics is that everything has to be fired by the end, which dictates a large part of the course schedule. This requires the complex logistics of speed drying, quick kiln cycling, tight stacking and crash cooling to get all the work through in time. So I fired three loads of student work in the Geil gas kilns this week, with all the requisite shelf scraping, loading, minding the fire, cooling and unloading.
The end of the semester always makes me question the wisdom of having them make large assemblages for the last assignment. They tend to be thick, heavy and slow-drying, and some were over 20" tall, which are a challenge to stack and takes up a lot of space in the kilns. But I keep doing it, because it seems like a really good way to finish the semester, especially for Ceramics I. I like how it lets them reuse all the skills from the entire semester, and breaks their preconceptions of what they're capable of making.
With the addition of two teaching days, cleaning up the studios, packing and shipping some pots to out of state customers, and trying to keep the daily flotsam of life above water, and it was a busy, tiring week. I suspect I'm due for a crash here soon, and it probably won't be pretty when it arrives. There's always the chance of a break over the holidays, but I'm also starting to get really anxious to get back to my own studio and start throwing pots again -- it's been over a month, which is well past my limit. The occasional mental glimpse of what I might make next is tantalizing. But I've got an obscene stockpile of unanswered email, errands to run, and miscellaneous tasks -- all neglected during crunch time before the sale -- to catch up on, too. So, the usual dilemma of fitting pots in around the rest of life begins all over again.
Since I've done a pretty good job of not letting this blog drift into the minutia of parenting (and because I have a stockpile of great baby photos), I'm going to allow myself to bend the rule this week. Maggie is now two months old, and is changing almost daily. She smiles and makes a surprising array of noises now -- chirps and coos and wildly high-pitched dolphin sounds -- and seems happiest when she can look you in the eyes and tell you what's happening with her that day. Good stuff.
These first two photos were taken in the hospital right after she was born -- doesn't that look like a good hand for pulling up a wall of clay someday, and a foot with strong potential to crank that treadle bar?
These are more recent, her eyes still a deep blue, her hair a bit reddish-blond, and sweet as can be in these moments of contentment.
The last line of the Natalie Merchant song quoted above is: "Everytime we say goodbye, you're frozen in my mind as the child that you never will be again." It's sung so beautifully that I get pre-emptive nostalgia each time I hear it, imagining a day when I'll long for what it was like in these days, when despite the exhaustion and stunning change to every small detail of my daily life, I'll remember holding her, small and close, and thinking of all the songs that remind us of what life can be like.
December 7th, 2008
"Oh, things I long for, peaceful nights, strangers
at the door
Come in, come in, you've been here before." - Augie March
Another sale is in the books, and a good one at that. Despite steady snow flurries all day, we had a good turnout, which is always encouraging and enjoyable. Sales were good, similar to what they've been the past few years, even with the economy in the gutter and a lot of uncertainty in the air. I wasn't sure if that would make a noticeable difference; it's possible that my sample is too small to provide any meaningful conclusions, or that the real impact hasn't hit yet.
I do wonder how the general swings in the economy will affect the business of being a potter over time, and if such effects have something to say about how essential or peripheral buying pots is to people's lives. (I've heard the theory that in hard times spending on smaller extravagancies goes up, as if people are treating themselves a bit to ease the strain. I'm not sure if that's true or, if it is, if it applies to my work). Clary Illian told me once that her studio sales just got better every year, regardless of the ups and downs in the stock market or the art market. That was really encouraging to hear as a young potter, and still gives me reason to be optimistic today. Then again, she's a great potter who's worked at building a following for decades, and sells her pots inexpensively; she may be the exception to the rule.
In any case, sale #17 was a success. Next year will be the 10th annual Holiday Sale, and I'm already thinking of how to mark that anniversary; it'd be great to do something special to thank my customers for all those years of coming to buy pots. I ended up just shy of the magic number of 200 pots in inventory -- that's the minimum it takes to fill the showroom, and to offer a good variety of forms and glazes. And I felt really good about the pots this time, which is really rewarding. I've had some really good results from the kilns lately, with my glazes calibrated into fine working order and doing some nice things as a result. I really liked the range and quality of the forms in this last making cycle, too -- I can't wait to do more of those lidded jars, vases, mugs, bowls. The lure of getting back to wet clay and the wheel is very strong.
A friend who was at the sale during the morning rush asked if it's bittersweet to have the pots fly off the shelves so quickly. It really is. The bitter part is when I've worked right down to the wire, and been obsessed with getting enough made for months on end, and have many pots that I like enough that I'd be happy to have them around a little while longer. But of course the sweet parts are numerous: having people who like them enough to buy them; seeing my customers genuinely excited about what they take to give as gifts or add to their homes; earning part of my living by doing what I love; knowing that I'm sending good pots out into the world; and that every space opened up in the showroom creates the opportunity for me to go make another pot.
So, somehow, I pulled it off. I've never worked so hard for so long on so little rest. (Then again, I'm so tired that I can't remember much!) Between teaching two classes, becoming new parents, and then working on pots, firing kilns and sale preparation with every spare hour, it's been a wild few months here at St. Earth. There were many days when I doubted I could get it all done, and if I didn't find my limits in trying to do so, I'm not sure what it would take to reach them. There's some satisfaction in that, too. Of giving it my best, fighting to achieve a hard-won goal, finding a way to make things happen.
November 30th, 2008
"Have heart, my dear, and we'll run for our lives." - Snow Patrol
This was the week before the week before my annual Holiday sale, but I've already begun the sprint towards the finish line.
I glazed and fired kiln #34, which produced some excellent results. I usually save the best pots for the last firing of a cycle, which helps, as does the fact that it's the 4th firing in two months -- calibrated in on all the variables, everything fresh in my memory. Unloading it was one of those rare times where halfway through I'm sort of giggling with excitement, and by the end I'm muttering strings of appreciative swear words in amazement at the collective results.
So, it goes without saying that I feel very good about the pots that I'll have on display at the sale. (It's next Saturday, December 6th at our home and studio in Fillmore -- if you live nearby, I hope you'll come see the pots in person. Detailed information and directions are on the sale page, as well as the photo of Maggie that was on the announcement card, mentioned previously.)
I tried several new decorative schemes in this firing, too, and almost every one was successful; a few of the lidded jars on the bottom shelf were so surprisingly good that I might not be able to let them go quite yet. It's good to hang on to a few for reference and encouragement the next time I get back to the wheel.
That's all for now. Time is growing short and there's still much to do -- cleaning and pricing pots, arranging the showroom, moving furniture, cleaning up around the house, etc. -- so I'll let the photos say the rest.
November 23rd, 2008
"Ceramics: world's most fascinating hobby!" - Chuck Hindes
McBride show at AKAR
This month AKAR Gallery has a retrospective of Bunny McBride, who's retiring from teaching at the U of Iowa. Bunny was my first ceramics professor, way back in the spring of 1992, and helped aim me down the path to becoming a potter, particularly at two pivotal instances right at the beginning. It confounds my mind to imagine how things would be different now if he hadn't twisted my fate in that direction.
The first time was at the start of a semester, when I hadn't been able to enroll for Ceramics I by the usual means, and showed up on the first day hoping to crash it. At a big state school it's not uncommon for all the intro studio courses to fill every semester, and it can be tough to get your foot in the door if you're not an art major or a senior. (Now, 16 years and a few fathoms of water under the educational bridge later, I know that this requires the instructor to take on an extra student, which is a big deal: another body in the room, another pile of pots to fire and grade, another chance of getting that 1-in-100 crazy person who will soak up all your energy to nobody's benefit. I'm also somewhat amazed to find myself in that role today. That college junior who was just trying out Ceramics to see if he could do it wouldn't have believed this turn of events.)
(This also reminds me of how, back in the dark days before there was such a thing as the web, registration was done by passing around bits of official paper and standing in long lines. I had to laugh, overhearing my students complain about the hassles of the online registration process this week. You're wearing pajamas in your dorm room at 3am trying to pick a section of Intro to Psych. This is astounding progress! Heck, you can even wear your pj's outside during daylight hours if you like, and no one will even flinch -- back in my day, that qualified you for extreme outsider status. "O brave new world, that has such people in't!")
(And while I'm making good with the parenthetical asides, it's curious to me that one of my good friends designed and coded the online system that makes all that happen here at the U. We sat around drinking coffee and mulling over the parameters while he was in the midst of it. Not only did I lack the slightest suspicion, back at age 20, that something like the web was right around the corner, but if you'd told me I was going to be a professional potter and a web developer a few years down the road I'd have laughed my ass off in disbelief.)
So there I was, trying to wedge my way into Bunny's class, and it wasn't going well. He called roll. Naturally, I wasn't on the list. He said the class was full. I found the strength to raise my hand and ask to be let in. (I was much less courageous in those days.) He mumbled a reply and moved on to the syllabus. I didn't know what had happened. "What did he say?," I thought. "Did I get in?" I sat there for a good half hour, wondering if I'd made it past the gate and worrying that, if not, all the other classes I needed to complete my schedule were at that moment filling up with other, mostly undeserving students. ("Nature's red in tooth and claw". Who says a little competition doesn't build character?) Mustering up all my will, I raised my hand again: "So am I in the class?" Bunny looked exasperated and sighed, "You're in."
And that was that. Worried that I'd already irritated the prof, that I had no idea what I was doing, that art classes were for other students, creative people with bountiful talent and ambition, that those long three-hour blocks might really suck up the time (ha!), I was in.
Perhaps that might not seem like much of a fork in the road, but for me it was. Back then I was much less resilient, more easily dissuaded. There's a very good chance that if I hadn't made it into that class I wouldn't have gone back for a second try, and that if I hadn't experienced making pots then, before my brain calcified over the possibility of attempting to learn how, I never would have. Or that if I had managed to find another entry point to the path later on, it wouldn't have been in such a great environment, where pots were taken seriously and considered to be worthwhile, everyone was urgently trying to make really interesting stuff, grad students were firing kilns all day and night, great visiting artists were invited to demo, and the whole place was mad about firing off these enormous kilns with wood. Lucky to get a start in clay at all; luckier still for it to happen in a place like that.
The second time Bunny changed my life was even more significant. I'll tell that story in a few weeks, after my sale is past and I've got some time to sort it out into words.
November 16th, 2008
"... had a baby on it..." - Weezer
So it took all of about a month for me to start exploiting our child for commercial purposes. (That's a joke, folks!) I designed my sale postcard this week, which involves picking a photo for the front, then a bunch of digital juju to get it press-ready and submitted to the printer. I want to keep it under wraps until they go out in the mail, but I'll say that Maggie is featured prominently. Here's the runner-up photo, which just narrowly missed the cut. I love that chubby little arm. My initial idea included a caption like: "Finally, I get some help around here!" Funny, but I wasn't sure how it would go over.
Cindy and I had fun doing some tricky, creative posing with her in the studio last week to get these shots. The catch with this one was keeping the clay off her hands while making it look like we were both throwing the pot. I can't wait until she gets to come out to the studio and get her hands in the clay for real. Not sure when that will be -- one year? Two? We've realized that between my wife being a photographer and my blogging/documenting habit, this is going to be one of the most photographed children in the history of civilization. Perhaps that's not entirely a good thing...
I've used Modern Postcard in California to print the cards for about 6 years now with very good results; I highly recommend them. I sincerely love their website: easy to navigate, comprehensive technical info, and a streamlined ordering process. This really counts, since it's practically the only contact I've ever had with them; if you do your own layout, it's entirely self-service. It's refreshing to be completely satisfied with a service like this.
I also posted new pots from the soda kiln to my site gallery this week. If you want to see some recent work in more polished photos, or you're interested in seeing what's currently available for sale, have a look.
Maintaining the homefront took up a good chunk of my time this week; we started to notice that the water had a strange smell to it, then realized that I'd forgotten to shock the well last year. Or the year before that. Or, uhm, the year before that. Oh boy. So a lot of pouring and draining and smelling ensued, much of it tromping around the yard in a cold drizzle. Not my idea of a fun alternative to being in the studio. For all the benefits of owning a house, there are times when it feels like sitting at the end of a pier with a lead weight bolted to one ankle.
Also on the topic of maintenance, my "potter's back" flared up this week, after a long spell of staying in good working condition. Between loading kilns, stacking firewood, lifting the baby in and out of her crib and several weeks of missed sessions at the gym, I overloaded it and will now grudgingly pay the price for a while. I didn't have any problems with my back for the first decade of my potting life, but starting about 5 years ago it became a minor, nagging issue. (Until then, I was just relying on youth and blissful ignorance to muddle through unscathed. Being 6'5", with poor posture, bad work habits and turning 30 all put an end to that!)
Then I really injured it in spring 2006 -- shortly after quitting my dayjob (the 1st time around) to work full-time in the studio. It took a long sequence of physical therapy, wearing a back brace for support (not an easy way to throw pots!), and gradually learning to strengthen key muscle groups to get back to "normal", and I've been pretty righteous about putting in the work to keep it that way ever since.
I read John Glick's articles about back surgery with abject fear, and vowed do whatever seems necessary to avoid that fate. So far I've resisted the idea of moving from the Leach wheel to throwing while standing up; switching to an electric wheel would be a major compromise, and one I'm just not ready to make quite yet. But I now think of being a potter as a contact sport -- one that requires diligent physical conditioning and careful practice to continue over the long term. I expect that what this involves will expand, taking more time and effort, as I get older, and that I'll have to accept a gradual slowing of the pace and intensity of my working life.
What's worked for me so far is to stretch and do strengthening exercises every morning. Every morning. Easiest to do as an unthinking habit, immediately after getting out of bed, with coffee as a lure to get it out of the way. I stretch my hamstrings as often as I think of it -- for me, it all seems to revolve around core strength and flexibility. I go to the gym twice a week -- or attempt to -- once to work on the machines and lift weights, another for an aerobic workout (usually wallyball). I deliberately rest my back during breaks, drink tons of water, pay attention to body position at the wheel -- especially when leaning to the side to see the profile of a pot -- and lift things very carefully, and almost always while wearing my back brace. When it gets sore, I change what I'm doing, or rest it more, or just stop altogether for a while. If you make pots and have any thoughts of wanting to do so long-term, I recommend considering all these things, ideally long before the symptoms start to show up.
November 9th, 2008
"You hear the sounds
in this old house
your father's footsteps creaking down
the hallway light
my days are nights
you'll have this song for
the rest of your life" - Bill Janovitz
Wow, what a week. I'm short on time to write, and so much happened, that I'll put it in condensed format and let the photos do the rest:
Unloaded firing #32. Excellent -- 100% success rate. Took Maggie with us to the polls. Election night anticipation, then excitement mixed with relief. Historic, symbolic, hopeful. Glazed, reloaded and fired again, #33. Nearly same stacking pattern and group of pots; another plus to working in longer series. Two kilns in one week: making the most of the last warm weather of the year. #33 was even better -- lots of very good results. Beautiful celadons, drippy yellow dots, orange peel over slip, shiny dominoes, carved bowls sans cracks. There's nothing better than hard-won success. So great to have my tools working at their best, to feel like I've started to figure this kiln out.
A few pots at the wheel, thinking ahead to the upcoming Yunomi show at AKAR. Working in stoneware again is like going back to the house you grew up in after several years away in the world. It's so familiar, yet seen new, with different eyes. Blissful to be back in the making cycle for a day or two. Maggie turned one month old. She's growing & changing quickly, but to us it seems slow. Busy. Productive. Tired. Good.
November 2nd, 2008
"Motherland cradle me, close my eyes, lullaby me to sleep." - Natalie Merchant
This week I loaded and fired soda kiln #32. It was a perfect fall day for it -- freakishly warm for the 1st of November. The new burner is working great: by pushing the pace a little faster in the early morning I had one of the shortest firings ever in the 3 years of this kiln. That's such a nice change, to be turning it off at sunset instead of waiting up until all hours of the night hoping for cone 10 to finally succumb to the heat. It'll be cool enough to unload on Monday, so I'll have the results next week.
My classes started on making bowls as their next assignment; just straight-forward throwing and learning to trim for the intro class, and altered forms for the intermediate class -- pushing out of round, carving rims, darting, etc. As this blog probably shows, I make a lot of bowls and feel like it's one of my stronger or more developed forms, so it's fun to give them as an assignment. I like seeing what the students come up with.
I finally had the studio painted this week. After a lot of hesitation picking a color I went with my gut and chose kind of a sky blue -- the obvious choices, like beige or grey or white, just seemed too dull. It will take a while to get used to it, but so far I like it pretty well, particularly how it blends into the sky from certain perspectives. It seems kind of goofy and fun, not bad qualities for a studio space. A few days later, I realized that maybe my "gut" had made a symbolic gesture of support for the Democrats in the upcoming election. Ha! Stranger things have slipped from my subconscious, so I'm not ruling it out.
And, at the risk of alienating those of you who don't like your pots and politics to mix (or who are steadfast Republicans), I'll say that I'm very interested in the election, and really hoping for Obama to win. In fact, I wrote a long manifesto about why I'm voting for him, one night at 3am when Maggie woke us up and I couldn't get back to sleep. Like many thoughts that come in those weird hours, I was absolutely sure it would be this week's post, then thought better of it in the light of day, for a couple reasons: A) This isn't really the place for it; and B) Nobody cares!
So I'll leave it at this: since I became old enough to vote, I've cast ballots for: Clinton, Clinton, Gore, Kerry. See a pattern there? I would be really uneasy living through a McCain administration, particularly after two terms of the pathetic, embarassing Bush presidency. I also support most of the positions that make Obama "the most liberal member of the senate", and if that makes me a left-wing, artsy, ivory-tower, granola-crunching elitist, then so be it. OK, enough of that. Like with kilns, sometimes you just have to wait and see what happens.
October 26th, 2008
"Life still applies" - Wheat
This week was fall break, which came at a great time and gave me a chance to start finding my footing in this brave new world. Maggie is 2 1/2 weeks old now and all with her is well, but she's wrecking havoc on our sleep. That's pretty much as expected -- it seems to be the first thing other parents tell you about -- but knowing about it and living through it are vastly different things. It's hard to get used to feeling sleep-deprived all the time; I'm walking around a lot more stupidly than usual these days. Both Cindy and I have such little experience in coping with that kind of tiredness; I gave up on late nights and a wildly fluctuating sleep schedule years ago, and can't remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter -- probably during undergrad, if then. It's also frustrating to get such a small amount of quality work time out of each day, but I know that goes with the territory for a while, and will improve with time. As usual, lots of competing priorities. The rules of the game continue unchanged.
My next big thing coming up is getting pots fired for my annual Holiday Sale in early December. It may be an unrealistic goal to have a sale this year -- with a new baby, teaching 2 classes and already being about a month behind schedule -- but I can't let go of wanting to do it, at least not yet. My first sale was in 2000, so this would be the 9th year in a row. I would hate to break that streak, both for myself and for my customers' expectations... time will tell if I can get enough pots and preparations ready for it to be worthwhile.
Around the studio this week, I finished glazing for the next load in the soda kiln (I still call it that out of habit, even though these days I'm firing with about 70/30, salt/soda.) I mixed large batches of kiln wash and wadding -- both long overdue, as I've been down to the dregs the last few firings. And I did a lot of miscellaneous stuff to prep the studio for the winter heating cycle: moving piles of summer junk from around the furnace and wood stove, getting the stove chimney cleaned, organizing firewood, and patching some holes in the foam ceiling panels (a long story; suffice it to say that I absolutely loathe the ceiling in my studio, and long for the day that replacing it moves to the top of my maintenance list!).
And speaking of studio maintenance, the outside of the shop is also overdue to be repainted before winter, and since I didn't get around to it this summer, I've given in to hiring it out in the last few weeks of warm weather. (I have serious do-it-yourself issues.) I think I've picked a color, but what a dilemma! More on that next week. I also managed to shoot photos of new pots, which look good but I'm not sure when I'll find time to get them into the site gallery. That's overdue for a refresh too, but is another of those tasks that requires a good solid hour of concentration to get done.
I was struck by a strange thought while glazing the other day. The conventional wisdom among artists, writers and other creative types goes something like this: you're only as good as your last ________ (for potters, let's say "your last load of pots".) But what if you're actually only as good as what you're currently working on, the things you have your mind and hands on today? After all, the last batch is done, fired into permanence, with nothing left to add or change, perhaps even long gone. Out of site, out of mind. Aren't the pots that are in the here and now, and yet to be completed, the ones that really matter, and that define who you are as a potter?
October 19th, 2008
"The last one out of the circus has to lock up everything
or the elephants will get out and forget to remember what you said" - Counting Crows
My second week as a Dad consisted mainly of climbing a steep learning curve: figuring out this strange little person and what she needs from us. It probably goes without saying, but this was made more difficult by a perpetual lack of sleep and the strange drift of time where day and night merge and stuff just seems to happen, but we're getting there. Maggie's doing great, and is adorable beyond all expectation. It already seems like a long time since she arrived.
But least this blog drift into becoming This Week in Parenting, on to other topics! This week was the last classes before Fall Break at the U.; that's great timing for the break, but it was hard to shift gears and get back in the teaching mindset again before then. Both classes had major assignments due (thrown cylinders in intro, thrown cups in intermediate), and the critiques on Wednesday went really well. I enjoy hearing their comments about each others' work, and also about their experiences getting the assignments done.
I managed a little time in the studio, which felt luxurious -- great to be back in my space and to get to the wheel again after so much time away, even just to make a quick run of teabowls. I'm still using that stoneware clay, and on these brushed on a layer slip (from my white stoneware body). A bit of carving, some black underglaze; the slip really adds a lot to imagining the finished pot while still at the green stage. Given the tight timeframe, I did something I almost never do these days: speed drying. Ten minutes outside on a crisp, cool fall day and those suckers were ready to trim!
The last soda firing -- pre-Maggie -- came out very well; finally completed the commission for a sushi set and had some other nice pots in there too. As usual, I'm hoping to take photos for the site soon, but probably won't get to it for a while. I got started on the next one this week, picking pots from the bisk shelf and making some decisions. I've started spending more time in the planning stage, choosing which pots to fire and deciding what the stacking will be like and where each will go. It makes for a lot less guesswork while actually loading the kiln, and lets me glaze knowing what zone of the kiln each pot will go in, maximizing the chances of a good result. Fussy and obsessive, perhaps, but it probably makes for better pots in the end. And easy to do in such a small kiln.
Perhaps it is mainly symbolic, but getting to make a few pots since the baby arrived was really rewarding. The difference between having no time in the studio and a couple hours to work is amazing -- using that part of my brain and getting my hands dirty gives a huge boost to my energy level and mood, and helps put other things in perspective.
October 12th, 2008
"Baby, I'm amazed..." - Paul McCartney
This week, our daughter was born. We named her Maggie Pixel O'Dell Cooper, and she's healthy and happy and beautiful. I suspect that anything else I could say right now would be the same kind of thing every new parent says, and I also suspect that those things have become cliche' simply because they are true. I hope to have more profound things to write later, and perhaps some thoughts about how my life as a Dad and life as a potter will intertwine, but for now I'm just glad she's here and well.
October 5th, 2008
"Time is on my side" - The Rolling Stones
[Just because we've come to be close, you and I, let's pretend that I wrote this shortly after the week in question, rather than three weeks later, as is really the case.]
This week, the baby stayed in utero long enough for me to glaze, load and fire soda kiln #31. I'd like to believe that's a good sign of things to come -- patience, consideration -- but realize that's probably a long shot! In any case, I turned the kiln off on Sunday night and the due date is Monday, so I feel lucky to have squeezed one last thing in here at the end.
The firing was the first one with the new, more powerful burner and a few tweaks to the chimney. It went really well, about 20% faster than the old burner was and with some room to speed it up in the early hours -- I was cautious with it since the burner was a completely new variable. So there's some reason for optimism! I can't wait to fire it again and push it a bit more, see how much I can reduce the total firing time without compromising the results. The kiln is definitely getting older, wearing out from all the heavy salt and soda. More cracks and gaps between bricks, big goopy areas inside where the brick is turning to slag, lots of residual salt effect. I'm salting substantially less than a year ago, and am thinking about trying one without spraying any soda at all. Most zones of the kiln get really glassy now, and I'd like to have a few spots in the interior of the stack that are a bit drier, perhaps with more flashing.
Early Fall firings are the best: not too hot or cold, a great time to be outside, leaves falling, crisp stars in the early morning sky, the drone of heavy equipment harvesting distant fields. Watching the kiln reminds me of the show LOST, where the characters had to regularly enter mystical numbers into the computer to prevent the world from blowing up; especially during the morning ramp-up, when I turn up the burner about every 15 minutes. Granted, that's an exaggeration, but in the midst of doing a firing, the focus can narrow down to that kind of intensity. Sometimes I can almost hear that klaxon go off when it's time to go check the kiln.
Somehow I've lost the photos of preparing this firing, which, as a some-time IT professional, is particularly galling. Data loss is for amateurs! [Probably something to do with shuffling between computers and working in a sleep-deprived state, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. Let's not spoil the illusion.] So, rather than settling for some unadorned text, here are a couple older images I've been looking for an excuse to post.
September 28th, 2008
"There are many fine ideals which are not realisable,
and yet we do not refrain from teaching them." - Peretz Smolenskin
The first month of the semester is past, including an assignment cycle, with critiques and grading. We started the second major assignment this week, switching from coil building to the wheels, which involves a lot of demo preparation on my part, and working to get them all over the initial hurdle of wedging and centering. Even with a very small class, there's inevitably a wide range of experience on the wheel in the intro course; some students who've had years of experience in high school and others who've practically never seen the wheel in use. It's challenging to teach throwing skills across that range, so I tend to focus on the true beginners at first and keep the presentation at the introductory level.
I also find grading to be difficult -- there's a big difference between arbitrarily assigning grades and arriving at them through a carefully considered process. Perhaps this goes without saying, but I aim for consistency and fairness, and try to give a lot of written feedback so each student knows how different aspects of their work affected the grade. (The conscientious students take this feedback into account in later assignments.)
After my teaching work was done for the week, I did some maintenance and support stuff around the studio. I miss making pots, but as Baby Time approaches -- the theoretical arrival date is October 6th -- it's hard to wrap my mind around getting back into a throwing cycle or starting new projects. So instead I'm trying to wrap up loose ends, which this week meant some delayed kiln modifications, with hopes of firing one more time pre-baby, and processing a batch of reclaimed clay.
Because I improvised the chimney on my soda kiln -- the original design didn't have one -- the tie rod at the back of the arch has been an inconvenience, located too tight against the flue channel. I noticed near the end of the last firing that it was actually glowing a dull red, which isn't a good sign, since it holds the metal frame in place and helps keep the sprung-arch sprung. On closer inspection, the center of the rod had been getting so hot that the threads were literally melting off. This prompted visions of that rod letting go at cone 10, the frame flying outwards, arch bricks dropping through the load of shelves and pots... real Armageddon type stuff. Now I'm not really qualified to say whether that's paranoia or reasonable concern, but since I'd rather err on the safe side I replaced it with a new rod, and located it a few inches higher above the arch and away from the heat. That also opened up room to widen the flue channel at the bottom of the chimney a bit, and to add three more courses of softbrick below the metal stack -- I'm working from the assumption that it can't hurt to have more height. The next firing will also be the first with the new, stronger burner, so it'll be interesting to see what difference that makes, if any. (I realize that's changing two variables at once, which is bad for empirical analysis, but both were overdue. I'll try to divine the effects of each on the outcome.)
My reclaimed white stoneware was ready to come out of the rack, so I did a lot of wedging, air drying in arches to a good consistency for storage, then wrapping up tight in recycled plastic bags. I mix slops as a fairly thin slip and store them in large plastic barrels or 5 gallon buckets, then pour the slurry into a frame in the studio to dry. This usually takes a few weeks, depending on local humidity. In addition to the time it spends soaking in the barrels, I think this slow drying time really helps the plasticity, giving all those clay particles a good soak; the clay is a lot more forgiving and stretches better the second time around.
I've also been assembling the last of the baby accoutrements -- bassinet, car seat, stroller, etc. Given how much time I've spent lately thinking about showing how to perform tasks in a specific sequence, it nearly drove me mad trying to follow the instructions that come with those things. They're shockingly bad, with tiny black-and-white photos, twisted logic and wretched English. Is there a governing body somewhere that makes this a standardized requirement for anything that requires assembly? Some of them are like a cruel joke, to the point of being nearly worthless, which makes for a really bad first impression of the product, even when the thing itself is well made. There's a lesson in there that applies to making and selling utilitarian pots, I'm just not sure what it is.
September 21st, 2008
"Don't you know about a zillion years ago,
Some star sneezed now they're paging you in reception?" - XTC
I had just a little time in the studio this week, as most of my days have been going to teaching lately. It's been a whirlwind of a month, ever since the semester started. I've been changing many aspects of my Ceramics I course, from assignments details to digitizing all my handouts, and this is my first time teaching the Ceramics II course, so much of that is starting from scratch. I feel compelled to give my best effort to all of it, and the three-year break since I last taught means I see the flaws in the way I used to do things pretty clearly. I like making the courses better, but it takes a lot of time to do well.
At the U. we're using a stoneware clay body with a lot of grog, so doing demos was a big change from my primary studio clay (a smooth white stoneware). But using it got me thinking about stoneware again, so I drug out some that I mixed about 9 years ago and never got through -- about 600 pounds of it has been sitting around ever since. We've actually moved to new houses twice in that time! So much for planning ahead... The sad part is that much of it has dried out, despite being double wrapped in plastic bags, so only a portion is usable without some heavy duty reprocessing. But wow, the stuff that's still wet enough to use is some finely aged clay!
It was strange to find tape labelled "Sept. 99" in my handwriting, still stuck to the bags, and to think of all the time that's passed since then. I remember that Fall really well, just after leaving graduate school and moving to Indiana for good. An exciting time -- setting up my first home studio, working out in that old, sway-backed garage at the first house we rented in Greencastle, buying my first wheel and electric kiln. Makes me nostalgic to think about it.
Old garage, 1999: clay mixing
The stoneware is a recipe from Edwardsville, based on Randy Johnston's. It's mostly Hawthorn fireclay with a little ball clay thrown in, and maybe some Custer Feldspar, too. It was excellent out of the wood kilns at SIU, but a little too monochrome in salt. I made a quick run of teabowls, and enjoyed the feel of it. I'll test them in my soda kiln and see where that might lead. I've been thinking about going back to this clay for a while -- first prompted by that great mug I got from Ron Philbeck a few months back -- so it was cool that teaching with it finally prompted some action.
September 14th, 2008
"Cut myself on angel hair and baby's breath." - Nirvana
In our part of the world we started into Fall this week, with the first hint of cold at night and the most fragile leaves starting to descend from the trees in the yard. It's a fantastic time to be outside, to work in the studio with the windows open or sit on the front porch watching the crops go yellow. The days get shorter at a rate that never fails to surprise me, especially after the ridiculously long sunsets of high summer.
I've spent most of the last two weekends working on house stuff (instead of pots), but we now have a room just about ready for an actual baby. That's quite a relief! My perennial habits of procrastination, then panic, then action have narrowly dodged the bullet once again. Unfortunately, I suspect that just reinforces them for next time.
I finished that triad of coil pots, which was fun but involved making some tough decisions about how to resolve them at the rim and what to do with the black underglaze for decoration. Hearing my own Professor voice in my head, I took the time to sketch the forms and a variety of pattern options. I also listened to the nagging whisper that said I needed to stretch out more, try something new and different that wasn't a sure thing, so the last of them got a cross-hatched stripes instead of solid black. A minor variation, perhaps, but significant enough for now.
I find it particularly difficult to be very experimental when decorating these forms, mainly because with coil building at this size they take several hours each just to complete the form. (It's the same with throwing, say when one pot in a series is particularly good.) I get conservative with the pots that I've invested a lot of labor in, despite knowing that I shouldn't. My tendency is towards slow and steady evolution, but perhaps that's just succumbing to a low-risk/low-reward mentality? It's certainly not what I preach to my beginning students.
I arrived at these vertical stripes a few years ago, almost by accident. I'd done coiled forms with stripes before, but always horizontally, following the pattern of the coils. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it took a while for it to occur to me to try rotating them 90 degrees. I also swelled out that belly on these more than in the past (hmm... I wonder why?), and I particularly like that point where the stripes stretch out to follow that curve. It makes for some tricky geometry, because even though I'm going for a pattern that's loosely regular (i.e. not too "tight" or exact), if those lines and areas get too varied the whole pattern kind of falls apart. I make good use of diluted food coloring to explore proportions on each pot in advance, like underpainting on a canvas. I like how doing that much brushwork in one sitting becomes meditative, almost hypnotic. Towards the end it requires deliberately looking away at regular intervals to uncross my eyes from that extreme close-up -- a strange sensation.
I hope to get back to the wheel next week and perhaps start on the next soda firing, now long-delayed by teaching, house projects and so forth. I'm getting anxious to play with fire again, and to have some new pots around.
September 7th, 2008
"It's a competitive world." - Depeche Mode
It's been a whirlwind around here lately: the start of the semester, getting ready for Il Bambino, and trying to maintain a small pulse in the studio. Towards the end of last week, I finished this group of lidded jars, with small loops of nichrome wire for the handles, and loaded and fired a bisk. I've now got enough pots on hand for a few firings, just waiting to get the time to do them.
I started a group of coil pots, which is an interesting change of pace. It's the first assignment I gave to my classes, and I try to be working in my studio on the same things they are. It makes for an easy way to prep for demos, and reminds me of the things I want to emphasize to my students. It's been quite a while since I've done any handbuilding -- back well before the start of this blog -- so it's cool to get back to that, too. It's also a good thing to have going when I'm this busy with other stuff, because I can work on them incrementally, sometimes just one or two rows on each pot per day.
I've been processing reclaim clay in my studio, after a long pause at that too, and mixing clay at the U for my classes to get the semester started. Since I almost exclusively use pre-mixed clay these days, I forget what it's like to be elbows-deep in the slops bucket, or hauling around 50# bags of raw material. Not that I'd want to do go back to doing it all the time -- I doubt my body could keep up! -- but it's an interesting shift in perspective. Coincidentally, I stumbled across this post on the Anagama-West blog about mixing clay without heavy equipment, which I think is quite good and potentially useful to potters who are just starting out or want to try mixing their own clay bodies for the first time. I particularly like the tone of encouragement:
Hint one: nothing is indispensable — alternatives always exist.
Hint two: just dive in, the world won’t end if you mess it up.
Lastly this week, I finally got the baby's room painted: a playful, cubist approach to all those little wall segments, in a non-gender-specific color pallete of orange, yellow and blue. Finishing the floor next, then the furniture goes in. Time's getting short, but we're almost ready...
August 31st, 2008
"So don't tread on me, for I am your brother, I was born with an American heart." - A.A. Bondy
Classes started at the U. this week, so I continued flipping that big mode switch to get ready -- polishing syllabi, planning schedules, refining assignments. It's been 3 years since I last taught, so it takes a lot of effort to start loading all that data back into my mental RAM. At least I kept all the handouts and made good notes! The first class sessions went well, getting all the procedural stuff out of the way so they can start getting their hands dirty next week. Both classes are unusually small -- 6 in intro, 4 in intermediate/advanced -- so it will be like teaching two seminars. Pretty great.
However, it makes for a drastic transition in my day-to-day life. Working at the web shop, I find myself saying things like, "Should I set up a Robocopy to slurp the data from the live box to the Dev server once a month?" This is an actual, logical sentence, decipherable by my fellow geeks. With teaching, it's more like: "On Monday, maybe I'll do a sketchbook exercise right after we look at slides, but before getting started with clay." And both of these are in contrast to working in the studio, where it's just me and the pots, and the only dialogue is a running internal conversation. I suppose there are common aspects to the three, but all I see right now are the wild differences.
I was invited to be in the Art department's faculty show, which opened the first day of classes. These are the pots that I have in the show, putting The Reserve to good use:
At the opening, each artist gave a quick talk about their work, which was a unique opportunity, but pretty nerve-rattling in front of such a large audience (and tiring after a long day talking about syllabi and studio safety!) But I managed to not bomb it too badly. I talked about how the gallery space isn't the natural habitat for my work, because everything I make is intended to be used, or at least made so that it could be used. I talked about what is lost when people can't touch the pots, sitting so properly on their white pedestals: a sense of their weight, balance, density, surface texture. And how, just like the limitations of looking at pots in photographs, there's no way to see the wadding marks or decoration on a base, or the color of the glaze inside a lidded jar. I also talked some about how I've been doing more surface decoration the last few years, particularly since I built my soda kiln, about my proclivity for dots, and my growing interest in patterns and how they approximate order or randomness without ever quite achieving either ideal state.
At least, that's what my notes say I said!
August 24th, 2008
"And do this all in time to the music..." - Ryan Adams
Amidst intense preparations for the start of classes next week, I made some more mugs this week, and thought I'd share a few more bits of wisdom I've gathered over the years about making handles:
- The pot should be soft to medium leather-hard. Just stiff enough the handle without warping.
- The best clay for handles is soft and very plastic. I use reclaim clay that was slaked and aged as slops.
- The better the plasticity, the easier it is to pull and hold a curve without cracking.
- Make a few more slugs that you need, so you have options in matching them to the pots.
- Get the slug just right and pulling the handle is much easier.
- Learn to estimate the size of slug it takes to make the handle you want. this eliminates pulling too thin or cutting off if too long.
- Really compress the top end of the slug. It should flare out to make a solid attachment surface.
- Use a tool that makes many fine scoring marks, and align them in the same direction on slug and body. It's like ceramic velcro.
- I prefer spit to slip on that top join. Go ahead and lick the clay -- it's primal.
- Work both ends of the join well, to ensure that they are solid, pleasing to touch and look good.
- Ideally, when this mug breaks, it will be somewhere other than the points where the handle and body meet.
- After the slug is on the pot, be aware of supporting it -- don't strain that top join until the bottom is attached.
- I use a thin slip to pull handles -- a bit thinner than throwing slip is best.
- Hold the pot so the slug hangs straight down while pulling. Don't fight gravity.
- Gravity also makes a good curve. When finished pulling, turn the cup vertical and the handle starts to shape itself, like a catenary arch.
- Don't fuss with the shape and curve of the handle too much before attaching the bottom join.
- They're best when you get it right on the first try.
- Smooth down sharp edges on the handle (and the rims of mugs).
- Dry slowly - give the wet handle and drier body time to equalize.
August 17th, 2008
"Show me show me show me how you do that trick..." - The Cure
It was a quiet week in the studio, as I was busy finishing that floor with my Dad, rearranging our home offices, and wrapping up my last week in the web shop before switching to teaching mode for the fall semester. But I finally made a rusty return to the wheel and managed to start some mugs for the soda kiln. A reader asked a while back if I'd show more detail about how I make handles, so here's a photo sequence of me pulling a handle on a mug (with help from my wife, the photographer).
August 10th, 2008
"Water and feed are not tools that I need for the thing that I've chosen
to be." - Sinead O'Connor
My Dad is nearly twice my age, but he can still outwork me any day of the week. I routinely forget that he's in his 70's now -- it rarely shows. When he commits to a project, his focus and stamina are amazing. I was reminded of all this as we tackled one project after another this week, following our standard protocol when my parents come to visit.
Since we bought our first house in 2000, he's helped me rewire a second story, finish drywall, install siding,windows and doors in the studio, renovate the barn, pour foundations for the new kiln shed, and dozens of smaller projects along the way. We've just added underground power line repair to the list, and are working on wood floor refinishing. My Dad has done just about every kind of house repair, construction and remodeling at least once before, so his knowledge of this stuff is as great a gift as his relentless labor. He's saved us untold thousands of dollars over the years, and taught me more than I ever thought I'd know (or need to know!). It's all very useful to building and maintaining the infrastructure of a pottery, and I also notice these new skills making subtle changes to the way I think and work in the studio.
So the power is back on, at last. I loaded a bisque into the electric kiln -- it's ready to fire and test for bugs in the system. It ended up that the (theoretically) helpful red X in the grass wasn't anywhere close to the problem in the line, as we discovered in the process of digging an 80' long trench through the backyard. (The culprit was a really ugly splice, wrapped in electrical tape and tossed back in the ground. To quote the electrician: "I've never seen anything like that." Go figure.) We've had unbelievably nice weather, which made the digging a lot easier, and I'm pleased to say that my potter's back held up really well. If I ever want to dig local red clay, I now know exactly where it is... everywhere!
All of that made for a lot of long days, but with good progress to show for it. Mixed in there somewhere were great meals, our first baby class at the hospital, doing job interviews at the university, watching the Olympics on TV, multiple trips to the hardware store, and some fantastic twilights on the front porch.
It's been 2 weeks since I've thrown pots, which is just at the edge of my tolerance. Longer than that and I start going a little nuts, which reminds me that I'm definitely a Mud & Water potter. For me, throwing is at the heart of making pots. Having my hands in wet clay, watching the wheel spin, pulling up that soft wall -- that's where it's at. While I get anxious if too much time goes by between glazing or firings or mixing clay, I never long for those things in quite the same way. It's more like they're just necessary parts of the process.
Firing #30 turned out quite well, as they usually do when the firing itself goes haywire. Getting back good pots is like karmic retribution for all the stress and exhaustion. I forgot to shoot a photo before unloading (a bit distracted with my parents as an audience), but a few of the highlights are below -- some really nice bottles and mugs. My black underglaze bubbled some towards the top of the load, which reinforces my belief that this happens when I replace the metal stack; the inner lining burns out, which I think causes a metallic reaction with whatever's in that underglaze. (This is one of those times when it would be better if I mixed my own underglazes. Then I'd know what what in it and, perhaps, be able to alter it to fix the problem.) Other than that, I had some great salt/soda flashing, really good color response from the slips, and some more very encouraging results from the Turner Porcelain clay -- I'm still just firing those first test teabowls, but looks like it's time to go full steam ahead with that clay when I get back to the wheel. There's an avalanche of potential there just waiting to release.
Since the firing wasn't much faster with the newly-rebuilt stack, afterwards I swapped my old burner for a larger version of the same thing -- a GACO MR100 from Ward Burner. It should put out about 20% more BTU's, which my wood stoking experiments suggest might help speed things up. I'm excited to fire the next load and see what difference it makes.
Lastly this week, I had this interesting question via email: "Would you consider clay to be a renewable resource?"
After a bit of thought, here's what I came up with:
Renewable? Technically, yes -- clays are decomposed rock, created by glaciers, weathering, erosion, etc. So more is always being made as part of those natural processes. (But like fossil fuels, whether it's being made as fast as we use it is another matter!) An interesting thing about clay is that it's endlessly reusable up to the point of firing, because you're just adding and removing physical water. However, firing essentially converts it back to stone, at which point the decomposition process starts again...
I enjoy thinking about the geological origins of these materials I love, and how that relates to our society's increasing awareness of scarce resources, ecological impact, and so on. It's a stretch to think of making pots as "green", particularly when trucking raw materials across country and firing with natural gas or propane, but I like how most everything else we do in ceramics is a simulation of natural processes that were going to cycle through anyways. As potters, we just try to squeeze out some beauty and utility along the way.
August 3rd, 2008
"Baby, ain't we a beautiful disaster?" - Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers
We started on the baby's room this week, in our typical disorganized, behind-schedule fashion. This involves consolidating our 2 home offices into 1, which -- just like my studio -- have been semi-functional disasters since we moved in. So I started with trying to put some order to the chaos: consolidating piles of paper, packing peripheral things away for storage, throwing out junk like 10-year-old phone bills and pay stubs from my workstudy job in college. (Literally. But oddly enough, those were carefully organized. I sometimes wonder exactly when it was that I went nuts.)
We discovered that the original wood floor in one room was in pretty good condition, hidden under a coat of grey paint. We decided on a whim to refinish the wood, instead of slapping another coat of paint or carpet on top, which resulted in spending the better part of two days sanding and scraping paint. But the floor is great -- lots of grain and good color, with a record of the years of wear written into it. Most of the original wood in our circa-1900 house was lost to termites or remodeling years ago, so it's really cool to salvage the bits that are left. Plus it evens out my karma for buying a prefab shelving unit last week.
The downside is that the entire upstairs of the house is a complete disaster, and not really that much closer to freshly painted walls and an assembled crib. The studio is suddenly my most usable work space, but I went another week with my trusty extension cords supplying the juice. A utility locating scan marked out the buried cable and a guess as to a good spot to start digging, but the built-in margin of error to that hasn't inspired me to get out the shovel quite yet. And since I'd already bumped my soda firing a couple times to work on organizing the studio, it was time to get firing #30 in the books.
I put my new chalkboard to use with a checklist of all the little things that go into preparing a firing. Seeing them all lined up like that makes the whole endeavor seem kind of overwhelming, which reminds me of this quote by Michael Simon from that wonderful Smithsonian Archives interview by Mark Shapiro a couple years ago:
"I thought how difficult it was to make a kilnload of pottery. Since I have not been working, pottery has become much harder work than it was when I was a potter. I can't imagine anymore how people make a kiln of pottery, when you consider how all of that shape and all of the considerations and everything that has to line up and make sense and have -- not just thought about, but actually accomplished -- glazes mixed and, oh, everything right. It's flabbergasting the amount of work to do."
And then you've got to fire the damn thing!
I took a lot of photos during the glazing and loading process this time, which provide some evidence for Simon's view. And this is for a very small kiln... doing the same for a large firing can be like a marathon.
After getting it loaded up on Saturday, I had a lucky spot in the weather on Sunday and fired it off before the August heat returned. (My One Day Off plan hasn't been working out so well the last few weeks.) After rebuilding the stack and extending it's height, I was hoping this firing would go better than #29, but it was still a bear -- stalling mercilessly, and needing a lot of wood stoking to get it to temperature. After a long day and into the night I managed to get a bend in 10, so the pots have a good chance of coming out well, but something significant has changed with the kiln and I still don't know what it is. I've ruled out most of the obvious things, which leaves the strange and obscure, and strains my understanding of kiln design and the dynamics of firing. Where to go with it from here is a frustrating mystery.
July 27th, 2008
"What's this war in the heart of nature?" - The Thin Red Line
Tuesday morning, 1am: Lightning like a giant strobe. Constant, booming, like it was hitting the house each time. Strike - crack - sizzle - lights out! The utility company had the power back on by mid-day, but then I discovered that the studio was still off. Dead. Nada. Uh-oh. By the end of the week, an electrician had diagnosed it as a problem with the buried wire from the house to the studio, somewhere along that 100-yard run. Hell. This storm was only slightly less intense than the one that claimed our barn in January, so in the last 6 months we've now had the two worst storms I've ever seen. That's not a good trend.
Since then I've had an extension cord trailed across the yard to the studio, which gets juice to about three devices at a time. This makes for kind of a "desert island" scenario: If you could only power three things in the studio at once, what would they be and why? Mine are: lights, fan and stereo.
Coincidentally, just before the storm I had a visit by a potter from Montana, who asked why I prefer using a treadle wheel to an electric. I listed things like no motor sound, slower throwing speed, slight irregularity, and that it encourages a certain style of pots... but forgot to mention that you can still throw during a blackout! If it takes a while to get the power on, I may get to utilize the same advantage with the Venturi burner on the soda kiln. I'm no purist, but it's interesting to realize that I could do the two main parts of making pots -- throwing and firing -- without electricity.
(This was also the first time I've met someone in person who's been reading this blog. That's a bit odd, sort of like a Victorian novel in which a character's reputation has proceeded him. "You, ma'am, have me at something of a disadvantage!")
After all that excitement, I made a few more jars and started glazing for my next soda firing, but mainly continued the ever-expanding studio cleanup and reorganization job. I bought a new shelving unit for bisqueware, which replaces a smaller, crummy particle board bookshelf -- a vast improvement. For a few brief moments here, I actually have that rarest of commodities in a pottery: empty shelf space. Then I moved the electric kiln a few feet, to get it out from in front of a window and use the space a bit more efficiently. Also, after 3 1/2 years of it sitting where I dropped it when we moved in, I finally rehung my chalk board, on that new span of clean white wall. It still had some notes from my old studio on it, which brought back a lot of memories.
I recently made two interesting discoveries online, a continuation of the trend towards a wider and better range of clay resources on the web. (Neither is really new, but they're both new to me.) The first is that Ceramics Monthly is now publishing some of the magazine's content on their site. At last! I wrote a rant about this way back in 2002, which is still surprisingly on target. It makes complete sense that they should go this direction, especially given The Long Tail effect of digital media distribution, which suggests that the value of archival and peripheral content rivals that of the new and the popular. The fact that it's taken so long suggests that, like many "old media" institutions, they've struggled to make the transition. (While I'm critical of this, I can certainly sympathize. Back in the day, I attempted to get the university's alumni magazine online at least three different times. Each one failed because the existing workflow and resources couldn't maintain both print and web versions.)
It looks like the CM archives only go back to the start of this year, and that only a few articles are available from each issue (mainly as PDF files, which are better than nothing, but not very user-friendly). Likewise, the Article Archive must amount to less than 1% of the real archive, but at least it's a start. Let's hope they keep expanding both the archive and the proportion of each new issue that's available online.
My longstanding grudge against CM is that every issue has one or two items that are interesting and informative, then a dozen or more that just don't do it for me. Factor in that it's all sandwiched between page after page of dumb ads for equipment, materials and events that I have no interest in, and the signal-to-noise ratio is so low that I let my subscription lapse (again). Compare that with Studio Potter, which has no ads and a quality ratio of more like 5:1. I'll gladly pay for SP, but it was great to read the parts of CM I wanted online without paying for the stuff that I didn't. Whether they can make a viable business out of it remains to be seen, but these days that's true for every newspaper and magazine on earth.
So in the June issue I happily skipped almost everything else, but really enjoyed the series "Work and Play: The Potter's Life". Some quotes from the article really hit home for me:
"My initial reason for pursuing pottery as a livelihood cannot be explained
easily. I wanted the work to mature and the only way I could achieve that was
to devote my life to it. The by-product of this approach was a lot of work
that needed homes. Also, the lifestyle of a potter is well suited to my temperament.
It involves the ability to work largely in solitude, confront many challenges,
work cyclically through mixing clay, making, firing and selling the finished
pots, as well as learning and growing through this process."
- Jeff Oestrich
"As a young potter, my central goal was to make a seamless balance between
my studio work and my domestic life."
- Silvie Granatelli
"When it starts to become just a job, one has to realize this job is
full of "little Christmases." These can be a piece that turns out
the way you wanted, a great firing or maybe just the best mug on the board.
These small, consistent rewards aren't really part of a lot of other professions.
Making pots is simply one of my favorite things to do in life."
- Blair Meerfeld
"So much physical work takes a toll. Throwing is repetitive and asymmetric
on your joints-so many potters have lower back issues, especially on the side
of their dominant hand. I have been throwing standing-and seated on a treadle
wheel for trimming and throwing off the hump-for the last twenty years, which
has helped my back. I also try to use the softest clay possible for the pot
I'm making. The softer the clay, the less resistance it has to shaping and
the less stress there is on the body. For small bowls and the like, the clay
I use is so soft it feels like you only have to look at it to move it. Of course,
for taller and thinner forms I use the harder stuff..."
- Mark Shapiro
"I especially love the pre-dawn moments when I re-encounter pots from
the previous workday, perhaps waiting for further resolution. Magical."
- John Glick
"When, at twenty four, I finally decided that clay was the right medium
for me, it was because I realized that doing what made me happiest was my only
option for making a living. I used to think with cynicism that marketing was
crucial in a competitive art and design world, but recently I've come full-circle
back to the conclusion that there is no substitute for making good, interesting
- Ayumi Horie
The second discovery was Ayumi Horie's site, linked from the CM article. I think this is a great site. The design compliments her pots, everything is laid out well and organized, there's a lot of interesting content (check out "Pots In Action"), and it has the best implementation of a web storefront that I've seen. Considering that I do my own site work, and that mine is woefully overdue for a complete redesign, Horie's site is both daunting and inspirational. By comparison, mine is creaky and old. Originally built in 2000, it's now ancient in web years. Heck, that was before the tech bubble popped!
Things to do, things to do...
July 20th, 2008
"Drowning here in summer's cauldron" - XTC
The real summer weather hit this week, hot and damp, extreme enough to make me long for fall. It gets to about cone 098 in the studio in the afternoons, which makes my brain go limp and slows my progress to a crawl. (I'm resisting the desire to install a window AC unit on principle.) So I've been experimenting with my work/sleep schedule again, time-shifting the day to be up at dawn, like a farmer or an old man. It's good to get most of a day's work done before lunch, then go hide in the shade through the late afternoon.
But on the plus side, we had the first tomatoes from our small garden, with gallons of them to come, still green and swelling out in the sun. Nothing looks as good against the celadon glaze of my favorite salad bowl than those bright red cherry tomatos. Peaches coming soon.
I finished those large bowls from last week, and made a group of smaller bowls, on request for Cindy's photo professor from our undergrad days at Iowa. Very cool. Then I switched gears and made two series of lidded jars. I'm starting to go vertical for a while instead of horizontal. I'm enjoying this trend of working on a certain form for several days at a time; it's easier to get warmed up, then do some exploration -- more of an iterative process. (When you're on the crab, you reset your string of pots in the same spot, right?) For example, I'll start two series of lidded jars, say 3-5 pots each, two variations on a similar idea. I finish them the next day, then evaluate them in completed form and make decisions about what's working or not, and where I want them to go next. The day after that I'll do both series again, maybe at a larger size, capitalizing on the good parts and discarding the bad. This seems like a good way to make steady improvement.
I alternated that with continuing my studio reorg project: moving that pallet of dry materials to a more sensible location at the back of the shop, finishing the plywood sheeting and painting the south wall, etc. Then I moved on to some soda kiln maintenance. This was another of those jobs that starts small -- I was just going to replace the burnt-out section of metal pipe on top of the stack -- and expands into a major endeavor. When I added the stack a couple years ago it was kind of a hasty experiment, so the cinder block foundation wasn't great to begin with and had sunk and shifted a bit over time. So I took the whole thing back to the ground and redid it level and solid. Along the way, I made a few modifications, with the idea of improving the draft: a bit more room for primary air intake to the burner, improved fit of the damper slot, and about 2 more feet of height to the metal pipe. It's good to sort these things out for myself and learn as I go, but they always take a long time -- I'm just not very mechanically inclined or experienced. (This is when I really envy potters who know their way around tools and have those skills.)
After consulting with Marc Ward about that last, very slow firing in June, my latest theory is that it's caused by a combination of poor flow through the kiln and not enough burner power. So I ordered a larger version of the same burner (that will work with the existing pilot and safety valve), but I'm only going to change one variable at a time -- it's more important that I learn from the results than improve the situation without knowing why. So my plan is to fire again with the old burner and new stack, see what's what, then switch to the larger burner and see if more BTU's help.
I was looking through my photo archives and found this from November 2005. I'd forgotten this, but it's one Cindy took while I was puzzling out those first firings right after building the soda kiln. That look of intense, head-scratching confusion pretty much sums up the experience, but there's at least some consolation in seeing how much the studio has improved since then!
p.s. TW@SE, I decided to give up on starting every post with "TW@SE". It was fun for a while, but has worn kind of thin. I might try quotes for a while instead. Good things change, right?
July 13th, 2008
TW@SE I was waiting in my car at the Fillmore train crossing, watching the cars go by with their labels and rust and graffiti from far off cities, when this rushed past on a tanker:
Calcium Carbonate - Limestone Slurry
A part of daily life
Southern Indiana is lousy with limestone quarries, so it was no great shock to see some going by on a train, but it was one of those moments of recognition and realization: "Say, I know what's in that one! Hmm... so that's how this stuff gets from a hole in the ground into a 50# bag in Chicago or Minneapolis."
Calcium Carbonate (AKA Limestone, Chalk, or Whiting) is a common ingredient in glazes, and an old friend to any potter who mixes them from raw materials. John Britt's excellent book, The Complete Guide to High Fire Glazes, says it's an alkaline earth flux (fluxes help melt the glass), which "adds hardness and durability to glazes". Wikipedia adds that it's "the main component of shells of marine organisms, snails, and eggshells" and is used in agricultural lime, calcium supplements and as an antacid. (That Mylanta tastes chalky for a reason.)
The funny part was the tagline: A part of daily life. That's a strange bit of marketing -- aimed at whom, I wonder? People sitting at the train crossing in their cars, or going past in commuter trains?
"Dad, what's Calcium Carbonate?"
"Well son, it's simply a part of daily life."
"I don't know. That's what it says."
I confess to imagining these kinds of conversations lately. (Although in the actual event, I'd probably riff a bit on how it adds durability and hardness to our celadons.)
My studio time this week was quite productive. I made more bowls -- one group with carved rims, another with added handles for serving -- and fired a load in the electric kiln, then started a pretty serious studio cleanup and reorganization. Really!
As I suggested last week, I have a hard time switching away from making pots to work on other projects, especially if I have a good momentum built up in the studio. That's essentially this place got to be such a disaster -- perpetually ignoring it in favor of making more pots. I'm not sure if that habit displays a good sense of prioritization or a horrible case of procrastination. Perhaps its some of both.
In any case, after writing about it I had the feeling that I was locked into a pattern, blindly following the routine. That got under my skin. Irritating. I realized that the inefficiencies caused by ignoring the problem -- the minor day-to-day hassles, like working around the junk and never having an open space to set something down -- had become greater than the time it would take to fix the problem. So I decided to just get on with it.
This was tricky, however, because: 1) After three years in this studio, I still can't imagine the ideal layout of workspace and storage; and 2) There's so much stuff everywhere that finding a space to move something to is difficult. This is more a matter of having too much stuff than not enough space, so I began by ruthlessly consolidating, trashing, or relocating to the basement everything that wasn't strictly necessary. Then I started finishing the part I'm sure about -- the southeast corner, where my worktable sits in front of a big window. Trying to do things right -- i.e. for the long term -- takes more time, but it was worth it. Another pile sorted, more junk disposed of, some extensive cleaning, and a coat of white paint on the wall and now it feels like a completely different space. Less junk = more clarity, and I need all I can get. With that first big push out of the way, I'm hoping to keep working my way around the studio a couple hours at a time over the next few months. It should be much improved by the time I complete the circuit.
July 6th, 2008
TW@SE I spent 2 days at the U, 4 days in studio, and 1 an actual, certified "day off". (Not on the 4th, however; I worked in the studio all day, then went to a very late, disturbingly loud fireworks show at the local park. Is it just showing my age to remember when these things used to be short, sweet, and didn't wreck havoc on one's eardrums?)
In the studio, I made another series of bottles/vases, this time with more ovoid bodies. That makes for a lot of bottles the last month, but lately I've been trying to stretch out each series of pots -- making one or two more groups of a form before moving on, particularly when they're going well and it feels like I'm learning something. With this variation on the form, I like that broad shoulder that comes in from the belly and narrows into the neck. Good dynamic changes of direction from the rim to the foot.
Speaking of making longer series, later in the week I went kind of bowl crazy: two more groups of straight-sided bowls (4# and 6#) and 8 shallow serving bowls. On the vertical bowls, I'm exploring more stamping patterns and trying various numbers of small lugs or handles -- 2,3,4,6. I'm also experimenting with doing the sequence of steps in a different order. Normally, I trim feet first, then stamp patterns and add lugs as the last step. Now I'm reversing that: stamps while the clay is still quite soft, then lugs before the bowl is flipped over to dry the base, then trimming the footring last. This gives more options for the stamp pattern (and leaves a better mark), and I don't have to be as cautious about keeping the rim soft enough to attach lugs at the end. The downside to the new method is trimming the foot without disturbing that finished surface decoration, and having those fragile little lugs spinning around on the wheel amidst flying ribbons of trimmed clay. (I haven't torn any off yet, but it's bound happen eventually.) So, this new way is an improvement, but it seems like there are more tweaks that could improve it. I think this illustrates the importance of exploring not just the pots, but the process of making them, too. Working in the same old comfortable ways, while necessary to some extent, probably limits perspective and growth. As with most endeavors, fear of change could lead to a downward spiral.
Also in the studio this week, I did an inventory of my clay stockpile -- particularly sorting the 38M white stoneware remaining from last summer by stiffness. I'm often disappointed by how inconsistent this Amaco clay is out of the box -- one bag will be too stiff to throw, the next so soft that I have to air dry it before use. I haven't used the porcelain clays I got from Standard or Laguna enough to have a good basis of comparison yet, but I hope they're better. This goes with the territory, I guess -- one of the trade-offs of not mixing my own clay. So, I set some bags out in rainbows to stiffen up, the others I sliced, wetted, and sealed tight in the bag to get softer (that's the harder direction -- it's much easier to take water away than to put it back).
That was prompted by not having any clay of the right consistency to make those larger bowls. I've been paying more attention to the stiffness of the clay I use for throwing different pots. Generally, the more vertical the form, the stiffer the clay. For tall forms I use the stiffest clay that I can wedge and center comfortably (too stiff and it's much harder on the hands and arms); for flat forms like shallow bowls and plates, I use the softest clay that will still hold up a rim as the bat comes off the wheelhead. I guess that too would be filed under: Studio Process, refinement of.
Looking at my clay supply made it painfully clear just how far behind I am in processing slops back into usable throwing consistency. I've got several large barrels and at least a dozen buckets of of wet slops, and 10-15 clay boxes full of dry trimmings that need to be broken up and slaked. Until I get the new shed built, I'm stuck drying slops inside the studio, so my next realization was that the floorspace for the drying rack had gradually been overtaken by other objects, which appear like kudzu. "What the hell is all this stuff?", I wondered. Working up the courage to investigate further, I discovered, behind that stuff and a pallet of raw clay materials, stacked between the two doors on the south wall of studio... a random pile of junk. Junk! Cinder blocks, a box of other empty boxes, 3 frisbees, half a can of Fix-A-Flat, a few old glaze buckets, and so on. Right there in prime studio real estate.
This is all a casualty of the fact that I never properly moved into this studio, back when we bought the place 3 1/2 years ago. The move -- in the middle of freezing January -- was more like a desperate dumping of everything from the old studio in the order it came off the truck, much of it intermingled with garage stuff and years worth of household clutter. But in my typical fashion, once I had things ordered just enough to find my tools and start making pots, I never went back to organizing the rest -- essentially conceding several large areas of the studio to random, frightening piles of the unknown. (If you've been reading this for any length of time, no doubt you've seen this stuff in the background of many photos. How embarassing.) And then... well, let's just say that procrastination is an amazing force.
It took all of about 10 minutes to dig through the junk, which emptied a nice 2 x 6 foot space behind the pallet which, if moved, would create the perfect spot for the drying rack. As these things go, however, I then realized that the wall behind the pallet, which has been open studs with no insulation since I inherited the building, was suddenly clear enough that I could work on that abandoned project. So I found a roll of insulation (hiding at the bottom of yet another pile), and got it all tacked in place. I started the studio insulation a couple years ago, and had been meaning to get back to it as well (trying, meanwhile, not to think about all the heat racing into the atmosphere each winter), so it was great to make some progress on it. I've still got to get the plywood sheeting up, so there's an actual wall to the wall, but after that it will be a nice improvement to my workspace. In a perfect world, I would take this little turbocharge of momentum and dive into the rest of the junk, sort those piles, finish insulating the east wall, and get the entire studio in proper working order.
Or I could just go back to making pots.
June 29th, 2008
TW@SE things got a little out of hand. I'd been planning a firing towards the end of the week, but realized mid-day on Monday that the forecast was for thunderstorms from Wednesday through Saturday. (Let's skip over how I hopelessly lost track of time this month, and let this firing slip way too close to the deadline for a couple of those barn jars. And let's not dwell on the fact that I foolishly built my soda kiln without a proper shed, and have since discovered that the rain up here on our hill usually comes sideways with 30mph winds, and that firing in that kind of weather is damn near useless. No, let's not dwell on any of those things.)
So starting in the afternoon on Monday, I unloaded the bisque kiln, glazed and loaded the soda kiln, and -- working straight through to almost midnight -- somehow had it ready to fire on Tuesday. This normally takes me at least 2 days to do well, so I was quite surprised that I actually pulled it off. That's both an endurance test and an experiment in working overtime without screwing things up along the way. (In a surreal, life-imitates-television way, it felt a lot like an episode of Deadliest Catch.)
Tuesday was as good as the weather ever gets for firing around here: cool, calm, clear. And so, naturally, I had a crazy, extra-long firing where nothing went as expected. The kiln pretty well stalled at about 2000°F, then just crawled along for hours through the high cones. I ended up pushing the last 2 cones down by stoking small pieces of wood into the fireboxes (which reminds me of a story about Bernard Palissy tearing up the floorboards of his house to finish off a stubborn kiln). I've been experimenting with adding wood when salting/spraying soda, trying to make a longer flame to pull the vapor through the kiln, so with few other options in sight, I just extended the idea. The firing was ridiculously long, but it worked eventually. It was interesting to see the results of adding more wood, and surprising how much temperature gain the kiln got from a couple small sticks at a time. And while nicely reminiscient of my woodfiring days, and a good bail-out strategy, it's not something I want to be dependent on just to get cone 10 down on the top shelf. No sir.
So now I've got yet another technical issue to solve, and that itchy, anxious knowledge that my kiln -- the lifeline to finished pots -- isn't behaving properly. The possible causes that come to mind are: 1) a problem with the gas supply; 2) a problem with the burner; or 3) a problem with the flue/stack. Certainly, there could be others, but everything else is the same as in previous firings, as far as I can tell. I'm inclined to rule out #1, because nothing's changed with the propane tank or the gas lines. Likewise for #3, because the kiln seemed to respond normally to damper changes, and I didn't see anything obvious when unloading. So that leaves #2, the burner, and some puzzling questions. Hell.
Considering all that, the firing turned out quite well. Almost all the pots were good, including the barn jars, and there were several promising developments for future firings, too. I had some Turner Porcelain teabowls in there that are all very good: one with bare clay on the exterior and a white liner glaze -- pure white in and out like new snow; one with my favorite flashing slip -- subtle color variations and a nice, satiny texture; and one with my pale green celadon -- really intense color and contrast from the green glaze to the bone-white clay body. I can't wait to do more with that clay body.
I put some planters on the top shelf, where the uneven temperature from top to bottom has been making it difficult to get the liner glazes to flux completely. These are bare clay inside and decorated with wax and flashing slips on the outside, with vertical stripes (in a pattern shamelessly borrowed from Linda Christianson). I think they're striking and playful, and want to try that pattern on other forms.
The square plate prototypes turned out very well, no warping or cracking and the decoration is just as I'd hoped. They fired well stacked 2 high, and I quite like the incidental marks from the wadding in combination with the stamps and underglaze, but the covered one is a bit drier inside than I'd like -- too much shielding from the salt and soda. I'm thinking that if I make the wads taller and put them at the edge of the shelf facing the fireboxes, they might get a bit more gloss on them. They'd be a great form to stack 3-4 tall, if I can get that to work.
I'm always surprised at how the most difficult firings can produce really good results. It seems there's a supernatural/karma/magic aspect to that (if one is inclined towards believing in such things)... or perhaps it's just a product of the human tendency to link the unknown into cause and effect? Hmm; deep waters there. I think I'll leave that one for another time.
I wrote out another To Make List a while back, this time on butcher paper tacked to the wall in the studio, instead of in my sketchbook. I like being able to glance up and see it, reminding me of where I am in the cycle. And X-ing stuff off with a big magic marker is very satisfying. (This makes me think that I was rewarded with a few too many gold stars as a kid.) The stuff on the left of the list is mostly done now -- on to the right!
Wednesday and Friday I worked at the university, on my new part-time schedule, and the rest of the week I made pots: a bunch of 2-3# bowls to finish out a box of Laguna B-Mix clay, some larger 2-part bottles/vases that came out really well, and a group of straight-sided bowls that will get stamps, small lugs, and my teadust glaze.
The B-Mix clay fires very similarly to my standard Amaco 38-M clay, but handles quite differently when wet. It feels more like porcelain, while the Amaco is a lot more like stoneware. With the bowls, I practiced making them with a thick, rounded rim. As with leaving enough clay to trim a foot on plates or shallow bowls, rims are another place where I tend to pull the clay too thin -- I have to make a conscious effort to leave some extra thickness there. My mom has a bowl by Clary Illian, porcelain with a clear glaze, that has this fantastic rim: a sweet, sinuous curve that your hand gravitates to as a way to hold the pot. I use it every time we visit and always think, "I should try this rim".
I also made a batch of dome lids -- something I've been focusing on lately. Of the many ways to put a lid on a pot, I find these are the most complex, with relationships and measurements that need to fit just so to both work well and look good. My "standard" lid has always been the drop-in kind, which sits in a gallery on top of the pot and is, I think, a lot easier to make. So I'm trying to work out the mechanics of dome lids, getting the form right and playing around with details like edge thickness, how to finish the top (flat, point, button, terrace, swirl), and the texture left by the trimming tool. I matched the good ones up with some jars from a few months ago that didn't find mates the first time around, which is a fun exercise in composition. Which lids works best on which jar, and why?
I failed yet again to take Sunday off -- I had pots to finish and was "on the clay", so it ended up being another studio day. Who has time for a day off? Ha! I'll rest when I'm dead, I suppose.
Lastly, I keep forgetting to mention last month's show at AKAR Gallery: Peter Beasecker and Mark Shapiro (in my old town of Iowa City, lately half-underwater). I love the precise lines of Beasecker's pots, and Shapiro is one of my favorite potters -- everything he makes seems inspired. I think his scribble motif is fantastic, especially on vertical forms like the oval bottles and pitchers, and I aspire to someday use a faceting tool with that kind of grace.
June 22nd, 2008
TW@SE was a good one in the studio. I trimmed feet on all the pots from last week, and cut the rims on that 2nd batch of square plates. I'm really liking that shape -- it's not strictly square, because I kept some of the curve on each side. Is there a geometric name for that? Rhomboid? Parallelogram? Wow, 5th grade was a long time ago. In any case, they turned out well, better thickness and room under the foot than the prototypes. I'm intrigued by their decorative possibilities; they make a good "canvas", particularly with carrying the design from top to bottom and onto that nicely defined edge. If they come out of the fire well, chances are I'll do more later.
I also made some two-part bottles, trying for long, skinny necks and a nice repeated curve on the body and neck. Then I did some that are also made in two parts, but where I throw both parts and then assemble them at the leatherhard stage. These are more angular, with straight sides and necks. This is another fun pot to decorate -- there are lots of interesting ways to work the black underglaze or glazes around that form. Somehow, I've started calling them "nano" bottles (the round ones are just "bottles", I guess). The name came from the idea of making them really small -- less than a half pound of clay for the bottom section -- and now I'm using it for them regardless of the size. I'm not sure if this is cool or dumb, my tendency to invent names for certain forms or decorative patterns or glazes, but some part of my brain seems to like it.
On impulse, I spun my treadle wheel around to face in the opposite direction for a change of pace, then remembered writing about doing it previously. And, sure enough, there in the archives I discovered that I did the same thing almost exactly a year ago this week. Strange. So now as I throw I'm facing East, looking out one window at the piles of barn wood and the cell phone tower at the end of our gravel road, ears towards the stereo, daylight coming in through the south window onto the side of the pot I lean towards when I bend down to see it in profile. Last summer, I said, "It's good to tweak my brain and encourage new perspective." Still true.
On Sunday morning, I loaded and fired a bisque in the electric kiln, planning to fire the soda kiln next week. Cindy and I have been making a point of trying to avoid working seven days a week by taking Sundays off, but we usually each slip in a few things in the studio, or end up doing chores, yardwork, etc. Not that I'm complaining, but there's always so much to do, and so much more I want to do that goes undone! All we've got is time, and yet there's never enough of it.
In other news, my TV addiction has been flaring up again lately -- the NBA Playoffs, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Daily Show -- and its newest symptom is Deadliest Catch. If you haven't seen it, it's a reality/documentary show about Alaskan crab fishing on the Discovery Channel. Despite being kind of cheesy and frequently edited-for-melodrama, I just can't seem to get enough of this show -- and I find myself thinking about it surprisingly often. The "characters" are engaging, the images are amazing, and I get a vicarious feeling of accomplishment every time they pile a few hundred crab on deck.
But wait! Before you conclude that I've (yet again) gone hopelessly off-topic, let me say this: I also like it because of the ways it parallels making pots. It touches on themes that are interesting and strongly-related, like work, stamina, and the effect of chance on success. For example, watching these guys has completely recalibrated my concept of hard work, and the hours and determination they put in are astounding. It's also a single-minded endeavor, with it's own rhythms and lots of repetition. It's often done in spite of the elements, which play a big part in the outcome. Experience is critical, but somebody's still got to do the grunt work of hauling stuff around and making things happen. And, last but not least, they say the word "pots" about 100 times per episode. (That's their term for the big cages that they send down to the seabed. When a cage comes up full of crab, a deckhand often yells, "That's a great pot!" This makes me very happy.)
The crab fishermen have another great phrase, which emphasizes how randomness or luck combines with their hard labor to determine the outcome: On the crab. As in, "Now we're on the crab!" It means they've found a spot where the fishing is great, and they're pulling up good numbers. It's like the crab fisherman's version of being "In the zone" -- even though you know that this state exists and that you've been in it before, it's elusive and often fails to turn up. All you can do is search for it long and hard.
With making pots, this is similar to two things. One is when, in the midst of a making cycle, you realize that you've hit your stride, you're in the groove, flowing along, turning out solid pots with an economy of effort, feeling good, the process reinforcing itself as motivation. You're in the sweet spot after getting warmed up and before the inevitability of pending deadlines starts to make things crazy. It's week 2 of a 3 week throwing cycle. It's the 3rd quarter of a big game, or 10:30am on a good day. I found myself there this week, for a day or two, and I thought, "I'm in the clay!"
The other potting comparison to being "on the crab" is when you're in synch with your glazes, kiln and firing process. Too much time between firing cycles and the feel for these things gets rusty. Like the guesswork that goes into throwing metal cages to the bottom of the Bering Sea, every potter knows how the results of their efforts are affected by the mystical variables of glazing and firing. It's not enough to be good -- you've got to be lucky, too. Hmm... "on the fire" or "in the kiln" -- I'm not sure there's as nice a turn of phrase to be had with that one.
I've often thought about the similarities between making pots and farming. They are reinforced for me several times a year, now that we live surrounded by fields of corn and beans, watching the tractors come and go. The fishing analogy seems very appropriate, too. You reap what you sow, and if you don't cast out a good line, you're not taking home any fish.
June 15th, 2008
TW@SE I worked a full week at the office job, but with my new part-time schedule the studio days will even out eventually. Over the weekend, I continued working on my sushi set commission -- the bowls are done and now I'm finishing the square plates. The prototype plates I made last week came out pretty well. I really like the shape for decorating and, since I haven't fired many plates in my soda kiln, this is the first brushwork I've done on plates since I did a series of earthenware a few years ago. Cutting the rims off to create the square is fun. As I often do before decorating, I roughed in the cut lines with diluted food coloring (brushed on; it burns out in the bisque). I suppose I might eventually get to where I cut them freehand, without the guide lines, but for now it helps get the degree of symmetry I'm going for. I had to decide whether to cut the rims before or after trimming the feet; I settled on before, so the clay was still soft enough to smooth that cut edge. To avoid putting pressure on that uneven rim, I dried them face up, then trimmed on a thrown clay chuck to support that slight interior curve and hold the rim away from the wheelhead.
The prototypes were a bit too thin to trim a decent footring -- that's my tendency with throwing plates, even when I consciously remind myself to leave extra clay there. I think the impulse to get as much pot as possible from every lump of clay gets so engrained over time that it's difficult to purposefully leave an area thicker than usual. I have the same problem when making pots that will be faceted or fluted; it takes a while to flip that switch in my head before they start to come out right.
While throwing the plates this time, I made careful use of the needle tool to check the depth and tried not to compress the center too much with the wooden rib. I want to end up with a group of four plates, so to be safe I made eight. I've never really practiced throwing multiples (and in fact have philosophical reservations about trying to duplicate the effects of mechanized production), so making more ensures that four of them will be similar enough to qualify as a "set". I think it's best when the pots in a set are like siblings instead of identical twins -- it reinforces the fact that they're made by hand, one at a time. In general, if they seem related and stack relatively well, I consider them a set. Throwing more pots than I need is also a hedge against problems in drying, bisque firing, decorating/glazing, or the glaze firing. As I've said before, there are so many things that can go wrong between the wheel and the finished pot that it's better to make some extras than risk coming up short.
I also made a bunch of plates/trays for the planters I finished last week. Like with lids, matching the two parts is tricky, and I've found it's better to make extras here, too. I make good measurements with calipers and throw as accurately as possible to them, but I treat it like making a range of parts around that size, so there are options later. I pair them up right before the bisque firing, when both are bone dry, finding the best fit and factoring in subtle things like the details of rims, throwing marks, or where the tripod feet on the planter sit in the tray. Between all these plates and a few bowls, I'm going to be "chasing plastic" next week to get everything trimmed (to steal Michael Kline's great phrase).
Since I finally sunk so low as to post a photo of our dog Patches last week, I thought I'd succumb completely and add a better one. Here you can see the origin of her name -- that line directly down the middle of her face is amazing. It's inspired a few decorative patterns on my pots.
And speaking of our family, I've been meaning to announce that my wife Cindy is pregnant, due in early October. Naturally, I'm excited and anxious; being a parent will change a lot of things in my life, including my studio work and business. I'm not exactly sure which things will change yet, or how and why, but it's definitely going to be an adventure. In any case, I will make a valiant attempt to prevent this blog from drifting into the minute details of parenting (because, apparently, it tends to shift one's perspective so that world seems to revolve around diapers, sleeping schedules, infant psychology, and things which can or cannot be chewed). Surely the two topics -- parenting and potting -- will intersect at times, in which case I'll try not to focus too much on the former at the expense of the latter, both here on this blog and otherwise.
June 8th, 2008
TW@SE was #52 -- the one-year mark for this blog. To celebrate this milestone, perhaps you'll indulge me in some meta-blogging, as redundant as that might be. I thought carefully about this project before starting it last June. I had previously kept a blog for a couple years, and while it was occasionally about making pots and there's some good stuff there, it was a random, top-of-mind endeavor, and eventually I just got tired of it.
Wanting to write about making pots and studio life, but hoping to avoid a repeat experience, I decided on a weekly, after-the-fact format, a narrower range of content, a requirement of at least one good photo per post, and a commitment to "keep at it once a week for at least a year." At the time, I was cautious about how it would turn out: "we'll see what it becomes and if the results are worth reading." 39,190 words later, this is what it's become, and I think the results are, for the most part, worth reading. I hope you think so, too.
I've yet to move this year's output into a proper blogging system (with fancy features like linked posts, tags, categories, an RSS feed, etc.) -- it's still just one really long page that I edit by hand each week. There's something contrary and deliberately retrograde about that which appeals to me, but it's not very reader-friendly. I aim to make that change soon, and expect it will make the blog easier to browse.
I've been wondering about what this anniversary means, and if it changes anything to have reached my initial goal. I can look back and remember times when it was a burden, like on the rare occasions that I had nothing to say or when I was so busy that it was hard to set aside the time to sit down, reflect and compose something worth posting. I've often wondered if it was worth continuing -- if anyone out there was benefitting from it, and if I was learning anything in the process.
That one-year commitment turned out to be a good gambit, as I got over the hump around the 6 month mark and gained momentum. I started to get excited about writing on certain topics, and could see how it was informing my thoughts and actions in the studio in a positive way. The writing began to come more easily, and I think I'm slowly getting better at it. I now reflexively stock away ideas during the week that might be useful, and take photos in the studio out of habit, documenting as I go. It's great to have a record of all the pots that have gone through my hands, the studio and the kiln since then.
The visitor numbers began slowly creeping upwards on Google Analytics, and the occasional encouraging email from a reader suggested that I wasn't just throwing all those words into the void. (I'm actually fine with having a small audience; I just want them to be fanatically loyal and to imagine me as some sort of pottery genius. Ha!) Seriously though, I think much of the value of writing on the web comes later, after it's been archived. After all, everything is searchable, and everything will be saved. That's another reason that I chose to write on a weekly schedule: thinking it would allow and encourage more thoughtful output, and perhaps create some bits of information or wisdom that could be of use to someone years from now.
I like habits and patterns, even those that are difficult to keep, and I guess this has become one. I'm generally comfortable with it now, enough so that I'm not inclined to significantly change directions, let alone give it up. I may let myself write less each week for a while, or a bit more loosely (with less second-guessing and revisions). Who knows, perhaps that will even make it better? I can imagine gradually shifting the format, such as focusing less on what I did each week -- which could get tediously repetitive for both you and me -- in favor of writing more topically or thematically. There are some stories I've been meaning to tell, issues I'd like to address, older writings that might be fun to revisit and improve on. I'm intrigued by the idea of writing reviews of new ceramics books, exhibits, or events -- I've been meaning to write about the PBS series Craft In America for months! Or perhaps doing an interview or profile of another potter or one of my mentors. Wherever this may lead now, I think I'm in for a while.
So, this was the 1st week in the studio after the change-up at the dayjob, and it was really, really good to be back. It felt like old times -- even though "old times" was only nine months ago, and was relatively short-lived the last time around. In any case, the difference between 2 days in the studio and 4 is tremendous. So many more options available, and a much better chance to get into the flow and make satisfactory progress.
It's been raining like the end of the world here in Indiana -- almost 11" this week, which is an amazing amount of water everywhere, including a lot of local flooding. A couple days were so humid that I swear the pots were just as wet when I closed up the shop at night as when they first came off the wheel. In between storms it's been far too hot for this time of year -- I'm not ready for the sweaty soup of summertime in the studio yet.
I made another run of teabowls with the Turner porcelain, which I'll use to test glazes in the next couple firings. Then I switched back to my reclaimed white stoneware, which suddenly seemed dark grey and grainy! That's quite a perspective shift, and makes me laugh to think how I used to wonder if there was much difference between the two. I made about 40 pots for the soda kiln, including mugs, bowls, square plates, and planters, most with black underglaze brushwork. I'm working on another commission, a set of rice bowls and sushi plates, that's coming along pretty well. I've only made a few square-cut plates before, so it's interesting to prototype them and try to refine the process.
Lastly, this week was also #37, as in 37 years: another birthday come and gone. It was a good one, relaxing and fun, but it's been a hell of a year. An awful lot has happened since that first post, with its photo of me standing in front of the barn renovation. I'm glad I wrote about it along the way, and am curious to see what comes next. Thanks for reading.
June 1st, 2008
TW@SE marks another big change: it was my last week at the day job as a full-time employee. Believe me, it's a lot easier to quit your job the second time around -- particularly when it's the same job! The first time, about two years ago, I was consumed with anxiety and hope and the crazy depth of the unknown that I was leaping into. This time it was nearly automatic, like falling off a log. No hesitation, no doubt.
OK, so technically I didn't quit this time, at least not completely. I'm actually switching to part-time in the same job, which means I'll work about 20 hours per week at the university, and add those 20-odd other hours to my time in the studio. That should be a substantial improvement to my workflow and output there, compared to what it's been the last nine months (mostly weekends, holidays and the occasional evening). This new arrangement is the one remaining job/studio combination that I haven't tried before; I've been FT as a potter and (obviously) a FT salaryman, but never 50/50. It could work out to be a good balance of time and money, so I'm really excited about the change.
Another part of this deal is that I'll be teaching two ceramics classes in the Fall, and basically on leave from the web job during that semester. That's exciting too, because it's been a few years since I last taught, and I've never done the intermediate level class, let alone taught two classes at once. (I'll be teaching adjunct for Meredith Brickell, the new ceramics faculty at DePauw.) Come to think of it, I've never done just teaching and studio either. The half-dozen times I taught ceramics in the past, I was also working the web job on alternate days and cramming studio time into wherever it would fit. Good grief -- how'd I get any pots made? Anyways, I suspect I'll have more to say about teaching in the coming months.
So back when I returned to the job in September, I wrote that I hoped it would allow me to save money for studio upgrades, refresh my tech skills, and maintain a baseline of productivity in the studio along the way. In retrospect, with that era now over, I'm happy to report that my plan worked out pretty well. I've got a new-soda-kiln-sized war chest in the bank, I now know a hell of a lot more about the acronym-laden stuff that happens on/to web servers, and -- somehow -- I made enough pots to put on two reasonably good studio sales. Not bad.
To start the new era with something noteworthy in the studio, I made some pots with the porcelain clay that I got last August (at long last!). It's Turner's Best Porcelain from Standard Ceramics, made from a recipe Tom Turner has developed over the years. I'm really excited about the possibilities with this clay -- the results were very promising when I tested it back in December, and it seems to throw quite well. I've never used a true porcelain clay body for any length of time, so this is fun new territory to explore. After years of hearing about all porcelain's quirks, as compared to stoneware, it should be interesting to see how different it is from the white stoneware clay I've been using the last few years. I'm wondering how I'll need to adapt my process to accommodate it.
Switching clays meant cleaning up tools, bats and the splash pan of my treadle wheel, which I almost never do otherwise. (There's no use contaminating that pure white clay with iron and stuff from the other body.) This made for an unplanned spring cleaning, which felt really good. A noticeable transition point, a phase change. There's something strangely meditative about scraping off clay and cleaning the work surfaces back down to their original state. There was still actual wood underneath!
Naturally, I started with teabowls... good for testing the clay and for continuing to warm myself up, too. Trimming feet was really different. This clay is very fine grained and dense, and has zero grit or texture to it. Like carving into a block of some space-age, artificial substance. And so white it looks good enough to eat. I want to learn how to exploit what it can do, like the flawless softness of a compressed curve, or the extremely rigid line it can hold at an angle in the form or where it's cut with a blade.
I also made a few dozen test tiles, because I'm planning to do a series of exploratory glaze tests, trying some of the recipes I've accumulated over the years in my glaze book. I'm thinking about a clear or white glaze, and a couple new options for celadons -- maybe closer to a chun blue, or a smoother, satiny green. Those seem like the kind of things the solid white body should do well, especially if they are semi-transparent, to let light go through the glaze and bounce back off the clay. I can't wait.
May 25th, 2008
TW@SE, Cindy and I took the train to Chicago to celebrate our anniversary (#12). We've made this trip a few times since moving to Indiana ten years ago; it's great to get into the city for a few days, see a lot of art, eat well, wander around and take a break from work. It's about an hour's drive from home to the nearest Amtrack station -- trains used to stop in our town, back before highways all but killed rail travel in the midwest -- but after that it's a fun ride. I love trains, and the contrast of arriving in Union Station at mid-day after waking up at home, surrounded by grass and fields, is good for the senses.
On a typical vacation, we practically walk our feet off trying to see everything there is to see, but since we're both pretty worn down by a crazy spring we kept a light itinerary this time: the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute Museum, the River North gallery district and some cool shops -- custom furniture, salvaged-wood flooring. We wandered a lot, laid in the grass at Millennium Park on Memorial Day, sketched at Starbucks, and had some excellent Italian meals (Quartino is our new favorite).
We spent the most time at the Art Institute, which I particularly like for the permanent collection. There was a Toshiko Takeazu show in the Asian wing, which was good but I liked the one at Perimeter Gallery last year better. The Art Institute displayed everything behind glass, but at Perimeter the pots were sitting on the floor where you could wander amongst them and sneak a touch. I like her work much more in person, where the scale of the bigger pots really registers, and the Art Institute display wasn't much better than seeing them as photos.
But they also showed a couple Hamada pots, a Leach pot and a really nice Peter Voulkos bottle from about 1950. I gathered from the curator's statement that the Leach and Hamada were there to show Takeazu's influences -- the state of ceramics when she started working -- but the Voulkos pot doesn't make sense to me. If it's there to represent one of her contemporaries, a later, abstract Voulkos pot would have fit better. (Surely they have one in the collection somewhere, right? God, I hope so!)
She is described as "one of the first artists to explore ceramic’s possibilities as an independent aesthetic medium," and certainly he is also at the top of that list, but not for his utilitarian pots before the mid-1950's. There were some other things in the written introduction and placards that seemed a bit odd to me, as if the writer was straining their ceramics knowledge and trying a bit too hard to jam this work into the art historical cannon. I hesitate to be critical when a major museum puts good pots on display, but I think details like these really matter. It's like when the local news does a story about something you know well enough to see all the mistakes and oversights. "If they got this one so wrong," I think, "what does that say about the accuracy of all the stories I don't know that much about?" There were also all these square columns in the gallery space that seemed unrelated, but almost overshadowed the pots. I'm not sure if they're a permanent fixture, or someone was just trying to fill up the space, but either way it didn't really suit the presentation.
(There were two squared bottles, one each by Leach and Hamada, which were very similar in style. Cindy said, "Wow. Hamada's is a lot better!" I was so proud.)
(And speaking of Voulkos, there was a very small "stack" at Perimeter Gallery last year, priced at about $20,000. It wasn't there this time, which just makes me curious as hell to know who bought it -- what that part of the art market is really like. This time they had a couple nice pieces by Edward Eberle, which I really like. Great decoration.)
Despite my mixed feelings about the Takeazu show, the rest of the stuff on display more than compensated. I really enjoyed seeing the Korean pots from the Koryo Period (9th-13th century). It's so valuable to go see pots like these in person -- up close, their power really comes through. Even behind the plexiglass barrier, it's very different than looking at photographs. I like looking from different angles, studying the subtleties of the forms and glazes, trying to get close enough to see the faintest carved line or the pattern of crazing. In some ways, they seem like they could have just come from the kiln last week; in others their amazing age shows through patina and wear that just couldn't be simulated. It kills me to know that potters 1000 years ago were thinking about the diameter of a turned foot, the thickness of a glaze, what shade of green made the ideal celadon. So much in the world changes, but so much about making pots stays the same.
This left me wanting to know more about these pots, so I did some research when we got home. Here's a short overview of Korean ceramic history from Indiana University, with some great quotes:
"Koryo ceramics were perfected during the 10th and 11th centuries, a transitional period during which Chinese influence on shapes and designs gradually diminished and Korean ceramicists developed their own style."
"Koryo celadon and porcelain began to decline from the early 13th century. Inlaid celadon and plain celadon were the only ceramics to be produced continuously throughout this period. The degeneration that took place in the second half of the 14th century affected both the shapes and designs of this celadon and the methods used to fire them."
There was so much other inspiring stuff, too -- more than I can process in one day: Chinese bronze vessels that always remind me of Ken Ferguson (even though it should be the other way around); Jin Dynasty ceramic pillows; Neolithic Chinese jars that look like they could just as easily be from Africa or Central America; a huge Egyptian stele that was like the Rosetta Stone, but with carved figures in addition to the characters; a great grouping of carved wooden figures and masks in the African section. All of which tells me that I should look at historical objects more often, and not just pots. There's such a rich history of ideas, processes and materials there, and a reminder that humans have been making things for a long, long time, and that almost everything has already been tried at least once.
May 18th, 2008
When Bots Attack
TW@SE, after collapsing into a post-sale heap on Sunday, it was back to the office on Monday for an interesting week on the job. That's interesting in the Chinese proverb sense ("It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period") -- not interesting as in "good". Our webserver was attacked by a botnet which hacked into the database, causing a whole variety of nasty effects (I'm afraid I actually talk like this in geek mode). So we shut down the site for several hours to research the attack, check code, restore databases, install patches and make a good show of not panicking. I should note that an offline website is like a pot with a hole in it -- essentially worthless -- so this was a pretty bad scenario. In the words a co-worker, "Those are the days that make you wonder why you got into IT in the first place." Amen, brother! Anyways, since it's not called This Week @ the Web Shop, I'll close that topic with this: if you're on a Windows computer, folks, get some good anti-virus software and apply those Microsoft security patches regularly. Really.
Other than that, the rest of the week was a good change of pace; i.e. slower. I delivered and shipped some pots, caught up on business record-keeping, and enjoyed the chance to do nothing in the evenings. On Saturday, after a long wait, I got back to making pots.
It's so good to get back to the studio and the promise of a new making cycle. This required lots of cleaning and organizing before I actually started throwing, clearing out the chaos that accumulates in the run-up to a sale. It's much easier to work in there after some spring cleaning; things in their place and free space to maneuver, the shelves taunting me with their emptyness. I even mopped the floor, for the first time in... well, ever. After three years making pots here I finally got around to cleaning the floor properly (instead of just pushing the clay dust around with a broom). Isn't that terrible? Certainly not good for my pending silicosis. Even worse, if my good wife hadn't bought the mop and janitor's bucket for me, I might have put it off indefinitely. But wow, what a difference -- it's so shiny and clean now that I'd practically wedge porcelain on it. In my slowly escalating attempt to address health and longevity issues in the studio, I'm going to try to make mopping a regular part of my routine. (OK, now I'm writing about mopping the floor; surely this is scraping the bottom of the content barrel. If 4 out of 5 of you just hit the Back button, I won't hold it against you.)
So, preparations out of the way, I made a board of teabowls -- an easy start to getting my brain and hands back into the groove. Those first few pots are always strange; like waking from a weird dream, For a few minutes my body is doing the motions, but my mind hasn't caught up to what's going on yet. It's interesting to me that the brain forgets the patterns before the hands and arms do, and that my left leg just kicks like it's never stopped, no conscious attention required at all. That reminds me of watching experienced potters throw in the studio at the University of Iowa, when I was just getting started in clay, and being amazed at how naturally and automatically they went through the dozens of little actions that go into making a pot. My first teacher, Bunny McBride, did this slow head bob thing, as if he was subconsciously following a point on the wheelhead as it went around. During one of his demos, one of the grad students (Stephen Robison, Dean Adams or Greg Van Dusseldorp, perhaps?) said that David Shaner did the same thing. This kind of freaked me out, like watching someone be hypnotized, but I distinctly remember thinking, "Maybe when your head starts doing that, you'll know you're getting the hang of this." Now, sometimes when I'm adjusting a wobbly rim or trimming a foot, I'll realize that my head is swivelling around, just slightly, tracking that point on the wheel as it goes around the circle. Live and learn.
Cindy happened to be around while I was throwing, so for the first time since I started this blog 11 months ago, here are some photos of me at the wheel. (A bit balder than you were expecting, right? Yeah, me too.)
I trimmed feet and decorated on Sunday, then spent the afternoon in the yard,
cleaning up my little tree nursery and such. Dinner off our new, hand-me-down
gas grill, time on the porch watching the clouds go by, some basketball on
TV, and that was that -- a very different week than they've been lately. Quite
May 11th, 2008
TW@SE: Great firing, good sale. My thanks to all of you who came out to buy pots or ordered them from the website. As always, I sincerely appreciate your business and support. I hope the pots are already serving you well at home, or that they delight the people you give them to.
There's still a good selection of pots availble, and the showroom is open year-round by appointment -- just let me know if you'd like to visit. I also plan to take photos of some of the pots that are left and update the site gallery, so there will be some new stuff there in the next week or two.
After all the rush and flailing to get ready, I think we managed to put on a good show. As usual, I couldn't have pulled it off without generous help from Cindy and a few friends. It's wonderful to have other people believe in your dream enough to help make it happen.
I'm never quite sure how I feel about the pots as a group until they're spread out in the showroom. It's really interesting how they relate to each other once all 200+ are together in one place (usually just hours before we open on Saturday morning!). It's surprising to see how the results of all those small, individual decisions over time add up in the end. This is another of those things that seems to be only partially in my control, as if the pots themselves have some say in the collective outcome.
So... another cycle is complete, and I'm excited to start again. I cannot wait to get back to the wheel. It's been 5 weeks since I touched wet clay -- for a "mud & water" potter like me, that's way too long. Things stop making sense when the world doesn't occasionally spin in a circle in front of my eyes.
Lastly, at the risk of making my customers think I'm holding out on them, I have a confession to make: Some of the pots from #28 were so good, and still so new, that I couldn't put them out for sale yet. They're currently sitting in a row on the Reserve shelf, where I can admire them and try to figure out how in the hell I managed to coax them into being. They'll be available eventually, but for now I need them close enough to study and to trigger my memory.
(It's an open question whether I'll be able to repeat these results. When a firing goes wildly off-script like that one did, the variables multiply to an extent that's hard to track, let alone sort out and understand later. Salt firing is always a roll of the dice, and as crazy as that can be sometimes, I really wouldn't have it any other way!)
May 4th, 2008
TW@SE I was in full hustle mode to get the last pots done for the sale. I fired soda kiln #27 mid-week, then glazed, loaded and fired it again on Sunday. It turned out quite well, with some fine slip and glaze results and a good range of salt and soda, from heavy orange-peel to light flashing. Firing #28 was a struggle: I finally had a perfect day for firing, with beautiful weather and almost no wind, and then my burner starts acting up! My guess is that the thermocouple on the pilot burner is failing, but I thought they just died completely, not in stages... I suspect some investigating and testing awaits me in that department.
In any case, I got all the salt and soda in and the cones bent to where I wanted them, so I think it should be OK. It will be ready to unload on Tuesday, so until then I play the waiting game. Somehow the last firing before a big deadline is never dull!
I also continued sale preparations; now just one week to go, but with some long days I think I'll be ready in time (one way or another!). Provided that last soda kiln turns out OK, I expect to have about 200 pots for the sale, most of them from the firings shown here the last couple months.
If you're close enough to attend in person, the 8th Annual Spring Sale will be this Saturday, May 10th from 10am - 6pm. (Just one day this time.) Here are Maps and Directions and some additional info about the sale. I doubt I'll have time to add photos of the most recent pots from the soda kiln to the Gallery in time, but I might get some here in the next few days. Hope to see you on the 10th!
I also -- at long last -- updated my site Archive Gallery with pots from 2007. This is an interesting exercise, looking back through all the pots that have appeared on the site in the past year and picking the ones that are best and also represent my work over that time period. It makes me wonder which of those paths I'll still be on in, say, five or ten years. Or which of these pots I'll still be satisfied with, a couple years from now. It's hard to say -- I still love some of the older pots in the archive, but have mixed feelings about others. I guess that's a sign of progress, right?
April 27th, 2008
TW@SE I mailed out postcards for my upcoming sale on May 10th. For the main photo, I chose this pair of teadust mugs with the stamps and glaze halos that have been working so well lately. I think the cards turned out pretty well, too. (The photo on back is of the barn, post-demolition. Since I've been putting images of the barn renovation on the cards the last few sales, it seemed fitting to end with one.) If you're not already on my mailing list and would like to receive future sale announcements, please sign up here.
In the studio this week, I loaded the soda kiln, but didn't have a good opening in the weather to fire it off. In the meantime, I started putting cane handles on a group of oval baskets and did tons of yard work, trying to make it less of a disaster zone for the sale. The piles of barn wood, downed tree limbs and other early-spring chaos are all a bit tidier now. It's nice to work outside after another long winter.
I had an email from potter Michael Kline in response to one of my posts, which lead me to his blog for the first time -- I've been devouring his archives with every spare minute! It's so great to discover another potter's blog, particularly when it's by someone whose work I've admired for a long time. He is an excellent example of a potter using traditional methods -- like digging local clay and firing with wood -- and working within a traditional/folk aesthetic, while clearly making pots that are personal and unique. His brushwork is exceptional.
The blogging phenomenon seems to be accelerating amongst potters, which is a fantastic development. I think it has the potential to provide such a variety of good information about the craft, particularly being written in the first-person. (My favorite articles in CM and Studio Potter have always been those written by the potter, rather than a profile or review of them by someone else.) At it's best, another potter's blog is like a slow reveal of their working methods, techniques, influences, history, goals, personality, other interests, etc. Really informative and fun reading.
Several of Kline's posts have really hit home for me. For example, this quote from his 2006 show at Ferrin Gallery:
"When I begin a session in my studio, the process of remembering and dreaming begins. My pots are formed with a steady approach to the ideal and the unexpected—they are part memory, part hope. My good ideas and clever intentions are no match for the exceptional pot that just seems to happen. Each pot emerges from a combination of intense focus, forgetting, letting go, and just doing." - Finally, some thoughts
Wow, that's beautiful. That sums it up precisely and poetically. I could write about what it's like to make pots for years and never say it quite that well.
His first post from early last year was about Roman pots; it reminded me of this photo I took in Italy during our trip there in 2002. These pots hit me like a dumptruck full of bricks. Maybe it was the atmosphere, wandering around an ancient city built of clay, one impression after another layered up in my brain way past the point of processing it all, but when we walked around the corner and I saw these in the case, I thought, "I have to make that pot someday." I think they're astoundingly powerful. Strange, wonderful. (And sad too, in a way; with old pots like these, I have to wonder if that beautiful yellow lead glaze is what eventually killed it's maker.)
When we go to museums with lots of pots, I think this view of the back of my head is about all my wife sees for hours at a time:
Anyways, one of those Roman pots was "decorated w/imbricated leaves", a term I'd never heard before. Kline linked to this really interesting definition:
"1. overlapping in sequence, as tiles or shingles on a roof.
2. of, pertaining to, or resembling overlapping tiles, as decoration or drawings.
3. Biology. overlapping like tiles, as scales or leaves."
This is a great word, one of those that sounds just like what it means. It makes complete sense that there would be a word for this, and I like how it's other meanings suggest where that decorative motif comes from in pottery -- tiles, scales and leaves. Inspiration from nature strikes again! And now that I put two and two together, it occurs to me that I've seen that technique on Leach Pottery standard ware, and that Clary Illian does it occasionally under a temmoku glaze. And it seems that other English potters/Leach apprentices have used it too -- Cardew, perhaps?
April 20th, 2008
TW@SE was marked by a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, the 2nd largest event on record in our part of the world. Growing up in southern California, it wasn't uncommon to get rattled out of bed by a good quake, but in the Midwest it's a lot more noteworthy. The USGS site says that "...there is compelling evidence that earthquakes stronger than the April 18 earthquake have shaken the region in the geologically recent past." For some reason, I really like that fact. It goes on to say, "The region is laced with known faults but numerous smaller or deeply buried faults remain undetected." That applies to so many things: continents, pots, people.
I think it's fascinating how the macro and micro share the same properties. Bedrock and continental plates shift at their faultlines just as a glaze crazes at tension points as it comes from the kiln, as if the earth is a big pot, still cooling off after a really hot firing. It's obvious how ceramics incorporates physics and chemistry, but I'd never thought of it in terms of geology before. Firing is like performing mini-experiments in volcanism.
This also got me thinking about the fact that here in central Indiana, we live almost exactly at the southern boundary of the glaciers during the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago. While that's a short time span for the planet, it's quite historic from the human perspective, with dramatic consequences. The wide, flat fields of glacial till that surround our home give way to much more hilly and varied terrain just a few miles south. Imagine how much clay got pushed around in the process...
Closer to the surface, I'm really enjoying the full arrival of spring weather,
with more of those strange foggy mornings. Let the mowing begin!
I finally got around to updating my site gallery with pots from last month's firing. There are about 20 new pots there, representative of 150 or so that are currently available (with more to come in the next couple weeks). In the studio, I started glazing for the next firing in the soda kiln, which I'll load and fire next week. Since my kiln isn't under a shed, getting firings done is tricky this time of year; the storms come through often and the forecast seems to change a couple times a day. Ideally, I look for a couple days with no rain and not too much wind, but sometimes I just have to go for it and fight the elements. If there's time, I'll do two more firings before my sale on May 10th.
A few weeks ago, Ron Philbeck and I did a mug trade, each sending one of our mugs to the other. This is a great thing potters can do; for the price of shipping, you get to add a new pot to add to your collection -- with all the enjoyment and learning potential that entails -- and also share your work with a fellow potter.
Years ago, someone told me that you could learn most of what you needed to know about a potter by looking closely at one of their mugs. I've forgotten who said that, but there's a lot of truth in it. I feel like I already know Ron's pots from reading his excellent blog; the way he posts photos as he works reveals a lot of great information (and is a model I try to follow here). But I'd never had one in hand until now, which is a completely different thing than looking at photos. Seeing is virtual; holding is real.
So I was really excited to get his mug in the mail. I like it a lot, particularly in the ways that it's not like one of mine. That's probably where the real interest is in using another person's pots -- the things I can discover that I didn't already know, alternate solutions to similar problems, learning the subtleties and nuances of their touch on the clay, and the thoughts it suggests. Ron's mug is salt-fired stoneware, which I love, but haven't used now in several years. That clay has a unique character, particularly in the way it responds to the vapor glaze. The slip is a wonderful yellow-orange (only slightly enhanced by the morning sun in this photo). It's got a good weight to it -- solid but not heavy. Two dimples, one on each side at right angles to the handle, give a variety of places to set fingers, encouraging attention to how you're holding it and awareness of it's texture. The handle is great, an exact two-finger grip for me. I really like how the base of the handle has some mass to it, and flares into a really fluid semi-circle. (My handles tend to fade away at the bottom, particularly if I don't make a conscious effort to avoid it.) And the twisted wire cut at the base is great; that quick gesture frozen in stone, smoothed by the salt vapors into a surface that's interesting and enjoyable to touch.
Mug trade: exhibit B
I'm also intrigued by the fact that Ron and I have never met in person. I've been to North Carolina just once, years ago, and I doubt he makes it to the midwest very often. We know one another exclusively through email, blogs and the occasional phone call. (In fact, were it not for the web, I doubt we'd have ever made the connection.) But now we know each other a bit more through our actual pots, which is a very substantial connection. It's interesting to me that this particular exchange could have only happened in the internet era, which makes for yet another small but profound way that technology has changed the potting life.
April 13th, 2008
TW@SE I thought I'd write about those new lidded jars I made last week. Working from photographs, I'm trying to make them in the form of a late 19th-century round barn. I'm making these on request from a woman whose family had one of these fantastic barns nearby (pictured below). Like our barn, this one has now fallen to the passage of time, but for decades it was a working structure that represented the state-of-the-art in the agricultural industry, a well-crafted tool designed for a very specific purpose. Gradually, it faded from daily use to standing as an artifact of a previous time. It was something of a local landmark, too -- one of our routes to town still goes along Round Barn Road.
Round barns are relatively rare, and were largely an American phenomenon. Apparently, they were concentrated in the midwest, with many located in central Indiana, just north of where we live. They were built as part of a movement to make farming more efficient, starting around 1900, but there's evidence that their untraditional form was also motivated by aesthetics and religious/existential beliefs, which is really intriguing. For example:
"In 1826 in a Shaker community at Hancock, Massachusetts, farmers
came up with a revolutionary idea--"the model of efficiency", as
they described it. They believed it was not only an ideal dairy barn, but much
easier to clean because of the elimination of corners, and even better, no
corners for which the Devil to hide."
~ Hoosier Round Barns wiki
As I've probably made clear before, I love old farm buildings: barns, silos, grain bins, storage sheds. They're classic "vernacular architecture" -- made individually by hand, and suited to a specific purpose using a localized style, materials and methods. They are like ghosts of a pre-industrialized world.
(As an aside, check out this Toda hut from India - it's a catenary arch!)
And I'm really interested in the similarities between these buildings and handmade pots. Both are utilitarian by definition, but have vast potential to be expressive of their maker's aesthetics and ideals. In both formats, the process of unifying these competing interests makes for a very creative space to work in. The act of doing so on an individual basis allows them to be unique, very expressive of how and why they were made.
So I was attracted to making these by the potential for the pot to symbolically represent the barn, and to echo their shared qualities. I like the local-ness of it, pots and barns being largely about the place where they are made. And I suppose it's an attempt to commemorate the barn we lost, and all the others like it that will soon be gone.
It's also an interesting, complex shape for a lidded jar, which poses design problems that will take a few iterations to solve. I enjoyed working out the proportions and details, deciding how to suggest the barn without representing it too specifically. I'm wary of the pot being just a replica of the barn, like a small clay model you'd find in a diorama at the Barn Museum. There's ample room for the result to be tacky or dumb -- if it comes across as kitsch, it's dead on arrival. It would also be easy to make it look like a barn, but not work like a good pot, so I'm concerned about the functional details as well, like the size and weight of the lid, and shape of the knob.
I've become careful about taking commissions, particularly if they require much diversion from forms or glazes that I already know and use. When working on a customer's request, it's easy to get caught up in the technical details, or to chase the idea they have in mind without ever quite catching it. Marj Peeler told me recently to be wary of taking orders, summing it up in her wonderfully direct way: "We usually lost our shirt on them!" In addition to all that, I'm far more interested in following my ideas than someone else's. I have sketchbooks full of drawings, notes, decoration ideas and untried experiments. The time to work is never enough to do them all. Being a studio potter means following a life-long quest into the unknown, and I think it's a journey best taken following one's own internal compass.
On the other hand, a good request at the right time can be a little nudge in an interesting direction, a random seed inserted into the algorithm of my "What's Next?" program. It can prompt a return to a pot that I haven't made in a while, or a reconsideration about the shape of a handle or the proportions of a form. Sometimes they suggest things I might have thought of on my own, but didn't: using a glaze or pattern on a different form, making a group of related pots, or thinking about a specific purpose, like serving a particular food or holding a certain kind of plant. Ideally, a commission presents challenges that are both interesting and just difficult enough to be within my grasp if I stretch a bit.
Some commissions are like deadly quicksand, others like a refreshing dip in a tropical pool. The trick is to know which is which before jumping in.
April 6th, 2008
TW@SE I started into crunch time for my Spring Sale, now just a month away (it will be Saturday, May 10th this year; I pushed the date back a week in hopes of getting in one more firing). So, my entries here might be more concise than usual the next few weeks. I readily acknowledge that this may be an improvement.
In the studio this week I did one last run of pots for the soda kiln. Given the time I'll have available the next few weeks, that's cutting it close on time to get them dried, bisque fired and through the glaze firing. But it's worth some finessing to squeeze them into the schedule; I hate firing semi-full bisque loads, and stacking the soda kiln is a lot easier with some extra pots on hand to choose from.
I really enjoy returning to wet clay and the wheel after a firing cycle -- it lets me take those fresh impressions of the finished pots and apply them immediately to the new ones. While each making phase is part of a continuum, it's such a dramatic change-up to go from handling hard bisque ware, splashing glazes and firing the kiln to wedging, pushing soft clay around and decorating leather-hard pots. I made small series; just a few pots each in a variety of forms: domino mugs, large bowls that will get slips and glazes after bisque, squared planters, and some lidded jars in a new form (more on that later).
Lastly this week, it appears that we've finally turned the corner on spring here in Indiana. It's a welcome change to not have to worry about pots freezing overnight, to be able to open a window or two, and to hang up the winter coat for another year. Spring is my favorite season, and a great time to be working in the studio. Up here on our small hill, we have these amazing mornings of mist and fog, where the visibility gets so short that even the husk of the barn is partially hidden. It feels like we're on an island surrounded by the unknown.
March 30th, 2008
TW@SE I did a glaze firing, with good results and a lot of new pots for my upcoming spring sale. The showroom was getting pretty sparse, so it will be great to get them cleaned up, priced and on the shelves. On the other hand, I like to stall a bit on getting that part done, because it's so nice to be in the studio surrounded by tables full of finished pots. It reinforces the lessons learned, and gives me time to think about the forms and my glazing decisions. The pots are always interesting tightly stacked up like this too; all the various parts and colors interact in unexpected ways. Occasionally, I'll even get a new idea from one of these accidental arrangements. I guess I like them this way, too, because it's so informal; more like the way they end up in a kitchen cabinet than the clean, orderly way I set them out for sale.
I also took photos of the best pots for my website gallery, which I hope to get updated in the next week or so.
The Yunomi invitational show at AKAR opened this week, featuring 5 pots each by about 150 potters. It's a staggering amount of stuff; looking closely, it takes a long time just to see it all. On the gallery's email list, I received a message on opening day saying that their server was having trouble keeping up with the site traffic. Judging by that and the number of "sold" dots, it looks like the response was really good. I think that's an encouraging prospect, that an online-only show of pots can work (I assume it's profitable enough to be worthwhile).
Here are my teabowls in the show. This time I'm listed between Michael Connelly and David Crane -- quite good company! If you haven't seen the show yet, I highly recommend you check it out.
Also showing at AKAR this month are pots by Wayne Branum, a former MacKenzie student who has a reserved, minimalist style. I really admire his ability to get so much depth and interest from very spare surfaces. His work is a nice counterpoint to the School of Ash & Flash, which draws so many of us in with it's promises of jubilant excess.
And speaking of web stuff: this week I made some minor stylistic changes to the template of this page, dressing it up a bit without -- I hope -- distracting too much from the content. I started this endeavor last summer with as minimal a presentation as I could get away with, hoping to stave off my tendency to get sucked into the web design quicksand, endlessly tweaking page structure and design. As much as I admire good web work and love to play with that stuff, my intent here has been to focus on the content -- text, images, links. Layouts and style are ephemeral; content, when it's good, is almost as permanent as fired clay.
That being said, this latest round of fiddling reminds me of how far the tools for making stuff on the web have advanced in such a very short time. (I'm about to go into some geeky inside-baseball here; if that's not your thing, might I recommend you go check out the Yunomi show instead?) I didn't start building websites until 1999, so I missed the halcyon days of all hand-coded HTML and wacky tricks like using dozens of little spacer images to get things to line up in early web browsers. And I don't mean "missed' in the sense of wishing I'd experienced it -- by most accounts, that was pretty tedious stuff. So by the time I started, many of today's tools were pretty well established, like WYSIWYG editing with Dreamweaver.
But since then, there's been a virtual tidal wave of tools and standards that are great improvements, like using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for layout and appearance, AJAX or Flash for "rich" interfaces, or XML and RSS for passing data around. These technologies are behind everything that gets piled under the "Web 2.0" label -- social networking, wikis, blogs, feeds, sites as software -- and they fuel this rapid, constant growth in both what the web can do and how people use it. That's a mighty agile, evolving set of tools to work with.
Compare that to ceramics and it's a completely different story. While ceramics surely has a bleeding edge of technical development, it happens in the outer reaches of high-tech and aerospace, not on the ground where a typical potter has access to it and can change his or her process as a consequence. The tools that potters use, by and large, change very slowly. This makes sense: A traditional craft medium requires consistency to survive. Otherwise, it becomes something else.
And come to think of it, the most significant changes to the way I make pots over the same period of time that I've been building websites have also come from digital technology: computerized kiln sitters, digital pyrometers, and -- yes -- using the web for research, communication and promotion.
March 23rd, 2008
TW@SE I finished another throwing cycle and transitioned to getting the last pots dry, loading and firing another bisque, and starting to glaze for my next firing. I remixed a couple glaze batches, so that they could settle overnight before use, then began waxing bases, feet and the connecting points of lids and jars.
One of the hardest parts of glazing is making decisions about which glaze to put on which pot. This requires making that imaginative leap to seeing what the fired glaze would be like on the blank, bisque-fired form, while considering logistical factors like how the kin will be loaded, which glazes work best in which zones, and how many pots I ideally want to end up with in each glaze (i.e. not too many Teadust, too few Celadon, etc.). I've started deliberately making most of these decisions in advance, while I'm fresh and the coffee is still active in my bloodstream. I set all the pots that could potentially go into the current load out in one place, then start grouping them by which glaze they'll get. Some are obvious, such as when I had a glaze in mind before I even made the pot. Others are more difficult, particularly if it's a really good example of a certain form. (Even working in series, there are usually one or two that are better than the rest.) I try not to be too cautious with these, but knowing that they're potentially the best new work often makes me think twice. Sometimes I'll decide I'm not ready to commit yet, and set them back on the bisque shelf for a later firing. Whether that's logical caution or dumb superstition is hard to say.
Applying glazes is an elaborate, familiar ritual, repetitive and labor-intensive, but also focused and mixed with anxiety about the results. I've been surprised over the years, in talking to my customers or other non-potters, to discover how often they underestimate both the complexity and significance of the glazing process. While almost anyone can imagine what goes into brushwork decoration, based on the personal experience of writing or painting, understanding how a coat of glaze gets successfully applied to a pot is almost a complete mystery. I suppose this makes sense -- the process just doesn't map to any other familiar activity. (Dipping french toast, perhaps?)
So, in the absence of any reason to think otherwise, many people seem to assume that there's a Glazing Magic Wand of some sort, which the potter points at each piece and - Zap! - it's green or yellow or black with a pattern of fine gold crystals. Ahhh... if I had but one wish in the studio, it would be to have one of those wands.
What I find interesting is that, as a beginning potter years ago, I made a similar miscalculation. Glazing was an afterthought, a roll of the dice. The room where all those strange powders were stored was locked, a vault reserved for professors and grad students. The means by which those trash cans full of liquid glaze appeared week after week was mysterious. And after all the hard work of learning how to actually make a thing from clay -- to finally arrive at the point of having some reasonably good bisqueware -- it seemed impossible that there was yet another step, a make-or-break requirement, which was even more challenging and risky. But there was.
Today, while I still fight it grudgingly, I understand and accept this fact. Almost everything in ceramics seems to expand to new levels of depth and complexity with experience -- the mechanics of throwing, the subtlety of form, the endless possibilities for decoration, the challenges of successful kiln design and building, glaze formulation and application, firing, and so on.
I've always been drawn to the "mud and water" aspects of making pots, so for me the "glaze and fire" parts are the most challenging. Literally, the more I learn the more I realize how much I have left to learn. I read books, magazines, Clayart posts; I test glazes, new materials, stacking patterns, and variations to firing schedules. But progress is slow. That magic wand never materializes. Lots of good bisqueware goes into the kiln on the calculated gambles of hope and luck. And, sometimes, really good pots come out.
March 16th, 2008
TW@SE I fixed my electric kiln, which had been out of commission since my last bisque firing in November. I'd been stalling on investigating the problem -- mainly due to fear that it was a major issue -- but with shelves full of greenware, it was time to get to it. Necessity is such a great motivator!
Upon opening the control panel, I discovered that one of the main wires coming in from the plug had overheated, burning the insulation and actually disintegrating the wire itself. Now I'm no expert, but that would certainly explain why the kiln died. Between advice from my Dad (a former electrician) and some excellent help from the service guy at Skutt Kilns, I ordered a new power cord and installed it. I normally draw the line on home/studio repairs at electrical and plumbing, so I was really cautious about doing this myself, but after seeing what was what and getting assurances that I probably wouldn't electrocute myself or burn the studio down, it went fairly easily. Score one for technical self-sufficiency! I was afraid that some other components had been fried during the meltdown, but when I cautiously flipped the breaker back on, the kiln came back like new. After some testing and a bisque firing, it all appears to be in working order.
The consensus opinion of my team of experts is that this was caused by a loose cable clamp where the wire enters the metal controller box. The kiln is about 12 years old -- I bought it used from another potter -- but I had it in storage for 6 years and moved it several times. That long, stiff power cord is easy to bang around and catches on stuff easily. Apparently, over time that loosened the clamp that's supposed to keep tension off the terminal connections inside, allowing them to flex and loosen, which built up electrical resistance, which creates heat, which burns stuff, which kills the power (quite abruptly), which stops firings, which creates panic and dread, which is how this story started.
So my unsolicited advice to any electric kiln owners out there is: a) Don't drag it around by the cord; and b) If you do, consider opening it up once in a while to check that everything is tight and in good condition.
As if that wasn't enough to overwhelm my mechanically-challenged brain for one week, we also started the demolition of our late, great barn. Our delayed spring this year made for less than ideal working conditions, but with help from a few generous volunteers we made excellent progress. My friend Ken brought his tractor, which made a huge difference with hauling stuff away from the site and pulling parts of the structure to the ground. As a child of the suburbs, I still haven't adapted my view of country life to include using heavy equipment. I see tasks from the perspective of doing them by hand, so I'm continually surprised to see what a tractor like that can do -- it's like a 10x multiplier in the right circumstances.
Some large pieces of the barn were barely hanging on, suspended thirty feet in the air; others were hard to dismantle even after we cut the joints and pulled on them. (The saying "they don't make them like they used to" is such a cliche, but in this case it's very literally true -- those 9" x 9" posts and hand-carved mortise and tenon joints are amazingly strong, and that structural design is just plain brilliant. Frank V. Day sure knew his business.) The stubbornness of the good parts to let go combined with the unpredictability of sections that had jumped off the foundation and were hanging free in space made the whole project resemble a massive, high-stakes game of Jenga. To the extent that we didn't accidentally destroy anything else or get anyone killed in the process, I'd say we won.
The adrenaline rush of sawing through beams up in the loft and dragging large sections of the structure to the ground with a tow chain was tempered by the knowledge that we were dismantling such a fine example of 19th century craftsmanship, adding a few more unfortunate bits of entropy to the universe by undoing things that had been so well done almost 100 years ago. Technically, I guess one could argue that the storm was responsible for the undoing, and we were actually restoring some order to things, but it wasn't nearly as rewarding as straightening and fixing all those same parts last year. This was more like throwing bad pots on the shard pile than pulling up a wall of wet clay for a new pot.
After two days, we'd cleared most of the debris away and made a first pass at sorting the salvageable wood from the burn pile. What's left now seems stable enough that it probably won't fall or blow down until I have time to get back to it later in the year. The lean-to section was the least damaged, and looks like it has some potential, given the right structural work and some luck. That would more fantastic than I can put into words right now. Another positive aspect is that many of the posts, rafters, joists and floorboards that we removed are still in fine condition; the catch now is keeping them dry enough to be put to good use later.
That issue is compounded by the fact that I already have an extensive collection of old barn wood around the yard. Before we started restoring this barn last spring, I helped tear down a neighbor's barn which had partially collapsed and salvaged a lot of material from it, planning to eventually store it in our barn once it was "in the dry". So now we have piles and piles of good wood outside, and very little roof to store it under. What was that I said about plans a couple months ago?
March 9th, 2008
TW@SE I made the last pots for this throwing cycle: a few more lidded jars, two groups of mugs, some bowls with soft-carved wavy rims, and small sushi bowls. I made the jars in two parts, like last week, and was going for a similar form, with that double-curved profile. These three are a little larger; the others might be a bit too narrow at the neck for easy access. Even so, I do like making pots in a range of sizes and with variations to the components that make up any given form. I think there's a lot of merit to the idea that each pot can eventually be found by someone whose hand and way of holding fits the handle just so, or whose idea of a batch of cookies just fits that jar, or whose sense of beauty fits the form and surface and feel of a particular pot.
I was introduced to this idea by a story about Linda Christianson -- one of my all-time favorite potters. (I heard this second- or third-hand, so the following is factually hazy. I can't even remember who told me the story!). She was doing a talk or conference panel and during the questions section, someone in the audience said: I bought one of your cups and I love it, but it has this funky handle that just doesn't work well. In response, Linda said something like: Then that cup's not for you.
That still kind of blows my mind.
Potters usually start out hoping to make something that other people will just appreciate, let alone buy. That was certainly true for me -- I was excited to make things, but really pleased when people wanted them. It's common for beginners to carry over assumptions from a lifetime of consuming mass-produced objects, and to think that the default goal should be matching sets and symmetricality and consistency. The idea that you could make pots that are as quirky and unique as the people that might come along to consider them, and perhaps even be successful enough to make a living at it, revealed a whole range of possibilities.
(And that reminds me of another anecdote about cups, from a talk I actually saw in person. Several years ago, at NCECA in Indianapolis, Chris Staley said that he once asked his young daughter what it was she liked about the handmade pots they used at home. She said, "I like the mistakes." Perfect, right?)
In other news, AKAR Gallery posted a teaser for the upcoming Yunomi show to their site. The show will be online-only, which is a really interesting development, I think, at the intersection of finding an audience for pots and good old fashioned e-commerce. The show "opens" March 28th -- I can't wait to see all the pots.
On the homefront, our winter weather is really hanging on this year, doing that March thing where it taunts us with snow and freezing rain right up to the point where Spring explodes almost overnight. Wood stove season is coming to an end, which is just fine by me -- at this point, I'm pretty tired of building a fire each morning in the studio and hauling around firewood. And I can't wait to open up the windows to fresh air and the sounds of birds and trains going by as I work.
If it warms up enough, next week we're planning to start the barn demolition, clearing away the wreckage and, hopefully, pulling down some of the leaning, hanging parts that look like they're just waiting to fall. It's hard to imagine going back to work on it just to undo so much of what we started a year ago, but I think it'll be good to get out there and touch stuff, to react to it physically for a change.
March 2nd, 2008
TW@SE I continued making vases, but they didn't go nearly as well as the last group. Starting with the bases, I managed to lose 4 at the wheel and ended up with only 2 good ones after most of a morning's work. I kept losing them at the bottom edge of that curve, probably by pulling the clay there too thin and not leaving enough support for the rest of the form. As frustrating as this was, it's pretty rare these days for me to drop a pot at the wheel; more often, the result is just not what I was going for or not a very good execution of the idea. But stuff like this will always go with the territory, particularly when trying something new or unfamiliar.
I read something recently -- perhaps in Studio Potter -- that said something to the effect of: "Don't go looking for problems in ceramics; they will find you." Sad but true! The wheel and that soft, spinning clay can be stern teachers at times. There's no shortage of lessons in humility and gratitude.
So, a few more lessons learned. Lately, I'm trying to get more flowing curves back into my pots, as my tendency is to overuse the metal rib and push things into tight planes and straight lines. I really enjoy working in that "style" (for lack of a better term), but it can feel too mechanical or cold at times. Ideally, each throwing cycle creates a diverse ecosystem of pots lined up on the studio shelves, even if that means going in more directions at once than is optimally productive. Sometimes I really want to make things that are luscious, full, swelling; suggesting fruit and clouds and human lines, rather than buildings and abstractions of mechanical objects. Other times, the opposite is true. One of the best parts about being in control of my own work is the freedom to make those choices on a daily basis.
In an attempt to salvage my momentum and have something tangible to show for the day, I switched from vases to making oval baskets. Sometimes a certain thing just isn't going well at a certain time. It's tricky to know hard hard to push against this and when to give in, but I think it's wise to retreat at some point and live to fight another day. Which reminds me of a great quote from Michael Simon's interview in the Smithsonian Oral History Archive:
"Especially when I was working by myself, I thought, you know, you're your own stimulus really. I mean, one of our jobs as potters... is to keep yourself stimulated. It is not always going to just come to you. You're not going to necessarily wake up feeling terrific every day or something like that, or sometimes you might have setbacks, but you have to keep yourself stimulated; it's really crucial."
I think this is a brilliant insight; another of those ideas that must take years to sort out and then be able to articulate. (That interview is bursting with them -- it's one of the best things I've ever read about making pots.) I like his recognition that the work is often not fun or easy, and that it takes time and effort to compensate for that fact and stay engaged. And especially that doing this is part of the job. Staying inspired is not optional, not if you want to grow and continually make good work that grows with you. Sometimes I think inspiration is as simple as finding ways to not demotivate yourself, like knowing when to temporarily give up in order to maintain enough positive momentum to try again later.
I made three large oval baskets with patterned stamps; they will get my teadust glaze -- hoping for those rust-colored halos again. They'll also have woven cane handles, which I make individually on each pot as the last step (after the glaze firing). Later in the week, I made some bigger lidded jars, thrown in two parts like the vases and with a similar swell near the base. These were less of a struggle, but I may have left them a bit too thick at the base to support that curve. It's also easier to get that shape right on a larger form -- the wider opening at the top makes it easier to get my inside hand through.
I had a mini-epiphany about how to make the knobs for this kind of lid. I start the lids upside down, throwing off the hump (a single, large lump of clay that's recentered at the top to make each lid in sequence). Each lid is just a shallow bowl thrown to match the inside diameter of the seat or gallery on the jar it's for. After drying to leather-hard, I turn them right-side up and trim them on a pad of clay. All of that is still the same. However, I used to score and attach a somewhat random blob of clay on top to throw the knob, often ending up with an odd or unexpected result, committed to a lid that was nearly complete. Since it's more hassle to cut the knob off and try again than to just start over, this meant making lots of extra lids or settling for unsatisfactory ones.
It occurred to me that I could improve on this method by throwing the knobs off the hump and getting them close to their finished shape, with a bit of excess clay at the base to attach to the lid. After scoring and attaching them roughly centered on the lid, it takes just a bit of throwing to join the two parts securely and finish the knob to the desired proportions. This new way involves much less fighting to get that blob centered and still end up with the desired shape, and adds a chance to discard the knobs that aren't very good before committing them to the lids. It adds a small step, but the extra time seems worth the saved effort. This is an example of something that's a true revelation at the time, but seems pretty obvious in retrospect. Many potters have probably done it this way all along! So, not revolutionary by any means, but a nice discovery -- I expect I'll do it this way from now on.
This reinforces my belief that improving knowledge and skills in hands-on studio work is really about refining small processes and how they inter-relate with one another. It's the kind of thing that has to be achieved by doing; I never would have come up with that change by just sitting around thinking about it. Making discoveries and improvements like this is a really gratifying part of the whole, too. There's something special about finding a better way -- taking a troublesome variable out of the equation, streamlining a procedure, making a creative tweak to my engrained habits. I particularly get excited about changes that make the process more enjoyable and the end result better; that's like gold. It makes me think of the hundreds of times I might use this new little thing in the future, and what other discoveries it could lead to. I'm a such sucker for potential! And while it's possible that I'm just late to the game on this one, or that it's an old memory dredged up from a demo or book, that feeling of self-sufficient problem solving is pretty powerful stuff.
Oh, and the jars turned out pretty well, too.
February 24th, 2008
TW@SE I spent less time in the studio than usual, but I made some plates for a commission and some vases with a somewhat different form than I've tried before. Lately, I've been sketching more before starting a new group of pots. I find that it helps to clarify my ideas and improves the pots, even when I just make some quick gestural line drawings and notes. It's kind of like wedging my brain so it's uniformly flexible, and warming up my eyes so they're ready to work.
Having clear concepts and goals in mind before the clay is actually moving through my hands makes throwing more of a deliberate act and less random exploration. There's still room for spontaneity and discovery, but without the haphazard, "take what you get" approach. (I think doing exploratory throwing is a great idea, but probably most useful when it's planned rather than by accident.) Another benefit of making sketches is that they record the original idea for the pots for reference later in the process, including decoration and glazing details. This creates a consistency of intent from start to finish, and I think encourages an iterative development cycle, learning and making adjustments each time.
We have a vase by Clary Illian in our collection that I've admired for many years, but have been apprehensive about trying to emulate. (I say emulate rather than copy because I'm not interested in duplicating her vase. I probably couldn't even if I wanted to! Instead, I want to understand its qualities -- why it "works" -- and then try to make a similar pot that has some of those qualities.) It's porcelain, with a clear glaze that makes for a stark, luscious white and emphasizes the form dramatically. We own several of her pots in this clay and glaze combination, and I think this is the best of them.
So I did a bit of "reverse engineering" -- examining this pot to figure out how it was made. I compared it with one of my latest and greatest vases: handled them thoroughly, measured and weighed them, sketched them a couple times, looking at details and differences. I learned a few things in the process; for example, I'm now more aware of the angle of that shoulder as the rounded lower body becomes the vertical neck, and what a difference it makes to change the size and angle of that small section. I was also reminded of the possibilities of leaving gesture and throwing marks in the clay, something I've gotten away from lately. It was really fun and engaging to work with one of her pots right there in front of the wheel while I was throwing, and the results seem very promising. I'm excited to make more.
This also brought to mind something she taught me once, when I was working in her studio in the mid-90's. She held up a jug and showed me how to turn it around in my hands on it's horizontal axis, which emphasized the dynamics of its weight and balance from top to bottom. She said that it was important for the wall of a pot to have variations, to be deliberately thicker in some areas and thinner in others. That this changed not just the way a pot looks, but how it feels. This was a revelation to me: at the time, I was just trying to get the weight up from the base so that every pot didn't seem designed to function as a boat anchor (often, I still am!). Like many of the things one can learn about clay, this is an elusive lesson. Months go by where I forget about it, stop paying attention to it. Then something, like this vase, will prompt it again and off I go with a slightly changed perspective on what I'm making and why.
I've been slowly reading the most recent issue of Studio Potter. I try to savor it and digest each article before moving on to the next -- it's great for breaks in the studio. This one has a few great articles on the theme of apprenticeship and learning. One is by another of Clary's apprentices, Beth Lambert. Titled "Finding One's Way with Clary," it's about Beth's time in Ely, IA (available as a PDF from the SP website). It was very interesting to read another person's impressions of the experience, and it brought back similar details and memories from my time there: how intimidating it was to work in Clary's studio, anxiety about starting to use the treadle wheel, the dread of not making enough pots worth firing, the brutal honesty and absolute accuracy of her comments and critiques, and the intensity of the example she set of how to go about being a potter. And yes, even her shards were inspirational.
"So, You Want to be a Studio Potter?," by Elisa DiFeo, is about her time as an assistant to potter Silvie Granatelli. I especially liked this:
"The atmosphere of the studio was very different from what I was used to. My first impression was shock. There were only two people at work in the studio: Silvie, a renowned artist with a full-time career as a studio potter, and me... At that moment I realized that this was the real world and I was on my own."
A companion article by Granatelli, "Sharing My Studio," is very perceptive and well-written, with a perspective that can only come from years of experience. For instance, after describing the challenges of getting started as a young potter, she says:
"Those of us in it for the long haul make our way through these unknowns with varying degrees of success."
"In my opinion, being a potter can be a very humbling experience, especially during the early years when rejection can happen often and money is scarce. I believe it is in our best interest to develop a thick skin. In the end, most potters work alone, from our heads and our hearts."
I think this is what Studio Potter does best. Unfortunately, those last two aren't available online, but if you're serious about pots, I highly recommend that you subscribe to the magazine. It's $30 a year for 2 issues, but as a small publication with no advertising (unlike -- ahem! -- the ghastly schlock that fills the pages of Ceramics Monthly) and excellent content, I think it's well worth the price.
February 17th, 2008
TW@SE, it's time to get back to writing about pots. I've gone on enough about the barn for a while. A couple Saturdays ago, I helped shoot photos for an event at the local museum in conjunction with a retrospective exhibit of potters Richard and Marj Peeler. This was the third event, and like before, it was interesting to see the objects that people brought in from their personal collections to be photographed. Many showed the wide range of the Peeler's creative work, from pots and jewelry to turned wood to textiles. In clay, there were the expected mugs, bowls, vases and so on, but also clocks, lamps, ashtrays (relics from a bygone era!) and a variety of sculptural forms. In a subsequent note from Marj, she said that even she was surprised at the range of things that people brought in, and was very pleased to have seen all of it again.
My favorite object this time was an earthenware lidded jar of Richard's, dated 1959. It has this odd, ugly-beautiful glaze and strange applied sprigs. The glaze looks like it has a lot of clay in it, perhaps a slip glaze, similar to the old Albany glazes? It's kind of clunky, not elegantly thrown, and the rim had several chips from years of use. I suspect it may even be one of his student pots, perhaps from graduate school, as it has an exploratory feel and unresolved execution. Yet for all that, it's a really interesting pot; I was drawn to it and found myself thinking about it later. It stood out to me as dramatically different than their other pots; it has a mystery and vitality to it that's hard to sum up. Of all the Peeler pots I've seen, if I could pick one to own, this would be it.
There were also a couple pots dated 1998, the year Richard passed away. That's almost a 40 year span from that early lidded jar, which really puts the pots I made last week, or even last year, into perspective. To reach that same mark, I'll have to be potting in 2032, which is 24 years from now. But heck, I'll only be 60 then; with bio-digital-genetic life extension, I should have a few good decades left after that, right? (Provided my bionic knee can still kick the treadle bar...)
That's an interesting thing to contemplate, what my pots will be like a quarter century from now. They could be wildly different or just gradually evolved in subtle ways. I wonder if they will seem stylistically attached to the time and place I started, still echoing Leach via MacKenzie and the Mingeisota school? It strains my imagination to think of all the things that will come and go in between. That's a benefit of knowing older potters and looking at work from the past. It frames time in a different way; shifts my perspective on a life making things from clay.
I had a glitch with my digital camera, so wasn't taking photos in the studio for a while. Here are some of the pots I've made in the last three weeks: lidded jars, small altered dished and bottles.
I find that it really helps to make lidded jars in series -- I take careful measurements of each rim just after they're thrown, but then make a group of lids that span this range of dimensions, and mix and match as necessary to get a good fit for each once they're bone dry. I'd like to be able to just make one lid per pot and know it was going to work, but with the variations in drying and the tight fit I'm looking for, that's really difficult to do. (I'd rather make extra lids than trim them to fit at the leatherhard stage.)
I really like these fluted lidded jars; it's a shape I come back to every year or so. When my celadon glaze is working just right, it fills in the grooves perfectly, emphasizing the texture while smoothing it out. I'm not sure which lid style is best for these -- the one in the center with the loop handle duplicates the lugs on the side of the jar, but that tall, skinny knob at the far left mirrors the vertical lines of the flutes nicely. I've also done them with drop-in lids, which make for a sqaut, compact profile. Rims and feet, rims and feet.
I make these bottle/vase forms in two parts, allowing the bottom part to stiffen overnight before attaching a thrown ring of clay to the top and then throwing the neck. Getting that connection between the two parts just so is important; if the join is going to show, I want it to be a deliberate transition point -- otherwise, I want it to be a seamless continuation of the curve. As with the lids, I could throw these in one go, but would have to go back later and do some trimming at the base to remove excess clay and weight. On a form with a narrow top like this, that involves using chucks to support the pot upside down or -- God forbid -- a Giffin Grip, all of which I find really unpleasant to mess with. Other potters seem to swear by them; to each his own, I guess. I also think the pot is best when the base maintains the character it has as it comes off the wheel wet, rather than carved later. That's in keeping with my theory that only pots with defined footrings -- like bowls and plates -- need to be trimmed. The two-stage extended throwing thing is definitely a trick that takes practice to learn, but I think it eventually gives more control over the complete form, including it's balance and weight.
Lastly, I'll conclude this week with a few quotes by (ceramic) sculptor Stephen DeStaebler. I heard both of these years ago and they really hit home; something got me thinking of them again recently, so I scrounged them up on the web. I'm not sure how accurate they are, so I may be paraphrasing here a bit, but I think they're close to the original ideas:
"Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working."
"A life without making the things that tell you who you are and what you feel... is not enough. So I make things."
February 10th, 2008
TW@SE, I'm starting to accept that our barn is gone. It happened so fast and unexpectedly that it was a shock, that kicked-in-the-gut feeling that comes with the realization of what's been lost. As with most things, I guess the key now lies in choosing between the half-full or half-empty view, and then deciding what to do about it. The negatives are really dismaying: the loss of a beautifully-crafted building and a historical artifact; all its potential as a showroom and studio gone; over a year of planning, work and money invested; and now the effort it will take to untangle the mess just to arrive back at zero. It's a hell of a thing that it stood there for 99 years and is now just a pile of stuff to be salvaged or discarded.
But in the optimistic view -- the one I'm trying to maintain -- I think of all the ways it could have been worse. The storm was the most intense I've ever seen, with winds recorded up to 100mph. Other barns and houses nearby were damaged. People in other parts of the state were killed. I don't know if it was "officially" a tornado or not, but if that same force had hit the house or studio, I don't think there would be much left of them. The entire barn roof is gone, structure and all, and the north wall just collapsed. Some big pieces blew hundreds of feet away, yet landed harmlessly in our empty field. If the storm had come from the other direction, it would have been a very different story.
Luckily, it was insured for what we've invested up to this point. We should be able to start over and build something new in it's place. And finally, this could have happened years from now, after we had spent more time, money and care bringing it back to life for a new century. If it was going to happen, better now than later. (I started this blog last June with a photo of the just-completed new roof. That image now seems very distant.)
So, last week at St. Earth will resonate in my memory for quite some time. It's one of those defining moments that you don't choose, but have to live with. It will affect my pots, my business, my realtionship to our land and the elements. There's a metaphor for life here, I suspect, hidden not too far under the surface.
That quote last week was about all I could muster at the time. (I didn't want to commit my feelings to words too soon and regret them later.) It's a lyric by one of my favorite bands, Death Cab For Cutie, from their album Plans:
"And it came to me then, that every plan, is a tiny prayer to father time."
It suggests how so much of what we try to control is out of our hands; that what we plan for and expect is conditional and that, possibly, our ability to influence it is illusionary. I suppose that interpretation fits my existential worldview, and probably isn't very useful or relevant if yours is substantially different. But in any case, I think significant events like this call into question the big philosophical issues: Why do things happen the way they do? How can I influence them, if at all? What do we do next, and how does this change my view of the world? To not take this as an opportunity for contemplation would be just another loss.
My background in English Lit would probably consider citing a pop song as sacreligious, juvenile or lazy. ("Plans? How can you pass on Of Mice and Men?" ) And I do love Steinbeck, but I'll speculate that popular music has largely become our common poetry, a modern substitute for what was traditionally an epic, shared mythology. I've been working my way through Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, a book by cultural critic/art historian Dave Hickey. In one essay, he says that the primary significance of art like pop songs is that they function as a social tool, instructing us about how to act in unknown circumstances.
For example, he cites courtship as a necessary social activity that used to be governed by strict traditional codes but which, in a modern individualistic society, is only sketchily defined. This change creates a vaccuum, a need to be filled, and so love songs are written and consumed by the thousands in every generation; they act as transmitters of encoded wisdom, teaching people how to navigate such perilous waters. While the "usefulness" of any given song would vary, I think it's a very interesting and plausible idea. If this is true, I like the way it puts pop music into the category of utilitarian art, just like pots, and suggests that these things which might seem optional are actually quite necessary. There are songs (and novels) that help you understand and cope with the fact that your barn just fell into the dirt.
With the hope that I've now successfully justified quoting song lyrics, I'll throw out one more that seems significant at the moment, by Alt. Rock band Jimmy Eat World:
"If there's something left to lose, then don't let me wear out my shoes while I'm still walking."
In the studio, I managed to make a few pots last week, in an attempt at forward progress, despite the inclination to just give up for a while. The view out my studio windows will never be the same, and it's hard to ignore the bones of the barn piled out in the yard, but I have to find a Plan B so the work can go on. This week I made some altered dishes -- I'm working on different approaches to the character of the wall, trying some out-of-round shapes beyond ovals, and refining details like lugs and tripod feet.
I'll end with a more optimistic photo: one Cindy shot near Ghost Ranch, New Mexico a few years ago. That's me, holding a piece of lake ice in front of a winter sunset -- I can still remember the cold against my hand. It's from the Sante Fe Workshops site, where she'll be teaching this summer.
I'm good with props
February 3rd, 2008
"And it came to me then, that every plan, is a tiny prayer to father time."
January 27th, 2008
TW@SE I worked several days in the studio, and have a good batch of pots to show for it: 12 medium to large sized bowls and a few planters. Like with the smaller bowls a couple weeks ago, I made 4 different groups, each with variations on a general idea: 1) large hemispheres with slightly rolled-in rims; 2) medium hemispheres with carved rims; 3) shallow and wide with a vertical wall and stamps; 4) shallow and wide with carved fluting.
The bowls in the front row above have plastic wrapped over just their rims to slow drying. I do this often to even out the drying process, particularly with the wood stove going in winter or on a breezy day with the windows open. Most pots will air dry at the rim first, with the clay at the bottom staying wet the longest, particularly if it's on a bat. Even if I won't trim a foot, I flip every pot upside down as soon as it's stiff enough to hold its shape, in order to even out the top-to-bottom drying.
In this case, it's to keep the rims soft enough to carve them after trimming the foot (I do the carving last, since the rims are quite fragile afterwards). I carve the rims with an X-acto knife, which has replaceable blades, because a very sharp, fine edge is easier to push through the leather-hard clay. To space the patterns, I mark them out with diluted food coloring before carving. (Making a food coloring sketch on the actual pot is a good way to plan out decoration, too.) I'm generally not interested in making them exactly proportioned -- a bit of variation can be a good thing and avoid making them too "tight" -- but I want them close enough to seem deliberate. I've been having some trouble with these rims cracking in the glaze firing. My current theory is that the cracks are relieving stress in the clay created at during drying, perhaps if that thin rim dries too fast relative to a thicker base, so I'm experimenting with drying them very slowly under plastic sheeting.
These planters are a variation on my "standard" proportions, with a bit more flaring at the rim. I added lugs and tripod feet to these when they were leather-hard. Three holes are drilled in each base and they'll each have a small plate to collect excess water. These will get that new matte yellow glaze that I'm excited about -- I want to see what else it can do. These wide, short bowls with vertical walls are kind of a new thing for me. I like the broad, shallow space they create inside, and all that tempting area for exterior stamping or decoration.
In the photo at left, I've just finished carving the fluting on this group of bowls. These start with a thicker wall at the throwing stage, so there's enough depth to carve into later. This is similar to leaving the base of a bowl or plate thick enough to trim a foot, but goes against the normal practice of pulling excess thickness out of the vertical parts of a form. Getting this part right takes practice and careful attention.
Likewise with the fluting -- it took some time before I evolved a method that works consistently. I use an old Dolan trimming tool, one that's worn a bit thin and is sharpened with a diamond file (seen above left). Several factors are key to getting good character and consistent depth with the carving: tool sharpness, stiffness of the clay, consistent stiffness of the clay wall, pressure and angle of the tool,and using regular, fluid motions. I try to tune out potential distractions and go "in the zone" for the few minutes it takes to do each one. This is one of those parts of ceramics where your body knows better than your brain how to get the job done; a psuedo-Zen thing where you don't aim to precisely at the bullseye in hopes of actually hitting it. I find the results to be much better when I can get into that state of mind.
The last photo shows some peripheral tools of the trade: my sketchbook with notes and drawings; the latest issue of Studio Potter, which has some great articles, as usual; a metal banding wheel, which I use constantly; the aforementioned X-acto knife; my "Made" list, an obsessive record of progress in the studio; and some carving scraps. In the background are books, writing and drawing stuff, tiles of current glaze tests, and a variety of miscellaneous junk. I seem to keep the studio organized just enough to work in, which means I'm constantly surrounded by random clutter. It's one of those things that I'd like to change about my work habits, but probably won't.
Lastly, I finally replaced my dead iPod with a shiny new one, which has about 15 times more space than before. This means there's a much greater selection to choose from in the studio, which is a bit overwhelming, but I'm really enjoying digging into the audio archive. Recent listening:
Jimmy Eat World - Chase This Light
David Gray - Life In Slow Motion
Green Day - American Idiot
Bill Frisell - Bill Frisell with Dave Holland & Elvin Jones
Counting Crows - Across a Wire
January 20th, 2008
TW@SE I packed my 5 pots for the Yunomi Show at AKAR Gallery in Iowa City. This is the second show I've been invited to there, which is really gratifying. I think it's great that AKAR does a show dedicated to this one form, and I can't wait to see them all on the site -- 500 teabowls in one place is amazing and ridiculous!
The three in the middle are from my last soda firing in the fall, the other two were saved from earlier in 2006. I'm reasonably pleased with them, but wish I'd managed one more making and firing cycle so there were a few more to choose from. (Even with the Reserve, it's hard to come up with 5 good pots of the same form.)
The show invitation described a Yunomi as being taller than it is wide, with a trimmed foot and no handle. Mine are within shouting distance of this definition -- hopefully close enough to count, as in horseshoes and hand grenades. I've always called this form a "teabowl", as a more generic term. That's the name I heard as a student, and I tend to make them bowl shaped as often as taller, like a cup. But I suppose, depending on how precisely one likes to choose their terminology, they could just as well be called rice bowls or Chawan or Yunomi. (As with nearly everything, Wikipedia has an interesting description of the differences).
Like most American studio potters, my style is heavily influenced by the Leach family tree, and through that has many latent Asian influences. (In an imaginary expansion of that chart, I'd go under "Clary Illian > Iowa".) However, my knowledge of the original sources is vague, more like I've heard the echo of a distant sound than the sound itself.
In any case, it's an elemental form of wheel-thrown pottery, one that I use to warm up, to sketch ideas in the clay, and that can be pretty good for drinking from. Whatever they're called, I really like making them, and am happy to have an opportunity to show them.
The rest of the week was mostly This Week @ The Dayjob, as we put the last bits in place and launched the new webserver I've been working on the past few months. This took some overtime during the week, which came out of my studio time, but I should get some comp time next week in return. To generalize a bit about what that entails, the tricky thing with a webserver is that it's both really complex and very public. If things don't work just right it shows pretty quickly and, for a site like the university's, there are dozens of components to consider. Like firing a kiln, there are many variables to account for, and a corresponding dose of uncertainty about the outcome. But it seems that we hit it pretty well on target; the server is now live and running well. It's very nice to see that in the rearview mirror for a change.
This project got me thinking about the nature of technical complexity, and how experience in one field only goes so far when applied to another. For example, I've become pretty adept with the intricacies of computer software, but the realms of kiln construction or glaze formulation -- to cite two areas in which I lack both training and practice -- are still daunting to me. While it contradicts the common view of historical progression, the fact that a technology is currently on the "cutting edge" doesn't mean it supercedes older technologies. Wheels are still wheels, even in an age of rockets.
I'm intrigued by the idea that ceramics has always been "high-tech"; that thousands of years before the scientific method was laid out as a framework of exploration and discovery, people used empirical methods to advance the state of the art, and these methods constituted the technology of the time. (Wikipedia (again) defines technology as the "usage and knowledge of tools and crafts"). This probably involved plenty of ritual and superstition -- following belief as well as observation -- but, ever so slowly, the process evolved from accidentally hardening cooking pots over a fire to the high temperature kilns and mass production of ancient China. Following that line through to the current day, we're essentially still finding things that clay is good for: nose cones, turbines, silicon microchips. (I knew I could bring it back around to computers if I forced things a bit.)
In the midst of a good blast of real winter this month, with snow, ice and freezing winds, I thought I'd do a companion panorama to one from last fall. This is the view from just outside the front of my studio. I love the glow of the fields in the evening winter light, and the graphic lines of the trees in that crisp sky.
Lastly, I found a few scraps of paper in my wallet this week, with notes scribbled down during our holiday on the west coast. Like my rap about "form follows function" a few weeks back, these ideas were prompted by the dangerous combination of free time and California culture shock:
* I aspire to Art, but am fully satisfied to arrive at Craft
* "Culture" is just a cult with window dressing
* A Rothko painting may have a lofty place in people's minds and emotions, but one of my mugs can earn a place perhaps more priviledged: in the hands, touched by lips, held close to the heart on cold winter mornings.
Then again, nobody ever tosses a Rothko in the dishwasher.
January 13th, 2008
TW@SE, I made bowls in the studio -- another step towards getting back into the groove of making pots. I had a few different ideas I wanted to try, based on results from my last glaze firing, so I did three series of 5 bowls each: 1) deep hemisphere with a dimple; 2) shallower with 3 lobes at the rim; 3) straight, flaring sides with stamps. I don't specifically try to make "sets" -- "groups" is probably a more accurate term. It's more important to me to try slight variations of an idea than to attempt exact multiples, and to stay open to the possibilities of each individual pot. I'd much rather end up with 5 similar bowls that are all good in their own way than 5 mediocre bowls that are identical in their mediocrity. My favorite groups of pots feel like they started from the same DNA, but expressed it in various ways, each with some unique traits. Obviously, this doesn't always match up to my customer's expectations, but I think the popular concept of "sets" hinges on the tradition of mechanical reproduction and uniformity, neither of which I do or aspire to. And I've noticed that if I make pots that are intended to be a group, quite often they'll sell individually; if I make them individually, they'll sell as a group. This unpredictability just reinforces the value of doing things in the way that suits my aesthetic preferences. (The perils of chasing the desires of the market is a bigger topic, and one probably best saved for another time.)
As I wrote in September, I've been reassessing my approach to trimming, trying not to be so obsessive about wall thickness and weight. My hope is that going back to a more casual approach will gain in gesture what it might compromise in precision. It's also an attempt to spend a little more time throwing and less finishing, if I can do that without sacrificing the quality of the pots. (If not, I won't.)
In the photos above, the inverted pots have all been trimmed to a rough stage -- the basic shape and proportions of the foot defined and most of the excess clay removed. I leave a "button" in the middle to retain the original depth of the foot there, so I can gauge how much has been removed around it, and also as a spot to apply downward pressure with one finger, since I set the pots loose on a pad of clay to trim them (without wads around the edges). Each bowl goes back on the wheel a second time to finish trimming. This allows the clay stiffen some in between, and lets me handle the pot inside and out to get a good idea of what's left to cut away. Here's another good reason to work in series: by the time the last pot is done, the first one is about ready for the next step.
Last week, I mentioned that I make a point of keeping a group of finished pots in the studio. I've come to think of this as a Library -- a reference, a collection of recent successes, a source of inspiration and reinforcement of lessons learned. Like a library of books, the idea is to check them out and learn from them, but then put them back on the shelf for later use -- it's not just a holding space prior to moving them to the showroom. Pots do come and go, but it's over a longer span of time; I rarely take something out without replacing it with a better or more recent version of the same idea. And not all the pots there are good ones. Some are examples of what not to do, others have a detail of form, decoration or glaze that I want to remember and try to repeat, even though the rest of that pot may not be great.
In either case, being able to see and handle the actual pot is very important to me -- it's the only way to gauge weight and balance, and to see the details up close. These are the things that separate the good pots from the great ones, but which fade from memory too easily.
I also archive my work with photos -- a good side-effect of putting them for sale in the website gallery -- and use these as another reference in the studio, but for a three-dimensional medium like pots, photographs too often fail to capture the details and physical presence of the object.
The Library somewhat overlaps another group of pots I keep, which I think of as my Reserve. This is a selection of the very best pots from the past year or so, those where everything went right, the parts all came together in an unexpectedly good way, or a good form came out of the firing exceptionally well. I keep the Reserve so that I'm sure to have a good example of my recent work when an opportunity arises, like applying for an exhibition or getting invited to a show. This is a fairly recent idea, and it comes from going so many years with that exact problem: a chance to show my work in a public setting would come up, prompting a mad scramble to find something worth showing. Come to think of it, I bet this idea originally came from the book Warren MacKenzie: An American Potter, where the author described MacKenzie having a secret stash of pots in the loft above his studio (I'm sketchy on the details, but that was the gist of the idea).
With both groups of pots, it takes discipline to keep them around. I usually wish I could put them in the showroom or on the website, particularly when those inventories are low, or that I had two of each -- one to sell and one to keep. But I think the effort of maintaining both groups is more than repaid by the gains. The Reserve helps me present my best work to the largest audience I can. The Library helps me make better pots, remember where I've been, and stay inspired to continually explore and improve.
January 6th, 2008
TW@SE, I ended the old year and started off the new by getting back to the studio. What better way to spend the holiday? According to my notes it had been about 50 days since I'd last thrown pots, which is a terribly long time, especially since working at the wheel is the part that I love most about being a potter. All that time went to other parts of the process: glazing, firing, sale preparation, the sale, post-sale miscellany. Then there was working at the job and going out of town for the holidays. All reasonably necessary stuff, but it sure is great to be back at it!
Given that much time away, I was surprisingly un-rusty; usually it takes a while to feel comfortable with the clay again. I started slowly as usual, keeping the difficulty level low and working on forms I know well. Teabowls first, of course, then mugs, which are familiar enough to be the next step up. They also require handles, which warms up the off-the-wheel parts, too. (It wasn't always this way. I remember well when putting on handles seemed like the bane of my existence; I dreaded it and was never satisfied with the results. Now it takes concentration to do them well, but I even look forward to that part. Proof that skills do improve with practice, even the very difficult ones. To beginners, my advice is to recognize that it will take at least 100 bad handles to start making any good ones, so start getting those 100 out of the way as quickly as possible.)
I throw mugs directly on the wheelhead and lift each off as it's done. I find this is easier if the "skin" of the pot is made with a metal rib, which cleans excess slip off the surface and leaves a drier, more structurally tight wall. For many years, I used wooden ribs almost exclusively, going for more of a loose, soft-clay surface, but lately I like the tautness and the crisp lines left behind by the metal rib -- particularly in the soda kiln, where every tiny detail of the bare clay is enhanced, rather than concealed by glaze. I also made the change because of a rib I bought from Sherrill Mudtools (the SS2 model), which is a much better quality and gauge of metal than the standard Kemper rib and has a nicely refined edge. A very enjoyable tool to use.
I set the mugs in the front row on bats to facilitate turning them as I apply stamped patterns at the leather-hard stage. The stamp for these is very simple -- just the rectangular end of a carved stick. The pattern is the interesting part. This kind of surface texture has been giving great results under my Teadust glaze, with amber halos where the glaze runs thin, good crystal growth where the glaze pools inside the stamp, and wonderful negative impressions on the inside of the wall. While it can be a lot of fun to do free exploration at the wheel, I also really like knowing what I'm going for when I start a pot, including which glaze it will get and how I'd like it to come out. I think this reinforces the value of keeping a selection of finished pots around the studio, as models of previous success and a tool to reinforce memory.
I lost some teabowls to the deep freeze during a spell of overnight lows in single digits. When I'm working in the studio I heat with the wood stove, with a small propane furnace to keep it above freezing overnight and on days when I'm not there. But the thermostat is this cheap plastic thing, with an analog display and control, which is ridiculously sensitive and inaccurate. So, as happened this week, I occasionally get it set too low, the temperature drops below freezing, and the water in the new pots freezes. With unused clay this cycle easily reverses with heat, but with pots the surface scales and cracks, leaving a trip to the slops bucket as the only option. That's a real bummer. I lost a larger group last year the same way, so I'm hoping the furnace will be compatible with a digital thermostat, for a relatively easy fix.
Outside the studio, I'm really excited about Craft in America, a three-part documentary series that aired last month on PBS. (I have it recorded on the DVR, but am waiting for just the right mood to dive in.) The series looks beautifully shot, with high production values and an interesting selection of artists, and it's also available on DVD.
In the intro, I saw pots by Mark Hewitt and Matt Metz, who are listed in the artists section, but the only potter featured in the show that I know by name is Sarah Jaeger. It will be interesting to see what the editorial/curatorial view is like, how the potters relate to the people working in other materials, and how issues like the old Art v. Craft debate are represented.
And speaking if old issues, being amidst the suburban sprawl of southern California for a week reminded me that the Modernist rule of "form follows function" is best used as a guiding principle, not a firm rule. When applied too strictly, it sacrifices aesthetics and style in favor of pure functionality, which seems like a potentially deadly ideal. One doesn't have to look far to find examples of this working, yet virtually worthless, material culture: strip malls and glass office parks, styrofoam cups and plastic grocery bags.
Making objects in a utilitarian format like pottery requires consideration of concepts like this, and decisions about how to apply them to your own work. (Clay forms without function are Sculpture, by definition. They are probably better off ignoring such rules altogether.) It's a typical Post-modern dilemma: Will you ignore the rule completely? If not, what criteria will you use to determine which parts to keep? For me, the best pots work exceptionally well without discarding aesthetic value; they maintain simplicity and economy without degrading into dull Minimalism. These pots seem to have their own identity; they suggest possibilities or ask for appreciation of small details, all in the process of getting a drink to your mouth or keeping your food off the table.
Lastly, again from the blogging about blogging department, I'm making a few minor changes here for the new year. 1) As you may have noticed, I'm now indulging myself in the abbreviation "TW@SE" at the start of each post. It's catchy, and you can dance to it. 2) I'm increasing the size of the large images, so they show more detail (click on any image to see a larger version). This seems like a good way to use a bit more of the giant monitors and speedy broadband that many people now have. I hope that includes most of you, the clever, web-loving people that comprise my readership.