Friday, May 29, 2009

New Clay

I bought some new clay a little while ago and was able to use it for the first time this week. I have wanted to try out a really dark, almost black, clay and this is as close as I've come so far. I threw a bunch of things and the color was hard to capture but I think these little bud vases and platter show the color pretty well. I'll let you know how the clay turns out after firing and glazing. I have to do some tests since I have no idea what our glazes will look like on this clay. Just a fun little jaunt from the norm.

We are getting ready for a home sale (I'll post our card pretty soon) and are throwing, firing, and glazing like crazy. These next two weeks should produce some great pots! I've been drawing a lot lately too, just little things, but I'm trying to organize my time so that I'm able to do both. Maybe I'll post some of those as well.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I thought it might be interesting for you to see how I've learned to throw (the term for making pots on the wheel) and how I usually throw my pots. The technique is called "throwing off the mound" or "throwing off the hump".

Rather than take a video of myself I will let Michael Cardew show you. Michael Cardew is a very famous potter, now deceased, from England. He is well known for his work in Africa and was a fascinating and intense potter. He studied with another very famous potter, Bernard Leach, a name I hope you recognize by now from previous posts.

The video is ten minutes long so I will give you some markers if you don't have that kind of time. He starts talking at about 25 seconds; he divides the mound at 35 seconds; he cuts off the bowl, after decorating it, at about 7 minutes. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Japanese Throwing

Ok, this is too hilarious not to share. Jennie typed "Japanese throwing video" into Google's search to find some Japanese masters showing their techniques. The ever helpful Google brought back millions of results.

Here was one of the first three results of the search:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mix it in, Add it on, Fire it up

Jennie and I have some fun events coming up including a raku firing and a salt firing. For these firings, we have to throw with a different sort of clay than our usual cone 6 (cone designates the temperature, ie. cone 10 is much hotter than cone 04, etc.). I decided to mix in some "tailings" from the North Shore of MN. These tailings have all sorts of minerals in them which, I'm hoping, will produce wonderful effects in the firings. They give the raw clay a little umph and show through the glazes I'll choose.

A raku firing is a lot of fun because it is so involved and pretty fast. Basically, a raku firing involves putting a pot into a small kiln and heating it until it is red hot. Then a potter grabs it with tongs, takes it out, and places it inside of a trash can full of sawdust and other combustible material. Of course, these things burst into flame and the potter quickly covers the trash can with the lid, blocking the flow of oxygen and letting the pot smolder. As soon as the interior has calmed a bit, the pot can be taken out and placed into water where it finishes cooling and is washed off. The rapid cooling of a red hot pot crackles certain low fire glazes, like you see in the pot to the left. Usually, if you see a pot with what looks like black clay, it is actually raku fired. The process turns the raw clay a pitch black color.

For these firings, the whole involved process shows in variations on the pots. Because of that, anything that casts a shadow on a pot (like adding clay, cutting into it, pushing into it, changes of direction in a pot's composition, etc.) really show off the best of the best from the atmosphere of the kiln. See the difference in the two pots below for clarification on what I am talking about (and each has its place... just notice the differences):

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tiny Potter, Huge Pots

Last weekend I went up to Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) is one of the finest, in my opinion. If you ever have a chance to go see their collection, it is worth it! I was there to see a specific exhibit called Cezanne and Beyond. This exhibit is brilliant and will only be at the PMA until the end of May (a little more than a week left!). It is not traveling anywhere else after Philadelphia. It received glowing reviews for very obvious reasons, evident as soon as you walk into the gallery space.

While I was there I walked over to the Perelman Building, a sort of PMA annex, and wandered through the show on Matisse and the French Riviera, various exhibits on fashion, and stopped in front of a huge pot in the hallway. It must be in their permanent collection as there were no pots to accompany it in any sort of exhibit. It stood on its own, a strange bulbous tall shape with glaze smeared and brushed up and down it. While my aesthetic is not analogous to this style, the pot drew me to it. I've seen this artist's work before and it always amazes me. This enormous pot was thrown by Toshiko Takaezu, a Japanese American artist from Hawaii. She is a tiny woman pictured at the very top of this post walking among her pots and here to the right inside one of her pots! She used to do functional ceramics but moved on to the more sculptoral thrown pieces. Her classic forms are these closed, organic shapes and her creativity and forward thinking have made her a forerunner in the fusion of Eastern and Western ceramics. Whether you like this form or not, you have to appreciate the talent it took to create it! I really like the oragnic quality of some of her rounder pots.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Do you ever look at objects or eat something and think, "ok, who was the first person to try this?!" or "how in the world did they figure this out?!" (Like mussels, for example... mmm, I think I'll break open this shell and eat the gray slimy mass inside!). I've never thought about that with pottery, maybe because I grew up with it and it feels natural, but my reading recently brought up just that! How did this whole crazy thing start? Who squished some clay, "burned" it, and called it usable?! Here is a quote from the introduction to Robin Hopper's book, Functional Pottery:

"...the earliest pottery probably developed by accident. There are two basic theories of development. It may have come from observations of the way the earth became baked around firepits, with the subsequent experimentation of making and firing pinched clay pots. On the other hand, it may have come from the accidental burning of clay-lined baskets. Baskets were the original storage containers. They were made from grasses, reeds, or soft, pliable tree branches, primarily for carrying and storing grain and seed, the major part of the diet at that time. Baskets are anything but impervious to the loss of small seeds, which easily find their way through the basket weave. After a while inner coatings of clay were probably smeared into the baskets to prevent loss. Some mud-lined baskets were possibly accidentally burnt, leaving a fired clay lining. Pottery could even have developed from the process of wrapping foods in a skin of clay and placing them in the embers of a fire, or on heated rocks, to cook. This method was common among the Indians of North America, and may also have been the precursor to the common cooking pot. From these simple beginnings has developed an art form which has served mankind for thousands of years, for his daily needs from birth to the grave, and beyond. Throughout man's pottery-making history he has devloped a huge repertoire of shapes and surfaces to fill his many needs..."

And in Chapter One:
"Looking at pottery in museums, or as illustrations in books, one can't help but be amazed by the huge and subtle diversity of forms that man has molded clay into, for a wide variety of possible uses. Beyond the natural instincts of enjoying the purely manipulative quality of the material, and the function which is required of the formed objects, ceramic form has been influenced and altered by many factors and forces.
Pottery developed as a response to the needs of mankind. Pots became containers and dispensers: pots of purpose. The form that they took developed for a variety of reasons: the use required; religious associations; as a substitute emulating other, more precious, materials; geographical and climatic considerations; and the many variations in cultural customs. Once the basic needs became evident, forms developed and made to serve them."

I think it a wonderful testament to the innate lover of beauty in all of mankind that even a plain, purely functional thing can be a work of art. You can argue about where that comes from or why that is but regardless, I think it is clear that art is an essential part of what makes us human. When the arts are forgotten or shoved aside, the qulaity of life declines.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A little modification

After thinking about my last post, I should do a little backtracking.

I am very grateful to be able to fire my pots higher than earthenware temperatures and have learned a lot even from electric kilns. It is incredible what an electric kiln makes possible!

No complaints, only dreams!

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Dream:

One wonderful salt kiln, gas or wood.

I can't stop thinking about it. All I want to do is learn more about firing and taking care of my pots throughout their entire creation. Someone asked me today what my next step is in my journey-man days. I think they meant the next step in this process of apprenticing but all I could think about was a kiln. A kiln? Why, you ask? Don't you fire your pots? Well, yes and no. A little electric man fires my pots. An electric kiln has elements coiled around inside that switch on, heat up, and fire hotter and hotter until the little "cone" drops (bends) and then it shuts off. There is no flame. There is no dialogue between potter and pot at that point. Suddenly you disconnect and reconnect when the kiln is open. With a gas or wood firing, the potter is ever present, minding the kiln, checking on every detail and completely responsible for what happens.

I have fired gas, wood, and raku kilns with groups of potters, the seedling with little experience. I've also helped build kilns, move kilns, load and unload kilns. At a 2 week artist gathering in Wisconsin, we built a beautiful little wood kiln. It was incredible, from bare ground to cutting bricks to gleaming pots! But I don't know nearly enough to do it myself. I want so badly to learn!

If there is anyone out there who wants a firing partner, please, I will clean your studio and tend your garden ...

Some day, some how, I will have one, I hope.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Glazed Over

I haven't done much writing recently about what I'm actually doing in the studio. We've been throwing, trimming and firing (bisque). Wednesday and Thursday were the first days of glazing. I measured out some test glazes that Jennie and I are excited to try.

Glazing is one of my favorite processes in pottery. There are chemistry classes devoted entirely to ceramic glazes, not in art school! I tried to audit one in college but "they" told me it was too advanced to comprehend the basics of the class! I was skeptical and tried to argue but they wouldn't budge. All of the powder chemicals in the picture to the left are used for making glazes. Copper, iron, and cobalt are the most basic "colors" in glazes but the range of possibilities really is endless.

I hear a lot of people say "paint" rather than glaze. Glaze is not paint. You are not merely coating a pot. It is a chemical change. The chemical powders are mixed together, water is added and the new mixture is sifted twice (100 mesh!) to get rid of clumps. The potter dips, pours, brushes, sprays, blows, squirts (or any other manner of applying the glaze) the pot with one or more glaze. The usual bland color of the chalky coating of glaze after dipping a pot, or even the color of the batch of liquid in the bucket, is not the color of the result. There are extremely simple combination's like Gerstley Borate, a flux or melting agent, and Iron Oxide, a colorant. But from there potters have combined any number of chemicals, all active in the glaze in a different way.

In the kiln, the heat and oxygen combine to change the chalky chemical combination into glass! Because bisque-ware is some what porous, the glaze completely adheres and becomes one with the pot.

Jennie spent a couple years developing and honing the glaze that she uses for most of her pieces - the red that you saw in the previous post. As you can see, she does her own variation of Asian brush work on many of her pots. I am working on how to transform my line drawings into something that would complement a 3D form ... we'll see what comes out of that!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bernard Leach on Composition

Leach's book, as I've mentioned, is wonderful. I reached a section on composition and would like to share it. I cut a few parts out as indicated by the ellipses. It speaks to any number of disciplines and I hope you enjoy:

"[My diagrams of a pot] are analytical intellectualizations and cannot be more than signposts to intuition I am well aware ... If they are used as shortcuts to an oversimplified system of judging pots I shall have failed in my purpose ... Analysis should follow and support intuition; the inner preceding the outer.

The basic process of composition in pottery, as in other forms of art, appears to depend upon an intuitive perception of the way in which similar and dissimilar elements can be coordinated in a new whole. The actual coordinating or creative faculty defies analysis; it exists -- it knows that this speaks to that in such and such a way. It employs catalysis , thereby relating the seemingly unrelatable. Repetition and contrast, symmetry and asymmetry, major and minor, dark against light, convex and concave -- these and many other dualisms have to be resolved in every pot by the catalytic effect of neutrals.

By a neutral I mean a line, shape, or color in which opposites have already come to an equilibrium. The difference is that between primaries and secondaries in color. For example, in a painting, or a woven fabric, there may be a grey, made up of red and blue primaries, in which the red speaks to a red area, and the blue to a blue, producing a sudden harmony where the was discord before. Or in a pot a tenuous neutral area may be the link which successfully relates two otherwise ambiguous statements of form. Or in a pattern one slowly discovers that the unpainted part is, so to speak, of an acoustical importance better understood in the Far East. In pattern, as in melody, proverb or dance, irreducible components are united in a relationship of complete rhythmic simplicity.

Some pots are enhanced by decoration, others are not ... Generally speaking, decoration should be subordinate to form but not at the price of dull uniformity ... But no matter what one writes about the complex relationships of shape, pattern, and color-texture, ultimately it is the manner in which such abstract ideas are applied which will determine the vitality of the work, for the pot is indeed the projection of the man who makes it and of the culture, or cultures, upon which he draws."
-- Bernard Leach "The Potters Challenge" (pg. 38-39)

While some of that required reading and re-reading, I really love the way he defines composition. While I was teaching art I emphasized composition to the students and was constantly coming up with new ways to communicate the idea of "composition". Leach describes it well and verbalizes what I quickly realized: there is only so much you can say. It is intuition that needs to fill out the picture.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

My Master!

I realized I haven't posted any pictures of Jennie's pots. Her website is linked on the right and here are a few of my favorites (that I have pictures of).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I grew up little today. Jennie has been talking to me about proportions and aesthetics and having me read a little about the subject in Robin Hopper's book, "Functional Pottery". Learning is a slow process and fruits aren't seen until a real devotion to study happens. As I have listened to her and put the principles into effect in my pots (or at least tried to!), I have noticed the process of learning.

First, I grasp it intellectually. I hear her and understand what she is saying without knowing it, meaning, without having a personal experience with it. Then I see what she is saying as she shows me and understand it even further as I implement it.

Even as I work through it myself, my understanding shifts and grows. I may think I grasp the essentials at one point but then a little while later a pot will pose another question and a new light will shine on the lesson, one that I couldn't have envisioned myself... there is no rushing the learning process! There is immeasurable value in working through things and constantly giving yourself, what I used to tell my students, a pop quiz. Stopping and checking yourself, critically, to see if you have actually followed the criteria. You'd be surprised by what you catch.

I picked up some pots of mine from last fall. I was pretty proud of them then but knew something was off. They weren't quite right and I knew, as I looked at them last fall, that I was enjoying the surface of the pot more than the pot itself. As I held them in my hands today I could see! I saw beyond the surface to exactly why the pot didn't quite work. It was an exciting moment for me... and so I will be smashing some pots tomorrow!

Monday, May 11, 2009

St. Croix

This past weekend I went to Minnesota, land of lakes, Scandinavians... and potters! The Upper St. Croix (go to Stillwater, MN and go north) is home to some absolutely wonderful, talented, and well known potters.

This weekend was the annual St. Croix Pottery Tour. The potters in the area host the tour and invite certain potters to participate with them. It is a prestigious and respected group. Jennie and I have heard about the tour for years and many of the potters who participate but have never been able to visit MN during that particular weekend. It was a treat and very inspiring. Potters are some of the friendliest and down to earth artists so of course we enjoyed meeting and talking to most of them. The following artists were some of my favorite. Take a look at thier beautiful work.

Guillermo Cuellar

Dick Cooter

Jan McKeachie Johnston and her husband

Randy Johnston

Jeff Oestreich

Anthony Schaller

There were others but we weren't able to get to them all. For those of you who want a little more information about what you are looking at in the pictures above, let me give you a few morsels to hold while you view.

In all of the pots above you can see slight or not so slight variations on the surface of the pots. This variation is prized among many potters because it shows the process and atmosphere of the kiln (firing process) so well. Also, if you were unsure, let me just tell you, it's gorgeous. In some cases there is a very high sheen on the pot with drastic variations in color. This is usually the result of salt. A potter shoves quite a bit of salt into the kiln (gas or wood kilns) during the firing process and the fires lick and whip it around the pot, giving it that lovely sheen and variety.

Pots with the variations and without the sheen are usually products of a wood kiln (without salt). Wood kilns are fired with... wood (!), cords and cords of it, and the pots are in direct contact with the flames and ash. Again, giving the surface of a pot variation in color from one side to the next. Depending where a pot is in the kiln, it can have more or less effect from the flames.

Good potters know thier kiln so well, they know the placement and effect of different spots inside. The atmosphere of a kiln is very much of a science, one that I am anxious to learn more about.

So, those morsels are only about the surfaces. There is much more to fall in love with as you learn about graceful shapes, proportion, feel, weight, etc., all of which will produce a deeper appreciation for the pots and potter. But you don't have to know all of that to fall in love. Be confident in your initial aesthetic opinion. There is value in that. Something about a particualr work of art grabs you and others don't. Thats a fact and an important one. But if it really grabs you, imagine learning why and loving it even more!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

So, what is your favorite shape to make?

This is a question that I get often. For me, it's not a difficult one.

Do you know what a tea bowl is? No, no, not a tea cup, you Anglofiles, a tea bowl! The tea bowl is, with out a doubt, my favorite thing to throw. The tea bowl is the Asian vessel for tea. It is closely connected to the tea ceremony and to nature, a spiritualized sense of nature. You would never guess it but there is a lot behind a simple tea bowl. So much, in fact, that I will barely touch on the subject here.

Mel Jacobson, whom I've mentioned before, took me on as an apprentice the summer before my senior year of college. I lived in Minnesota, where he lives and works, and worked in his studio. He was in the middle of a big project involving a ceramic chemist, Joe Koons. They were atempting to recreate a Chinese glaze (temmoku variations), used on tea bowls, that has been lost for centuries. While I was useless on the chemistry end of things, Mel confidently took me on to throw tea bowls like crazy. It was our job, in potting, to recreate the shapes of Chinese tea bowls with similar bodied clays and try to recreate the atmosphere in the kiln of the ancient potters. Joe would send us the specs and the glazes (all top secret, of course). Mel, having studied in Japan, taught me Japanese throwing techniques to make pots the same size and shape, using ribs and tombos (the tools to the right). We made hundreds of those dang things and I still hadn't had enough.

My senior year of college, I created my own senior honors seminar along with my professor, Kathy Rhoades (I've mentioned her before). My school didn't offer any sort of major or minor in Art, so I enthusiastically paved my own way. I came up with a focus of study: Tea Bowls! I chose Japanese tea bowls and researched the history, the ceremony, the traditions, wrote a long paper, and made the ceramics to match. At the end of it all I put up a solo art show, sent out invitations, and gave a presentation. The amount of work that went into that was overwhelming and felt great. I threw, trimmed, glazed, broke, and loved a lot more tea bowls in that whole process.

I learned that the two main shapes, the 'v' and the 'U' (for lack of a tiny picture), are summer and winter, respectively and represent the mountain (upside down, of course), a sacred structure in nature. Tea bowls, the very special ones, even had a birthday! Certain ones were only used on their birthday for the tea ceremony and you could tell "how old" a tea bowl was according to the stain of tea in it's surface. Also, remember the post about repairing ceramics with those gold viens? Tea bowls were respected. They wanted that bowl. And, oh, the list goes on!

The muscle memory in our bodies is amazing. That little quip, "its just like riding a bike", is very true in ceramics. The tea bowl is my bike, for sure. I just get right on it and my hands and brain remember, instinctively, how to ride. I even get that sweeping feeling, like riding a bike, smooth sailing, it feels good, it's a pleasure to throw. No matter how many I make, striving for that perfect form, repeating the shape over and over, each bowl carries its own story. And hopefully, like Bernard Leach challenges all potters, that joy will shine through and give joy to the user.

[I think this will give way to a longer post on Bernard Leach's book, The Potter's Challenge. I am loving it. It speaks to so much more than pottery.]

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Back in the saddle again

Oh! It is good to be back making pottery! Being around all of that clay (none of which I got to take home, by the way! Arg!) was just a teaser. I had such a thrill finding the beautiful ceramic pieces, breaking the crude clay apart in my hands to uncover fired clay, but I was itching to be making something myself.

I was inspired in two specific ways by my week down in Orange. The first I've had a little bit of a hard time expressing but let me give it a go.

As I worked along side these archaeologists, I tried to ask as many questions as I could, not only about the work we were doing but about themselves and what they were interested in. Most people, interesting people, have some path or idea of a path that they are on and love to share about it. One of my favorite things is to understand where other people came from and where they are going, with all of the branches that are some how included in creating their path.

Each of the archaeologists had started with a different idea and all ended up at the same place. They each knew a lot about what was happening at the Montpelier site specifically, the history there, the artifacts and dates, etc. But they all had a different background and angle that they would share as they dug, asking each others' opinions and advice. I could pull a new artifact out of the dirt and one of them would recognize the pattern and glaze color on a piece of ceramics and be able to tell me the date/era and what it was made of. One piece, the black and cream that you see to the left, is stoneware and the glaze is a lovely mixture of tobacco juice and urine (I'll have to try that some time). I began to really love the specialties and respect the knowledge that each had. I wanted to hear more about what they wanted to study and could just imagine the specific fields being incredibly interesting to them.

I have struggled with honing in on one specific area, being distracted by all of the possibilities and interesting things around me. But this experience really brought home the value in being realistic about what you are good at, what interests you and following that, no matter what sort of wild goose chase it leads you on... because, in the end, it all comes together to give you a rich and full perspective on exactly what you are working on.. what you will work on. Whether its a conversation with one person, a short time volunteering, or years at a job you aren't that enthused about, as long as you have taken the time to know yourself well enough and have guts to try, it will all come together.

I hope that made some sense...

The second inspiration was not so serious but very inspiring none the less! I loved looking at the old techniques, shapes, decorations, and glazes. It made me want to do a little more research on all of that and try my hand at reproducing some of it ... maybe with a modern, Sarah twist. Jennie had a thought along these lines, that we could go to the National Gallery and draw some of the pottery in paintings and try our hand at those as well! We'll see what comes of this... You may be reading about tobacco juice and urine experiments!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Would you like some dirt with that?

Archaeology, even after a week in the trenches, has a magnificent Romantic air about it. The amount of patience it takes to do it well seems as though it should be tedious work but throw in mystery and treasure and no amount of time could deter the best of archaeologists! The natives weren't chasing us, there was no need for whips and fedoras, and the site didn't require measuring out sand to equal the weight of a golden statue... but the past gave us quite the stir none the less.

The group of Archaeologists at Montpelier made the week of digging absolutely wonderful. Even with masses of tourists, weeks full of amateur volunteers, and weeks swarming with Field School students, this group of Archaeologists have not lost their enthusiasm for sharing about their work. Dr. Mathew Reeves, the Director of the Archaeological program at Montpelier, set up the volunteer week very well, with a lecture, tours, and plunging us right into the field and lab work, trusting that we will learn more as we work, even calling us staff for the week. There were four volunteers this past week and there are four archaeologists in the field so we were treated to one to one instruction.

As usual, I loved being in the dirt. I felt right at home being covered in the red clay and connected well with my fellow dirt lovers. I think there is something to working closely with mud likens the world of archaeologists to the world of potters. At least with this group I had that similar sense of realism, earthiness, and understanding that I get so often with potters. Both require that physical labor and no bull about getting down and dirty... and anyone (almost) willing to actually do that is at home in the community. I asked Hope, one of the archaeologists, about their experience with volunteer groups. She said that they haven't really had bad experiences with it because they all at least start out on one similar playing field: an interest in Archaeology. I think the connection deepens when there is a realization that you work with similar materials, there is an unspoken understanding. And I think anyone willing to get that dirty has to have a certain flexibility about life and possessions that I admire. But that's another thought for another time.

There are lots of stories and technical details but one of the best moments for me was a puzzle. After troweling and digging in the site, the dirt is brought in buckets to large screens. The dirt is sifted through these screens and large clumps are broken up to find artifacts or, as one of the archaeologists simply explained it, "cool things". And that is exactly what we did, found cool things. Glass sherds, ceramic shards, bone and teeth (animals, don't worry), shell, nails, decorative hardware ... Some from the 20th century but a lot from the 19th and 18th too! Over the first two days I found the two ceramic pieces I am holding in the picture to the left in the screening process. This pattern color are recognized as from Madison's childhood era, the late 1700s! It didn't stop there.

After a layer or section of the site is through being screened, the artifact bag for that part is "closed". We divide and count up the spoils (or artifacts) and record everything. As I emptied and divided the artifacts from a particular layer, I noticed that I had three pieces of ceramics from Madison's childhood era. I picked up the two larger pieces and turned them over and over to see if, by chance, they fit ... and as you can see in the next picture, they did!! They slipped right into place beside each other as if 200 years and mounds of dirt had never separated them.

It was so interesting to look at pieces of old ceramic ware knowing that a potter made it by hand, a family used it and loved it, and there I was, decades later, finding it, handling it and loving it again.