Monday, September 28, 2009

Larger than life

You may recall a few posts back and a few countries away, I tried a tall vase. You may remember it as my flop of a large pot? Things change when you have a teacher. Seth threw three large pots a while ago. They are subtle, graceful curves, springing up from their bases and coming in at the neck for a high shoulder and proportioned mouth.

Some potters throw big pots like this with one hunk of clay. They strain themselves to do this and usually wear muscle tees to show it. Others will do as I tried before and add coils. Rather than throwing with coils, Seth throws his large vases in sections.

He threw three bases on bats. Oh boy, that may sound like gibberish to some of you! If you don't know pottery, you have either just imagined a bunch of baseball items thrown around or some ugly black flying things that come out at night. Lets try again. Seth turned a large amount of clay on the wheel in the shape of a wide, tall walled cylinder. The cylinder is slightly wider at the top in order to start the gradual curve of a tall vase. He made three of these bottoms (for three different pots). Then, measuring with calipers, he threw donuts (bottomless) to the width of the base he just threw. And to finish it off, he threw another bottomless form that looks like a bowl on a pedestal which is the top of the vase up side down. Just think about that for a minute and try to envision it. The pot at the top left might help. If you divide that in three even pieces and turn them upside down, you've got it.

I was keen to give it a shot after seeing it and was
relatively successful on my first go! The shape lacks the graceful quality of a more experienced potter but that will come with each large pot I throw ... because there will be more!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Painful pruning...

I'm waiting for a friend at a local gas station. A beautiful tree next to me has large oval leaves with an incredibly fabric-like crinkle to them. There are vines growing around the root of the tree, bursting from the cement that surrounds it and I just noticed that there are grapes hanging from these vines. The land is prolific!

I love to go for runs and take long walks. There are endless directions for my expeditions around the Masia (the term for a cluster of houses). I usually end up in groves of almonds or olives where the earth is churned up regularly by local farmers. This loosens the dense clay and rock around the trees and rids the tree of its competitions -- weeds. The trees all have curious growth patterns very carefully monitored (or in some cases not so carefully) by the farmers. Branches are pruned so that the nutrients can flow well to the fruits. Each tree has branches that reach out, droop down, and splay back up with the fruits popping out all over. Its interesting to think about the process of trimming off fresh, healthy growth in order to achieve more fruits in the future. That takes a serious amount of trust in the process and foresight.

Last week Seth introduced me to his way of making pitchers. They are rounded bodies with taller, straighter necks than I'm used to. After watching him throw once I sat down to my second teacher, the wheel. Well, I spent the day with these blasted forms and had three mediocre ones to show for it by the end. I was so frustrated and disappointed that once Seth left the studio I sat down on one of the rickety old chairs (that almost toppled) and cried pitiful tears. All work has its frustrating days and art is no different. I had run out of steam completely.

I was being pruned. Painfully and laboriously. I had mentioned to Seth that I was having a hard time. He merely said to keep throwing and there would eventually be that moment of light ... hopefully. I just stood there with my eyebrows raised and mouth open. That was it.

So, I threw more. I threw smaller versions at Seth's suggestion and then upped the weight as I felt more comfortable. Yesterday I threw some. I asked Seth, who isn't one to come checking up on me, to come look. My form was a bit rounder than his but echoed the idea quite well. I was ready for his short comment on what was wrong, ready for a good pruning but got almonds instead! He said thoughtfully, yes, yes thats quite nice. Different but rather nice. Maybe that will be the new Albadas (the name of his casa) syle.

It was brief and not much but it was growth. My eyes popped and heart fluttered. I wonder if thats how the trees feel as the almonds finally emerge?

Friday, September 11, 2009

A thoughtful potter

A large mound of clay in the shape of a large box sits on one side of our wedging surface. This is the reclaim clay, shoveled out of the bucket and slopped onto the table top to set up. The air in Spain is very arid, a perfect bonus for a potter. The breezes and the sun streaming into the studio give the reclaim and thrown pots a quick turn over time. Seth's usual practice is to throw in the morning, leave the pots out, eat la comidar (lunch), and come back to pots ready to trim. Remember from previous posts that a pot has to be at the "leather hard" stage to trim the bottoms. Trimming gives the pot a "foot" on the bottom, a nice finished, grip-able foot.

Why should a potter make a foot that can be grabbed? Why should a potter think about the bottom of a pot? Why does a customer lean toward one pot and not another? Why do you gravitate towards that certain bowl or mug in your cupboard? A good artist, a good potter, knows the answer to all of these questions. The success of a pot relies on the consciousness of the artist even if the reasons for success are inexplicable to the user/admirer. Seth mentions the"washer and dryer" a lot as we are making pots. He says that a good potter must think of a person holding the pot, using the pot, and washing the pot. Is it easy to hold? Is it comfortable? Is it convenient to wash? These are wonderful things to imagine as thought goes into every aspect of every pot, from the smallest bowl to the largest vase.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Throwing to the nines!

The trek down to the pottery everyday requires a sure foot. Stairs, rocks, slopes, and plants are ready and waiting to makes sure you are awake. It has been part of my 'slave labor' to take care of some of that. While waiting for pots to set up or clay to stiffen or soften, etc. I would head out to the path, gloved and stubborn, pulling out all sorts of weeds. Today I completed that task and stepped back with a satisfied sigh to see a wide, clear path leading to the studio.

As Michael Cardew says in his book, Pioneer Potter, much of a potter's life is comprised of hard physical labor which seems boring at first. But he quickly follows that with saying that those tasks gradually become less boring as you yourself become less boring. Interesting concept. Pioneer Potter is required reading given to me by Seth. It is his dad's autobiography and incredibly interesting for potters, artists, and really anyone. He and his teacher, Bernard Leach, were philosophers of sorts. They thoroughly thought through their aesthetics and were devoted to learning.

Seth has carried on much of his father's philosophizing. In that, though, there is a definite realistic edge. He had me throw bowls, the Cardew way. He sat down and threw one, talking through it pretty quickly as he threw. I stood and watched, mentally taking note of his nine
1. open (after you've centered, you thrust your hand confidently into the clay and make a shallow opening, keeping the bottom thick for a nice hardy foot ring)

2. pull (thin out the walls of the pot)
3. flute (while keeping the bottom tight, he opens the top way out so that the shape of the pot at this point is like a trumpet)
4. flatten inside bottom
5. undercut with thumb (to tighten the base of the pot and "give it a good spring" as Seth says)
6. shape (you can only do this once, to retain the grace and flow of the curve ... sometimes I tweak it!))
7. sponge (clean out the inside)
8. stick (clean clay from around the base of the outside)
9. wire (and cut it off!)

The "not boring" 9 menial steps of making a "satisfying to use" bowl. (all quotes mean as Seth says, if you haven't picked up on that already!)