Sprig Decoration on Mugs Adding logos onto sides of mugs (Fall 1999 Pottery Making Illustrated) This is my original unedited text... Since I developed the technique on my own, I was unaware I was "sprigging" and referred to it as "embossing"
Tobikanna: Making and using the Japanese "Jumping Iron" (Summer 1999 Pottery Making Illustrated)
Unusual Pottery Markets (Summer 1999 Ceramics Monthly) Note: This is my unedited original article, which properly attributes the last part of the article to potter Terry Young (which was edited out by CM)
Adding a Coil Foot Winter 1999 Pottery Making Illustrated.
Young Upstarts and Old Stick-in-the MudsDec. 98 CM Comment
Collecting pottery- a potter's view: Journal of American Art Pottery Association, Vol 14. No. 4 July-Aug 1998
Crystalline Glazes, Natural Beauty: Journal of American Art Pottery Association, Vol. 14, No. 3. May-June 1998
A potter's tale of terrors.(Column)
Brad Sondahl. Ceramics Monthly, April 1997 v45 n4 p112(1)
Outline: A potter describes how he continues to practice his craft, despite the mishaps
that have occurred. His problems have included the receipt of bad clay, a fire started by
the kiln plug and the creation of a foamy glaze as a result of mixing it in a bucket that
formerly held soap-bubble mix.
Finding your niche.
(relocation tips for potters) Brad Sondahl Ceramics Monthly, June-August
1996 v44 n6 p37(2)
Outline: Potters moving to a new location must first decide where to locate their
studios. Some prefer home studios while others want a separate location. A kiosk on the
main street of a small resort town is a good place for marketing work. Galleries and art
fairs are other possibilities.
Teaching and the production potter.
Ceramics Monthly, Nov 1993 v41 n9 p102(2)
The death of Ernest Kunst. A
funny detective story
Ceramics Monthly, Jan 1987 v35 p23(2)
Ceramics Monthly , May 1992 v40 n5 p86(2)
Brief Summary: Potters must be aware of the environmental aspects of the art and
craft. Ceramic materials should be recycled whenever possible, and electric kilns cause
less pollution than wood or salt kilns. Also, the politically correct potter will not pander
exclusively to the rich.
toward standardization. (in art supplies,
paints, and glazes)
Ceramics Monthly, Dec 1991 v39 n10 p88(1)
Brief Summary: Something is both gained and lost as a result of scientific advances in
ceramic materials technology. The positive side is predictably uniform and high-quality,
non-toxic paint and glaze. The negative side is the lack of individual experimentation and
A distinctive pottery
culture. (column) Brad Sondahl.
Ceramics Monthly, May 1990 v38 n5 p22(1)
Menu of other Pot Thoughts on this page:
Go to Brad's homepage
Other article, text not yet available.
To help make a good fit for a candle, make a sizing tool
by wrapping several thicknesses of
masking tape as smoothly as possible around the stub of a candle. This will increase the diameter
of the candle, helping to make the size right after the pottery shrinks. (Some experimentation may
be necessary.) When the wheel is stopped, put the end of the candle in the holder to assess the
size, and adjust the holder if necessary.
After the proper size is achieved, collar in about 1 inch
below the top to make a stopper for the
That's the basic candle holder. Here are two fun variations: the candle ring and the candle arch.
The candle ring can have multiple holders placed on them. I have made them with four for
Advent candle rings, and even with a dozen holders for the 12 days of Christmas. Here's the
After centering about 2 pounds of clay, poke a hole in the middle to the bottom, and pull out a
ring. It helps to press downwards as you pull out, or it may easily become detached from the bat.
When the ring is about 8-10 inches in diameter, push down to make a trough with one finger.
Set the ring aside while making the candle cups. These are the top parts of the basic candle
holder, which can be best made off the hump.
Form the part as illustrated, and cut off with a needle
tool, leaving a flared flange for attaching to
the ring. Repeat for as many as you'd like on the ring.
To make a candle arch, proceed to pull out a ring as previously
shown. Instead of pushing down
to make a U-shaped trough, push in from the outside to make a C-shaped trough.
Trim the bottom of the shape so that it is symmetrical
to the top. Some of this can be done while
still freshly thrown on the wheel At the same time as you make the arch, make some
basic candle holders to go with it.
When the arch form is leather hard, turn it over and finish
trimming to make it symmetrical. Any
area which has been trimmed may have open pores, and should be sealed with throwing slurry.
To make two identical candle arches, cut the ring in half.
I use a spackling knife to make a straight
cut, but any knife will do. You can make a single high candle arch by only cutting a little off the
arch (you may wish to attach it to a slab to make it less tippy). You could even use the whole
ring, and coil build or throw a stable foot for it.
To attach the arch to the candle holders, score and slip
them well and attach them with firm
pressure. Some clay may be added at the junctions to strengthen the bond. These will be
extremely fragile when dry, but they will become more durable with the bisque and when the glaze
helps form a tight bond.
with Dips and Pours
Improving your glazing techniques.
By Brad Sondahl
The quickest way to glaze a pot is by dipping. But
potters can find this method irritating due to runny drips, bad overlaps,
and blandness of decoration. Here are some ways to improve your success
in glazing by dipping. They should work with any vessel form, from bowls
1. Preparation: If there are areas that should not be glazed, such as pot bottoms and sills where lids are attached, consider applying wax resist first to those areas. But if it takes less time to sponge off a pot bottom than to wax it, I don’t bother to wax. Also, test to find which glazes work well when overlapping each other before trying this on pots you value. Don’t forget to stir your glazes frequently. Fragile glazes without kaolin can be difficult to handle when dry without rubbing off onto your hands (wearing rubber gloves when glazing is advised). Any glaze may spread color to other areas when handled, particularly if at all damp.
2. Although hands are handy for handling pots, they leave large spots unglazed where they contact the pot when used for dipping. This can be avoided by dipping in two steps (often with two colors of glaze). I usually dip the bottom half of the pot first, then clean the bottom up with a sponge. Pot bottoms are invariably thicker than the tops, so the glaze moisture is absorbed quicker and it will soon be handleable. If you want a placid decoration, hold the pot straight as you dip it into the bucket. For more zest, tip the pot at an angle as you lower it into the glaze.
3. At this point consider adding more wax resist to sharply define the area you wish to contain, or to add accents of the underlying color.
4. Now switch to the second color of glaze. Fill a cup with this glaze, and pour it into the inside of the pot, taking care not to drip on the outside. A thin lipped cup such as come in boxes of detergent works well for this, particularly if the handle is bent by heating over a flame until it bends down, making a handle which can hook on the bucket. Swish the glaze around the inside slightly, up close to the upper edge. Now tip the pot on its side and steadily pour out the glaze while rotating it so as to complete glazing the inside. When finished, tip the pot upside down, and dip it into the glaze bucket to where the two glazes meet. Some overlap is desirable, and usually creates an interesting third shade of color. When you remove the pot from the glaze, rotate the pot again as you tip it back up, so as to make the drip on the end travel along the lip of the pot, rather than dripping down and marring the design.
5. Rubber bulb ear syringes make great glaze applicators. You can squirt a wide line of glaze quickly, or carefully extrude a finer line directly on the pot. These will add accents of decoration to the dipped pot. If a carefree wide line is desired, hold the pot over the glaze bucket, and start squeezing before the stream of glaze hits the pot, and quickly move it across the pot before stopping. Allow the glaze to dry slightly before setting down, or the glaze may run. Try holding the pot sideways in one hand while squirting with the other. 6. If you want to glaze a pot with only one glaze, use glaze tongs. These pliers are designed to leave only small marks on the glazed surface, which can be smoothed before firing. Note that when glazing larger pots with tongs, the pot should also be supported with your other hand so as not to apply too much pressure (which can cause them to break through the pot). Also the tongs have a narrow set of teeth aligned with the handle, and a wider set at right angles. This wider set should be on the outside of a bowl as it is dipped, so as to support the pot better.
6. Glaze dipping can produce quite varied results, depending on which way you hold the pot as you dip. All three of these examples use the same technique, just starting at different angles.
Figures: Dipping bottom straight. Dipping at an angle.
Adding wax resist. Pouring glaze into pot. Turning and pouring out.Dipping
into glaze. Zipping glaze color on. Pottery tongs on bowl.
Three examples of glaze dips.
By Brad Sondahl (unedited text)
You can improve your strength and stability in throwing by learning to brace yourself. These techniques are valuable in all phases from the heavy pushing of centering to the careful application of brush decoration. Use these simple rules to reduce strain and frustration when working on the wheel: Figure 1. Keep your hands in contact as much as possible. When your hands are in contact, they communicate with each other as to unevenness in the clay, and are much more stable. You can cross your thumbs to help keep your hands from spreading apart.Hands should stay in contact with each other until the pot is too tall to maintain contact. Also fingers in contact with each other are much stronger than if they are spread out.
Figure 2. Secure your elbows. When centering, you might try to bring your elbows in towards the center of your abdomen, and push them against your abdomen, using your whole upper body force to brace your lower arms. If you are seated when you throw, brace your elbows on the mid portion of your thighs as much as possible. If your elbows are not resting anywhere, your elbow joints and muscles are doing a lot of unnecessary work.
Brace your whole body. When pushing hard on the wheel, a backwards force is exerted towards your body. If you have no back on the stool you are sitting on, you are constantly fighting that pressure with your legs. Even a short padded back support added to your stool can help you counter that force more directly.
Figure 3 When doing fine decorating work, brace your hand against the work itself, or with your other hand. Rest several of the outer fingers on the piece you are working on, unless it may mar the decoration. If that is the case, hold the hand you are using at the wrist with the other hand. This will reduce unsteadiness and can be used to exert more force than one could with one hand, if needed.
it even! Using your hands as calipers. (unedited text)
By Brad Sondahl
It is sometimes difficult to gage the thickness of a pot as it is thrown, particularly towards the bottom. If you learn to use your hands as a calipers, you can reduce a lot of the heaviness of the pots you throw. This follows out of the basic bracing technique of keeping the base of your thumbs or wrists in contact while you are throwing. It also has the advantage of being less likely to damage the pot than using wood or metal calipers, since your hands are more sensitive to contact.
Figure 1: Each hand should form a C shape, with the thumbs in contact at all times. You can cross the thumbs to keep them out of the way and strengthen the bond between the two hands. The four fingers should be in contact in a bunch, as this makes them more stable.
Figure 2: Slide your hands in this position to the bottom of the form. Apply pressure until slightly compacting the base. Now move both hands up as a unit, following the form’s shape closely. If the pressure eases off, you will know it is thicker at the bottom.
As you gain proficiency with this method, you should be
able to sense how far apart the fingers of your two hands are, even blindfolded.
If you determine that the lower portion is too thick, you can use this
same technique to apply more pressure and make a pull to thin out the heavy
part. The only limit to the calipers technique is when the height of the
pot gets too tall to keep your hands in contact.
By Brad Sondahl
Your pots can achieve a more elegant touch by beading, or making a small rounded overhang on the lip. Besides adding a distinctive look, beading eliminates the sharp edge on the lip, and compresses the clay to help prevent cracking. This technique only works on lips which are even, so if there is a wobble, trim the pot even first with a needle tool.
Figure 1. Grab the end of a wet chamois with your non-principal hand (e.g. left for righthanders, etc.), pinched between the first two forefingers. You will want to hold on close to the edge which trails behind as the pot turns on the wheel (if your wheel rotates counterclockwise, this would be the upper edge as you hold the chamois in front of you).. Leave less than an inch of separation, and lace the rest of the chamois in the fingers of your principal hand, draping the end off your little finger.
Figure 2. Dip the chamois to get it wet. Push the chamois between your fingers together to make a bulge in the middle part of the chamois, and loosely contact the lip of the pot. Make contact only with the parts of the chamois held between the two hands.
Figure 3. Push the thumbnail of the principal hand in towards the lip, and tighten the gap slightly until light pressure is applied inward and downward. If any friction develops, re-wet the chamois. Ease off pressure slowly after application.
This is one technique guaranteed to help you get The Edge...
and Repetitive Sgraffito (unedited text)
By Brad Sondahl
You can quickly add decoration to your thrown pottery with bands of colored slips applied with a brush while the wheel is turning. Centuries ago feathering and repetitive sgraffito were developed to add variety to simple slip decoration. Feathering (originally done with a feather) implies marking lines through two or more colored bands of wet slip to create a varied appearance. If the slip is drier, or the lines are scratched deeper, the same technique becomes sgraffito. When the scratching is done in a repetitive manner as the pot rotates on the wheel, a wave or scallop decoration appears. Besides the slips and brushes, a small tool with notches in it is the only special equipment needed to create these effects.
Figure 1: This tool can be made from old credit card plastic. The narrow end has one rounded bump for scratching single lines. The wider end can have two, three, or more bumps, depending on desired effect. Try making several variations. Cut the shape with a tight scissors. Make small V-shaped notches at the wide end with the tips of the scissors. Then round off the resulting bumps, sanding them smooth before using.
Figure 2: Apply the bands of slip on the fresh or leather hard pot as the wheel turns, either in narrow alternating strips or applying a second layer of a different color over the first. Although any surface can be decorated in this manner, the insides of bowls are more difficult to apply smoothly than the outsides. If it is difficult to get a smooth clean edge to the band, add more water to the slip. Apply blue slip last, as it can overpower other slip colors. To feather, use the single end of the tool, pulling lines up and down alternately while the wheel is rotated extra slowly. This must be done immediately before the slip dries onto the pot.
Figure 3: Single lines can be incised by using the single end of the tool as the wheel rotates the pot. These are used to add variety or mark out areas for the decoration. To make a smooth wave pattern, scrape with the multi-notched end of the tool smoothly straight up and down while the wheel rotates slowly.
Figure 4: To make a scalloped decoration, while the wheel is slowly turning, make a small circular motion by moving your whole hand while the tool remains in contact with the pot. If the speed of the circular orbit is synchronized with the turning pot, the scalloped decoration will result. This motion takes a bit of practice, but once learned becomes easy to repeat.
Some Slip recipes:
Blue Slip Ball Clay 85
Cobalt Carbonate 10
Cobalt Oxide 5
Iron Slip Ball Clay 90
Red Iron Oxide 10
Green Slip Ball Clay 85
Copper Carbonate 15
Decoration on Mugs
by Brad Sondahl
Frequently potters desire to repeat a detailed decoration, such as a name or logo, on items for niche marketing. Mugs are the traditional favorite for this kind of item. This article will show one way of making a plaster stamp and applying it to the side of a mug to create a standardized but still unique decoration. Part 1: Making the stamp. Step one: The stamps can be made from plaster or by bisquing a clay master. I prefer working with plaster, as the fine grain accommodates delicate carving, so the following instructions are for plaster.Make the forms for filling with plaster from small thrown pots or juice cans. Forms can be round, oval, or rectangular. One larger cylindrical form should also be prepared, which is slightly smaller in diameter than the inside of the mugs you will be decorating. A sturdy piece of wood (1"x2"), twelve to fifteen inches long with a hole drilled in one end, will be inserted in this larger form. This will be used like a shoe on a shoelast, to hold the pot in place while pressing on the decoration.
Tip: I like to throw the forms on the wheel, and then fill the forms with plaster shortly after throwing. The insides of thrown forms have nice smooth curves at the bottoms. Also the clay can be peeled off the plaster easily at this stage. If you use nonclay forms, lubricate them with petroleum jelly before casting.
Step 2: Prepare a batch of plaster according to its directions. Avoid stirring excess air bubbles into the plaster. Fill the forms, and tap them down gently on the table to make them flatten on top, and to agitate bubbles out of the surface. The top surface is the part used for the stamps, so it should be as smooth as possible.
Step 3: After mostly filling the larger cylinder with plaster, push the wood piece halfway into the cylinder or more, supporting it until the plaster sets up.
Step 4: When the plaster is hardened, remove the forms, and clean any odd bits of plaster off with a loop tool or knife. If the top of the form is not smooth and free of bubbles, scrape down with a knife until you reach a better surface. On the large piece with the stick, remove any sharp edges as they will scratch the inside of the mug.
Step 5: Draw a design onto the plaster stamp, keeping in mind that the final result will be a mirror image. If you have difficulty conceptualizing the design backwards, most computer graphics programs, including the Windows Paint accessory, can reverse images easily. You can draw a grid on the image, and also on the plaster stamp, to assist in placing the design properly. Carve the design into the stamp, using a small nail, dental tool, or other fine pointed scraper. Make the first carving carefully, and a groove will be established for subsequent scratching.
Step 6: Make a small wad of clay, which when flattened is about the size of the stamp. Press the wad of clay onto the stamp, and push it against a firm surface. Peel the clay free. Take note of areas that need to be deeper grooved to show up properly.If any mistakes need to be corrected, or a bubble mars the decoration, these can be scraped lightly and refilled with a little fresh plaster. Keep in mind that plaster bits should not end up in your scrap clay, as they will harm it.
When you are done designing the stamp, leave it in a warm dry place, to remove any excess water, so that it will be the least likely to stick when used for production. I put an arrow in ink on the top of the stamp, so as not to place a logo on upside-down.
Part Two: Stamping on Mugs
In your workshop, find a place on the edge of a table to secure the stick and plaster cylinder (hereafter dubbed the Potlast).Screw it onto the table, far enough in that it will not pull loose when downward pressure is applied on the outside plaster part. Using only one screw to secure it allows it to swivel out of the way when not in use... The Potlast should be smooth on all edges, so as not to scratch the interior of the mugs.
After adding handles to your leather hard mugs, place them in the area with the Potlast. Also a small piece of smooth cloth, some slip from your slop bucket and a small brush, and small wads of clay are required. The wads of clay may be sliced from a thick coil of clay, so as to approximately standardize them in size. Experience will yield the proper amount needed.
Step 1: Slide the mug on the Potlast, with the side up on which you wish to place the decoration. You may wish to vary the side you apply the decoration to, as left-handers and right-handers may have different preferences. You could also put the decoration on both sides...
Step 2: Roll the wad of clay in your hand into a ball to remove any irregularities. Flatten it with your hands to the approximate shape of the stamp. Press it gently onto the center of the stamp. Firmly press the stamp and clay onto the cloth, until clay is nearly sticking out on all sides. Remove it from the cloth.
Step 3: Apply a small amount of slip with the brush to the whole back of the clay pad. Choose the place to apply it to the mug, and roll it across, applying pressure. If the plaster is dry, the clay should adhere to the mug, rather than the stamp.
Step 4: With a wet finger, smooth down the edges of the
decoration to compress it onto the mug. Repeat the process for the next
mug. If used for over 30 mugs at a time, it may be necessary to heat
the stamp gently to dry it, so as to avoid it becoming sticky. If
stickiness is a general problem, try to use drier clay for the wads which
are to be attached. On the other hand, if the clay wads crack when
being pressed, the clay wads are too dry. I have used this technique
for logos for centennials, camps, and towns. Many people enjoy the
tactile sensation of the raised relief. Each decoration comes out
slightly different, from pressure, placement, and size of clay wad, so
the result is hand made, rather than the machine perfection of decals.
Try to find a glaze combination which will not overpower or obscure the
Using the Flexible Tobikanna Decorating Tool
by Brad Sondahl
The tobikanna (pronounced Toe' Be Kah' na) is a simple decorating tool traditionally used in some parts of Japan. Its name means "Jumping Iron," which is descriptive of the way it hops and plunges against a moving clay surface, creating texture and incised decoration simultaneously. Since the tool is not commonly available commercially, this article will show how to produce the tool, and how to apply it to produce various decorations.
Part I: Making the Tobikanna
Tobikannas can be made of any thin, springy steel. For this article, the lid of a tuna fish can is used, as these are readily available and standard in size. Use of unusual tools is kept to a minimum. Step 1: Pound the lid flat with a hammer against a hard smooth surface (such as a brick or cement floor) to remove ridges. Step 2: Using a tin snips, cut out a strip, approximately 1/2 inch wide, straight across the lid, as illustrated. Smooth any sharp edges or burrs on the strip with sandpaper or a fine file.
Tip: If you do not have a tin snips, wearing gloves, crease the lid near but not at the middle. Make a parallel crease 1/2 inch on the other side. Fold the creases tightly back and forth until metal fatigue induces the metal to break.
Step 3:Bend one end of the strip of metal into a smooth curve, with the tip approaching a right angle to the rest of the strip. Step 4: Heat the tool in sections over a flame (candle or propane torch), holding it with a pliers. As a section gets glowing hot, plunge it in cold water. This converts the steel to spring steel, so that it will tend to retain its shape when used. Repeat the process until the whole strip has been heated and plunged. Warning: Steel transmits heat readily, and will get hot far from the direct heat source. Do not handle the heated metal until it is plunged in water. The tobikanna is now ready for use.
Part II Decorating with Tobikanna
The tobikanna is a flexible
tool producing a variety of decorative effects. It can be applied to fresh
thrown or leather hard clay. It will carve through oxides or slips,
exposing part of the clay body beneath. But let's start with the basics.
The tobikanna works by digging in to soft clay as it is spinning on the wheel, catching for a moment, bending, and springing free, only to recontact and repeat the cycle many times per second. In the following illustrations, Red Iron Oxide is applied to the pot to make the effects of the tool more visible.
Step 5: Apply a band of Iron or slip to fresh or leather hard pot. Tip: Beginners will have better luck with a leather hard pot, secured to the wheel head with pats of clay. Advanced throwers may find that decorating pots while still centered is highly efficient. Note that the tool makes larger marks on softer clay.
Step 6: Score lines through the Iron to mark the limits of, or add rhythm to, the decoration. I use a strip of plastic credit card with a pencil tip shaped end for this. Step 7: Use a moderately fast wheel speed. Hold the tool at its straight end so the curved end contacts the pot as it turns. Try changing angles until chattering occurs. Also try holding the end tighter or looser, and try varying the pressure with which you contact the pot. If you are just scraping a steady line, apply slightly more pressure. Once the tool starts hopping, move the tool slowly up or down so the pattern will fill the area allotted for it. Tip: There are a lot of variables to holding the tool, as well as speeds of the wheel, so keep trying the different techniques suggested until it catches. Once achieved, it is easy to master.
Once you've started chattering with the tobikanna, it's time to start considering its decoration possibilities. If you make one pass with the tool through a dark slip that has been applied to a light clay body, the effect will be rather like snow flakes, or polka dots. Making multiple passes will obscure the individual nicks and create more of a unique overall texture. A bold painting with engobes on a pot can be rendered subtly ancient looking with this technique, as each pass slowly wears away at the underlying decoration. My favorite way to use this decoration is to combine tobikanna with combed waves of scriffito, as in the illustrated vase. I also use a granular manganese slip close to it, as its random speckles go well with the pattern of the tobikanna. Another way to use the decoration is as an underlying texture. Apply tobikanna to a leatherhard pot which is not otherwise decorated, perhaps confined in an area with scored lines.. Bisque fire it, and paint on Red Iron Oxide over the chattered area. Wipe off the iron with a damp sponge, and the deeper nicks will retain more iron. The result will be dark notches on a lighter background. Use a transparent matte glaze, such as Sondahl C-4 Matte, with it to get the best effects.
Here are some glazes and slips I use with this technique:
Sondahl C-4 Transparent Matte (Cone 8-10 oxidation) Custer feldspar23.4 Dolomite23.4 Kaolin23.4 Whiting13.5 Frit P2513.5 Bentonite2.7
Blend the Bentonite with water in a blender before adding to glaze. Use this glaze thinly-- effective over iron and manganese slips. Tip: If this glaze crazes, or is not transparent, thin it more with water. One quick dip will coat a pot sufficiently, or even brushing one coat on can be effective. Apply the following white glaze over this C-4 glaze for areas of the pot which would benefit from a gloss surface.
Sondahl Magic White (Cone 8-10 oxidation)
My workhorse white gloss glaze, opaque, but shows underlying copper or cobalt slips well.
Custer feldspar 21.7
Zinc oxide 6.7
Note: Add some dissolved Epsom Salt Solution to prevent settling.
Engobe (or Slip) recipes (work on
wet or leatherhard clay, broad firing range)
Tips: Slips need to be thick to be applied, particularly to freshly thrown pots. You can gage the correct thickness when you are applying them--too dry and it will be impossible to make a clean band of decoration; too wet and the claybody will show through... In order to sieve engobes, it may be easier to add extra water before sieving, and scoop off the excess water on top when the mixture has settled, in a day or so.
Beige Speckled Slip Warning: Manganese
is toxic, including as it vaporizes in the kiln. Granular ilmenite,
granular rutile, or granular magnetite may be substituted in place of Manganese
in this recipe.
Ball clay 72
Red iron oxide 3
After mixing with water to thick cream consistency, and sieving, stir in: 40-60 Mesh Granular Manganese 12
Blue Cobalt Slip
Ball clay 87
Cobalt carbonate 7
Black cobalt oxide 6
Tip: The Black Cobalt Oxide is added to make the slip more visible when it is applied (as well as more blue), since tiny specks of it in the wrong place may ruin a pot's decoration. All Cobalt Carbonate may be substituted for it in the recipe instead, but it is then recommended that the slip be tinted with dye to improve its visibility. The color of this slip shows through the Magic White glaze well.
The first step is to change your throwing so that the pots are only as thick as you would desire of the finished pot, probably 3/8 inch or less. This will result in reductions as to how much clay it takes to make each pot, as well as reduce the trimmings which would have to be recycled.
Next, make your coils. While an extruder might be
very handy to make uniform sized coils, I've never had one, so don't fret
if you don't have one, either. Start by grabbing a handful of clay,
squeeze into a coil shape in your hands before rolling on a smooth dry
surface. Spread your fingers apart as you roll--this will reduce the unevenness
which results from rolling straight on. As the coil gets longer,
separate it in two if it's too thick, and keep separating and rolling until
you end up with coils the right length and thickness for your pot.
What's the right length? Smaller bowls require about a foot of length--larger
platters and bowls will take half again more. The thickness of the
coil will vary depending on how tall you want the foot to be. As
you make the coils, lay them on top of each other on a board long enough
to allow them to lie straight. If you work in a dry climate, keep
the board wrapped in plastic to prevent drying, as they are relatively
Now center and secure the pot to a wheel head or bat. I use a thin coating of water for this (sticking the pot on like a suction cup), or pats of clay work well also. Unless you were able to squeeze every bit of excess clay out of the shape when throwing, you will need to trim a bit of waste on the outside of the pot bottom. This can be best accomplished by working from the outside towards the center, and should only serve to make the clay an even thickness throughout the piece. A larger trimming tool is better for this purpose than smaller ribbon tools. If you use an open ended Japanese style cutting tool, you can use the same tool to trim and to score lines on the pot where the foot is to be placed. Lacking this, you can use a needle tool or other sharp point to do the scoring.
After scoring, add slip or water to the area where the coil will go. Press down the coil onto the scored area while slowly turning the wheel. When you have reached the point of connecting the two ends of the coil, wet or slip them, and overlap the ends to attach them securely. Pinch off any leftover of the coil. Now wet the coil with a sponge, and slowly commence pressure on the coil with a wet chamois. This procedure is similar to centering, requiring steady hands, and even pressure against the bumps. Like centering, it helps to apply pressure in several directions at once. My technique is to mold the coil with my index fingers pressing towards each other through the wet chamois, and one thumb pressing downward in the same area. Once the ring is not wobbly, more of the force is exerted downward to compress the ring and improve attachment to the pot. Pressing with a rib or wooden tool at the joint areas will help reduce cracking loose when drying. Should the foot prove uneven, increase pressure so that the whole piece is extruded from the chamois, or trim a complete ring off with a needle tool, and try again on the rest. Using the chamois will give the foot a smooth rounded edge, which helps resist chipping.
That's the basic procedure. With this technique it is possible to shape the foot to flare outward, which adds stability against tipping, and also allows the potter to easily hold the pot upside down by its foot for glaze pours. Please note that if the clay is dry enough to come off the pot as flakes instead of ribbons, it may be too dry for this technique. Slow drying of the pot after adding any kind of clay attachments is recommended. Also clay bodies vary in how well they take added parts without cracking. Porcelain is notorious for this, and may not work at all with this technique. The foot of the pot is a humble thing. Sometimes one can't even tell if the pot has a foot without lifting and inverting it. However, the careful shopper does look over the entire pot, and a foot which does its job well can be a real selling point. For me, the best part of added feet is the ability to glaze the bottom of the pot, with the high foot ring keeping the bottom from contacting the kiln shelf. You'll have to try it to see what it does for you...
I recently had a dream about visiting a mall and happening on several pottery displays of hot-selling items in pasty clay bodies with bright garish glazes; the potters were there, too, working behind hygienic glass. One of them showed me some clay with lumps of sharp basalt in it that would surely cut your hands when throwing. Confronted with clay like that, I did the only reasonable thing--I woke up.
I haven't seen any pottery setups like that in malls, but I have seen similar ideas in the "potters' malls"--that is, craft fairs--young upstarts skimming the cream off the business, leaving it to old stick-in-the-muds like me to handle those difficult and pesky "special orders."
It was all brought home to me last summer by an intern, who arrived never having pulled a handle, and left offering me serious competition in sales. Time-honored customers chose her awkward and hefty shapes over my staid and streamlined ones. Young upstarts!
Of course, once upon a time, I was young myself. When I started potting in the early '70s, it wasn't clear that there was a profession in studio pottery. Everybody was making pottery ("It's groovy, man!"), and it sold like hotcakes ("Got anything in earthtones?"), but there weren't a lot of old stick-in-the-muds for us upstarts to bug. Craft fairs were in their infancy, and jurying was limited to keeping out the crafts made from kits. Ah, the good old days....
The success of my young upstart intern illustrates how easy it is to get started in pottery. It isn't rocket science (although a knowledge of alchemy is useful!), and as small businesses go, the overhead isn't enormous. For the mere cost of a computer, you can buy a kiln, and you can make money with a kiln.
So now I go to art fairs and I see upstarts featuring new ideas like majolica decoration, frogs in the bottom of mugs (18th-century joke) and puzzle mugs (also 18th century, see "In Their Cups" by Delia Robinson in the October 1996 CM). You won't catch me trying any of these new gimmicks--I'm too much of a stick-in-the-mud.
I also see prices that astonish me (people will pay that much for a mug?). I'm much too set in my ways to raise my prices (it may have something to do with that leftover hippie philosophy of "pottery for the people"), but I may start advertising "pottery at wholesale prices." Nah, that sounds like too much of an innovation for me.
The more I write on this, the more I feel outdated. The other stand-out stick-in-the-muds were dinosaurs, who ended up stuck in the mud as fossils. The upside of upstarts is that there is still a burgeoning craft movement, with room for new ideas and personalities. The craft fairs that started 20 years ago in school gyms and college lawns are now major festivals encompassing all the arts.
I'm able to sell enough from my studio that I no
longer sell at art fairs. When I do go to one, it's because
I'm not too much of a stick-in-the-mud to see what the upstarts are up
to, and maybe even glean a few new respectable ideas, like from the 19th
I first saw a crystalline glaze about ten years
ago. Although the vase had only a couple crystals on it, they were
captivating. Although round in outline, crystals are each a starburst
pattern radiating from a point. As you change your viewing angle,
the crystal can rapidly fluctuate in appearance from light to dark.
This and their innate beauty made me immediately hooked upon them, and
I resolved to try crystalline glazing myself. In studying various
references on the subject, I became somewhat daunted. It turns out
that in order to produce the right conditions for large crystals to grow,
the glaze must be very runny, to the point that many texts speak of chiseling
the pot out of a pool of glaze, and grinding the base smooth. Also
special firing techniques were urged, holding at certain temperatures for
hours, to encourage crystal growth. These factors are enough to discourage
many potters from attempting them. Also the chief ingredient to producing
the crystals, Zinc Oxide, is fairly expensive, and must make up 20-30%
of the glaze. Through many tests, I was able to overcome some of
these obstacles, to produce a glaze which mostly stays on the pot, and
requires no unusual firing, except that it is a high (cone 10) fired glaze.
Because of its improved behavior, I've been able to integrate the glaze
into use in production pottery, with some reservations. For example,
small temperature variations in the kiln result in radically different
appearing glazes. While this is fine for one-of-a-kind pieces, it
makes sets of crystalline pottery difficult. These variations can make
the glaze change from looking dark and matte, to the optimum wildly wonderful,
and on to pale glossy and with no crystals showing. So what should
collectors look for in crystalline pottery? --Potters who use crystalline
(Here I've deleted a few mostly outdated web page references--you can go to my links to find current examples...)
Not all the artists I just mentioned post prices for their works, but the cost of crystalline pottery varies widely. Lasse Ostman has pictures of pots which sold for over $1000, and many in the $3-600 range. My own prices are low, under $50, resulting from isolated location and limited reputation, and my own choice. So after you locate a potter, what do you look for? Beauty. Variation. Overall design. Look at the pot bottom. If glaze ran off the pot, the foot will possibly be rough, although the potter probably ground it smooth. Although this is technically a defect, it is very minor, since many potters routinely chisel crystalline pots loose. Most important is the size and variation of the crystals. The most beautiful pots will probably not be covered with an even coating of crystals, but have conglomerations and cloudlike formations to add to the decoration. Many of these formations can not be controlled by the potter, and so, like a jewelstone, must be selected from the less desirable. Beyond the glaze considerations are the forms of the pots, other glazes, and decorations which make the pot a coherent whole. For example, I seldom use crystalline glaze alone on a piece, as it can be overwhelming. Also small additions of colorants or other glazes can add to the overall design of the piece. Some potters suggest that crystalline glazes are "potter's glazes," or glazes that most potters like themselves, more than are appreciated by the general public. While this may be true of copper reds or rutile blues, crystalline glazes generally draw in anyone fascinated with beauty. I think most potters who work with crystalline glazes have a love- hate relationship with the process (due to the technical difficulties I've cited), but most are delighted with the results, as are their customers.
My mother likes to worry about all the things she thinks could go wrong. By doing so, she hopes to avert their happening. I question the theory, but expect that someone may benefit from this potter's tale of terrors.
Gravity, you may have noticed, is a potter's worst enemy. I discovered gravity as a child, when I tried to "save time" by tying a trio of 1-gallon glass milk jugs together with a rope to carry them the several steps into the kitchen. Even though the domino theory didn't work out for Communist domination of the world, it certainly did when one of the jars slipped out of the aptly named "slip knot" I had tied them with. Loose milk and bad news both travel fast...
So, gravity is a tough lesson to learn. The potters I once apprenticed with had just built a 100-cubic-foot kiln on the lower level of their shop, and the pots had to be ferried to and from the kiln on a dumbwaiter. This pottery elevator consisted of about five rows of 5-foot boards, lifted by a hand winch. The point at which a system fails is the point of maximum stress. So when the dumbwaiter was loaded with about 50 cubic feet of finished pots, the rafter to which the dumbwaiter was attached gave way. Gravity won that one also.
When I finished my apprenticeship, I set out to conquer the art fair world in a VW Bug, which I crammed to the point of maximum stress with pottery and display shelving. On my way to one of my first fairs, the car lost power, but since it kept running, so did I. An engine rebuild and a couple years later, the same maxed-out Bug and I were on our way to a fair in Washington State, where the only thing between me and financial success was a 2000-foot-deep canyon. By the time we had reached the top, the car was doing what the manual called a "rod-throwing song." It sang it to the fair, where I earned enough to replace the car. It sang all the way home. It sang its swan song halfway to the car dealership.
So, gravity is bad. Clay has its problems too. Bad clay happens, to paraphrase a popular saying. I remember visiting some potter friends on the day they opened a big kiln, and commiserating with them as the pots sang their own song, of chips spontaneously flying off their lips. The clay supplier had gotten a load of high-silica feldspar. I went home to find I'd gotten some of the same clay, but had not made nearly so many pots from it. Fortunately, suppliers are generally good at replacing any genuine clay problem, though no one can give you back your time.
Kilns have their own tricks. I gave up gas kilns for the relative ease of electric firing. With such a deal, I've had arcing elements, uneven firing, fused switches and touchy circuit breakers. Then there was the time when my kids came to tell me the kiln plug was on fire. Sure enough, at the point where the plug goes into the receptacle, arcing was causing the whole setup to fry. That was probably a fluke, but since then, I've hardwired my kilns.
But through it all, I've stuck with pottery. After
all, the car always broke down after the art fairs. Besides,
I've got a new green glaze in a bucket in the basement that I think will
be pretty good. It's hard to know for sure, though, because I mixed it
up in a bucket I'd used to make some soap bubble mixture for
the kids. I washed that bucket out well, but it's impressive
how pervasive dish detergent is. And it does the same thing in glazes as
it does in your sink--makes foam. Someone else may have found
an attractive way to use foamy glazes, but I haven't found
Two years ago, I moved my pottery studio to a county in the Idaho Panhandle; the population is so sparse, there are no stoplights in the whole county. It is next to a county as large as Vermont, which also lacks stoplights and, more significantly, the kind of population that usually accompanies stoplights. Not every potter ends up in such as underpopulated environment, but many potters move, and have to reassess their marketing strategies as a result.
I've always felt that because I'm self-employed, I could set up a workshop anywhere. In my 20 years as a potter, I've had seven studios and their locations have greatly affected my marketing success, but I've always been able to keep going. Other issues related to the pottery environment are: physical setup, name recognition, family considerations and local market conditions.
The first decision is whether to have a studio at home or in a separate location. Though a lot of successful potters have separate studios, the question for me was, "Where do I want to spend most of my time?" When I apprenticed, I spent enough time sitting kilns that I knew I would always have my workshop at home. But home studios can be controlled or prohibited by local codes; and noisy kilns make irate neighbors, so choose the location carefully.
The amount of space available and its suitability should also be considered carefully. An unfinished basement may provide plenty of room for a workshop, but hauling tons of day and pots up and down stairs can be a bit of a nuisance. Generally, my studios have been too small. While this made them economical to heat and afford, there was insufficient storage space for materials and finished goods. Even a large space needs to be broken up into separate spaces to control kiln gases, excess heat and dust, dust, dust.
Okay, now you've set up a studio, and you're making pots, but no one has ever heard of you in Grangeville, Idaho. No matter what the quality of your pots, your name does not necessarily travel with you to new areas. If your pots are good, you can still sell them, but there will be no repeat customers until you've been there a while, so sales will be slower.
Art falls are the great equalizers, allowing mass exposure to the target market. Unfortunately, getting into good fairs is another matter, subject to different systems of jurying, changing juries, tenure, etc. Galleries are dependable, and usually looking for new exhibitors, but each account requires a lot of pots to make a reasonable display, and returns are sometimes slow.
My best marketing strategy so far involved the purchase of a small place on the main street of a tiny resort town, the street being the only access to a 7-mile-long lake. Because customers didn't feel completely comfortable entering a private residence to look at pottery, I built a kiosk display in front. Then, because I didn't want to be tied down, I posted a sign asking people to pay by check under the door if I was gone. This strategy actually encouraged some customers to become loyal, because of the trust shown on my side.
At first, to develop a customer base, I took names and addresses off the local checks, and sent them handwritten invitations to special sales. After several years, the flow was self-perpetuating, with no advertising except a modest sign on site. To ensure repeat business, I added new items yearly, as well as new decorations and one-of-a-kind pieces for novelty. Sales of second-quality pots have sometimes brought about a kind of feeding frenzy with patrons.
Earlier, I mentioned that family considerations are important in locating your studio. It was my wife's occupation (as a pastor) that led to the move to this challenging new environment. I never would have chosen this particular location for sales, as it is too far off the beaten track. Fortunately, we still own our old location in the resort town by the lake and, as sales are mostly in the summer, we return there to sell what I've made throughout the winter. I throw pots at a kick wheel near the kiosk to keep busy and lure in more customers.
It's tough to find your niche in the world, but a potter's
got to do what a potter's got to do.
Within a couple weeks, I had scheduled three groups of fifteen. This resulted in my building new work space for them, as well as spending two hours with each group. That left me wondering if I should be offering classes.
Classes to me imply schedules, fees and dealing with people as groups. I needed to ponder the whys and wherefores, and even the economics of it all. I have always based my business on supply and demand economics--I make a supply of pots, and there is enough customer demand to keep me producing. Figuring out the monetary value of a class is a whole new ball game. What is it worth to spend my time teaching pottery?
In point of fact, I have always let my neighbors try making pottery for free, which seems fine, until one gets too much of a good thing. That reminds me of a folk story from India:
A man asked an artisan, "How much is this bracelet you have here?"
He replied, "One gold coin."
"How much would you charge to make ten bracelets exactly like this one?"
The artisan thought and said firmly, "Fifteen gold coins."
"But," the customer argued, "that is much more per bracelet than if I bought only one. Shouldn't I get a discount on quantity?"
The artisan replied, "If I were to make ten bracelets all the same, I would require much time in meditation to make up for the cost to my spirit. Thus, you must pay more, if you want more."
I am a production (rather than an artist) potter, so this story never seemed to fit my theories on quality handmade work for the masses; yet it has stuck with me for a long time. I work alone, and after 18 years, find it takes more than just demand to make me produce. I think the key word is relationship. The successful craftsperson lives in a network of positive relationships.
The beginning is the relationship between one's efforts and results. If your clay is full of burnouts, if your glazes shiver, spall or crawl, this is hard on your spirit as well as your pocketbook. I have just returned to mixing my own clay (by foot, no less) to try to improve this relationship (don't knock it until you've tried it).
When the pot is finished, the marketing work involves direct sales to patrons, or dealing with galleries and shops. Although it is definitely business, I certainly feel better when I am friends with the people I'm selling to.
This brings me back to the point of this essay: teaching. One can quantify the value of a pot, but teaching involves a relationship, which is much more difficult to price. I am not alone in my confusion. It is possible to find students of pottery who pay thousands of dollars per year to learn how to work with clay, mix glazes and fire. There are also apprentices who perform those chores as payment for learning pottery skills. And there are people paid wages to perform those same jobs by other potters.
In a school or art center setting, the relationship aspect is deemphasized, and a set fee is charged per class. But in my home workshop, I cannot contemplate teaching without considering the relationship. If I let my children's friends use the studio for free, how will paying students feel? Should I charge less for those I know are less affluent (since no one ever suggests charging more for those who are wealthier)? Should I charge less for children, even though they make a proportionately greater mess? I have a hard enough time keeping my prices straight for consignment sales versus wholesaling.
And what about that cost to my spirit? As much as my rational mind rejoices in this interest in learning pottery, my aesthetic sense reels at the primitive results. Oh yes, I still have my first pot to keep me humble (and cheer on disappointed novices), but that doesn't mean I'm thrilled by their first efforts.
Okay, I'll be honest. I haven't decided what to do about teaching. So far, no one has made me an offer I can't refuse. But I take my hat off to those who endeavor to teach how to move hands through clay, whether I decide to don that hat or not. And we all benefit from greater knowledge of clay.
Other Pottery Thoughts:
Competitors and Compatriots (April 2000)
The Cost of a Mug
I well know the detailed list of steps that go into making a mug. This is more of a cost analysis of it, since I just filled a kiln with 100 mugs. The various totals are for 100 mugs, at the end I will come up with the cost of a single mug. If you would like to repeat the experiment for yourself, put in your own weights, clay costs, etc.
I just fired a bisque in a 7 cu.ft. elec. kiln with 100 mugs in it, just mugs. That represents: 75 lbs of clay for the mugs themselves 25 lbs of clay for the handles 100 lbs at $.25/lb (cost when purchased by the ton, including shipping) Clay cost $25.00
The bisque uses about 70kw to fire (local elec. is cheap, 5 cents per kw) Bisque Firing cost $3.50
The glaze cost is difficult to figure. From mixing lots of 100 gram tests, I'd guess the average mug uses around 20 grams of glaze. From the cost analysis of Glazechem software, I'd guess my glaze averages 3 cents per mug. Total glaze cost $3.00
The glaze firing uses about 100kw to fire. The same 100 mugs will fit. Final Firing cost $5.00
Consider that the elements are good for fewer than 100 firings, and cost $180 to replace. That cost is $1.80 per firing. Shelves also have a limited lifetime, at $30 or more each. I would guess I spend $60 per 100 firings, or .60 for each one. The kiln also has a limited lifetime, but I'm still using the first one I bought used 20 years ago, so I'd leave figuring out the fraction of kiln expense to macroanalysis.
Loss of pots as seconds must also be factored. Of 100 mugs, 7 became seconds (1 had a burnout, 1 had a glaze lump, 5 had bits of clay/kiln shelf stuck on them. Some of these can be refired to be mended, others will be sold at half price or less. The loss here is variable, and not included in the cost of the pot, as it is more related to the price charged.
The total thus far is $38.90 for 100 mugs, or $0.389 per mug. Whenever I figure out this sort of thing, I think I should be rich. Unfortunately that is just the basic cost, without overhead or labor costs.
So then there is the value of the space used to produce the pottery. This cost (particularly when rented) puts lots of potters out of business. I won't hazard what your expenses are. I know I bought my place cheap, and have paid for it, so only have taxes and repairs still looming over me. However, attendant to this are the utility expenses, bookkeeping requirements, and transportation costs. These are better dealt with from a macroeconomic analysis.
Finally the labor. I spend about 1.2 minutes to throw a mug. I use 2 minutes to sign, clean up, and add handle. .5 minutes to glaze. .5 minutes to move: putting in and out of kiln, sanding the bottoms as they come out.. Probably 5 minutes total labor for each mug. (I do not lavish individual attention on them.) Hmm, 12 mugs an hour. Still sounds pretty good, even at a profit of $3.00 per mug. Why ain't I rich?
Well, there is the major hurdle of selling them. At least as much time, energy and expense goes into this part, as into the production part. That's why retailers get as much for the pot as you do. And why you sit in the hot sun, rain, and, strangest environment of all, the mall-- slowly losing your mind.
Macroeconomic analysis: Don't be scared off by the big word. It just means looking at it from the top down. If you take the cost of goods sold from your records (1040), plus the cost of business expenses (same source), and divide them by your gross profit, you will have a ratio of expense to profit. This figure will show you what decimal fraction of each dollar you receive is expense. In my case last year the decimal is an absolutely astounding .76, which is 76%. If you have a figure similar to mine, you may want to consider another occupation. It means that 3/4 of the value of whatever you make is going to materials, overhead, etc. So I checked back, and the figure fluctuates significantly. Two years ago, it was 34%, one year ago 49%. From extrapolation, it's clear I'll be out of business by the end of next year. :-) However, being a small business, major items like repairs can fluctuate widely from year to year.
Even this analysis doesn't take into account the cost of taxes, since that's figured after the profit. I always knew I wasn't into pottery for the money, and now I think I've proved it... I developed a theory a year ago that every artist needs a designated responsible significant other, sort of like having a designated driver when out partying. I came up with the theory talking to a musician married to an artist. They have a tough time making ends meet...
Gas or Electric kiln?
Electric kilns offer dependable results. Oxidation firing yields the same colors from the same glazes consistently. For production potters, making a line of pots, this is very nice. Electric kilns also do not have the risk of explosion, as can occur to gas kilns before they reach red heat if they do not have a gadget to keep the flame lit on the burner. Ease of use, relative silence in use, no need for chimney makes for varied location for use-- all of these favor the electric. No need to store a large reservoir of propane... No need for constant monitoring of firings... These are all good reasons to favor the electric kiln, especially for beginners.
Dirt floors and monkeytails
I had a dirt floor studio several times. I've never been a fanatic about dust, but I didn't notice it any dustier than my current cement floor. I've read of potters who sprinkle their dirt floors to keep dust down. If I lived in Hawaii, I'd have no qualms about a dirt floor. (I'm not sure if I'd have walls...) The major drawback might be humidity rusting electric wheel components, though where I worked it wasn't humid enough to be a problem. Keeping pests out is probably also a challenge. The last place where I had a dirt floor, I started seeing a weird curlytail critter disappear out of sight when I'd come in. Made my hair stand up, the first time. I mean, it reminded me of a monkey's tail. Turned out to be a packrat, and the little rodent took to stealing my cone packs. It was fun for a while, but they have really bad smells associated with them. I live-trapped it, and crawled into a narrow place to get out its nest. It had surrounded its nest with cone packs pointing out, looking like missile defenses.
On being a "Successful" Potter
I was reading a post on rec.crafts.pottery on the frequently
pondered question: Can you really make a living potting? This particular
posting was a response filled with realistic figures to show how hard it
is to make it, due to high overhead, making 200 pots a day and not keeping
up, body wearing out, etc. It reminded me of Alice in Through the Looking
Glass, running as fast as she could to stay in the same place... So it
is possible to be in great demand, be producing full bore, and still not
be successful, at least by some criteria. At one end of the scale is the
peasant potter, subsisting on what is produced, unnoted even in the community
in which he/she works. At the other is the "name" potter, able to command
selling prices which ensure a comfortable lifestyle, travelling at invitation
rather than necessity, occurring in nature about as frequently as the ratio
of rock stars to bar bands... Most of us fall in the middle of this spectrum,
but are probably emulating one end or the other. I've leaned towards the
peasant model, favoring local selling, low prices, and simple repeatable
decoration. And if success were measured solely by demand, I am successful.
However demand is a treadmill, and while it has the tempting carrots of
financial reward and patrons' positive feedback to keep one on it, one
still feels too often like Alice... So what makes for success? Likely suspects
include artistic integrity, money, acclaim from patrons or peers, and comfortable
lifestyle. This last is a slippery wicket, best defined by user. So what
makes you feel successful?
It was one of those posh midtown galleries. A potter,
Ernest Kunst, lay sprawled on the floor Who or what had killed him? Homicide
division was on the case. As I walked into the immaculate gallery, a couple
of wellheeled art patrons stood gawking at the lifeless heap: "What do
you say, dear? Maybe we could fit it at the end of the coffee table in
the knickknack room... "If you want to take it home, you can keep it in
your den." I dutifully informed them it was not modern art but modern tragedy
before their eyes. They seemed relieved.
Inspecting the body, I observed a neatly dressed, plumping, middleaged man with clay on his shoes. Why can't they ever wipe their feet? A knife was stuck (through a newspaper clipping criticizing his latest show) into his back. To me it seemed an obvious red herring. Modern artists are too tough to die from stuff like that. Still, bad press might implicate the gallery.
The owner was ready to talk. Looking at the review, she said: "Yes, I read it. Where do they hire those beasts? It wasn't even Ernest Kunst's show. I don't give shows for functional potters. He was really just my lotion pump and potpourri potter." I had to ask what she meant by that.
"Oh, you know. He wholesaled some pots with pumps and others as containers for that stuff that fills the room with fragrance."
"Sure," I said. "Did he have any friends or enemies?"
"Well, he was always talking about someone named Hamada, and another fellow called 'the Leech."' I mulled this over as I gave the body another quick check. If this guy hung around with friends with nicknames like the Leech, he could easily have underworld ties. Just then I noticed a wet gray trail leading away from the body out the front door.
"Hey!" shouted the gallery owner "There goes one of his friends now." I dashed out the door, following the gray trail to a leaky bucket carried by an Asiatic person I assumed to be Hamada. When stopped, he pretended to know no English, handed me the bucket and took off down a busy sidestreet. I realized he had given me the slip! "Cone 10 White Slip," the bucket read.
On a hunch, I made my way to the waterfront, where Japanese teahouses litter the wharves. I knew this was it when I found two beatup pickup trucks parked outside a teahouse. Each had bumperstickers--one read "Potters do it in the mud"; and the other "Stoned on stoneware." Peering through the window, I saw the arcane rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony, and overheard the one I thought might be the Leech saying to Ramada: "Do you use EPK?" I'd heard enough. Kicking open the door, I flashed my badge and gun, and said: "All right, quit discussing your favorite drugs and start talking about Ernest Kunst!"
The Leech responded: "Kunst, Kunst. The name rings a bell." Ramada retorted in perfect English: "I believe he was your apprentice, old chap."
"Ah yes, a very serious young fellow. Decent worker I couldn't tell you more than that."
Another dead end! Leaving the watery tea district, I decided to try a new angle. Kunst's parents lived in the city; I thought maybe I could get a lead from them. The Kunsts refused to believe Ernest was dead.
"In an art gallery? Oh come on. It was probably just a performance piece. Let us show you some of his work," they said, throwing open a closet. I saw pot after pot lining the walls. "This was his first teapot," said his mother proudly.
"But the spout goes horizontally from the bottom," I said. "It wouldn't hold a drop."
"Ernest wasn't always bound by functionality. Look at his college senior dinnerset."
"It looks like the food would slide off. I've never seen plates where the edges fold down."
"He also made a series of interesting, nonfunctional ashtrays...
I laughed, "He must've kept you amused."
"Oh no, he was very serious about it. He has integrity."
"What about his love life. Any jealous lovers?"
"His wife left him. He was committed to thrown reduction stoneware and she got into hand built oxidation porcelain. They were just incompatible."
I left the parents' residence, mulling over the facts. But as I drove along, I got a call from the gallery owner
"You can forget the whole thing about Ernest Kunst," she said. "He's alive and well, and took a job driving a potato chip truck. I guess it was just his way of leaving the art world with bravado."
The case was closed, but I couldn't help thinking about it. What could lead a potter to the point of driving a potato chip truck? Was it the lure of a regular paycheck? Or freedom from kowtowing to customers' whims? Perhaps life without art fairs was just too attractive. And how could he have died and yet not have died?
Then I understood what had happened. This guy had really tried, but the artist inside him had died. He took himself too seriously.
Politically Correct Pots
by Brad Sondahl
Is pottery political? Musician Frank Zappa
once said that everything you wear is your uniform. Stretching the analogy;
if your pottery is apolitical, per-haps this merely reflects your personal
politics. Has pottery been political? I think about the ruckus caused by
Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party"' and know that it has. Is pottery subject
to the current trend of political correctness?
Ponder lightly and read on.
Since everything else in life is subject to standards of political correctness, from grocery bags to dorm room doors, let's consider whether pottery meets today's high standards of behavior. when I began "doing" pottery in the early '70s, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. After all, at about that time Ceramics Monthly began printing in full color. If that's not evidence of a mass movement, I don't know what is. Pottery was then clearly a direct counterpoint to the prevalent military industrial complex that afflicted the psyche of our country. To avoid contracting that disease, I would retire to a kick wheel and think peaceful thoughts. I knew back in college that pottery was more politically correct than the other arts, because it didn't require any models sitting around naked. This, and the "elitist tendencies of art, convinced me that art was politically incorrect, and prompted my final art production, a happening called "Art as a Bourgeois Sham:'
In the current language of ists and isms for every occasion, this clearly labels me an art ist (despite and because of my attempts to disavow it) and a non"nude"ist (as I am obviously a prudist).
Getting back to my historical critique, I moved into a chicken coop and tepee with another potter, and learned how to live righteously, scraping along with scrap clay, used kilns and a big garden. living close to the earth was synonymous with making pottery then, especially since the pottery studio had a dirt floor. This was the good life, although Minnesota winters are justly famous for wearing down good-lifers. We lasted several years before moving on to other possibilities.
By the eighties, the age of greed took its toll among the ranks of potters who wanted to have some semblance of financial security in addition to their good life and political correctness. Teaching became an attractive second career option, and the ones who remained in the ranks split between those emphasizing production and those capitalizing on artistic quality and uniqueness. At the same time, living close to the earth was beginning to suggest silicosis from long term occupational exposure. Meanwhile, glaze leachates implied potential government regulation and skittish consumers, while leftover glaze chemicals and pottery wastes became not so environmentally correct (and even glossy pottery magazines posed a problem for recyclers). In the light of all these environmental considerations (which potters have tended to know. about, but chosen to continue anyway), suddenly the politically correct choice lies in the route of less consumption, since materials processing and usage both denote (to some degree) environmental degradation. Even the earthy wood or salt kilns, and reduction firing in general, represent greater environmental degradation than sane-but-bland electric kilns. (If I label them bland does that make me an “oxidation”-ist? In this case, no, since it is my sole firing mode.)
At any rate , environmentalism poses a quandary for me (as it does to the world in general), because artist-potters tend to use fewer materials than production potters, as more time is devoted to each expensive piece. This conflicts with my own populist-derived functional nature. I console myself, though, with the belief that artist-potters also tend to use more exotic chemicals and techniques, which have equally exotic effects on the environment. So here it is, the nineties, and while handmade pottery has gained a permanent niche in the world’s artistic life, is it still the right thing to do? Of course. But with some reservations...
Suppliers and users of ceramic materials must be environmentally responsible in their use of and reuse of these materials. Even failed pots can be put to good use as material for mosaics, best evidenced by the fanciful architecture of Barcelona's Antono Gaudi. In that pottery is a product to be sold, the buyers participate in the craft, through their appreciation of pots and their support of craftspeople. However there is a tendency toward exclusivity n catering to the rich, and I personally affirm craft that can be purchased by the less affluent. Whether as a teacher or a proucer, the potter's talents can be shared with a broad spectrum of society through demonstrations for groups, from preschools to senior centers. This can be considered selfserving promotion, but he immediate rewards are apparent (both to the audience and the one presenting) and can help in the most politically important part of pottery: making and keeping craftspeople in contact with the community as a whole. Caveats aside, pottery is still a very inclusive discipline, for it can be enjoyed at some level by nearly everyone. When it comes time to face a ball of clay, we are all wonderfully challenged by it.
Ceramics is by nature a hybrid between art and science,
much as architecture combines art and engineering. At one extreme, scientific
experimentation in ceramics has yielded superconductors, outer coverings
for space shuttles and car engine components. At the other extreme, avocational
potters can now pick clays, stains and glazes from color charts and achieve
beautiful results with minimal knowledge of ceramic science. Most of our
experience lies somewhere between.
Let us examine the trends: A hundred years ago painters mixed their own oils from raw materials. Without the intimidation of that technology, painting as an art and hobby has flourished. Also, such problems as fading and peeling have been reduced. One need only recall Leonardo da Vinci's failures in experimental painting materials to laud commercial standardization of modern art supplies. One wonders, however, if Leonardo would he so memorable today if he had not had his passion for experimentation and invention? I perceive a distinct trend toward a similar standardization in ceramics today.
Fifteen years ago, I apprenticed with a potter who had worked at a folk pottery in Japan, mixing glazes from materials such as rice and wood ash. Today he applies commercial overglaze decoration on commercially prepared earthenware. He is not alone. The rainbow hues now frequent in galleries and at fairs point to the widespread popularity of commercial stains and glazes.
So what is gained, and what is lost? Commercial preparation yields a broad palette of reliable colors, ease of application, nontoxic formulations, less preparation time, fewer losses, and accessibility to those who are not scientifically inclined. On the negative side is the loss of unique glazes developed by individual experimenters, which will affect true diversity in the ceramic environment just as monoculture of crops or trees affects diverse former prairie or woodland environments.
At stake are competing paradigms of the nature of pottery. The traditional model is of the relatively self sufficient, technically competent craftsperson, who produces beauty through intimate association with a limited range of forming processes. The emerging model is of the free artist, given a broad palette through commercially prepared clays and glazes, untrammeled by tradition or functional limitations. The first model champions knowledge of glazes and firing techniques. The second triumphs in results obtained dependably through others' specialized knowledge. This shift in paradigms mirrors trends in specialization in many other parts of society for example, the replacement of the general practitioner by a host of doctor specialists.
Perhaps the trend toward standardization in ceramics is an inevitable part of the modern world. Issues such as product liability may eventually force most potters either to have their glazes tested by an accredited laboratory or to use certifiably safe commercial preparations. We are not yet at that point. Because of ceramics' hybrid nature, a certain technical prowess with glazes and firing will always remain necessary. Even in painting, where paints are no longer mixed from their constituent oxides, choice of gel media, extenders and drying agents offers a genuine technical hurdle. And all artists must face the real high jumps of form, content, expression and aesthetics, which have plenty of challenge in themselves.
"See, they take that blob of mud and knead it and shape
it on the round thing, and then paint it and heat it in the oven.' Under
the circumstances, who am I to tell them that it's really a kiln (without
the "n")? So to end this cultural degradation, I propose a long-haul approach
to developing a distinctive pottery culture. But we can t reach the Song
dynasty without some cultural preparation.
First a folk culture must evolve, and from this, classical ethereality will blossom. Just as the cowpokes and railroaders had their work songs, potters must evolve a distinctive folk music. How about these starters? I see by your apron that you are a potter... Or, I've been working on the kick wheel, all the livelong day.... Old MacDonald had a kiln, eieio; and in that kiln she put a vase.... Already pottery has made inroads into some forms of music. What would jug band music be without the jug? Where would we be without wind chimes?
When we lived in Portland, Oregon, some potters had banded
together to form the Cobalt Blues Band. I also read in The Mudpie Dilemma
about a part of Portland with bars frequented by potters. Now we have the
glimmerings of a mass movement: potter patrons drinking to cobalt blues
while thinking pottery thoughts. From such humble beginnings, the course
is clear: Entrants to postsecondary institutions must be judged by their
colorfully embroidered costumes and ability to yodel. All potters will
live together in large enclaves of right relationships.
The long awaited New Age will finally be ushered in, spilling out into the world of Art in General. No longer will artists exhibit urges to desecrate flags or squash rodents. They will buy crystalline glazed pendants from us and wear them around their necks, their iconoclastic ideologies soundly thrashed by our new hermeneutics of systematic ceramics. Strong and bold pottery will be displayed, some of which will hold water. Best of all, no teapot spouts will dribble the last drops or the patron's lap. Finally, all one syllable words' disappear from the ceramists' lexicon– they will then be considered archaic. After manipulating the vessels into our convection, downdraft, turbo powered furnaces, we can monitor the thermocouples and carbon dioxide meters, and revel in the results, secure about our place in society.
When the bisque
Sondahl (Jan. 2005)
I was firing a bisque yesterday. I use an electric kiln with a kilnsitter with timer. I didn't feel like bending over (as in recent back spasm) to check the timer, so I just cranked the timer over a ways and fired away. When I checked it a few hours later, I found the trip lever had flipped, but had not disengaged the kiln. The result was probably cone 8 bisque. Having had nearly everything that can with a firing go wrong through my career, here's the observations I've had about it. First I will say that dealing with cooked bisque ware is about as fun as jumping in a cold lake on a spring day, so I put it off about half a day. But I finally jumped in...
1. What caused it? (Crucial) I let the trip lever drop again and noticed it had enough friction to drop slowly, which inhibits the whack it makes when it hits the button. I WD-40'd and oiled the little pins that it swings on, hopefully stopping the problem for a good long time. Replacing that assembly would be a good idea next clay order...
2.What to do with the pots? Usually I thicken my glaze buckets by taking a bunch of water of the top before stirring them, and glaze them sort of normally (by dipping). Because the drying time is greatly accentuated, I try to glaze about 4 boards of pottery at a time instead of one, hoping the first glazed will be dry enough to handle by the time the last has been dipped. This means spreading the glazed ware all over the studio while doing it. It also means that when you pick them up, hoping they're dry, they won't be, and you'll remove finger sized patches of glaze from them. In this case I just go ahead and sponge off the bottoms, and touch up the bad places with a brush. The other innovation I added to today's struggle was to stick with one decoration for the whole mess-- a cheap green glaze that looks good even if a bit thin (which is going to happen).
3. So now they're firing, and probably a few of them will be seconds, but not the whole mess. Well, customers like seconds anyway...
Among my other insanities, I like old movies from the
20's and 30's, and I think it's one of those Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers
musicals (Great music and dancing, weak plots) they sing (what no
doubt was inspiring in the Depression), "I pick myself up, brush
myself off, and start all over again."
Still good advice.