Creative Process, from lump to art:
It all starts with a lump of earth, but even that lump of earth requires work to be ready to use. First, it needs to be wedged (a process not unlike kneading bread) to allow air bubbles to escape.
Once on the wheel, I center the clay using steady hands, and an elbow braced on a thigh, and frequent lubrication with water.
Then, I “cone” the clay, a process in which it is lifted into a cone shape and then compressed several times to ensure all air bubbles are removed and the clay is centered. Once centered, the mound of clay is ready to be ‘opened.’ I bore a central hole into it with a finger and thumb to make a cylinder.
Next, I pull the clay up from the bottom to the top, evenly distributing it so that the vessel elongates and the walls thin. It takes multiple “pulls” to get the cylinder where I want it.
From there, the vessel can be shaped by pushing from the inside or “collaring” from the outside to taper the walls inward. Finally, the rim is refined and compressed, and any extra clay remaining at the bottom is trimmed away.
It takes me roughly 20-75 minutes to throw a pot, depending on its size and form.
So now I have a wet pot that needs to dry some before trimming. When ‘leather hard’ it can be re-centered upside down on the wheel and trimmed.
Trimming can range from a quick cleanup to carefully carving away up to a pound of clay to make a foot that compliments the pot.
Pots that I plan to sgrafitto are then re-centered, right-side-up on the wheel, where I paint two coats of black underglaze on to carve through later.
Lanterns are ready to carve after sitting covered for a few days, to allow the moisture to be distributed evenly. During this waiting period, I often fall asleep imagining different designs and imagery to carve into pottery.
With sgrafitto, there is a sweet spot, a window of time within which it is ideal to carve. If too wet, the carvings are muddy. If too dry, the underglaze chips. Nothing makes me happier than carving a pot that is within that window of perfection.
All my illustrations are freehand and from my imagination or rough sketches. I do not use a template or stencil. Once I make the first mark, there is no turning back. A sort of freedom comes with that. Even if I’m not entirely satisfied with a mark, I keep going. Many times, the completed illustration comes together beautifully and surprises me. Carving time can range from 60 minutes to 5 hours, depending on the size and intricacy of the piece.
Lanterns take approximately 60-90 minutes to carve.
We’re not done yet!
Now it’s time to load the first of two kilns.
The first is to bisque (which vitrifies the clay at around 1,800 degrees), and the second is to convert glaze into glass (at about 2,200 degrees).
Loading a kiln is like a game of Tetris. Considerations are involved including how far to space pieces from the walls, posts, other pots, and kiln elements, whether to use full shelves and/or half shelves and how tall to make each shelf. The first firing takes 8-9 hours.
Once the first firing is complete, the pots are ready for glaze.
All of my pieces are hand painted. Glazing to fill a kiln takes me roughly 20-30 hours and involves between 45-60 pots, depending on their size and shape. Glaze application is an art unto itself. No glaze looks remotely what it will look like once fired. Once I have worked with the same glazes for a while, the outcome is more predictable, but never guaranteed.
Once glazed, the pots are loaded into the kiln (very carefully). Pieces absolutely cannot touch or they will fuse together. There are considerations as to what part of the kiln will produce the best results for certain glazes, what temperature will produce ideal results for specific glazes, and what firing schedule will bring out desired elements in glazes.
The glaze firing takes about 6-7 hours and then I wait another 36 or so hours, when the kiln is cool enough to open.
After 30 years of opening kilns, it is still exciting.
Inevitably there are a combination of happy surprises and disappointments, and I am always eager to apply my learning to my next batch of pottery.