I feel this year I’ve focused (although not as much as I could have) on improving my throwing skills. It’s a process I enjoy, but rather than viewing it as a means to an end, I see it as more as a starting point for the process of construction, much like artists Wouter Dam, Carina Ciscato and Walter Keeler.
I began the first project ‘Many a Slip’ trying to repeat throw a particular form – that of a distinctively shaped mug I remembered from home. I discovered though, when I found a picture of the actual mug, that my memory of the object was distorted, a caricature of a mug. This made me think of how unreliable memory is and blind drawing exercises in the New Materialisms Constellation study group explored these ideas of how we perceive with our senses further. This idea of memory and trace fed into the ‘Cafe Society’ project. My cafe was to be a piece of home in Cardiff, somewhere I could go to escape the busy city and feel I was back in the wild, mountainous landscape of North Wales. The layout of the place would be similar to my favourite coffee shop in Dolgellau – T.H.Roberts, the old ironmongers, the top floor kitted out with second hand sofas, and they would serve the local speciality – Popty’r Dre’s honey buns.
I made a series of my ‘home’ mugs which I hope to saggar fire tomorrow with combustibles sourced from the Dolgellau area – seaweed and shells from Barmouth beach and sheep wool and lichen from the farmers fields on the foot of Cader Idris. I want the surfaces of the mugs to show a physical trace of my home. The project has made me think of the things I take for granted and how your memory of a place can change when you move away and grow older. It makes me think of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir novel series – about an alternative underworld Aberystwyth which he only began to write about when he moved away from the place.
With the handbuilding of thrown forms I find myself returning to the theme of balance, which happened to be what I wrote my final Constellation essay about. I find my making process if becoming more and more process driven rather than schematic and pre-planned. I find I like to play with the material and discover ways sections want to fit together harmoniously and naturally rather than trying to bring a drawing or plan into being. This thinking has definitely been influenced by learning about ideas of the agency of materials in Constellation. I feel as a result though that I’ve abandoned research a bit and work in sketchbooks less than I used to.
I noticed this change of thinking most when I came to the final ‘Centrepiece’ project and originally wanted to make an interactive piece or a game, but realised I didn’t want to work to a plan. It’s also becoming more and more important to me that what I make shows a trace of how it’s been made. This is why I like the flow of throwing lines and marks where the fire has licked the clay in kilns that aren’t electric fired. I hope to move away from the standard oxidation electric kiln firings next year. I’d especially to learn how to use the gas kilns for reduction firings and look more in depth at alternative firing methods like raku, saggar and wood firing. I liked the unexpected, uneven results and surface textures you get this way, like the ones on my final centrepiece.
Looking through my blog I feel it would help to post a summary of my developing ideas at the end of each week next year so I can see a more clear progression. Also I’d like to upload films of myself working so I can more dynamically document the skills and techniques I’m learning.
Inspired by the pit firing on the Pottery throw down, Nina, Nam and I tried our own smoke firing over Easter with the help of the fabulous Ian Hinchliffe, potter at Quarry Pottery in Corris Craft Centre. We took a similar approach to the oil lamp bin firing Mick Morgan helped us with before the holidays – lining a bin with newspaper then dried wood chopped down as kindling.
The pots were wrapped in copper and steel wire then generously sprinkled with copper carbonate, cobalt oxide, black nickel oxide and a mixture of blue, yellow and pink commercial stains. Dried ferns, pine needles, leaves and banana skin were also added before they were wrapped up in tin foil. Once surrounded by the kindling we set the bin alight though the holes in the bottom and kept adding wood for a good few hours, the metal gradually turning red hot.
More stains, salt and oxides were sprinkled on during the evening, which, if they didn’t make much impact on the surface colours, definitely made for some spectacular electric blue coloured flames for us to watch. The experience of sitting around a fire with a group of people as darkness gently fell over the welsh hills, our shared hopes invested in our kiln babies and mesmerised by the flickering light and warmth of the flames, was an unforgettable experience. The raw power of the flames made me feel connected to something primal. I suppose our early ancestors would have felt the same awe sat around their bonfires at night. Although perhaps it’s just that every potter is a bit of a pyromaniac.
Opening the kiln in the morning, we were surprised to find all the foil burnt away but the pots hadn’t turned as dark as we expected. The colours came out best on the slipcast porcelain vessels with striking flushes of pink and constellations of smokey greys and browns on their smooth surfaces. Burnishing the pots beforehand would have improved the surface quality and leaving them in a reduction atmosphere for longer may have turned the surface darker.
Last week Mick introduced us to ‘primitive clay’, a heavily grogged clay body that includes sparkly mica, and we spent about an hour sculpting tiny clay oil lamps as part of our ‘light’ theme. Working on such a small scale was a new challenge for me, but I enjoyed how fast the process was – great for making maquettes. We speeded up the drying with the aid of heat guns so we could fire the lamps in the afternoon. This caused lots of cracking but surprisingly the results stayed in one piece, proving it is possible to make and fire a piece in the same day! We woodfired the clay in a big dustbin with the addition of sawdust and copper carbonate to colour the surface, resulting in a range of smoky oranges, reds and purples. There’s definitely some of Geoff Swindell’s influence in these teapot lamp forms, but unlike his precise, colourful porcelain pots, the smoking effect makes these look like they’ve been freshly dug from the ground after being buried for centuries.
Raku is a low-firing method of making pottery. It has its origins in the time of the shogun (military dictator) Hideyoshi towards the end of the sixteenth century (Momoyama period) in Kyoto, Japan. Hideyoshi wanted to encourage the tea ceremony and called upon his tea-master Sen no Rikyu to mastermind the ceremonies. A potter called Sasaki Chojiro was commissioned by the palace to hand carve tea bowls from Rikyu’s designs using tile making techniques.
Rikyu moved the tea ceremony in a new direction, towards a new form of ceramic expression called wabi sabi – peasant-like, monochrome ceramics with minimal decoration. The growth of Zen Buddhism (Sen no Rikyu was a Zen Buddhist monk) had replaced the lively, extravagant tea ceremonies of the past with solemn rituals that emphasised the transience of life. These tea ceremonies held spiritual significance and were associated with the Zen ideas of living in the here and now, finding peace and significance in something as mundane as drinking tea and appreciating every act as a unique event. The idea is to look inward for meaning to life rather than outside our existence like in Christianity and other faiths.
Wabi sabi is an aesthetic that embodies the principles of Zen Buddhism. It emerged in Japan as a reaction to the lavishness, luxury and grandeur of the nobility and it’s essence was to find beauty in imperfection and embrace the natural cycle of growth and decay. The aesthetic incorporates a number of qualities: humility, asymmetry, authenticity, simplicity, tranquillity and the organic forms of nature, the complete antithesis to today’s fast paced, mass produced, disposable culture.
Recently I’ve been reading Oli Doyle’s book ‘Mindfulness, plain and simple’ which highlights the way meditation and mindful practice which stem from the discoveries of the Buddha can help us live happier lives. I felt the raku firing we took part in on Friday was a kind of practice in mindfulness because we were forced into the ‘here and now’ while having to continually watch the kiln, adjusting the gas depending on the height of the flames, checking how much the glaze had melted and concentrating on moving the hot ceramics carefully with the tongs.
In ‘A Potter’s Book’ Bernard Leach explains how the thick and porous nature of the clay used for raku tea-bowls made them bad conductors of heat so the hot tea could be held comfortably in the hands. At the beginning of the 20th century Leach brought the idea of raku back from exotic Japan to his studio in St Ives. Later, raku was re-invented in America during the 1970s, moving away from the idea of truth to materials and Zen philosophy and ‘the anti-machine ethic so beloved by the reactionary camp in the ceramic world went out of the window as space-race materials were pressed into service for kiln linings, and glass-fuming technologies for post-reduction treatments'(Jones, 1999, pg. 22). Western raku (like the one I took part in) differs from the eastern technique in that the pots are placed in a reduction chamber rather than left to cool in the open air or quenched straight away in cold water.
Raku firing is an exciting and rewarding process. First the work is bisque fired and glazed then the raku kiln is fired quickly to a temperature of about 900C with the pots inside. Through the top of the kiln it was possible for us to watch the glazes melting. Because the clay undergoes thermal shock, it’s important to use once-fired, grogged, stoneware clay rather than the LF i’d been throwing with. The only work I had suitable were slipcast shapes. We tried raku firing work that hadn’t been bisque fired but this only resulted in the work exploding in the kiln because of its high water content.
The pots were removed from the kiln after about 45 mins red hot with tongs and placed in an airtight container (a bin) of shredded paper and hemp wood chips. As they are moved into the colder air outside the kiln they undergo another sudden temperature change which produces cracks in the glaze. The lid is then placed back on and the bin left to stand in a ventilation chamber. This technique is known as smoking and is an ideal way to get rainbow coloured surfaces from a copper matt glaze. The smoke produced from the combustible materials is trapped and creates a reduction atmosphere in the bin but some oxidation also occurs to the glazes when the lid is lifted off. Carbon from the smoking highlights the cracks in the glazes and turns the naked clay black.
After being left to smoke in in the chamber for an hour the work is lifted out with tongs and dipped into cold water- yet another thermal shock. The water washes off some of the carbon and combustible material but they need to be scrubbed with a sponge to reveal the surfaces properly.
I enjoyed being more directly involved in the firing process than I am with an electric kiln and the physical and slightly terrifying activity of moving the work when it’s red hot.
Where I sponged on the copper matt on top it’s more green/brown. I don’t like the washed out blue of the cork stopper. Although the effect is very striking I find it a bit too showy for the aesthetic I’m searching for in my work. This bottle form isn’t suited to raku because it’s narrow and has a small base so is prone to fall over in the kiln.
This side I glazed with Pale satin duck-egg blue raku glaze found in Linda Bloomfield’s ‘The handbook of glaze recipes‘. I like the fresh colour and the fine bubbly texture. A stripe of copper matt was brushed on top and resulted in rich shiny greens. The pattern on the bottle shows through black with carbon where wax resist was brushed on. The blue came out in patches of purple which reminds me of port wine stains on skin.
Pale satin duck egg-blue (cone 9):
Borax frit 42.5
High alkaline frit 42.5
China clay 15
+ Tin oxide 15
+ Copper oxide 0.5
Duck egg blue (more purple where applied thinly)
Duck egg blue with copper blue on top – water colour effect sky blue but not very interesting texture
Shiny copper blue on its own – darker blue with hints of purple
Shiny copper with duck egg blue on top – this combination has the most interesting colour variations
Top half: white raku glaze splattered with copper blue which has turned purple. Bottom half matt copper painted on top of white crackle. I wish I’d glazed more of the form but was scared to in case it got stuck in the kiln.I like where the matte copper turns iridescent and shows emrland greens.
Bottle dipped in white crackle with thick duck-egg blue brushed on top. I like the way the white underneath makes the colour look brighter. Teacup on top dipped in copper matt turned dark grey with little colour variation.
GLAZED POTS RESULTS
On Tuesday we took part in a glaze application workshop and our results came out the electric kiln on Friday too. I’m really happy with these LF bottle forms and like how they work as a series because of their variations in heights and shape.
Bottle dipped halfway down in yellow, dipped in blue up to base of neck then dipped in yellow at the rim. Patterns brushed on with red iron oxide, white and green sponged on patches.My favourite decoration. It’s busy and I tired to balance the shapes.
Bottle dipped in white glaze with small area un-glazed. Manganese oxide splashed on top with a thick brush then turquoise self-mixed glaze splattered over.
Manganese oxide and red iron oxide painted on under transparent. White and yellow pattern painted on top. Yellow becomes very feint when painted on top of white. I like the shape of this bottle and the way the vertical edges balance with a curved shoulder which hasn’t slumped like the others and a thin neck. I’d like to explore this form further.
Dipped sideways in green, matt cream and manganese splattered on top. This fused to the kiln shelf at the base where the glaze ran (applied too thickly).
I’m not as taken with this bowl’s decoration. The inside was dipped in blue and manganese oxide, turquoise glaze and red iron oxide brushed on the outer surface which looks patchy.