On the roundness of things

On Friday we spent the morning with Jon Clarkson in the ceramics archive room discussing the relationship between art and ceramics before having a chance to explore the archive documents ourselves. I came across an inspiring article in ‘Australian Ceramics’ magazine (47, #2) dating from July 2008. Written by Phil Elson it discusses ‘the roundness of things’ 

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The article raises some interesting philosophical ideas

‘This is what pots can do for us: take us to places that otherwise may be inaccessible – places that remind us of the roundness of life.’

When explaining what he means by this metaphor he quotes Mr Curly (a Michael Leunig character): ‘what seems vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully  – happiness itself being a rounded shape… it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and I dare say – it is a good life’. 

I was struck by how beautiful this idea is, and it speaks to me of how simple pots are often the most wholesome and honest. There’s a stillness to Elson’s work that suggests the ‘presence’ he feels while working ‘in the moment’ with clay.

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He describes how you lose yourself in the moment while working with clay as: ‘We allow ourselves to be still, to be lost, to be in our own skin‘. This reminded me of a concept called ‘flow’ described in Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s eponymous book about the psychology of happiness. In a state of flow you focus so much on something e.g. a particular activity that you feel a special kind of stillness and contentment. I definitely feel this is true of the throwing process for me.

Elson also mentions coming to a point of unease about the work he was making three years previously and even considering giving up making pots altogether until a friend told him “The greatest contribution you can make is to be as close to yourself as you can possibly be.” This is a profound sentence and can be applied to everything in life. Surely to understand ourselves, what motivates us, what our fears are and to be honest with ourselves about our feelings is the first step to understanding what we are going to make. It feels sometimes as if the shapes are making themselves, pushing themselves out from our actions into existence.

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Quoting Bernard Leach he further suggests the pots we make are us : ‘The pot is the man: his virtues and vices are shown therein…no disguise is possible’. As someone who constantly and painfully compares myself to others, to be reminded that everything I make is unique and only I could have created it in that exact way, is a reassuring thought that my place here is somehow valuable.

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I created a monster

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Here we are, right at the end of the year, and I finally feel I’ve found a process which really excites me. Combining throwing and hand-building I get the benefit of enjoying two very different techniques – the throwing is cathartic, a quick way of making lots of forms that hold space, then the hand-building is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, intuitive, taking careful consideration of the balance and weight of the piece.

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Work in progress

I want to see how far I can push this technique, how big I can build. The individual sections can be thrown fairly quickly, the slow process is the controlled drying and fitting together. Considering pieces were falling off even on this scale, it will be a challenge to create large scale work but I’m eager to try it. I might get hold of a heat gun to have more control over drying, secure joints with extra clay and use foam to prop up the structure as I’m working on it. The final centrepiece above feels organic, like a piece of driftwood or seaweed, but at the same time the even throwing lines and geometry of the form reference the industrial. I had some trouble with sections falling off before firing and during the raku as I tried to pull them out of the sawdust. Fortunately I could get them to stick back together with some epoxy. If building one large sculpture this way is too much trouble I can always fire lots of pieces separately then glue them together afterwards.

The glaze I made was intended to be blue, the same duck egg raku glaze I’ve used before (see recipe here) (with the omission of about 10% of the Tin oxide because it ran out). To get in the awkward nooks and crannies of the concave and convex forms I decided it would be easiest to use the spray gun. I’ll be using the spray booth a lot more often now I realise how easy it is.

I was surprised when the glaze came out of the sawdust a dark pink/purple but I expect it’s to do with ferric chloride left over in the kiln lining from previous firings. I’m pleased with the unexpected results – where the flame has licked the work it’s turned metallic silver and the surface has character and variation with patches of yellow, white, black and texture among the pink and purple. It reminds me a bit of an octopus or a squid reaching its suckers out to grasp its prey, or a homemade robot from Robot Wars. There’s something hostile and dangerous about it, perhaps because of the dark colour. The shadows created with the light from above in the photos give the sculpture a gravity defying look, as if parts are floating. Duncan suggested I should experiment with placing lights inside to see how different shadows can be cast.

This project has definitely been more process driven than idea orientated. Because of the raku there’s something dirty-looking, perhaps ugly about the piece. In the context of a centrepiece this links back to ideas I had at the beginning about dirty dishes. It’s not something that would put your mind at ease during a meal, for me it conjures up anger or a raging storm. I began by calling it a monster but maybe a storm would be more appropriate. It interests me that it looks very different depending on where you sit at the table. It’s dynamic, like the conversation at a good dinner table should be or it might also reference broken crockery. I’ve moved very far away from my original ideas of an interactive, functional object. I hope it would be an inspiring conversation starter.

 

Layering slip and glaze

Here I’ve tested to see what effects can be had when layering slips and glazes onto ash white stoneware.

  1. White slip with turquoise glaze on top produces crazing in straight lines underneath a patchy shiny green.
  2. Reversing the above with the white slip on top creates a dry, textured matte surface which doesn’t flake or peel.
  3. My favourite – yellow/green glaze with blue slip painted on top forms islands of matte dark blue over a shiny surface with a very painterly effect. I like this rough, uneven texture which might look exciting on a large scale.
  4. The same as 3 but with turquoise glaze on top – this looks like a painted landscape with lots of variations of blue and hundreds of tiny bubbles encased in the surface.

I expected the slips to run off the surface when fired but the addition of glaze works to stick the raw and bisque fired clays together.

 

Testing my clay

Firing tests
The test tiles I made from clay sourced from my local area in North Wales were fired at different temperatures between 1000C and 1280C. It’s possible to see just from the images below that this clay is low-firing since it even begins to warp and turns a dark  red/purple at 1100C. Any higher than this and it begins to melt to fill the tray, bubbling and becoming metallic. Visible on the tile fired to 1000C are white deposits on the clay which are probably sodium and potassium salts. These act as fluxes and indicate the clay may start to melt as it gets to higher temperatures, which is proven on the higher fired tiles. Clays high in silica tend to puddle at higher temperatures. My raw clay is a dark green-grey colour which suggests the presence of carbon.

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Raw clay
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1000C
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1100C
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1200C
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1280C Oxidation
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1280C Reduction

Porosity
To test for porosity I boiled the test tile fired to 1000C for 1 hour. I weighed it before and after boiling. The tile turned out to weigh exactly the same before and after (80.2g), showing when fired to this temperature it has a porosity of 0. The clay has reached it’s maturing temperature at just 1000C so it’s a very low firing clay.

Shrinkage
After air drying the 10cm line on the tiles shrunk to 9.4cm showing a shrinkage of 6%. However, after firing to 1000C it shrunk further to 8.5cm which is a shrinkage of 15%.

I also weighed out a 100g ball of the clay and fired it to 1000C. The fired ball weighed 76.3g – a 23.7% decrease in weight.

Acid test
To test for the presence of limestone (calcium carbonate)  in my clay, I placed a small lump in dilute hydrochloric acid. No fizzing (carbon dioxide released) took place which proves there was no limestone in the clay. This is supported by the fact geological survey maps show no evidence of carbonate materials in the area I sourced it.

Glaze tests

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The three tiles above show slip made from my clay brushed on the left hand side. Different amounts of glaze materials have been mixed with the clay along the tiles. The first tile shows my clay as it mixes with wood ash. A ratio of one part clay to two parts wood ash produces a warm khaki colour. Equal measure of both creates a dark brown while a ratio of two parts clay to one part wood ash makes a dark purple/brown. The wood ash on its own is on the right hand side of the tile.

Below this is the clay mixed with potash feldspar. A small amount of this feldspar mixed with my clay produces very reflective brown glazes, however a very small amount of clay produces a subtle and attractive pale blue-green like a blackbird’s egg. Potash feldspar (also known as Orthoclase) is the commonest of the 12 types of feldspar. It’s an important glaze material and is used as a flux in bodies.

Below this is my clay mixed with whiting creating different shades of green. My application of the glazes is a bit splotchy, next time I know to paint on more than one layer and aim for a more even coating. I like the effects of mixing two parts potash or whiting to one part clay and I plan to make up a batch of these greens to use on vessels.

 

Garden Fairy

While I was on the art Foundation course back at the start of last year I took part in a project themed ‘Balance’. I was experimenting with mixed media and made a wire armature into the shape of a dancer based on a photo shoot of a friend. I then glued tissue paper and PVA all over and coated the whole skeleton in air drying clay. Once this had dried (and cracked as it contracted onto the form) I then painted the entire thing in white acrylic paint to seal in order to see how these materials worked together. I didn’t know what to do with the figurine so it disappeared into a box in the garage. However when I came back home for Christmas I was surprised to find what looked like an unusual fungus growing from the base of a tree in the garden. It turned out to be the little dancer. She’d undergone an exciting transformation.

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The paint and clay had broken down and weathered to leave a strange patina like quartz veins or lichen on a stone.  Fallen leaves and vegetation have morphed with the clay over time. This decomposition reminded me of a series of ink drawings I left out in the rain (can be seen here). This interaction of material and environment also made me think of Phoebe Cummings’s ‘Vanitas’ installation (2012) in which clay was left to change in enclosed glass micro-environments.

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Underneath the tree the model was fairly sheltered and the breaking up of the surface has been caused by water dripping from the branches above. It would be fascinating to watch this decomposition in a time lapse film. I’m eager to experiment with this idea on a much bigger scale and see how the clay would fare in different environments.

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There’s many a slip

Our ‘There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’ brief requires us to produce a series of cups for a cafe of some kind. While I was away at university I suffered bouts of homesickness and especially on weekends, longed for a break from the busy city. I’d never lived in a town with more than 3,000 people before. I also drank a lot of tea while I was away, but early on found out I’d left one of my favourite cups at home. It wasn’t something I expected to miss.

There’s a distinction between a cup and a mug. While cups are usually used for drinking tea, their bigger siblings – mugs, are used for coffee and hot chocolate, although the only place I’ve drank from proper cups with saucers are cafes. It feels dainty and sophisticated to drink from a cup while a mug has a more down to earth feel. I’d call my cup from home a mug.

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My mug from home

The mug has a wider base than lip and a curvy barrel shape which keeps in the heat of the drink and prevents it from spilling as you carry it. This sense of security is further embodied in what the mug represents – the security of being with people I love and a place I feel safe. The lip is thick and smoothly rounded –  it feels almost as if you’re been given a kiss when you sip from it!  It appears to have been made from a mould based on a thrown form. The glaze is a little lumpy where the colours have overlapped and there is a small amount of pin-holing where the glaze has left tiny craters.

I began without a reference. I drew what I imagined the shape to look like and attempted to repetitively throw these forms with the aid of a pattern I had cut from the side of an old debit card. I then asked my family to take a photo of the mug and send it to me. The difference between my memory of what the mug looked like and reality startled me and this opposition is something I’d like to further explore.
If you ask me if I know what my family members look like, of course I know but could I draw them accurately? Very unlikely. What I worked from was a sort of caricature of the mug I knew, the ridge at the base and curves emphasised. This made me realise how completely unreliable my mind is. Similarly to this post my mind fills in the gaps in its knowledge with what it expects to find. How can i capture this essence of how the memory works in cup form?

If a cup had a memory it would remember all the drinks it has contained, the times it’s been knocked over and liquid spilt, maybe the chips would read as the wrinkles of old age. The life of a cup or mug in a house is entwined with the lives of those who live there.

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I’m designing my mugs for an imaginary cafe – a piece of home for me in the city, someplace I can go when I miss the countryside of North Wales. What could be more appropriate than to make the mugs from clay sourced from the area where I live? So far I have been throwing these forms in LF (low firing) white earthenware clay. My plan next is to try throwing with the clay I sourced from my local area in Snowdonia. I’m also interested in coloured slip decoration and it’s potential for illustrative qualities as my mugs would need to be colourful and cheerful to fulfil their purpose. I’m going to photograph textures and patterns from around my home for inspiration.

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Beautiful, minimal slip decoration, Craft in the Bay

 

Dyfal donc a dyr y garreg

Before coming to CSAD I had no knowledge of how glazes, slips and different clays were made. I’d never packed a kiln in my life and I’d have hazarded a guess that feldspar was a type of supermarket. At the end of my first term, I can proudly say that I feel confident mixing my own glazes from recipes and I’ve had experience of packing a kiln correctly and learning how to put on a firing. I’ve made my own throwing tools in the woodwork and metal workshops but as well as new methods of making I’ve learnt new methods of thinking and developing ideas.

I really enjoyed the ‘local clay’ project- sourcing clay from our local area then subjecting it to a series of scientific tests to learn about its porosity, limestone presence and firing temperature. Going right to the source of the material we work with and learning about how its formed was enlightening.

When I started the course I had very little experience of throwing. The few times I managed to get past the tricky stage of centring the lump of clay, I made a handful of ugly  ash trays, each one weighing about as much as a small elephant. On the Foundation course my practice had centred around hand building – coil building mainly, a little slab building and press moulding too. Sculpture excited me but throwing was just…well…pots. It never occurred to me to try joining together thrown forms in a sculptural way. After watching Walter Keeler’s demonstration at Made by Hand and seeing the work of artists like Gordon Baldwin and Lisa Krigel, this is something I want to try. I’ve developed a new appreciation for the humble vessel form now that I realise the happiness that can be found in throwing something as simple as a bowl!

Now that it’s over halfway through the Christmas holidays I’m itching to get back to the wheel. Throwing has won me over. As I see it, it’s a form of practising mindfulness but with the added bonus of having created something beautiful and maybe even functional at the end of it. To look back at what I started with, I feel I’ve definitely improved (maybe not a great deal but as the welsh saying goes ‘Dyfal donc a dyr y garreg’ (tapping persistently breaks the stone). I can now, with varying degrees of success, do things I never imagined trying a few months ago such as throwing off the hump and making series of bottle forms.

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Wobbly throwing attempts at the start of term
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Biscuit fired – trying out new forms

Slipcasting on the other hand, was something I’d never in my life done before. The process is sometimes frustratingly time consuming as opposed to throwing which feels very immediate. I like the way slipcasting has the ability to capture minute details and it’s got me looking closer at everyday objects around my home to find out how they were made. However at the moment I’m not keen on the neat, mass-produced look of the finished outcome. I prefer how the objects look with the jagged seams of spilled slip still attached. This way they remind me of ancient artefacts freshly dug out from the earth. I feel slipcasting is the technique in ceramics which most embodies hylomorphism – there’s a lot of control imposed upon the clay and I feel it loses some of it’s ‘life’ and movement. This is why I like throwing but hate turning. If I over-turn a vessel it ends up looking strained and contrived. I want what I make to be a dialogue between myself and the material but not a one way conversation.

This first term I’ve had a wealth of opportunities to develop skills from volunteering as a pottery showdown assistant at Cardiff City Hall’s ‘Made by Hand’ craft fair to supporting throwing lessons with groups of students from the art Foundation course. Helping others to throw was itself a method of learning because I was challenged to reflect on my own technique and think about the series of movements involved.

Constellation has been valuable in challenging my long-held assumptions about the role of the mind and body in making. I’ve been introduced to new ideas about how we view the world and the role of our senses but more importantly I’ve been encouraged to question everything  – what kind of environment do I prefer to work in? Why did I draw that line the way I did? Why does it matter?

Now that I’ve been introduced to various working techniques, the plan for next term is to see how processes work together – I’d like to try plaster casting sprig moulds to attach decoration to thrown forms, altering and hand building onto thrown forms as well as seeing if I can throw the clay from my local area. If the consistency isn’t right I want to know what I can add to the clay to change its properties. Also next term I’m making an effort to combat my obsessive compulsive disorderliness to minimise clay dust in my work area.