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.

 

SO MUCH WINE

I swear time moves differently in the French countryside. No way could I have fitted a lip sync battle, building a reliquary kiln with relics to fire inside, ping pong, building a stackable camping set, visiting a mysterious cave church, two French markets, putting on a play, more ping pong, dressing up in silly hats, cooking a three course meal, origami cranes, directing another play, and SO MUCH WINE into a week in Cardiff. I’m practically an alcoholic now.

Last week we returned, sore hands and throbbing heads from Mick’s deadly mojitos, from an unforgettable week at La Perdrix, Johnny and Ingrid’s gorgeous getaway in the Dordogne countryside of south-western France. To any future ceramics students at CSAD I urge you – GO! It’s so worth the hangovers.

Some combination of being in such a beautiful setting and eating three course meals each day resulted in us all being super productive and inspired. I’m struggling a bit to hold onto the energy I felt there now that we’re back in the UK but the trip has definitely shown just how much stuff it’s possible to get done when you put your mind to it (and the sun makes it feel like you’re on a Caribbean beach resort).

I think the problem I’ve struggled with this year has been the length of the projects. I end up procrastinating for weeks and changing my ideas and designs rather than getting on with the making. With such a short amount of time in France, it was necessary just to get stuck into it ASAP, and this is the kind of mentality I want to bring to my future projects. One of the things I enjoyed most was working outside in the open air which felt so much more spacious and peaceful than the studio back home.

Our first challenge was to make a raku fired set of nesting camping utensils. I began with sketching some concepts, trying to work out a way of fitting the different sections together snugly and maximising the use of space. Initially I planned to have a steamer above the casserole dish but it would have taken me a long time to throw pieces that fit together neatly, so I opted for a simpler ‘one storey’ design.

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The final piece is composed of six separate sections – a couple of bowls (the smaller was supposed to be more of a mug), a sort of casserole dish with a lid, and a spoon and fork. All the handles, including those on the spoon and fork were pulled – I thought they might be stronger this way.

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The main downfall is that I didn’t create a gallery and flange for the lid of the dish, it just sits on top instead. I’ve never thrown vessels with lids but I think it’s about time I addressed this gap in my knowledge and gave it a go.

I’ve just realised this could be something that ties in with my centrepiece project. I was thinking about drawers to put objects in, but why not make this an exercise in throwing lids? I could make a sculpture of sorts that holds condiments, napkins or knives and forks…

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The outside of the camping set was dipped in transparent glaze but the insides were painted in a thin wash of brightly coloured under-glazes with the transparent on top. I like the effect of having eye popping colours as a surprise  when you open it up, a bit like cutting into a plain icing- covered rainbow cake to find it’s got all those layers inside. The only issue I had with the making was that I had to trim the smallest bowl so the lid would fit. The bowls are also very heavy but then they’re to take camping…of course they need to be sturdy.

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Raku Friday

Phoebe and I fired a raku kiln together yesterday and I put in a couple of my thrown forms. The first is a white st thomas ‘moon jar’. The duck-egg blue raku glaze came out a bright light blue with crazing however the stoneware reduction glazes I applied came out a rusty colour from the red iron oxide and a matte dark green, possibly from the presence of copper carbonate. The earthenware cream glaze inside came out a much brighter colour because it matures at a lower temperature. The effect looks a bit like an abstract upside down landscape or a globe. We left the pots in the flames for 1 hour 15 mins then placed them to smoke and reduce in sawdust, shredded paper and hay for 1 hour. To get even temperature around the kiln chamber I’ve learnt to cover the top on the side which is coldest with a piece of kiln shelf as this adjusts the air flow.

The rounded form was inspired by the work of Adam Buick although I’m struggling to make perfectly spherical shapes. It’s clear from these photos the footrings on his are a lot narrower than the top which elevates them. This article has a little information about moon jars and their contemporary re-interpretations.

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Adam Buick at Collect ’17

Inspired by Cait’s sake cups from the Pottery throwdown on Thursday I tried wrapping copper wire around this mug (reduction st thomas clay). The surface is painted on duck egg -blue with lines cut through sgraffito style with a needle point tool. I like how the glaze has blistered and crawled dramatically on the side exposed more to the flames in the firing. The copper wire turned black and fused somewhat to the glaze but other than that didn’t leave any trace. It was interesting to watch Hannah from L5 spray alcohol onto her vessels to create varied surface colours. I’m going to try and get hold of the Lark ceramics book ‘Alternative kilns and firing techniques’ from the library to find other raku firing techniques to try.

Raku firing and Zen Buddhism

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.

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One of the raku kilns firing

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.

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Lifting work hot from the kiln into the bin of wood chips and sprinkling more combustibles on top.

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.

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Pots after being dipped in water, ready to be scrubbed.

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.

RESULTS

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Side with shiny copper glaze and wax resist

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.

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Reverse side of bottle

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
Bentonite                                      5
+ Tin oxide                                    15
+ Copper oxide                            0.5

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Glaze tests on slipcast banana
  1. Duck egg blue (more purple where applied thinly)
  2. Duck egg blue with copper blue on top – water colour effect sky blue but not very interesting texture
  3. Shiny copper blue on its own – darker blue with hints of purple
  4. Shiny copper with duck egg blue on top – this combination has the most interesting colour variations
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Glaze tests on slipcast ‘grape bunch’ glass bottle

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.

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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.

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

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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.

http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi
http://www.2000cranes.com/Raku.html
Jones, D, 1999. Raku, investigations into fire.Marlborough: Crowood.