Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What's On My Plate

What's On Your Plate?

possible position for sculpture relative to plate

I was invited to participate in an upcoming show at Boxx Gallery in Tieton, called "What's On Your Plate?". Initially, I thought the idea was to try to combine the idea of a plate with representations of what things one is juggling in life, such as job, family, aspirations, responsibilities, hobbies. I had come up with an idea to make a large plate and include a representation of my sculpture growing out of the plate. 

chain wrapping around the bottom of the sculpture 

I hadn't quite figured out how I would represent other interests and responsibilities (such as my family, teaching, and blog) on the plate when I got an email with the official details of the show. It turns out that the concept is more simple, it is about table settings, cooking, and rituals around food. 

Plates Can Be Dull

But I've always been a little bored making regular plates or functional work. For a few years around 2003, I showed work at the Cambridge Pottery Festival. After the event, there was a Potter's Dinner and the artists/potters were invited to bring a plate to trade. We were supposed to put our plates on the table and take one of the other plates for ourselves. 

poster of exhibiting artists from the 2003 Cambridge Pottery Festival

The first year I participated must have been 2003. At the time, I was making raku-fired abstract sculpture and plenty of functional work in the form of hand-built lidded boxes. I wasn't making plates and by the time I knew about the plate trading event, I didn't have time to make a plate. 

my work in 2003

I figured, since I was juried into the Pottery Festival based on my non-plate work, the organizers must just be suggesting the rough size or value of a work; "Bring a plate to trade" probably meant "bring something roughly the size and/or value of a plate."

the plate base for this project

So, I brought a small lidded box. Admittedly I am partial, but these boxes I was making were fun. They had all these spikes and texture in contrasting colors and looked like sea anemones or alien plants. The lids fit snugly and it was clear how they were to be oriented. Often the lids had rattles in them, so you could take them off and shake them to make a sound. But, the boxes were clearly not plates. After I set my work down, I watched that box sit on that table, alone and unloved, while person after person walked in a picked up a boring ol' utilitarian plate for their trade. Eventually my box found a home, but the message was clear; it should have been a plate.

trimming the plate for this project

I hatched a plan. The next year, I would bring a plate, but I would defiantly make it the most annoying, least utilitarian plate I could manage. It would be in the form of a plate, but it would be less useful than my lidded boxes. I threw a plate, but instead of just glazing it like a normal person, I attached small round sprigs all over the surface, spaced out so as to maximize the bumpiness of the plate without leaving room for anything as large as a burger or even a hot dog to rest on the plate's surface. I glazed the bumps green so they would look like peas. I imagined the plate being used by someone who chose to eat a plate of peas or maybe a casserole that included peas so that the person would keep trying to scoop up the ceramic peas in place of the real peas. I also envisioned this plate being super annoying to clean.

pea plate from 2003/4

Of course the next year I had a conflict with the Potter's Dinner, so I didn't get a chance to go, trade my revenge plate, and laugh at all the functional potters who wanted only boring plates like those they made themselves. I still have the plate. it has a trimming hump in the middle, but I still think the spaced out peas decoration is hilarious. I crack me up.

The Sculptural Plate

Unless it were to be a reprise of my pea plate, I knew I didn't want to make just a straight "functional" place setting, so I decided to go with a slightly simplified version of the plate I envisioned earlier in the summer.

sculptural plate in progress

I threw several plates and the form of a small sculpture, a simplified version of sculptures I tend to make. Rather than just attaching the sculpture to the plate, I wanted to connect the plate and the sculpture visually in two ways: with chain and with sprigs.


sprig molds resting on the plate

The sprigs I used for this piece were all made from knots and textures found on a section of an old Christmas tree trunk. I used several different sprigs so that the textures seem to repeat, but are not all identical.

tree trunk section with beautiful knots I used as to form my sprig molds

I wanted the sprigs to be suggestive of barnacles in a tide pool and the way they encrust the surfaces. 

a tide pool near Port Angeles
I hoped the sprigs would to seem to cover over the separate surfaces of the sculpture and the plate indiscriminately like mussels or barnacles on the underside of a boat or dock.

textures on my sculpture and plate

In the end, the process of attaching the sprigs and adding the background texture of tiny holes (reminiscent of coral, rock, or corrosion) overwhelmed my view of the overall effect. I chose to put the sculpture dead center in the plate and not to build up the corner where the plate and the sculpture were once separate. The sculpture has the excessive texture I wanted, but I'm not sure if the placement is entirely what I wanted.

base of plate/sculpture read for drying and firing


I also wanted to incorporate bike chain into this sculpture. I knew that I wanted the bike chain to connect the sculpture with the plate, so a mini sculpture I had created earlier in the summer would not work for this project.

sculpture I started earlier this year for this project

I have another project in mind for bike chain, so I spent several hours cleaning several chains. I used some simple green and a scrub brush first and then took the chains to a wire brush on a stationary grinder. The process is fairly straight forward, but it was hot last week when I was cleaning the parts and I had on long sleeves, gloves, goggles and a mask, so I had to break up the cleaning into 15 minute bursts or end up really cranky and hot (I ended up cranky and hot anyway).

dirty and clean bike chains

The completed plate/sculpture will have a chain winding down the sculpture, around the plate, and out one side of the plate as a kind of tail. I also added a bike gear to visually and physically divide the smooth bulb of the sculpture from the textured complexity of the base and plate.

rough plan for gear and chain position in sculptural plate

I am considering adding a cup/mug and fork/knife to the place setting. The work is still a bit wet. I threw the form and added texture over the course of at least 5 days, so I wanted to make sure the piece dried slowly. After firing, I've got a few weeks before school begins in which to add color and put the pieces together.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Under Glazing Three-Color Pods: Part 1

pods with turquoise underglaze layer

One of the reasons I'm not a big fan of the process of under glazing my sculpture is that the process takes so long. I use layered underglazes and I realize that using underglazes, and using them this way causes my process to be slow and tedious. Unfortunately, I like the complex and colorful results. 

purple underglaze layer

I have been trying to get a solid start on under glazing a set of six forms. There are three sections with different textures on each form and I want to highlight each section separately with two colors each for a total of 6 colors. The undercoats will be fired for stability, then the top contrasting colors can be added and wiped away. Commercial underglazes require at least three coats applied for even coverage, so that means a total of 9 coats (3 coats each of three colors) before firing. After firing, the subsequent coats will not need to be applied as thickly or as carefully. 

under glazing at the table
During the first round I carefully applied three layers of turquoise on the base level of the whole sculpture, trying to avoid the sprigged sections. After I applied the turquoise three times and wiped away the excess from the sprigs, I applied three coats of purple to the end and three coats of red to each sprig. While I was applying the underglaze, I was careful to apply evenly for full coverage and no overlapping into other sections, but I also needed to be careful to not lose count of how many layers had been applied. Sometimes I could visually distinguish the first and second layer, but after that, all layers look the same.

edges of sprigs before clean-up
With so many sprigs placed in an irregular pattern, it is quite difficult to keep track of which sprigs have gotten a second or third coat of underglaze. What I generally do is draw a pencil line across each sprig (or several sprigs on each section) and apply underglaze until I cannot see any more pencil lines.
pencil lines and wet underglaze
Applying each coat of red took about 40 minutes per pod. I applied the turquoise in my studio but moved to the dining table for the red because the height difference between the chair and the table is more comfortable. On Friday afternoon and Saturday, I underglazed on the couch while watching marathon episodesof season two of The Great Pottery Throwdown.

the cat prefers me to glaze on the couch

Watching, or at least listening to the episodes helped ease the monotony of the process. Ironically, one of the contestants kept having trouble with time. I laughed at her struggles, but reflected that I had spent more time than her just completing the first part of the glazing on three pods. I also kept thinking of my friend Janice during the episodes, especially episode four with the fountains because she would enjoy both the show and trying some of the challenges.

third layer of red (looks a lot like the second)
I had been glazing almost all day long (with a few breaks for laundry, errands, and a game of Bananagrams played Scrabble-style) and I thought I could get all three completely finished before heading out to see The Warehouse Theatre's excellent production of Willy Wonka (it's really good; if you're in Yakima, I highly recommend it).

red and turquoise mostly complete

I was on track to finish before the show when disaster struck. I had just finished the third coat of red on all the sprigs of the last pod. I was going to go back and touch up the turquoise where it had worn off or had a drip or smear of red. I figured the touch up would take 5 or 10 minutes, then I could finish loading the kiln and program it to fire that night.

glazing with a lid as palette

I like to use the lid of the underglaze jar as a palette, especially when doing careful, detail work. I shake the closed jar to get some underglaze on the inside of the lid, then dip a small brush tip into the underglaze on the lid. Instead of dipping into the jar blind, the lid method allows me to get less glaze on the brush and keep the brush and the sculpture cleaner.


I had just screwed the lid back on the red jar when I went to shake the turquoise. Of course, for some reason, I hadn't screwed the lid back on. When I shook the jar, the lid came off, the underglaze came out and splashed on the table, the pod, my shoe, the carpet, the brushes, my daughter's stickers, and pretty much the whole house.

oops ameliorated

By the time I finished wiping off the underglaze from all those surfaces, including the pod, it was time to leave for Willy Wonka so I didn't finish or load the kiln until the next morning. I'm not that bothered by the wiped look, and the plan is to layer more color on top, but I touched up the red with one more layer anyway. Maybe another day I'll try the splash technique and leave the result, but not today.

three fired pods (from earlier)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Under Glazing Text Bulbs

text bulbs with underglaze applied and wiped, before firing

I've been glazing and underglazing quite a bit this summer. The process is necessary, but not what I enjoy doing with my time.

text bulbs with underglaze applied
One of the simpler processes this summer was preparing my text bulbs. I want the text to be highlighted with color and a glossy texture, so I painted on red, white, and blue underglaze and then clear glaze.
text bulbs with underglaze applied and wiped, before firing

I tried two methods for application. On some of the bulbs I painted on the colored underglaze and then used a sponge to wipe it away from the surface of the bulb, leaving color in the impressed text. After the color was removed from the raised surface, I applied and wiped the clear glaze in the same way.

text bulbs with underglaze and glaze applied
I also tried applying both the underglaze and glaze before wiping them away. This requires less wiping and less total time, but I ended up with underglaze on top of glaze in the text indents.

wiping off underglaze and glaze
I was going to triumphantly post pictures of the finished pieces, but the results out of the last firing are not great. The in-text color is fine, but the red clay surfaces of many of the bulbs have one side with white or light blushed clay and the other size with dark clay as I expected. Based on previous firings, I think the issue has to do with either the atmosphere or temperature in the kiln, so perhaps I can retired these pieces.

fired text bulbs out of the kiln

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Recycling a Large Batch of Clay without a Pugmill

wedged clay is nearly ready for bagging (after days of work)
Over the years I've tried to recycle clay regularly in my studio, but I haven't been particularly consistent. In 2014, I paid a studio assistant to help me clean and recycle clay in the studio, but I haven't done so since.

step 1: drying semi-dry clay chunks in the sun

My Usual Approach to Recycling Clay at Home:

My more typical approach to recycling clay is to recycle in small batches several times a month. I keep a slake bucket going in the studio. I add bone dry clay and throwing scraps to water. The bone dry clay slakes in the water and becomes wet clay again. After I have accumulated enough wet clay, I scoop it out of the water and let it dry in trays or shape it into arches to dry a bit faster.

step 2: breaking up dry clay into smaller pieces

After the wet clay has dried sufficiently, I wedge it in small batches at my wedging table and then either build with it or store it in bags for later use. This method is tedious, takes up precious studio space with drying, slaking, and drying clay again, and also tends to result in mottled or marbled clays if I try to mix more than one type of clay together. If I don't mix clays, I have to keep separate slaking bins and drying trays for each clay type I use.

step 3: spreading out dry clay in the pool; step 4: wetting dry clay

Recycling Clay at School:

At YVC we have an large mixer and a pugmill we used to recycle clay. These tools make mixing much less physically demanding and much faster, but fit into a large studio better than a home studio. A mixer processes fairly large batches of clay; a pug mill processes smaller batches on a regular schedule. I can't use a mixer at home without investing more space and appropriate ventilation. I also don't (usually) need to recycle much at a time. I wouldn't mind having a pugmill for recycling, but the cheapest I've seen is about $2300 and a pugmill takes up a significant amount of space relative to my small studio.

step 5: mixing slaked clay (and making sure all clay is slaked)

The Problem:

By the start of this summer, I realized I had let my dry studio clay collection get a little out of hand. It was taking up too much space in my studio, and I didn't really know what I had where. I started brainstorming options other than recycling all of it by hand. I considered a pugmill to be too expensive and couldn't really donate the clay to YVC because much of my clay is low fire and would cause problems in the studio, even if kept separate. I considered just tossing it out, but that seems wasteful--even if new clay isn't that expensive and would save me time.

step 6: mixing wet clay pieces into slaked clay slurry

The Solution:

While laying in bed one night, I got thinking of how we walked on clay to "recycle" it at the school studio in Japan. At the time I thought it was a bit silly, because we were clearly walking on store-bought and well-prepared clay and the use of our feet wasn't really an improvement over the use of our hands. But in my current studio, the problem was recycling a bunch of different clays and a pretty big quantity of clay overall. That I have so many clays is silly, but they've accumulated over the decade. I've bought clay at Clay Art Center in Tacoma (when my mother-in-law has lived nearby), and at Seattle Pottery Supply (again, when my mother-in-law lived close), and at Archie Bray when I took a workshop there. I've used low fire clay and mid fire clay for different projects (The Archie Bray workshop required cone 6 clay when I'd been using low fire), and people have donated clay to me. The total adds up to at least 8 different clays, as far as I can tell, including low fire, porcelain, stoneware, groggy, and red clays.

the clay slurry is fairly even but too wet

Getting Ready:

The longer I thought about it, the more fun a large scale, messy, foot-wedging solution appeared. And, I could take care of all the clay in one fell swoop. So, I collected all the various bags and containers of bone dry or mostly dry clay from around the studio, set the slightly wet clay out in the sun to dry, and proceeded to break apart the dry clay with a hammer. It took about 3 days to collect and dry all the semi-dry clay from around the studio. My family laughed at me as I found more and more partial bags of clay in various nooks and crannies.

leftover hand-wedged clay with marbling of different clays (and that pesky porcelain chunk near the top)

Once all the clay was bone dry and had been smashed into smaller pieces, I got out my daughter's kiddy pool and spread the dry clay around it. I added water over the top of the bone dry clay and left it to slake for the day. By afternoon, most of the clay was slaked. I mixed it up a bit and made sure the dry clumps were covered with water. By evening, all the clay was slaked. My daughter was excited to get in, so I let her walk in the slaked clay. By walking in it, she was able to further smash some of the clumps of clay that were still semi-solid. I had some wet, but not wet enough clay leftover from previous recycling attempts (this clay was marbled from different clays mixed together, but not well), so I cut that up and buried it into the slurry to be mixed the next day. 

step 7: wedging the slightly dried slurry with the power of many (little) feet

The Fun Part:

The next day I invited some friends and their kids over to our house to walk in the clay. The kids had fun and got very messy, and maybe wedged some of the clay in the process, too. I had a bucket of water and several large sponges ready to deal with their dirty hands and feet. I didn't quite anticipate how dirty their bellies and hair would get, but the bucket worked fairly well for that, too. 

bonus step when kids are helping: a bath in the water bucket

As the kids lost interest, I got into the pool and used my own feet to wedge. At this point I stopped taking pictures because cleaning off the kids had completely dirtied my hands. The kids are all pretty small, so they didn't have the weight, strength, or balance to systematically foot wedge the clay. My friend and I were able to walk around the pool systematically, making sure all of the clay was worked evenly. My other friend scooped clay from the sides of the pool and piled them in the middle. This was a particularly helpful part of the process that I hadn't considered, because it mixed clay from different areas of the pool together more thoroughly.

step 8: foot wedging the clay again after it has dried for several hours

The Finishing Work:

The clay was still pretty wet and sticky at this point, so after my friends departed, I left the clay outside in the sun until evening. In the evening, my daughter went out to stand on the clay and I noticed she no longer sunk into the clay. The consistency was much improved, though a bit wet, still, underneath the surface. We ended up scoping the clay from the sides of the pool and piling them in the middle. My daughter needed to jump to make a dent in the surface, but I could stomp on the middle pile and mix the bottom clay and the surface clay. We smoothed the surface of the mound and left it overnight. 

step 9: piling up the clay to mix the different layers together

In the morning I was able to cut off large blocks of clay, shape them a bit and bag them. I made up four bags of clay, not quite as full as when they come from the clay supply companies. I figure I bagged a little under 100lbs (4 bags of not quite 25lbs). The middle and bottom of the clay mound was still too wet by afternoon. In the evening my daughter and I foot wedged again and so far this morning I have bagged close to another 100lbs.

step 10: using gravity to wedge on the cement sidewalk

The process is exhausting, particularly when it is hot outside. Everytime I have foot wedged, I have ended up drenched in sweat. Today's pile of clay is harder on the outside than inside and has more air pockets than the top layers did, so I have taken to wedging the ~25lb chunks on the cement ground where I can let gravity do most of the work. I took a break after just two rounds of this type of wedging because it is exhausting and I didn't want to hurt my back by lifting 25lbs over and over again with poor posture.

step 11: cleaning up the mess on the patio, cleaning out the pool, and cleaning all the tools and buckets. this step has not yet been completed

I am almost done with all the clay I had to recycle. The first 4 bags were fairly even in consistency and how well mixed the clay was. I can't see any marbling of clay colors in the first 4-6 bags, but there are some sections that are drier from being more exposed to the outdoor air.  In the last few bags I can see some marbling where the clays didn't mix as thoroughly and there are some air pockets as I cut the clay off of the center mount. The consistency is still probably better than mixing multiple clays together by hand. Hand-wedging (or gravity wedging) the last bags of clay probably makes them good enough for hand-building--if not throwing. Overall, this food wedging process is time consuming, tiring, and makes a huge mess, but I think the result (and certainly the speed of getting all that clay done at once) is an improvement over wedging by hand. And, of course, I saved myself $3000 by not buying a pugmill.

feet stay cleaner when the clay is drier.