Not Just Paint

I think I’ve mentioned that I have been making a lot of pottery items, but I haven’t shown any of them here before.

Pottery was my first love in art.
I spent every spare minute in high school in the pottery studio. I had a lot of spare minutes, too, because I was enrolled in a fabulous early 70s experiment in education. It was officially called ‘The Informal School” but we students (and our participating teachers) called it “The Free School”, because that’s how we felt. As long as we attended the required academic meetings, which were offered in a kind of rolling format that allowed us to make our own schedules, we were free to use our school time to explore our passions. And we did.

I still have a couple of the pieces I made back then, too. One was a rather clumsy slab-built mug with a dragon on it – the tail became the mug’s handle. I gave it to my dad, and somehow my mother got it when they were divorced. She kept it until this past September, and I took it home with me after seeing her for the very last time.

The Free School did not prepare me for the college my mother forced me to attend. I wanted so much to go to art school, and I applied to and was accepted at several across the country. But Mom didn’t want me to leave home. Didn’t think I was ready. I think I would have been fine at any of them. Instead, she forced me to apply to and then attend Stony Brook University on Long Island, which was- and still is- a very good school and local.
It didn’t have an art department.

It’s safe to say that I probably went in with a fairly poor attitude. And going from tiny intimate group discussions to huge anonymous lecture halls where the professor was a small speck on a stage completely overwhelmed me. I only lasted 6 weeks into the first semester, and then said fuck it. I quit school, moved out of my parents’ house and spent the next decade on a series of questionable choices, which I won’t go into here.

I finally ditched one of my poor choices- a drummer- and found my feet again at 28. I enrolled at a community college and fell love with education again! I took a few pottery classes along with painting, design, drawing, sculpture and continued on to get a BA in art at a another good local college via a full academic scholarship.

Fast forward to the present time, and how I got into pottery again.
A few years back I traded a painting for a pottery wheel, and took a couple of classes on wheel-throwing. The facilities had their own kilns. I could use the wheel in my own studio and bring the items to the other places to fire.

Several years ago, Tom had built a beautiful little structure in the back yard. Except for the red metal roof, the cedar shakes and the poured concrete pad, most of it is constructed of timber felled and milled from our own property. We designed it together and he did most of the construction himself over almost a year. It was meant to be our music studio, but it never got the chance. It does have electric heat and is a very comfortable space.

Somehow I talked Tom into letting me use the building as a pottery studio, especially since we were doing all our music work in the house, and I was really spending a lot of time on clay. He’s always been extremely supportive of all my art efforts, and this was no exception. We moved the wheel out there. Now, it holds our electric kiln (you can see it in the upstairs space above me) and even has an outdoor sink! We turn that off during months when there is danger of frost, and I just haul a bucket of water out there to use.

We found our other kiln on Craigslist and began to experiment with raku firing in the yard. We set it up just outside the little building and to burn propane only- no electricity required. Raku is a technique where the kiln is brought up to about 1900° very quickly, then the pottery removed and treated in a variety of ways to achieve different effects.
We had a blast with it, and so did our youngest kid whenever he came to visit.
Here’s Sam removing a piece from the raku kiln:

And this is a piece I made, also raku-fired. While still hot, I draped horsehair onto the surface, which burn and curls and makes lovely patterns on the clay.

Having the electric kiln installed inside the pottery studio meant I could make things and fire them at will. The kiln itself is pretty old and entirely manual, and I love that about it. I check the temperature and raise it via dials over a set period of time. Once it reaches the expected temp, about 8 hours later, it shuts off, and then cools down slowly over about 16 hours.

Opening the kiln is always exciting for me. I know what I hope will happen, but it’s still a surprise to see the finished pieces come out.

The pieces in my last firing shown at the top came out of my kiln this morning. There are four b&w 10″ plates, and four colorful 5 1/2″ citrus-themed footed bowls.

They were all made using a method called “sgraffito”. Once formed, the items are allowed to air-dry to a point called “leather hard”. The clay is stiff but still contains a lot of moisture. At that point, I paint on two coats of glaze and let that dry a bit more. Then, I use a sharp tool to “draw” the designs you see by scratching through the glaze to expose the clay below. It’s slow, messy work, and has to be done very carefully.
Last, I paint on a coat of clear glaze and let everything dry until the clay is dry enough to fire, a stage called “green ware”.

A lot of potters fire their pieces twice- the first firing is unglazed green ware, producing bisque pieces, which are then glazed and fired again. I don’t need to do that with sgraffito pieces, or any of the pieces I make. I use a clay with extremely minimal shrinkage, and glazes especially formulated for the temperature range I use. So far, it seems to be working out pretty well.

It is so much fun to work in clay. It’s more physical/tactile than painting. I like making pieces with a lot of texture. I recently had a table full of my ceramic pieces at a very successful holiday art fair, and it was so lovely to see folks touching the pieces just to feel the textures.

Pottery fills a place in my creative heart that painting does not, and in fact sometimes nudges painting right out of the way.