How I Work
After waiting almost 10 years, I was finally able to open my own studio in December of 2002. Prior to that I had been a student and then a learning assistant at a local Community College and it was hard for me to give up the gas kiln that I had used at school and switch to the electric kiln in my new studio.
Working within the confines of a community college has too many limitations. Being at school was like going to a hotel where someone comes each day and changes the sheets and makes the bed for you. The day-to-day rituals of having your own studio are an integral part of the process. At some point in his or her career, everyone reaches the decision that having more control over the process is necessary. It is a part of the evolution.
In December of 2002 I bought a wheel and a kiln and hung out my shingle. I started testing cone 6 electric kiln glazes to mimic the look I had achieved at school at cone 10 reduction. During this testing, an interesting thing happened. Something else developed. It was a painful process but I think I am at the other side of the tunnel now. I have maintained some of the integrity of the look I had developed and my experience has expanded to include new colors and new ways of working. It is harder to get the depth of surface in an electric kiln that you can get in a gas kiln, but with multiple firings, layering my glazes and the use of wax and latex resists I now am making it happen.
I have also been able to obtain great results with smoke fired pottery.
All my pieces are wheel thrown and they all begin as a lump of clay in the middle of my wheel head. Throwing has its own rhythm like dancing, you have to become one with the clay. When I first center the clay on the wheel, I often close my eyes and find that I have a better connection to the process.
I use both white and red stoneware body depending on how it will be finally glazed. This is something I often pre-determine. The form is important, but for me the glazing and the finishing details are what excite me. I usually work in a series, doing 3 to 6 pots at a time and then doing small changes to alter each one in a different fashion. One will have a texture, another one receives feet and a third is taller, but they are all sisters and brothers belonging to one family. When you see them together you can notice the resemblance. I do this to expand my vision; to shuffle the deck. Sometimes you can get lucky.
After I throw the form (or forms because many of my vessels are assembled from multiple pieces) I let it get leather hard so that it can be trimmed. Once it has reached the right stage of drying so that it can be easily handled I will assemble the pieces into the final form. At this point I will apply whatever architectural decoration I might be adding, either by adding handles or lugs, by carving into the surface or faceting. When the piece has completely changed color and is bone dry I will bisque fire it to cone 06 (1830°F.). When it comes out of the bisque it will be glazed and then the glazed piece will again be fired to cone 6.
Glazing is the most interesting part for me. At school I was called the glaze maven because I am a compulsive glaze tester. I am always striving to make my surfaces and my colors better; constantly pushing my skills and my kiln to produce a better pot. The surface of the final finished piece is very important to me. A pot should feel as good as it looks. Balancing the texture, the color and the surface quality is what keeps this process exciting. One pot suggests another in an ever-widening circle.
The Glaze Process
I think for a long time about how I want any particular form to appear. I often use the computer to help me. I make digital photographs of my greenware, load the photos into the computer and print them out as black and white images. I then experiment with the look by coloring in these drawings with colored pencils. Some times I will work in Photoshop and use the fill tool to color this pot with a swatch of color taken from the photo of a finished pot. Another advantage occurs when I get to view the three-dimensional pot as a two-dimensional image. The shape is presented in a new light, and I often gain an insight into what works and what doesn't. I have gotten a lot of new ideas by working with the computer in this fashion.
I use an airbrush to spray most every pot I do. Application is very important and this gives me the most control. All the glazes I use either at cone 10 or cone 6 have a color range that is application sensitive. If the application of the glaze is heavy it is one color if it is lighter it is another. Using this feature judiciously allows me to paint the form. I use a small fiberglass spray booth made by Sugar Creek Industries and it is awesome. I also use a small airbrush made by the Paache Airbrush Company that gives me the control I seek.
Recently I have started using a lot of wax and latex resists to add multiple colors and designs to my ware. I also have started to paint directly with the glaze, something I never did in cone 10. At cone 10 the depth of surface you can get speaks for itself. I have had to work harder to get the same visual interest at cone 6. It can take me several hours to glaze one small teapot, because every time you apply a wax or latex resist you have to wait for it to dry completely before you can spray on another color. Glazing is an exercise in patience.
Cone 10 Reduction Fired Stoneware
These pots are fired in a gas kiln to cone 10, which is about 2381°F. Reduction means that oxygen has been removed from the atmosphere within the kiln while the firing process occurs. All glazes are made with chemical colorants that are oxides. The reduction process takes oxygen from the oxides, and returns them to their metallic state. This changes the color that the glaze produces. An example of this is copper, which can be used to color a pot green in normal oxidation and in reduction it turns red. We would normally fire for about 8 hours to reach temperature and then the kiln would cool for 2 to 3 days.
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Cone 6 Electric Fired Stoneware
These pots are fired in an electric kiln to a temperature that is somewhere between 2232°F and 2264°F. I fire my work slowly in a Skutt 1027-3 kiln. The kiln runs for about 13 hours and then I let it slowly cool for another 4 or 5 hours. This is one of the steps that lets me get such nice mat glaze results from an electric kiln. I don't open my kiln until it cools to 150°, which is usually about 24 hours after it finishes firing.
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Smoke Fired Earthenware
Smoke Firing is a very labor-intensive process, but when it comes out good it is really really good so it is often worth the trouble.
I throw a pot and rib it as smooth as I can by rubbing it with the edge of a hard rubber or metal, kidney shaped tool. Then the pot is allowed to get bone dry. Next the pot is oiled with baby oil as you would oil a chicken for roasting. The oil becomes a white haze when it is dry and then in small sections I will wet the pot with a sponge soaked in water and hard burnish it with a metal rod. Burnishing is just another word for polishing. Hard burnishing uses a hard tool and produces a high shine. Soft burnishing uses something like a soft cloth that produces a shine but not a high gloss.
I have several tools I use for the burnishing including a small porcelain pellet and a Teflon slide I found in Home Depot that is used to slip under refrigerators to help them move easily. When properly done, this process will cause the pot to become very shiny.
When the burnishing is done I apply terra sigillata, which is slip (liquid clay). This application produces a glaze that is almost a second skin on the pot. Terra sigillata is made up of very fine clay and can produce a high shine when polished. To keep that shine, you need to lower the temperature of the bisque fire to cone 010, which is about 160 degrees cooler than a normal bisque fire.
After the pot has been bisque fired it will go into a saggar made especially for that pot. A saggar is a fired clay container that is sealed and will hold the pot while it is fired. The saggar will mimic the pot's shape so that there is about 1 inch of space around the pot that is placed inside. This space around the pot in the saggar is filled with combustibles such as sawdust, straw or seaweed and oxides for color and salt for surface texture are added. The saggar with the pot inside is then placed into a gas kiln and fired to about 1400°F. The visible results on the pot are the marks left from fire and the residue of the things that were placed in the saggar. The resulting appearance of the pot is totally unique.
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Wax And Latex Resists
These are painted onto the surface of the pot and allow you to mask certain areas of the vessel in a process similar to the way you would use masking tape to cover woodwork when painting a wall. It allows me to isolate a knob or handle in one color while painting the body of the pot in another color. Wax will not come off until the pot is fired, the latex can be peeled off and reapplied before the firing. I use latex and wax interchangeably depending on my needs.
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This is a term for clay that is in the process of drying. When the clay becomes leather hard it is able to be handled and will hold a form. Bone dry is as dry as it will get in the air and at this point it is ready to go into a bisque fire.
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