Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sycamore Bowls and Leaf Pocket

Tiny, Small, Medium and Large Sycamore Leaf Bowls
Down my street around the corner and over one block over are a couple of American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) trees. (There are also a couple of them if I go up my street, turn in the same direction and go a block.) A lot of folks don't like the American Sycamore because it is perceived to be a "dirty" tree - partly due to its exfoliating bark but also because it is subject to a condition called anthracnose, which causes premature leaf drop, often leading to a second season of raking with these trees. (Also the reason some folks refer to them as "Sick-a-mores".) I actually quite like the exfoliating bark and, although I don't have to deal with it directly, consider the issues with anthracnose bearable because the tree is so lovely, plus the branch angles on our native Sycamore is such that it is most likely to come through the season with little or no ice or snow load damage - not a minor consideration in view of our Michigan Winters.

Tiny and Small Sycamore Leaf Bowls
I also like the leaves. They range in size from quite small to relatively huge. What I find interesting about these leaves is that, even though they're coming from the same specimen, there seems to be two different forms, one a simple palmate leaf and the other a more complex palmate form with more points to it, so I can get two very different types of "looks" from this one tree's leaves. I like to visit my neighbor's property in the fall and see if I can scare up a few leaves for my pottery, scouring the tree lawn and gutter for leaves of the right size. I was actually able to come up with some very large leaves this season, both from the trees in my neighborhood and with the assistance of my friend Theresa. I decided to make sets of "leaf bowls" using both leaf forms, again using my Sasaki Colorstone dishes as molds.

I first saw this stoneware back in the 1990s, at a shop in Ithaca, New York.  I was only familiar with what the manufacturer refers to as the "Coupe Soup Bowl". What I liked about the dishes in this set were they were all based on sections of perfect spheres.  The dinner plate is basically a section of a very large sphere; the soup bowl, a section of a smaller one. Over time, I had broken a number of the soup bowls and went online to see if I could replace them. Unfortunately, Sasaki was no longer making the pattern; the good news was that there a couple of companies specializing in handling tableware replacements, including Replacements (replacements.com) and Tabletops, etc. (tabletopsetc.com). In searching for my replacement soup bowls, I learned that there was a large vegetable serving bowl, an even larger salad bowl and a much smaller dessert/sauce bowl (although I would prefer a larger bowl for dessert most days!) I ordered a number of each of these, in the color choice which was least expensive, to use in the studio. (These are also the forms I use for my very popular Lace Bowls.)

Large Sycamore Leaf Bowl
I follow my usual technique - rolling out a slab on the (slab) roller, smoothing the surface with the flat edge of my steel kidney and rolling pin, rolling the leaves into the clay and cutting them out with a very sharp tool. I pull away the waste clay and then lift the leaves into their respective bowls. I try to select leaves that are a bit larger than the bowl form so I can manipulate the tips a bit to give them a sense of movement.

Once they've dried, I can sometimes remove the Sycamore leaf (this does not work with Elm, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Catalpa and other leaves with fuzzy undersides or very friable leaves) and reuse it. I was able to do this with the very large, complex leaf my friend Theresa found during a trip to Indiana with her grandson, Evan. Theresa very carefully preserved this leaf, keeping it flat on damp paper towels until she saw me; she wasn't sure what it was but I knew right away and asked if I could have it to use in my pottery, as I had not yet been able to find a very large leaf in that form. I used the leaf for two bowls (one to sell and one to give Theresa as a thank-you gift) and a large Leaf Pocket.

Large Sycamore Leaf Pocket
The leaf pocket was challenging - supporting two large slabs of clay is difficult.  I solved the problem partly by keeping the piece on a kiln shelf for much of the fabrication/drying/bisque firing process.  (A similar piece made from the large leaf from the other set of bowls failed, probably because I dried it too quickly; I hope to try that one again next year - it was quite impressive, larger even than this Leaf Pocket.) I have learned with these large Leaf Pockets (Catalpa speciosa falls into this category as well) is to glaze them holding them in my hand rather than trying to use the glazing tongs.  If I support the curved front wall in my left palm, I can use a 2-oz soup ladle to pour glaze into the cavity; then I just pour the glaze over the back, turning the piece to get complete coverage; due to surface tension, the glaze usually "falls over" the piece's beveled edge, although I do touch up with a little glaze dropped from a brush. The challenge is flipping a piece this large over onto a stilt or stilts to dry; I've solved this by having a stilt ready to take the upper portion of the piece as I flip it over onto another stilt further down: Although a pretty adept maneuver, it has generally worked, now that I have some practice and have developed more patience.

For glazing, I used Copper Carbonate solution and Amaco's Oil Spot on the simpler leaves; Mason Stain Sage Gray and Salt Buff on the more complex ones. The Salt Buff is supposed to go on in "three irregular coats". Because I'm not sure what that means exactly, my solution has been to dip/pour three coats, letting each dry in turn, and then dripping glaze over the surface with a slip-trail bottle. My results have been better than anything I've seen on the Amaco website.

Keep an eye out for our native Sycamores. Don't confuse them with the "London Planetrees" that have been planted quite a bit recently, which are actually the offspring of a spontaneous hybrid between our native Sycamore and the Chinese Sycamore (Platanus orientalis) in Kew Gardens in London (hence the common name). The London Planetree has more greenish bark and carries it fruit in clusters of two, while our native tree has more whitish bark and carries its fruit individually.

No comments: