Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Green Man: Winter

Green Man - Winter: Gene Pluhar
I think most of us have heard (or, perhaps, even used) the phrase "Old Man Winter". While the face I used for Winter in my Green Man/Woman series is not of what I would call and "old man", it is definitely the face of an "older" person, a quality further conveyed by the face's beard. I was able to acquire a facial cast of my first pottery teacher, Gene Pluhar, who - at the time (and likely still the case now, although I'm not certain) - had a full beard and mustache. I had originally planned to use his face for a wall fountain idea I had (and may someday return to) featuring a face of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. Using his face for Winter was a logical progression.

I used a couple of techniques to convey the sense of the coldest season in this mask. No ladybugs, obviously, and instead of having no acorns or immature or ripe acorns, I made some acorn caps to add to the tips of the three "branches". I made a small acorn nut, which I then fired and keep in a safe place (it's very easy to misplace) and I form the caps over it, as the wet clay will not stick to the still-porous bisque-fired "nut". The caps are carefully attached (remembering they can easily collapse if pinched too tightly) as the full acorns were attached in the Summer and Autumn masks, by gently scoring one section of the cap, slipping it and then attaching it securely.

Detail of acorn caps
When deciding where the branches go on all of these faces, I often use the mask's brow as a guide, using the branch to "echo" the eyebrow or the brow ridge. I usually only use two branches in these compositions - one on either side of the face, one of them arching up over the eyes onto the forehead - but because there are no leaves to "fill in" the Winter composition and it looks excessively bare with only two main branches, I decided to include an additional "sub-branch" to fill in some space high on the forehead. The placement of the branches in relation to the hanging holes is more critical in this design, as there are no leaves to further mask them; in this case, I used a cluster of acorn caps to help conceal the hanging hole and wire on the left side of the face, while a branch was sufficient on the right.

I also wanted to create the sense of "frostiness" on the face, including the facial hair (beard, mustache, eyebrows) and the upper surfaces of the branches and caps (frost usually hits the top side of an object first). In the first few iterations, I used Amaco Sierra High Fire Glaze White, but was not entirely satisfied with the results - they weren't quite "frosty" enough. In working with Crackle White raku glaze, I had learned that most white glazes are not at all opaque but are, rather, translucent, so that they pick up some of the color of the underlying clay body. Because I was using a reddish clay body (to give the faces some natural warmth), the white really wasn't coming up "white" but kind of pinkish.

Detail of eyebrow and branch
My eventual solution was to brush white stoneware slip on the places I would want to be frost after finishing fabricating the piece before it was dry. The downside of this is I must make some of my glazing decisions before the piece is even bisque fired, but it has worked well: the "frosty" areas actually look pretty white and... frosty!

Once again, I use Burnt Umber to stain the branch and caps. I am very careful in applying and sponging it off so as not to get it on the "frosted" portions; it's nearly impossible to remove all stray oxide should that occur, thereby minimizing the impact of the "frosting". (Additional white slip cannot be successfully applied to the piece after bisque firing - it will not adhere.) As with the other masks in this series, this piece can be glaze-fired on a raw, untreated shelf, as there is no glaze near the bottom edge to vitrify.

Although it took a few years and several experiments to get this design "right", I've been very happy with my solution to the "frostiness" issue and, having resolved that issue satisfactorily, I later went on to create one piece incorporating aspects of all four seasons.

Green Woman: Autumn

Green Woman - Autumn: Cheryl M. English
Although I seldom use my face in my work, I decided to use it for the "Autumn" mask in the Green Man/ Woman series because the scale is similar to that of the face used for Spring (my friend Tia Nero) and I really like the Fall palette of colors - I am definitely a "Fall" in terms of my coloring, so I suppose there's a certain degree of synchronicity at work here as well.

One issue with the mold for my face - it has deteriorated a lot in the last 15-plus years and I can't make another. In that time, I have developed a sufficiently severe case of asthma that I am no longer comfortable having my entire face encased in plaster, forcing me to breathe solely through two straws inserted in my nose, although I'm entirely capable of breathing exclusively through my nose under "normal" circumstances. My friend Catherine tried twice to make a new cast and, after our second attempt, swore she was never going through that again! The cast I have is the cast I have, despite its decline; I've simply learned some strategies to minimize the evidence of its deterioration.

Detail of "knot" at base of chin
For the Autumn mask in the Green Man/Woman series, I decided to use Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves, to play on their relatively intense Fall color. I follow my general routine in preparing the mask in terms of casting, cleaning up and making holes for hanging the mask once complete. You'll notice on a lot of these that the portion of the mask above the forehead is often roughly broken or torn, in keeping with the naturalistic aesthetic I follow in much of my work, in which I try not to "overwork" the clay; I am, however, very careful to make sure the sides of the face and the chin are trimmed in such a way that they should lay roughly flat against the wall (or other surface).

I prepare the branches, rolling out coils and adding texture, then affixing them to the mask with a "knot" where they are joined under the chin. I find the pad of my thumb or one of my fingers is effective in not only making the final "join" for this step but also make for a very naturalistic appearance; I have often been asked how I put the "wood" on the clay, so I am successfully conveying the "idea" of an actual wooden branch in the pieces in which I use this technique. (Some folks react to the manner in which I drape my clay in some designs by thinking I must be working with leather!)

Detail of acorns
I select, fabricate and apply the leaves as in the other Green Man/Woman masks, using Red Oak leaves I easily find in my Detroit neighborhood. (Quercus rubra was one of the five trees the city used as street trees before the onslaught of the Emerald Ash Borer essentially extirpated all the ash trees in the city; now they are planting a greater variety of trees in a more random arrangement, rather than having whole streets plante with an arboricultural monoculture.) These can be a little tough to work with in the glazing process with their pointed lobes but I think, between their form and color I use to stain them, that they make an excellent contrast to the White Oak (Quercus alba) and Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) leaves I use for Spring and Summer (respectively).

For the acorns, I use the same process as I use for the "immature acorns" I make for the Summer mask, just making the actual nut a bit larger to convey its maturity and proximity to ripeness. The acorns are plump and the caps don't fold down around the "nut" as much in the Summer acorns. They are fabricated and attached in exactly the same manner, just using more clay for the "nut". 
Detail of ladybug

I also usually include a ladybug on these pieces as the ladybugs are still active well into the Autumn. I also really like the contrast between the glossy glaze I use for the ladybug and the matte finish on the rest of thee pieces, including the untouched clay of the faces, which can show every "blemish" and "imperfection", which I think only serves to make these pieces even more visually interesting. I do admit to following some of the 17th century in placing the ladybug, such that it fulfills the role of a strategically placed "beauty mark".

Once the piece is bisque fired, I finish as with the other masks, using Hazelnut Mason Stain instead of Spring Green or Green-Ivy on the leaves. I like the warm reddish quality to this stain, which makes a great complement to the greens of Spring and Summer and the even more subdued palette I use for the final, Winter, mask in the series.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Libation Bowl

Spiral Libation Bowl
Just as I had had a table made by a welder I used to know, he had also made a Large Bird Bowl stand. The initial design he came up with consisted of a tripod formed from slightly bent stock (so it would look more organic) with curled feet. (The curled feet minimize the risk of damage to the surface on which the piece rests.) Subsequent designs were altered to more completely complement my Large Bird Bowl designs, leaving this stand to languish.

I decided this year to design a bowl specifically for this stand, incorporating spiral elements to complement the curved feet. This was an offshoot of my "Starry Night" Deluxe Sunflower design, translated and adapted to a new format.

Making these large bowls can be challenging. One key is to make sure it is consistently thick enough to minimize risk of warping through the drying and firing processes. It is also helpful to allow it to dry as slowly as possible to reduce the chances of cracking - I sometimes cover these pieces or was them, as appropriate, to make sure the clay has the opportunity to shrink consistently.

Detail of Spirals and Circle Cut-outs
Once I had fabricated the main bowl in the mold, I used my Kemper Klay Gun with the half-round die to make the "spirals" to decorate the inside of the bowl. (I use the triangular die to make the spirals on the "Starry Night" sunflowers.) I have discovered the best way to obtain long, continuous sections of extruded clay is to point the Klay Gun downwards; this way, there is less stress on the clay so it is less likely to break off and will be less inclined to spiral on its own, making it easier to manipulate.

Spiral Libation Bowl with Stand
I do not score the inside of the bowl because I don't really know how the spirals will be arranged in advance but I do slip it thoroughly - this way, I can nudge the pieces of clay making up the spirals around to adjust the curves to my satisfaction. I attach the wider base of the half-circle section to the bowl and gently curve them around, making large and small loops while retaining an undecorated area of consistent width around the rim of the basin.

Once all of the spirals are finished, I roll out a thin slab of clay and, using a half-inch round Kemper Klay Kutter, I cut out a number of circles, which I then score, slip and attach in the centers of the spirals and other interstices in the design, as with the "Starry Night" sunflowers, to add the final touch to the composition. The piece is allowed to dry slowly until leather hard, then removed from the mold and allowed to slowly dry until bone dry. I sand the form with synthetic steel wool, then fire slowly to Cone 06.

I wanted to combine a metallic finish with a more conventional glaze selection so, after thoroughly rinsing the piece to remove any dust, I first brushed on three coats of Amaco Potter's Choice Saturation Metallic on all of the spirals and flat circles making up the design in the basin. After these were completely dry, I brushed on a coat of wax resist. Once this had thoroughly dried - I find it best to wait six hours after application for optimal results, I poured Amaco's Potter's Choice Indigo Float over the entire piece, dabbing off the beaded-up glaze from the spirals and flat circles. I then fired it slowly to Cone 6 on three large stilts spaced around the center to minimize warping. (Placing one large stilt at the center doesn't seem to work very well on these large pieces, resulting in unfortunate and inconsistent warping of the pieces.) I could have avoided using stilts if I had waxed the bottom of the piece but, as I intended it to go into a stand such that the bottom would be visible, I opted to glaze the entire basin.

Dora assists
Once fired, I always allow kilns holding large pieces of this type to cool down below 200 degrees before even popping them open, thereby (theoretically) reducing the risk of fracturing as a result of thermal shock. (The kiln can be vented immediately after the firing is completed.) Once completely cooled, I use a Dremel to grind down the stilt marks.

Dora generously assisted us in shooting the Spiral Libation Bowl when we finally got around to photographing it. The piece actually sold shortly thereafter at my 2012 Holiday Open House, albeit with a different stand - so I guess I'll be making another one soon!

Green Man: Summer

Green Man - Summer: Jose Vasquez
In creating the Four Seasons Green Men and Women, I had decided I wanted to use various faces to make up the series, faces representing different genders, different cultural background and different ages. I opted to use the cast of Jose Vasquez for Summer. Jose was one of my friend Jeanne Galloway's stock brokers who bravely allowed us to make a cast of his face. I like working with Jose's face because, although his features are very, very strong (as compared to the delicacy of Tia's features), they are, once again, completely balanced, from a strong brow and full, sensual lips to a unique aquiline nose, helped along by a stint as a bouncer.

Jose's face is, like many men's faces, much larger than Tia's so it could handle larger masses easily. I opted to use leaves from the Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) for the Summer Green Man, with less deeply-cut lobes. In order to distinguish it from the other faces, I used a deeper green and added small, immature clay acorns.

Detail of Acorns
I follow the same process as for the Spring mask in terms of preparing the piece - casting; placing holes; applying branches; selecting, fabricating and applying leaves. To create the acorns, I roll out a rather thin slab of clay and, using a half-inch round Kemper Klay Kutter, cut out an odd number of circles, which I roll into balls. I lay a piece of burlap over the rest of the slab and roll it in to make some texture, then cut out an equal number of "caps" using a half-inch rosette Kemper Klay Kutter. Scoring and slipping the underside of the "caps", I secure them to each of the acorns, pushing the outer edges of the rosettes down securely. I then score and slip one section of each of the caps and attach them to the mask at the ends of the branches. I also sometimes include a ladybug on these pieces as well, as they are "seasonally appropriate".

Once bisque fired, I glaze the piece in the same manner as the Spring mask, with the exception that I use Green-Ivy (a deeper green) for the leaves and for the (immature) acorns, staining the caps with the same Burnt Umber used for the branches. The piece is fired as usual, the wire attached and it's ready to go!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hanging Bird Bowl

Although my "first" love outdoors is probably the plants, it is tempered by the profound awareness they they are but one part (if, perhaps, the most critical part) of an overall web which includes the members of the animal kingdom. The relationships between plant and animal species are significant and, sometimes, exclusive, as the species evolved together in an intimate dance of interdependence. Every plant has at least *a* function in the natural world - the world in which it evolved - and often has many roles, none of which evolved for our particular benefit.

I am also profoundly aware of the degree to which we have altered the environment here in the continental United States, especially to the East of the Mississippi River, where less than five percent of the land mass can be characterized as "undeveloped". Just as our plant species have lost ground and, in some cases, have been extirpated from their native range, the animal species have suffered in turn, including everything from native insects through our birds and our mammals.

I am familiar with the fact that a bird will not get into a birdbath that is too deep for it. Furthermore, birds don't have pads like humans and many other mammals but must cling  solely with the help of their nails; sticking to a slippery glazed surface would not be an easy task. It was with an eye to providing something beautiful as well as highly functional that I designed my Hanging Bird Bowl to address both of these concerns.

Detail of Ladybug and Branch
I start out with a slab of clay which I slump into a mold, using an elephant-ear sponge and a rubber kidney to work it well in. I tear the edge of the clay bowl to create an irregular and naturalistic edge. Rolling out a coil of clay, I texturize it with a wooden tool or roll it on a textured surface to give it the appearance of bark as well as to give a more complex surface which will be easier for a bird to cling to. I then score and slip the coil and apply it to the bowl in an irregular, naturalistic fashion - smooth curves tend to look contrived whereas subtle bends seem to convey more the idea of a real wooden branch.

Rolling out another, thinner, slab of clay, I scrape away the canvas texture with the flat side of a metal kidney. I roll a large leaf into the clay and cut it out with a sharp tool. Scoring and slipping the underside of the leaf, I attach it to the bowl in such a way that it is cantilevered over the bowl, providing a secure perch for a bathing or drinking bird. (A small sponge or wad of newspaper can be used to prop a "floppy" leaf up until it dries sufficiently to stay in place on its own.)

Using a half-inch round Kemper Klay Kutter, I cut three holes in rim of the bowl, reserving one of the cut-outs to make a ladybug, as described in my previous post about the Spring Green Woman. AFter the piece is dried, I carefully sand the edges of the bowl and the leaf cout-out with synthetic steel wool so they are all smooth. (A sharp edge, once glazed, can become sharp enough to inflict a small cut.) The piece is then bisque fired.

Glazing is a seven step process. The "branch" is stained with Burnt Umber and the excess removed with a damp sponge. A Mason Stain of choice (in this case, Titanium Yellow) is applied to the leaf in the same manner. Three coats of Amaco Celebration Series Scarlet Red are applied to the ladybug's body and two coats of Amaco Sahara Black to the head and spots. Then the branch, leaf and ladybug are all coated with wax resist. Once that is completely dried, I glaze the entire bowl and fire on a stilt to Cone 6.

Detail of Branch and Lark's Head Knot
Once the piece is out of the kiln, I use a diamond grinding attachment to smooth the stilt marks on the bottom of the piece. (I could just as easily not glaze the bottom and not have to use stilts but, because the piece is designed to hang, I prefer to glaze the bottom as well.) Three five-foot lengths of leather lace (available in various colors, including Black, Beige, Tan, Medium Brown and Dark Brown, at Michael's stores) are folded in half and looped, one through each of the holes, and secured with a lark's-head knot. The three are joined together at their ends using an overhand knot. Your Hanging Bird Bowl is ready to hang from a small tree. Be sure to use a non-abrading hanging arrangement that will not injure the tree's cambium.

I also have a welder who makes custom-designed ring stands for these pieces for those folks who don't happen to have a convenient small tree.

Green Woman: Spring

Green Woman - Spring; Tia Nero
When I first started working with pottery, I had already had some studio art experience during my undergraduate days, when I did an Honors College project on lost-wax bronze casting. One of the pieces I made during that project was a mask of my boyfriend at the time, made from a plaster cast I had made after my friend Tim Mason showed me how. Although I am no longer with that boyfriend, I have kept the mask as it was actually quite successful

When I started the pottery in 1993, I soon returned to the mask motif, often influenced by my background in Art History and Archaeology. Natural motifs were also an important influence - as the offspring of a family of gardeners, plant themes and forms were a continual inspiration to me. I made some masks in which I pressed the clay into the mold, having placed leaves or flowers in it first; others involved applied decoration made using leaves. These last eventually evolved into my four-season series of Green Men and Women using leaves from native oak tree species and the faces of friends and acquaintances.

I wanted to retain a certain degree of botanical "truth" with these pieces, using seasonally-appropriate details and colors. I also wanted to have a certain degree of variety in the faces used, including gender, cultural background and overall features. The faces I enjoy working with most seem to have fairly balanced features, as well. There is also a definite synchronicity to my work, relating to everything from the leaves I associate with certain seasons to the stains and glazes I relate to different plants. This all comes into play with the Green Man and Woman faces.

When deciding which face to use for Spring, I found the delicacy of my friend Tia's features made for a rather fragile strength, which seemed to me perfect for the image of Spring. I opted for White Oak (Quercus alba) leaves stained in my own proprietary "Spring Green" Mason Stain (50% Titanium Yellow plus 50% Green-Ivy). I also decided to include a strategically-placed ladybug for a little additional color.

When creating these masks, I follow the same process for making the life cast and pulling the clay cast from it. I trim the back edge to get the desired "angle" for the way the face will hang and put holes for wire at about the point of the outside corner of each eye. Then, I roll out coils of clay for branches and, slipping and scoring these, apply them, wide end at the chin, framing the face, one usually ending above the eye on one side, the other up onto the forehead and over most of the brow. I join them together under the chin in a twisted "knot", making sure they will not pull away from the mask.

Detail of leaves.
Having selected a number of leaves (I try to use an odd number over all and select extras to allow for variations and to have a choice in the process), I roll out a relatively thin slab and, having removed the canvas surface with the flat edge of a metal kidney, roll them into the slab and cut them out with a very sharp tool. I try to have a range of sizes, keeping in mind that a smaller face needs smaller leaves overall. Having cut them all out, I start to play with arranging them on the branches on the face, working from largest at the bottom of the branches at the chin to smallest at the tip of the longer branch. Once I arrive at a satisfactory arrangement, I score, slip and attach them so larger leaves overlap smaller ones.

I sometimes use half-inch posts to support the leaves so they don't drop down to the plane of the kiln shelf on which I'm fabricating the piece, thereby minimizing the risk of breakage further on in the process. If I'm producing a number of these pieces, I'll often do so on large kiln shelves, creating two or three on a single shelf with an individual piece of newsprint under each one, so I can easily move them around without disturbing the individual pieces used to create a given work. I apply the leaves and branches so as to make sure the wire used to hang the piece will not be visible when it's completed.

Detail of Ladybug
I use four tools to make my ladybugs: a half-inch round Klay Kutter to cut the piece of clay out, which I then roll into an oval shape and then press lightly onto a flat surface to flatten the bottom; I use the curved end of a Kemper B-3 Clean-up Tool to make a line differentiating the head from the thorax; I use the back of a fettling knife to separate the back into the two wing cases; and I use the circular end of a small, inexpensive paint brush to put a spot on each wing case. I score and slip the underside and then attach to the mask.

After bisque firing, I apply water-based burnt umber solution to the "branches" and pull off the excess with a damp sponge. I then apply Spring Green Mason Stain to the leaves, following the same process. Three coats of Amaco Celebration Series Scarlet Red on the ladybug's thorax are followed by two coats of Amaco Sahara Black for the head and spots. Because there is no glaze on the piece except on the ladybug, it can be glaze fired on a clean, untreated shelf, to Cone 6.

I really enjoy these pieces, although they are a great deal of work, from collecting the leaves to the intricacies of the fabrication and glazing processes. I actually sold a set of four to one person who planned to hang them from the trees along her horse-back riding path - I thought that made for a great idea!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

2013 Calendar of Events at Black Cat Pottery (Tentative)

Clematis pitcherii
Clematis Pruning Workshop

Saturday, April 27, 2013, 10:00am-12:00n
Long perceived as “difficult” or “temperamental”, Clematis are actually proven performers that can give years of gardening delight. Join us for a hands-on workshop to learn about the care and culture of these garden gems and specific pruning techniques and concerns for various species and hybrids. Bring your favorite (by-pass) pruners and a chair. $10 pre-paid/nonrefundable registration includes one hour of instruction, an hour of supervised hands-on experience, refreshments and a comprehensive hand-out . Pre-enrollment required, including your name and contact information in case of inclement weather. Limited enrollment. Two hours of education for Master Gardeners. Contact Cheryl at cenglish@blackcatpottery.com for additional information and to register.

Chris Hopp of Farmbrook Designs leading

the hypertufa planter workshop at the

2012 Summer Garden Tour

Annual Spring/Summer Garden Tours
Saturday, June 1, 2013, 10:00am-2:00pm
Saturday, August 17, 2013, 10am-2:00pm
Free and open to the public!
Cheryl's life-long love of Clematis and more recent obsession with native plants are both immediately apparent as you arrive at her garden.  Designed as a teaching and learning space rather than a design show-stopper, her garden includes over 50 Clematis, representing over 10 species as well as large-flowering hybrids, and over 180 species of native plants, ranging from Spring ephemerals to large trees.  Take advantage of this opportunity to become acquainted with some of the lesser-known small-flowering species Clematis varieties and the beauties of our native flora.  Cheryl's garden was featured in the July 2009 issue of Michigan Gardener and she penned the first article on native plants to appear in that publication, in May 2012. She has an upcoming article on Clematis in 2013 and another article on natives slated for 2014. We also feature local garden art, live music and refreshments, possibly chair massage "samples", as well as at least one hands-on workshop - last year's hypertufa planter workshop, led by Chris Hopp of Farmbrook Designs, was a huge success, so we'll be offering it again; we may also be offering the opportunity to work with local artist Christine Laikind to create a botanical monoprint or cyanoprint using plants from the garden. (There is a charge for the workshops. The rest of the event is free and open to the public.) The 2012 Summer Garden Tour was a great party, with over 100 folks enjoying the gardens, art and programs. Stay tuned for further developments! Contact Cheryl at cenglish@blackcatpottery.com for additional information and to register for the workshops.
Hot Pepper Tile Table with
Black Cat Pottery Manager,
Pandora Grace Diane ("Dora")

4th Annual Holiday Open House
December 7, 2013 (Saturday), 10:00am-4:00pm
Free and open to the public!
Join Cheryl English’s Black Cat Pottery and other Michigan-based artists for a day of holiday cheer. Meet the artists, enjoy holiday goodies and take care of your last-minute gift-giving needs with handmade art for the home and garden! In addition to Black Cat Pottery's garden-inspired creations, we’ll be sharing our studio space with five other local artists, including Don Schulte of Notable Greetings with his line of exquisite note cards and prints (many of them featuring images photographed in Cheryl English's garden) and Chris Hopp of Farmbrook Designs with his beautiful hypertufa lanterns, fountains, planters and other garden accoutrements, as well as a local author joining us for a book signing. Locally-sourced refreshments and musical accompaniment round out the day. Join us for some holiday cheer, get to meet and chat with the artists and take care of those last few special folks on your list with unique locally-made creations!  Bring a friend and spread the word! Contact Cheryl at cenglish@blackcatpottery.com for additional information.

Various projects and dates to be announced
We are also planning a series of creative workshops throughout the year featuring not only pottery projects but also other art forms, led by local talent. Stay tuned for further developments! Contact Cheryl at cenglish@blackcatpottery.com for additional information.

Wildflower Tiles Series I

Yellow Toad-shade
(Trillium luteum)
When I first started doing pottery, it was through the Grosse Pointe Community Education program, where I had the opportunity to work with Gene Pluhar. The pottery bug having bitten, I often went out to the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Association for classes during the summer, where I met Jan Sadowski. Later, after I moved out of the Grosse Pointe Public School System, coupled with the fact they changed the enrollment process for Gene's very popular classes and that I had not yet established my own studio, I started taking classes at Pewabic Pottery with Tom Gennette. The last class I took through Pewabic was a tile-making class with Dave McGee, a very talented artist who is employed as a designer with the pottery to this day.

Small Solomon's Seal
(Polygonatum biflorum)
Although I didn't actually turn out any "product" in Dave's class, I learned a lot about making tiles, everything behind applying basic theory (negative space is a no-no!) and basic techniques (water-to-plaster proportions in making molds). I've actually reconnected a bit with Dave recently and he continues to generously provide very useful techniques and advice, even to former students!

If I had to label 2012 as a particular "year" for Black Cat Pottery, it would have to be "The Year of the Tile". I created several series of tiles - including my Hot Pepper Tiles, Baby Bell Pepper Tiles, the first two Wildflower Tiles, two Native Leaf Tile designs, a Michigan Tile and two large-format (six-inch) Sweet Pepper Tiles, as well as returning to a large Sunflower Plaque design I worked on while taking Dave's Class.

Yellow Toad-shade (Trillium luteum) and
Small Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Wildflower Tiles in Indigo Float
The Wildflower Tiles were inspired by Don Schulte's photographs of the wildflowers in my garden and were the first designs I wanted to tackle. I actually met with Don, first to secure his permission to use his copyrighted images as my inspiration. (I didn't think he would have a problem with me doing so - nor did he, but I felt it prudent to ask.) We also discussed various methods of "reproducing" his images, including relief tile designs, photo transfer and a combination of the two. Through our discussion, I realized I really wanted to reinterpret the images as relief tiles.

As I was just returning to the tile-making technique, I thought I should select relatively simple images, finally settling on Small Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Yellow Toad-shade (Trillium luteum), both of which I have included above for your reference. I knew my tiles were not going to be "verbatim" reproductions of Don's images, nor did I want them to be; I wanted them to be stand-alone works in their own right. I tackled the Trillium image first, as the simplified masses seemed a good place to begin.

Yellow Toad-shade (Trillium luteum) and
Small Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Wildflower Tiles in Vert Lustre
I started out by making a copy of the image the same size as the master tile and then blocked out the masses I wanted to include in the final design on the copy; I then made several copies of this "blocking" to work with in creating the design.

After rolling out a thick slab of clay, I used a six-inch tile cutter to cut out a correctly-sized square of lay on which to build up my design. (A six-inch tile cutter does not cut out a six-inch tile; it cuts out a tile of the correct size to end up roughly equivalent - depending on a given type of clay's rate of shrinkage - to a standard six-inch tile, which is actually less than six inches as it must allow for the grout around the tile when it is set into a design.)

Yellow Toad-shade (Trillium luteum) and
Small Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Wildflower Tiles in Vert Lustre
Starting with the blocked section of the design for the leaves of the Yellow Toad-shade, I rolled out a thin slab of clay, overlaid the cut-out from the design and, at an angle, cut it out and then applied it to the slab and smoothed the join all around and corrected the edges. I then went back and followed the same process for the three petals and two sepals that were further back in the design, leaving the sepal at the forefront for last - how to handle its dimension was pretty perplexing still. I left the design for several days and returned to it, finally adding the last sepal.

Making the master is the most demanding part of making a tile. It is the part of the process the artist sweats over, because that's the design, that's what it's going to "be". Once it's finished, the process becomes pretty mechanical: making the mold; casting tile (after tile, after tile, after tile); drying the tiles; cleaning up the tiles; bisque firing the tiles; glazing the tiles; firing the tiles; selling the tiles (hopefully). I was very pleased with how these turned out and will be returning to the series this winter to create the next two designs.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hot Pepper Tile Table

Several years ago, I took a tile table class at Pewabic Pottery during one of their promotional events. The class included a pre-fabricated, pre-prepared table base; the registrants purchased their own tiles (thankfully, we could use seconds, which kept the additional price down) and then assembled the table with the instructors assistance. I really enjoyed the class and thought it might be cool to do more projects like it on my own but didn't know where I could get more table bases made.

Some time later, I met and worked on a number of projects with a welder. Although the relationship later soured, he did fabricate a table base for me for a project involving embossed leaf tiles which I never really completed (but may return to some day), partly because the table base was a bit too... formal for the design I had in mind. The table base languished in my garage for some time until this year, after I designed and brought my Hot Pepper Tiles into production. Running across the table base again in the attic of the garage, it occurred to me to make a table featuring a selection of those tiles.

It had been a few years since I worked with tiles in this context so I met with my handyman Keith, bringing over the table base and a selection of tiles. After a beer for each of us and some wrangling discussion, we concluded that I really needed to make some "half" and "quarter" tiles in order for the design to work with the three-inch pepper tiles and field tiles I had on hand. So, it was initially back to mold-making for me, although Keith did set me up with a piece of cement board to set into the table's reservoir to which to affix the tiles when I did proceed, as well as some mortar to attach them when the time came. My friend Catherine had given me a bag of grout left over from her kitchen redesign, so all the other pieces were in place.

I had decided to just use the four Habanero tiles and use mostly field tiles with the same glaze as the background of the pepper tiles, with the exception of four field tiles with the four colors of the peppers, arranged opposite one another to hold the design together; the field tiles would be the same background color.

Having made molds for half and quarter tiles and then fabricated, glazed and fired a sufficient number, I was up against a date for an event for which I really wanted to have the table. I found myself at 11:00pm on a Saturday night, buttering the backs of tiles with mortar and sticking them on the table top. After an hour, they were set and it was time to grout them in. So far, memory and Keith's instructions had served well but grouting was a nightmare, as I used an old rag (rinsed innumerable times) to clear the grout off the tiles. But I finally got it done, and in time for the event.

In further discussions with Keith, we have agreed that the table's feet should, if anything curve into the table base's design in order to minimize the trip hazard. Also, the three slats across the bottom should either be spaced out to fill the area or joined by additional slats, making that surface more functional. Plus, the two chevrons on opposite sides minimized access to the bottom shelf without adding any structural value - so those would go, too. Keith has said he could make table bases for me according to these specifications.

The Habanero Pepper Tile Table debuted at the Black Cat Pottery retail event at the end of September this year and then appeared at Black Cat Pottery trunk shows at Circare in St. Clair Shores and Firebrick Gallery and Pottery Studio in Rochester, eventually selling at the 3rd Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House two weeks ago. But don't worry - we'll be making more tile tables!


Small, Medium and Large Poppies in Pink,
Burgundy and Scarlet Red (respectively)
When I first started gardening on my own property (a glorified word for my typical 40 x 120 urban lot on the eat side of Detroit) 17 years ago - before I discovered the beauty and variety of native plants, like many people I worked with a lot of the same types of plants I had seen my parents grow in their gardens. Most traditional garden plants used in the United States are what are referred to as "exotics", meaning they weren't living in a given location as of October 11, 1492, when the European invasion began.

My garden was filled with German, Siberian, Dutch and Japanese Iris; Daylilies (yes there was a time I grew Daylilies), Oriental Lilies, Asiatic Lilies and Toad Lilies; Hosta, Herbaceous Peonies and Hollyhocks; and literally dozens of varieties of Clematis. One of my favorites were the Oriental Poppies, which came in colors ranging from brightest white through pale pink, fuschia, raspberry, scarlet, burgundy and hot oranges. I found their transience - each flower lasts only one day - and fragility - their petals are sheerest crepe - exquisite and marveled at the fact that their stems were never, ever, straight, rather bending in the most interesting contortions from the basal rosette up to the exquisite bloom. The seed heads were fascinating. Although the plants would go through a particularly ugly period after flowering, becoming ragged and dried, finally requiring a good cleaning-out mid-season, I always enjoyed their resilient and reliable performance.

I decided to try to make clay poppies. The first one could have been used as a blunt instrument (if you know what I mean); it had to weigh at least a pound - not at all representative of the fragile beauty I was attempting to capture. But I kept working at it and finally came up with a workable solution.

I started out making a plaster cast of the underside of a plastic tray my Aunt Nancy (also my godmother) had given me for Christmas one year. (This same tray is the means of transportation of most of my work to and from the kilns in the garage.) The underside of this molded plastic tray has a random striped pattern reminiscent of the pleating of poppy petals. I created a template for the individual petal and then replicated it four times into a circular form with four petals radiating from the center, to maximize production. Having decided that my poppies would need five petals to look sufficiently "poppy-like"and that I wanted to be able to put them on stems, I started production.

I roll out a relatively thin slab of clay and cut out the required petals. Each petal is "slapped" rather hard onto the plaster tray mold twice, once for each side, to impress with the petal texture. I arrange five petals in a bowl form, scoring, slipping and smoothing them together at the center and then scoring, slipping and attaching them to one another in various ways at their adjacent edges to create the flower form. In the most successful designs, I score and slip the petals at their adjoining underside edges and pinched together. Using a round Kemper Klay Kutter (at least 1/2" in diameter), I make a hole in the center. The petal portion of the poppy is complete. Now to create the flower's center!

Creating the center of the Poppy has been one of my more challenging occupations in the studio - and I'm not sure I'm done with the process. Right now, I make a clay cylinder around a piece of 1/2" copper tubing and cut it into approximately 1" sections. I apply a slab "top" to each section and incise, using my thumbnail, with five curves radiating from the center to the outside edge. Then I score and slip the upper half of the outside of the cylinder and apply extruded clay (using my handy, dandy Kemper Klay Gun) for the flower's stamens. This is set in each flower with a piece of newsprint between so they will not stick together. Once dry, I remove the flowers from their bowl forms and bisque fire.

To glaze, I apply two coats of Amaco Sahara HF-1 Black as eyespots to each of the five petals; once dry, these are brushed with wax resist. I then apply two (most colors) to three (Lilac and Burgundy) coats of Amaco's Celebration series mid-temperature glazes to the tops of the petals and one to two coats on the underside. (I generally use poppy or poppy-like colors, including Pink, Scarlet Red, Burgundy, Orangerie, Bright Yellow, Clementine, Lilac, Amethyst my own proprietary Gerbera Daisy Pink and Baby Blue to mimic the Himalayan Blue Poppy.) Separately, I coat the flower's center with HF-1 Black and prop it to dry, then place it over the center hole on one of the flowers. The pieces are then fired together.

These pieces can be displayed as a sculpture - I like the idea of "floating" the flowers in a glass bowl with some glass gems - or attached to a stem. I use refrigerator tubing (for the flexibility) cut to 18 inches and bend it around a bit to give that "real poppy stem" look. I use a pipe expander at the end that will go into the flower's base, filling the reservoir with epoxy before doing so and allowing to harden. Although these pieces probably should not be left outside in the winter (the epoxy does break down over extended exposure to the weather), they make a lovely addition to your garden, allowing you to have the earliest, longest-lasting poppies in your neighborhood!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Deluxe Sunflower: Spider

Many, many years ago - when I first started working with clay, I produced a huge series of masks which were featured in my first show at Planet Ant Coffee House (now Planet Ant Theatre) in Hamtramck, Michigan. I had the assistance of a good friend of mine, Jay, in hanging the show. In the course of the several  hours we were at work, he realized that the pieces were organizing themselves into three broad categories: Working Girls (The Four Seasons, The Furies, The Fates, etc.), Great Date Girls ("Three Graces for the Twentieth Century,""Too Cool for Color TV," etc.) and Girls Gone Wrong (several Medusas, Clytie, etc.) One of the pieces I had created which ended up in Girls Gone Wrong was of Arachne, the young woman who, as a result of her hubris in comparing the quality of her weaving with that of Athena, the goddess of weaving, was turned into a spider, who weaves every night, only to consume her web the next day in an endless cycle of creation and destruction. The Arachne I created had a spiderweb made up of extruded clay covering part of her face to allude to both her human and arachnid aspects, a process and outcome that was less than satisfactory as it was quite tedious and the results were not quite "up to snuff".

In the ongoing quest for cool things to do with clay in the context of my Deluxe Sunflower series, I was later reminded of various techniques used to create marbled papers and in slip decorations of ceramic wares. I wanted to see if I could do something with applied slip decoration in combination with a variation on feather-combing, revisiting the Arachne imagery in my Deluxe Sunflower series. This time I decided to use a combination of slip extruded from a pastry bag and a modified feather-combing technique.

Various Plain Round Cake Decorating Tips
When I first explored this idea, I prepared the center of the sunflower before applying the petals, humping the base slab over the mold and finding a rough center. With a pastry bag of rather thick slip with a small, plain round tip #6 (I use #12 for the "Bubbles" design), I traced concentric circles on center of the sunflower. I did not score the surface as the scoring would show through the glaze on the areas that did not have the pattern but I did slip the entire surface to increase the degree of adhesion, with varied results. Where the piping broke or didn't adhere, I used a small tool to "nudge" it back together or back into place.

Fine Detail Cut-out Tool
After I finished the circles, I used a very fine, sharp cutting tool to very gently draw through the slip and make very fine, straight lines radiating out from the center of the flower at regular intervals. In order to replicate the general appearance of a spider's web, I had to work out from the center and did so marking 180 degrees, then 90 degrees, then 45, then 22.5, eventually dividing the center into sixteen "pie slices" through the concentric circles of piped slip. Again, I used a small tool to nudge any slip back into place that had moved in the process. After I finished with the center, I applied three rows of petals.

If I do this pattern again, I would modify it in that I would apply the two outer layers of petals, fabricate the center, then add the last row of petals, as it would be easier to find and preserve the center of the design and I would also have an easier judging exactly how much of the center of the flower needed to be filled with the central motif.

As with all of the sunflowers in the Deluxe series, I glazed the center with Amaco Potter's Choice Temmoku; I used Smoked Sienna from the same series for the petals.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mini Sunflower (Original, Fancy, Deluxe): Comparing Clay Bodies

Original Sunflowers (Titanium)
(All images are:
Top Left - Laguna Brown;
Top Right - RO-23;
Botom - Laguna Speckle Buff)
Any artist worth her salt is always willing to try out new materials, with the realization that there may be something even better out there to take her work to the next level. A significant portion of the final product consists of a combination of the artist's talent, skill and experience; but having the right/best materials for the job can make the difference between a good piece and a great one.

Not surprisingly and, I would imagine, like most potters, I'm rather particular about my clay bodies, considering I really only use two of them, both manufactured by Rovin Ceramics based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For my Daisies, Calla Lilies, Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Poppies, Deluxe Toadstools and hand-painted tiles, I use RO-77, "Lite Stoneware," rated Cone 2 to Cone 10. I was first introduced to this white stoneware body when taking throwing classes at Pewabic Pottery. It is an excellent throwing body, lighter on the grog, which also works well for slab work and tiles. Furthermore, it holds the purity of the colors of the glazes I use for these pieces - Amaco's Celebration Series (and a couple glazes from their High Fire Sahara Series - Black and White), giving them a lot of punch; with a less-white clay body, these glazes look rather "muddy." I recognize the fact that any number of white stoneware bodies would do the job equally well.

Fancy Sunflowers (Indigo Float)
For the bulk of my work, including all of my Sunflowers (Original, Fancy and Deluxe), Wildflower and Michigan Tiles, organic leaf pieces (Leaves, Applied and Embossed Leaf Bowls, etc.), lace pieces (Bowls, Crosses, Stars of David, etc.) and other work utilizing the glaze recipes I inherited from my first pottery teacher, Gene Pluhar, or Amaco's Potter's Choice Series of glazes - often in combination with Mason Stains and various oxides, I use RO-23, or Peach Stoneware, rated Cone 6 to Cone 10. With more iron than a typical gray stoneware body, it retains its "warmth" even in an oxidation firing environment. (I wish I could fire reduction - the clay's minerals express themselves even more, resulting in even deeper, nuanced results.) I first used this clay when working with Gene; he had been using a gray stoneware body from another manufacturer but was having difficulties with the supplier. After spending some time trying out other bodies, he  settled on this one. I've been very happy with the results I've gotten with it with my glaze palette; when I've used Gene's glazes or the Amaco's Potter's Choice Glazes on a white clay body, they are not nearly as rich and almost look, comparatively, pretty anemic.

Nevertheless, I'm always willing to try new things. (After a while, sometimes....) My friend Marie Colbert Gougeon, of MCG Graphics, based out of Holt and Okemos, suggested that I try a couple of the Laguna clay bodies she used in her quite accomplished work, specifically their Brown and Speckle Buff stoneware bodies. I had been lamenting to Marie about how much I missed being able to fire work in a reduction environment, with its richer results, so she recommended the Brown body because she thought it might be sufficiently darker than the Peach stoneware body I had been using. (Rovin used to make a much darker stoneware body but, by the time I discovered it, had ceased to manufacture it as one of the critical ingredients had become unavailable or prohibitively expensive.) She thought the Speckled Buff stoneware body might fun to work with.

Deluxe Sunflowers
(Albany Slip Brown)
I decided the best way to test them out would be to do apples-to-apples, oranges-to-oranges and raspberries-to-raspberries comparisons, using all three clay bodies (the Rovin Peach stoneware and the Laguna Brown and Speckled Buff stoneware) to make identical small-scale pieces in the three "phases" I generally use. So, I made three Mini Original Sunflowers with a woven pandanus coaster design, three Mini Fancy Sunflowers with a mini-bubblewrap impression and three Mini Deluxe Sunflowers with the "Starry Night" center. I bisque fired all to Cone 06.

For the Mini Original Sunflowers, I stained the centers with Burnt Umber in a water-based solution, removing the excess with a damp sponge to bring up the texture. I stained the petals using Titanium Mason Stain, again, removing the excess with a damp sponge to further enhance the pieces' dimensionality. The centers of the Mini Fancy Sunflowers were all glazed with three coats of Amaco's Potter's Choice Temmoku; I dip-glazed the petals in Indigo Float from the same series. The Mini Deluxe Sunflowers were glazed in the same way as the Mini Fancy Sunflowers except that I used Albany Slip Brown for the petals. All were glaze-fired to Cone 6.

I found that the Laguna Brown, while somewhat darker than the Rovin Peach, was not sufficiently different to warrant changing my clay body or adding another to my repertoire. (Space is already tight - I can fit about 500 pounds of Peach stoneware and about 200 of the Lite.) My photographer friend Don and I concurred that the Speckle Buff pieces look kind of... gimmicky; the speckles are actually rather distracting, failing to enhance the designs in any appreciable manner. Although I won't be changing my clay selection, based on these experiments, I'm glad I had the chance to try out some new clay bodies. I think they manner in which I approached the situation was objective and the results were easy to evaluate.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lace Crosses and Stars of David

Lace Crosses: T (L-R): Ironstone, Vert Lustre;
B (L-R): Indigo Float, Saturation Gold, Chun Plum
As most folks who know me realize, although I am deeply spiritual, I am not a particularly religious individual. By the same token, I am sincerely respectful of other peoples' beliefs and feel blessed to count among my friends and acquaintances during my life individuals who subscribe to various sects of Christianity, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Animists, Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, Wiccans and Hindus, among others. I have had the opportunity to share in the religious observances of many of my friends and have appreciated those opportunities to share in their spiritual interpretations and experiences.

I was raised Episcopalian, going to church at St. Columba Parish (now dissolved) in Detroit and was very involved in the church for some time, singing in the choir in participating in many of the youth activities. I developed a greater knowledge and awareness of Christian theology during my Art History Classes at Michigan State University - during specific periods of western art, the church was a significant patron of the arts and religious themes were an important part of the iconography. It was also at Michigan State that I became close friends with my friend Marilyn, whose Jewish family welcomed me like a youngest daughter. During my two years in Singapore, my husband's Buddhist family shared their religious traditions with me, as well was the Muslim and Hindu people with I worked and came to know as acquaintances and friends. As a result, although I may not "connect" with the specific observances of any or all of these faiths, I have found a kernel of truth, a thread that connects them all in my spiritual universe.

Lace Crosses: T (L-R): Textured Turquoise, Frosted Melon;
B (L-R): Blue Rutile, Lustrous Jade, Pearl White
Not surprisingly, through these experiences, I have developed a respect, if not a reverence, for the symbols associated with these faiths, even though they do not have a specific place in my spiritual landscape. I have tended to restrict my artistic expression to themes relating directly or indirectly to nature and my interests in botany and horticulture; but I am also a businesswoman who is trying to make a living through her art. So, when a consignment account inquired as to whether I would be willing to make some "grown-up" crosses, I was open to the idea. The gallery already had some crosses in inventory - lovely pieces, some in a Celtic style, others suitable for baptism or first communion, but nothing really suitable for a Divinity School graduate or a wedding. The original request was couched as "more organic", a term that initially threw me, as I couldn't think of any way to apply my more naturalistic aesthetic to this new context. After pondering the request for a few days, I asked if a lace-textured cross might do the trick and received an enthusiastic, "Yes!"

Cross - Ironstone
First, I charted out a template for the form, using graph paper, then transferring it to a fused lamination sheet (in the absence of any clear mylar). The next challenge was to figure out how to relate the lace to the cross. There is one style of cross in which the central crossing is surrounded by a circle - the High Cross, as often seen in Celtic iconography; it was this motif to which I eventually referred in the design I created. I rolled out a slab of clay and positioned the cross on the slab, pricking out the center so I would know how to orient the lace, eliminating the risk of "running out of clay" for the form. I rolled the lace into the clay, centering it over the hole pricked for the center of the cross. Removing the lace, I placed the template over the design, centering the center of the template over the center of the lace design. I then cut out the entire form; I found cutting both sides of the inward-pointing angles with one cut was the most effective means to reduce the risk of odd cuts into the center. I remove the clay on the side with the least waste, rolled the other side of the canvas back over the slab and flipped the entire package over. Pulling back the canvas, the clay releases from the canvas but is still attached to the template. I can then place the template on the remaining clay - the "leftover" lace impression is on the underside, now - and fabricate another cross, flipping the slab between each one, until the entire slab has been used up. Obviously, a very "tall" slab would have more waste, whereas a "shorter", "longer" slab would be able to accommodate more crosses.

Stars of David: T (L-R): Indigo Float,
Lustrous Jade; B (L-R): Pearl Blue,
Saturation Gold, Chun Plum
Using a 1/4" hole punch, I center a hole at the top of the cross (use a piece of 1/4" steel stock to force out the waste clay, then carefully pick up the clay (with the template), place it on a grid for drying, correct any issues with its orientation and then remove the template. They should be dried as slowly as possible. They can tend to warp, so it's a good idea to check them periodically before the go leather hard to correct any issues - it may also help to dry them between pieces of drywall, a technique I need to investigate.
Stars of David: T (L-R): Textured
Turquoise, Frosted Melon;
B (L-R): Vert Lustre, Blue Rutile,
Pearl White

Once dry, the pieces are sanded to remove any rough edges (remembering that a sharp edge only becomes sharper when glazed) and bisque fired. After firing, I rinse to remove any dust, then wax the back of the cross, leaving a margin to take the glaze around the edge to the back. This leaves a space for engraving. Using glazing tongs to hold the pieces at the bottom, I pour glaze over the four arms and then place them squarely on a large stilt to dry.

Star of David, Pearl Blue
Firing has been challenging, primarily due to the fact that the pieces are quite thin, retain some of the "memory" of being moved around while still quite plastic and, as a result, want to warp. The best I've come up with so far is one large stilt to support the top and the two "arms" with two smaller stilts supporting the longer ( and more vulnerable) "foot". Another possibility is to use six half-inch stilts - one under the top and each of the arms, one at the center and two under the foot; this arrangement would provide for more even heating, which might solve the problem conclusively, but would require a great deal of attention to their placement so as to not over lap into glazed areas on the backs of the pieces.

Once glaze fired, I used leather lace, cut to nine inches, folded in half and with an overhand knot and then threaded through the hole with a lark's-head knot, so the pieces could hang. I know many artists make these sorts of pieces with a wire hanger in the back but I'm not comfortable with that on two counts: the piece cannot hang flat to the wall very well; and there is a higher risk of failure. The leather lace allows the piece to hang flat and can easily be replaced if something should happen to it.

Having had success with red stoneware Crosses finished with dramatic reactive glazes, I decided to make some in white stoneware with Pearl White, which would be appropriate for baptism, first communion or a wedding. Then I decided to to try some Stars of David, again, using the center of the lace for the center of the star. These were also very successful. All are available at several galleries throughout Michigan. I would like to investigate other motifs but I'm not certain they would adapt as successfully to the lace texture.

A Garden Visit

Brenda feeding the goldfish
Back in August, I had the opportunity to visit my good friend Brenda Hershberger in Mason, Michigan. I had been planning a trip to the Lansing area in order to stop in at Wild Type Nursery, also in Mason, for one of the nursery's last public sale days of the season, hoping to fill some gaps in my garden and maybe discover some heretofore unknown botanical treasures.

Brenda and Allie, who has now
been joined by Dom P
Brenda is also very much a native plant enthusiast and, considering she's so close to the nursery, it was easy to put a trip together to visit her beautiful garden and home and stop in at the nursery. Brenda frequently posts images of her garden (and cats) on Facebook so I was really looking forward to visiting in person. Although the drive was rather frustrating, with
I-96 West down to one lane on the same weekend that students were making their annual migration to East Lansing for the start of the school year, the anticipation of visiting a good friend's garden and selecting plants at one of my favorite nurseries kept me going.

Feeder goldfish are less expensive and seem
less attractive to marauding Great Blue Herons
I made it into Mason late in the morning, just in time for lunch. After a brief tour through the front yard, especially a prized Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) slated for major pruning by the local power company, Brenda invited me in and we had a delicious meal of gazpacho, brie and artisanal bread, with a fresh fruit salad for dessert. Her little gray kitty, Allie, was very friendly - and also very interested in helping us with lunch. Brenda has been very supportive of my pottery and has collected quit a few of my pieces, which she has integrated seamlessly into her beautiful home. It was a wonderful opportunity to see where some of my favorite pieces had come to roost.

In touring the gardens, the highlight is clearly Brenda's pond, stocked with feeder goldfish (Great Blue Herons were nabbing the more expensive Koi, so she opted for sustainable quantity), beautiful waterlilies and native and exotic plants by pond's edge. The pond - with a natural-looking stone waterfall and integrated plantings - has the lived-in look of the best designed larger garden features. Its "naturalness" is attested to by the abundance of native frogs, who bask on strategically-placed rocks and take cover in the lush plantings.

After our tour, we headed to the nursery separately (it was on the way home for me) and shopped the remaining native plants. I was able to purchase another Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) for the front yard and, especially, exciting, Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum) and Pointed-leaf Ticktrefoil (Desmodium glutinosum), both of which went into a planting of Penn Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) in my tree lawn.

The drive home was less frustrating, as I took a detour to avoid the construction, which took me by a corn stand with the last of the season's harvest, which I enjoyed for dinner that night! What a great day!

Deluxe Sunflower: Spinning

In developing the various designs in the Deluxe Sunflower series, I had been able to come up with quite a few designs using a slip-filled pastry bag with various decorating tips. I had also found a couple of uses for Kemper Klay Kutters. I had created three designs - Pasta, String Theory and Starry Night - using the Kemper Klay Gun and various dies but wanted to explore the potential of this tool more fully.

In browsing through the dies which come with the Klay Gun, I thought I might be able to use one of the circle dies to make long coils, which I could then make into a spiral or spirals. I thought I would first try making a piece with a large spiral covering the entire center. The challenge was going to be marrying a series of long coils into one very long continuous coil to make the spiral.

I started out by fabricating the base of the sunflower, slumping a large slab over the ginormous sunflower mold, cutting it to size with a 1/2" flange at the base. I wanted to make sure the spiral would completely fill the center space so I opted to fabricate the center first and apply the petals afterwards. After scoring and slipping the entire surface, I attached the circle die to the Klay Gun and filled the barrel with clay and pushed out the first coil, forming it into the center of the spiral, starting at the center of the sunflower. It's important that the clay be fairly plastic for this process: if it's too stiff, you have to work really hard to get it to extrude and it will be more prone to cracking during fabrication. I added coils to the spiral until I felt fairly certain that the spiral would completely fill the desired space, carefully smoothing the joins between the coils.
Kemper Klay Gun and Dies

After the coil was finished, I applied two rows of petals to the sunflower, making sure the surface was slipped to guarantee optimal adhesion. I allowed the sunflower to dry to leather hard, removed it from the mold, applied a clay fitting to take a copper fitting so the sunflower can go on a stake and put holes in to take a wire for hanging. After drying completely, the piece is fired to Cone 06.

I glazed the sunflower with Amaco's Potter's Choice Temmoku in the center, as I do for all my Deluxe and Fancy Sunflowers. For the petals, I used Starfire Brown, a glaze recipe I was given by my first pottery teacher, Gene Pluhar, which breaks and pools in almost a jasper-like manner. The glaze is reminiscent of the surfaces preferred about 30 years ago, so it contributes a nostalgic quality to the piece.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Buttons: Lace

Assorted Lace Buttons in a Small Pearl Blue Lace Bowl
I ran into an old contact early this year at the Sidestreet Diner in Grosse Pointe. I was having brunch with an old friend and this individual (sitting in the booth behind me and so only able to see the back of my head) overheard our conversation and asked if I was a potter, indicating she owned a knit shop (she didn't recognize me) and was wondering if I'd be interested in making ceramic buttons and maybe some other things. We exchanged some e-mail correspondence, in which I sent her some pictures of my lace bowls; she thought the texture would be interesting for buttons for hand-knit goods.

Medium Diamonds
(Deep Firebrick)
I had inherited two sets - large and small - of canape cutters from my Mother some years ago. I set to work rolling out clay slabs, rolling in lace and cutting out shapes. I made about a dozen samples, in sets of three and five. Once cut out, I used the smallest-available hole punch (one-eighth inch) to add holes (using a small metal rod to clean out the clay between each hole). I let the pieces dry, cleaned them up with some synthetic steel wool, being careful to remove any and all "catchy"surfaces and edges, and then bisque fired. (If you're doing large quantities, throwing them into a greenware or bisqueware bowl for firing vastly simplifies loading and unloading.) I rinsed the pieces before glazing to remove any residual dust.

Medium Crescents
(Oil Spot)
Glazing and firing were both going to be challenging. The buttons had to glazed all around, back and front, so they were going to have to be on stilts as they dried and while being fired. Coming up with a way to dip them and get complete glaze coverage was perplexing, until I dug out an old pair of tweezers I used to "assist" in putting jute for price tags through too-small holes. By using a pair of long, pointed standard tweezers, I could poke each tweezer into a hole in the given button, dip it into the glaze and hold it flat to let the glaze pool, then lower it onto a stilt and release it. I fired them in a fairly fast kiln to Cone 6. After cooling and unloading, I used a Dremel with an eight-inch diamond grinder to smooth out the marks left by the stilts in the backs of the buttons.

Medium Squares
Albany Slip Brown
The client was delighted with the samples. So very delighted she bought them off of me right then and there (I had also brought some samples of my friend Don Schulte's yarn notecards; she purchased those outright as well) and asked me to make more. A lot more, in lots of different sizes and shapes. So I swung into major production, the first step of which was to call my friend Catherine and let her know what had happened.

Medium Trefoil
Vert Lustre
My friend Catherine is not a horder but she does hold onto some interesting things. Among others, she had held on to some of her mother's old (old) cookie cutters, as well as the animal-shaped cookie cutters from her childhood Easy-Bake Oven. All of which she offered to me. I made up eight of each shape, so I could have a set of three and a set of five (always odd numbers!) I followed the process, making some very large shapes (stars, circles, hearts, rosettes), some nice novelty shapes (terrier) and what I decided to all my "Animal Crackers" series from the Easy-Bake Oven cutters.

Small Triangles,
Crescents and
Six-Pointed Stars in
Palladium, Metallic
Black and Saturation
Although some of the larger sizes are difficult to keep flat throughout the process (this, along with the very clean edges and surfaces, is apparently very important to fiber people), I'm learning that drying them between sheets of drywall may help with this. Also, stilting the smallest shapes on small tripod stilts was not a good bet while straddling them across two bar stilts is much more successful. A Dremel with an eight-inch diamond grinder is indispensable for grinding out the small percentage of holes that seem inevitably fill with glaze during firing, regardless of how carefully I blow them out during glaze application. (Make sure to use the lubricating oil that comes with this special bit to speed up the process.)

In terms of packaging, I purchased a quantity of small zip-bags, into which go each set of buttons. I punched a hole at the top to one side, threaded through a piece of jute and attached a tag with a description including the size, shape and glaze. By putting them in the bag, the customer can see the back and the front of the button(s) and can see the quality of manufacture. The buttons are available a couple places around the state; we're waiting to see how they do in the wider market.