Monday, April 16, 2012

Applied Leaf Bowls: Preparing to Teach a Workshop

Top to bottom, Ironstone/Witch-hazel,
Temmoku/Swamp White Oak,
Deep Olive Speckle/Tulip Tree
Although I teach classes out of my studio in Detroit, I do conduct the occasional workshop off-site. One of my favorite places to teach (outside my studio!) is Firebrick Gallery in Rochester, Michigan. The owner, Christine, is not only a savvy business woman, she is a fantastically creative person in her own right who makes it a priority to contribute to the larger community in which she lives and works - characteristics I express in my own life and look for in the folks with whom I surround myself.

Late in 2010, Christine asked if I would be interested in doing a Hanging Bird Bowl Workshop the next Spring, as she had had a number of inquiries from customers interested in creating their own versions of one of my more popular pieces. (Right, right: They're all popular!) On the face of it, putting on a pottery workshop may seem like a simple proposition - advertise, take registration, show up, teach the class, have a (big) glass of wine, go home.

As an educator, I have always held my students' success as the most important part of the experience. One thing a teacher can do to increase the chances of student success (and customer satisfaction) is to create and maintain reasonable expectations. I felt it was important to make sure the students had a realistic idea of the process itself as well as the final product.

To this end, Christine and I spent a great deal of time discussing clay bodies (she uses clay from Runyon in Clio, MI; I use clay from Rovin in Ann Arbor, MI) and glazes. I wanted to have samples - of the final piece as well as of how the glazed surface would look, based on the glazes we finally selected. To this end, I made three samples using my clay and three samples using Christine's one of each of which I glazed with the three glazes we had selected from Amaco's Potter's Choice Series of glazes, Temmoku, Lustrous Jade and Deep Firebrick.

Top to bottom, Salt Buff/American Sycamore,
Vert Lustre/White Oak,
Deep Firebrick/Red Oak
The samples were miniature versions of my Hanging Bird Bowl. Due to the late date we began to plan the workshop, there weren't a lot of leaves I could access; however, my Common Witch-hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana) often holds on to quite a few of its leaves well into the winter. So I went out and  collected as many of the leaves as I could, hoping we didn't have "too many" students - I wanted each person to have at least five leaves (always an odd number, right?) I used six leaves to create six miniature bowls.

The other issue for preparation was equipment - for two sessions, on my part: fabrication and glazing. (Christine took care of the leather lace for the final assembly session.) Because we were using my plaster molds for the pieces, I had to make sure I had enough of those; that was tough, because the molds had to be made at least a week before the session so they could cure sufficiently before being used. I can't even remember how many milk crates of equipment I brought with me - sponges, rubber kidneys, containers for water, good cutting tools, scoring tools, the three (yes, three) tools required to make ladybugs, punches to make the holes for the leather lace to hang the finished pieces and slip. Not to mention the molds, the leaves stored in water, paper towel to blot the leaves dry. And, of couse, the samples. Just for the fabrication session. The second session - glazing - included water containers,  lots and lots of good brushes, sponges, a selection of Mason Stains (the same stains I had used on the sample pieces, in order to better manage those expectations) and two Amaco High-Fire Glazes for the ladybugs; Christine supplied the main glazes.

And lots of rest.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lace Bowls 4: Hearts

Deep Firebrick (Large and Tiny) and Chun Plum (Small)
As anyone who knows me at all will attest, "hearts" are not a motif most folks would associate with me. They tend to be a bit... precious for my taste in most cases. But there is the point that a lot of folks do like them and will buy things that feature hearts and, at the end of the day, the whole point of this enterprise is to make a living (and have as much fun doing that as possible). Hence, heart-shaped lace bowls.

Actually, the large heart-shaped lace doily was the first doily I ever purchased, many years ago, to use for texture on my Original Sunflowers. I didn't find any round doilies and I liked the texture of this heart-shaped piece, although it was challenging to get it to work on the larger sunflowers - I'd have to "fill in the gaps" by rolling the doily four times total. When I started experimenting with the lace bowls, the hearts seemed an interesting idea, especially once I found two smaller-sized heart-shaped doilies.

As with the other lace pieces, I roll out a slab of clay, roll the doily into the surface - be careful to roll it evenly so as not to distort the shape - and cut it out with a sharp cutting tool. Carefully lifting off the canvas, I transfer it into the mold (again, using the Sasaki Colorstone stoneware dishes I've accumulated for this purpose). In the case of the large heart, the two top lobes and the bottom point extend beyond the mold, so I pink the bottom to give it some dimension and shape the two lobes to be interestingly symmetrical. The tiny and small hearts don't extend much beyond their molds so I just make sure they're centered. Once the piece is centered in the mold, I carefully press it in and then use a smooth river stone to completely shape the clay to the form. Unlike the flush-cut pieces, I can usually dry these in front of a fan with little risk of distortion.
Chun Plum (Large and Tiny) and Deep Firebrick (Small)

When working with these scalloped forms, it's important that all the edges are completely smooth. Once the pieces are more than leather hard (almost bone dry, really), I use synthetic steel wool in a multiple-step process to remove any burs or rough edges so they're pleasant to handle. (Any sharp edges will actually be enhanced by the glaze used; I have even cut myself on glazed unrefined edges, an experience I certainly don't want to repeat, let alone inflict on one of my clients!) First, I use the steel wool to soften the top edge, then smooth the overall lace texture, then the outer edge; turning the piece over, I use a clean-up tool to smooth any inconsistencies caused by the edges of the mold, then use the steel wool to smooth the bottom edge and the overall underside of the piece. Then I sign it.

After bisque firing to Cone 06, I rinse the pieces thoroughly to remove any residual clay dust from the clean-up process. I've been glazing them with  Amaco's Potter's Choice Deep Firebrick and Chun Plum and firing to Cone 6 on stilts. Once cooled and out of the kiln, I use a Dremel to remove the stilt marks.

I've also made some of these pieces using a white stoneware with the Pearl White glaze recipe I received from my first pottery teacher, Gene Pluhar. Like many white glazes, Pearl White is actually translucent, so it looked rather gray over my usual peach stoneware body. I've also received requests from one of the galleries representing my work to use some of the other glazes for these pieces, especially during "wedding season". I'm also thinking of doing a Goth/Steampunk version of this design - I think it would convey a certain... ironic insouciance.

Deluxe Sunfllower - Seed

My aesthetic as a potter is intimately connected to my vocation as a gardener and my interest in native plants and the environment at large. Even though some of my work does not seem to relate very closely to my other vocations (the lace bowls and tool caddies are clearly "outliers"), somewhere there is a relationship, however obscure or tenuous: the lace bowls were derived from the lace center of a sunflower; the first tool caddies featured embossed leaves.

Some of my work is much more closely allied - the sunflowers certainly are. And the first three Deluxe Sunflower designs I created - Pasta, Cake and (lastly) Seed - are all strongly reflective of their inspiration - the genus Helianthus in the family Asteraceae. Pasta and Cake are both more connected to the flower as it's blooming. Seed is inspired by the flower as it develops the resulting fruit. Seed is also the most painful - both mentally and physically - sunflower I make. (Little did I realize this would be the case when I first took the plunge; and now I'm trapped by how great these pieces turn out...!)

My desire was to recreate the patterning a sunflower develops as it goes to seed. I prepare the piece as I do for all my sunflowers - drape the clay slab over the mold and score the entire surface. (This is generally the rule for all the Deluxe Sunflowers where the entire center surface is covered with the applied texture; for those designs that don't have complete coverage, I have learned that any scored surface that is not covered by added clay will still be visible after glazing.) I then apply three rows of graduated petals. (For some designs, I only use two rows; for these more exhausting pieces, I always use three so I have a little less "real estate" to fill in the center.)

Once those have been applied in my usual manner (not being coy here; just don't want to repeat myself!), I roll out a relatively thin piece of clay and, using my Kemper Tools Clay Cutters, I start cutting out little disks of clay. (Lots and lots of little disks of clay. About 500 little disks of clay. Yes, I have counted them.) Then I roll every single little disk of clay into an oblong, sunflower-seed shape. (This is where it becomes more useful than usual to have a work-study person in the studio. Thank you, Barb!) I don't actually cut and roll out all the disks of clay in one go; it's never really certain how many I'll need (plus I'd go insane if I did).

Having cut out and formed a significant number of seeds, I slip the center of the sunflower and begin applying them, working from the outside in. And I keep applying concentric, ever-so-slowly shrinking circles of seeds to the center of the sunflower. (The entire seed manufacturing/applying activity is the mentally painful part of the process.) Until I finally get to the last one. It's important to pack them in closely and get good coverage. I then set the sunflower to dry until leather hard, when I pull it off the mold, apply a receptacle to take a copper fitting for a stake and make holes to take hanging wire. I then let the piece dry completely and fire to Cone 06.

Glazing consists of three coats of Amaco Potter's Choice Temmoku for the center, which I then wax resist to reduce errors and clean-up time. Then I pour Potter's Choice Deep Firebrick over the petals, top side first, then brushing on the back, always making sure everything that could be visible is covered. (This is the physically painful part of the process, as I have to support the piece with my left hand while pouring the glaze with my right - and this is one heavy piece!) The piece is fired to Cone 6.

Despite the pain and agony, I am always pleased with the results. The richness of the glazes really set off the complexity of the design. At the end of the day, it's worth it!

Hot Pepper Tiles

Like a lot of people, I really like hot peppers. Not so much to eat, anymore; I lost the tolerance I developed during my two-year sojourn in Singapore some time ago. I like the colors and forms and, in fact, not unlike quite a few other people, as it turns out, I've incorporated a lot of pepper imagery in my kitchen, including framed art, cross-stitch, glass and tile.

For many years, I had wanted to make tiles for my kitchen featuring small hot peppers. I took a class with Dave McGee at Pewabic Pottery some years ago  to learn the techniques of tile making but never really made anything. This winter, along with a number of other "on-hold" projects, I finally took the plunge and got down to business.

I had actually tried to make the tiles once before. I had molded the base tiles and had acquired some habanero peppers from my friends Barb and Ray Radtke. I cut one of the peppers in half (always use gloves and keep your hands away from your face when handling any hot pepper) and stuck one half on a tile, assembled the cottle boards (the four boards that are clamped together to delineate the mold), made my plaster and poured the tile.

A week or so later, I pulled the clay tile out of the mold and found... nothing. The pepper half, because it was not firmly anchored to the tile, had floated somewhere into the plaster, never to be seen again. So the first attempt aborted. But I had learned that I needed to find a way to really affix the pepper to the tile.

This winter, after my wildflower tile project (more about that in a future post) met with pretty resounding success, I decided to take the plunge. I went to Nino Salvaggio, the local market where I purchase my fruits and vegetables (among other things), and picked up two habanero, two jalapeño and two serrano peppers. I had already made twelve base tiles and had them stored, still moist. Working with one pepper at a time, I cut each in half, gutted the two halves,  stuffed them with clay and then stuck each half well onto a base tile.

Habanero Pepper Tiles
I usually do my mold making on a sheet of thick plastic drop-cloth, as it is easier to clean up. I assemble the cottle boards (flat boards with angle irons on one end that can be adjusted to fit various sized molds using spring clamps), allowing about one inch around the tile, seal the seams (between boards and between the boards and the table) with clay and place the master tile with the pepper in the center. I mix water with plaster at a 3:5 ratio for 90 seconds and then pour into a corner of the mold to minimize air bubbles; I also "jiggle" the mold a bit for the same reason. Once the plaster has fully solidified and cooled off (the chemical reaction between the water and plaster causes it to heat up), I can remove the cottle boards and clay seal and, using a shredder soften the sharp edges on the top of the mold. I set the mold aside for some time (maybe a day or so, but  it usually turns out to be about a week in my studio!) and then remove the clay master and pepper using wooden tools only - metal tools will damage the mold, even if the plaster has hardened. The mold should sit for a week before using.

Once I'm ready to make tiles, I lay a dedicated piece of canvas on my work surface, place the mold on it and put a well-wedged piece of clay with no obvious creases so it fits well into the mold. I push the clay with my fingers to make sure the corners and edges are all well filled; then, using a good-sized rubber mallet covered with an old sock, I pound the clay into the mold. You don't have to do this for a long time - just work from the center out to all the edges one time; sometimes I go around the edge just to make sure. Fold the excess clay that has "leaked" out around the tile up and over and use a cutting wire to take it off; I sometimes use a dull fettling knife to remove any remaining excess. Depending on how you're going to use the tile, it should be scored on the back for use as field tile and/or a place(s) for a nail added to hang (Kemper Tools JA32 is good for this). I set the tile to dry and then use synthetic steel wool to do final clean up. The tiles should dry completely before bisque firing, which I do at my usual Cone 06.

Jalapeño Pepper Tiles
Choosing glazes for this series was actually pretty simple. As with most of my work, I wanted to remain relatively "true" to the peppers' actual appearance. I used Amaco's Celebration series of glazes for the peppers - Chartreuse, Green and Scarlet Red for the jalapeño and serrano tiles; Chartreuse, Bright Yellow, Orangerie and Clementine for the habanero tiles. I used the Green for all the stems. I glazed the peppers using three brush-on coats of the glaze, applying the color for the body of the pepper first, then the stem. Once dry, I applied wax resist to the glazed areas. After the wax resist had been dry for some time, I glazed the rest of the tile with Amaco's Potter's Choice Saturation Metallic because I wanted a high contrast between the glossy brightness of the peppers; Saturation Metallic is a dark, satiny metallic glaze that looks quite a lot like the graphite you find in a pencil - it was the perfect complement. Using glazing tongs to hold the tiles and 2-ounce food service ladle, I poured two coats of glaze over the tile, rotating it 180 degrees to hold it from the opposite corner for the second half; this technique really minimized cleanup and glaze waste (which is a good thing, because this is not a cheap glaze!)

If you have clean, washed kiln shelves, you can just set the tiles on the shelves if you've made sure the glaze has been cleaned off the bottom face and the lower eighth inch of the sides of the tile. Otherwise, I just pop them on 1/2" posts and call it a day. I fire to Cone 6 in accordance with the glaze requirements.

Serrano Pepper Tiles
The results were better than I could have hoped; whereas I had started out making them solely for my kitchen, I realized these could actually sell when I started sharing them with folks. I went into production; they start rolling out into selected shops this week. (I also started making plain tiles to go with the figured tiles for my eventual kitchen project - for which I plan on using mostly Saturation Metallic with a few glazed with the Celebration Series colors scattered throughout, this last a suggestion by my friend Chelsea Martin.) I also decided to try making some larger, six-inch, tiles with larger peppers and have made the molds for poblano and bell peppers. Stay tuned as the Pepper Odyssey continues!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tool Caddies

I first started taking pottery classes back in 1993 through Grosse Pointe Community Education with one of Grosse Pointe South High School's art teachers, Gene Pluhar. (Actually, Gene's first year as a teacher in the school system was my first year as a student when he was my gym teacher for first grade.) I had registered for a jewelry making class with Gene as a high school junior but ended up having to drop the class as schedule changes were required due to issues with my Math 3-A teacher. Gene, however, generously gave me time after school on a couple of occasions to assist me with a weaving project I was pursuing on my own. I had always wanted to take pottery but it had never really worked into my college preparatory schedule so, when I moved back to Michigan and ended up in an apartment in Grosse Pointe Park, I jumped at the chance to take adult ed classes with Gene in his enviably equipped classroom.

Gene taught just about every form of three-dimensional art imaginable - pottery, jewelry making, sculpture; you name it, he had it down. And his classroom was equipped in a manner commensurate with his capacities - propane torches, table saws, drill presses, sand blaster, air compresser - all in addition to the gas reduction kiln, electric kiln, jewelry kiln, potter's wheels, slab roller and large-capacity extruder usually associated with the typical potter's studio. I tried as many of the "toys" as possible - probably more than most folks, as I kept pushing the envelope, with Gene's assistance. (I still covet my own sandblaster.)

Although I worked on the wheel quite a bit and did manage to develop some competency on it, it seemed kind of... limiting to me. Hey, it was like being on the merry-go-round - it just did one thing: it went round, and round, and round, and round. So I started exploring the possibilities of the other pieces of equipment - the slab roller and extruder.

This extruder was not the small-capacity, make-a-handle extruder with which a lot of educational facilities content themselves. This was a monstrous, clay-consuming monster of an extruder: you had to feed a good 25 pounds of clay in the beast's maw to get anything out of it. But, using the large dies, you could get good-sized cylinders, octagonal cylinders and square forms you could really make into something. In addition to a series of lamp bases and containers, I made a few tool caddies which I embossed with some leaves, which I still have.

When I set up my own studio, the two things I knew I wanted to have was the largest slab roller and the largest extruder I could afford. (I don't like being limited by my equipment, as I have enough inherent limitations!) In the time I've been working in my own studio, the old bucket I used to carry my tools around really hasn't been particularly workable - especially since I now have a lot of tools. I decided to revisit the tool caddy concept using my high-capacity extruder.

To use the extruder, you attach the desired die to its underside using four large C-clamps, making sure the metal clamps holding the pieces of the die in place are inside the extruder. Cut chunks of clay and feed them into the opening, using the plunger to force the clay into the reservoir. Keep feeding the clay until it starts to come out of the bottom through the die. This is where it gets tricky. To get an upright (as opposed to curved) form, take something flat (like a small slab of wood or a small kiln shelf) and hold it against the bottom edge of the emerging clay form as you continue to use the plunger the force the clay through the die. Once you have extruded the size form you desire, carefully cut it off with a cutting wire. (This is where your placement of the C-clamps can become an issue.)

Using a cutting wire, you can then cut the form to the height you desire for the forms you are fabricating. Because my tools vary in height, I wanted shorter and taller pieces; and because I wanted to be able to see the tools, I angled my cuts as well. Once the pieces were cut to the heights I wanted, I rolled out a slab of clay, placed each cylinder on it and cut out a base for each one. Scoring and slipping the bottom edges of the cylinders and the outer top edge of each base, I slipped and affixed them to one another and worked the edges together until they looked consistent. I rolled out another slab of clay and, using a set of alphabet stamps, stamped the names of the various types of tools - "Score/Poke", "Rib/Kidney", "Cutting", "Ribbon/Loop" (two of these, 'cause I have lots), "Hole Punch" and, of course, "Miscellaneous". I cut out the forms around the lettered areas and applied each to an appropriately-sized form. (I think I have to make a second "Miscellaneous" caddy, at the very least.)

Once the pieces were dry, I used synthetic steel wool to smooth all edges and then bisque fired, as usual, to Cone 06.

To finish the pieces, I wax resisted the bottoms, stained the lettered areas, a different color for each piece, which I wax-resisted that as well. (One of the labels cracked in half for some reason but I was able to affix the broken-off section with white glue and finish the glazing process with no mishaps; the fracture is only visible if you know to look for it.) I then dipped each piece in a glaze complementary to the stain color and fired on stilts.

The result? Tool caddies that not only help me organize my tools but make my work table look pretty darned cool!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Sunflower Masks 6: Petals

The final design for the Clytie masks I've created is what I call "Petals", because I use additional tiny petals as the "accent" for the piece. This idea actually derived from my training as an (Advanced) Master Gardener, where we learned that the family of plants to which the Sunflowers belong (formerly known as the Compositae, now known as the Asteraceae) are characterized by a flowering body made up of two types of flowers - ray flowers, which reside at the perimeter of the flower and characterized by showy petals, and disk flowers, which are much less conspicuous and take up the rest of the flower head. The sequential blooming of the disk flowers explains the ongoing visits by pollinators and, therefore, the fact that these types of plants are a highly valuable resource for our native pollinators.

I decided to take this idea in a slightly different direction, by creating additional petals to accent the faces for these masks. I fabricate the mask as usual, using the two rows of petals (Medium and Tiny Sunflower outer petals for the smaller, more delicately structured female face; Large and Small Sunflower outer petals for the larger, stronger-featured male face) around the perimeter. Then I used the Tiny Sunflower inner petal cutter to make additional petals that I then attached in a manner intended to accentuate the face's inherent structure.

After bisque firing as usual, I glazed using Burnt Umber for the face; I applied Titanium Mason Stain for the entire surface of all the petals and then brushed Orange Mason Stain for just the tips, as I had for the previous post on the masks. This makes for a brighter yet more subtle color combination folks really seem to like.

To finish all of the masks, I use a type of wire I can only seem to find at Lowe's, of all places - a plastic-coated 30-lb picture wire by Ook. I like to use this product because it is less prone to rusting due to the coating; I could use stainless steel wire instead, but it is quite a bit more expensive. I loop it through the holes in the back of the mask and twist securely. These pieces are considerably less than 30 pounds, so I'm not concerned about the wire failing. (I'm not so much buying the wire for its rating as for its coating.)

This is the design I used for the mask of my best friend, Catherine which appeared in a picture taken of me for an article about the Clematis in my garden published in Michigan Gardening magazine in July 2009. I so like this photo - because it incorporates two of my three loves (the other being my cats, of course!) - my garden and my pottery. You can also see three more of the masks I've made of myself and my "sibling friends" (there are nine altogether now, including Carla, to the left of the photo, and Nancy, in the distance to the right; I'm in the back to the left; Sue Ann, Tia, Sharon, Debbie and Stephen are out there as well), all of which stay outside on their posts all year long so I can always visit with my family. (The Clematis is Clematis x 'Barbara Jackman'.)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lace Bowls 3: Goth/Steampunk Wedding Set

Goth/Steampunk Wedding Set
With the wedding season upon us, a number of the galleries and gift shops that carry my lace bowls requested what apparently are referred to as "girlie colors". (Yes, I had to get clarification on the terminology, not surprisingly.) Apparently, jewel tones are acceptable, as are white and pastels.

I wanted to do something a little different. When I first worked with the lace bowls, I had made an entire series of the tiny bowls using each of the glazes in my repertoire. Obviously, some were more successful than others, but sometimes combinations of otherwise less than stellar glazes were pretty interesting. Three glazes in particular - two from the Amaco Potter's Choice series (Saturation Metallic and Saturation Gold) and one I had "inherited" from my first pottery teacher, Gene Pluhar (Metallic Black) - were relatively uninteresting on their own and/or didn't seem to play well with most of the other glazes in my palette. It took my friend Cathy Dossin's interest in the tiny Saturation Metallic lace bowl (later her Christmas gift) to pique my interest in these glazes for these pieces.

Goth/Steampunk Wedding Set
The other part of the puzzle is that I have a friend - she works at the art supply/framing shop in Grosse Pointe Woods I frequent - who is a big steampunk fan. (Yes, I had to ask her to define "steampunk" for me.) She often laments that there is little in the way of "steampunk" goods out there; this is evidently an unappreciated and underrepresented consumer demographic. I thought that I could create a series of bowls using these three "orphan" glazes that could be marketed as a less traditional wedding or anniversary gift for the Steampunk or Goth set. (Hey, all kinds of folks get married!)

I thought a set of three (tiny, small and medium) scalloped bowls would make a compelling ensemble, with the small glazed in Saturation Gold and bracketed by the tiny in Saturation Metallic and the medium in Metallic Black. I wanted to emphasize the contrasts between the three glazes - the dark graphite-like satin of the Saturation Metallic, the brilliant gold satin of the Saturation Gold and the high gloss of the Metallic Black - and how they responded to the highly-figured surface of the lace texture. As a set, they look great tied up with a nice, black (or white!) ribbon.

This set is available at a number of galleries around the Detroit area, including Firebrick Gallery in Rochester, Dancing Eye in Northville and Grosse Pointe Artists Association in Grosse Pointe. Discussions have been rampant as to whether it would better if the three pieces would be better/nicer if they were all finished with the same glaze; most come down on the side of the intriguing contrast of glaze color and character.

I dig their understated yet rebellious elegance.