Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gerbera Daisies

After I "mastered" my Original Sunflowers and long before I even thought of making Fancy or Deluxe Sunflowers, I wanted to try my hand at making other types of flowers that could go on stakes. Daisies and daisy-like flowers immediately came to mind. Following the same routine I had developed with the sunflowers, I created templates for three sizes of daisy petals.

I had an interesting Shasta Daisy cultivar that seemed to be somewhat doubled, with two rows of petals. One of the challenges with all of these types of pieces is having it all hold together through the fabrication, drying and bisque-firing steps of the process. The pieces of clay used to make the petals are so small that they need all the help they can get to "hold it together." The most difficult step was transferring the bone dry pieces to the kiln shelf for bisque firing.

I started out by making the flange - the portion of the clay used to make the center of the flower that extends beyond the edge of the underlying mold - very wide to support the petals applied on top of it. I also used at least two rows of graduated petals to provide additional bracing. These two steps helped but I still experienced a lot of product loss attributable to the greenware loading phase.

Eventually, I figured out that, if I loaded the pieces onto the shelves right after I have finished fabricating them - pulled them off the molds when still only leather hard (or even sooner), put in the holes for a quarter-inch post and for a wire for hanging, made other final touches and signed the pieces, I load them directly onto the shelves right there an then. I have learned that I can actually load right side up and upside down, as long as I'm very careful. Because the pieces are not yet dry, they are less brittle and more able to accommodate. The only trick is to not try to load the full shelves right down to the bottom of the kiln: they are very heavy and the petals usually extend slightly beyond the edge of the shelf, so it's better to have loaded other work for the first two to three levels in the kiln. Through this technique, I have been able to reduce my loss in this phase of the process to less than five percent. (Losses later in the process have always been negligible.)
Baby Daisy

The pieces are very similar to the sunflowers in construction. Using White Stoneware for Daisies and Gerbera Daisies and Peach Stoneware for Black-eyed Susans, a textured slab of clay (I initially used the waffle-textured foil lid found on cans of peanuts and mixed nuts, but those didn't hold up very well over time and so switched to burlap to give the sense of the disk flowers in the center of each blossom) is slumped over a mold made from a small bowl. The slab is cut so a quarter- to a half-inch clay flange extends beyond  the edge of the mold, which is scored and slipped. Petals are applied (the bases of the petals are actually folded over to provide more support and adhering surface area) around the flower's center.

What is different about the these pieces is that, once I've applied each row of petals and patted each into place securely, using my nitrile-gloved thumb or a soft wooden tool, I score a mid-rib on each petal, a small detail that really adds some sorely-needed dimension to the pieces after they are stained or glazed. I the apply the additional row(s) of petals (there are a total of two rows for Baby Daisies and Regular Daisies; Deluxe Daisies have three rows of graduated petals), scoring each row of petals as I did the first. Then, I "roll" the tips of pairs of petals toward one another to create an undulating sense of movement for the entire piece.

Regular Gerbera Daisy
My final touch is to roll, twist or bend three random petals on each piece (one on the Baby Daisies). Previously, I had accidentally twisted a petal in a Deluxe Black-eyed Susan when fabricating it and a customer specifically chose that piece because of this "mistake", so I've now included that in the "recipe" for my Daisies, Black-eyed Susans and Gerbera Daisies. Once the pieces are leather hard, I finish them as described above, load them onto kiln shelves and let them dry completely. (Sometimes I'll load them into the kiln before they're bone dry but "soak" them to 225 degrees F before firing to Cone 06.)

Glazing for the Gerbera Daisies consists of brushing Titanium Mason Stain solution on the center and pulling off the excess, once dry with a damp sponge to bring up the texture. Sometimes I wax the center but not always - if you have a steady hand, you won't need to do so. I apply two coats of Amaco's Celebration Series glazes to the top side of the petals, being careful to work it into the areas between petals and around petals that have been twisted or rolled. One coat is applied to the underside. (I usually alternate, applying the first coat to the top, then flipping the piece over and glazing the bottom; by the time I'm done what that, the top is usually dry enough to reglaze). I pop the piece on a three-inch kiln post to dry completely before taking them out to the kiln to load. (Note: The Lilac and Burgundy in this glaze series seem to need three coats to get adequate coverage.) I load the pieces on stilts and fire to Cone 6.
Deluxe Gerbera Daisy

Once cooled, I make sure the holes for the quarter-inch post are the right size; if not, they are easily corrected with a Dremel and diamone bit. I add a piece of plastic-coated picture wire and they're ready for use, indoor or out, on a post or just to hang.

The Gerbera Daisies come in three sizes (Baby, Regular and Deluxe) and 21 colors - all 20 colors from the Amaco Celebration Series plus my own proprietary "Gerbera Daisy Pink" I developed some years ago using a mixture of two glazes from that series plus one from their Sahara High Fire Series. The pieces are weather proof and can stay outside here in Michigan all year long.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Small Lace Kimono Yarn Bowl

Just less than a year ago, I ran into the owner of a yarn shop with whom I had had a not-particularly-successful retail relationship. We had really connected on the theoretical level: She strongly believed in the artisan tradition and wanted to support it by offering other art in her shop. Unfortunately, the folks shopping there didn't even really "see" the pottery she was offering because they weren't expecting to see it there. (I could tell you dozens of stories of folks who have been to my booth at numerous events who have said to me, "You've never had those before!" about an item I've been showing for ten years; selective vision is a reality.) Anyway, we encountered one another again in February 2012 and she inquired as to whether I'd be interested in working on a few projects with them, including buttons and yarn bowls.

I tried out a few ideas and developed an interesting line of lace-embossed ceramic buttons. As I don't throw, however, the yarn bowl concept was more... challenging. It wasn't until I saw a slab-constructed cup at Rovin Ceramics that I figured out how I could tackle the project using my preferred technology.

In designing a Yarn Bowl, there are a couple things to consider: (1) We don't want the yarn rolling all over the place, hence the bowl, but the bowl has to be roomy enough that the ball or cake of yarn can move freely as it unwinds; and (2) there has to be a slot and/or hole through which to feed the yarn smoothly. The slot vs. hole thing perplexes me. I've been told the slot is preferred because then the fiber artist doesn't have to break or cut the yarn; but I've knitted, and eventually you either do have to break or cut the yarn if you're changing colors and the skein is gonna end sometime, regardless. But, regardless, there are folks who want a slot and not a hole through which to feed their yarn.

After a couple of false starts (clay way too plastic; slab too thin; bowl way too big and tall, lots of warping), I came up with a design for a small ball of yarn (suitable for skeins of cotton and/or silk blend yarns) which I'll be able to translate to a larger size for chunkier, wool and wool-blend yarns. Realizing the piece will shrink ten to fifteen percent, I figured out the final diameter of the bowl I wanted to create and factored it by 1.15 (for the shrinkage). I multiplied that by pi (3.14) to determine the circumference I needed for that diameter. I decided the height should be a bit more than the diameter to keep the yarn from popping out.

After rolling out a sufficiently large clay slab, I rolled in an oblong piece of lace for texture and, using a carpenter's square, cut out the size slab I had calculated. Flipping it over so the lace texture was on the bottom, I used the same square to mark an inch up from the bottom and then marked four sections across the bottom and mitered at those marks and at either end, to make the bottom of the cylinder. Cutting a square slab of clay slightly smaller than the desired diameter, I folded up the mitered sections and rolled the large slab into a cylinder, so the miters all met in clean corners

Scoring and slipping the edges of the cylinder and the top of the base slab, I knitted the seam together and positioned the cylinder on the base. Using an icing knife (it's amazing what uses I can find for the tools of other trades!), I clean up the miters at the bottom of the inside of the vessel and pinch the outside corners together with my fingers. I also smooth the seam with a wooden tool. I wanted to make the seam both secure and interesting, so I cut out flat clay medallions using the same lace pattern, scored and slipped the undersides and affixed them along the outside of the seam. I then set the pieces aside to dry until leather hard.

Once leather hard, I cut out the holes in the middle of the medallions in the lace-patterned sides of the pieces and cut a slot down to one of them as well. It is very important to not do this until the piece is leather hard, as the clay will warp as it dries. I even put a large rubber band around the outside of each piece to keep it as aligned as possible as they finished drying. Once dry, I cleaned the pieces up with synthetic steel wool, keeping in mind there should be absolutely no rough spots to catch on the yarn. I then bisque fired them to Cone 06.

I had thought a lot about the glazing for these pieces. they reminded me of traditional kimono for some reason, with the textured brocades of the obi and the juxtaposition of non-analogous colors. I decided to finish them with two overlapping glazes, using the Amaco Potter's Choice Temmoku first and then overlaying with more brightly-colored selections from the same series, including Indigo Float, Lustrous Jade, Vert Lustre, Ironstone and Textured Turquoise. I was very pleased with the results, as the glazes and glazing technique further enhanced the lace texture.

These pieces work great for finer-textured fibers, including silk and cotton blends. I'm going to make some larger ones for chunky wool blends next!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Large Prairie Dock Leaf Sculpture

A couple of years ago, I purchased, among other things, some Silphium terebinthinaceum (Prairie Dock) to include in my native plant garden. Prairie Dock is a member of the Rosinweeds, including such varied, but invariably gigantic, species as Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) and the name species, Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium). These are all planted side by side in my garden so visitors can see both their similarities and differences - their common height (close to or over nine feet, oftentimes), their beautiful yellow flowers, their differing foliage form and arrangement.

They've also been a consistent source of inspiration for my pottery. In 2011, I collected a number of leaves from my (and a friend's) Cup Plants as well as small leaves from my young Prairie Dock in order to create a series of rather large cupped leaves, using varying stains for the upper faces and many of the warm earth-tone glazes from my repertoire. Like the sunflower leaves I had worked with that season, they had thick midribs which I reinforced with various designs in applied clay. They were as much sculptures in their own right as usable serving pieces - and, personally, I would have preferred them to have been appreciated simply for their botanical beauty.

Prairie Dock is characterized by a basal rosette of large - sometimes three-feet long! - paddle-shaped leaves from which arise the tall, nearly naked, flower stems. It was these larger leaves - perhaps not three feet long, but as long as my material would permit - that I hoped to use in my work to create some really outstanding pieces, if only due to their very size. It's always rewarding to share some of these larger leaf pieces with my audience, informing them in the process that the leaf was actually ten to twelve percent larger when the fabrication process began, that the piece has actually shrunk quite a bit as it has dried and then been both bisque and glaze fired.

In 2012, I harvested a couple of large leaves and made two pieces. I followed my typical process of rolling out a fairly thick slab, removing the texture, rolling in the (in this case, fresh) leaf and cutting it out with a sharp tool. I then carefully flipped it over on the canvas and designed and applied the decoration at the base of the mid-rib. I have found a series of spiraled arabesques (made using clay extruded from a Kemper Clay Gun with a round die) is both highly functional for this purpose - the support is strengthened as their arrangement "knits" everything together, both visually and structurally - but is also a popular motif with many of my clients.

In this case, I took a long coil and made a small spiral at the far end of the overall supporting design and carried it out to the very tip of the leaf as an additional flourish. One dried too quickly and I was unable to rescue the leaf for a second attempt. The piece I thought would not survive - as I had arranged it in the mold asymmetrically, putting additional stresses on the material - actually made it through the bisque firing in one piece.
I finished the piece by staining the top with Woodland Mason Stain and glazing the bottom and edges with Amaco's Potter's Choice Ancient Jasper. Although the color palette for this glaze is very similar to that of the Ironstone glaze from the same series, the results is startlingly different - it really does have the mottled appearance of a piece of polished jasper. Altogether, it makes for a beautiful and unique piece that is a interesting when viewed from the bottom as from the top. It would be quite effective displayed on a glass-topped table with a mirror in the base, so as to enjoy both faces at the same time! 

I harvested the remaining dried Prairie Dock leaves at the end of the season in Fall 2012. I hope to have time to work with them some more this winter.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sunflower Leaf Seder Plate

Large Sunflower Leaf Seder Plate
Some time ago I posted about the Lace Crosses I had been asked to make, which eventually evolved into Lace Stars of David. With moderate success for both of these designs, my friend Sharon suggested I try my hand at making a seder plate.

For those who don't know (and I didn't, particularly), the Seder is the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover. The feast involves the retelling of the Jewish people's escape from oppression under Egypt's Pharaoh, which is found in the Book of Exodus. The Seder itself honors the command to retell the story as found at Exodus 13:8: "You shall tell your child on that day, saying,'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" Customs associated with the seder include the drinking of a prescribed amount of wine, eating matza (unleavened bread), partaking of various symbolic foods arranged on a Passover Seder Plate and reclining in celebration of freedom from oppression. The Passover Seder is celebrated in essentially the same manner by Jews throughout the world.

The Seder Plate itself consists of a plate with six compartments or dishes to hold the six symbolic foods: Maror and chazaret, the bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of slavery; charoset, a sweet, brown mixture made from chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon and sweet red wine to symbolize the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt; karpas, a vegetable other than the bitter herbs (usually parsley, celery or boiled potato) dipped in salt water (to symbolize tears) mirroring the pain felt by the slaves in Egypt; z'roa, the only item of meat on the Seder Plate, usually a roasted lamb or goat shankbone or chicken wing, symbolizing the Pesach sacrifice; and beitzah, a hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the festival sacrifice which also commemorates the mourning associated with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Sharon felt that my large sunflower leaves could be adapted to be used as a Seder Plate, with six small sunflower leaves as the individual dishes. I had already fabricated over 50 small sunflower leaves in the Fall of 2012, having collected them just before the frost killed them all off. I had made each one with a small arabesque at the base of the stem to reinforce that vulnerable area and provide a bit of decoration. They had been sitting for several weeks as I prepared for the 3rd Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House in early December.

Large Sunflower Leaf Seder Plate - Detail of Underside
After that event, I decided to try out Sharon's idea. I had made a sunflower leaf but it had cracked while drying. I carefully removed the original leaf, re-registered the parts and laid them on moist newsprint, sprayed it with water and covered it with more moist newsprint to rehydrate. Meanwhile, I rolled out a fairly thick clay slab, smoothing away the canvas texture on one side. Once the leaf was flexible, I carefully dried it off and laid it on the clay, rolling it in with my big rolling pin. After I carefully cut it out with a very sharp cutting tool, I flipped it over to apply the decoration to the back.

Because the main veins of these leaves are so large, it is essential that they be reinforced; otherwise, they will crack - if not in drying or during the bisque firing, certainly in the glaze firing. So, I fabricate spiraling arabesques of clay using my Kemper Klay Gun with a round die. (I had forgotten about the arabesques on the small sunflower leaves.) I made a series of differently-sized spirals and arranged them, scoring and slipping the underlying surface, in a random yet pleasing array. I added two little outliers to make it more interesting. I carefully flipped the piece over and rolled it onto the large rolling pin and, holding the pin in place in relation to the handles, carefully unrolled the clay slab into a mold, where I gently pressed it in, careful not to distort the underlying design.

Large Sunflower Leaf Seder Plate - Underside
I put the piece in a corner and forgot about it for a few days. When it was dried enough I removed it from the mold and signed it. When it was completely dry, I carefully cleaned up all the rough edges with synthetic steel wool, then bisque fired slowly. I dug out six small sunflower leaves and prepared to glaze. I had decided to glaze with Amaco's Potter's Choice True Celadon with the three yellow stains (Titanium, Praseodymium and Vanadium) as a complement.

Imagine my surprise when I realized, having stained and waxed the leaves' upper surfaces, that the shape of the arabesques on all seven pieces were exactly the same! I finished glazing the pieces and fired them - again, slowly - upside down on clean posts so they would be completely resolved.

When I pulled them out of the kiln, I was delighted. Of course, I really didn't know if they were going to meet Sharon's expectations. I was relieved (and a bit pleased) to find, when I talked to her later, that the piece exceeded even her high expectations. So, I've already started on three more - I only have three leaves left from the harvest, which I have carefully stored against the day.... And I have many, many more ideas for Seder Plates!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012: The Year in Review

It seemed to me a good thing to recap the events of the last 366 days - a lot has happened and I have many people to thank. I know I'll miss some of you; if I have, my apologies - I know there are folks out there who have helped me in ways of which I'm completely unaware but I am nonetheless grateful for all you've done to help make 2012 a successful year for Black Cat Pottery.

Our events this year started out slowly (it's never helpful when we have mizzly, drizzly weather for our Clematis Pruning Workshop in April) but we had outstanding turnouts for our Summer Garden Tour - 150 people! - and our Holiday Open House. Friends Theresa Dearhamer, Sharon Bass and Catherine Dumke-Derbyshire lent essential assistance in making these events the success they were, as well as the other participating artists - Chris Hopp, Don Schulte, Tim Hanks, Glenda Hopp, Karen Hooper and Bob McGowan.

I decided pretty early in the year to start focusing more on getting my work into galleries and shops throughout the state of Michigan, with an eye to growing the wholesale/consignment side of my business. I took a lot of road trips - often with my friend Theresa Dearhamer (during a recent break to take in the Barbra Streisand/Seth Rogan flick The Guilt Trip, we concurred that the two of us would not make it through an eight-day cross-country odyssey). We made two trips through the center of the state up to the Leelanau Peninsula and then up into the Upper Peninsula, as far north as Copper Harbor. (I believe that's as far north as you can go and still be on land in Michigan, except for Isle Royale.) I also took several trips on my own, including points west and east of Detroit. As a result of these efforts, I was able to add 14 new accounts.

As I've said, I've had a lot of help doing this. Many friends have been instrumental in recommending galleries to me or recommending me to galleries, including (but not limited to and in no particular order) Andrew Lathrup, Renate Favour, Melanie Boyle, Janine Bauchat, Joyce Diemond-Mcgowan Janicki, Chris Hopp and Chelsea Martin, Blue Dingman, Cleve Hayes, Glenda Hopp, Karen Hooper, Jackie McMahon, Trish Hacker-Henig, Lambro Niforos, Julie and Bob Peterson, Theresa Shepherd and Sharon Bass. And the suggestions keep rolling in. Not all of them are "right" for the direction I'm taking with my work but I have diligently checked out each and every one (in person if possible). Through these suggestions - and the faith these and other folks have had in my work - I was able to exceed my 2012 wholesale/consignment goal.

It hasn't all been good news. Some relationships were not sufficiently productive; sometimes getting the right "fit" is tough, regardless of how hard the artist and business owner work together to make it happen. Other opportunities disappeared due to the ongoing difficult economy. Probably the most disappointing development for me in 2012 is the closing of Firebrick Gallery and Pottery Studio in Rochester, a business with which I had had a fruitful professional and personal relationship for many years.

Owner Christine Laikind, like so many businesses, was hit hard by the economic downturn, coupled with an eight-month, wall-to-wall renovation of Main Street. Christine is a marketing genius - partnering with other businesses in the area for art openings and charitable causes (her Empty Bowls Fundraiser was a yearly highlight). She also provided eclectic and varied creative opportunities, from painting workshops to studio memberships. We were able to put together a series of very successful pottery workshops in the fall of 2012 which brought in record enrollments and we were planning an additional series for 2013.

Although those opportunities will no longer exist for us in Rochester, Christine and I are still working together to keep the energy going at Black Cat Pottery. We are looking forward to doing some printing workshops in conjunction with the two annual Garden Tours (June 1 and August 17, 2013) as well as stand-alone pottery workshops. If you were interested in doing a Beer Stein Party with Christine - don't give up! We're going to try to make that happen, if folks are interested.

So, the lesson for 2013: There is a silver lining to every cloud. I am excited about developing more programming here at Black Cat Pottery, in addition to our annual Pruning Workshop, Garden Tours and Holiday Open House. I will be doing much, much more on my Etsy shop - look for us there at TheBlackCatPottery. If you see something you like - or don't see something you'd like to see there - let us know!

I'll also have an article on non-vining Clematis in Michigan Gardener this year as well as an article on native plants in that same publication in 2014 - and I'm still working on my adult fairytale, The Raccoon's Bride. I will also be speaking on the restoration of a typical urban lot at the upcoming Wildflower Association of Michigan conference at Michigan State University in March (where I'll also be sharing Black Cat Pottery and Notable Greetings notecards and prints), as well as various other speaking engagements (and even the occasional conference) throughout the state. Check the calendar to the left for current information.

If all goes well, I'll be at Royal Oak Clay, Glass and Metal in June and Art and Sole in Grosse Pointe come September. If you miss me at one of those events, I'm always happy to meet with customers at the studio. And I'm hoping to push the boundaries and work on getting my work out of state. So, if you know of a really great gallery or shop where you'd like to see some Black Cat Pottery - in Michigan or points beyond, let me know!

Thank you so much for your support in 2012 and best to you all for 2013!