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!

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