Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Talking to Pots

Mini Pottery
(4" tall)
Sea and Sky Glaze Motif

Clay balls, wedged and ready to throw on potter's wheel

Wheel-thrown and drying before trimming

I doubt that most people know fully what goes into the making of a piece of handcrafted pottery. Folks visit a pottery shop, pick up a mug or bowl, and if the vessel has the "right feel" they pull out their credit card or checkbook and walk away with it securely wrapped in tissue or bubble wrap. Hours of enjoyment ensue, whether gazing adoringly at the newly purchased fine craft or enjoying the ritual bowl of breakfast oatmeal.

Seemingly simple to the average person, but to the potter, it is a labor of love, sometimes blood, a lot of sweat, and occasionally tears. (I'm not joking here....I'll spare you all the gory details, but trust me, it isn't all fun and games!)

Throwing a piece of pottery begins with the clay. Some potters dig their own, myself, I drive a couple times a year to Portland (a six hour jaunt) to load up on the mucky, earthy-scented joy mud. Chris, without complaint, unloads the hundreds of pounds of boxes into the basement pile and there it sits until I am ready to do what I call a "pottery run".

In the past, a "pottery run" consisted of a few ten-to-twelve hour days in a row. With the new set-up, I tend to throw about four to five hours at a time, first thing in the morning. If I am well-prepared, I would have already wedged the balls of clay, in and of itself, a time-consuming task. Wedging is much like kneading bread. It aligns the clay particles in a particular manner and if done well, relieves the clay of little air bubbles, which can be the death of a pot long before the glaze ever graces its sides.

Each ball of clay is wedged about 100 times then set by the wheel for the next step.

Slung upon the wheel-head, the speed is increased and the task of "centering" begins. It looks easy if you watch a skilled potter at the helm. But rest-assured, a first time thrower may be dismayed when they experience the wobbly disobedience of the mound.

The clay is coned, re-centered, and opened. The walls are raised, the lip compressed, the shape formed. Then the base is trimmed (first-time around) and the pot removed from wheel.

Once the pot is dried to a leather-hard stage, it is again placed on the wheel to be trimmed. After that, I attach a "chop signature", add handles if needed, and carve if the pot deems carving, then set the pot aside to dry. This could take two days or three weeks, depending on the humidity. This summer, it has taken the latter.

The first firing is called bisque. It basically removes the moisture from the clay. Pots are loaded, and stacked inside one another for efficiency of space. That firing, to cone 05, takes anywhere from 9-12 hours. After cooling for several hours, the kiln is re-opened, and shelf by shelf, the pots are removed and bottoms waxed to prep for glazing.

A kiln load of pottery takes me about 16 hours to glaze. That's one very long day or two, depending on my stamina and schedule that week. Pots are reloaded into kiln, this time much more carefully, and fired to cone 5 (approximately 2150 degrees fahrenheit).

The entire process, from wedging to removing from the glaze firing, is about a six week span of time. So when I run out of a particular item that is in demand, it is not as easy as saying "I'll whip-up one of those for you for the weekend."

An extra "step" that I add to my pottery is that I "talk" to the clay. I tend to be a bit eccentric and did inherit my Nana's pension for talking when no one else is around to listen. I also get a lot of stares and smiles in the market as I walk the aisles and talk to myself about what ingredients are in a special recipe. I also talk out loud when alone when I do my three mile walks, planning out the next art project and what process might work best. So, there's a lot of unrequited talking going on here.

But what I say to my pottery while it is being formed is unique, I think. As I center, I remind myself to find my own "center. When I center I also push down upon the clay as I exhale and say "letting go". (Don't we all have something that we need to let go of?)

As I push my finger in to the spinning mud, I repeat" opening up to love" and as I push the clay from the side walls back to the center opening, I repeat "sending the love back into the center of the universe for all to receive." I pull up the pot walls and speak of "strength and fortitude" and remind the clay that anyone who holds the pot in their hands will experience a deep capacity for love and kindness toward all beings.

It's a tall order, I know. At first when I began this ritual, I thought that I was merely sending this energy out to the folks who purchased a piece of my work. Then it dawned on me; I am touching this clay for hours on end, days on end. Am I not receiving this abundance of healing energy myself?

I certainly believe I am. And this recognition has me wanting to sit at the wheel more and more to soak up the feel-good vibes that the clay and I are exchanging.

I do hope that anyone and everyone who holds one of my "made with love" pots feels that love overflowing in their lives as well.


Kim Hambric said...

Not enough people know the efforts required by an artist or craftsperson in creating a single piece. So often, they are asked how long a piece took to make, as if to see if the time required matches up to the cost of the product.

And so often, they ask for a discount.

Thanks for sharing your procedures and your thoughts during creating your work.


thanks for commenting, kim, and again, your comment could spark a whole other blog entry.

too many people have a wal-mart mentality; they look for the cheapest price, sacrificing quality, and without regard to the people who work in horrible sweatshop conditions - just to save a few dollars.

as far as time equating to service - what a consumer often forgets to take into account is that an artist is self-employed. a basic hourly wage does not account for insurance, taxes, supplies, utilities, etc. (we don't ask questions when hiring a carpenter because we know that his/her hourly wage is figured accordingly).

Also, the thinking time before the project even begins, the original idea, and that for every piece that does sell, there are two or three pieces that do not for various reasons - and that time must be factored in. They are a necessary part of the process.

I never ask an artist for a discount because I know the value of their time and creative ideas. Thankfully, it is rare that I encounter someone who is so bold as to ask for a discount.

I now always say no. Even though it is hard and sometimes prevents the sale from occurring, I feel that I need to stick my ground. Society reaps the benefits of an arts-enriched world, and in order for artists to continue their work, they need to be compensated appropriately.

Anonymous said...

I have an even greater appreciation for the clay pieces of "love" that I have bought from you over the years! I really like that you talk to yourself... you are not alone! Happy Summer~! Pam