Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Julia Art of a Clay Handbuilding Demo

On Friday, I drove down to East Windsor, New Jersey, to Meadow Lakes Senior Living It was the closing day of the NJ Senior Art Show. showing best-in-state artwork by artists 60+. I was on the educational program, doing a clay working demonstration from 11-noon. (Marketing note to working potters and crafters: use those tags and labels! An organizer had thus found my website, and me, through a search using the phrase "NJ potter".)

I used to do mini clay demos for groups of campers at Camp Simcha (1994-2001), where I ran the Pot Shop (Bigger kids: "Do you sell pot here?" chuckle, chuckle,) and where I taught kids ages 6-18 the processes to make projects. But it was like no time had passed once I got going with the demo on Friday morning.

The audience this time was made up of nearly all artists, mostly painters and photographers. Some also had experience with clay. I was about to explain something fairly basic, which is taking slabs and putting them over hump molds and into slump molds to make plates and trays. But after 27 years of handling clay, I figured I could add some intellectual dimension even to the presentation of relatively uncomplicated techniques. In order to make the one short hour interesting and full, I’d practiced and followed certain pieces right through glaze firing for the last month or so, simplifying technique and number of tools used. I had taken the challenge as a reason to handbuild instead of my usual wheel-throwing. There would be no potter's wheel available and the demo needed to be completed in a very clean presentation room.

I planned it like Julia Child's cooking show! I demonstrated making the plate, platter and bowl  like Julia made recipes. The platter, for example, went much like the following.
French Chef, Julia Child (source

On her show, let's say Julia was making pie. First Julia would  have made the filling and set it aside. Following the step-by-step idea, I made the slabs of clay and set them aside at home on Thursday night, ready to bring to Meadow Lakes next day. (A covering of plastic kept the slabs moist and flexible.)   Julia demonstrated how she mixed up and rolled out the dough, and how to fold it into the pan. Demonstrating at Meadow Lakes, I showed how to texture the clay slabs with handmade tools, using a carved wooden coggle wheel and a flower-patterned stamp.  I showed how to drape the clay into my slump mold (in this case a plastic tray from IKEA), and then I cut away excess clay from around the edges. I added extra surface stamping to my soft, textured pieces. 
(Remember, you can always click on the photos for an enlarged view.)
Freshly made, soft slab platter, in slump mold

 Let’s say Julia had to bake the crust before filling it. She would put the pan into the oven, and at the same time take out from the oven a fully baked piecrust, and say something like, “In the interest of time, I made this earlier.” Following Julia's pattern, I showed the people the semi-finished, "leather-hard" piece I had made the evening before, looking quite like the one I had just made fresh from soft clay, but having lost most of its moist sheen, and no longer malleable(Note: Yes, you saw me practicing this form in a previous blog post.)
Leather-hard platter from previous evening, removed from slump mold

Julia might then fill the piecrust with the prepared filling, and when she put that filled pie into the oven, she would simultaneously take out a finished pie. Following the Julia pattern, I showed the people in my audience a glazed, fired, complete piece of pottery, very similar to what they had just seen me make. 
Platter; a finished pie, as it were

Role model, Julia Child! The methodology worked beautifully.
As a side note: I had put prices on the bottom of my pieces, just in case. You never know.* (*Marketing note to artist crafters: Don't miss a chance to sell, sell, sell!) I also distributed flyers for the Potters Guild show, where I will be with my work on November 11th- come see!

*Sunday Nov. 11th
Time:  12 am to 5 pm
Place: Community Presbyterian Church, at 1459 Deer Path in Mountainside (corner of Deer Path and Meeting House Lane, social hall entrance)
(Cash, check or credit cards accepted)

(*One more marketing note: Always get the word out!)

It's a most interesting potting life, people. No matter how long I've been at it, it is a learning opportunity every step of the way. 

Post script: Now that I have been reminded how much fun it is, if you have a clay demo opportunity for me, it is very likely I will be interested! Go to my website,, and Contact me. And as ever, thanks for reading about the art and business of pottery!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thank You, Selma

Selma, 2010
       I had a friend, Selma. We met in 1985 in the Ceramics studio of our local college. I was in my late 20s, back in school after my second child started walking. Selma was then in her late 60s.
       I was looking for the ability and training in art that I had gradually lost as I grew up in a place not always sympathetic to art. My husband and I had bought four stacking mugs from a potter in a Greenwich Village street fair five years before, and I had been thinking ever since,I can do that!” (Little did I realize how much learning was involved!)
A doctor’s wife, Selma had raised her children full time, and when the youngest went to college, began her avocation as a craftsman. By the time I met her, Selma had been making her own sort of pots on and off for a couple of decades, developing her deceptively simple style.
Selma had a lot of confidence. She had done a lot of looking at art of all sorts, and continued to do so as long as I knew her. There were galleries and museum shows to see, art books to learn from, courses to take. There were trips to theater and opera. There was her beloved daily newspaper, which she read cover to cover. Selma absorbed intellectual and aesthetic lore with passionate abandon, though her demeanor was always collected and gracious so that perhaps “abandon” is a funny word to use. But there it is. Passionate abandon.
Selma was a beautiful woman in the best sense, tall and naturally very slim in late middle age, with a thick shock of white hair, a warm and gracious smile, and luminous dark eyes. She liked to wear a bit of eyeliner and some foundation to cover the sunspots from years of tennis. She was always conscious of elegance, even with clay on her arms, even wearing an old pair of pants and her old brown shoes while she worked. She had won athletic awards in high school, and an aura of erect grace always remained in her bearing even though a car accident years before had left her with a permanent limp. Despite her elegance, lest you think she might be, she was not a snob.
When I met her, she had a yen to talk about art, and I had a yen to hear it. We talked quite a lot in the college studio as we worked, about life and art, me a newbie with clay and she an old pro. I sometimes thought that if we were close in age, if I had met her when she was in high school, it is quite possible we would not have become friends. I was an introvert in my late 20s, and from the way she told it to me later, she was anything but. So I think we met at the right time to grow into friends.
She taught me something simple about pots that I had to practice and grow into for years afterward: “The inside has to agree with the outside.” She showed me what she meant as she made her own pots. It was a gentle but very persuasive conversation.
Handles on her mugs and pitchers were always as small as possible while still having enough room in them to be comfortable in the hand. Selma had perspective about things like this. I wanted to hear her perspective. Sometimes I disagreed, but still, I heard.
When she worked at the wheel, her pots had a softness of form that became harmonic counterpoint with the hardness of the piece once it was fired. When she worked with slabs, she liked to leave torn edges, quite different from the thrown work. But color and texture brought it all to one strong, quiet statement.
The colors Selma loved were usually oatmeal, golden brown, brilliant mazarine blue, deep semi-matt chocolate brown, rich cocoa-spotted bright rust, tenmoku black breaking to iron silver, and still more. The textures were often burlap rough or tree bark crackly, with bumps, indentations and lines made by pressing in found objects both organic and industrial. She really liked an irregular edge. She found her inspiration in things like seashells and rocks, pieces of bone, and oddments like terraced bits of tree fungus.
She rolled clay into a slab, tore pieces from it and slapped them back on, pressed some of her texture bits into the clay, and placed the whole crazy quilt into a fabric cradle or a giant wok to form them. This way she made plates and bowls of all sizes. She poured, splashed and trailed glazes with exuberant freedom, always with a particular objective and always with respect for serendipitous play.
One day after coffee at her house, she gave me this cream and sugar set, right off a kitchen shelf. It has lived in my studio ever since. It has a gentle delicacy that I like:
Cream and Sugar- notice the sweet little handle

Selma died a year or so ago, at age 94.
Today I met her daughter at Selma’s still-art-filled house, which is nearing sale. Her daughter greeted me at the door and immediately offered me my choice of Selma’s pots covering the dining room table. I chose a group of four vases. I remember this clay and these glazes from our time at the college. The rich browns and bottle forms give this group lovely solidarity. I hope I was not greedy to take all four, but they seem like a family:
Bottle Vase Family

 We went down to the basement where Selma had her small workshop. I helped her daughter take inventory, in the hope that homes can be found for glaze chemicals and the old kiln and tools. I came away with kiln shelves and posts, a makeshift wedging table, and two great big bisqued wall plates in a form I remember Selma making; I will glaze them and keep them. As I carried out a box of kiln posts, I passed Selma’s tan apron hanging on a peg and thought of her, in her usual turtleneck and silver earrings, wearing that apron, moving with a slight limp around the glaze table at the college, or sitting at her usual potter’s wheel, trimming a pot so that the inside agreed with the outside. I felt a great sense of gratitude to Selma and a powerful nostalgia for our friendship, unlike any other in my life. I so enjoyed knowing her.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pretty Pots, Sassy Slab Work, and Show Information

Small Jars, from 5"-8" tall, with cut foot ring, first pots with a bit of glaze sprayed through my new little mouth atomizer for added color subtlety.

Bowls, from 8"-10" tall. They came out well, but I will re-fire at least one in the new kiln,  to see whether the interior rust color will deepen to a redder (less green-y) hue with slower cooling after peak temperature.

Textured Platter, approx. 15" x 11". The branch was drawn on the raw clay piece right after it was formed. Glazes went on over that after the bisque fire.
Above are a few pots from the last glaze kiln, which I fired approximately a month ago.

I may have been away from the studio a whole lot since then, but it's been anything but a dry phase. I've watched terrific technique DVDs from Erin Furimsky (surface decoration) and Lorna Meaden (throwing techniques and aesthetic considerations) in the last month, plus the usual online videos from the prolific Simon Leach and Hsin Chuen Lin, plus the usual video snippets and posts from many others I find on Ceramic Arts Daily. There were photos and articles in Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Illustrated, and information absorbed from using handmade pottery every day. 

I have two shows coming up in November, one with the Potters Guild of NJ on 11/11/12 (the guild will be there the 10th and 11th, but I'll just be there in person on Sunday) and the other in a terrific little craft show at the Nanuet Hebrew Center in New City, NY, on 11/18/12.

September and the first part of October were super-busy with holidays and family. (Did I mention grandtwins, now nearly 3 months old???) By the time the holidays ended Tuesday evening, I was pining to get back to my bright studio and make new work. Wednesday and Thursday were full steam ahead, productive and engrossing with work made from rolled-out slabs of clay. It was like getting back in touch with a very dear friend.

Stamped Tray, approx. 11" x 7.5"

Long Oval Platter, approx. 17" x 11", underglaze design based on a sketch

The first pieces I made on my return to the studio, a set of 8 appetizer plates, approx. 6" x 4". Glaze will pool nicely into the strong texture, made with a carved wooden roulette and my own, homemade flower stamp.

All this slab work (and more) was inspired by a request I received to demonstrate handbuilding techniques. I've been increasingly interested in non-wheel work, because of its textural possibilities, so I happily said Yes to the request. I will be doing an hour-long demo of handbuilding of items like the plates and trays above, at the 46th New Jersey Senior Citizens Annual Art Contest and Exhibition. The event will take place at Meadow Lakes (senior living community) in East Windsor, NJ on Friday, October 26th, mid-morning (11-approximately 12:15).  I call it "From Clay Slice to Delicious Dish." Visit, see the demo, and say hi!

While Thursday's handbuilding and underglazing was going on, the tech came to hook up the vent on the new, digital (programmable) kiln, which is due to fire its first glazed pots in a week or so. OK. I confess. I'm so excited about this kiln I could bust. I've now invested in a way to make my electric-fired glazes richer looking, with slower cooling in the kiln at the end of each firing. Can't wait to get the process going. But that's a story for another day!