Friday, December 28, 2012

Hypothetical Havdalah Sets

How do you meet commitments when you get really sick for 10 days, and you run a one-person operation? You have to notify your buyers that their order will be late, while everything grinds to a complete halt. In deference to the season, it occurs to me that you probably need studio elves to keep things going.

I was fresh out of elves the last 9 or 10 days, while I've been down with bronchitis. This stupidly debilitating illness has become a recurring issue over several years, and turns out to be more like asthma now. Finally diagnosed, I have a new medicine regimen that should keep it at bay. I look forward to being in the studio and taking care of business on all levels on a regular basis again by the middle of next week, having healed sufficiently and passed through seasonal and family events.

As a side note, I have ordered a quadruple-filter air cleaner unit for my studio, which should help me stay healthy despite the dust-producing materials of my job.

While I was down and out for the count, all I could muster energy for was sketching. Thinking about Judaica, I sketched variations of a havdalah set design. This would be comprised of a stemless goblet, candleholder and spice box with stopper, on a curvy tray made just to fit them together, an item used in a series of blessings that usher out the Sabbath. The design is coming together. Why was I thinking of this item? Because I get into the challenge of designing and making several components that interact beautifully as a group composition.

Design and execution of the objects are only the first important things to consider. Other questions must be considered fully and a plan put together before I do anything to even create a prototype set.   To consider these questions, I have to generalize and stereotype a little based on my life experience. (If you disagree with my assessments, let's discuss in Comments below!)

Who makes the havdalah ceremony? Usually, Orthodox Jews, who have kept the Sabbath since the evening before, are mindful of making a formal closure on Saturday evening before entering the rest of the week. There is a conundrum to ponder, though. Orthodox Jews already have a special cup, a kiddush cup, for the blessing over the wine on Sabbath, and do not need another separate one to conclude the Sabbath.
One of my carved kiddush cups (found on

They already have a spice box in silver or a base metal like aluminum that they were given for a typical engagement or wedding gift, or maybe they just open a jar of cloves from the spice rack to make a blessing over the heavenly aroma. And a tall braided candle is easily held in the hand (to make the blessing to the Creator), without a special holder. I just don't see the motivation to buy a handmade havdalah set here.

Who buys handmade stoneware Judaica in general? I'm going to suggest that it might be Reform rather than Orthodox or possibly Conservative Jews. Feel free to disagree,  but I'll take the liberty of saying that a broader secular education (with some art thrown in) tends to create a greater aesthetic appreciation for handmade objects. But even with enhanced appreciation for handmade things, (I could certainly be wrong, but let me risk a guess) since there may be less inclination per se to make the havdalah ceremony at all, there would still be little or no inclination to purchase or give a gift of a havdalah set, handmade or not.

Here is what I have noticed with another Judaica item, the washing cup.  Most Reform Jews whom I meet at Judaica craft shows ask me why that giant cup has two handles, indicating unfamiliarity with the ubiquitous Jewish ritual of washing for bread.  Orthodox Jews recognize it instantly, since washing for bread is a constant at meals. But, conversely, an Orthodox person may be quite happy using a plastic cup ($4.50, very light in weight) or a resin cup embedded with dried flowers ($20.00, trendy) which are really, metaphorically speaking, a dime a dozen. He or she might not even think about the option of using a handmade, carved stoneware one for $55.
I have to make that person think of that option.
A one of a  kind washing cup, or "Why does that big mug have two handles?" (Sold. Other carved washing cups at

Where then should havdalah sets be marketed? I conclude it must be Jewish museum gift shops and high end Judaica galleries. That would bring them to the people who connect with Jewish history and ritual and love unique, art-infused, handmade Judaic objects. If these are the markets, then these objects need to be top notch statement pieces, and I must work that into the design from the start. They need to be signed, numbered, limited edition, and of finest quality workmanship. Of course, havdalah sets are just one item of Judaica. The direction of all of my Judaica has to change entirely to higher end.

Well, thinking about this kept one hand in the business while I was otherwise totally out of commission. Whether you agree or disagree with my stereotypical purchaser profiles, what do you think is a good market for fine, handmade Judaica?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Imperfect, a Perfect Experience

I bought a mug at a workshop I went to a couple of weeks ago. I bought it right from the potter at the beginning of the workshop day. Then, in the company of other potters, I watched him work his magic at the potter's wheel through the course of the day.

I learned some things about working with porcelain I didn't know, because my experience is with earthenware and stoneware, and each clay has its own, different working properties. I decided right then to buy some porcelain clay for my studio, and "have a go."

Well, I've been using that mug since then. I'd probably drunk tea out of it over the course of a week and a half before I noticed the faint space between the top left edge of the handle and the body of the mug where it was attached. I happened to be gazing into the complex, micro-crystalline glaze surface, made to sparkle by a shaft of sun on my kitchen table. In the wonderful light, that space-not-quite-a-crack appeared just as if it hadn't been there before. It had been, of course. I just hadn't noticed. It is quite a fine little void of a line.

Tonight, holding the mug of tea warm in my hands, I looked for the not-quite-a-crack and examined it closely. I kind of fell for it. The hand-of-human aspect in the making had become so obvious. The truly handmade imperfectness. It was perfect.

I was in the supermarket this morning. I saw four different styles of mugs on a shelf, for $3.99 apiece. They were all okay. They had no not-quite-cracks on their smooth, unvariegated, glazed bodies. They were...soulless, and... okay. I would not have to experience anything particular holding one of them, except what was in it, soon ingested.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Creamers: Exploring Form & Negative Space

A "darted" creamer starts as a mug. These are large enough for 12 oz. of liquid.
Step 1: Cylinder made on the wheel.
If I kept this as a mug, it would look like this:
This one will go to the winner of the raffle at my last show.
But today I am making creamers, not mugs.
I make a pouring lip while it is still quite damp.
Step 2: A simple pouring lip.

I lighten and finish the bottom edge by smoothing off a little extra clay from around it with my thumb. Then I cut a leaf-shaped dart out of the side.
Step 3: The center of the dart is directly opposite the pouring lip. The angle of the bevel is different for the 2 cut sides of the dart. One side is angled inward, one side angled outward. They merge better this way.
 Slowly and carefully, I bring the cut sides of the dart together. The clay has to be fairly soft, or it will begin to crack above and below the join.
Step 4: A raised seam where the dart is joined. This one was a bit firm and did in fact begin to crack above the join, so I cut it, slipped and scored it, and blended the join all the way up to the rim.
I leave the raised seam made by the join, although I neaten it up some more as I go along.

It looks like this in profile. I'm going to play with this blank thing:
There is a scooped-out area across from the spout now.

The rim could use defining and embellishing, so I make a cut on each of its sides. Where I left the rim uncut across from the spout, I'm left now with an interesting rise, which I am not sure is good there and should possibly be cut off. But let's play with that...
(Note: The spout is now facing right in the photo:)
Step 5: Just cut- two long leaf shapes, one from each side of the rim.
The rim gets dampened, and smoothed gently between thumb and forefinger.
It's important to remove sharp angles on the edges of functional pots. I also smooth a slight flare into the rim at the same time.
Now it's time to figure out the handle design. There's this:
Handle starts inside rim and goes to bottom of darted part. Attitude is a bit tentative.
Or this:
This handle, attached to the outside below the dorsal fin thing, has better negative space inside the curve, but I think I'll decorate that odd fin  Otherwise it has no purpose. Maybe a spot of color...
Underglaze color applied at a drier stage. But I am not inspired.
These not entirely successful forms have me thinking harder about that darted indentation. It should be framed by a handle that's better integrated into the form of the creamer and also makes interesting negative space.
I cut down the fin-like edge above the handle for a good swooping line. My favorite so far. Will do this rim curve on the next batch I make, maybe even more exaggerated.

This just underscores that the fin above the handle really is too self-important. In comparison to the creamer in the photo above this, I am not liking how the fin-shoulder widens the rim profile.
Difference here- I didn't dart this one, I indented the side of the creamer with a big dimple instead of cutting out the leaf shape. More like my un-darted old creamers, but with a forward thrust to the profile that's a bit livelier than of old. Fin still has to go...
While these dry, I will make some hand-pleasers, each one a little critter from one small lump of clay. Want to make a couple of dozen. More on that next time. Stay tuned!