Oct 29 2007

Favourite tools to have at the wheel

When you first start learning how to make pottery, you follow your teacher’s lead. You follow the same techniques, use the same tools, and emulate your teacher as best as you can. You take what you learn with you throughout your potting career. Lowell’s favourite thing to say to students as they start out is “First you learn the rules, then you learn there are no rules”. Sure, there are other ways to do the same thing, but as with learning a language, getting a good foundation in the fundamentals is important.

Over time and with experience, we all come to find techniques, tricks, or tools that work better for each of us. Its always fun visiting other peoples’ studios. I’ve noticed over the years that no 2 potters work in exactly the same manner. And potters, while for the most part a kind and friendly lot, are pretty quirky. The longer they work alone in their studio, it seems, the quirkier they get too. …but that’s another post for another day!

Right now I am throwing on an old Creative Industries wheel. I had been throwing on an even older Soldner wheel, up until August when, unfortunately, the 35 yr old motor finally bit the dust (hoping to repair it after this next show).

The chair I use to sit at it is actually an old stool from a yard sale, cut to height. The front legs are cut 2 or so inches shorter than the back legs which makes it less of a strain on my back when leaning over to throw. A low-tech and inexpensive way to work smarter and save your back.

There are a few things I like to have around the wheel:
– A straight sided 2 or 3 gallon water bucket – rim ideal for scraping excess slip off of my hands; clay particles settle nicely in bottom and don’t get stirred up each time I moisten my sponge.
– an old cup to hold my main throwing tools – pin tool, sponge, wooden knife
– a plastic rectangular container for ribs – not pictured, but is an recycled old baby wipes container . The size and shape is just right as was the price
bats – on the left side of the wheel table there is usually a stack of 7″ Creative Industries square bats that I use for smaller items. They have 2 sets of notches molded on the underside to fit different bat pin spacings for both this wheel and the Soldner. Also have 12″ & 14″ round CI bats, and a few Plastibats (which are actually superior, very sturdy and don’t bend, but are unfortunately more expensive). Nice thing about these plastic molded bats is they never rot and seem to last forever. The drawback is they are more expensive, limited in sizes (nothing more than 14″ in diameter). The Creative Industries ones have a tendency to bend when pots being taken off the wheel, so you have to be extra careful.
– a kitchen scale – for weighing pieces of clay out for throwing
– a mirror – (not pictured) helps with seeing the contour of pots while both throwing and trimming. I threw for 2 weeks without one, bending to the side to see the profile, and not only did it kind of slow me down and make my neck/back hurt, but my pots looks different too.
– big table – (the one pictured here is an old door on sawhorses with canvas stretched over it). I will throw a series and when the table is full, get up and move the pots to ware racks.

There was one time I had bins of tools. (Can you have too many tools??) Well, I still have them, but I have narrowed it down to a few that I actually use regularly at the wheel:
– a pin tool;
– a wooden knife;
– a sponge (a medium sized natural sponge; cellulose sponges also work great in a pinch);
wooden ribs (a small kidney shaped and larger one, both Kemper);
2 Sherrill Mudtools – soft/red & hard/green (I like these because unlike a rubber rib they don’t break down and have so far kept their smooth edge; rubber ribs tend to break down within a few months in this climate);
a long metal rib;
– a chamois on a fishing bobber – stays floating in bucket so I don’t ever lose it and its easy to see; cutoff wires of different thicknesses;
– a metal scraper from hardware store;
– a Bison trimming tool
– a Giffin Grip
– a Grabber pad attached to one of my plastic bats mentioned above
– a 16″ square piece of plywood (very low tech) for trimming larger bowls and platters on.
– many sets of metal calipers for fitting lids


Oct 26 2007

Working Smart: Potting with the help of Occupational Therapy

Making pots is very physically demanding. Tasks range from lifting heavy bags of ingredients & clay, bending and straining to load and unload kilns, and repetitive movements that can lead to overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Potters need to think ahead and work smart to make sure their bodies can hold up as long as their love for clay does.

Sometimes, though, illnesses and injuries happen no matter how careful one might be. Two of Canadian potter friends of mine haven’t been so lucky when it comes to their health. One has quite serious back problems and has had surgery, but problems persist. My other friend has had epilepsy for years but recently, she has been coping with some pretty serious unforeseen complications relating to her condition. Both friends sought the help of an occupational therapist (O.T.) in hopes that they might help them continue to pot.

In this sort of situation, the Occupational Therapist comes to the workplace, observes the working environment, the working habits, and the tasks that need completing, then makes an assessment and suggests a plan of action.

The occupational therapist recommended to my friend with the back problems, working at the wheel from the standing position. Due to another pre-existing condition, she was not going to be able to be on her feet for any extensive period of time, so the OT worked with her and together, they designed a special “stool”, built specifically to her physical proportions. It wasn’t meant to sit at per se, but it was contoured in such a way that she could take some of the weight off of her legs/feet while still throwing standing up. (Sorry, unfortunately I don’t have a picture.) The other recommendation was that she take on a partner or assistant who would do tasks such as loading the kilns and other such tasks. This worked out quite well for her.

My friend with epilepsy had suffered some major set-backs due to some related neurological conditions, resulting in problems with balance, vision, fine motor skills, hearing, and increased frequency of seizures. Tasks such as throwing, manipulating a brush, and pulling handles were becoming increasingly difficult and sometimes even invoked seizures. A couple of the suggestions that she successfully implemented for working at the wheel were wearing an eye patch while throwing, and throwing with the help of a mirror (no more leaning over). Put simplistically, since her seizures were invoked by certain visual stimuli and physical movements, changing her visual perspective (covering one eye and using the mirror) and way of working, has helped to retrain her brain (much like retraining the brain of a stroke victim) to use different neural pathways to complete specific tasks, including throwing, and work relatively seizure free. So far so good. She is back to throwing again and is doing her first show in as many years this weekend.

I really have to admire my two friends for having the gumption to find a way to keep making pots despite their debilitating conditions and for seeking help from an occupational therapist. I know how difficult it must have been for both of them, after so many years of potting, to have to adjust to new ways of working, but both have made the adjustment successfully and sing praises of their OTs.


Oct 15 2007

Blog Action Day October 15

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day when blogs everywhere talk about one thing: the environment.

Potters tend to have a reputation for being frugal. Some stems from necessity, some stems out of principle. I started thinking about ways in which we here at the studio try to make a difference to the environment and recycle:

– Building: recycled wood & windows in building studio (reclaimed lots of waste wood from hurricanes which would otherwise be taken to landfill or burned).
– Plastics: We recycle grocery bags & use them for shows (people don’t mind when you tell them it is for the environment) as well as dry cleaning plastic which works perfect for covering pots & protecting controlling how they dry
– Paper: Newspaper and newspaper roll ends are used in the studio for a multitude of uses. Also excellent for packing pots away for/at shows
– Metal: We bought a can crusher and while they don’t pick up recycled items here, we take our tin/aluminum cans to the recycle depot when we are in town.
– Appliances: We have two defunct refrigerators & freezers make excellent damp cupboards and places to keep moist clay.
– Old Machinery: our clay mixers are 2 recycled old machines: one is made from an old WWII anti-aircraft gun and the other a 1915 dough mixer.
– Waste wood & pine needles: We get scrap wood cast offs from the local wood mill and use them to fire the wood kiln. Wood and pine needles burn much more efficiently and with less smoke at the temperatures we fire the kiln to, than it would in a burn pile.
– Cast offs: We use cast-off bisque ware (cracked and unusable) in holes in our driveway, and try to use as many of the glazed cast-offs as bird feeders, planters, dog bowls, etc.. Lots of other shards go to a friend who does mosaics. (We have also used waste oyster shells from the local fishery to fill holes in the driveway – smells a bit at first, but definitely organic)
– Our clay: Now that our clay mixer is operational again, we try to pay extra attention these days to recycle all of our scrap clay into a new batch of mixed clay and make it go as far as possible. A lot of the clay we use, we dig ourselves. The white and bubble gum colored clay that we like to use is considered waste clay to contractors (not good for road base) and they are quite happy if we cart as much as we like off.
– Organic Gardening: We try our best to garden as organically as we can. We have several neighbors with horses that are glad to part with their more than ample supply of muck.
– Commuting: Our little chunk of land houses both where we live and the studio, so thankfully I don’ t have to commute anywhere (except to shows, wholesale customers, and some of my suppliers, of course).
With a group of like-minded artists, we also started a small artist collective to hopefully open up more marketing opportunities closer to home and cut back on travel. Less traveling not only saves us expense, time, and wear and tear on our vehicles (and us) but also means less fuel consumed and less impact on the environment.

Coming from away, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of things such as public transit for commuters and carpooling lanes when I first got down here. SUVs are the vehicle of choice it seems here and its not uncommon to see a Hummer or 2 cruising up the road. No attention to carbon emissions on old vehicles either. Big cars, big boats and often big inefficient houses too. How do permits get granted to construct on valuable wetland? Always has baffled me how a place with so much sunshine has so few people taking advantage or even the slight bit knowledgeable of solar power. Welcome to the Alabama Coast. Consuming with very little thought of conservation. You used to be able to see to the bottom of Mobile Bay not 50 years ago, apparently. Not now though. Pollution from industry-friendly Mobile and other places upstream have unfortunately taken its toll. Its a pity.

Southerners are known to be resistant to change but hopefully they will sit up and take notice before it is too late.


Oct 5 2007

The Stompin Ground: Magnolia Springs


Here is one of the mugs I made lately, specifically of native clay for Magnolia Spring’s own Moore Brothers’ Market, a quaint little country grocery store that shares premises with Jesse’s Restaurant . (Their building is officially registered on the National List of Historical Places.)

Magnolia Springs is not very big place, with about 1,000 friendly inhabitants. The focal point of the village is its natural springs, from which it obviously was named at least partially after. Just down the street from both the springs and Moore Brothers, is the Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast, which has been featured by several magazines such as Southern Living and Gentry to name just a few. It is quaint, off the beaten track, and, if you’re looking for something just a bit different, its a nice change from the more typical hotels & motels located in the neighboring cities of Foley and Fairhope.
Magnolia Springs also boasts one of the only, if not the only, all-water mail delivery routes left in the United States which, in my opinion, fits the character of the place to a T.