Mar 17 2015

New Direction part two

In my last post, I showed some of Lowell’s facejugs from the wood kiln. I had a few pots in there, but most were from clay bodies I wanted to test and see how they acted with our clay and glazes in this particular kiln.  More testing, more testing.

Wood Kiln stoked and cooking

I really like a wood kiln. There’s a rhythm to the firing, more so than a gas kiln, that I find appealing. Once you hear that unmistakable low and rumbly whoosh of the flame blow through the kiln shortly after stoking, its very easy to be hooked.

Wood firing down here on the coast has had a burst of popularity in the last several years. Marty and Brenda Stokes, long-time potters from Navarre Florida, deserve a lot of credit for this, since starting their non-profit organization called The Gulf Coast Kiln Walk Society. They have been  instrumental in raising awareness and promoting wood firing. Kiln Walk also holds a biannual wood fire conference in Pensacola some 40 miles from here (its so nice to have something going on like this in this part of the world for a change). When I first came down here 15 or so years ago, there were just a couple of potters with small wood kilns, but that has since ballooned to at least 11 wood kilns, that I can think of off the top of my head, within a couple of hours drive from here, and half of those are anagamas, which is pretty mind boggling if you think about it.

Before we built this kiln, I had my trepidations. While I have enjoyed the wood firings I’ve been able to take part in, I also remember how long it took to recover. Exhaustion, sore feet and muscles, are all things that have stuck with me. There’s no doubt that wood firing, while exciting, is pretty physical and demanding. It can also be heartbreaking when a firing does not go right after you’ve just invested a lot of time, labor, emotion, and money just to make a firing happen. I just wasn’t sure I was up to that.  As I get older, I have a growing appreciation for predictability and consistency and ‘work smarter’ seems like a good mantra. While I like anagama pots, its not the aesthetic I am going for in my work, especially since there are so many people around here that are. So I looked around and spoke with a lot of people and most agreed that this ‘manabigama’ is not hard to fire, gets good results, is a manageable size, fires efficiently and in a manageable amount of time so two people can fire it quite easily. I conceded.

Beside dreams of wood pottery, I continue to explore carved designs on pots. I had been carving designs into raku pots but I was really looking for working exclusively in the high fire. I was getting tired of always smelling like a campfire. Doing raku for production may seem romantic to some, but is not nearly as fun as just doing it now and again.

Porcelain Dogwood Bas Relief Vase by Anne WebbSince I was using a grogless clay for my functional ware, I carved a few bas relief designs with that clay and thought that it would be really nice in porcelain. Its not a fast process, but  its very cool to see the design emerge as I carve away the different layers in a design.

Last year I also started to explore sgraffito. I was doing a demo of the technique for a student and had an ‘ahha’ moment and could see definite possibilities for this technique on pots and tiles. I continue to explore.

 

I used to watch and love a show on PBS called ‘Connections‘ years ago, hosted was James Burke. If you remember it too, you can probably appreciate that no new idea comes from a vacuum. I think Mr Burke called it ‘The Trigger Effect’.

Flare bowl with sgraffito carved fish designI do love carving into clay. I wonder where it will take me next.


Mar 7 2011

Are the forces of the universe with you this show season?

CameliaWell Spring has sprung and show season has begun!

If you’re down to the wire, it doesn’t matter how well organized you think you are or how meticulously you’ve planned out the final few weeks leading to a show, when you desperately need things to go more smoothly than ever, that’s when equipment is going to fail, bisques over-fire, glazes screw up, etc.. And if you live in the South, you also know that once its finally warm enough to work in the studio again, its going to start raining and the humidity will shoot up to somewhere around 400%, rendering pots more wet than when you first threw them! Well, maybe not quite that bad, but it does certainly become more of a challenge to dry those last few pots in time to bisque and get out in sufficient time for a glaze firing. Oh yes, and lest I forget.. If you have kids, that is the time that they will inevitably get sick. Once they’re finally better and back to school, you find you’ve come down with whatever they’ve just had, only worse!

I remember, years ago, expressing amazement to my teacher, John (a working potter), as he packed away the final pots he had made for the One of a Kind Show in Toronto, not the week before, but an entire month in advance. (Can you imagine?) He chuckled and then said “Anne… its taken me 30 years to become this organized. Believe me, heheh I’ve learned the hard way!” I think with all the extraneous things I have going on in my life (kids, classes, etc.) that I am much better with working smarter with the time I have than I used to be, but I guess I still have a few years yet to be in as good a shape as John. hehehe

Anyways, in my last post I asked you, if you were to attend a clay conference, what would you expect to see or want to get out of it? I know several people I’ve talked to who have just raved about the conference we just had here, but there was definitely grumblings from the less vocal.

Its been a few weeks and its taken me this long to digest my experience. I was certainly glad and appreciative that the conference was here in town for a change, and that I was able to go see the presenters, some of the exhibits, and the vendors room, but overall, I can’t say I came away inspired or really even.. well, satisfied. This kind of puzzled me as I have always had something to take away from any conference or workshop I’ve attended.

John Leach saggar fired vessel I couldn’t help but think back to the conferences I have been to that I’ve found most inspiring. My first ever conference had John Leach as the presenter. If you don’t know who he is, he is a working potter from England who apprenticed with his grandfather, Bernard Leach, and he makes good honest pots, both functional and art. He spoke, not only at length about the fundamentals of pottery, but also about his trials and tribulations in business and as a potter. Not only that, but he made a lot of pots in the 2 day period! Another conference I attended, the principle speaker was Val Cushing. Again, he gave a really well rounded presentation which included, the fundamentals of pottery making, glazes, as well as his philosophies about pot making and life in general. In retrospect, I have to say, both conferences had, in my opinion, something to offer everybody in that room, hobbyist, working potter, and academic alike.

I wish I could say the same about this last conference here, despite there being 3 presenters up on stage at one time. Each presenter made only a handful of pieces over the 2 day period and I found myself, on more than one occasion, taking refuge in the vendors’ room or in the lobby visiting with people I hadn’t seen in a while. I wasn’t alone either. It shouldn’t be that way. Cudos to the organizers for doing a great job organizing and putting the whole thing together (really they did), but for me, the conference had a disappointingly over-academic feel to it.

Its not that the presenters were not talented, qualified, or that they didn’t give a good presentation of what they did, but ALL of them made and presented work that very ‘ceramics monthly’/academic and more intended for a gallery than marketable elsewhere. Its great to see a masters thesis in clay, to know that they have collectors who will pay $5000+ for a sculpture or a $1200 for a teapot, but.. come on.. How do I put this.. this is not the real world. …and in this economy…? There was no mention of the fact that one of the presenter’s bread and butter in their business actually comes from production of tiles and that (for other unmentioned reasons) he doesn’t have to eat off his ‘pots’. Regardless, not one of the presenters spoke about the hardships they’ve encountered because of the economy or offered any insight as to how they are dealing with that regarding galleries, how to generate more customers, etc.. Everyone knows, bad economic times is not the easiest time to generate collectors or buyers, so why no mention of it? I don’t get it.

While its important to see something presented at a conference that we don’t make or typically see in our circles, I personally just didn’t feel any connection or anything that inspired me to breathe new life into my work, or benefit my business. Most (probably 90+%) of the people attending these conferences are not academics, and I think sometimes this fact gets lost.

With all that said, I’ll be interested to see what presenters Scott Bennett pulls out of his hat for next year’s conference.


Nov 7 2007

"Oh what a lovely hobby!"

My pottery teacher of years ago once told me (warned me, actually, when I expressed interest years ago in potting full time) “Pottery is a hard way to make a living”. It is very true. A potter needs to be a skilled artist, technician, manufacturer, marketer, administrator, and sales person, among other things, as well as being physically able and have a thick skin.

Throwing pots on the wheel, in reality, only represents a small portion of what goes into producing a finished pot. For every two three days of throwing, there are four or 5 days of doing other tasks. Pots still need to be trimmed, have handles attached and decoration applied, and patiently monitored as they dry slowly before they are loaded into the bisque kiln. If they survive the bisque firing , they are then glazed and loaded into the gas kiln. Because our shelves are so badly warped we also “wad” the bottoms of our pots before the final firing (wadding: dry china clay and alumina hydrate mixed and formed into balls which are strategically stuck to the bottom of the pots to evenly support the base of the pot on the kiln shelf).

A few examples of other tasks we do involve: clay preparation (digging clay, pounding/sifting/”slaking” it down, mixing it, moving it back to the drying area, pugging it (if you have a pugmill, we dont) wedging/kneading it for right consistency); Glaze preparation (measuring out raw materials and mixing glazes in 5 gallon batches; testing of new recipes or color variations also done in smaller batches; doing glaze chemistry); Kiln building/maintenance; Lifting/Carting bags of raw materials & clay; Loading/unloading the kiln; Shipping; Setting up web site / online sales; assembling and maintaining a sales display to take to shows, for example; preparing for and traveling to shows; Find ways to market work (new shows, online marketing, wholesale & consignment opportunities, etc.); etc

When things go wrong with pottery, they tend to go really wrong. Its very disheartening & demoralizing when you have lost half or more of a kiln load of pots that you have worked weeks to produce, due to some glaze, clay, or firing problem. Its even more disheartening when equipment is inevitably going to conk out when you most need it (usually in the last stretch toward a show). Things can go wrong even when you do things right.

We just had a string of bad firings where some of our usually most reliable glazes, thanks to an ingredient problem, not only came out unrecognizable, but fluxed out and ran all over and destroyed shelves. (Raw materials used in pottery are different clays and minerals all mined from the earth, are only as pure as the mine, and can change over time and according to the mine.) The problems are still not quite resolved. I lost I would say at least 1/3 if not more of the work I’ve made this fall due to one thing or another, but mostly due to these glaze problems. Its not just the financial loss, but the emotional strain that hits hard, and doubly so when you have to cancel that show that you were counting on the income from. When you make pots you’re not just manufacturing; you are so connected to your product in every aspect of production, its a lot more, well, personal. For a while there I didn’t want to see clay.

A friend of mine similarly had some very bad luck with some commercial clay (for which, incidentally, the shipping cost more than the clay) she made all of her pots out of for her fall show season. A week after her big fall sale, a customer brought back $300 worth of pots, then another customer did the same. All or most of the pots had quarter-cent sized hunks of the side of the pot popping off. Lime pop-outs apparently, which can take up to 3 months after the firing to appear. Months of work, large financial commitments (show fee, natural gas, clay, etc), and possibly her reputation tarnished, all because of a faulty raw material or the clay not being mixed properly by the supplier. The supplier was very gracious to replace the clay, but the propane has been burned, the pots have been sold, the money has already been spent, and the remainder of her inventory is questionable… and her pride bruised.

We keep making pots because there is always something that pulls us back. Art for arts sake? Bull. Working artists still have to eat and still have expenses like everyone else. Its not impossible to survive off of one’s work but making pots for a living (or any art full time) takes commitment, perseverance, and drive, it is not for the faint hearted.