Oct 16 2009

Blog Action Day 2009: Climate change

Blog Action Day is an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking discussion around an issue of global importance.

I remember as a child going to Man and His World (the site for Expo ’67, the 1967 International and Universal Exposition) in Montreal, and visiting all the international pavillions. I remember in particular the American Pavillion and always seemed to gravitate to it whenever we visited.  It was a huge, clear panelled geodesic dome structure that really stood out among the rest of the buildings.  It being so long ago,   I admit, memories are a little vague, but I have fleeting images of the experience such as the sun blaring through the glass.. vegetation lining paths on the ground level.. futuristic bits of art and culture.. stairs going up to a different level where screening rooms with films about acid rain, air & water pollution, the depletion of the ozone layer, etc. , etc, were shown.

Biosphere Montreal Expo 67I know I was young, but it obviously left an impression on me, because I still remember it.  The warning was clear that we should be very conscientious of how we live, how we treat the environment, and take care of the world around us, or the fragile natural world as we know it will be lost for future generations.

Despite what certain special interest groups tell us and want us what to believe, I think its naive to think that the climate change is not real and that we can keep on the way we have been.   Human activities might not be the only reason why global warming is occurring, but it is occurring nonetheless. The exponential growth of human populations and industrialization has had a huge impact on the ecosystem and has undoubtedly helped to expedite climate change.  We’ve known about it for a long time but denying a problem does not make it go away.   On that note…

Over the last few days, I’ve tried to think of how life at our studio might relate to the global warming. Thinking back, most of the changes we have implemented in the past few years were for economic reasons, but they have spinoff benefits that are releva for the  environment as well.  In the past 9 or so years, the cost of propane (we glaze fire in a gas kiln) has more than doubled and the cost of raw materials and shipping has gone up by at least 1/3.  Working smarter and more efficiently , obviously, has become all that more of a priority.

THE KILN

Nitride Bonded ShelvesWhen I think of climate change and how it relates to pottery, what first comes to mind is my kiln which uses propane.  A fuel burning anything is a potential area of concern when you are trying to reduce your carbon footprint.  One thing working in our favor is that  our studio and kiln are located on a treed 5 acre plot of land.  A friend yesterday reminded me as well that propane does burn more efficiently and releases less particulates and pollutants into the air than, say, a wood kiln or even a salt kiln.

So working with what we have, we have tried to make some changes to help it fire more efficiently and use less fuel.  A big change we made about a year ago was getting some of those new nitride bonded silicon carbide shelves which are much thinner (and lighter) than regular kiln shelves and take require less energy to heat up. (When you fire a kiln, you heat everything in the kiln.. the pots, the shelves, the posts… everything. Anything extra you have means that much more energy consumed.)  So anyways, we did that and replaced the flat top with an arch and I was delighted to discover that the firing took a fraction of the propane it did previously.  Something else that we just did this last firing is reduce the pressure at the regulator on the propane tank. Again, much less propane was used. Brilliant. More firings for less and what fuel we did use what burned that much more efficiently.

NATIVE CLAY

Like propane and natural gas, the cost of raw materials has shot up.  Thankfully we dig most of the clay we use locally. We do this for a number of reasons. Besides the fact that it is very responsive and throws beautifully, it being so readily available and so close to the studio definitely works in our favor. Since we process it ourselves, it is a little cheaper plus we don’t have the additional expense of shipping it down from places like Ohio, Atlanta, California, and some other such places where clay is commercially processed and distributed from.  The environmental impact?  Well, one benefit is there is one less truck on the road and therefore less emissions released into the atmosphere.

OTHER THINGS

We usually have to travel away to do art shows and fairs, so for a number of reasons, we’ve lightened up the weight of our show display so when we do have to travel, its a lighter load and hopefully less wear on the vehicle, less gas, and less emissions.

Shows, Quality not Quantity –  What with the economy, rising show fees and travel expenses,  and the uncertainty of shows, like  many craftspeople,  we have been forced to be a lot more selective about where we go and what shows we do. Consequently that often means travelling less and sticking closer to home.  The internet has also made promotion to a broader audience without travel possible.

At home, I am trying to make changes as well. I switched (mostly out of necessity) from a large SUV to a Toyota Corolla which helps consumption, and switched out all my light bulbs for flourescents or compact florescents bulbs. My gasoline and electric bills have both gone down considerably as a result.  There’s always room for improvement though. I started the summer with plans for a big vegetable garden, but this year with things that come up, as they seem to do, the more invasive weeds just took over. But there is always next year, when I hope to have better luck with planting in raised beds.

So no matter what your lifestyle or how small your operation is, changes to our lifestyle and how we work are possible. Even small changes can have a positive effect on the environment.


Nov 24 2008

In Pursuit of Perfect Clay.. part deux

A couple of weeks ago we had a dumptruck load of clay delivered from the new clay deposit.  I guestimated the pile was around 5 tons or so, but as it turns out, our neighbor, who drives for the same kind of truck, told me one of those trucks heaped up with clay like it was, holds something closer to 27 tons (or more?)!!  All 27 tons, just for the cost of trucking it to our studio not 15 – 20 miles away.  (If you have bought commercially prepared clay, you can probably do the math for what the equivalent would be).

We’ve left the dumped clay uncovered and open to the elements now for two weeks or so, in order for the rain to wash away a little of the residual sand off that was picked up in the dump truck onto the clay’s surface. The mound is already starting to turn from a reddy orange to more of a amethyst-y pink clay color.  Yesterday I broke apart a clump  to reveal a piece of nice, clean, sandless solid clay.   Since the time the of the delivery, three or four batches of clay have been mixed.  I have thrown some of it,  and the rest I have left to age a little more.  ..well, until tomorrow, at least, when I start my throwing cycle again.

best digging toolBefore it was time to mix the second batch, though, Lowell took me out to the new deposit site for the first time to help gather some dryer clay for the mix, since the clay we already had at the studio was still a little too damp to crush to a powder.  So off we went..

We drove for about 20 minutes down familiar roads and around familiar turns, when all of the sudden Lowell turned into a little dirt driveway entrance.  It was a lot closer than I thought it would be.

clay mountainWell!  I thought the truck load that was delivered was a lot, but I saw where it was excavated from and it took barely a dent out of the mountain that lay before me.  Here is a picture of what I first saw.  It stands about 20 feet high and is at least 60 feet long .   Its mostly pink clay, though there are layers of white, and red, and a layer further in the middle of some dark shale-like material which I assume is the remnants of decomposed vegetation .

I was chipping away dry surface clay and filling up my bucket, as  the fog gradually cleared.  It was almost like a dream.  Off to my right, was another clay mountain .. and yet another further on.

excavated hillside revealing striationHere is a photo of a hillside that had been excavated with a backhoe.  Sorry,  I couldn’t get the entire hill in the shot but you can get an idea of the various strata.   This layer starts down about 6 feet from the surface and, in this spot, is about 4-6 feet thick.

I’ll try and post more pictures as I can.


Nov 20 2007

In the Studio: Clay loving bugs


Yesterday I was just getting ready to cut and slam wedge some native clay that had been sitting on the wedging table to dry out, as I often do to pick out the odd little rock or left over hard chunks of debris. Found this little fellow “hunkered down”, as they would say here in the South. He had chewed and burrowed his way about an inch into the clay.

Earlier in spring and summer, we are pestered by some much smaller black beetles, resembling this one, actually, only about 1 to 2 millimeters in length. They come out once the sun goes down and make their way into the studio, seeking out leather-hard pots and damp clay. Groups of them will actually burrow right through the sides of pots. Sometimes I think they make a point to go for those pots you have spent the most time on trimming or carving a design into …pure coincidence, of course.

Since we don’t have screens on the windows and the studio is kind of open, we usually try and wrap or cover pots with dry cleaner’s plastic. We have to also make sure we turn the lights to the studio off when we leave, since they don’t seem to nibble in the dark.


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.


May 24 2007

Michael Cardew pottery clip from the archives


The other day, after a chat with my friend in Manitoba, I went to searching the CBC broadcast archives and this one on Michael Cardew came up. Michael Cardew, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, is an internationally well-known and well-respected British potter who, as I discovered after watching this clip, was actually the first student of Bernard Leach. Nicely presented on this video.

The description from the CBC site about this video:

“After a lifetime at the potter’s wheel, making a bowl is second nature for Michael Cardew. He starts by kneading a hunk of brown clay to remove air bubbles, then positions it on the spinning wheel. He drives his thumbs into the clay, creating a depression in the centre. With intense concentration, Cardew pulls the sides up and out to create a bowl shape. The process, known as throwing, is the focus of this clip from the CBC series Hand and Eye.”

Video link: “How to throw a pot” with Michael Cardew


Feb 1 2007

Beautiful Handcrafted Sinks and Udu, Air, and Skin drums

Rusty Wiltjer - Waterford MaineStarting back in the early 90s, in the early days of Clayart and various pottery newsgroups, there was a group of us who used to log onto the #pottery channel on mIRC, spending long hours happily clicking away at the keyboard talking about anything related to clay, pottery, glazes, firing, kilns, design, life as a potter, apprentices, etc etc etc.

One of the people I haven’t lost touch with from the channel is Rusty Wiltjer (aka Grulox). Rusty has been potting for over 35 years now and is one of the more technically capable potters I know.

Wiltjer Pottery Sink For the last few years, Rusty has focused on developing and producing his handmade sinks, including his pedestal, vessel, and self-rimming models. They are all individually made on the potters wheel, glazed, then high-fired in his gas kiln . I’ve seen a lot of sinks potters have tried to make out there and .. well, there are handmade sinks, and there are handmade sinks. Rusty’s a precision thrower and his sinks are thrown well, designed well (including back-flow), and are finished well.

Wiltjer Pottery Air Orb 2H DrumWhen I visited his site yesterday I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of clay drums he now has up …and each with a sound clip! Its amazing how a slight variation in vessel shape can affect the tone and pitch. Did I mention Rusty also drums professionally and has on and off since he was a kid? For some time now he has been having a weekly drum gathering session at his house where a bunch of like-minded percussionists (I assume all on handmade or primitive drums?) get together and just jam.

Wiltjer Pottery - Captain Drum Head, 28Rusty’s studio is nestled just outside the town of Waterford, Maine, about one hour north of Portland. If you would like to find out more about his sinks, drums, and pottery, or would like to contact him yourself, please feel free to check out his web site www.wiltjerpottery.com.
Rusty Wiltjer live performance.. in his bandana
Here’s a picture of Rusty playing a live performance with singer songwriter Kristen Short. (Nice bandana eh?)