A Philosophical Rant

I finally made it back to the studio today, after a four week hiatus. With the holidays and shows, plus a full-time job and several dates with my mom to sort out the crawlspace, I have had very little time to put towards making pots. It has been a depressing four weeks. Today, I finally had a day off and started the morning throwing mugs. I haven't thrown in what feels like AGES, and, because my studio is temporary, I never got around to setting my wheel up the way I would like. I can't get comfortable - I always feel too high or too low. My legs start to ache (not a good sign) and my back tingles. Once we move and I set up the new studio, I may try throwing while standing up. I have taken a break to drink some tea and while the kettle was boiling I thought "I haven't blogged in a while". So here I am.

Earlier this week I gave a workshop on behalf of the Pottery Supply House to a collection of teachers from the Halton District School Board. They have recently banned silica in all of their schools, and so PSH developed a silica free clay body for them to use. My workshop was to introduce the new clay to the teachers, show them some basic techniques they could use in their classroom, go over common tools, how to glaze and decorate, how to load/unload their kilns, and finally, how to use a kiln sitter and computer control to fire the work. All in under two hours.

This was my first workshop, ever. I spent weeks leading up to it playing with the new clay, putting together sample projects and making sure I had examples of each project in its various stages. I am a comfortable public speaker, but I've never taught anyone about clay before (unless you count Jesse, who mostly listens to me ramble and picks up tidbits of information over time). The idea of teaching 30 teachers was strange, and daunting.

I loved it though. Not only did I get to encourage using clay in elementary/secondary schools, but I also learned  several things that night:

1. How to talk about what my hands are doing  - this sounds much easier than it is. When you become so familiar with a task, you don't always think about exactly where you are putting pressure, or how much, or how thick the wall actually is (because, of course, they wanted a measurement and "thin" won't cut it).

2. How to work and talk at the same time - I've always wondered how Tony could carry on a humorous conversation while throwing giant jugs and intricate mugs. Man, it's hard. I can barely work while people are looking at me, let alone during a  discussion on my philosophy of "visual interest".

3. How to answer questions and entertain

and most importantly

4. YOU ARE NOT AN EXPERT

After having to answer so many questions that I wanted to read up on later, I truly felt like I still had so much to learn. This was a humbling point.

I've never thought that I was an expert (I am a babe in the ceramic industry) but I did think I knew a lot.. I went to school right? That should count for something. But, in reality, I have years and years ahead of me of experiences to be had. I've only taught one workshop, to (virtually) non-ceramic folks. I still have a lot to learn.

However (here's where the philosophical bit comes in), I don't think that anyone can ever be an "expert". The world is a big place, it holds a lot of people, and a lot of stuff. There are books written on EVERYTHING, you can look ANYTHING up on the internet and there is SO MUCH of it. There is just too much, to be an expert.

On countless trips to the West coast I heard discussions about Ontarians (or "Easterners") and how "wrong" their ideals were. Wanting to have a big house and a fancy car was the wrong way to approach life. Those Ontarians were selfish and thought they were the center of the universe. And Toronto?! Who would want to live in that city, where it's too noisy and stinky, and everyone is miserable?

And locally I've heard discussions about "them hippies" and the single moms in the townhouse complexes. Those pot smoking, free-love, long haired freaky people, and the low-income families with "too many children they can't afford". They're lazy, and our tax dollars are only supporting their lack of motivation. They think they can get by in life without a REAL job?

Too many people think that they are an expert. That they know something that everyone else in the world is oblivious to. But really, the only thing we're an expert on is ourselves. We've all had different experiences, we've lived in different homes, encountered different people, and had varying financial situations. We know NOTHING about the people we judge.

Even in a work industry, I don't believe that anybody really "knows it all". Sure, there are people who have mastered certain techniques and are well educated, hell some people even have a PhD in clay. There are people (like my co-worker Jon) who are encyclopedias of ceramic materials and processes. There are excellent throwers and skilled handbuilders, there are wood-firing "gurus" and raku celebrities. But I can't believe that there is nothing left for them to learn. There will always be SOMETHING for all of us to learn.

I think it's about time we face that, and look forward to learning something new. The world is a big place.

Sudur-Tingeyjarsysla, Iceland

Rant of the day, over.

How Long Does It Take?

*Tony Clennell, one of the wisest potters I know, once wrote a list of the steps included in the creation of a pot. Potters get asked all the time: "How long does it take to make a pot?" So because Tony hit the nail on the head, here is his answer in the form of a list of steps. I have adapted the list to fit my making process.

1. Pick up your clay at the supplier (often hours away) 2. Unload clay 5. Mix with reclaimed clay 6. Wedge clay, and wedge clay, and wedge clay 7. Bag clay 8. Wash tools, wedging table, throwing bats, wheel and studio 9. Weigh clay 10. Wedge clay

For thrown and altered piece: 11. Throw clay 12. Move pots to drying rack or wet cupboard 13. Trim clay 14. Make darting template 15. Dart clay 16. Roll out slabs 17. Move slabs to drying rack or wet cupboard 18. Alter thrown piece 19. Attach slab(s) 20. Clean up attachments 21. Wedge clay for handles 22. Pull handles 23. Attach handles

For soft slab piece: 11. Weigh plaster 12. Mix plaster 13. Pour plaster hump or slump mold 14. Move mold to drying rack 15. Sand and clean mold 16. Roll out slabs of clay 17. Move slabs to drying rack or wet cupboard 18. Texture 19. Form slabs over molds 20. Back to drying rack 21. Remove from mold 22. Attach more slabs 23. Clean up attachments

Then: 24. Back to drying rack 25. Sign every pot 26. Apply base slip 27.  Back to drying rack 28. Read through atlases, marine charts and fiction for reference 29. Apply underglaze 30. Apply underglaze second (and third? coat) 31. Carve in decoration 32. Back to drying rack 33. Move to kiln room 34. Load bisque kiln 35. Make cone packs 36. Fire kiln 37. Unload from kiln 38. Move all pots to glaze room 39. Sand 40. Wax bottoms and lids 41. Weigh out materials for glaze 42. Make and sieve glaze - for EVERY glaze (there are several!) 43. Glaze each piece 44. Clean up glazed pots 43. Clean kiln and kiln shelves 44. Move all pots to kiln room 45. Load kiln 46. Make cone packs 47. Fire kiln (if this happens to be a wood fired kiln, add about 100 duties to this list.) 48. Unload kiln 49. If pots are cracked or you have a bad firing, go back to step 9 50. Sand and grind bottoms 51. Price work 52. Display work 53. Attend to people that ask questions like:    "How long does it take to make a pot?"

This list does not include: update website, update blog, check email, read other clay blogs, check email again, update Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr (or whatever other social media networking you use), apply for grants, apply for shows, drive work to shows, pack work, check email (again), attend sales and shows of your peers... etc. etc.

*Tony Clennell is a fantastic writer and full of wisdom. So, to be inspired and educated, check out his blog

The Rat

RM3I first heard of Ron Meyers in second year at Sheridan, during one of our weekly morning chats with Tony Clennell. Each week we were given a new form to throw, be it cups, bowls, teapots or covered jars. First thing in the morning, we would sit around the table with Tony and start the day with tea, coffee and show and tell. Tony would bring in pots from his own collection, to show us some possible forms.

The teapot that Tony brought in of Ron Meyers' was grungy, eerie and hysterical all at the same time. Tony likes to joke that the teapot looks like it has been fired at with a shot gun - I agree with him. The piece looked bent, it had a crunched knob, and it was decorated with primitive clay smudges and stick scratches. I loved it. I had never before seen a piece of pottery that was so casual and confident. The marks of the maker were prominent and strong; he didn't try to cover up the touch of his hand, he emphasized it.

Since that morning coffee break I have fallen head over heels with Ron's pots. He is quite easily my favourite potter. At Sheridan we were lucky to have several of his demo pieces in the collection, and I spent lots of time admiring them and trying to gain some "looseness" in my work as well. I think what I admire most about his work is that IT'S HARD TO BE CASUAL, but he masters it. I have tried to make my pots gestural, for them to stand and slouch as humans do, informally. They only look sloppy and unintentional. Ron's pieces make sense. They exude confidence and reference the underground in a way that is witty and wise. The animals he carves or paints onto the surfaces are evil and mysterious, with no lack of character. I am in awe of all that this man does. If I worshipped a god, he would be it.

RM4

rm2

This past weekend, Pinecroft Centre for the Arts hosted Ron Meyers for a weekend long workshop. Tony's family started Pinecroft 60 years ago - it continues to be the longest running pottery in Canadian history. I attended the workshop on Saturday, and was able to meet Ron for the second time and finally watch him make some pots. The way he works is directly reflected in the way his pieces turn out - he is casual, he is confident, he exudes strength and mystery and knowledge. These attributes are all noticeable in any given piece.

IMG_3459I already have one piece of Ron's in my own collection (remember that Cow plate from my blog entry "Cattle" in March?), but I see many more in the future. Bats, frogs, rats, birds, cats, dogs, pigs? I just can't control myself.

You can find Ron Meyers' work in the online AKAR gallery. www.akardesign.com

You can read more about Pinecroft on their website and on Tony Clennell's blog. www.pinecroftcentreforthearts.com www.smokieclennell.blogspot.com

 

"Scarlet" - Our Sassy Wood Kiln

Picture 504 It has been over a week since the wood firing and I'm still finding articles of clothing that smell like a raging campfire. Scarlet lingers on my Kevlar sleeves, my jacket and my boots. It's only been a week and I already miss the feeling of a face full of white flames.

We arrived to load and prep the kiln on Monday morning at 9:00 and were expecting to finish and start the fire by 1:00 pm. What rookies we were! Four hours of prep and load time was a little too hopeful, especially for the relatively inexperienced. Before we started loading we still had to vacuum out the ash from the previous firing, chip off old wadding from the bag wall and floor, replace the grates in the firebox and make door slop. Loading took longer than expected as well, even though I've become accustomed to the lengthy wood, salt and soda loads.  Surprisingly, adding little balls of refractory between each shelf and post takes up much more time than one would think. We finally started the fire at 4:30 pm and were off to an already tired start.

Picture 499

Usually, the whole studio collaborates, every person gets to put in a half dozen pieces of work and the workload of pre-firing chores and stoking shifts are shared between the participants. But at my critique in the winter, the response to my 3 wood fired works was You need to spear head a wood firing, and get more in that kiln  - this firing was the response to their advice.

There were three of us manning Scarlet on this particular venture -  myself, Andrea and Annemarie (also third years using atmospheric firing for their work). This time, rather than a half dozen pieces,  I had 50 works in Scarlet's belly, taking up over a third of the kiln. My two fellow 3rd years also had a significant amount of work in this firing. Between the three of us, we took up the majority of the space. In exchange for the extra space in our kiln, some of the eager first and second years came by throughout the night with coffee, porridge, and snacks. They too, could not resist the smell of wood ash and billowing smoke.

By lunchtime the next day, she was roaring.

There is something remarkable about a fire that is hungry for more wood. At peak temperature, each stoke received a rumbling reply. Flames shot out of every possible opening and black smoke billowed out through the chimney. As the flames sucked back in, the smoke stopped streaming and the rumbling died down, we knew it was time to feed her again. Firing a wood kiln is like feeding a beast, one that cannot always be tamed. She needs coaxing, and she often stalls just a few cones before reaching temperature - her way of telling you she's boss.

At 23 hours our back cones were down and we were just waiting on the front to catch up.

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Though I had been up for 32 hours standing next to a hungry beast, the last hour was the home stretch - I felt surprisingly unfatigued. Rather, on the last stoke I felt victorious.

There were points during the firing where I thought - This can't be worth it. Next time, I'm not staying up all night. I'll hire help.  But after a cold glass of beer, a good night's rest, and unloading gifts from Scarlet's belly - I have to say it was all worth it.

I'm a kiln rat and a pyromaniac, I'll never be steered away.

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Here are some photos that Andrea took during the firing.

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