Monday, September 14, 2020

Spy Glasses in the Studio

Rocking the spy glasses in my studio

I got myself some new glasses for the new school year. These may look like ordinary (overly large) specs, but they're actually a studio tool for teaching online during a pandemic. Just about a week ago I found out I'll be teaching my hand-building class online. Actually, I begged my boss for permission to teach it online because I was dreading a no-clay quarter.

Photo from the new glasses. I blame the color on the wildfire smoke. In regular daytime lighting the color does not appear dim like this. 

So, teaching clay (and design) entirely online means I'm going to need to make some more videos. I'm very grateful that I have made so many clay videos in the past and I can reuse quite a few, but the existing clay video strengths are pretty much opposite of what will be needed at the start of the online class. In a typical hybrid online class, I start with the students in person, so most of them don't need to see, say, a video demonstration of how to make a pinch bowl. Then the videos demonstrate how to use tools in the studio. But now, with an entirely online clay class, our first day of class, as well as all the subsequent days, will be online. So I need to make a close up video of making a pinch bowl, as well as other videos of setting up a home work space, and a number of clay handling demos that students might have otherwise gotten during class time. 

This video was done on my phone because the glasses do not react well to movement.

Now, the trouble with the videos I've already recorded is that they don't show enough close detail. With someone else filming, the view is naturally somewhat removed. And it's hard to hold the camera and make a pinch pot with two hands. So I bought myself a set of "spy glasses" or camera glasses. My daughter's art teacher mentioned using spy glasses for wheel throwing demos, and I was struck with how great that idea sounded. It isn't really feasible to attach a regular camera or phone to one's head, but glasses belong on one's face already. I could get a GoPro and strap it to my forehead, but the angle would be too high and I'd have to look below where I was working. The glasses, theoretically, give a view of the clay and my hands that matches what the students will see when they are using their own hands.

The glasses, plugged in for downloading, and the tiny manual

I purchased these glasses a few weeks ago and have spent the past two weeks climbing the learning curve. The glasses seem decent. The video and audio quality is pretty good, at least with good lighting, they're comfortable (even when I'm wearing them over my regular glasses). Uploads have been mostly fine and not particularly complicated. But the glasses certainly aren't flawless. The manual is sized for a doll and was written by someone with a loose grasp of English grammar. Luckily, there are only two buttons and a total of maybe 8 actions one could do with the glasses, including turning the camera on and off, taking a picture or video, taking the microSD card in and out, uploading content, and reseting the camera when "...the product is affected by improper operation or unknown reasons..." (page 03, Reset).

Page 02 and 03 of the manual

The directions (and punctuation) for some of these actions may qualify as Dada poetry

From page 02 (of an 08 page manual):

 "Short press the Power button to turn on, the blue indicator light.
the photo file."


From page 03: 
"In the standby state, long press the Camera key 3 seconds release the hand, the indicator light blue flashes three times extinguishes the machine to enter the automatic recording state..."

And on the last page of the manual, all text is underlined:    

"If for whaterer erason you have any issues with our product please to not hesitate to email us with your order # information."


...just, for no "erason" a mostly blank set of pages with all underlined text

Ok, but I should be more patient; I did not pay a ton for these glasses and who cares if they didn't format or edit their manual. The product actually works fairly well much of the time. The frustration has been mostly in that the camera doesn't always indicate that it is or is not recording. I have a number of pictures of my lap and the side of the table, and I also recorded at least two instances of the clicking sound the button makes when it is supposed to be ending the recording. I also have a video that ends with a walk into the kitchen and me complaining to my husband that the camera stopped recording (spoiler: it didn't). I got confused because the indicator light has about a 60/40% change of actually indicating what is happening.

This is two videos, pieced together, recorded on the spy glasses, notice that I'm sometimes operating below the view of the camera.

I also have been struggling with where to focus when making the recording. If I look through the lenses, at the table where I am "working" the glasses generally record the area above (or behind) where my hands are, so I've taken to sliding the frames down the bridge of my nose, aligning my eyes with the top edge of the frames, and using that as a target for where to record. Since the lenses are non-prescription and I don't always wear contacts, this serve the dual function of allowing me to look through my real glasses while wearing the camera glasses. I have thus negated their function as "spy glasses" but since I am alone in the studio anyway, no one cares. I wouldn't say that I've completely figured out where to aim the glasses or my face, as can be seen in the video above, but I'm getting better.

my studio and the East facing window, earlier this year

I have also found glasses do not do well with movement. I initially tried to record video walking into and looking around my studio (the other video in this post that was re-recorded on my phone), but on the glasses was jerky and hard to watch. I have since been trying to keep my head unnaturally still. I also discovered that the glasses require pretty good lighting to work well. Luckily they don't require an internet connection, so I can use them in my newly remodeled studio which has big beautiful windows to let in natural light. When the entire West coast isn't covered by smoke, that natural light is pretty nice.

the other, South facing window in my newly remodeled studio

I hope I have worked through the worst problems, and will continue to improve in operation of the glasses.  The glasses have quit functioning entirely twice. Restarting them worked once, and replacing the microSD worked another time. I am hopeful that that's the worst of it and those tricks will continue to solve problems. I might also need to practice meditation before troubleshooting, perhaps the Dada poetry manual will help. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Glazing Mugs, Plates, and Lemon Squeezers

My kid's reaction to a calendar snafu on the first day of online school

I was able to bisque and glaze almost a full kiln last week. Studio work this summer been slow, but work has gotten done. I used up all my porcelain clay and ordered more about a month ago. I ordered it from Tacoma and they sent it USPS to a different address in Yakima. Strangely they sent the other stuff I ordered to my house. Then they had to send they back to Tacoma before sending it back to Yakima for me. 50lbs of the clay made it to my house a week or two ago. The other 50lbs appear to be trapped in the USPS black hole. The clay has left Tacoma, but the tracking doesn't identify any more movement. I assume no one at USPS wants to pick up this 50lb box during the chaos and I don't blame them. 

bisque ware waiting to be glazed, mugs, plates, citrus squeezers and bulbs

Because I used different temperature clay for different projects, I wasn't able to fire the bulbs in the same firing as the plates, mugs, and citrus squeezers, so those haven't gotten done. I keep thinking I will make time to throw some more so I can fill a kiln to fire the mugs and bulbs I finished after this last firing, but I haven't done it yet. Instead I'm working on online classes, doing union stuff, and procrastinating. Today, I am also trying to calm down my kid, whose reaction to online school has been stomping, crying, and generally freaking out. First there was an error in the timing of the first class, then the link to the second class doesn't work. After solving the first issue, she allowed up to 12 minutes for her teacher to help on the second, but just in case he didn't reply, she started freaking out immediately. Um, so my hope for the school year is that this 7th grader learns patience?

porcelain plates from the second firing, and one stoneware clay on the top right

I'm pretty happy with the plates from this batch. In the first round my glaze application was irregular on some, and because I was worried about glazes dripping in the kiln, I put the plates on stilts. This was a dumb solution, because not only did I not put enough glaze on to drip, making the plates look a little splotchy, firing on stilts also warped the plates. This time around I used more glaze and did not stilt the plates, so there's less splotchiness and all the plates are flat and even.

porcelain plates in yellow, pink and peach

I also changed the shape for most of these plates because they were done on request. The person who ordered them wanted small plates with a flat flared rim. She liked them, so three of the six porcelain plates have been sold since I took these pictures. Four of the plates were done in a groggy sculpture clay, which is serviceable, but mutes the glaze colors and doesn't look as nice.

On all the plates I drizzled other colors inside. The reds and a sparkly glaze look particularly nice in person, but the photos didn't capture the colors as well.

I also glazed three screaming face mugs I made with the porcelain clay. I used dark glazes to highlight the features and wrinkles, and a semi-transparent glaze for the entire exterior. I am not excited about the result. The faces look too white and too plain. Part of the problem is the limited number of glazes I had (partly because I used some up on the plates) and part of the problem is that I didn't leave enough of the dark glazes in the wrinkles and indents. I have ordered some new glazes so on the next batch I can bring more color, assuming the glazes also don't end up in USPS limbo.

My kid's reaction to an error in a Google Meet link on the first day of school

I think these faces would look better if I layered more colors. I usually do this with my underglazed sculpture, putting down a base coat on bisque ware before a second firing, then layering a wash of contrasting color over the first. I haven't tried that with these glazes, but I'm considering it. Underglazes and glazes handle differently, but it's worth a shot.

screaming face mug with minimal color in the eyes and eyebrows

I did minimal mixing of colors in these mugs, but I was tentative compared to my "usual" work. I also did some mixing/layering in the new lemon squeezers, but for some reason the yellow and blue showed up best and overwhelm the other colors (or maybe I forgot to use much other than blue and yellow). I know I used the red/pink on at least two pieces and now it is barely evident.

most of the citrus squeezers from the second batch, in both porcelain and sculpture clay

Something else happened in the glaze firing for these citrus squeezers. And this requires a bit of back-story. When I was in college, my clay professor told us that anytime we had a contained air pocket, it needed to be pierced so that the air could escape. If not, it would risk blowing up in the kiln. This is pretty conventional wisdom in the clay world and I know I've repeated it often enough. I remember one instance when I remembered too late that I had forgotten to pierce an air hole in a piece. When I opened the kiln I was surprised to see the piece had not exploded. At the time, my professor and I guessed that it was because I was using a raku clay, which is more porous than other clays.

more blue and yellow squeezers

Many years later, I joined a clay community on Facebook. One of the regular topics that comes up over and over again is that air pockets don't cause explosions during firing, only wet clay does. The reasoning goes that air is so small that it either doesn't need to escape or escapes through the walls of the clay. I allowed students to test this theory in class. Usually the pieces didn't explode, but sometimes they did. When asked, the folks in this online clay community assumed that these students must have soaked the pieces before glazing, or the pieces were simply too thick, or there was unaccounted for moisture left even after a long candle (candle means preheating the kiln to drive out excess moisture) or long drying time.

the bottoms of these two squeezers expanded due to expanding air inside during firing

It's difficult to rule out all these options with student work, but the results seemed inconclusive. This still bugs me, so I periodically test the theory. In my first citrus squeezers, I pierced the forms, leaving an unnecessary/essential escape for any heated air. This time around I did not pierce the forms. None of the pieces exploded in either firing, but in the glaze firing the bottoms of two of the pieces, which I had set on stilts in the kiln, expanded during the firing, going from a slightly concave base to a slightly convex base. Meaning that an air pocket inside did, in fact, expand during the firing and was unable to escape, suggesting that my online clay community, despite regular repetitions, is incorrect on this topic.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Face Bulbs Redux

I like this one where I expanded the mouth in exchange for removing the eyes entirely
Besides throwing plates and citrus squeezers and face mugs, I've also spent a bit of time this summer making face bulbs. I had started these in 2018, and enjoyed making them. I'd say their quality varies significantly based on how much time I am able to devote to each one, and, unfortunately, I'm fairly sure I've left a few half-finished in plastic on my work table for the past two weeks.
I tried to vary the age, gender, and race of the subjects I referenced in making these bulbs. I think I captured the older jowls on this man, but apparently I forgot about teeth.

I spent three days at the end of last week "at" a Zoom workshop, which one would think would be less time consuming than a live workshop, but somehow is just as exhausting. I think there's a lot of value in the in-between times of a live workshop, where you can have important casual conversations about the content during lunch or during breaks. I think these in-between talks are refreshing, while a series of Zoom workshops just leaves me drained. 

This one I did early in the summer. The hand is large and heavy, but I think the message is clear.

I was hoping to get the rest of the bulbs finished last week, but I was worthless after the meetings. I did manage to fire a bisque kiln, and today I have imposed a union ban on myself (so no working on union tasks) so I can get some glazing done. Good thing too, because the stress of writing this blog post is unusually high. Blogger has changed its format over the past few months and today I can't get it to allow me to type plain text--it turns every new line into linked text--and it keeps arbitrarily rearranging my justification.

Speaking of anger and hate speech, this one is based on picture of Trump, who appeared to be mid-curse.

The bulbs, like the face mugs, are trying to capture the general feeling of the past 4 years, and this year in particular (also Zoom and uncontrollable text formatting, I guess). Before COVID, I had been planning to make these screaming faces, but I also had been thinking of having the mouths spewing flames and snakes, as metaphors for the ubiquity of hate speech and general anger in the country today. I also planned to have mouths covered and bound, a bit like I had done in 2018.

It seemed ridiculous to make faces in 2020 and not include one with a mask, though now I wish I made one with the mask worn under the nose.

Once COVID started, it seemed like simply screaming captures one part of what we are all feeling, while specific imagery related to frustrations around speech, racism, and the politicization of mask wearing also fits in. I had planned to make some faces with enlarged coronavirus shapes coming out of the mouths, but I simply ran out of time. 

I made a press-mold from some bindweed we ripped out of the yard, but without the twining vines, its hard to recognize, maybe color will help.

I did attempt some pieces with weeds growing out of the mouths, but I'm not happy with how they turned out. I'm not sure the plants are recognizably weeds and I didn't make them appear to grow in any convincing way. Additionally, there's some issues with fragility in the vines. Ultimately I think I'd be better off making the weeds from another medium, like Sculpey, but I can play with glazing in these beta tests.

Here I added the vines, but I didn't attach them particularly well so they're going to break.

I haven't been working with these faces long, once you factor in the breaks. In general, I think the forms and expressions are improving, even if individual bulbs are duds. I keep saying it, but I'd like to spend more time on them. Without a show coming up as a deadline, and with a number of other responsibilities encroaching, I'm not even sure that I'll get these glazed before school starts. 
I'm generally happy with my progress on squinty eyes and most of my later noses. proportions are funny on these, since the bulbs themselves aren't head shaped. 

My time was so interrupted towards the end of July, that I left two of these out to dry without even remembering to put the hanging hole in the back. Luckily I was able to carve it in, but I was kicking myself when I first picked them up to load the kiln.
This one is the screaming mouth with no eyes. I was really annoyed when I flipped it over on the way into the kiln, but I guess I'm glad I checked before loading.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

More Throwing: Lemon Squeezers, Plates, Scream Mugs, and Kid Lessons

Dry plates waiting to be fired

At the end of June, I told myself that I could have all of July to myself before I started thinking about prepping classes for the fall. It didn't work out quite as planned, and I spent more time working on work related stuff, but I did keep my promise not to prep classes until August. Tomorrow, then, I start class prep.

Citrus squeezer parts thrown, before carving

In July, I managed to throw regularly and spend some studio time sculpting, too. It wasn't as productive a summer as some, based on what I made in the studio, but I was glad to get the time despite the chaos of this particular summer. I threw mostly plates, mugs, and lemon squeezers, with a few odds and ends we needed for the house.

Citrus squeezers (both carved and coiled ridges)

I managed to throw enough that I ran out of throwing clay. I tried throwing with some sculpture clay I had hanging around. I know I want to glaze all the work at cone 6, and my only other option was some recycled scrap clay that is about half low fire clay. I tested this recycled clay at cone 6 and it didn't work well.

Bottom of a trimmed plate in sculpture clay: holes are from grog, the hairs are from a clump of nylon fiber

The sculpture clay is heavily grogged (grog is ground up fired clay) and has nylon fibers (for building and drying strength) in it, both of which are nice for sculpture, but pretty gross for throwing. The clay looks especially rough when trimmed. Throwing was actually fine, but the texture is certainly noticeable. I'm a bit concerned about how this clay will fire, but I didn't really have brain space for sculpture that week.

More citrus squeezers in sculpture clay

I've since ordered some replacement throwing clay, so if I can squeeze in some studio time in August, I can make some more mugs. If the plates don't work in the sculpture clay body, I can also remake them.

Screaming face mug in progress

I spent some more time on a few screaming face mugs. I have four in progress and about three in the kiln I loaded today. I've discovered the certain features tend to come easier to me. Specifically, I have been having trouble with thin lips. I have been working from photographs and the flat image leaves some information out for the transition to three dimensions. 

Poorly rendered Trump on the right

I've been trying to capture Trump's face in one of the mugs and one of the bulbs, but I keep struggling with something about the face, either the lips or they eyes. The anonymous faces might simply be easier because I don't mean them to look like anyone I can recognize.

Kids' throwing lesson

I also took one exhausting day and gave a clay lesson to my daughter and the neighbor girls (ages 8-12). The lesson went fairly well. We all wore masks and kept the door open and the fan on in the studio. I had all of us throw on bats so we could take turns. (I also had saved out some small pieces of throwing clay so the kids didn't have to use rough sculpture clay which would hurt their hands). 

Kids' throwing lesson

I showed the girls how to center, then let each one try. I ended up helping them with that step, but they mostly didn't need my help for throwing or for trimming (other than getting the clay centered for trimming). All three girls managed to throw and trim a small bowl and I managed to get some help from all three in cleaning the shockingly messy studio afterwards, but it wasn't until this evening that the studio was fully cleaned and recovered after the experience!

Friday, July 17, 2020

Glazing: Lemon Squeezers and Plates

lemon squeezers

I did some glazing and firing this week, mostly because I wanted to get my lemon squeezers done so we could use them. They work great and it doesn't seem to make a big difference what the fluting on the bulb is shaped like..

lemon squeezers in blue and yellow

I glazed them with mostly cone 5-6 Celadons from Amaco. I like these glazes for their bright colors and because the colors look different when they are thicker, such as when they are pooled in the low areas of a texture or of the fluting in the lemon squeezer.

this little lime squeezer stands up on its end, but I didn't realize it until after I took the pictures.

I made these squeezers with some porcelain clay I had laying around, and on just one I ended up wiping the colored celadon away from the raised part of the squeezer top and finishing that raised surface with clear celadon (which looks white on porcelain clay). I wish I had done this with all of them. I used a similar layering technique with some of the bottoms of the lemon squeezers.

both of these pieces have layered glaze to highlight the textures

I am also happy that all six, even the ones with a lean to them, stand up on their ends on the counter. They're small enough to fit in a drawer, but they look nice enough to stand on the counter. I've run one through the dishwasher, but they're also super easy to just rinse off after lemon squeezing. 

the two ends are done differently, but highlighted in layered glaze

Besides the lemon squeezers, I glazed some plates and mugs. The plates are all pretty small, but I'm fairly happy with the results. I layered the ochre glaze on one plate to create varied textures, and I think it instead looks a little messy, but the others are good. The blues, in particularly, look good in person.

small plates with mostly celadon glazes

Along with the lemon squeezers, I finally fired some mugs I had glazed last year some time. They sat, ready to fire, through the entire studio remodel, which started in about September of last year. 

mugs from last year with celadon glazes

My favorite of the mugs I fired are these two-colored mugs. They're more time consuming by far than the plates, but I like the pattern.

my favorite of the mugs, the red is a particularly lush color

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Little Tree Library Dry Shelves

Little Free Library with new shelves on the kids'/sidewalk side.

The Little Tree Library has a small problem. Sometimes when there's a heavy rain, the rain gets inside. If the books are sitting down on the bottom of the library, they can soak up the water and get damaged. Hardcovers tend to be fine, because their pages are raised up and their covers are apparently able to handle a big of damp, but the paperbacks soak up the moisture and either stick together and mold or bulge out into funny shapes as they dry. I don't mind reading a funny shaped book, but I don't feel that good stewards of the library should let the donations suffer like this. The best solution would be a very slightly raised shelf inside for all the books, preferably one that covers the whole of the library floor. Well, the best solution would be to plug the leak, and we're working on that, too, but we've made adjustments to the top several times and we're pretty confident in the door seals, so a shelf seems like a wise precaution, too.

stack of shelves after bisque firing

We'd been vaguely on the look out for a shelf that would work for a few months, and had a temporary Rubbermaid lid inside the library for a while, but when we took out the lid to clean the library one day, we discovered that there had been moisture collected underneath (and turning brown) for some time. We figured we'd better start looking in earnest for a shelf, but that was about when stay at home order started, so all opportunities for looking for a shelf were at an end. And this isn't really a standard item we're looking for, especially since it can't be too nice or it is likely to get stolen. So I figured the most efficient way to handle it would be to make a shelf (or shelves) out of clay.

underside of a wet clay shelf before firing

Over spring break, I rolled out some slabs, perforated them and added lots of little feet. I used some scrap reclaim clay because they didn't need to be pretty and cut out some holes, more or less at random. I want the shelves perforated for two reasons. One, I don't want water collecting on top of them and two, I wanted to minimize the opportunities for cracking during building, drying, and firing.

stack of bisqued ceramic shelves

I rarely make anything large with slabs and never a big flat shelf like this. My students, on the other hand, often try to make bit flat bases for various sculptures and they usually crack. (I do tell them they are likely to crack, but sometimes students need to try it themselves.) The cracks happen for a number of reasons. The flat slabs don't dry evenly, especially if they are left on a board and have lots of clay built up on top. This tends to mean the top and outside edges dry and shrink before the inside, thus causing cracks as the wet interior tries to shrink against the already dry outside edges. Flat slabs also tend to dry into a curved shape for the same reason. The top dries and shrinks first, pulling the wet bottom up into a slight curve. This can be prevented by drying slabs between boards, or by drying more slowly.

Drying shelves between boards to eliminate warping and cracking

Flat slabs also sometimes have trouble shrinking during firing, because their weight holds them down on the kiln shelf causing cracks during firing. Clay shrinks as it changes from wet to dry and again as it changes from dry clay to fired ceramic during firing. As it shrinks in the kiln, it has to move a bit. Usually this isn't a problem, but a heavy flat slab may have trouble moving across a solid shelf and may therefore crack. Sometimes artists put silica sand down on the shelf so that the slab can shift along the surface as it shrinks, but a foot or concave space under the slab can also help prevent cracks. 

picking up a wet slab of clay with one hand like I am doing to the fired work above, can cause cracks to happen during drying or firing

The cracks that show up during firing can also be from uneven drying or from rough handling before firing. Picking up a wet slab or plate from one edge when it is slightly soft can stress the clay and cause cracks to happen later, during drying or firing. My perforations helped lightened the slab and gave it more airflow, but I also made a point of sandwiching the pieces between two boards when flipping them and while they dried to reduce stress on the slabs and prevent warping.

loading up the new shelves in the little free library, they could certainly stand to be a bit larger

The many, many feet are designed both to distribute the weight of the slab (and books) to mitigate cracking and because the floor of the library is not perfectly flat. I figured lots of little feet can hit the library floor wherever it is highest and the shelf is less likely to wobble. Also I like how the feet look. Of course the main purpose of the little feet is to lift the shelf out of the water if the library leaks again.

books on shelves on the adult/street side of the little free library

I made four shelves which together are a bit small for the library. I fired them just to bisque without any glaze because I figure they are pretty likely to get stolen or broken. Making them more attractive is only likely to bring about their earlier departure or destruction. These shelves were pretty easy to make, so I won't mind too much when I have to remake them, though I'd prefer if it wasn't right away. The only disadvantage of the bisque ware is that it will absorb the water, which could conceivably be a problem if we have a leak followed by freezing weather. If these last long enough to get to freezing weather, I'll consider it a win and glaze the next set.