Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Yesterday I spent at least 3 hours applying underglaze dots.  

I hope it was worth it. (I did finish 2 audiobooks yesterday, though.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Scared of glazing

This morning our neighborhood suddenly became a very popular place to park. Our street and all the surrounding streets and even the usually empty hospital parking lot are suddenly so full that I worried I wouldn't find a parking spot when I came home after taking my daughter to day care this morning. The school year has officially begun at the high school behind our house.

At this point in the summer, I am done creating new forms. I am mostly done underglazing or adding color the forms. My mission from now until my school year begins is to glaze and fire the work, finish it and take "slides" of what I have made this summer. I have been building work all summer long and I fire work regularly through the summer because fired work is less fragile. Once it is fired, I often start underglazing it right away. I find underglaze application to be almost as stimulating and interesting as making the work and it provides a break sometimes from wet work or while I wait for a piece to dry. Because I usually have at least two steps in the underglaze application with a second firing in between, I fire underglazed work throughout the summer as well.

underglazed work waiting to be finished

I don't usually glaze work during the summer; I leave it for these last weeks. For most of my work I add a light layer of gloss or matte glaze over the layered underglaze. I usually spray this onto the work, sometimes I brush or sponge it on. Today I realize that, in a way, leaving the glazing until the end is foolish. Now I am faced with a marathon glazing session lasting several days and quite a few firings. However, I don't find the glazing or firing steps of the process to be all that interesting or exciting. On the contrary, now that I've reached this final step, I can only ruin pieces that have survived this far.

Damage, breakage, cracks and poor decisions on form, surface or color can happen (and have) during the building, firing and underglazing stages of the summer. However, as soon as I add glaze and fire the work, fixing any of these faults suddenly becomes much more difficult. If I accidentally added only two layers of underglaze to a piece, the streaks and unevenness don't really show up until after the glaze has been added and the piece has been fired. At this point, it is very difficult to go back and fix the mistake. Up until the glaze is added, there is still hope that I can catch and fix my errors.

glazed work ready to be fired

The glaze firing is the last step for most of these pieces and because of how I have arranged my studio time, this week and next week I will suddenly finish most of my work from the last three months. This might be satisfying after the kiln is unloaded and I can look at all my completed work, but it is nerve-wracking while I load the kiln. I worry during the day as I fire the kiln and I am scared to open and unload the fired kiln lest I discover mistakes or damage.

Today is the first glaze firing of the summer. Early tomorrow morning I will unload and see my first finished work of 2011. In fact, I believe some of the mugs in the kiln were first thrown in December 2010. I am nervously anticipating the results of two quasi-experiments in this firing. First, I tried some decoration with new underglaze pencils on the walls of a vase that cracked in the bisque firing. If this method works out, I might try it on a pair of sculptures. I also am experimenting with overglaze. I have never liked the gallon glaze that I bought last summer. It settles quickly and is hard to mix or keep suspended. I bought a pint of an overglaze I used to use in graduate school and I have loaded the kiln about half and half with work covered in the old and the new glaze.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New-born Brain Cells Make Us Happy

Most of the time while I work in my studio, I listen to audiobooks. Good stories help keep me motivated and, especially when my hands are busy on a tedious or repetitive part of the process like smoothing surfaces, applying sprigs, impressing textures or underglazing, my mind can focus on the ideas or action of the book.

Certain books and stories keep me better motivated than others. This summer, in particular, my listening seems to be divided between books that keep me in the studio hour after hour and books that encourage me to take long, distracted breaks. I can generally tell that a book isn't right for me when I find myself happily folding laundry instead of finishing projects started earlier in the week.

This summer's major dud was "David Copperfield" though I've also struggled with "Water for Elephants" and "The Constant Princess."  The latter two I've only recently traded for something else and I might still get back to them. They weren't exhilarating but, unlike David, they didn't drive me from the studio.  I made it halfway through the Dickens "masterpiece" before I gave it up.  I wasn't just bored, I was angry at the characters for failing to grow, change or move the story forward.

My favorite audiobooks for the studio are the Harry Potter series. I devoured the books in print (and waited in Border's lines at midnight for the last few) but Jim Dale's reading makes them a joy to hear over and over again. Any Harry Potter book, but especially the third or fifth can get me out of a rut in the studio. I feel happier when I listen to them and, apparently the fact that I know what will happen (I have whole sections memorized) doesn't hinder their functionality as studio soundtrack. The Harry Potter books have action and adventure but one of my favorite things about the series is seeing the characters change and grow. Rowling illustrates distinct change and growth in the skill, feelings and maturity of her characters. I find it especially pleasing to see a secondary character like Neville become more confident and develop into a leader.

I listen to at least 3 or 4 of the Harry Potter audiobooks every summer. My studio spirits can usually be buoyed by "Pride and Prejudice" or "Emma" as well. Even after many readings, I like to follow the characters as their point of view changes and misunderstandings are rectified.

For the rest of my working hours, I am usually try new things. I have an Audible subscription to supplement the Yakima library's relatively sparse offerings. I usually have the best luck with non-fiction, particularly books pertaining to biology or history.  This summer I enjoyed "Remarkable Creatures" (thanks Yakima Valley library!), "Empire of Liberty," "The Big Burn" and "Devil in the White City."  I also enjoyed reading "1491," "1421," (I like numbers, I guess) and "Monkeys are Made of Chocolate." Not surprisingly several other favorites this year were historical fiction--novels that dealt with real places and real times ("Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and "Fall of Giants").

I round out my listening list with an assortment of Terry Pratchett (excellent books but the audio versions are of uneven quality), Christoper Moore (the vampire books are excellent, the rest, so-so), Jasper Fforde and whatever happens to be on the shelf or recently recommended to me.

This summer, as I look for more audiobooks (I go through them pretty quickly; so far this summer I've finished 23 and not-finished 4 more), I have been trying to categorize what it is that makes for a good studio audiobook. Last fall I won a book from the local independent bookstore. They asked what I liked so they could pick for me based on that. I told them I liked Harry Potter, Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett. They gave me "In the Skin of a Lion" by Michael Ondaatje (who also wrote "The English Patient").  Let me tell you, I loathed that book. But it left me wondering, why would they recommend that book for me? (Maybe they just ignored what I said)

A few days ago I was listening to "Proust was a Neuroscientist" (which is excellent, by the way), and I got thinking about change. I started wondering if change was a thread running through most, if not all, of the stories I liked to hear while working. Of course I mentioned the change and evolution of Harry Potter characters and Pride and Prejudice is all about the characters changing both their behavior and their opinions. With histories, I think it is natural to focus on a time of great change: wars or the lead-up to wars, Columbus' discovery of America, the development of the forest service or a new way of thinking about a nation. But this summer some of my favorite histories have also focused on a changing way of viewing a time of great change. "1491" and "1421" both put forth a "new" or different way of thinking about the Americas at the time of Columbus.

Another category of books that I usually enjoy is books focused loosely on evolution. "Remarkable Creatures" deals specifically with evolution but other books, like "Monkeys are Made of Chocolate," talk about evolutionary adaptations of animals and plants in a specific ecosystem (i.e. the rainforest of Costa Rica).

Of course, the stories I listen to in the studio are separate from the work. I am not sculpting animals or installations that address themes of war or magic. But I have been wondering if change is a more constant (hee hee) element of my work nonetheless. In at least one previous show, I illustrated evolution in form by showing step-by-step changes in similar objects. And there is always an evolution (or should be) in a body of work from earlier ideas and processes to later ones.

My daughter and husband brought a slug into the house the other day to...well, I guess to have a mini-science class on the kitchen floor. My daughter brought it in (in a box) and put it in my lap. My husband took it out and let it crawl on his (gloved) hand while she squealed. Though perhaps not the prettiest creature, I thought it was fascinating how the slug stretched and squeezed from a fat blob to a long skinny line.

I have always been interested in natural forms that change from one extreme to another, slugs (or sea slugs) not the least of these. Flowers bloom and petals seem to come from no space at all then are suddenly huge and wide and curving outward. Seed pods grow from small blips on a stem or a branch into large swellings and stretchings that contain bits inside that look nothing like the exterior of the pod. Rough, dark milkweed pods split sending bright white bits of fluff sailing across a field. These natural changes and contrasts influence the forms and surfaces of my studio work.

Clay itself is one of these changeable phenomena. Everything about the medium must go through changes, from wet to dry, or recycled clay to fired ceramic. To form something with clay we stretch it on the wheel or squish coils together or squeeze it through an extruder. Paintings tend to be flat and rectangular but clay can be any shape. Wood can only be cut or carved so many times, but clay can be formed one way and then completely reshaped without leaving a visible record of the change.

One of my favorite chapters in "Proust was a Neuroscientist" had to do with changing brains. I believe it was the second chapter which focused on George Eliot and on the scientific discovery that our brain makes new cells. "For some reason new-born brain cells make us happy," explains the author. I just love this idea of the new, of the potential and real change that is happening everyday in our minds. I like the idea of starting each day with thoughts and ideas and bits that were there yesterday but also with new bits full of potential, like clay that was molded yesterday but can be changed into something completely (or only a little) different today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Layering Underglaze

Creating and highlighting surface textures encompasses a large portion of my time in the studio. After creating a form, I often spend a great amount of time applying clay sprigs or impressing surfaces with a variety of tools. I also spend a lot of time applying color to theses complex textured surfaces.

textured surface before glazing

underglaze layered surfaces before glazing

underglaze layered surface after glaze firing

Generally I fire each piece at least three times: first I bisque fire newly formed work; next I add a layer of underglaze, sometimes multiple colors or colors that highlight certain textures or details; finally, after the first layer of underglaze has been fired, I add a second layer of underglaze that is wiped away from the raised surfaces.

This wash-away process can be used with stains or glazes as well and doesn't necessarily require the extra middle step of applying underglaze to the entire piece. Any highly textured surface can be highlighted in this way by adding color (glaze, underglaze, stain, even ink or paint). Color can be applied evenly, then washed away from the raised surfaces causing low areas to fill with applied color and raised areas to reveal the clay body underneath. I find this wash-away method to be the most natural way to highlight complex surfaces. It is also a relatively quick, if somewhat messy approach.

I also highlight or alter surfaces by careful and precise application of color onto the surface. I sometimes paint a highlight of underglaze onto a raised surface of an applied sprig. In past work I more frequently painted underglaze on smooth surfaces as an applied decoration. In the past I have also mixed color (oxides or mason stains) directly into the clay itself so that textures can be created with colored clays. This technique works best with a light colored clay like the porcelain pictured below.

The "seeds" in this porcelain "pod" were each created using several differently colored porcelain clays. The seeds were then built into the pod. A clear glaze was applied and the form was fired with no liquid color applied at any stage.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Studio Clean-up

Earlier this week I finished my last wet-clay work. I wanted to spend the day applying underglaze to finished work. However, when I took a load of fired work from my kiln, I discovered a pressing problem. I had no more free surfaces on which to put my work so that I could glaze it. Most of the summer I have been juggling wet work, dry work and bisqued work around the studio on shelves half full of last summer's work, work tables and counters with stacked bottles of glaze and piles of brushes. At one point I was balancing a wet on a piece on thick foam stacked on top of bisque fired pieces while I worked on another wet piece at the high table. Kids, I don't recommend this technique, though luckily the bisque ware didn't shift and I didn't lose any work.

But, not wanting to stack bisque ware on bisque ware, I realized that the time had come. I started to clean. A day later and the studio is much cleaner, but it doesn't look like I'll start applying that underglaze this week.

My studio is a strange space. It certainly wasn't purpose built, but, on the other hand, I'd be hard pressed to find a place as well suited to my needs with so little effort. When we were looking for a new home, we looked for places with extra space to use as a studio. Often this space was a basement. Occasionally it was a shed or garage but our family (my husband) requires garages be used for traditional garage pursuits. Most of the potential studio spaces were dark and gloomy. Some were cold. Some were cobwebby and threatened spiders and icky bugs.

In graduate school I worded in a sub-basement studio with running water (not a tap, I mean a constantly running pipe that dripped into a hole in the floor. We once tried to connect the pipe to the hole in the floor but I guess it overflowed the toilets upstairs.) Either because it was in a sub-basement or because of the water hole or because it was in Wisconsin or because generations of clay students hadn't cleaned very well, the studio was visited regularly by mice, cockroaches and silverfish (ick!)

Anyway, the house we eventually picked, my current house, my current studio has an attached room in the back that I use as a studio. I have no idea what this room was originally built or used for but it has two large glass windows that let in the bright Yakima sunshine, a separate heater to keep me warm in the winter (if I ever have time to use the studio in winter) and a fan and large door that can be used to coax in the nice cool breeze on summer mornings before the sun starts to cook the studio air through the windows. The room has built in cabinets on one wall and a counter topped cabinet on wheels on another. There is a strange lean-to room outside through a second door and carpet on all the walls.

This, the carpet, of course is the room's oddest feature. The floor is carpeted in a square patterned low-pile carpet in shades of brown. All four walls, the low and rolling cabinets, the door to the house, the door to the yard and the interior and exterior of the lean-to door are all carpeted with a flower patterned carpet in the same color scheme as the floor. When I asked about the carpet, the previous owner only said that when her husband thought he might be done with only some of the walls carpeted, she told him to keep going until he was done. (The house in general has a strange fascination with carpet. When I was pregnant one morning I pulled up all the green and orange shag carpet in the living room. When my husband woke up I asked him to take it out.  There is also a cabinet on the way into the basement that is carpeted top, back, bottom and sides with red shag.)

Carpet or no, the studio works pretty well for me. When we moved in I added a pair of raised work tables, a potter's wheel and shelving. Just last summer we made a cement top wedging table and this summer I've added a small "table" and chair for my daughter to use when she is in the studio with me.

The clean up yesterday and today has taken so long because I really don't quite have enough room and because I am easily distracted to details within a project. I like to keep as much work as possible visible at all times because as soon as it is out of sight, I forget that I have it. If I put my work away in a box or a cupboard, application or show time comes around and I panic, sure I have no work at all. Usually I open a box or a cupboard and sheepishly realize that I do have some pieces. This used to drive my mother nuts when her basement was my main storage facility. "Mom, I don't have enough work for this show!" I would moan. She would direct me to the basement. "oh, yeah. I forgot" (again).

Now that I've been actively making work for a decade--and almost half of that in one spot, I have some pieces I probably don't need to shouldn't keep in plain sight. (This besides the work that still hides in the nooks and crannies--or very center--of my parents' basement.) Contemplating the daunting question of what to do with leftovers from an old body of work descended me into an immobile state from which the only escape was, apparently, to organize my bookshelves.

Having accomplished the organization of back issues of Ceramics Monthly, I was able to vacuum and rearrange the layers of plastic sheeting and rugs meant to keep the odd carpet presentable for if we ever want to move out from this house. (Everyone knows that today's buyers look for clean incredibly odd carpeting in their random extra room.)

But at the end of the day (at the end of this one, I hope), my studio is probably healthier for having less clay dust on the floor and reasonable or not, I feel better knowing exactly where I can find that that old binder of glaze recipes from college or the biography of Escher or all 17 books on origami. I have also uncovered at least two surfaces on which I can put unfinished work while I wait to glaze it.

I still haven't decided what to do with most of the very old objects from previous eras of my work. Some of the fountains have moved into the lean-to in the back. A box on the floor behind my wheel houses pieces from before graduate school, and pieces from my MFA show are strategically arranged in a low (carpeted) cabinet with my raku burner. I don't show this work much anymore and I can't imagine showing fountains again, but it seems strange to get rid of them.

At the end of her book, On Design, Eva Zeisel says "When you ask a...maker of things which creation he or she is most proud of, the answer will probably be 'I have no favorites among my children.'" If these early works are my "children" how can I toss them out?  Unlike real children, the individual objects themselves don't evolve and grow, the body of work evolves and grows, leaving the earlier objects behind like shed skins or records of what the work once was. I have albums and albums of photographs recording the growth of my real child. The shed skins of my body of work are heavy and bulky and can't be kept in a small row on a bookshelf--or permanently housed in my parents' basement.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A review of my summer in the studio

End of the Summer
It's August. At this time of the year I always start to feel panicked and anxious. The summer is almost over (it's hot), school is going to start soon and have I gotten anything done yet?  I was planning to do so much. And now I only have weeks, days, hours left!

This week is the last week I have (according to my own schedule) to build and finish forms. I should be firing, glazing and taking slides in the coming weeks so that I can pack away all my stuff for the long cold winter when I hibernate in my office or in the studio on campus.

You see, normally I can't get much work done during the school year. I teach full-time and WA state law means that I can't make my "own" work in the studio on campus. I can make work in on campus but it then belongs to the school, so, really, the only work I make at school is demonstration work. Often I have difficulty getting around to finishing a piece I did as a demonstration because it isn't really mine. Of course I have time constraints that interfere as well. Usually it would be a better use of my time to grade papers, prep classes or mix glazes than to trim or decorate a bowl I threw to show a beginning class how to use a chamois.

I can sometimes sneak in a little extra time in the late afternoon to work in the studio at home, but this entails leaving campus (preferably before 4:30), driving home, starting work in the studio and wrapping it up before it is time to drive back and pick up my daughter. My husband works nights, so I am the sole caregiver in the evenings most nights. I am pretty strict with myself about leaving work at work; just as it is hard to play dollhouse and cook dinner while grading papers, it is hard to give baths and read bedtime stories with hands in wet clay.

Summer's Accomplishments
As I look back on this summer's work, I feel the usual mixture of accomplishment and disappointment. I made more work than last summer, yeah! I didn't do all 47 things I hoped to do. Time, of course is always too short, deadlines are always coming up, everyone has other things to attend to, so the end-of-summer doldrums shouldn't be a surprise in any field, at the end of any measure of time.

I am disappointed because I have working momentum in August in the studio, but will have to cut it short. In just the last week I have felt a surge of energy and inspiration to move forward with pieces I haven't yet started. Instead, to ensure that work will be finished, glazed, fired and photographed before the quarter starts, I need to be done forming this week.  (My students always grumble about "last wet clay day." I feel the same way.)

As I look back on the whole summer, though, I feel farther along than I think I did last summer at this time. I've created about 30 pieces (not counting the two that are wrapped in plastic, sitting on foam, awaiting finishing touches after they dry a bit). Part of it is that I had more "events" to squeeze in last summer (I had jury duty, among other things), but part of it is that I had a bit more momentum going into the summer this year.

The Start of the Summer
During Spring Break 2011, I spent some time in my home studio because I was preparing for a lecture I was to give on campus in May. The lecture was on my work and I wanted images of myself working, as well as some works in progress to show during my talk. Of course I didn't finish these pieces during Spring Break, so I had to work on them sporadically during Spring quarter. I snuck in hours or half hours in the afternoons after work and before picking up my daughter. I convinced my husband to take my daughter to Grandma's for a weekend while I stayed home and worked and I snuck in a few weekend nap-time studio sessions as well.  (It is frankly amazing how much slower one works when one's child comes into the studio after nap-time.)

But because of the studio work started in March, when June rolled around I had three pieces essentially finished and two more almost done. I also had spent some time throwing pots and odds and ends* during Winter Break instead of flying home for vacation right away.

*Digression: I don't consider my main work to be pots and little critters but throughout the year, people are always asking for donations (or having birthdays and getting married). I am often unsure, when people ask for a donation, what they expect. They're holding this fundraiser and they'd like "something, whatever you've got" for the raffle or the door prize or the centerpiece. Do they expect me to give away something that took 2 weeks to finish? Do they want an old chipped piece that I wouldn't sell?  I have discovered that the safest bet is to have some pieces around the studio that are essentially expendable. I throw some bowls, practice a new kind of lid or a different shape handle and press-mold some forms to which I attach legs and eyes. They aren't as much thought or labor as my "real" work and I can have them around in case of an emergency (like my brother's friend's wedding). *end of digression.

Anyway, I finished the extra stuff, the fluff that shouldn't eat my "official" studio time in December and I sorta started my "official" studio time in March and suddenly it's like I have an extra month's worth of time and thought-space for working in my own studio on my "real work."

This feeling that I found extra time during the year, even if it was in tiny bits and bites, does make me feel better about what I've accomplished.  And better yet about what I can accomplish next year. Maybe I don't have to hibernate from my home studio all academic year.