Friday, April 12, 2013


I've been thinking a lot about plates lately. Several students last quarter were throwing plates for their projects, which got me started contemplating foot rings, rim shapes and the ideal curve for a lip. Yesterday my daughter caught me pondering the breakfast plate after I finished eating. "What are you doing, Mommy?"

mmm, crumbs from my breakfast waffle
For years we have used two main sets of plates at home. At the end of college I traded a sculpture for a set of dishes with what I called a mint chocolate chip glaze. Stephanie Engelbart made functional pottery for her senior show and my senior show was all ceramic sculpture. Interestingly, when I looked for Stephanie online, I discovered her featured as a successful alumnus on our college art website. I have an artwork from my senior show featured (under my maiden name).

mmm, mint chocolate chip
Most of our other plates at home are ones I threw as a graduate student for our wedding reception. I didn't want the kids to be bored and I didn't want people to feel like they needed to buy us stuff (especially since we didn't have a big wedding). So for the reception I threw a bunch of plates and bowls and things. I fired the the dishes (and a few little sculptures) and put them at a table in the garage with some colored slips. We encouraged our guests to paint a dish for us. Even now its fun to think about the origin of these dishes when we eat.

friendly decoration on a wobbly plate
One disadvantage of the wedding reception work is that I didn't throw as well eight years ago as I do now. All of my MFA exhibition work was hand-built sculpture. I started practicing on the wheel around this time, in part because I thought I might need to know how to throw in order to get a teaching job after graduation. And, since the job I did get requires regular throwing, I have practiced (and learned) a lot more in the last seven years.

pottery students, look away from the amateur foot (uh, it's Linda's fault!)

Throwing practice for class has influenced me so much that my ceramic sculpture now frequently incorporates thrown sections. And, of course I can now make functional work that is more than a canvas for painting, a joke or obfuscation of throwing deficits.

yep, wheel thrown parts

Gradually my worn home pottery collection is becoming balanced with functional work designed with purely functional intentions, and created in the last decade. As I make more of my work, and as my pottery choices become more about what I want than what I can make, trade for, or afford on a college budget, I am starting to realized that I am excessively biased about my plates in particular. In class I talk to my students about ideal characteristics in plates, and I even made the students a video discussing these characteristics.

This was one of several plates created for a joke. I showed a couple times in the Cambridge Pottery Festival around 2005. After the show there was a dinner. Artists were asked to bring a plate to trade. Bring a plate you made, leave it on the table and take another plate from the table. Ha ha, funny joke for a sculptor. My little sculpture was just about the only non-functional work on the table the first year. The next year I planned to be read with a (non-functional) plate.
Most plates are too big for regular use at the table, in my opinion. I want my plate to just hold a sandwich and maybe a few chips. This may be in part for portion control, but mostly for durability. A big plate is either a heavy big slab or a a thin big slab, in which case I am going to bang it against something and break it. Of course, as Clary Illian suggests, if people love it, they'll use it and break it and have to buy another one--thus keeping the potter employed.

nice glaze, too bad about that thin rim

I also think plates should have a high, round rim. The rim should be high so that spaghetti sauce can't slide off the side of the plate. (In my house its a bit of a running joke with my daughter that Daddy can only use a rounded plate to eat his pot pie because he slides stuff off the side of a flat plate). The rim should be round so that it doesn't chip in the dishwasher.

not the kind of chips I want to eat with my sandwich
Of course the glaze should be designed for function (something that wasn't really a major concern for the wedding reception work, which has since experienced glaze chips and wear) and even a small plate shouldn't be too thin or it will eventually crack from wear. I haven't experienced much breakage with my plates (besides the rim chips), but I have at least two bowls that we are all pretending don't have serious cracks developing down the middle (I love those bowls).

drying plates waiting to be fired

I've gotten quite comfortable throwing plates (though the video I link to is a bit old) that have all the positive characteristics I have described. I can crank them out pretty quickly most of the time, though not as quick as the student who informed me yesterday that she doesn't need to center her plates before throwing. However, I have to admit that once the quarter ends, I will be in my studio making sculptural, not functional work.

one of my recent plates
I guess this is all to say that if you want a well-made plate, you should come to the YVCC Clay Sale on May 9 from 11:30-12:30 in the HUB on Yakima Valley Community College's campus in Yakima. The flight to Washington might be expensive, but I'm sure a good plate is worth that.

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