Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cracks, breaks and repairs: Lessons in clay and life.

Clay is tough and delicate. One day coils stick, slabs stay together and pots hold their shape perfectly. Other days, coils crack, slabs slump and pots break.

Sometimes, a cup looks perfect but breaks in the glazing process. I’ve had red glazes turn brown. Glazes crack, bubble and slide off the side of the bowl.

My gingko leaf bowl handles were tricky but they stayed on until it was time to bisque it. Then for some reason, one handle broke off. So, I put it back on again.

My big question is always, “Why?”

Is it because the weather is too dry or too wet? Is it because I’m working too slow or too fast? Is the kiln too hot or the glaze too thin? Questions need answers, don’t they?

Maybe not.

Maybe there’s no why but what. The what: clay today and the weather both inside me and out.

It’s accepting that life is like that: success and failure, strength and weakness. Sometimes things in life crack and break and need repair. Sometimes cracks and breaks need to be accepted as part of the process, as life. And letting myself see the beauty there, cracks and all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Clay Play Day.

One thing I notice, when I’ve got my hands in, on, or around clay there are no questions or answers. I’m in the moment.

There is no good clay day or bad. Just clay. And when my hands are moving, my mind is not.

(Ok, this was a 'mistake' that wound up being a fun spoon holder)

There is a stillness that sneaks in and wraps itself around my monkey mind like a soft, warm blanket.

There is peace inside. Outside there is rolling, pinching, pulling and centering.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The wonder of winter.

It snowed today. Here in Portland, snow is major news. Schools close. Traffic snarls. Many people panic. Not me. Born in Michigan, I grew up with white winters. I loved it. I still do. So here I go, with an ode to snow.

Whispering down to the ground, traffic hushed.

Big, feathery, white frozen rain drops floating and twirling.

Black asphalt streets covered in a deep, plush, squishy white carpet showing where every foot has fallen before and after mine.

Ferns fronds bend, rocks hide and creeping thyme freezes in time.

Robins hop across the melting snow looking for food.
And reminding me that after the wonder of winter, is spring.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Year’s Lesson #1: Success isn’t about perfection.

I made a New Year’s goal to fire up my kiln and try glazing my own pots and sculptures for the first time. I’ve done bisque firing but never glaze firing. So this was an adventure for me into the unknown on my own. The feelings: scary and exciting. The results: surprising.

Two porcelain bowls came out great. The glaze was smooth and rich with just a little bubbling inside one of the bowls. The other bowls are a different story. Both were stoneware clay with matte black on the outside and gloss red and purple on the inside. The insides came out nice and smooth but the matte black was a big disappointment. It was a dull black instead of a satin black and there was some pitting too. Not pretty.

I had about 6 cups, all stoneware clay except one. I poured the glazes inside each one in red, purple or white and then painted the glaze on the outsides. Again the matte glaze, this time white, was a big disappointment. I put it on the outside of two of the mugs and it looked dull and felt rough. Unless I can put a clear glaze on top and refire them, I can’t see using them. They’re so rough; I wouldn’t want to drink from them.

My two sculptural faces were another surprise. Good and bad. One was red and white marbled clay. I used only two oxides and no glaze. The color came out as I expected, but the forehead has a slight crack. I can fix it but I’m surprised because I’ve used these oxides before with no problems. The only difference here is the clay. The other face, yet another clay body, I layered oxides with two different glazes. I wanted a depth of color and patina. I got 3 cracks, dark color with some metallic highlights.

Yesterday, I was relieved and disappointed. Today, I’m determined and inspired.

I faced my New Year goal and glaze fired on my own. I learned what worked and what didn’t. I found some new glazes to try in place of the matte black and white. And I thought of ways to use the cracks in the sculptural faces to add to the piece.

The results were far from perfect but I did it anyway. That’s success all by itself.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Firing, glazing and patience: A New Year’s Resolution

I’m used to clay. Building. Throwing. Coiling. Rolling. I’m not used to glazing. I’ve taken classes and glazed some pots, but others, much more experienced than I, handled the firing. This time, I’m on my own. It’s scary. One of my resolutions for the New Year was to do a glaze firing of my own work in my own kiln

First, I did what I always do when faced with a new and challenging task, I researched it. I asked experienced potters. I read online articles. I watched YouTube videos. I visited the local ceramics store and bought glazes and tools. Then, I got to work throwing and hand building, followed by bisque firing, and finally, brushing on those glazes I’d bought months ago.

The glazes were dry. The cups, bowls and masks were ready to load. . So it was time to face my fear.

First, I vacuumed out the kiln and wiped the dust off the kiln shelves. I’ve never done that before but I read about it in a tutorial (it’s supposed to be VERY IMPORTANT), this time, I did it. Next, I gathered all the glaze painted pieces and began the loading process.

It’s a puzzle. Fitting all those mugs, bowls and masks onto shelves so there’s enough space between them while making room for everything. I’m not that good at puzzles and I didn’t want to screw it up. So it took me about an hour.

Finally, it was time to put the cone in the cone sitter, close the lid and turn it on. I went back to the company tutorial to make sure I did everything right. I turned it to low and set my time for 2 hours. Then, I ran an errand.

Everything was fine, so I turned it up to medium for another 2 hours. I was jittery. I dust mopped my floors, washed my down parka, folded laundry and talked on the phone. My timer rang. I jumped up and ran out to the kiln. I looked cautiously through the vent in the lid, everything looked fine. It was time to lower the lid all the way and turn it up to high. I lifted out the kiln vent wedge with an old potholder and turned the knob to high. I held my breath and waited.

Silence. Well, nothing blew up immediately. I took it as a good sign.

I walked the dog. Fed the cat. Cleaned up the dishes. And I ran outside to check on the kiln. Then upstairs to close the shades. Turn on some lights. And downstairs to check the kiln. Again.

It’s still sitting in the same place and it’s hot. It’s been over 3 hours since I turned it up to high and the cone has not shut off the kiln yet. It’s still firing. All I can hear is the buzz of the coils heating. I take a deep breath in and out and go back inside. Even if the kiln shuts off now, right now, I won’t be able to open the kiln until tomorrow.

It’s doing its job firing my pots.
My job is to wait.

So, here I sit and wait and check off a New Year’s goal. I have gone through the loading, firing and glazing process in my kiln for the first time. But perhaps the real resolution is not out there in the kiln, but in here.

Inside me. A new resolve, a small opening letting in a little bit of warmth that shows me how to take a risk and to face my fears not with action, but with patience.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Lighting up the New Year

Seconds to midnight, torches are lit. People circle around excited and chatting. As the first flames ignite the sculpture, a hush falls over the gathering. Fireworks sparkle up into the dark night along with all our wishes and prayers for the New Year as well as all the things we want to let go from the old year.

It’s becoming a tradition. For the last three years, my husband and I have spent the end of the year watching a sculpture burn.

My friend and sculpture artist, Patrick Gracewood builds a sculpture every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to honor the all that’s happened in his life over the last year. Packed with fireworks, it’s built to burn. This year, the fierce gold painted angel held a picture of his mother in law who died recently, along with bouquets of dried hydrangea, gold ribbon and doilies. Alongside the past are symbols for this year, like the 2012 Chinese New Year dragon.

I get different feelings from each year’s sculptures. One year it felt playful and child-like, another year spiritual and somber. This year, the angel figure alongside the dragon felt both strong and powerful. I felt protected and intimidated. Like I’d better watch out and yet, I was watched over as well.

As the dried flowers turn to ash and the angel wings flame and disappear, I feel a part of me letting go.

As the fireworks fizzle, a contentment fills the space. A feeling of peace that comes from knowing that you have all you need, a strong foundation and a guide to help you find your way into the new year.

When all that’s left is smoldering paper, I notice there’s an opening. A clearing has appeared that the sculpture once filled. In that opening, I see the moments, days, weeks and months ahead burned clean and clear waiting to be.

Now into the new year, I can see possibilities lit by the sculpture’s sparks.