Dec 12, 2011

How to Throw a Pot/The Zen of Pottery

Step 1:  Slap the clay onto your batt or wheel head as near to center as possible.
From my very first pottery class - age 17
Used to be a set of four.
These are old, chipped, and headed for the trash.

Last week I happily sat down at my pottery wheel with a full ware-board.  The previous week had been unusually productive.  I had a large bowl (one of the biggest I've ever made), a small berry bowl, (holes already punched) and a garlic pot and lid.
This class, I would trim and finish the bottoms then put them on the shelf to be fired.

A new girl sat across from me.  She said it was her first time using the electric wheel.  She couldn't figure out how to turn it on.  I offered to help and jumped up.  I noticed the powerstrip was turned off.
I flipped the switch.  My wheel, of all the electric wheels, just happened to have been left turned on--with the foot pedal pushed to full speed.

Step 2:  Center the clay.  Root your left hand firmly and use both hands to bring the clay into a cone shape.  Not too skinny!
Hand-built spoon rest.  I actually like this piece.

My ware board went flying.

Fragile greenware pots went crashing to the floor like Oaxacan fritter plates*.  Only the small berry bowl survived and I was lucky to keep that one.

When I taught in Misawa, I told my students time and time again to make SURE their wheel was turned OFF before turning the power source ON.

After screaming like a little school girl, I shook my head, swept up the pieces, and started over.

(The girl across from me--appalled--kept apologizing and looked like she was going to cry.)

Step 3:  With your left hand firmly rooted to the left side of your clay, use your right hand to form a truncated cone.
One of my favorites despite the pin-holing.  

This is where I keep the Dove chocolates
Why do I like pottery?  I have no idea.  It is such a volatile, unpredictable process.
Even experienced, full time potters will tell you never to get too attached to an unfinished piece.  There is just too much that can go wrong.

If you're having an "on" night, and your throwing is flawless, you still have many more chances to lose your "perfect pot".  Which, by-the-way, there is no such thing.

Step 4:  Repeat previous two steps until clay is centered
A gift for a friend.  I HATE how this glaze turned out... 
...So I'm making something to replace it.
We'll see if I screw this one up too.

{Handmade pottery is never perfect.  Even when thrown on the wheel a "perfect pot" will probably be a tiny bit uneven, a tiny bit off-center, or have a tiny flaw in it somewhere.  The key is to not look too close.}

But let's just say you do throw a perfect pot.  What next?
The next step is to let it dry a little.
     But not too much.

You want it to be leather hard.  Hard enough to hold it's shape and withstand medium pressure, soft enough that the clay you trim off will fall in perfect little curls.  Definitely not bone dry.

You cover it with plastic and put it in a "damp cupboard" for a few days.  How quickly it gets to "leather hard" depends on the humidity and how well it's covered.

Try not to bump it when you put it in the cupboard and be careful not to squish it with the plastic.

Step 5:  Drop the hole and compress the bottom.

Two little pencil jars with underglaze.
I like the one on the left.  I keep the one on the right out of pity.
When it's leather hard, you can trim it.  This is the part where you fix the bottom.  The goal here is to get rid of excess clay, refine the shape, and add a "foot" for a finished look and so it will sit flat.

Obviously, this step leaves lots of room for ruining your pot.  Leave too much clay on the bottom, your small mug weighs five pounds.  Take too much off, you can cut through and end up with a planter or a bottom that's too thin.  Trimming is a delicate, sometimes vexing, art.

Step 6:  Pull your walls.  You're aiming for a consistent 1/4 inch thickness all the way up.

A Raku piece with glaze applied too thinly.
Needed more flash on the outside too.

The inside crackled really nicely though...
But you've done it!  Your pot has been trimmed and can now be fired!  But wait...not too soon.  If it goes into the kiln even the tiniest bit damp, the trapped moisture will turn to steam, force it's way out, and in the process...BOOM!  No more pot.
And no more neighboring pots.
And the owners of those pot causalities will NOT be happy.
This has happened to me.
...and I was not happy.

But say your pot makes it out alive.  Now it is considered Bisc or Biscuit ware.  It's still breakable, but MUCH stronger.

Now you get to GLAZE it!

Step 7:  Refine the shape and lastly, trim the top.

Before leaving Japan, I gathered up all the pottery in my house.
A few things I kept, many I tossed.
The rest I pawned off on anyone who happened to stop by...
Meet my arch nemesis:  Glazing.

It seems so easy!  Dip the pot in glaze, fire it and VOILA!  Perfect pot completed!!!

Step 8:  Carefully remove from wheel.   You've thrown your first pot!   
Including our Mamasan.  She said she'd use the green bowl for her rice.
We miss you Eiko-san!!!

You can't put glaze on too thin.
     No lustre.

You can't put it on too thick.
     It'll run and puddle at the bottom.

You have to get the glaze recipe and kiln temperature just right or the glazes will be under developed.
Or over developed!
Or you might get
      or settling-out!!!
(No, I'm not making this up.)

And if you want to put multiple glazes on the same pot, well, you're taking all sorts of chances.

Glazing is the step where I lose most of my ugliness.

Some pots turn out "okay".  But almost every single pot I've ever made has had SOMETHING I'd want to fix or change if I could.

None are perfect.

And yet, there is something therapeutic and, dare I say zen, about the whole frustrating process.  Something about combining creativity with messy earthiness with control and lack of control and spontaneity and luck and chance.  And the possibility that the NEXT pot you pull out of the kiln will be your best pot ever.

Hasn't happened to me yet.
But I have a good feeling about my next piece...!

Class meets Thursday night!  Care to join me?

Hope you're enjoying this one Liz Brazeau!

*I put some effort into this completely random and obscure simile!  (Max and I just learned about adding simile to our writing.)  But this is what I thought of when I looked down at all of my precious pots in pieces littered at my feet:  When I was very small, (6 or 7) my family took a trip to Mexico over Christmas.  One vivid memory (of many from that trip) was of ordering a yummy crispy cinnamon dessert.  When we were done eating it, we took the clay serving dishes outside and threw them against the brick wall along with everyone else.  I had to try a few Google searches to find evidence of my fuzzy memory, but found it here six paragraphs down.
I love Mexican Christmas traditions!  This is one reason we have Mexican food every year for Christmas Eve!


annie said...

Neat post. I'd like to try pottery some day. Have you read the book "A Single Shard" by Linda Sue Park? If not, go get it tomorrow, you will LOVE it.

acte gratuit said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I'll check it out!

mountainmama said...

Please Emily the next time you think about throwing away a pot you have made please mail it to me....I will even pay for postage. I would love to have one of you pots.

Jessi said...

I have thought about taking a pottery class, but then I figured I already had too many hobbies. But I love the look of it so much. Maybe I will learn once all mg kids are in school.

Beeswax said...

I LOVE pottery. Your post has made me think I should go take a class from that guy Jake Knows over at the community college. Jake says that guy has the best job ever: full time, benefits, and everyone expects him to dress like a hippie.

And alas, I just missed you over at the Riv. I moved out and got married in July of 96! I was still in Provo another year, though. If I had seen you in your thrift store finds, I would have been envious.

Lisa said...

Wow, Emily you are very talented! Pottery was my specialty when I was working as an archeologist. I know all about dissecting shards and analyzing the clay, but have never actually tried any pot making myself. Maybe someday...