Friday, November 13, 2009

why pottery is good for me

I am not a patient man.

Given a choice between having it next week or next year, I'll take it last week and thank you very much. This aspect of my personality can be irritating to my friends and family and exasperating to me. I tend to paint pictures with broad strokes and I think one of the reasons of that approach is because the smaller stroke seems to slow down the overall process.

More times than I'd like to admit, I've started a project only to have it end never coming to fruition. It's an annoying trait and I'm working on it.

So it's all the more surprising that I've found I'm quite enjoying a new hobby: ceramics.

When Brooke and I spent January and February of this year in Asheville North Carolina, one of the people that we interviewed for our next thing was Lori T. Lori is an experienced potter and has her own pottery studio where she throws pots, trains potter wannabes, and brews a mean cup of tea. Her faithful dog Lesa, generally stands guard from her corner next to her foot powered Potter's wheel and I found that working in Laurie's studio was both engaging and soothing.

My wife, Brooke, was happy that I discovered this new hobby and so, when we got back to Milwaukee in March, she gifted me a class in ceramics at a local pottery studio: Murray Hill Pottery located on the fashionable east side of Milwaukee.

Unlike the Laurie's studio which tended to be a little slow since she was just getting it off the ground, Murray Hill Pottery often is a bustling, energetic place to get your hands dirty. At the time that I started my adventure with Murray Hill, I hadn't really made the decision that pottery was a hobby that I was going to embrace. I knew that I enjoyed getting my hands filthy, but I certainly wanted to learn how to throw mugs and bowls on the wheel before possibly exiting a hobby that might turn out to be only temporary.

When one works in pottery not only is patience a virtue, it's a necessity. Unless you own your own potters wheel, kiln, glazes is, and all the other accoutrements necessary to indulge in this hobby, the time it takes to go from soft clay to drinking coffee out of your cup is going to take at least a week and may take up to a month. Let's go through the various steps:

First, you have to take a pound and a half of your favorite clay and turn it into something that looks at least, mostly, like a coffee cup. In this regard, experience is going to play a major part. If you're just starting out on the wheel, it may take you 10 or 20 near misses before something that resembles a coffee cup is produced. And now the fun really starts:

It's rare that you're going to have a mug that doesn't require some sort of trimming. This often involves letting the mug set out exposed to the air or wrapped loosely with some plastic until it's what's called "leather dry". This can take anywhere from hours to days to weeks, depending on the temperature of the studio and the humidity of the air but it's typical that a piece of pottery will be ready to trim 1 to 3 days after it's thrown. This is a somewhat subjective state of dryness for the clay where much of the water that was mixed with the clay has evaporated. The piece of pottery is referred to as greenware. It's still soft enough to be manipulated, cut and trimmed but it's dry enough so that it's easy to handle. This is the state in which trimming generally occurs. So, trim your mug, will you?

So now you have something that looks kind of like a coffee cup without a handle. Got to put the handle on. This can be done in several different ways: 1) if your studio has some sort of extruder, you can produced the handle that way. It generally involves selecting a die, filling up some sort of tube with soft clay, and forcing that soft clay through the hole in the die creating a ribbon of clay that can be tried and molded to look like a handle. 2) You can a handle out of a slab of flattened clay. It's quite easy to do actually. Take some clay and flattened it between two flat objects until it's about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Then use a sharp tool of some sort to cut out the handle of your dreams. 3) The last method of creating a handle is more than a little pornographic. It starts by molding your clay into the form of a large carrot. Using your hand and a small amount of water you pull a handle out of the carrot. The actions that you used to do this are humorous, embarrassing, and quite fun to watch. After spending 15 minutes or so creating a very functional handle for your mug, you might need to go outside for a cigarette.

At this point, we have an object that looks like a mug but it's a bit on the soft side. Sometimes you want to let this sit around a little to let it get a little harder by being exposed to the air, at which point you can you can present it very ceremoniously to the kiln.

Ceramic objects are generally fired twice. The first time, it's called bisque firing; the second firing is glaze firing. The bisque firing prepares the object to accept glazes, which color the object and often provide a smooth, food-friendly coating.

Pottery studios usually don't have kilns running day and night; it's too costly. A typical kiln firing is going to last upwards of 12 to 15 hours and use mass quantities of electricity. To make this as economical as possible, kilns are often loaded only when the studio has a load of earthenware that fills up the kiln. Depending on how busy your studio is, the firing might be every week, every couple of weeks, or even just once a month. Murray Hill Pottery usually does a bisque firing and a glaze firing about once a week.

So the item comes out of the bisque firing. After it cools down for a day or so, it is ready to be glazed. Careful application of the glaze is important for the item to come out looking professional. To ensure that excess glaze does not roll off the item and damage the kiln, wax is applied strategically to your ceramic items. The wax tends to resist the glaze and allow a small foot on which the item can sit in the kiln. Application of this wax is a careful procedure and counts as one more small step in your creation of the ultimate ceramic object.

After the item is waxed, glazing can begin. Many pottery studios have a multitude of glazes and each glaze gives you a color and/or intensity for your finished product. Glazes are chemical mixtures that are applied in liquid form to the object by by accurately painting or dipping the item in the glaze.

Once the item is glazed, time for the second firing or time to wait again.

Finally, the finished piece of pottery emerges from the glaze kiln and announces its presence to the world. Time to take it home, show your spouse or kids of your newest triumph, then make a pot of coffee to ensure that the item can hold your favorite beverage.

Total time elapsed: 1 to 4 weeks pending if you catch the kilns at the right time.

As I remember, the reason that I started writing this blog entry was to show you why pottery is good for me. After viewing all the steps necessary to create the finished object, it doesn't really make sense that an impatient person like me would find the creation of said pottery satisfying. To get around some of the time constraints, I've developed small tricks: always having several pieces of pottery in any given stage can help. But I've also found that my very presence in the studio tends to lower my stress levels; regressing to my younger self by allowing myself to play with mud, finding the inner artist in me when I really didn't think existed, and watching my progress in this hobby by comparing the evolution of mugs from barely usable to pretty darn reasonable has been very satisfying for me.

I've experimented with several hobbies in my life and not all of them have stayed with me. Ceramics, I hope, will not be one on that list.

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