Through some planning, serendipity, and hard work, I was able to re-start my pottery studio after a 5-year hiatus. Once again wild-faced characters are being born in the fires of… my garage. They beg to be filled with whiskey or to have daisies stuck in their brains. A red devil and flowers, the perfect romantic evening.
Setting up a pottery Skunk Works, writing a book, or blogging requires someone who is bent on the obsessive-compulsive side of creativity. It’s a compulsion to want to continually crank out little gems to share with the world. But when I start a new project I’m not actually thinking about what other people will think of it, what I’m really thinking about is what would be cool to create and bring to life. I like to think about what I want to do for days, weeks, or even months before actually doing them. I’ve been thinking about a three-eyed monster with a third eye sitting on its tongue for months, but I haven’t quite sorted it out. One day I will, and ‘ZHAZAM!’ It will come to life!
Creating pottery is one part craft, and another part artistry. Some potters will say that they aren’t artists but artisans, and some snooty art aficionados might agree with them. But I have my own opinions on what constitutes art and I couldn’t care less about what some talentless critic with a piece of lumber stuck up his butt thinks. I once saw an exhibit in the Chicago art museum of white canvases. I couldn’t believe they hung pictures of nothing on the walls and used up a whole room to do so! I kept looking for the polar bear in a snowstorm but I just wasn’t seeing it. I didn’t consider that art, but I’m sure someone sitting on a pine tree thought so.
I don’t think that people realize what goes into creating a ceramic creation. A lot of thought has to go into each step, that’s where the craft comes into play. I use tried and true methods with each step along the way, and only deviate when I switch to my artist’s hat. When I begin, I cut off a hunk of clay, measure the weight, and then wedge it. Wedging is the process of kneading the clay like a real stiff piece of bread dough to remove any air bubbles that might have been trapped in the clay before it’s used. If I didn’t do this my hours of work would literally explode when fired in the kiln. I’m not exaggerating either those babies are loud when they go off, and it only took one time for me to understand that I don’t want to have exploding pottery in my kiln again.
The next step is throwing a jug on the wheel. This in itself has taken me years of practice in order to usually have good result when centering and pulling up four pounds of moist clay, and then shaping it into a jug. If I were to screw up it would be easy to make my flop into an ashtray, because any kind of flop can be one. But I quit smoking long ago, and ashtrays don’t sell well anymore because most everyone else quit too. But don’t worry second hand stores have plenty of ashtrays so if you’re still hooked you’re not out of luck. Well at least not until the Grim Reaper finds you smoky boy.
After throwing a jug, it now needs to sit around for a day, give or take. The drying time all depending on the temperature and humidity of the room that that the pottery is sitting in. The clay needs to get to a point where it’s firm but not yet dry or what’s called leather hard. This is when the fun begins. At this point I start adding eyes, lips, and teeth to my creations. Attaching clay at this point is a tricky ordeal, if you think you can just start sticking blobs of clay together with the expectation of them staying together, then you’re wrong. The area needs to be scored using a tool to make some good scratches on both pieces of clay, and then wet sloppy clay called slurry that acts like clay glue is applied on both sides before joining.
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different techniques for adding character to my jugs. When I first started creating them I used a lot of trial and error. I know what was in my mind but there really wasn’t an instruction book for doing it. I made dramatic changes at first, and then the changes started becoming more subtle until I’ve gotten to the point where they are today. I still make minor changes as I go along, experimenting with different lips and eyebrows, or adding things just for the hell of it to see what it looks like. The other night I was putting two small handles on a jug when I thought to myself why not have three? So I simply added the third handle. I mean why the hell not, and why does a Cyclops only get one horn when it could have two. Really when you’re creating imaginary monsters, you’re the person who gets to decide what a monster is supposed to look like when you’re creating it.
So after the face has been painstakingly put on, what’s next? Drying. The jug has to dry out as much as possible while sitting on a shelf. The other main cause of kiln explosions is moisture trying to leave the clay at a rapid rate when firing. Imagine if you will microscopic boiling droplets of water turning to steam and racing out of the clay to head out into the world. If those droplets can’t get out fast enough then… BOOM! Sad faces and “cleanup on isle 3 please Dan!” I worked in a grocery store as a teenager and I would hear that over the load speaker when someone’s four year old grabbed a jar of sweet pickles and turned aisle 3 into a gherkin skating rink. But that’s another story.
When I get enough silly faces to fill up the kiln – with maybe some beer mugs and a bowl or two thrown in for good measure – then it’s time for the first firing. That’s correct, you heard me right, they need to be fired twice. The bisque firing is the first firing to 1940 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s to get rid of any remaining moisture, burn off carbon in the clay, and get it ready for glazing. The second firing is to fire the clay up to a temperature to melt glaze, and to make the clay vitrified or non-porous. I fire the second time to 2232 degree Fahrenheit. People fire to different temperatures depending on the clay body they use, and the temperatures I fire at are common for electric kilns. When firing in a gas or wood fired kiln the temperature are typically slightly higher by about 150 or more degrees.
As I’m writing this I can hear the clunking sound from my Skunk Works of 220VAC being turned on and off controlled by a rudimentary computer attached to the electric kiln, and it’s slowly bringing the temperature up. After this first firing I will glaze my jugs by pouring the glaze inside and swishing it around for a few seconds before pouring the remaining glaze back into the bucket. I then paint glaze onto the outside of the jugs depending on the effect I’m looking for. If I had a big bucket of glaze I could dip the whole piece in if I wanted to. If I did that I would need to paint wax onto the bottom to keep glaze from sticking to it. After all you don’t want to fuse the jug onto the kiln shelf, it’s a pain to remove fused pottery from shelves and involves a hammer and chisel. I normally put what’s called kiln wash on the shelves to prevent accidental fusing to the shelf from stray drips.
Now, the absolutely best part of all of this is opening the kiln after the second firing to see what has happened. It’s like being a six year old on Christmas morning. Seeing the results of my work is one of the best feelings in the world. I rub an abrasive stone over the bottom to make sure it’s smooth and won’t scratch a table when placed on it, and then take the time to get to know my new creations. But I don’t want to get too attached because they need to go find homes. Making pottery usually isn’t about the having; it’s about the making, and the creative process. If my shelves are full then I don’t have room to make more.
My latest creations that are for sale can be found here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/DanLaFollettePottery
So stop on by, and maybe you can create a new home for one of these goofy characters. I will always be adding more, so favor my shop and keep coming back to see what’s new. Hey I’m even happy if you just stop by now and then to see what kind of twisted thing I’ve come up with next.
About the Author: Dan LaFollette
I'm a father first, and married to a wonderfully supportive spouse that works her butt off for our family every day. I'm also a writer, techno nerd, potter, and humorist. I always have more interests than I have time to explore. br> View My ProfileI'm an observer of the human condition, and a lifelong student. The day I stop learning, will be the day I fall over dead.