Posted by: Julie Duell | July 4, 2008

POTTERY! BEWARE THE BUG!

Hi Everyone!

You could take this as a warning… ‘BEWARE OF BEING BITTEN BY THE POTTERY BUG!”

It happened to me back in the early 1990s and I was well and truly hooked!  I had worked on flat surfaces painting and drawing for so many years and something inside me just HAD to go 3 DIMENSIONAL to see what could be expressed in wonderful, mouldable  CLAY.  I simply fell in love with the very feel of it in my hands and the endless possibilities it opened up and it became addictive! This addiction is commonly referred to as “the Pottery bug!”

This in turn led to huge changes on the home front, with every available space taken up with clay, glaze buckets and a large assortment of equipment – all very messy and every spare moment spent playing with clay!  That is why I say “BEWARE!”

Amazingly, this is yet another area where my partner Tony and I share a similar background. Tony taught pottery & ceramics at Coffs Harbour TAFE College for many years – and whilst we both now have it “out of our system” we enjoy comparing notes about problem solving in working with clay etc.

 I experienced a short course in basic pottery at Joan Rogers’ Chillamurra Gardens Studio at Terrigal around 1980 so I learned how to knead the clay to get any air out, how thick it could be without exploding in the kiln and preliminaries of wheel throwing. We also were introdued to lovely things like paper-making and candlecraft there…but then I returned to painting and put these pursuits aside for a long time.

However the urge to create in clay was always there in the background and then it grew and grew until I simply had to embrace it around 1990!  I first tried some material that one can harden in an ordinary oven – but it was difficult to work, very expensive, unsatisfactory for my need to work a bit larger and not ‘the real thing’ straight from nature!

Next, I bought some earthenware and raku clay, a small turntable + a few pottery tools and began making figurines which I had to carry, leather-hard, to a local Potter to have fired in her kiln.   Here is my model of “Wendy the Potter” who was kind enough to fire them for me at Copacabana until I got my own kiln – plus a few example of early hand built work …

After operating this way for about 18 months, my late husband, John announced it was time I had my own kiln! This was very exciting and we first tested our marriage by assembling and erecting a kiln shed together (if you have every tried putting together one of these tin sheds you will know what I mean!).  Hardly any screw holes lined up so it really tried our patience!

When the shed was finally up on a concrete slab and all ready, we acquired a 2nd hand 8 cubic ft. top loader gas kiln, burner and gas bottles.  I was so excited!  However I knew absolutely nothing about firing kilns and books didn’t seem to offer much because each kiln is different.  I had a list of temperatures for different clays & glazes and some little cones that would melt at various temps. These had to be placed so as to be seen through the spy hole.

This is when my friend Jan came to the rescue!  She had a Pottery nearby and taught me so much about firing kilns, I can’t thank her enough!  She stressed the slow and even rate of rise in temperature needed for raw clay.

Every kiln has its own personality and we certainly had a lot of adventures experimenting – especially the first year!   John was wonderful with innovation.  Because I didn’t have a smaller electric kiln at that time (though I later acquired one for preliminary bisque firing), I was determined to succeed with once only raw firing – but the temperature would surge and crack things when we went from the small pilot burner to the main one.  John solved this by installing a second pilot burner – then we could get a steady rise that would allow moisture to leave the clay before going too high in temperature.  I mention this in case it helps anyone else.  Here are John and I attending a stoneware reduction firing!  We did this rarely however and mostly settled into raw earthenware one only firings. 

I now began to feel like a real potter!  Seagal Studio at MacMasters Beach was now a Pottery! Not until you handle the whole process from start to finish can you really call yourself a potter, I’m told. 

 Well we certainly qualified & I include John because with 12 to 14 hour firings in a kiln needing manual adjustment about every 1/4 hour, it is quite a commitment. Dear John used to get up in the early hours on a winter’s morning and start off the firing for me and I would bring him down a hot breakfast, finding him huddled in the corner of the kiln shed with a beanie down over his nose!  The shed was cold and draughty early on as we had it set up on loose bricks to allow plenty of ventilation (safety factor when using gas).

Along with raw fired figurines, I occasionally bisqued a load of stoneware and experimented with hand mixed glazes.  The Pottery was now bulging with blocks of various clays, buckets of glazes, recipes and many unusual ingredients.  I didn’t use anything containing lead or barium, which are very toxic – but no doubt there were health risks involved in creating one’s own glazes and I would advise anyone to be ultra careful if you do.  One tip is never to sweep a pottery area – always vacuum.  Wet glazes can’t be inhaled easily but once dry, they can be. I learned to be very methodical, keep records and label everything carefully.

Loading the kiln with props and shelves was difficult from the top, as I am quite short and could only just reach (almost fell in a few times!) – so John would help load the bottom layer. I was surprised how much the kiln would hold and how much work went into creating one kiln load!  Of course it is different with wheel thrown pottery – much faster than hand-building.   I bought a small wheel to supplement activities and combined hand-building with wheel thrown work…

One idea really took off through my couple of outlets and that was “Aussie” wine decanters. The most popular was in the form of an Australian outback watertank with a wooden tap, snake on top and frog on the side. These stood on lovely little wooden watertank stands which John enjoyed making.   These were raw fired once only, in earthenware, glazed inside.    The second idea was the Dinkum Aussie Waterbag decanter for taking to barbecues etc. but these were difficult to fire and many exploded in the kiln. Here they are…

 

Everything was a challenge and I put my heart and soul into it, studying books and learning through many a trial and lots of error. There was so much to try!  Throwing 2 pieces to form goblets, matching coffee mug sizes, creating fitted lids, the intricacies of making teapots etc., but I never really excelled at wheel throwing and found it very hard on my neck, shoulders and back.  I didn’t take to precision work and always leaned towards making them somehow organic looking where possible. Here are a few pics…the first three are made by impressing actual plants into the soft clay, then hand colouring with glaze before coating with clear glaze.

Then there was a period when I longed to make something more exotic – hence the “genie bottle” series…

 

I  realised that my strength lay in imaginative hand building and supplied a shop in Brooklyn plus another Party Plan outlet for the next few years with figurines, oil burners and novelty items – even though these were labour intensive. Here are some  examples…

  

Most were built around newspaper twisted and bound with masking tape as a basis to support the shapes and minimise clay used. With only 1 or 2 small holes or slits in the finished clay sculpture, the paper burns away in the kiln leaving the piece hollow and light.

   

   

 

 

Often I would be requested to create caricatures of actual sports people in their favourite clothing, usually in some funny predicament – like the golfer who has swung so hard his legs are twisted up and the ball is still there.  

Then the most popular figurines of all – those of humorous fishermen with all sorts of problems!  Since John was a very keen fishermen and our beachfront home was often full of them, the ideas were easy to come by and exaggerate! The Hawkesbury River Oyster and Fishing fraternity became popular subjects too.  For water effect, I used crushed green glass which melted in the kiln. Here are some examples…

            

Sometimes I would receive orders giving a photo of a fisherman in his favourite gear for a caricature in clay to be made.  My humorous fishermen caught all kinds of things:  giant octopus, stingrays, huge fish, sharks and even a mermaid!  One had a competition with a pelican for his catch and others caught themselves in the tail!  It was such fun making them.

     

             

Oyster farmers almost always have a bitser dog on their barges and they love to lead the way up front with the wind in their faces!

 

As you can imagine, in a house alive with fishermen, practical jokes were popular.  This idea was one of John’s – the famous Aussie meat pie which is often the butt of jokes about what might be in it!   We used to put a few on a plate at a buffet, having first heated up some real tomato sauce on top so that they were steaming.   There were some very surprised looks and lots of laughterHere’s a picture of some of the “Pie Critters”…

Another popular item was our invention of “THE FOUR WISE KOALAS” – based on the well known ‘THREE WISE MONKEYS”… Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil… except that I added a 4th…”Do no evil”!

These items gave rise to a lot of laughter in the shop…

Often, in the midst of filling orders, I would take time out to make something more serious for my own collection – expressing a classical sculptural approach…

                        

Of course, I couldn’t leave my beloved Bush and Forest Sprites out of the act either. You can view them in artform on www.kidsfuncorner.com under “Spriteland”.  Here are some little “Regie Rock Sprite” paperweight “mood barometers”.  Some are turned upside down to show you how they look each way…

Here is one close up…

 

then the Funny Fungi Family…

and Little Nodding Greenhood, the sleepy Orchid Sprite…

The water effect is melted crushed glass.

 I have a little Fairy Fernery with a small fishpond where I like to tell stories to children, so I made this model of “Yarnie” the Storyteller to help set the scene…  

A helpful hint with hand building – With most clays, you shouldn’t make anything thicker than an adult index finger and this can be difficult.   Instead of the old method of making a model solid – then cutting it in half to hollow out the middle then having to rejoin the halves…make a support out of paper pulled roughly into the shape you want with masking tape and build up the clay over that.  A small hole or two in the bottom allows the paper to burn out during firing.

There are however some clays that can be used thicker, such as paper clay – but the above method saves on the amount of clay used as well as reducing the weight of the finished work – so I think it’s a good one. 

A fun entry that was Highly Commended in the Wyong Festival of Arts many years ago was the “Pigs Party” and I made it after seeing the movie “Babe”…  John built the barn and I filled it with the following…

     

Orrrr! Don’t you feel sorry for the little one that missed out?

At one stage I felt quite overwhelmed with repetitive orders – so to make things more interesting, each kiln load I made one or two little figures to add to a composite assembly for my home which I named “The Insubstantial Pageant of Life”.   It was fun thinking how each figure would relate to the next, working my way around the composition.  The hands seemed to be the most descriptive part, so I gave them all white gloves to help show what was doing on. Here’s a picture of the overall, mounted on varnished timber with John’s help…

In short, the right hand side depicts people climbing the aspirational ladder (in this case a rope) – notice some will give us a leg up and others will step on us … then at the top there is a trio representing family and success. There is also a naughty child who has spilled some blue paint down onto the people below.  At the left, people are descending a rope and at the bottom they are progressing from left to right once again, completing the cycle.  The poor fellow middle bottom has a dog who is piddling on his boot and paint being dropped on him, but he is quite unaware!  Lastly, the folk in the centre window looking out are the observers of life, not caught up in the cycle of achievement.   Well – that’s the general gist anyway!

 

Here are a few close ups…

 

  

 

Finally, when John and I left MacMasters Beach, we sold the gas kiln and for a time I enjoyed a scaled down Pottery setup in our new home with just the small electric kiln, bench and wheel.  The last thing I made before selling these things was a FAIRY PALACE which sits on my porch.  It has coloured fairy lights in it – so looks quite beautiful, especially at night.  If you really want to know how I made it in a very tiny kiln, please ask via COMMENTS and I will tell you – but I don’t want to take away from the magic right now…

Here are a few close-ups.  I used anything beautiful I had to embellish it – beads, jewels, crystals, glass figurines etc.

                 

So that’s about it for this Post.  If you have any queries about any of the techiques or firing, please don’t hesitate to ask and I will help if I can.

Yours, three dimensionally this time!

Julie

PS. Worth checking:  about.com Guide to Pottery – Beth’s Pottery Blog – for lots of information about Potting in all its forms!  It seems from reading Beth’s blog that being “bitten” by the Pottery bug (or going “potty”!) is quite common!  Just thinking about taking raw clay from the earth into one’s hands, moulding it into something useful or imaginative and then completing that earthing process by firing it in your very own mini-volcano is such a magical, timeless thing!  I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!  How about you? Have you ever been caught in the magical “Pottery net”?  Do tell!


Responses

  1. What fantastic work you do. I fully understand about you and John with the kiln firing etc. I did 3 years at Hervey Bay Tafe doing pottery and Ceramics and know only too well about reduction firing, glazes, ( and the hundreds of little cups of of test glazes etc), the experiments and the happiness and tears of it all. I live in a caravan and had to stop when I left Tafe because of the mess that is pottery, but I am slowly easing back into it. Thanks for this great site, it is inspiring and I will follow it from now on. Keep up the great work, love it. Kind Regards, Lesley. (Burrum Heads, QLD)

    • Hi Lesley – Thanks for getting in touch & I’m glad you like the site. Although I no longer pot, I can’t resist buying pottery (usually for a pittance at Op Shops etc.) because I feel the love, sweat and tears that has gone into each piece! Be careful of your back if you do wheel work – it nearly wrecked mine. Would love to see a picture of what you do – email if you wish to jduell@pnvr.com.au Best wishes up there in sunny Qld! Julie


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