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Taking my time

The nice thing about procrastinating is that it gives me time to think about things.

Every time I thought about this sculpture project, tentatively titled Baba Yaga Takes a Lodger, I thought of another problem, found another solution. Case in point: Chicken legs.

I'd gotten a scaly texture on clay before with lace, rolling it into the surface. Unfortunately, that was in my Craft Center days, and I foolishly left all those bits and scraps behind when I left the job in 1998. Nothing at the fabric store looked convincing. One of the potters at Club Mud had a strip of lace that might have worked, but wouldn't let me borrow it, and I wasn't ready to start the project then and there during my last firing.

The roulette was a total accident. I made a completely different one to make roof tiles. It was scalloped with popsicle-stick depressions, and kinda worked, but not really. Too cute, too Beatrix Potter. Also, the impressions were ragged-edged, a little erratic. I decided I either needed thatch roof, or wooden shakes. The latter are easy enough to model with a piece of end-grain wood, so that's what I decided to do. I consigned my roofing roulette to the recycle bucket where it dissolved to slip.

But the idea stayed. I pulled out all of my modeling tools. Made a set of long scale impressions on one side of a roll, smaller, deeper ones on the other. Filled in the space with dimples of a couple of different sizes in a random pattern. Dried it and tried it and it worked. Far better than I had any expectation of.

That wasn't the only custom tool I made for this job. I usually use tools sanded from bamboo chopsticks to model facial features. These figures were so tiny that I ended up making a new set of miniature tools from bamboo skewers.

Other problems were easier. How do make a brick chimney? Press the edge of a ruler into the slabs to make horizontal courses. Make seams between the individual bricks with a flat-cut popsicle stick.

How do I make clapboard siding? Press the edge of a board into the slab, many, many times. How do I get the siding to line up at corners? Don't bother. This is a witch's house. Decor is not a priority. I almost made it a good deal more rickety, but decided if the house was alive (which I assumed. Chicken legs, remember?), it would probably heal from minor wear and tear.

Figuring out how to safely support the house on the legs took most of last year. It finally occurred to me to make the house and legs separately, fire them separately, assemble them later.

Some questions didn't get answered until I actually cut into the clay. I had three different ideas for the front steps, actually cut out two different templates, and then didn't use any of them. I realized the steps as visualized were just too big. If I made the steps shorter than the bottom of the door, a) they'd be free-standing and easier to fire without breaking, and b) it'd give the impression that the house was in the act of squatting down to meet its front stoop.

So here's Baba Yaga Takes a Lodger. Time to recycle the scrap, start the long, slow drying process, think about glazing.

Oh, and probably? Start making pots again.

Legging it

I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, going back all the way to Robert Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo in the second grade. Lately, it's been running about three urban fantasies to every one SF, mostly because space battles have come to dominate the genre, and I'd rather not read gun porn.

So it happened that I had three fantasies in my suitcase last spring to read in the hotel room during Ceramic Showcase. And every one of them involved Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore, who rides a flying mortar and pestle, lives in a house with chicken legs. As a main character, as the antagonist, as a surprise reveal of an incidental character around chapter 30. One of them was particularly fun: Baba Yaga's Assistant, by Marika McCoola. I liked the idea of a brave little girl self-inserting into the Baba Yaga story, thought it might be fun to play with the idea in sculpture.

Of course, I never have time to do sculpture in summer. Too many shows, too many commitments, too much pottery. And, frankly, things dry too fast. Winter's the time for sculpture, after I've recovered from Holiday Market, but before I start getting ready for Saturday Market in April. When the studio is cool and damp overnight, and I can lay out slabs and leave them uncovered to cut and join like hardwood the next day. And I can drape parts in plastic while I make other parts that will join with them by the end of the week, and not have them pull apart from differing rates of drying and shrinkage.

I'm actually not sure I would have gotten to this piece, even so, except that one of my favorite authors, Ursula Vernon, released a fantasy in serial form at the end of this year, a portal fantasy featuring a little girl named Summer and a world called Orcus. And it starts with her seeing Baba Yaga's house, picking it's way down the alley past her back gate on its chicken legs.

Yeah, chicken legs. Like in the picture, yesterday.

More tomorrow.


The first day of the first pottery class I took as an undergraduate, we didn't even touch the clay. Instead, we went into the wood shop, and with scraps of wood, doweling, wire and cork, made all of our tools: cut-off wire, needle tool, throwing stick and ribs. The only tool we bought outright was an elephant-ear natural sponge, for throwing. Even our chamois was recycled, previously used with charcoal in drawing class.

I still carry that tradition with me. I do buy tools these days--I'm particularly fond of Mud Tools' silicon ribs--but I still use scrap wood and sheet metal and my belt sander to make many of my pottery and sculpture tools.

And then there's this one. It's called a roulette, a roller. I made it from clay, pressed in tool impressions, and dried it overnight on the heater vent in the bathroom. Ideally, I should have bisqued it next, but I needed it in a hurry, so I just used it as greenware.

What does it do? Well, if you roll it over a semi-stiff slab, it leaves a lovely scaly texture. Like snakeskin, or alligator… or chicken legs.

Yup. I made a special tool just so I could make chicken legs. Why?

Stay tuned.

Valentine's day

For a number of years now, Denise and I have celebrated Valentine's Day with an art project (and co-hosting a radio show, but that ended in 2015). We've made jewelry, stitched books, rolled tiles, pulled paper, did monoprints. This year, we decided to see if her book press could double as a printing press.

Turns out the answer is yes. We weren't able to get anything good from the gravure blocks we brought back from her mother's basement in January, but we made and printed a few blocks of our own..

Here's my first ever woodcut. Not bad, huh?

Bultaco Bob rides again

Here's the other cremation urn from this week's firing:"Bultaco" Bob, in his Bultaco t-shirt (it's a Spanish motorbike) riding his non-Bultaco Harley. I'm so pleased with the likeness, and the way the beach scene wraps all the way around the pot. I even managed to get the purple color of his bike right, by layering red stain, a wash of cobalt carbonate over the top, and then another thin layer of red. His sister-in-law is going to be so pleased.

Together again

The first thing I pulled from the still-too-hot kiln last night was the urn for my mother-in-law Mary's ashes. She'd be so happy; it turned out perfect, just the way she wanted it.

I shipped her ashes home from Wisconsin last month, along with those of my father-in-law, Del, snug in his urn. It's the same bird bath, by the way, painted on both pots. It was just outside the front picture window of their Brookfield house.

They're together again, side by side on a shelf in our living room here in Eugene. I like to think they'd be happy to be here.

Sneak peek

I never worry about my firings the day after. During? Lord, yes, constantly. It's all I can do to keep from fussing with the burner and damper settings, peeking in the chimney to assess the flames and thus reduction levels.

Immediately after I shut off the kiln, I'm done. I've done everything I can to make the firing right, I'm exhausted, and so I go home, have a (usually late) supper, and go to bed.

The next day is cooling day. I don't even go down to the studio; I catch up with dishes, work in the office, maybe clean the studio. Run errands, buy groceries, read a lot. Basically, I'm catching up on all the stuff I put off dealing with while I was throwing, glazing and firing. This time? Started my taxes.

The third day is when I start worrying again. That's when I'll have anxiety dreams, wake up too early, not be able to sleep again. After all, I've just put all my eggs into a not-too-predictable 50 cubic-foot basket, and today's the day I find out if I dropped it.

If there's someone answering the phone at Club Mud, I'll have them start cooling the kiln: open the peep holes and burner ports, strip the fiber off the door jambs, crack open the damper. It saves me an extra trip to the studio, but I'm not sure it's worth it. Because I'm still stressing.

This morning, nobody answered, so I drove down to the studio to start the cooling myself. And took along a flashlight, to check out the pots visible from the peep holes. They look good, top and bottom: nice warm color, but not too brown. Iron speckles. No oxidation in sight. Bottom is a little cooler than the top, but still within the tolerances of my glaze.

And just like that, the stress evaporates. I'm still eager to open the door, unload all the pots, but I'm not worried anymore. It's the uncertainty that kills me. Even knowing it's not good is easier than not knowing at all.

Mixing it up

I've had the weirdest problems with my glaze over the years.

Don't get me wrong, I love the glaze. When it's right, it's a beautiful cream color with iron speckles that reacts wonderfully with the overglaze colors. It's tough and durable on functional pottery, cleans up easily with just a little soak.

In the application… well, there's been problems.

It was originally designed for single firing, going on bone dry un-bisqued pots, so it had a lot of clay in it, nearly 20%. This allowed it to expand slightly with the raw clay under it, shrink again as it dried. When I started bisque firing, it'd crack and peel off with too thick an application, drying up like a mud puddle in the sun.

Calcining (pre-firing) half of the clay solved that problem. I now load a big bisque bowl of powdered ball clay into the kiln every few months, then use it when I mix my glaze.

The next problem wasn't with the glaze itself, but with the glaze suppliers. The original recipe was about 20% Gerstley Borate, but around 1998, Hammill & Gillespie, the suppliers, announced that they'd mined out the source and it would no longer be available. Every potter in the world promptly stocked up on it (myself included), after which they say Oh, my bad, here's another warehouse full, and apparently, they're still finding warehouses, because it's still on the market.

I didn't know this at the time, so I fired up my glaze-calculating software and re-jiggered the glaze to use Ferro frit 3195, which is a more reliable composition, and also isn't hygroscopic (water-retaining), which meant that I no longer had to worry about stray patches of not-quite-dry glaze peeling off on my fingertips when I picked a pot up. The surface was a little powdery, harder to paint on, but adding another percent of bentonite fixed that.

I still had a settling problem, though. Nearly half of the glaze is a sodium-bearing mineral called Nepheline Syenite, and it likes to settle like a rock on the bottom of the bucket. Digging it out and crumbling it back into the liquid part of the mix didn't help. Adding about a teaspoon of epsom salts to every bucket did.

But not completely. It tended to settle, though not as fast nor as hard. But I could still wind up with brown pots, thinly glazed because the glaze minerals were in a mud on the bottom of the basin and not in suspension where they belonged. And mixing before each pot gets dipped gets tedious and time-consuming.

I found the solutions more-or-less by accident. I normally mix a new batch of glaze at the beginning of the glazing/firing cycle, two 7000 gram (dry weight) buckets. This time, though, I knew I wouldn't have time; too many shows in too short a period. Since I'm always looking for something to do while firing the glaze kiln, I mixed up glaze for my next cycle, five or six weeks out.

Starting the next glazing was lovely: walk in, stir the bucket up and start dipping. After a while, I realized something was different. The glaze wasn't settling! I'd still give it a stir every once and a while to keep from developing a sheen of water at the surface, but the bottom of the bucket stayed clear, all the glaze materials suspended.

I'm not sure of the chemistry or physics involved, which component needed the extra time for hydration, but I'm not gonna question it. The kiln is firing, I've mopped the floors and put away my stains and brushes. Time to mix more glaze.

Catching up

I had the best of intentions. I took pictures every day or so. I was going to get back into regular posting after the Christmas hiatus.

We can see how well that worked out.

It's not all my fault. I lost 10 days flying back to Wisconsin for my mother-in-law Mary's funeral; another 10 days alone back here while Denise continued to sort things out in Milwaukee. And I got into the usual production madness, 100 lbs. or more of clay a day and the trimming and handles and long days. So I totally forgot to document the massive pile of recycled clay--three or four hundred pounds--we produced, before I used it all up. I popped up here once; did a memorial to Mary, then disappeared again.

This last week was glazing, down to the studio around 9 or 10 am, leave for home at 5 pm. I took pictures. I really intended to post them. But my cell phone doesn't want to talk to the wifi, and booting the laptop to transfer the files involved actually getting up from where I'd flopped, exhausted, on the couch. Or, you know, bed.

So, you get it all at once, in my one day off between glazing and loading the kiln.

To start with, I had a lot of tableware. Thirty-some dinner plates, an equal number of dessert plates. Including custom sets for two different clients.

I also had four dozen coffee mugs, and another 25 tall mugs, mostly stock patterns, but also some interesting special orders, like otter, octopus, kakapo and wombat.

I also had commissions for two different cremation urns. One for Mary--she'd talked about what she wanted on it, squirrel and cardinal, back in October--one for the brother-in-law of a fellow church-goer. I talked her out of a Harley-Davidson logo in favor of painting him on his beloved bike.

I closed out the week glazing soup and toddler bowls, 59 on Friday alone. Mostly standard patterns, which go a lot faster; it took less time to do 10 toddlers Friday morning than two each of these special-order soup bowls.

I load and fire this week, then spend some time in the office catching up on end-of-year inventory and starting my taxes. And hopefully finding some clever things to say here.

Quantity and quality

I came across this story on a writing blog, encouraging writers not to self-edit themselves into inarticulacy. From Fandoms, pairings and slash:

There was an experiment a professor did. I think it was pottery students. He did an experiment of “quality” vs “quantity”. One half of the class he told; you have to make as many pots as possible. Good pots, bad pots, shitty pots, whatever. The more pots you make, the higher your grade.

The other half of the class were told, “you can make only one pot”. But that pot had to be perfect. The quality had to be high; the highest quality pot would get the best mark.

But when it came to the grading, they noticed something weird.

All the best quality pots were in the ‘quantity’ group.

The guys who were literally churning out pots, trying to make as many as possible, not concentrating on the quality. But every pot they made, made them better at making pots. By the end of the month (I think it was a month) - they had some pretty awesome pots coming out, because they enjoying finding all the ways and all the things they could do to make all their pots. Where as the ‘quality’ guys had spent their time reading up on pots, and technique, and researching and planning; which was all great but they’d had no further practice at actually making pots.

The best way to get really good at something, the only way to be really good at something, is to make lots of shitty attempts at that thing several of which will fail. If all you create are perfect things then you won’t improve, because how can you improve on perfect?


It's totally true. Lord knows how many terrible pots I made on my way to competence, starting with nine dozen hummingbird feeders a week back throwing for Slippery Bank.

And just because I'm pretty confident in my throwing these days doesn't make it any less true. Keep practicing. Keep making. Keep improving.