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Getting a leg up

Not a lot of visible progress today, just a lot of fiddly bits. I slabbed the belly to the internal cone last night, then assembled top and bottom and scraped and smoothed to match curves. Then had to leave it over night, as I couldn't pull them apart again without messing up the work I'd just done.

I also rolled out a base slab, and textured it with a brick roller I built last year. I'd been experimenting with brick, cobbles, other architectural textures, and this one seemed to be the best-defined. Today I need to pose the legs, attach them, trim the tops to match the curve of the belly, attach it, check the fit, disassemble, put on the saddle. Like I said, fiddly bits, but the result is pretty amazing.

I'm really psyched to start on Harriet herself, but the white clay I want to use is way wet, so I slice out some bits and set it out on drywall to firm up, then bag it up for tomorrow before I go to bed.


Made a lot of progress, yesterday. I'm working half days on the sculpture, afternoons, as a reward for doing taxes in the morning. I've got all the Schedule C's, 1099's (INT, DIV, R, B) and even the form 1041 for Denise's late mother's trust pretty much done, so I get to go back to Mumfrey.

First, I slab over the back, fill in the sides and up over the shoulders. Once that's all reinforced inside, scraped and smoothed outside, it's time to add the head.

I decide that the tail looks a little short, so make that the wing tips instead, and prepare an extension to go underneath. I use the narrow bits of scrap slab with my trusty scale-making roller to build a sturdy pair of legs.

I firm up the tail a little more by leaning it on the space heater, then attach and smooth it, matching planes and edges. Since the tail is hollow, I make a vent into the body to permit air circulation and evaporation. I'd hate to blow the tail off in the firing. Lastly, I get out some red stoneware to fashion a hamster-appropriate saddle. It's currently separated by a little plastic. I'll wrap the quail and leave the saddle uncovered overnight. By the next day it should be about the same stiffness, so safe to attach. (If I'd put it on wet, it would shrink and crack away in drying.

I sorta feel like the head may be a little undersized for the body, but in the story, Mumfrey is a specially-bred riding quail, too heavy to fly, so I assume his body is more turkey-sized than quail sized. Or so I rationalize not cutting it off and starting over...

Who was that masked bowl?

I was talking to one of Denise's friends at last week's book arts meeting (Denise was halfway through cataract surgery, so I got to drive). Turns out Elizabeth is taking throwing classes at Lane Community College, and enjoying it greatly, after a fairly shaky start. We commiserated about the challenges of learning to center (it took me the better part of a semester-and-a-half), talked about our favorite forms, and I showed her a few pics of my work on the phone.

I think we have one of your bowls, she said. It has a raccoon on it. We bought it for my father-in-law, who used to feed them in his yard. 

I allow as how it might very well be mine, though might also have been by Gordon Ward, another potter who used to make painted-animal pots in Eugene in the eighties and nineties. She says they inherited it when he died, and offers to send me a photo.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the heirloom Off Center Raccoon Bowl. It's definitely one of mine, though old. The rim isn't quite in my oldest version--it has a spiral cut into it, but it doesn't have the radial marks I added later. And the raccoon is posed completely differently than its modern counterpart. I think it's actually inspired by a quick watercolor sketch I did of raccoons in our carport (they used to come in after dark to clean up the spilled kibble left by the outdoor cats). Later pattern evolved from photos I took of the self-same bandits.


Take 2

So I'm a big fan of author/artist/podcaster Ursula Vernon (aka T. Kingfisher). I've reblogged one of her essays here, and my Best-of-Show-winning sculpture from last year's Ceramic Showcase was based in part on her novel, Summer in Orcus. So this year, as I'm thinking of a new sculpture for Showcase--my last two both sold--I keep coming back to Ursula's writing. Specifically to Harriet Hamsterbone.

Princess Harriet Hamsterbone, if you please. Cursed at christening by an evil fairy, doomed to prick her finger on a hamster wheel at age 12 and fall into an enchanted sleep, she realizes that this means, up until her 12th birthday, that she's invincible. So she takes up cliff diving. Mountain climbing. Fighting ogres and saving dragons from ravening princesses and generally going on adventures with the help of her trusty riding quail, Mumfrey.

You see where I'm going, here?

Here is the beginning of Mumfrey. I decided to make him in two pieces, rather like the house in Baba Yaga, but instead of a flat slab with feet attached, I'm doing a hollow, domed form. The bottom curve will be Mumfrey's belly, the upper, more conical surface will match a reinforced, angled gallery on the bottom of his body. They'll be fired separately, assembled later. Not decided yet whether Harriet will be attached or not. I'm still quailing.

The head is a pinch pot, not unlike the animal masks I've made before. The body is going to be slab work. Here you can see the inner dome, wrapped in tissue paper to aid in separation later, with the ring of slap around it and the beginnings of the breast and tail. Already, the tail is sharper and better shaped, from using stiffened slabs. Only I've run out of ready clay slab, so the whole thing is going under plastic until tomorrow.

This is what failure looks like

Starting a new sculpture this week, and as always, got a little eager. When you're working with hollow-built slab sculpture you can't start too early. If the slabs aren't firm enough, they'll slump, and no amount of paddling and pressure will put them back into the right shape again. Better to let everything firm up over night, start fresh in the morning.

Sigh. I'll throw this in the bucket tomorrow, start over.

Blowing, not throwing

Many years ago, I taught for a couple of summers at a camp in Connecticut called Buck's Rock. They were a pretty amazing place, focussing on visual and performing arts. Performance options included band, orchestra, choir; drama and clowning; there was a radio station and a computer shop. They had a garden, and a farm--complete with a pregnant heifer, guaranteed to calve sometime during the session. They had shops for silkscreen, batik, fibers; intaglio and letterpress printing; painting, drawing, sculpting (with bronze casting), woodworking, ceramics, and hot glass.

Let me repeat that, for emphasis. They had glassblowing for 8 to 17-year-olds.

I was in ceramics, of course, shop head my second year. But I played around. I joined the choir for the first half of the summer, making up the entirety of the tenor section. Batiked a bandana in pattern of holsteins on fields of green. Printed some cards on the letterpress, using a block I made from bisqued clay. And I wanted to try glassblowing.

wanted to try glassblowing.

The shop only had two adult counselors (plus a seventeen-year-old junior counselor and a couple of fourteen-year-old counselors-in-training), with two work-stations--bench, glory hole, marveling table--so it was more-or-less in constant use by the campers, JC and CIT's. While all the rest of the counselors looked on with longing.

Gus and Steve were saints. After working all day teaching kids and adolescents, and keeping them from setting themselves on fire, they came back to the shop after put-to-bed to do their own work. They didn't have to offer lessons to the rest of us at night, but they did. What with the level of demand, we basically got one chance per summer. My first year, I brought home a shot glass. The second year, I made a little squared-globe vase about the size of a baseball.

Glass-blowing was equal parts familiar and foreign, fascinating and terrifying. I very quickly noted similarities to throwing. Heat was analogous to moisture: wet(hot) objects are softer; dry(chill) your piece to make it firmer. You rotate your piece to address all parts uniformly, though the axis of rotation is horizontal, not vertical. Apply and remove force gradually, no abrupt changes. And gravity is always the enemy.

On the other hand, you rotate the piece back and forth, unlike on the wheel. And you form your pot from the inside, with air pressure, then turn it upside down on the punty to shape and finished the lip.

Now fast-forward 26 years.

Denise and I have a tradition, for Valentines Day: we do an art project. We've made mono prints and woodcuts, bound books and made tiles and pulled paper. This year, we blew glass.

Valentines Day was really awkwardly timed this year. February 14 also happened to be Ash Wednesday, so chocolate and fancy dinner were kinda out. The following weekend had a federal holiday, though. Presidents Day gave Denise a three-day weekend, so we went down to the coast for the weekend.

The weather was terrible: rain, sleet, even snow. So we looked for things to do indoors: galleries, bead stores, the aquarium. And I found a glass studio that offered lessons.

Oregon Coast Glassworks is located just as you enter Newport on US 20 from Corvallis. It's an unassuming little blue shed-like structure, with gallery in front, hot shop in back that's about the same size as at Buck's Rock, space for two people blowing, with a little extra room for spectators.

We arrived right at opening Saturday, and got lucky. You normally need a reservation, but they hustled us in before their first scheduled lessons. We each chose a form to make, and a color scheme. The teachers did the initial gather, then showed us how to pick up the bits of colored glass on the marver. We held the pipe and glass in the glory hole, rotating back and forth until it was well melted, twisted the glass on the table, introducing a spiral to the colored bits. The very tip of the gather was pinched off, leaving a bright marble in the scrap bucket, then additional eddies were introduced by twisting the surface with needle-nosed pliers. After another trip to the glory hole, the glass is forced away from the pipe by the edge of the table, then rounded off in the block, a water-soaked wooden cup.

The instructor introduced the first bubble, a quick puff of air trapped in the blowpipe by their thumb on the mouthpiece. Expansion of the air by heat forces it out into the glass. Afterwards, they attached a hose to the mouthpiece, allowing us to inflate the glass while they slowly rotated the pipe to keep the piece on center.

Lastly, the instructor chills the glass at the end of the pipe with a cold file, then separates it with a brisk tap. A dollop of hot glass seals off the end, making a hanging loop (on mine) or a base (for Denise's). Then the piece goes in the annealing oven to slowly cool overnight, for pick-up the next morning.

I didn't get any pictures of Denise working, as I was busy on my own project. Which blew out coming out of the glory hole; apparently the violet opal glass is weaker than the blue and I had too much in one place. A second attempt with a more even distribution of color was much more successful. Denise, bless her, got my phone out to take some pictures, even catching a little bit of video of the pinching and twisting process.

Real men don't paint

It happened again Wednesday night; Denise and I were unloading the big kiln while Nicole's class glazed their student work in the next room. She asked if it would be okay if they came in a few at a time to see the finished results, and I said "Sure," as it had been a good firing, and I'm always happy to show off my work.

And of course, somebody asked, "Does your wife paint these?"


From offcenter.biz, August 2009.
playing to the audience
I don't get it.

My name is on the sign. It's on the business cards. It's on the price stickers. But at least once at every show, someone will come into the booth, look at the work, and ask Denise, "Do you make this?"

Even more commonly, they assume that I throw the pots and Denise paints them. Why? I guess in our culture, painting just isn't a guy thing.

Except in this case, it is. Not only do I throw all the pots in my booth, I hand-paint each and every one. I even make the paint brushes I decorate with. Just call me Renaissance potter. (Actually, please don't...)

Denise does assist with the technical end of the pottery. She always helps load and unload the glaze kiln, sometimes mixes glazes, occasionally rolls out dragon toes. And of course she spends a lot of time in the booth, selling (or trying to sell) pots.

Lest it appear that I only do the fun stuff, let it be noted that I also load and unload bisque kilns, the world's least rewarding job. I also build and repair screens and equipment for Denise's handmade paper business, Pulp Romances. I run the dewatering press when she's teaching papermaking classes at the arboretum, or in the backyard. And I do a lot of computer work for Off Center Ceramics, Pulp Romances, and Braille Transcription Services, Denise's third hat. Processing, sorting and formatting the Oregon Country Fair performance schedule is no picnic.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that our household is a family business, a lot like the family farm I grew up on, in that everybody takes a part. Someone milks cows, somone feeds the pigs, someone picks up eggs in the chicken coop. Everybody pitches in to make sure everything gets done.

But I paint the pots.



Why do I always...

...Have a special order come in right after I've just closed the kiln?

Two so far this week, one in my email while I was firing the kiln Monday, the other waited until after I unloaded on Wednesday. For a kingfisher dinner plate, flicker tall mug.

Both of which will have to wait until my next firing, in late March or early April.


So, normally when I load the glaze kiln, I go through three stages over the course of the day:

1. Oh God, I don't have enough pots.
2. Oh God, I've got too many pots.
3. Whew! I've got plenty of pots, and in fact have a head start on the next firing.

And I generally wind up with somewhere between six and a dozen ware boards of pots to stash in my space until next time.

So this last time, after producing this:

I ended up with this:

That's right. Two pots. One of them a refire. This is the closest I've ever come to a perfect load in all my years loading kilns.

Just wow.

ETA: Okay, so I found a partial ware board in my space that never made it into the kiln room. Holding three more pots. Still pretty amazing, I think.


Had a couple of less-than-optimal firings just before Christmas, so I decided to see whether a little kiln maintenance might help. I already tightened up the chimney back in December (the bricks expand and push apart over many firings. Gaps allow in cold air that reduces the draft).

Today's repairs:

1. Take a vacuum cleaner to the burners, clearing out scale and detritus from the venturis.

2. Tear down and rebuild the bag walls. These are hard-brick dividers between the flame trough (where the burners shoot in burning gas) and the ware chamber itself. They're about four bricks high, and divert the flame up to the top of the kiln, where it will be drawn back down through the pots and shelves before exiting through a flue in the floor (and isn't that a tongue-twister). Extreme heat on the outer face has caused them to lean toward the outer wall, constricting the flame as it enters the kiln chamber. I tear them down to the bottom layer, reversing most of the bricks--they've actually started to warp, a little--and shimming them up with ceramic fiber to true them up vertical again.

3. Tighten up the bricks of the door, mostly by banging them with a hammer and two-by-four, to eliminate gaps and get the door face mostly flat again. I also brought in wrenches to tighten down the tie rods that hold the bricks in place in the steel work. We really need to get some new valve springs--the pair we have now are almost crimped flat. Automotive valve springs are often used in kiln frames to allow for expansion and contraction with heat. This set seems to have given as much as they have.

I'm hoping this will make for a better--at least more normal--firing Monday.

ETA: Aaand, it seems to have worked. Cones dropped together, same temperature top and bottom from about cone 1 all the way to the end. Used 64 units of gas, substantially better than the last two outings. Could even trim that down a little next time, as the reduction was pretty heavy throughout, could be a bit less.