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Hot ideas

Former potters are the worst.

They're always the ones with the great idea that you should totally be making and selling in your booth. I got one in today, chatting about how he used to love throwing pots, complimenting my work, then, just as he's about to leave, he does a Columbo and says, You know what you should be making?

Hoping to head him off, I gesture at my crowded shelves and say, "Does it really look like I have room for another item?"

Not to be deterred, he continues, You should make hot pads. Not, like, those things you use to take pots out of the oven, but the thing you put on your table to put hot dishes on. 

"You mean like a trivet?" Yeah, I used to make them in the shape of bread crusts (huh?) and you could totally sell them and... I forget the rest, but I made some comment about the difficulty of drying flat things so they stay flat, and eventually say that there's already someone doing that at Market, and I don't want to horn in on his business. Which is mostly true: Danny Young of Barbarian Pottery does brilliant press-molded tiles, which may be used in this fashion. But they're really gorgeous, and I'd much rather hang 'em up where I can see them.

But I couldn't help wondering, after he'd left, "If this is such a great idea, why aren't you still making them?"


What do you use this for? is probably one of the most common questions I get (after Did you make this?). Since I've not been spending all my time in the studio making pots this last week, I've been able to spend time in the kitchen, using pottery. For example, I started by blind-baking a single pie crust in an Off Center Ceramics pie plate (9 minutes at 475° F). Dice up some bacon and fry it down while the crust waits.

Microwave/steam some broccoli florets in a covered small baking dish while you dice the onions, slice the mushrooms and shred the cheese. Sweat the onions and sauté the mushrooms in the bacon fat, then drain. Load everything into the crust, bacon and onions first, then broccoli, mushrooms, and cheese.

In a small batter bowl, whisk together 5 eggs, 2 cups half-and-half, 3/4 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. pepper and 1/8 tsp. cayenne. Pour over all the other stuff in the pie crust.

Bake 15 minutes at 425° F, then drop the oven to 300° for another 35 or 40 minutes. Let stand at least 15 or 20 minutes before slicing in, or cool completely and serve at room temperature.

There, that's three uses for pottery (four if you count the soup bowl holding the sliced mushrooms). And a darned good meal.


Breaking news

Partly cloudy and dry today, so I took advantage of the weather to sort through my boxes of seconds for next Sunday's Kareng Fund Pottery Sale and Smash. Wound up holding one box back for the Club Mud sale in March, another was all bowls for Empty Bowls. Which left two big boxes and one small one for the sale, and another small one of things to break.

Sometimes you just gotta get their attention.

Hand building the holidays

I do a lot of slab work in the studio, sculpting mostly. This time of year, the skills carry over into the kitchen: it's time to make my Christmas potica!

Potica is the traditional Slovenian holiday nut bread. The dough is rich with butter and egg yolks; the filling is even richer. Ground walnut meats, honey, butter, cream, brown sugar, whipped egg whites. Then the whole thing rolled up, raised, and baked.

I got my recipe from my mother, who got it from Grandma Gosar. I had to tweak it a little--store-bought eggs aren't quite as big as farm-grown, so I have to add a little extra liquid to the dough. And since I'm not making it for a family of nine, I cut the recipe in half, which is just the size to fit in one of my small squared bakers. (Required pottery content.)

I set the dough up the night before, overnighting in the fridge. I let it warm up during breakfast, then set it aside while I make the filling. Then it's time to assemble: roll out your slab, er, dough on a floured cloth, as thin as you can make it. Spread out the filling, licking fingers liberally. Roll it up ("Like jelly roll," all the recipes say), bend into a spiral and transfer to the greased square baker.

My mom claims her potica takes an hour to raise. My kitchen must be super cold, because mine takes more like four hours, and that's sitting on top of a heating pad. At which point, it's time to poke a few holes to let out any air bubbles, egg wash, and pop into a 325° oven for about an hour.

The result is gorgeous. Also delicious.


An investment

I took a box of mugs to the bank this morning.

Actually, it's a credit union, and we've been banking at this branch since we moved up to River Road in 2000. They're always friendly and helpful, set me up with a business account to clear checks written to "Off Center Ceramics" rather than my own name, and that time somebody stole my debit card number and bought a bunch of crap at a skater store in Minneapolis, they were invaluable

So this morning, I gave them all a Christmas present.

There's about a dozen people working there, between full and part-time tellers, managers and all, so I put together a box of slightly-seconds tall mugs--mostly oxidized in the firing, though there was one with a chip on the base. Enough that everybody got to have one.

I've done this before, for the window clerks at the Post Office, and the employees at my favorite (no longer open, sigh) copy shop. People I work regularly with, rely on.

Sure, I could have made a few extra bucks had I saved that box of mugs for our seconds sale in March, but the goodwill I get this way?


From today's email

...with a subject line, Quality Pottery!!!

"Fun to use your art in Christmas baking!"

As near as I can make out from the recipe, there's butter, sugar, vanilla and rum flavorings, flour, eggs and nutmeg. And a rum/buttercream frosting. And a nice use of an Off Center Ceramics mixing crock.

Then and now

Before I moved to Oregon, I worked as a graphic artist in a four-color print shop, La Crosse Printing Company. This was pre-digital photography, pre-flatbed scanner, just barely at the beginning of laser color separation. The latter required a large-format color transparency (4x5", typically), which was wrapped around a transparent tube, using mineral oil to be sure there were no bubbles or gaps between film and tube. The tube then spun very fast while a laser read the colors and recorded them as digital data, which could then be used to produce the color separation negatives.

This has nothing to do with pottery.

What does have to do with pottery is that, since we did so much four-color printing, especially for the local brewery, we needed a studio photographer in-house to shoot products, largely beer cans, though occasionally air conditioning units. (One of our other regular clients was Trane Company). When he wasn't working for the printers, he did his own free-lance work, and practiced at improving his skills.

Which is how he came to take all my slides for graduate school applications. I'd taken some of my own pictures previously, using tungsten film and what back-drop and lights I could cobble together, but Brad had a professional set-up, and shot my slides in return for (if I remember correctly) a set of four beer mugs.

Looking back on those slides, I suspect he's at least half responsible for my getting into graduate school. Certainly, the pots themselves were not all that strong, at least to my forty-years-later eye. There's promise there, but I had a long way to go.

Case in point: two teapots, both decorated with elephants, one professionally shot circa 1984, the other snapped with my phone cam on the shelf of my Holiday Market booth yesterday.

The current one could still use a little work--spout could be shorter, and I want to put the elephant painting on the other side next time, so the trunk runs up the spout. But I, at least, can see the years of practice and improvement.

Flame on!

More pictures from the storage unit: A raku class I taught at the EMU Craft Center sometime in the early 90s. I'm actually still in touch with three of the folks shown here; two more, sadly, are no longer among the living. And at least two I have no recollection of whatever. Hey, I've inhaled a lot of (sawdust) smoke over the years. The brain cells get dusty.

Raku is a ceramic process originating in Japan, where low-fire pots were rapidly brought to temperature in very small, wood-fired kilns, then pulled out red-hot and plunged in water to cool. Raku tea bowls were highly prized for the tea ceremony, and the firings eventually became a social event, where pots were provided for guests to show off their calligraphy on. They were then fired on the spot, and much admired before being taken home as party favors.

American raku usually uses a gas kiln, and adds an extra step: After removing from the kiln, and before cooling, the pots are sealed in a metal barrel with sawdust, leaves, newspaper or other combustible material. (A steel trash can with tight-fitting lid works well.) This post-firing reduction emphasizes crackle in the glaze surface, as carbon is absorbed there. Carbon absorption makes unglazed clay surfaces black as well. And it's also possible to get metallic lusters, mostly from copper, and rainbow-hued matte glazes (also copper) as well.

Credit goes to Denise for taking the pictures. I think I just gave her my camera and told her to be careful not to set it on fire.

On the left, Penny McAvoy bravely pulls a glowing pot from the kiln; Kathy Lee scrubs a layer of ash off a plate to reveal the black figure, wax-resist-on-crackle-glaze pattern beneath.

Kathleen Fitzgerald and I pull still-not-very-cool pots from the reduction chambers, while TK McDonald prepares for the next batch of hot pottery.
everybody has something to be proud of

Correction: SIX times

Two weeks ago, I told you about a little girl who came to my booth four times, to look at all my pottery, and show it to her brother, her sister, her mom.

Last weekend, she came in a fifth time, with her dad, to purchase a penguins dessert plate... that I had just sold an hour earlier.

Fortunately, I'd glazed two more for my firing, one a commission, the other just because. They both turned out well, so today she came back again (thanks, Avery!) to buy her penguins plate.

Sixth time's the charm. 

I'm amazed I still have lungs

Among the photos found in boxes buried was a black-and-white series from my graduate school days, recording an Advanced Ceramics class clay mix. We'd begin by dry-mixing hundreds of pounds of clay and minerals on a table-top in a 2x6 frame. Afterwards, we'd add blunged, screened slip from the recycle buckets, mix by hand, knead into a solid mass, then run it through the pug mill. In a three-hour class, we'd mix up a ton-and-a-half of clay, with time to clean up the shop and pose for a group picture at the end.

In retrospect, it was horribly unsafe. All that silica-bearing dust in the air, and us in cheap, disposable dust masks. (Even worse for those of us with beards, as dust-laden air gets in around the edges of the mask.) But it was a great team-building exercise; we had a read feeling of accomplishment, knowing we'd made the entire term's supply of clay in that three-hour class.

First add the dry ingredients, fifty-pound bags of fireclay (Greenstripe, Lincoln), ball clay (OM4, I think), Custer feldspar and talc as body fluxes. Possibly some silica, too, I'm not sure at this late date what went into a cone 6 stoneware. Then add the glop, five-gallon buckets of recycled clay slip.

Afterwards, it's like making egg noodles from scratch, everybody makes a well in the flour, pulls in some egg, mixes and kneads.

Lumpy, uneven balls of clay get rolled in more dry mix and run through the pug mill, then bagged for aging and eventual use.

Last of all, clean up and try not to look too exhausted for the group photo.