Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud...

(I have noticed that some potters don’t like the term mud, but I cannot bring myself to be at all stuck-up about what I do, and I find it useful to remind myself from time to time that most of my materials come out of the ground.)

Toward the end of 1995, my late ex-wife (we were just in the process of getting divorced at that point) became interested in American Art Pottery of the late XIXth and early XXth centuries. I peered over her shoulder while we were sitting at the breakfast bar, and soon realized that I’d been missing something. I tagged along to a few antique places with her and became quite intrigued with the stuff we found there; eventually, I even found a place that she didn’t already know about, and took her there.

Unfortunately, I found a very nice little piece at that particular antique place, and I took a good look at it. (If you’re in Seattle, you may want to go to Laguna, which has moved, since I wrote this, to the Occidental Square area, not far from Elliott Bay Books.) After I steadied my hand so I could safely replace the object on the shelf (and steadied myself while I clutched my throat), I concluded that if I was going to own things of that nature, I was going to be obliged to make them myself. (It was a nice little vase, perhaps 6 or 7 inches tall. The pricetag said $650.)


I’m not going to froth at the mouth about American Art Pottery; there are plenty of good (and mediocre) books out there. If you want some keywords for a Web search, try Rookwood, Van Briggle, Fulper, Weller, Grueby, Ohr, Pewabic, Newcomb, TECO (= American Terra Cotta Corp., William D. Gates, proprietor, probably of a different Gates family from that of the current William H. Gates), Robineau, Tiffany (yep, same Tiffany), Roseville, and maybe even American Encaustic Tile. There are a lot more, too; that set is just a starting point.

The field was nearly as incestuous as the computer industry. You’ll soon find that Frederick H. Rhead, who eventually designed Fiesta Ware, was involved in about 4 of these places; that Artus Van Briggle worked at Rookwood before he and Anne Van Briggle started their own place, in Colorado; and so on.

Anyway, I do find that I like some of the work. There are occasional pieces I’d like to own. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, I can’t afford this stuff; in recent years it has become thoroughly collectible. A piece by Kataro Shirayamadani of Rookwood sold at auction a few years back for just short of $200,000. That’s the high end; the low end is about thirty bucks, still a big stretch for me, at least at the moment. (...the nice Van Briggle frog I saw last year was $300 or $350, considerably beyond anything I can deal with and, in fact, considerably overpriced -- Van Briggle is still in business, and they still make that frog, so it’s worth maybe $35. After I get my debts paid off, I may order one from them.)

Being the Bazilian I am, I Developed An Interim Plan. It is a characteristic of tweaks of my stripe that if they find something they really truly want, and they can’t afford it, they build one. (In my case, if it’s a real one-of-a-kind or if it’s beyond me, like that frog was until I found out the correct price for it, I either find the right museum or grit my teeth a lot.)

...So I went to the library, and started reading about pottery. (Try The Ceramic Spectrum, by Robin Hopper, for example, or The Thames and Hudson Manual of Pottery and Ceramics, both of which seem quite decent. While you’re at it, have a look at Ceramic Masterpieces, by W. David Kingery and Pamela B. Vandiver. Tons of typos & other little crappy rude errors that I would certainly not expect in a book from MIT Press, but even despite those it’s a wonder and a marvel.

I recently read Pioneer Pottery, by Michael Cardew, and found it to be a goldmine of information.) I also went to the Web, and found the ceramics web and various other resources. (Since I wrote that, I’ve found a pleasant page of pottery links at People Helping One Another Know Stuff ("PHOAKS"). You can also look for Dewayne E. Perry’s large list of interesting potters and sites, and there are lots more besides.)

(Note, added 05 March, 2001: there’s also a good discussion group, called Clayart, which you can find through the Web site.)

(Ahem. Pardon my digressions, please, if you would.)

As I say, I read several books, and began to get some sense of what it might be like to work with clay. It was a grossly theoretical sense at that point, and I knew it, but it was a start, and the subject certainly didn’t repel me. I had no idea that the actuality would be quite as overmastering as it turned out to be...

I went over to Seward Park Art Studio (I live in Seattle... at least, as of this writing), and watched a novice pottery student working on a wheel. Looked like good clean (in a spiritual sense if not a physical one) mudpie fun. In fact, I found that I was becoming desperate to try it.

While I was there, I inquired of the instructor whether I could purchase a small amount of "clay". (Turns out that "clay", at least in the world of stoneware and porcelain, has a lot more than just clay in it. More about this on the technical page.) He was kind enough to give me about ten pounds of what we usually refer to as "reclaim" -- that is, stuff that goes into slop buckets and splat-catchers (that’s a technical term; unfortunately, I just made it up). There’s nothing wrong with reclaim, in case you had any doubts. "Clay" is very easily recycled. Sometimes all you have to do is dry it out a bit and knead it until it’s thoroughly mixed, and you can just use it; sometimes it gets more complex than that. In any case, it really was a kindness. (I have since caught up with him at his own shop, Terra Bongo, on 2nd Avenue in Seattle, and thanked him profusely.)

I took the stuff home, kneaded some of it, and commenced to contrive Wicked Notions about it. Unfortunately, the Wicked Notions mostly seemed to involve potters’ wheels and kilns. Both of these turn out to be nontrivial issues.

The "clay", for example, was stoneware, suitable for firing at cone 10. That translates, in overly simple terms, to about 1300 degrees celsius. (The actual fact is rather more complex, and I think I’ll cover it in the "pottery tech" section that I mentioned above, which I’ll write when I get a chance or when enough people bang on my poor balding head with enough teakettles.)

I ended up at Seattle Pottery Supply, where I inquired about getting my stoneware fired. SPS does, indeed, fire stuff for people, for a nominal fee. They do not, however, go as high as cone 10, at least not on any regular basis. They suggested that I talk with the people at Bruning Pottery.

While I was still wandering around, I looked at potters’ wheels. Though some of my Wicked Notions involved handbuilding, which doesn’t require a wheel, I was already inflamed from having watched that novice over at Seward Park. Alas, they didn’t seem to have anything used, and a new electric wheel is surprisingly expensive (like, up to $1000). In fact, even a kit for a kickwheel (foot-powered), the cheapest one they had, was almost $200. I decided that I had best try this to see whether it was really as much fun as it looked like, and I also decided that if it was that much fun, the pottery wasn’t going to be the only thing I’d have to make myself. Argh.

One thing I haven’t mentioned: by that point I was already scribbling a journal of sorts, so I know that the events chronicled in the previous paragraph took place on April 24th, 1996. If you looked at this page before mid-March of 1997, the version you saw was written only two days before that. There has been rather a lot of water under the dam and over the bridge since then, and it’s going to take me a while to write it all up; it’s also going to take you a while to read it, should you choose to do so. (I may eventually break it into short segments, to facilitate that. Reading stuff of any length on screen is a pain.) Back, in any case, to April 24th, 1996:

The bag of glop was in my car, so I went over to Bruning. It’s only a few blocks from SPS. I walked in, and found myself in a showroom full of dinnerware and fountains and planters, some "firsts" and some "seconds." (I like the idea of factory seconds. Lets you acquire things that may not be "perfect," but are quite serviceable, and tend to be rather more affordable.)

I inquired of the people there (Larry and Judy Bruning) whether they would fire stuff for a fee. It developed that they do not actually fire at cone 10; they fire at cone 11 or thereabouts most of the time. Well, it’s not a truly huge difference, and they assured me that the usual "cone 10" materials that they had tried were all satisfactory at cone 11. One way or the other, they were indeed willing to fire pieces for what now seems like a modest fee, about $1.50 for bisque firing and a dollar or two for glaze firing. At the time, that seemed a wee bit steep to me, but I reflected on the cost of energy (I’ve since found out how large their gas bill is... just frightening) and the fact that I would be displacing their main source of income with my source of mudpie amusement, and concluded that it was actually pretty reasonable.

Then I asked them about classes. I didn’t think I could afford classes, and I was right. I had inquired at Seward Park as well, but they had just started a cycle, and wouldn’t be starting another until June; I couldn’t wait that long. The Brunings operate their classes differently -- students can start at any time, because there is no formal cycle -- but they charge about the same amount of money, roughly $160 for a set of 8 classes if I recall correctly. Not only did I not have that kind of cash lying around, but classes are on Wednesday evenings, and it was the middle of the day. (See my page on ADD if you don’t understand that kind of impulsion/urgency thing.)

I inquired whether they’d be willing to rent out time on one of their wheels. Judy looked pained. "I guess so," she said. "How much," I asked. "Oh, maybe ten dollars an hour," she said, frowning severely and looking, if possible, even more dubious than she had a moment earlier. I wondered whether it was my breath, my personal fragrance, or perhaps my, umm, appearance. (See the photo of me and imagine it several months later, without the benefit of a haircut, disarrayed, and dressed in random nerdware.)

Well, hell. Ten dollars, I actually had that much. "I’d like that," I said. "You realize," said Judy, eyeing me fiercely, as if to disavow any responsibility right up front and to disallow any future recriminations, "that you have essentially no chance of centering clay or making anything in one hour without instruction." "I got that," I said, "but I also got that I hafta try this. I’m grossly inflamed." She didn’t smile. Uh-oh. "Clay is six dollars a bag," she said. "Do you want stoneware or porcelain?" Well, I had stoneware in the car, but I didn’t want to cause any more offense than I thought I already had, so I inquired about the differences. She basically repeated the notion that I wasn’t likely to get much of anywhere, and suggested that stoneware wouldn’t rip my hands up too badly in a mere hour.

At about that point, I elected to go for the gusto. I remembered watching someone in La Jolla, who had been making dinnerplates from weird smooth gray glop and who had told me that porcelain was an incredible pain in the ass, but felt nice on your hands. "Think I’ll try porcelain," I said, hoping I wasn’t making some huge dumb mistake.

Larry got me a bag of porcelain, and conducted me to a wheel. It was, in fact, his personal wheel. He then conducted me to a wheel that could be switched to run left-handed. Oh, well. He gave me a friendly word or two, and went off about his work.

I sat down, played with the foot pedal for a moment, then clumsily cut a blob of porcelain from my new bag of stuff, patted it until it was vaguely round, and put it on the wheel. I’d read no fewer than three good books on this, I had Larry’s parting advice, I was so excited I could barely sit, and there was no way in hell that I was going to let some lump of clay beat me up.

Very fortunately, I lucked out. It took me about 45 seconds to get the clay centered, during which time one of the other Bruning personnel asked me how many times I had done this before, and was somewhat taken aback when I explained myself. (Hey, it helps to read some really good books, watch someone perform the action in question, and think very carefully about the materials!) I then made a crunky little bowl, which I still have. I did have some trouble centering after that, but I managed to fake my way through it, and proceeded to make a total of five objects, after which Larry told me that I’d have to come back the next day and clean up the bases while they were still soft enough to be manageable. Uh-oh. That’s another ten bucks shot away. Sigh.

...But it didn’t matter. I was caught. The damned stuff had me by the throat. Addicted to the grown-up version of mudpies; hoo-wee! Porcelain, y’know, though it exhibits various nasty characteristics at frequent intervals, is exceedingly sensual stuff.

I’ve largely stayed with porcelain. But I’m getting ahead of myself. At that point, I didn’t have a wheel, and at ten bucks an hour I couldn’t afford to continue to rent time on theirs. (I’ll get back to this.)

If you want some sense of what a trip this is, go read up on ADD/ADHD; then think about the fact that I’ve kept a fairly regular journal for almost two years now, and the fact that I am, if anything, even more excited than I was when I started. If you just want a quick index, know that I have never been able to keep any sort of journal. Ever. In my entire life. Yeah, I’m medicated now, but it’s not a total panacea, and the long-term aspect or component of my attention span, while it has extended itself from its previous scale (about 8 weeks), has not done so by a factor as large as, say, an order of magnitude, and I’m already well beyond that on this project...

I’ve got to stop for a while. There’s a ton more of this, but a person has to sleep. I’ll get back to it when I can, though; I want to talk about porcelain (I now mix my own), about centering, about shapes and glazes (here are a few pictures of early work, if you are willing to put up with some inline JPEGs — I haven’t had time to finish cleaning this one up yet, sorry); ...but most of it will have to wait.

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Last modified: Sun Sep 25 01:11:53 EDT 2005