Workshop with Adam Field
On December 20, I was able to take a one-day demo workshop with Adam Field at HPG. Adam and his family were on vacation in Maui and carved out a day to be with us in Honolulu. For the first half of the day, Adam was showing us the way he makes cylinders on the wheel and how he forms cups from them. He also showed us how he throws off the hump and how he decorates both the inside and outside of his cups immediately after throwing. During the second half of the day, he showed us how to make a carving tool from a piece of spring steel (it involves a bench grinder) and how to use that tool to carve pots that are leather hard. I wasn't expecting this, but he showed us how he uses a laser to lay out a design on a pot. He primarily uses this technique on larger pots where the design is more complicated and it's easier for the design to get out of shape if it isn't laid out well from the very beginning. The ground he covered in the workshop is the same as he covers in his new DVD: Precision Throwing & Intricate Carving, but I enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions and get greater clarity about what he was doing and why. Adam's a great teacher and very clear in his explanations. I recommend his DVD and why not ask him to do a workshop?
During the Holiday Art Sale at Linekona, I had several people ask me why I made bowls with such small feet. They said the bowls looked dangerous and they were afraid of tipping them over. A few wondered if I was copying the work of Lucie Rie. Well, here's my story of why I make bowls with small feet.
From the time I was a boy, I'd been attracted to the work of mid-century designers like Russel Wright, Eva Zeisel, and Ben Seibel. Their style appealed to me, especially their dramatic curves. When I came to Hawaii in 1992, I was introduced to wood turners who make bowls that are very similar in shape. They have very small feet and swooping curves. These influences were more general and ones I only recognized in hindsight. I also began making bowls with small feet for two other reasons that are more related to my work in clay. First, I was reacting negatively to many of the pots I saw coming out of the kiln at the Hawaii Potters Guild that were too wide at the bottom for my taste, that seemed to be squatting on their haunches. Second, I started making smaller feet because I was trimming my bowls so badly. While trimming my first bowls, I couldn't get the foot as circular as I wanted them, so I kept trimming them and trimming them until they ended up the size of a quarter. Some of them slumped as a result, but I liked the general design and knew this was the direction I wanted to go in. It was here that earlier design influences became more apparent to me. When I had a bowl in front of me with a small foot, it reminded me of the work of designers I admired and the turned wooden bowls I'd seen.
When I started making larger bowls with small feet, one of my teachers asked me, "So, is that bowl a homage to Lucie Rie?" and I said, "Who's Lucy Ree?" Well, I looked her up on the internet and found a kindred spirit. Along the way I've found other artists who like small feet and swooping curves such as James Lovera, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Elsa Rady and Rupert Spira. Some people say they like bowls like this because they're more elegant, but I like them because they're more dramatic.
Along the way I've learned a few things about how to make bowls like this more successfully. Many of my first larger bowls tended to slump near the foot, primarily because of two things: first, the wall was too thin near the foot and second, the wall was almost perpendicular to the foot. In time I learned to leave more clay in the bottom third of the pot and not to trim it as thinly as possible. I also learned to keep the wall at enough of an angle so it could bear the weight. Just a few days ago I made a bowl where the angle wasn't right so I waited a few hours until the clay had slightly stiffened and then used two ribs to bring it up slightly near the foot. I also had trouble with my first bowls tipping over. Keeping more weight in the foot (primarily by not trimming the bottom of it) and keeping more clay in the bottom third of the bowl made them more stable, but the most important thing I've found is to make sure the foot sits absolutely evenly on a flat surface. If the foot is uneven at all, it's much more likely to tip over. After the glaze firing, I usually make the foot as even as possible by putting it on a kiln shelf without kiln wash, put my right hand on the bottom and press down while rocking the bowl back and forth with my left hand. The bottom very quickly evens out and sits absolutely flat. Just don't get too aggressive doing this or you'll chip the foot on the edges. If you'd like to see a video that shows a more sophisticated way to do this, look at Hsin-chuen Lin's video #219 on youtube about Grinding Flat and Smooth the Feet of Fired Pots. I still wouldn't serve mashed potatoes in bowls with small feet, but my family loads them up with fruits and vegetables on our kitchen counter and we have glass fishing floats and other things in them on coffee tables.
Bowls like this also tend to get wonky and warp easily. Sometimes the effect looks good, but usually it looks like bad craftsmanship to me. In making bowls like this with thin walls that stretch out so far, it's easy for the walls to warp. Even after making larger bowls with small feet for the last few years, I still find that about half of them need to be broken down and made again. One of the most common problems I have while pulling up walls and stretching out the clay is with the clay developing "eccentricities" which reveal themselves as a wobble of one sort or another. People will often say that clay has "memory" and that certain types of clay such as porcelain have more "memory" than other types. We're obviously speaking metaphorically when we say that, but what's the metaphor pointing to? I'd suggest that when clay develops eccentricities as it revolves on the wheel, it's developing areas that are thicker and thinner. Even if the potter is skilled enough to control the wobble, the differences in thickness remain. When the pot goes through the glaze firing, the differences in thickness will create differences in shrinkage and the final pot will be warped in some way. So I'll often break down a pot that I'm working on if it develops too much eccentricity as I'm making it. In the last few days I've thrown the same piece of Black Mountain twice and had to take it down each time because of this problem. In both cases, I finished the bowls and put them up on the shelf to dry. I knew they wouldn't turn out the way I wanted them to, but I hated to break them down when I'd spent so much time on them. After a few hours, however, I had enough perspective to break them down and start over.
From November 8, 2014 until February 8, 2015, the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) in Pomona, California is presenting Chris Gustin: Masterworks in Clay. The exhibition is a retrospective of Gustin's 40 year career working in clay. The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts presented the same basic exhibition in 2012. Fuller also printed a beautiful catalog of Gustin's work which had a very short print run (800 copies in paperback and only 50 slipcased and signed) but is still available through their store. Chris also gave a lecture at AMOCA entitled Finding Form and AMOCA just put it on youtube. It's about an hour long and goes into depth about his creative process throughout his career. It's one of the most important talks I've heard about how a ceramic artist finds inspiration and begins a new body of work. You can find the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NmhBe5S5H8&feature=em-subs_digest.
I hope this blog will be encouraging to potters, especially beginning potters, and a source of helpful information and comment.