Thursday, June 28, 2012

Many Hands Make Light Work

My Mum always said that many hands make light work (or something like that), turns out she was right. Yesterday was the Fairview Studios Semi Annual Scrub Down. 10-12 students showed up around 5:30 to scrub the floors until you could eat off them. OK, I wouldn’t eat off them, but they did get scrubbed, hosed and wet vac’d until you could see bare concrete.

On a side note: If you EVER want to build your own studio and decide to go the bare concrete floor route, I highly recommend sealing it. Concrete might be forgiving of spilled clay slop and other pottery studio messes, but it does not clean up well if it is not sealed. The previous tentant had used this space to park their vehicles in, so the floor was pretty well beyond sealing it when we moved in (residual oil drips, dirt, etc)

If you are a safety conscious person, this would probably make you cringe. We got the hose out and sprayed down the floor (after moving all the wheels and tables etc to one side), scrubbed with a deck brush and then sucked up the water with a shop vac. The cord for the vac did not reach far enough to get to all the nooks and crannies, so we plugged it into several long extension cords. The plug ends of said cords spent a lot of time in puddles of water. What’s wrong with a little full body electro shock treatment?

Since we did not manage to electrocute ourselves, we got out of the studio around 7:15. Most of us headed over to the Dog & Duck for a couple of pints and some food. This was to also be the wind up party for the Water Valley Celtic Music Festival that Dave has been putting on for the past 14 years. The music was good, the food was good and the Guinness was great. They even go to the effort of putting the shamrock on the head. Most places don’t as it is too much of a bother to pull a pint of G, much less decorate it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Fast Can a Pot maker Pot?

I will soon find out just how quickly I can push the making process. Can I go from wet clay today to glazed pot in 1.5 weeks? Probably not, but I’m ‘gonna give it a go. The 18 mugs I made for a custom order took me from June 6th to the 24th to throw, dry (barely), bisque, glaze and fire again. I was just able to squeak in under the 1 month minimum deadline I usually give for this type of order due to the fact that I had, coincidentally, already thrown 10 mugs on June 3rd and was able to use them for this order. So in reality, I actually started the making 3 days earlier, so that means the whole process took 3 full weeks to complete. The other and more crucial factor was that I had the minimum amount of greenware waiting for bisque to be able to fire a fairly full load of pots in the bisque. I will not fire a load less than that so as not to waste energy, or run the risk of cracked pots. In the end, the planets were all lined up just right for getting things done on time.
Now we come to why I am going to attempt the improbable (if not the impossible). The customer for the mugs picked them up yesterday evening and today she has asked if I had any extras. She needs 2 more, but this time, could the text that was impressed into the mug be raised up on an appliqué? That’s doable, but the kicker is that she wanted to pick them up next Friday (I kyboshed this Friday right away). That is 9 days away, not including today. The other kicker is that I will not be back in the studio until Friday this week, so really, I only have 1 week. I know that will not be a goal I can achieve, so I think I can get away with 2 weeks, she just does not want to wait a month. My only issue once they are complete is how to fire them. I will probably have to use the small test kiln at Ceramics Canada to get them finished on time, at least to bisque. I have more than enough to fill a glaze load, but I will NOT have enough for a reasonably full bisque load.
It's my fault for saying yes, I know, but I am always up for a challenge, just not sure how the clay feels about it. It has been extraordinarily wet here for the past few weeks. 80% humidity in Calgary is pretty rare, but that’s what it was yesterday and the day before that, and the day before that etc. Then there is the 100% humid rain, the rising rivers and ground water seepage. Work that would normally be dry in a few days is still very squishy after a week. I will have to take advantage of the natural drying powers of the sun (if it can keep shining long enough for me to finish this), as well as strategically placed fans. I just have to keep thinking of this as a “marketing opportunity” that may result in future customers. I have said that a lot about similar “marketing opportunities” but then I start to count chickens before they hatch and I usually end up with a basket full of rotten eggs. I am what you would call a pessimistic optimist. I try to always look on the bright side of things, but I know that in the deep dark recesses of my mind, in the pessimistic corner where my alter ego lives, I am thinking of all the ways this could go off the rails. Handles will crack, appliqué’s will start to peel off, glaze will crawl, or pinhole, or they will just plain warp and come out looking slightly rhomboid. But then, maybe I worry too much.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bitter Sweet and the Signs of Summer

I fired the kiln over the weekend and the mugs I was desperately trying to finish in time are all done and all perfect, except for one with a tiny surface S crack. I made one extra anyway, so now that one is mine. The overall firing however was a mixed bag. I had a few pots to re fire from the last kiln load that did not reach temp.
There were a few tall jars, a vase, 2 large plates, a large bowl and various tea bowls that I thought could all use a few extra degrees, so I put as many as I could in this firing.. The little tea bowls all came out better than when they went in, but the large and tall refired things all bloated, ran, or both.. The weird thing is that although I know the bloating is a cone 5 Bmix issue, I don’t usually have an issue with it, but it only happened on the tall pieces, and the big bowl. Now they look revolting. The little cups are all perfect (pics to come tonight maybe). The ones I am happiest with (other than the mugs) were my shellacked bowl and the square plates with the terra sig / shellac combo. I glazed them all in the translucent amber glaze and the black slip just works so perfectly with it. So I am about 70% happy with the results, but there were definitely some issues with this one.

That’s it for the Bitter, now for the Sweet: I am free for the summer. As of this last weekend, I will not be working on Saturdays during July and August. This will leave lots of extra time to play in the clay and perhaps experiment with glazes(?). I always say that I will devote more time to glaze tinkering over the summer, but I never really do. I try 1 or 2, get fed up and quit. We will be fooling around with cone 6 crystalline glazes in July, so there will be a fair amount of “experimenting” going on regardless.

I had visual confirmation this weekend that summer is officially here. The “campground” by the Stampede grounds is full of RV’s and trailers now. They sprang up like mushrooms over night. I am assuming that it is for the people that are actually in the Rodeo. I couldn’t imagine that anyone else would want to stay there. 1) It’s way too close to the grounds (therefore very noisy) 2) No Trees or grass, just hot blacktop 3) your neighbor can tell what you are eating for breakfast just by looking out his window into yours.

I have mixed feelings about the Stampede. I know that it is one of the big tourist attractions for our city and the money it brings in each year is appreciated by many businesses. However, I live about 2 blocks away from the grounds in the neighborhood of Mission. I can hear the fireworks every night, I know who is playing on the open air stages because I can clearly hear them and the screaming from the midway rides is actually quite deafening any time of the day or night. This year is going to be even better (the sarcasm is actually dripping it is so thick). It is the Stampede’s 100th anniversary this year and I hear tell of extra special fire works displays, among other celebratory hoo ha. This means that they will probably start earlier, go on much, much longer and will be extra loud.

I was at the stampede last year for the first time in about 10 years and it pretty much reinforced my dislike for the whole event. It was work related, so that was one good thing about it. as I did not have to sit in the office and slave away. I got there a bit early and wandered around the Midway while I waited for the rodeo to start (nothing like sitting in the hot sun wearing dark denim). After the rodeo, we all went down to the infield to mingle with the clients that the office had invited. I got my free beer ticket (I would never BUY beer there). It was Bud Lite, all the time, no other options and for someone who pretty much sticks to really dark ales and stouts, this was like drinking warm sugar syrup. I choked half of it down when one of the project managers “kindly” gave me another to drink. I’m sure she thought she was being nice, but the headache that quickly ensued caused me to leave early. On my way out of the grounds, I thought I would relive my childhood and get some cotton candy and a candy apple to take home (I’m a grown up now, I can get both at the same time if I want to). While standing in line I watched a rather dysfunctional family order their “food”. The mom had about a zillion holes in her face from the multiple piercings (not that there is anything wrong with body adornment, but it just adds to the visual here), the dad was a very meek and mild kind of person, and the kids, well, I just felt sorry for them. The mom got 2 candy apples and some floss for them and put the apples on the narrow little ledge of the “food” cart in order to open up their pack and stow them away. However, one of the kids decided he wanted his apple now, reached for it, but because his little arms were too short, he could not reach it and it tumbled to the ground, shattering the candy coating. The mother let loose the bluest streak I have ever heard, called him names, and made the kid cry. The husband went all beet red from embarrassment, but did not do anything to calm the raging beast-mom, or comfort/protect his projeny from her wrath. It’s only an apple for crying out loud (albeit an $8 apple).
By the time I got home, I was pretty ill. 1.5 Bud Lite + too much sun + too much denim = raging head ache. As you can probably tell by now, I am really looking forward to this year’s Stampede. It starts in 11 days, July 6th, yee haw :(
If you have never been to the Stampede, give it a go, you might like it (just don't forget your wallet). But if you do, please remember that Calgary is not all about Rodeos and red necks. We do have some culture, you just have to dig down past the cow patties to get to it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Glazing, Firing & Drinking Irish Whiskey

Kiln is fixed! I should be ok to fire this weekend. So glazing/loading tonight and if I can fill the kiln, then I will fire it off tonight as well. That should not be an issue as I always have stuff kicking around that has been glazed, but not fired, and then there is that whack of stuff that needs to be re fired from the last time a kiln element blew.

So, that will be my evening. I don’t want to have to unload a kiln of mugs the same day that they are picking them up. That would be too nerve wracking.

We are having our 2nd semi annual studio clean up day next Wednesday. We have been in the space for 3 years, and have had difficulties cleaning and maintaining it. Because it is a privately owned recreational studio, with all different kinds of people, cleanliness can be an issue. Some people don’t feel that they should have to clean up things like wedging tables, plaster tables, the floor around their wheel etc as they pay to come here to get away from cleaning at home. They feel it is the ownerships responsibility. Others are just plain forgetful, and others are just lazy (I probably fall in that category to some degree)

One person can not maintain the space on their own. The floors are unsealed concrete and they do not clean up well. If this was a city run operation, then there would be a budget for cleaners etc. The bonus for coming in to clean the studio is that we will all be going out to the Dog & Duck for a wind up party for the Water Valley Celtic Music Festival. There will be some of the musicians from the festival in attendance and I am sure the music will be great, as usual.

In the discussion surrounding this clean up / wind up “party”, Dave, our fearless leader, was regaling stories from our trip to Ireland to anyone that would listen. Apparently I am an alcoholic, at least in his version of events (which get distorted with every telling). Yes, I was seen taste testing various scotches, bourbons & Irish whiskeys at the Middleton Distillery near Cork (they used to make Jameson’s there) and was a bit flushed in some of the post distillery pictures. You can’t visit and not do that. I learned several things that day. I learned why I don’t like scotch, and why I actually do like Irish whiskey best. I do not like the taste of burnt dirt (aka smoky peat). I also like it because it is triple distilled, unlike bourbon (aka corn whiskey) which is traditionally only distilled once.

Yes, I was also seen lifting a pint or 2 of Murphy’s Stout and Guinness on occasion. But to hear Dave tell it, I was sloshing everywhere we went. BTW, I like Murphy’s better than Guinness, but I don’t believe you can get it here in Canada, at least not this far west, but then I have not looked that hard either. I have to say, that with the amount of food we ate, and most of it being in the form of soda bread, spotted dick, more bread, breaded fish, chips, potatoes etc… it’s a wonder anyone can get drunk in Ireland. When we were at Marcus’s for the salt firing and other pottery related demos etc, we started our day with oatmeal, at 10:00 we stopped for a tea break that usually included scones, spotted dick, other assorted bready items etc. Then there was lunch, and the 2:00 tea break and then dinner at about 6. By then, I had consumed my carbohydrate allotment for the year. I should mention that just before we went on this wee adventure, I had been on the Atkins Diet which contains absolutely no refined or processed carbs of any kind. I fell off that carb wagon very fast. It didn’t hurt much as bread is soft and apparently I was drunk anyway.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Potters Nightmare / Girl Interrupted


As I mentioned in one of my last posts, I am in a bit of a time crunch to get some mugs finished that I have been commissioned to create. I backfilled all the handles on Friday and left them loosely covered over night until I could get back to them on Saturday after work. I left them uncovered in the sun on Saturday afternoon for about an hour and then put them uncovered on the plaster to hopefully wick out more moisture. On Sunday, I got to the studio bright and early (9am) & put the mugs outside to dry again for several hours. If a non potter were watching me, they probably wondered what the heck I was doing. Every half hour or so I would wander outside, pick a mug up and press the base of the mug against my cheek, shake my head and put it back down. This is the only method I know of to tell if there is any moisture left in the clay. If it is cold, it is probably still wet & my cheek is the body part I rely on to gague the level of dampness. I nervously began loading the bisque kiln at bout 2:00 and set it for a 2 hour delay and a 2 hour preheat, so it wouldn’t start until 4:00. I went home and that night I sweated bullets in my sleep worrying about the mugs. Could they have been a little too damp? Will the handles and bottoms get blown out by the moisture being boiled out too vigorously? All the worrying was for naught. I checked them on Monday, and all was well, now I am a couple days ahead of schedule. I was originally going to wait until Tuesday to fire the bisque, but now I can glaze instead and take my time to get that part right instead of rushing through it and then I can load on Friday night and unload Sunday. Even thought these are very simple mugs, I am really happy with how they have turned out so far. The handles are perfect (in my opinion). They are not too big, and not too small, they are juuust right. I also had a few shellacked pots in there that have the layer of coloured terra sig slip. I am eager to see how these come out in the glaze, especially since the process is rather time consuming. I want to know that going cross eyed from all the dots and squiggles was worth it. I am not 100% sure how they will end up glazed, but probably in the translucent Amber as I love the way it reacts with the rutile in the sig).

I taught my Tuesday class last night and the kiln was on from a firing that one of the other instructors had loaded and fired. It should have been done a long time before that. About a half hour into the class, the computer on the kiln started beeping indicating that it was not heating fast enough, and it shut off at 2140 F when it was trying to reach 2175 F. I have a sneaking suspicion that this load only reached cone 4. So that means that my load of mugs etc will not be fired in that kiln this weekend as I had planned. Now I will be madly glazing on Friday night in order to pack it all up and take it to Ceramics Canada on Saturday to load in their kiln. I got the feet waxed on the mugs and a few other pieces, so I’m a little bit ahead.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Time Crunch

I took a quick look at the calendar (eeek)….I know I am in a bit of a time crunch here with these mugs, but I guess my brain had not quite fully realized how much of a crunch it was until just now. I have 13 days, including today to dry, bisque, glaze and deliver them. The first batch of 10 are mostly dry now, just sitting under loose plastic to protect the handles from drying too quickly. The 2nd batch of 9 is assembled, but the handles have yet to be backfilled. So once I get that done tonight, they will be dried as quickly as possible and probably fully uncovered on Sunday. I will attempt to bisque fire on Tuesday night, as I need to fire a glaze load sometime next weekend if I have any chance of meeting the June 27th deadline. It is supposed to be partially cloudy and 24 degrees on Saturday, so I may take the chance and dry them outside for a while. The problem is that it has been so wet here. Last Tuesday there was a torrential downpour with intense thunder and lightning, it rained on Wednesday, some on Friday and the weekend. Then this week has been more of the same. Clay does not dry well in this weather at all. Usually the problem with Calgary is that it is too dry and things can get away from you if you don’t keep a close eye on the moisture content. I often double wrap my work in plastic and will even go so far as to cover the ware board in plastic before I wrap it up so as not to let too much water wick out of the pot into the board. Usually over the summer, if I spend all day at the studio, I can throw a teapot in the morning and have it fully trimmed and assembled by the afternoon. In fact, this weather is reminding me of Ireland. We were there for 7 days and it took forever for anything to dry. Good thing we brought our bisqued teabowls with us for the salt firing. I don’t think anything we made there ever fully dried by the time we left.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When the Potters Take You, it is the End!

I was listening to the radio last night before I went to sleep and the station I had it set to plays old radio shows from 11pm to 1am. I happened to catch this one last night “Dimension X – Potters of Firsk” If you want to have a listen, go to and you can look it up. It is great…in that cheesy 1950’s Sci-Fi kinda way. Apparently there was a band of renegade potters living in the foothills of a volcano on a distant planet who would claim the dead of the nearby villages and use the bones for their glazes. If there were not enough dead people, then they would kidnap living people. Apparently they were easily convinced to stop this practice in return for a yellow glaze recipe and a less bloody source of tricalcium phosphate (aka bone ash). Tooo funny.

If only the potters of Earth could demand that kind of fear and respect (without the body count of course). “Come to our pottery sales, or reap the consequences” something like that.

I wonder what was going through the mind of the person or persons who wrote this story? Were they that hard up for a plot?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Can't we all just slow down a bit?

I’m sure this has already been written about a zillion times, but here is my take on it as it pertains to a craft that is by its very nature, slow.

Ever since the introduction of the personal computer and by extension, the internet, our lives have become a bit more hectic (as if you needed me to tell you that.). Every time you turn around now, the new technology that just came out is obsolete. It also seems that along with the increased pace of turning out the newest, fastet, smarter gadget, so too has our desire to be instantly gratified. Everyone wants what they want now, not tomorrow, and definitely not next week or next month. OK, so what’s my point?

Well, here it is. I got a referral last week for an order of approximately 24 personalized mugs. Sounds great and I have no issues doing small orders as that is usually all I have time for. They wanted oversized coffee mugs with a specific text stamped either on the side or the bottom. Again, not a problem. I did mention that I usually require about 1 month to complete these types of orders. They came back to me and said that they needed them by June 28th. I agreed, as it was not that far off from the month that I would usually require and as luck would have it, I had already thrown 10 mugs the previous weekend but had yet to trim or attach handles, so they would work. My issue is not by any means with this particular order, but it did cause me to reflect on the reality of making pottery by hand (vs machine) and what the general buying public seems to expect when it comes to the hand made vs the machine made product.

I have run into this scenario a few times:

Customer: “I was wondering if you could make me a gift for a wedding present.”

Me: “Sure, no problem, when is the wedding, or when do you need to have it by?”

Customer: “Next week, Friday at the latest.”

Me: While trying not to choke “Um, no, I can’t do it by then, but would you like to look at some of the stuff I have that is already finished?”

Customer: “I was hoping to have it personalized with their names and the date of the wedding, so no. How come you can’t make it by Friday?”

You can see where I am going with this. There is a perception out there that what you want/need now, should just be available to you whenever you want it. For these people, I am very glad that Wally World and other similar purveyors of crap exist.

The slow process of making pottery is not meant for this type of consumer. I have tried to explain to more than a few people, when they ask how long it takes to make something, that it is more than just the making. I could say “Oh, about a minute”, but that would only apply to the initial throwing of the basic form. I could also say “ about a month” as that is sometimes how long it takes for things to dry, trim, attach handles, dry some more, bisque fire, glaze, fire again”, or (in my case) I could say (and I know they never really get this) “12 years”, to which I usually get blank stares.

I even had someone question why it took me so long, because they were able to pick up the mugs they made with their kids at the u paint it place the day after they did them.

I don’t think she saw my eyes roll to the back of my head…

So, not to be a Luddite or anything, but there seems to be an odd overlap of wants and expectations born from the mechanized mass produced world, with the hand made world. To me, it seems that the consumer must be unconsciously thinking “I want to buy a unique, hand made object that means more to me than what I can buy at the big box store, but I don’t want to spend too much, and I don’t want to have to think ahead and just be able to pick it up off the shelf as soon as I need it”. They want the best of both worlds, and I am sorry to say, at least in this, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I also don’t believe that this could be a conscious thought pattern, it’s just too ridiculous, but if it is, then there is really something wrong with our world. It kind of reminds me of an open air street fair that I had a booth in a few years ago. People were more than willing to shell out $15-$20 for non permanent tattoos, but not for a hand made mug that would last way longer than the tattoo they paid too much money for. My booth was right beside the tattoo tent, so I was a wee bit bitter by the end of the day. I guess a mug was just too cumbersome to carry around while drinking beer and getting a fake crappy tattoo.

Perhaps I get too wrapped up in the beauty of a well made object and tend to expect the same of everyone else. I mean, what is better than a handle on a mug that was lovingly attached in such a way that it looks and feels as if it was designed for your hand to hold, and not 3 billion other hands as well? (this is what I was doing on Saturday – lovingly attaching curvaceous and uplifting handles, back filling the attachment points to give visual balance to the overall piece, wiping away the drool …).

So back to my point, if there even really was one. I think we need to slow down, expect that something of quality will take time, not be in such a rush and accepting mediocrity as the price for immediacy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

And another one before bed...

I must be crazy...

One before bed

I applied a black slip tonight and then spent the evening after I got home shellacking the pattern and dotting the dots then wiped back the slip to reveal the white clay underneath. Now to bed to dream of dots and swirls.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sunday's pots on Monday

So I'm a wee bit late posting these, but this is a little bit of what I was up to on Sunday. Well, Ok, so I did not make all of this on Sunday, but I touched them all. I refined the feet on the squared off plates, wiped off the shellacked mugs and the tea bowls, threw 10 tall mugs and 4 porcelain bowls (trimmed them too after a few minutes in the sun to dry a bit), and and refined the lid to the casserole. 
I will handle the mugs tomorrow, uncover the rest of the wet work to air dry and terra sig and shellac the 3 square plates. not a bad day. I probably could have done more, but I have been suffering a bit from "potter's elbow" and arthritic thumbs and fingers, so I took it a bit easy on the grunt work. 
I am starting to use more of the terra sig slips on the bas relief pots. I have added in a bit of Mason Stain 6600 black and ceramic rutile powder in one and just the rutile in another, and then apply them to the pot when bone dry. As soon as the sig is dry, I shellac the pattern on. This gives me colour on the very first layer and a white ground colour which I then go over again, wipe off again (but not too much). This process is still evolving in my mind and am thinking along the lines of octopi and other life forms that have a curly cue nature like tentacles, and tendrils etc...