PurposeBecause I get asked the same sorts of questions so many times, I will use this page to make my replies public.
The questions will be edited in order to maintain the privacy of the questioner being quoted. I may, from time to time, edit my replies if I think of a better way to answer the question.
Question:I am a high school student in a level three ceramics class. We have a project right now where we have to find an artist that we like and try to mimic their work.
I saw your web site and I really like your mugs. I was wondering if maybe you could tell me how you go about creating your mugs. Is there a specific kind of clay that you use and is there a particular way that you work the clay?
Bill Amsterlaw replies:I love making mugs. I´ve learned more about handling clay from making mugs than from any other form.
Through repetition, your body can be trained to move and respond with speed and accuracy in ways that go way beyond anything you can explain. It is something like learning to ride a bicycle: You can´t tell someone exactly how to do it; they have to just keep trying until one day it happens. Your body learns how to do it. Musicians spend huge amounts of time practicing scales and other exercises to train their fingers to do difficult things with speed and accuracy that they don't have to think about. The same thing with athletes practicing basic skills. If you want to be a skilled potter you need to practice. Making mugs is one way.
The idea is to make a lot of them, make them fast, and constantly push the speed to the verge of losing control while you focus on individual aspects of the process. I am not talking about making the wheel spin fast: The wheel can be turning pretty slow ... but your fingers need to learn to move the clay fast.
While you are striving to move the clay faster and faster, you can also practice leaving marks on soft clay, altering the thrown form, applying handles, tooling, and/or decoration. See if you can make a set of mugs close to the same size and shape ... or experiment with different shapes ... or try different kinds of handles.
Work fastIf you work as fast as you can, surprising things always happen. At first, you will collapse a lot of pots - but soon you will learn things that you couldn't possibly learn if you were being very cautious. You will discover that you can't go faster until your fingers can sense how far and fast you can push the clay: With increasing speed comes increasing sensitivity and control. After a while you will develop an intuitive understanding of how far you will be able to push a lump of clay before you ever plop it down on the wheelhead. You will probably discover that you can do more with very soft clay ... up to a point ... and you will be able to tell when the clay is too soft or too hard just by pushing your thumb into it. You are liable to discover ways of handling the clay that are much better than what you were originally taught to do. You will be able to disregard or go beyond your original guidelines and find your own ways of doing things. Finally, pots made with speed and skill have freshness and energy and character that can't be built into timid, fussy, or pretentious pots that take a lot longer to make.
You don't need to fire everything you make. You learn skills during the making. Once you have those skills, you can make good pots any time you want. When you are trying to reach a new level of throwing skill, it can be counterproductive to worry too much about the finished product. In particular, don´t let yourself get carried away with efforts at striking decoration intended to compensate for unskilled throwing. If you are working on throwing, why not forget about decoration for a while? Just throw and throw and throw.
Mugs in seriesWhen I make anything, I work in a series. With mugs, my series will be 50 or 100 at a time. I pug the clay and get it to the consistency I want, adding slop to make it softer or adding drier clay to make it stiffer. I cut my pugs into 6-lb lengths. I wedge the 6-lb masses and make them into logs which I then divide by eye and feel into balls. Examples: If I want 1-lb mugs, I divide each 6-lb log into six equal portions; if I want 3/4-lb mugs, I divide each 6-lb log into 8 equal portions. If I wanted 1-1/4 lb mugs, I would wedge 8-lb pugs and divide each log into 6 equal portions. Small amounts of variation don't bother me at all. If you make enough mugs, you can always pick out same-size sets later if you want to.
I fill a plastic bag with clay balls. I keep the bag near my wheel and grab a ball each time I want to start another mug. I throw each mug directly on the wheelhead with no bat. During the throwing, I quickly play over the surface of the pot with various ribs leaving intentional marks casually made. I often expand the pot from the inside after marks are made on the outside surface. I use a sharpened stick to trim excess clay off the bottom. I cut the pot off with a wire and use a pair of pot lifters to move it to a board. Each mug takes maybe 2 minutes to throw.
When the board is full, I move the whole board full of newly thrown pots to an area free of drafts to allow the clay to become leather hard. I often rotate the pots while they are drying to keep them from drying unevenly. When the rims are stiff enough, I turn them upside down so that the thicker bottoms can dry about as fast as the thinner tops. When they are about ready to be tooled, I cover them with plastic so that they don't get too dry before I am ready to continue working on them.
Tooling MugsI usually finish the bottoms of leather-hard mugs by first throwing a soft-clay chuck on the wheel using about 8 lb of wedged clay. You need to use a large enough mass that it will stay centered and round after numerous mugs have been tooled on it. I use a rib to remove all the slurry from the chuck so that the chuck clay will not stick to my mugs. If the chuck ever gets out of shape, I just wet it a little and re- shape it ... and then use a rib to remove the slurry again. Using soft clay to form the chuck makes it easy to change the size as necessary to accomodate the mug you are about to tool. If your mugs are uniform in size and shape, you might be able to tool them all without having to readjust the chuck at all. Sometimes a little of the chuck clay will stick to the first few pots you tool. This can be scraped off when it gets leather hard ... or left in on the pot as a point of interest. I do this tooling before the mugs have handles. A handle would definitely make the job of tooling much more difficult.
The shape of the chuck depends on the shape of the mugs you want it to hold. If the the mug is wider at the bottom than at the top, I throw a thick ring that will grab each upside-down mug so that its bottom is sticking up about an inch above the chuck. If the mug is narrower at the bottom, the chuck has to be formed to support each mug from the inside. I quickly slip each mug into or onto the chuck, use my left hand to steady it in place and use my right hand to tool the bottom. Each one takes less than 30 seconds.
Mug HandlesHere is how I usually make handles.... The handles are first crudely shaped using hand-building techniques. After they are attached to the pot, they are pulled. It is just as hard to learn to make good handles as it is to throw good pots ... and they are very different skills. When you make a lot of mugs, you practice both.
I first wedge a mass of clay large enough to make all the handles I will need. I then shape the mass into a log which I place in a plastic bag. For each handle, I tear a lump off the log and form it into a stubby, tapered coil ... shaped like a carrot. It takes a while to get a sense of how much clay you need for each one so that the handles will be in proportion to the mug. After a while I am able to know by feel how much clay to grab for each handle. It is always better to err on the side of grabbing too much because you can always cut some off and/or pull it out thinner before you attach the narrow end.
I flop the "carrot" on the table one or two times to flatten and stretch and loosen up the clay somewhat. I then make a neat cut with a fettling knife at the wider-thicker attachment end, and use my fingers to compress the attachment end and round the edges. When you press the end of the handle onto the pot, the attachment point should be a little damp, but your hand and the part of the handle that you will be pulling should not have any water or slurry on them yet, so that you can really grab the handle clay and press it firmly onto the pot. I usually use my right hand to press the attachment end onto a scored and slipped area of leather-hard clay, while I use my left hand to apply counterpressure to the inside surface of where the handle is attached. Without this support, you might otherwise damage or deform the pot when you press on the handle. It is often wise to keep pressure on the handle for 15 or 20 seconds. If you test it every few seconds, after a short while, you will feel it suck onto the pot with a strong attachment.
Once the handle is stuck on, I get my hand and the handle completely wet. If you leave a dry spot on the handle, it may grab your skin and cause the handle to tear or to be pulled too thin at that point. If your clay is very plastic, you can be very aggressive and form a handle in 5 or 6 pulls. If the clay is short (breaks easily when pulled), you have to use many pulls with a lot of water and a very light touch ... and some backward compression strokes to heal over any cracks that start to form. If the clay is cooperative it should take less than 60 seconds to pull a handle.
Personal history and how it relates to my workEverything that I am, everything I have experienced, all my thoughts and feelings and changes, all my mistakes and detours and side interests, all my skills and technical knowledge acquired in diverse activities ... all relate to my work.
Reducing a person's life to a story doesn't reveal much. What matters is how a person experiences his or her life. It is that inner experience that is reflected in a person's art. Part of that inner experience is gut-level and immediate ... but much of it is rational and interpretive, and may change over time. You may look back at an event that occurred last year and decide that you were a blind fool back then because something you now know should have been obvious to you. What your art says today reflects how you see things today. Your understanding and inner experience grow and change over time, often in stange and unpredictable ways. Most biographical sketches describe events but leave you guessing about the subtle changes that occurred in a person's character over time.
My understanding of the changes I have gone through keep getting clearer as I go along. Everything I have already experienced is subject to re-interpretation. I have had a spiritual awareness for only the last 20 years or so. I have appreciated the power of metaphors, symbols, and myths for only the last few years. I have continuously refined my understanding of my own creative processes and the social context in which we all live. All these changes in my thinking actually change who I am, how I experience life, and how I now interpret my past experiences.
If you are doing honest work, your character will be revealed in the work. You don't have to intend for this to be so; you need only intend not to hide yourself. The work will automatically contain information about who you are today. The faster you work, the less self-conscious you are while working, the more revealing of your character the work will be. All those cumulative details of your life, those emotions, those clumsy efforts to understand, those values, those beliefs, ... all gets translated into how you handle the clay and the marks you make on it.
My first 8 years or so were difficult. My parents were from two different, crowded urban areas around New York City. We lived in an apartment upstairs from my mother's parents. All 4 of my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, who had varying degrees of difficulty adjusting to life in NY. My father's father was a photographer. I never met him, and my father barely knew him. My father's parents split up when my father was a little boy; my father grew up without a father. My maternal grandfather was a loving, spiritual man who owned a tailor shop; he was an important role model for me.
My parents had grown up during the Depression in a crowded, competitive, rough place that tends to foster impatience and insensitivity and aggressive behavior. Neither of them went far in school or had any background in art; they were part of the workforce and hoped to live the American dream. They were both pretty immature and overly concerned with financial success, having a "nice" life, and acquiring symbols of social success - so much so that they were more concerned with my behavior than about who I was as a person. I was not a real happy kid. I got into trouble in school constantly. I liked to draw and doodle until my third grade teacher caught me drawing in class while she was giving a lesson and she yelled at me and embarrassed me in front of my classmates and threw all my drawings into the garbage.
When I was 9, the family ( my parents, myself, and my younger sister ) moved to Los Angeles. This was a good change for me - a chance for a new start. It was more laid-back, more supportive, had friendlier kids and more opportunities for kids to have fun without getting into trouble. I started doing well in school ... and my new focus on school helped get me out from under the influence of my somewhat dysfunctional family. I stopped getting into trouble and I got good grades. I learned to play the clarinet and then the flute. I became a very good flute player - won numerous scholarships and awards, participated in various youth orchestras, attended music camps every summer. My success in music was my first success in life - the first taste of the possibility that there might be something special about me.
I did nothing at all in visual art until many years later when I was in my late twenties when I took up photography.
I really loved music and I had musical talent, ... but my whole idea of what to do with my life was skewed by the values of my parents and teachers and schoolmates and their parents ... all of whom valued academic success over expression in art or music. This bias launched me on a long academic career, away from music and away from art, and into the field of medicine and the practice of medicine for quite a few years.
I was very confused about it for a long time, but I always knew that I could never be happy or feel successful or even feel honest in the field of medicine: I was pretending to be something that was not in my heart to be. I knew all the stuff, all the facts and the skills. I was very idealistic. I took my job seriously and worked very hard to remain competent and proficient and thorough and compassionate and to exercise good judgement at all times. I had the respect of my patients and my colleagues. I had the financial security. But I always knew the awful truth about me: I yearned for a completely different life. I wanted a life in which I could express myself openly and honestly, could have the freedom to experiment and explore and take risks and be playful ... to open myself to new experiences and allow myself to change and grow and be creative. I wanted to be free of the burden of having to accept responsibility for the problems of so many other people, the burden of having to live up to their expectations, the burden of being scrutinized so carefully, and the burden of worry about the consequences of committing errors of judgment. I wanted a life in which committing errors would be part of the learning and growth process.
At the time that I finally broke away from medicine, I really didn't have a name for what I wanted to do. In retrospect, I have a name for it: I wanted to do art.
At the time that I quit my medical position, I had taught myself to be a pretty decent photographer ... and I thought I might want to try to make a living as a photographer. As it turned out, the photography experience became part of a bigger picture. A friend who was a high-school art teacher invited me to join a night-school ceramics class she was teaching. At that point I had no experience with clay and no interest in clay. She kept bugging me to try it, and I finally agreed to try it. As soon as I started working with clay, I was hooked. It was not a matter of the sensuous qualities of clay in the hand that appealed to me. What really happened was that clay lit up my imagination.
With photography, you work in this highly technical, chemical medium and you have to find something interesting to photograph and then wait for good light to make a strong image and use the right equipment to make the image.... The medium and the technology themselves put a lot of constraint on your imagination. The best you can ever do in photography is 2-dimensional and relatively short-lived.
With clay, you make the whole thing from scratch with mud with your own hands ... and it has three-dimensional form, volume, weight, color, texture, and function ... and it is durable ... and it relates to forces of nature, to less-crazy cultures with traditions of living in harmony with the earth, and you can use it to express almost anything you can dream up. There is so much to this medium and so much you can put into it. I saw that the possibilities for working in clay were endless. I couldn't get it out of my mind. For my first few years, I worked in clay day and night.
I was very fortunate to have been mentored by an exceptionally good potter named Bill Klock who was Professor of Ceramics at Plattsburgh State U. when I met him. My experience with him helped me develop ideas for using clay as an expressive medium, appreciate the qualities pottery made in various traditions, develop an eye for form, appreciate the benefits of repetitive work and working in series, and to think big about clay.
Few academic potters are skilled throwers. Bill Klock is an exception: He can throw! He has had a lot of experience with skilled production potters including an apprenticeship with Bernard Leach in England in the 70's, and summers spent with Vernon Owens in the North Carolina, and several potters in Korea. I am a pretty good thrower not because he taught me, but because I got to watch him and was willing to practice for long hours ... the way I used to practice on my flute when I was in high school. I also learned a lot by watching other skilled throwers at workshops and on videos ... and practicing until I could do what I had seen them do. Skilled throwing is like whistling or riding a bicycle: You practice until figure out how to do it ... and then you continue to practice until you can do it without thinking. At that point, it is hard to give someone instructions about the exact details of everything you are doing and feeling because it has become automatic; if they want to learn they will practice until they figure out how to do it for themselves following your example.
What clay do you use?All work to date has been cone 9 stoneware. At some point I will make the transition from cone 9 to cone 6. I also hope to work in white clay at some point and do some low-fire work as well.
How do you fire?My current work is fired electrically. I do everything I can think of using slips and glazes and other treatments including standing on my head and prayer to get away from the sterile quality often found in electrically fired work. Many people wrongly guess that I fire in gas or wood.
I do have a lot of fantasies about doing some low-fire work that would be bisque-fired electrically and then either pit-fired or smoked in saggars within the electric kiln. I also have a lot of fantasies about high-fire using wood or waste-oil as fuel.
How do work with slabs?I think it is a mistake to try to categorize work as "hand" building, as opposed to throwing on a wheel, ... or to try to strictly categorize work according to a particular building technique such as pinch, coil, slab, thrown, molded, or extruded. A potter might prefer some techniques over others ... but it is highly desireable to have versatility in all these techniques, to use whichever technique would work best in a given situation, to be able to handle the clay casually and combine different techniques in ways that seem right, and to think of all work in clay as forms of hand-building. Think of the wheel as just another tool. You can use the wheel to make parts which can then be altered and/or combined with other parts made by any building method. You can also combine soft coils or slabs with throwing on the wheel ... or do things like adding a thrown neck or a pulled handle to a mold-formed body. You can use the wheel to make slabs.
I like pots that look like they were made skillfully by hand. The less machinery involved in their formation, the better. If you are going to be making pots from slabs, a slab-roller will produce perfectly uniform slabs - but I don't want perfect slabs. If I were going to use slabs from a slabroller, I would immediately fling them around in order to introduce some sort of distortion.
I want slabs with uneven thickness and surface irregularities ... and perhaps some texture and depth, ... like that of natural stone, wood, bark, grass, leaves, cracks, sand, dirt, water, or human skin. I want to work the clay with my hands and let my hands and tools leave marks on the clay. I want my marks to be crude and distorted ... for them to say something about the material, my nature, my spirit. We are surrounded by toxic waste and the short-lived works of industry; we need pottery to connect us to our roots, to history, to our human qualities, to the natural world, and to the spiritual dimensions of our existence. If you start with a slab that looks like an industrial product, this is a beginning for a statement about industry. If you want to refer to the natural world, you need another kind of slab.
Here is a description that gives an idea of how I like to form slabs and use them....
I formed a thick slab by repeatedly throwing the clay onto a wedging table at about a 30-degree angle. Each throw, makes the mass of clay spread out wider and thinner. Finally, I compressed it a few times with a rolling pin. I then painted a dark slip onto the wet clay and left the slab to dry for a while ... until the surface could be touched without smearing the slip. ( The clay beneith the surface is still soft at this point. ) Then I made marks on the clay - in this case using a stamp in the form of a 5-pointed star and stripes made with a piece of rubber cut with scissors into a zig-zag pattern - a sort of wet sgraffito technique which cuts through the dark slip into the lighter clay beneith. The slab is left to dry a little more until the clay can be handled without smearing the marks. ( The clay beneith the surface is still soft. ) I then threw the slabs down on the table a few more times to introduce distortion and crudeness in the pattern and to further stretch and thin the clay slab.
What is the meaning of the stars and stripes on some of your pots?This particular series includes uniquely American symbolism in the form of references to the American flag - stars and stripes and the colors red, white, and blue. Some of the pots in this series resemble military canteens. Some resemble high-rise buildings. The symbols and coloration are crude and subdued and, hopefully, integrated into an object that has pleasing proportions and a timeless, earthy, durable quality that invites contemplation. In part, I am singing the blues about America and how I wish I could contain all the noise, haste, waste, hype, hoopla, and "progress" around me within the walls of an ancient vessel with magical healing powers. I may be able to express these ideas more explicitly in future work ... but I must be careful not to let conceptual features undermine the spontaneous character of the work. I want the work to grab viewers on a gut level, whether they get a conscious message from it or not.
How do you sell your work?Your question to me is about selling work. In this society, questions about making money are often the first and last concerns, and sometimes, the only concerns. I will try to answer your question, but I must first strongly assert that making money has nothing to do with making art.
Making art is a personal journey that requires honest introspection, contemplation, experimentation, awareness, spirituality, physical skills, technical knowledge, and a soaring imagination that can imbue physical objects with metaphoric meaning and goodness and, perhaps, functionality; it builds on itself, on the work of others, and on personal experience and slowly evolves over time into a recognizable style and symbolic language.
Selling art requires a totally different mental set: It is about attracting attention, showmanship, pricing, demographics, persuasion, credentials, reputation, and business relationships.
Doing art and selling art are so different that they are hard to mix in the same personality. For me, thoughts of selling inevitably turn my imagination toward what potential buyers want - and this short-circuits and poisons my creative process. Other people may be more versatile and thick-skinned. I work best if I can minimize distractions and ignore the selling part as much as possible.
An unavoidable feature of the creative process is cranking out physical objects which quickly fill whatever available workspace you have. You have to do something to clear these accumulations from your workspace so that you have room to continue working. (It helps to have a lot of space.) It is a good idea to live with your finished work for at least a while because this often suggests fresh ideas that evolve from what you already did. Sooner or later, most of it needs to be moved somewhere else.
Most people want to move the work by selling it to someone ... or at least putting it in a store somewhere, rather than giving it away or destroying it or dumping it in nature. Money is a nice reward, but accepting money may change you and stunt your growth. It makes me sad to see so many potters cranking out the same stuff year after year just because it sells.
There are all sorts of ways to sell work. The best way is that which requires the least time, attention, and energy and puts the least influence on your imagination. I've tried all sorts of things.
Selling pottery at craft fairs is very hard, inefficient work. All the selling time could otherwise be spent making pots. You have to pack up heavy loads of fragile ware and your display stuff, perhaps accidentally damage some of your work, drive a long distance, set everything up, stand around for many hours with a smile on your face answering the same old questions over and over, perhaps taking special orders for things you have little desire to make, pay for gas, motels, and restaurant food, take down the display, pack up the unsold goods, drive a long distance back home, and unpack all the stuff. This kind of selling can be fun and exciting for a while and it is a way to meet some nice people. It is a way to get feedback from the devil (ie, the buying public) and make believe that your buyers know you or care about you or that they wish to support your continued work.... There are a few big fairs where a potter can predictably make a pretty good chunk of money in a few days; you can make some money for your selling efforts at these fairs, particularly if you don't have to travel far - but you will need to bring a small warehouse full of finished work with you and drive some large gashog vehicle. If you just go to a lot of small fairs, after consideration of all the costs involved, you will be lucky to break even. The best fairs are juried, meaning you have to apply to get in and you may not be accepted. If you get in, you may find it easier to get accepted in subsequent years.
There are nice features to selling on consignment. You pay a little more commission, but you usually have quite a lot of freedom in what you want to make. You don't have to face the buying public. You have to know the people in the store and be able to trust them. I have had good experiences with consignment selling. You just have to make sure that the store keeps good records, gives you prompt accounting records, and pays you promptly when something sells. You need to keep good records yourself so that you know where your unsold work is being held. You are trusting them to hold your work and take good care of it. You don't get paid a thing unless the work sells. There are numerous horror stories about stores that go out of business with mysterious disappearances of artwork ... and artists receiving unsold work that has been damaged in the store.
There are nice features to wholesale selling. You can stay home, close to your studio. You don't have to face the buying public. You get contracts either by going around to stores or by attending wholesale shows attended by store buyers. You get paid half the retail price - but you have an agreement to receive a certain amount of money for work you haven't even made yet. You know in advance how much cash you will receive and the work is sold before you make it. You just have to stay home and work and then pack the stuff up and ship it out. The problem with wholesale is that in most arrangements it is all about money and the work tends to stagnate. The buyers are interested in what they think will sell in their store. If something sold well last year, they want you to keep making the same thing to sell this year. The potter who once had big dreams becomes a maker of widgets for sale. The job of packing pottery for safe shipment is very time-consuming and boring. Shipping costs have gotten quite expensive; the buyer pays for shipping, so buyers are more interested in artists closer to the store. The buyers may have no interest at all in you taking a new direction with your work. You may have deadlines to make large volumes of something that you are sick of making. You must be very careful not to take overambitious orders that you are unable to fill on time. Buyers are primarily interested in making money via a predictable flow of buy-low-sell-high artwork. If your work doesn't sell quickly or you can't deliver on time, they may never give you another order and they may warn other store owners about you. They may have little sympathy if you get sick or injured or have some family crisis that interferes with your work.
Having your own gallery close to your studio gives you a lot of freedom and control. However, you do not have the luxury of making any old thing you want for very long. If you make stuff that has no local market it will just gather dust, take up space in your gallery space, and become an impediment to further work. If you are on a tourist road and lack the sort of reputation that would attract pottery collectors, you may feel a constant pressure to be making souvenir mugs and other hoohah all day and never get around to making those dream pots.
The idea of the community potter who earns his honest living making wholesome, affordable utilitarian pottery for everyday use is just a fairy tale no more real than Santa Claus. We are living in the USA in the 21st century. In this land, at this time, handmade pottery is unnecessary and few people give a moment's thought to clay in their entire lifetimes. The costs of clay and fuel and shipment pretty much take even the least expensive work out of the easily affordable pricerange. Pottery is now a luxury, reserved for those who have acquired an appreciation for it in school or elsewhere and have the means to afford to pay for it. Such appreciation is not part of our culture as it might have been in other times or places. It makes little sense to devote yourself to cranking out ordinary-ware intend for everyday use because there is not enough of a market for it and it is not exciting direction for personal expression. There is a thriving market for giftware within the segment of the population that cares about clay - special, more expressive, more expensive items. Such items are more fun and challenging to make and leave an artist more room for personal expression and growth. This is the way to go. The way to sell it is to find ways for people to become familiar with your work.
How do you show other people what you do?
How do you make a base with arches and legs?There are different ways you can do this. Here is the way I like to do it.
Make a tall pot by any technique (thrown, slab, extruded, coil, pinched). At the same time, roll a slab of about the same thickness as the walls of the pot. The slab will be used to form the curved bottom of the pot after you cut the curves in the walls.
Let the clay get stiff - not hard-hard, but soft enough to cut easily with a fettling knife. Use the knife to cut the curves you want. If you are real fussy, you could use a template to cut identical curves. If you want a more organic look (my preference), just cut them. Then score and slip the cut edges and carefully lay on the slab. When you add the slab, start at one corner and work your way across the bottom, making the joined surfaces conform to the curves you have cut. You can then use a paddle or small roller to secure and shape the joint and shape the bottom. You can emphasize the joints in a neat way by using a roller with a light touch that does not attempt to smooth over the joint. You can make the joint disappear by working over it with a paddle - tap, tap, tap, tap. I like to use small boat-shaped paddle that has one side curved and the other flat. It is very narrow at the end and about 2-1/2 inches wide at the widest point. I can use it to smooth over almost any convex, concave, or flat surface.
Leave the pot upside down until you think the "legs" can support the weight without deforming. If you let the pot dry resting on delicate legs, the legs may break as the clay shrinks. Sturdy legs are no problem. Delicate legs will require some method of letting the legs slide as they dry or keeping weight off the legs (such as drying upside down).
If the pot has 3 legs (tripod), it will be stable even if the pot and/or legs become distorted in drying or firing. If you use 4 (or more) legs, it is common for them all not to be the same length, so that the pot can be rocked like a table with one leg too long. When the pot is dry, use sandpaper to shorten the overlong leg(s). You may find that pots that did not rock as dry greenware, will rock after firing; in this case you will need to use a grinder to shorten whatever leg is too long.
Another way to do all this is to throw a pot and when it is fairly stiff, add legs (score and slip) to the bottom either before or after reshaping the bottom with a paddle or roller. The legs could be formed by any imaginable method. This method would be ok for very shallow arches - like making a pot bottom that resembles the foot of a slug or snail. (If you want tall arches, you need to cut them.)
You would do any of this work when the clay is stiff enough to handle without putting marks on it. When you are going to use a cutting tool on clay, say when you finish a bowl, it is best to wait until the clay has stiffened to the consistency of hard cheese. But when you are going to roll or paddle the clay and reshape it, you want the clay softer than that - about the consistency of a softer cheese that can bend a little without breaking.
How can a potter fit into the modern world? What is the best way to learn pottery skills?We live in a society that destroys culture and nature ... grinds up most artists ... seduces crafters to make what sells. Greedy, short-sighted business interests control the government and the news media. This is the same country that had slaves and conducted genocide against its native peoples and now sells military technology all over the world and conducts war on specious grounds that is translated as patriotism by the general population. In this country, 99.9% of the people are indifferent to clay and too impatient to contemplate anything for more than few seconds. There are few remaining places that continue a clay tradition. Most people are vain and overconfident, busy-busy-busy, out of synch with nature and history, wasteful of precious resources, consumers who proudly buy the latest fads and seriously discuss the latests official bullshit. Petroleum-based products are everywhere and you can't catch a fish anywhere on earth that does not contain mercury. Short-lived, sterile, industrial products have almost completely replaced hand-made objects and few people think this is a problem.
How I see it: There is a place for pottery and for sculpture - but it can be a rough row to hoe.
There are wonderful traditions in the world of clay worth preserving because they are good and celebrate the good things in the world that are now being threatened. They recall threatened or extinct cultures that lived in harmony with nature. It is hard for typical modern Americans to reinvent the technologies and fully digest the aesthetics of ancient cultures they were not born into; you have to immerse yourself in the culture and lose your American-ness to get it. Probably, the best way is to find a skilled practitioner of an ancient craft and surrender to a prolonged apprenticeship experience. Many cultures that produced wonderful work no longer exist.
The realities of our world are deserving of powerful artistic statements in clay - as sculpture or as 2-dimensional marks on the surfaces of pots, sculpture, or tiles. Find metaphors to express the world you find yourself in. Find metaphors that can resolve, heal, raise consciousness, turn minds.
The production of good hand-made objects can be seen as a kind of protest and an antidote to the pervasive bullshit all around us - even if the maker had no intention of making a social or political statement. There are still enough people who recognize a need to be able to hold and live with hand-made vessels to support a potter's livelihood - not as easy as it was in years passed, but still do-able. However, the 60's dream of making inexpensive, handmade pottery for everyday use for the masses is absolute bullshit. There is a thriving market for gift objects - not for hoaky ordinaryware. It makes sense to make work of good quality and price the work accordingly. It makes no sense to crank out junk and try to sell it cheap. If you don't have to worry about an income from clay, it makes sense to make just what you want - but first you do need the skills of a production potter to maximize your creative freedom - ie, even if you are financially independent, you still have to go through the same sort of learning process.
How can an American become a skilled sculptor or potter? Unless you have a sculptor or potter or visual artist that you knew growing up, you were born into a consumer culture saturated with industrial products - a culture that is indifferent to clay ... and you might say, a culture that is no culture at all. All you have ever seen is industrial objects and plastic toys. There is something in your guts that pulls you to clay, like a strange nostalgia for a past world you never lived in, or a nostalgia for a natural world that is threatened. However, you start out disadvantaged by the rarity of good clay work and skilled clay workers in the modern American life. Your guts wisely tell you that you need a mentor. You also need to see as much good work in clay as you can digest. You need to see as many skilled potters as you can. You need to associate with as many kindred spirits as you can find as a support system in an indifferent world. You need to learn to pre-visualize 3-dimensional objects. You need to sketch pots or sculptures on paper - work out ideas quickly before you try them in clay. You need production experience to develop speed, control, and an intuitive understanding of how to handle the clay. Always work in series, giving you familiarity and control in making a certain form while you experiment with variations. Think of all forming of clay as hand-building: Thrown forms are altered or tooled or marked or combined with other thrown, slab, coiled, extruded, pulled, or molded forms. If you stay with stoneware, you need to learn a lot of glaze chemistry and do a lot of systematic testing with slips and glazes. Surface decoration is an additional realm of endless possibilities.
There are schools with good ceramics programs. With school comes feedback from multiple mentors, the stimulation of many kindred spirits, rich resources, varied experiences, exposure to a great deal of work, high standards, lifelong contacts that may open important doors in the future, and credentials which may be useful for getting jobs and gallery representation. An MFA can open a lot of doors. Teachers in academic positions often are not particularly skillful builders, but they can teach you how to scrutinize your work and how to conceive metaphoric statements and teach you fundamental ceramic engineering and glaze chemistry and give you ideas and encouragement and feedback.
There are potters and sculptors who take interns or apprentices. I can try to get a list together if this is what you are interested in.
There are various programs for artists in residence - opportunities to work in supportive, stimulating surroundings.
There are places that have good ceramics programs that seek an assistant to mix glazes, fire kilns, pug clay, etc. You often get a place to work and abudant tutoring from whoever hired you.
Some people are resourceful enough that with just a little help and a little support and encouragement and a place to work can invent their own ways of doing things that may be better than the ways they were taught.
There are many helpful videos and books. There are some good publications. There are some good websites. There are many workshops.
Should I get a college degree in ceramics?The best way to get started in clay is to be born into a family in which everyone has done clay for generations. School is probably the next best way. Few people have any idea how big ceramics really is until they start to study the field earnestly. There is a lot of ceramic history and many great pots from which to take inspiration. Stunning pots were being made thousands of years ago. There are long traditions in clay all over the world. There are ancient forming techniques which are still excellent ways to work. There are many serious artists working in clay. There are many forming and decorating techniques. There is a rich body of knowledge about visual art that can be applied to work in clay. There is a lot to be learned about engineering objects that have an intended function. There is a lot of technology/science known about clay, glazes, and firing. On top of all this is the need to master the manual skills required to handle clay and make things with it ... which involves a lot of practice. Finally, developing an eye for what constitutes a good pot takes experience, time, and a lot of soul-searching. School is a good place to get exposed to a lot of this stuff and get started in the right direction. Ultimately, as in any field, your education is actually your own job ... and school is only one way to get started educating yourself.
The world can be a harsh place for artists. Academic environments offer shelter from the harsh realities out there. You get encouragement and feedback and you are surrounded by like-minded people doing similar work. Outside of academia, few people care about clay or art ... and instead of receiving encouragement to be creative, you experience a lot of indifference and feel a lot of pressure to make trendy stuff that sells. Making a living doing original art is difficult in any medium. It is possible, but far from easy, to make a living in clay. Having degrees can open some doors if you later want a teaching job and/or gallery representation. More non-artists will take you seriously with an MFA than a BFA; more non-artists will take you seriously with a BFA than no degree at all. Of course, the only real requirements are that you take yourself seriously and keep working at it - but it is hard to sustain faith in yourself without experiencing the ongoing support and respect of other people in your field. School is a convenient place to begin long-term relationships with other people in clay, other creative media, and academia that may become increasingly important for keeping your batteries charged in the future.
What kind of artist are you? What do you like to do with clay?Hard to answer because I keep changing. I was originally drawn to traditional, functional thrown pottery. I enjoy throwing as an athletic challenge - fast, big. I get some pleasure out of making useful items. But as I have gone along in time, my interest in utility has decreased and my interest in making gut-grabbing objects and metaphoric statements has been growing. A lot of ideas have been incubating in the back of my mind. I am moving in the direction of more sculptural work that employs various techniques including complex construction of thrown parts, slabs, handbuilding, carving, and who-knows-what. I guess the quickest answer to your question is that I like working with clay; it excites my imagination and leads me on a trip in which the scenery and activities keep changing.
When did your career start?I was in my 40's and it was around 1988. I wanted to quit practicing medicine and get into something more creative with less stress. When I started playing with clay, I was immediately drawn to go deeper. I became totally absorbed in learning all I could about clay, its traditions, techniques, technology, and endless possibilities.
How would you describe your style/techniques/ideas?Nobody is ever going to nail me down. I want to keep changing and experimenting. However, when you work with clay over a period of time, you come to handle it in familiar ways and you prefer certain forms and proportions and marks and ways of solving engineering problems. I think it is needlessly constraining to attempt to consciously make all your work look like it came from the same person. If you just work and work, you will leave identifying marks without thinking about it. The best attitude is to keep learning better, more interesting ways to do things, keep following your guts and be productive. Let other people figure out what it is supposed to mean and what your "style" and recognizable marks are.
What materials do you like to use while working with clay?Almost all my work has been in stoneware. However, this choice was pretty arbitrary. I have learned ways to add interest to electrically fired stoneware so that my work resembles work that is fired in gas. When you start working with one clay and develop a set of slips and glazes that work well with the clay and with each other ... you come to realize that you have invested a great deal of time in a system that you know how to use. If you decide to switch to a different claybody, you have to start all over again experimenting with glazes and firing techniques to develop a new system. Some people find all this testing fun. I think it is interesting. I have spent a lot of time working with glaze calculation software and testing different glazes. However, this testing is science, not art; it is the preliminary phase you have to do before you can do art. To focus on art, you play with the techniques you have already developed. If you come to a point where you feel you need to go beyond the possibilities of your developed techniques, then it is time to do science again and find other techniques. Some ways of working offer so many possibilities, that you might spend the rest of your life happily exploring them. Like I am now thinking that if I use one of my semi-opaque glazes over colored slips, I would have an enormous range of decorating possibilities but have to use only one single glaze.
Are there any cultural or historical influences on your work?I like a lot of stuff that I would like my work to resonate with on a gut level. I have never consciously tried to copy anyone else's work.
I was born into a society that has no clay tradition. My parents were not potters; nobody in my past did clay, talked about clay, or cared about clay. I was in my 40's before I even began to think about clay. It would be dishonest, pretentious, and silly for me to imagine that I am working in some nice clay tradition - even if I were particularly interested in one particular tradition. I see things now that I didn't think about before. What can you say with clay in 21st century America where almost everything is made in factories out of petrochemicals? We are assaulted by propaganda, commercial noise, and violent images. Everything is impersonal, technological, and dysfunctional. Social injustice is a fact of life. We are are mute witnesses to genocides, the destruction of cultures on our own soil and all over the world, and the mindless disruption of the delicate balances in Nature. Our government helps big businesses make money but does nothing for homeless people, 60 million people without health insurance, ghettos, a seriously messed-up health-care delivery system, and the undermining of the principles on which the government was founded. With such thoughts now in my mind, there is no way that I could dream of being, say, a pleasant community potter who makes useful items for everyday use. I need to figure out how to say something in clay that addresses the issues that are clawing at my soul. This stuff is having a lot more influence on me than work in clay that I have seen. To be honest, I am unravelled by what I now know about the world I live in. I am not sure how I can express it or respond to it in clay. However, I'm sure that for me to be a production potter in this context would be just an escape from what I feel, rather than an expression of it.
Now that I have said all that (I probably said too much), I should simply tell you what sort of work in clay I like ... which is probably what you wanted hear in the first place: I like ancient Korean pots and Onggi Korean pots, burnished Native American pots, Hamada Shogi, Don Reitz, Paul Dresang, Wayne Bates. I will stop there. Those are the first things that came to mind ... and they do move me. However, I see nothing to be gained by trying to make a simple story of what influences me. The truest answer is that I have looked at a rich variety of different work over the years and have liked a lot of it and have assimilated a lot of different stuff, none of which I consciously try to emulate.