Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Tea Bowl Process

     As requested, I'll give a not-so-brief description of my process for creating my tea bowl forms (pictures below). A little more than a year ago I was "invited" by my professor to abandon wheel-throwing and work solid. His advice was appreciated and heeded readily. I had been struggling to find myself in my pots. Every vessel I made was more sculptural than utilitarian. Adding to the frustration was the ever present glaring eyes of my influences staring at me from the clay. Working solid allowed me to explore surface and volume with diminished attention to historical ceramic form and without concern for utility. (Older posts will reveal the results of the past year's work with solid ceramic sculpture.) I was eventually able to find my own marks using anything but clay tools. My work now focuses on surface as the primary component giving the impression (no pun intended) of an artifact, incidental to another process, re-appropriated to a new purpose. In non-art speak, marks you wouldn't expect are found where you wouldn't expect them. Or, someone picked up a piece of junk and made it look like art, etc.
     After graduation I finally felt like I could make art just for me instead of making to satisfy my professors, assignments, or other artists. I wanted to apply what I had learned from the solid forms to my favorite utilitarian form, the tea bowl. Being a wood-fire clay artist I admire the history and aesthetics of Japanese ceramics. Way back in the 1990s a teacher of ours, Don Bendel, told us "If you don't know what to make, make tea bowls." I came to see the tea bowl as the artist's signature. They bear a character unique to that artist and an individual artist can be recognized by his or her execution of that form. It is very important to me to establish "my tea bowl" in order to see myself as a successful clay artist, bona fide if you will. I am still developing my interpretation of this form, simplifying the process, focusing on key elements as needed. I don't often impose the traditional terms, chawan, kodai, etc., on these pieces or their anatomy because I still need to think of them as sculpture first to allow for an openness to the process.
     Still reading? Okay, here's how it's done. I start with a solid lump of clay. It works best if the clay is relatively stiff, un-throw-able on the wheel but plastic enough to take marks readily. I form the lump into a solid cylindrical shape. I roll a rough rock, piece of asphalt or concrete, or other rough surface over much of the clay. I compare this to a painter toning his canvas with a wash of thinned earth-tone before beginning the actual painting. I find it best to work with the clay at eye level on a piece of newspaper for ease of movement. I then begin to develop a composition of marks made with objects I've found in the trash, while out walking, working in the kiln yard, or otherwise near at hand. Examples include; portions of broken brick, a landscaping stake, rusted bed-spring, broken band-saw blade, and mystery objects on whose purpose I can only speculate. It's important that they don't cost any money and can be kept or discarded without the feeling of great loss. Once the composition is established I begin to hollow out the form. This is a process still in development. I have used the potter's wheel and banding wheel in this task only to be met with my old obsession over detail and symmetry thus overworking the lip into a cracked and stretched ugliness perched atop an otherwise acceptable sculpture. I have found it more efficient to just scoop out the clay while rotating the piece in hand atop the newspaper. Once the inside is complete I cut the lip. I purposefully follow the composition of marks, undulating the lip to accentuate different surface elements. Then I set it aside to firm up enough to allow me to cut the foot of the piece. I hold the piece upside-down in hand and rotate it while cutting up to 3/8 inch off the outer edge of the bottom of the form leaving a foot with a rough edge in the middle. I then address the outer edge of the form to unite the outer and under-side surfaces, the latter being much smoother by contrast. Firing methods will differ according to the character of the clay body and surface. While the example pictured is unglazed, others may have liner glazes or clay slips applied to the exterior. More examples will be posted after the next kiln unloading.
     If you've made it to the end of this explanation you're admirably persistent and probably deserve some reward, or perhaps your television is broken. In either case, thanks for your interest. The piece pictured was fired with out glaze or slip at the bourry box end of the new switchback kiln at NAU. The bourry box was not used for the inaugural firing. Instead, the last side-stoke hole was used to achieve even temperature at the back of the kiln. This piece was directly under the side-stoke. Unfortunately or fortunately, a large sculpture fell on top of it at some point shielding it from further ash deposits lending a subtle surface and color variation that serves the piece well, I think. Due to my own impatience to get pictures, there are a few pieces of sea-shell on the surface that need to be soaked in water and dissolved. Otherwise, a good sign of things to come for these forms and the switchback kiln affectionately nicknamed by Sensei Takashi Nakazato "Twin Dragons Kiln".

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Unloaded (addendum)



The inaugural firing of the only known switchback kiln in the Western Hemisphere is complete and was a success. The wares reflect the desired reduction of clay bodies and slips characteristic of this kiln and the firing methods of the kiln-masters.
Billy from West Virginia walked away with the lion's share of ideal surfacing.

Deborah from Phoenix is making some absolutely gorgeous work.

Here you see a broad variety of surfaces and hues produced in just one area of the kiln.

Kazu's subtle hanging vase forms will grace a fine tea house.

Takashi's large jar towers over every other piece in the kiln.

My lone tea bowl form was fired under the sidestoke hole. This photo from the slide room doesn't quite do justice to the variety of tones and hues obtained in this firing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More Pictures of the Switchback Kiln

The arch is very church-like and gives the interior of the kiln a sacred feel.
Grate bricks below the fire door
Removable bag wall under the throat-arch
Hanging door on pulley style wheels at the bourry box
Kiln complete
Etsuji "Cheezu"
Etsuji flies like a god over the wares in the sacred kiln
Kazu pokes his head in to check the loading progress
"Cheezu, Sensei!"
 Kiln was loaded and fired successfully. Unloading Tuesday afternoon.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Switchback Kiln Building Update (as requested)

     Sunday being a day of rest, the kiln sits in progress while wares are made to fill it.
Takashi Nakazato
     The roof is now installed on the kiln and the fireboxes are complete. Steel framework supports the kiln. Next, the chimneys will be raised.
Switchback Kiln in Progress

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Switchback Kiln Building

     This summer I am privileged to witness a new kiln raising at NAU Ceramics. It is a "switchback" design. This means that the kiln will be fired from one end at the beginning of the firing and then fired from the other end for the second half of the firing thereby depositing fly-ash on both sides of the wares and producing similar heat on both ends of the kiln. This design demands two fire-boxes and two chimneys each with its own damper for shutting down that side of the kiln when switching back. There will be a more typical fire box with an ash pit or brick grate system at one end and a train-kiln-like bourry box at the other end. The chimneys will ascend above their respective fire boxes. As far as we are aware, this is only the second kiln of its kind in the world and the only one in the Western Hemisphere. The kiln is designed by Itsuji, a visiting artist accompanying Takashi Nakazato and Takashi's former apprentice Kazu Oba. Here are some pics of the process thus far.
Pacing Out
Kazu and Etsu
Kazu Mortaring

Kiln floor and ash pit are set

Raising the walls

So far so good