The Path of the Mud: Following a Piece’s Path

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Ever wonder how the cute mug you bought came into existence? It’s a complicated a skilled process, and while the majority of pottery pieces sold in stores are made commercially in factories and use different skills, the way a regular person creates ceramics are much more interesting.

With pottery, you mold beauty with your own hands.

Generous Earth Pottery

Many people take pottery in high school, but that’s often not enough time and not enough freedom is given to experiment and learn new skills. Because of this, some of the speech jargon and steps aren’t known to many. In order to bring awareness to the process and artistry that goes into every piece created by thousands of artists, follow me as we track a ceramic piece through the studio!

1. Pure clay

Clay here at Cal Poly is purchased in big blocks for $16. While it’s very expensive, it is good quality, and these blocks are lugged around by every artist in the studio. There is often a cat fight for a mix called B-mix that throws like pure silk, and is rarely in stock (and extremely rare, make no sudden movements!) . As a result, it’s stockpiled by the prominent artists, and I’m not competitive enough yet. Because of this, the clay I’m using here is called Stoneware, a very strong clay with a dark grey hue. It isn’t bad, just not pure happiness on a wheel.

2. Wedging

After a hunk is cut off, potters must knead the clay, using a dough-kneading technique, to ensure that there aren’t any air bubbles in the chunk. Air bubbles can throw off centering on the wheel, and can cause the piece to explode in the kiln.

3. Throwing

To throw a piece,  the hunk of clay is centered on the wheel and water is used to mold the clay into a mound. According to ceramics instructor Thomas Jara, centering is the most important step:

“If you don’t center correctly, then your whole pice will be off center,” said Jara. “It’s definitely one of the hardest things to learn.”

Using their thumbs, the potter sinks a “well” into the clay and opens it up, allowing the potter to pull out and upwards and mold the walls of the piece.

4. Damp Room Drying

After being cut off of the wheel, the piece is placed into the studio’s “damp room” , a small dark room kept closed to allow pottery pieces to dry out at an even pace in all areas of the piece. If the room isn’t used, pieces can crack and break easily.

5. Trimming

The piece is then taken out of the damp room and anchored to a wheel with wet clay. Using a bladed trimming tool (pictured) the potter starts to gradually trim the bottom of the piece, eventually cutting the ‘foot’ of the piece. The foot is the small ledge at the bottom of the piece and actually can show as much artistry and skill as the visible piece, judging by the angle, thinness, and smoothness of the trim job. Trimming is what makes a piece look clean and professional. The potter’s initial or seal is put onto the bottom. Recently, trends at this stage have been to run a blade on the piece while trimming, as pictured here.

6. Design

At this stage, the piece can be carved, molded, have a handle added, a lid made, slip applied, and a million other decorative techniques. Here, I’ve run awry with a style I’ve been trying to imitate from one of my mentors in the studio, Vaughn. Jara has recently noticed the trend spreading:

“He’ll throw vases and create really cool designs, carving and molding beautiful pieces,”said Jara.

7. Bisque Firing

The piece is put onto the firing shelf, and is fired for the first time, turning from green ware to bisque ware.

8. Glazing

The piece is now ready to glaze! Glaze is technically powdered glass and other elements mixed with water and clay bodies, and as a result of the different chemicals, different clays can react to each other. Here I’ve glazed with. And hopefully they’ll react beautifully! Of course, I’ll never know exactly how the glazes will turn out, even glazes I’ve used before. After being dipped, glaze is removed from the bottom of the piece, and placed onto the glaze shelf to be fired again. A trend at this stage is the drips on two of the pieces pictured; many artists do this in the hopes that the glazes will react, which these eventually did.

9. Finished!

And here we have a finished piece! The glazes always create a cacophony of colors on the self, and the pieces are gifted, sold, or enjoyed by the artist.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey, and understand the process a bit better. I’ll keep updating on the wonderful trends I see, and show you how I’m learning them and making them my own. Thanks for reading, and happy crafting!

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