My new plaster bat is brilliant!

As the kiln is warm from last nights firing, I pop some seaweed on it to help it dry out faster. YUCK! It stinks. Think I’m going to be sick! I shut the door and get on with refining the clay I collected from the beach. I spend some time separating the colours – the darkest red really is stunning. I begin pouring the slip onto my new plaster bat – it’s brilliant! In life, it’s important to have little struggles so that you can be more appreciative when things work out! The bat’s beautifully smooth and sucks the moisture away from the slip nicely. Whilst pouring the slip onto the bat, I wonder if I can make usable slabs of clay straight on the bat therefore skipping the kneading and rolling process? What would happen if I poured the clay onto a textured bat? I can see that coloured slip is going to play a huge part in the final pottery that I make. I haven’t worked with slip much so will be interesting…

My first wood ash glaze results…

Today started off with massive excitement… I open the kiln and get my first wood ash glaze results back. It soon turns to disappointed – the wood ash hasn’t formed a glaze but has just turned into a fine grey. I wonder if my kiln isn’t firing to the correct temperature? On closer inspection, where just a thin layer of wood ash was applied there is a small patch of greenish glaze. Yes! I’m hopeful that my collected ash will make a glaze if my kiln is working properly! I move on to practical tasks – bat making! I’ve been using the back of plaster moulds to dry out the refined clay as a temporary measure, but today is the day to make a proper plaster bat. I try and avoid plaster as much as I possibly can – I never get the quantities right, it’s very messy and I’m scared of getting plaster in the clay (which makes it explode in the kiln). I want the bat to be large and strong so someone kindly made a wire mesh frame for me. This will sit inside the plaster to provide extra strength. Arghh!! What a mess! However, I now have a lovely bat to use which will save me time and stress. Hopefully I’ll get to use it tomorrow…

OMG there’s clay everywhere!

Today I wake up to a perfect Autumn day… the sun is shining, no wind and the air is warm. Whilst I know I should go to the studio, I also know that Winter is fast approaching and I need to make the most of the what might be the last warm day of the year. I decide to take my horse out for a quick ride up on the chalk ridge that protects the Isle of Purbeck from the rest of the world. From the top, I can see all the way across Poole harbour to Bournemouth. It’s easy to see from up there how the geology of the area was formed; clearly see the spots where water has sat for millions of years; the lakes and lagoons which helped to create the lovely ‘Poole Formation’ clay that I’m collecting at the moment. Looking out onto Studland heath and woodland, I wouldn’t be surprised if I spotted a Pterodactyl or T-Rex roaming across the land, (although I’m not sure my horse would like it – he runs away from cows so I think spotting a dinosaur might just push him over the edge!). I feel relaxed and inspired by my ride and decide that today is a good day to find some more clay. I’m awaiting permission from landowners, so apart from digging up another friends back garden(!), I remember that there’s a beach nearby where clay is at surface level so no need to dig. Not parking too far from the beach and armed with a bucket and spade, (not the normal set that I’d usually take to the beach with the kids!), I fight my way through gorse and heather until I reach the coastline. OMG there is clay everywhere!! It’s in the banks where the sea has eroded the land and it’s popping up through the sand. I was hoping to find some clay without iron – here there are patches of blue/white clay with concentrated areas of iron. I take a very small amount which I’ll separate into different colours back at my studio. I also collect some seaweed and a few stones (which may be suitable for a glaze). Despite only gathering a tiny amount of clay, getting it back to the car is backbreaking! I am so lucky. This coastline is so beautiful; the landscape slowly and calmly slips into the sea; the water is still and quiet; the air is fresh and invigorating. I love that this journey is allowing me to form a deeper connection with the environment that I love with all my heart. Chop chop, I need to be at school pick up in 10 minutes!

Wood ash from my wood burner…

I left home this morning with a bag full of ash from my wood burner with the aim of using it as my first natural glaze. After my pottery class have dispersed, I excitedly get out my bag of wood ash (mostly pine), I rinse it and then start pushing it through a normal kitchen sieve and then a very fine mesh sieve to get rid of the bits of charcoal and other debris. I paint the refined wood ash onto my (straight out of the kiln and still warm) test bowls. I’m using a stoneware clay to test on as I’m going to fire at 1245oC (which is the temperature I fire my pottery class work to and so is convenient). The ash paints on a bit like an oxide, not at all like the wood ash glaze that I buy in a pot from Bath Potters! Glaze experiments are always exciting – I have absolutely no idea what to expect…

Natural glazes…

Bored with refining clay (!), I decide it’s time to turn my attention to making some natural glazes. First, I need to make some small bowls to do tests in. They need to be bowls, not tiles, because I have no idea how much the glazes is going to run in the firing and don’t want to wreck my kiln. I want to make the bowls quickly so I put some clay discs into a cupcake baking tray (this won’t be missed from home as I’m totally rubbish at making cakes!). After quickly drying them on top of a kiln I pop them in my other kiln to be bisque fired. I’m really looking forward to starting glaze experiments, hopefully I can begin tomorrow…

Feeling like a worn out old hand bag!

My studio is a mess of clay covered equipment and I STLL have more clay to sieve (bear in mind I originally collected less than a full bucket of clay!). After a morning of admin and getting stressed out with my crappy printer I realise that I’m actually really tired. I don’t feel like getting mucky. I don’t like mess, it really upsets me. I hate clutter. Today I don’t want to have dirty hands. I also realise that I’m wearing my very new and posh Marino wool jumper that I can’t get dirty (ever), as it’s hand wash only. I take a deep breath, over-shirt on, hands on tools and get working. There are some people who think that what I do is a hobby – if it were I’d have stayed at home today to crochet! After a few minutes I realise I need to turn the radio off but my hands are filthy. I’ve put it on too loud and there’s an art class in the studio next door. I wouldn’t normally be too concerned but the radio programme is about sex addiction and pornography! I wash my hands, turn the radio down (not off as program is actually quite interesting!) then hands back on job. I sometimes wash my hands every half an hour or so. They don’t feel dry or sore as one might think, but I’ve recently started to wonder why so many people buy me hand cream. I realise that my skin looks like old leather, all creased and saggy and my knuckles resemble knotted wood. This is how I feel today, like an old  leather handbag, the kind you find at a jumble sale! Anyway, after another pretty laborious day, a lot of cleaning up and completing most of my urgent admin list (which never ends) I am left with two lovely balls of clay. Phew! Was it worth it? Yes. I now just need to decide where I’m going to dig next!

Time to move on!

In between my blog entries, (which are useful for me and I hope of some interest to you!) I’m STILL continuing to try and grasp the concepts of local geology, I’m STILL studying local maps, I’ve started to contact local clay industries to learn more about the clay that they use as well as familiarising myself with the periodic table to better understand the chemical properties of local minerals that I can potentially use as clay additions or glaze ingredients. My mind keeps wandering and I find myself thinking about what I’m actually going to make from the beautiful clay that I’m finding. I’m starting to feel that I need to put my books to one side now and pick up my lovely new sketchpad and start getting some ideas down. This is a bit premature as I haven’t thought about a point of inspiration yet, which is typically where I would begin designing a new body of work. I guess the clay is my point of inspiration. My typical way of working is going to need to adjust and my methodical mind is going to have to get messed up which isn’t a bad thing! So whilst I’m STILL applying my gorgeous slip onto upside down plaster moulds (I STILL haven’t made plaster bats yet!) these thoughts are going through my head:

What making technique am I going to use? What form is the pottery going to take? What size – massive or minute? Surface treatment – textured, smooth, decorated, glazed? Functional or non-functional? Representational, abstract, sculptural or literal? Why am I doing this? Will anyone buy my new work? Does it matter? Should I have followed my childhood dream of being be a Butlins Redcoat?!

… and then I realise that hours have gone by and I’m STILL pouring clay slip over the plaster ‘bats’, letting the moisture soak away, scraping off the soft clay with a rubber kidney, kneading it into balls [repeat to start]… How can I speed up this process,  whizzing the clay up with a food processor helps, what else can I do? How did our ancestors do this – did they refine small amounts of clay at a time or was it done on an industrial level? I’m actually getting quite bored of this now! HELP!!!

Too good to resist!

I get two days of making a week, well not really two days as I’m in the studio at 9.15am and then leave at 2:45 PM to collect my daughter from school so it’s more like 10 hours a week. During this time I have to do admin, catch up on emails, phone calls, do accounts, stock ordering, marketing/ advertising, loading and unloading the kiln, cleaning the premises as well as teaching extra sessions in addition to the 40+ people I teach every week, blah, blah, blah! So mostly, I get a few hours a week to be creative and actually make pottery. I’m time critical which is why I really, REALLY shouldn’t have spent half the day horse riding! It was just such a beautiful day, I couldn’t resist. I absolutely should have been in the studio, however, I did find some lovely looking clay puddles on my travels which I’m looking forward to exploring in the near future! When I eventually did get into the studio, the clay from last week is nicely slaked and is ready to sieve. Unfortunately though, before I can get started I have lots of boring jobs to do that should have been done this morning… how frustrating! I end up with just two hours to get mucky, so start sieving the clay. It takes such a long time to go through the sieve, but the creamy slip that I’m left with really does look delicious! I’ve got a lot of clay to sieve – I need to find a more time efficient way of doing it – maybe a bigger sieve and larger bucket? Did  I say I had 2 hours to get mucky?… make that one hour 15 minutes it’s going to take ages for me to clear up this mess!!

Make to sell [and repeat]

More clay bashing today! I’m realising just how labour-intensive refining clay is… sourcing, digging, transporting, removing organic matter, breaking into small pieces, crushing, soaking, sieving, drying, kneading and then hopefully – finally making something! This is why potters buy it by the bag! I’m beginning to really worry about how I’m going to make the final pottery from this project profitable. Typically, I keep a record of hours worked and costing of the materials used to price my pottery accordingly. Whilst I’ve no idea yet of what form my final pottery will take, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to price it based on an hourly rate! This project is definitely about the journey! This sits better with how I feel at the moment about being a potter and the whole ‘make to sell make to sell make to sell [repeat to end]’ rut that I have been stuck in. Lately I’ve been feeling like a machine churning out pottery to fulfill the demands of galleries and commissions. This new way of working is reminding me of what I love about clay and being a potter. Clay is a product of the Earth, it has a prominent place in history, has been crucial in the development of society, it involves problem solving, experimentation, research, Sociology, Chemistry, Geology, Archaeology, Palaeontology, Cartography, History and then of course the creative bit at the end turning all that research, learning and experimentation into something solid and beautiful – hopefully, if I ever manage to refine enough clay to use!