The Fight for Balance

I get catalogs of artist shows from Pucker Gallery in Boston, including a recent stunner named “Crafted Elegance, Recent Ceramics by Yoshinori Hagiwara.”
This catalog contained a review by Andrew Maske, Associate Professor of History and Visual Studies at the University of Kentucky, in which he talked about balance.
” This balance between control and caprice is a devilishly difficult thing to achieve:
impose too much control, and the results look stiff and contrived; exert too little and one risks a lack of consistent quality. Good potters attain such balance in some of their ceramics; great potters achieve it often.”
Surely for any artist working in any medium, this names a central difficulty and challenge. I’ve tried more or less successfully to deal with achieving such balance for forty years as a potter; I know it when I see it when the piece appears at the opening of the kiln after the firing has cooled. For me, naming the problem in such a concise way allows for a kind of reassurance, a kind of bright light illuminating the struggle. Once the problem is nailed by someone, a way toward resolution just might become apparent.

High-Fire Stoneware Clay Body

Two things most surprising in the long road toward finding the clay body I’ve always wanted and imagined existed are the continued steepness of the learning curve of formulation, and the frustration of continuous change of materials. It is amazing how much there is to be learned about so few categories of clays. Kaolin or China Clay, Fire clays and Ball clays remain the major categories for use at cone 10, in combination with Feldspar, Silica and perhaps a Plasticizer and/or Flocculant. Yet after twenty years of nearly constant research, testing and making of many thousands of pots, I continue to learn new lessons daily, meaning also that new and better materials appear and ask to be incorporated in the mix.

As to the frustration of constantly changing materials, mines go out of business or are mined out or bought out and closed, or a company decides the specific blend of materials is too costly to produce (G-200 feldspar). Suddenly that tried and true mineral that an entire region or country has depended upon has changed or is no longer available. Such happenings can throw a severe monkey wrench into the works, so the game is a constant  keeping up with the changes, especially when clay body recipes are being produced by the tens of tons.

I’m a potter who works on the wheel, so my game is finding a clay body with maximum workability, that combination of plasticity and the ability for a clay to stand up on the wheel to continued working and shaping without collapse. The body must be formulated so the end result exhibits reasonably low shrinkage, “correct” amount of absorption as a fired product, no warping or cracking and little if any slumping, (even for a translucent porcelain). The body must exhibit a pleasing texture and fired color, (two most subjective categories), and the body must fit a wide variety of glazes from low expansion Shino glazes to high expansion Alkaline glazes and everything in between. You can imagine why so few potters care to tackle this enormously complex aspect of pottery making and buy their clay by the box and hope it works. You may be assured that we are doing our best to make that box of clay work as advertised, but if you were to enter this game, it would become immediately obvious why clay manufacturers print a disclaimer on every box of clay they produce.

I had planned to end this post with a stoneware recipe of exceptional quality, only to realize that the feldspar used is one that is no longer on the market. The solution will be the result of a line blend between Custer feldspar, (potassium based), and Minspar, (sodium based). Were it ever thus! You see the problem!

Testing Plainsman Clays

Recently I arranged for my wife and myself and a fellow potter and colleague to sit for Japanese tea ceremony at the local tea master’s home, here in Lafayette Colorado.  Hiroko Akima’s tea bowls are all from Japan, and turning them over and examining the feet is part of the ceremony, something that potters everywhere love to do. I was immediately struck by the beauty of what I realized were indigenous Japanese clays, dug and used locally, and I realized that American potters are missing something that could solidify and strengthen our identity, by gaining the insight in the use of a native clay body to help teach us who we are as potters and individuals.

When I pulled out my box of test bars I realized that the native clays used by a manufacturer in Alberta Canada, Plainsman Clays Limited, were among the best I had ever tested. By “best” I mean low shrinkage, excellent plasticity, absence of warping and cracking, and variety of color and texture. This last quality of color and texture refer in particular to a blended high-iron Plainsman product known as Firered clay, which includes a maroon clay from my home state of Montana, and which burns black at cone 10 in reduction. My colleague, Sharon Morris, uses a dark firing commercial stoneware body from Laguna, and encouraged me to seek out the making of a black stoneware body.

My method of originating a claybody, gained form Jim Robinson’s 1988 Studio Potter article, “Body Building for Potters”, is first to find a “suite” of clays for us in a clay body, and after the process of sending for samples from Canada, I made a line blend between Firered clay on one side, and an equal parts combination of Plainsman Fire Clay, Palestone, Plasticfire, and Helmer kaolin on the other, including a small percentage of Kaosand for texture. Needless to say I can’t wait to see the fired results! Due to the geology close to home, finding a native stoneware clay in Colorado might be impossibly difficult, and when commercially available and finely ground native clays are available both domestically and internationally, the choice for me is obvious. Also, as I made a line blend between Plainsman’s native stoneware clay, Palestone, and Firered, I noticed an immediate drop in workability in comparison to a combination of the Plainsman clays mentioned above and Firered. My teacher and mentor, Jim McKinnell, always included a wide variety of individual clays in his clay body compositions, and always talked up the need for wide “particle distribution,” for maximum workability and for longevity of the composition, as individual clays become unavailable. Now I understand what he was talking about.

Teaching Workshops

Isn’t it amazing how the best insights are gained after the most stressful of situations? I liken the recent workshop that I have just presented to a glaze firing, where results of extended and difficult effort give sudden presence of insight into the way forward. Why is the point of exhaustion the place where the creative force makes it’s presence known, propelling me forward with fresh intuition to begin anew, immediately? This is the weary and unexpected reward for the incredible output of energy needed to insure a presentation of the most and best possible information for a weekend workshop. I’m grateful for the vision, but there’s a limit to human energy, and there’s obviously no limit to Spirit.

Pricing and Vision

Of all the problems and technical difficulties I have faced in 30 years as a potter, none compares with the intransigence of my audience for valuing what I’ve created. I’ve gained mastery of my craft, but cannot value my experience in terms of price because my audience knows little and cares less about what I make. A recent example: a couple arrives in my studio with their small child, having recently moved to Colorado from California. After looking around and buying a small bowl, the woman turns to me and says, “this must be a fascinating hobby.” Only when an artist has the support of an appreciative audience can fullness of creativity be realized, and I have become confined to pricing my work with those of decades less experience. My creativity is constrained as I rely on “saleable items” to keep bread on the table and the bills paid. So it goes.

I’m cut off from fast-paced American consumer society, and I know I go it alone, but how can I hope to survive financially as the honorable and ancient tradition of pottery-making withers in the face of the latest computer video games? Where is the American studio porcelain tradition upon which I can rely to find nourishment?
If the pots were paintings I could automatically command an entirely different level of pricing. I work within the confines and context of fine arts as they are defined in our culture like every other visual artist, and I find the difficulties of making a living staggering.

It’s my life to struggle to assert my personal vision and originality in porcelain clay. I’m a classisist with a temperment for the vitality of the calligraphic quality of line. For me originality grows out of classic forms of the past, and yet because of my geographic location, even this vision is illegible. I’ve long since learned to ask only for enough money to keep food on the table and the bills paid, but I grew up in upper middle class American society, and I battle my expectations every day. I want a car to drive and a home and studio in which to live and work, and I expect to pay for my life with sales of my work.

Daniel Rhodes was right when he said that obsolescence and neglect follow direcly on success, a success which in my case has proven improbable in the extreme. Mine is the struggle of the artist, the dance of a kind of heroic encounter in porcelain clay, a struggle against impossible odds.

Reduction Firing

I have long used the discoveries of Pete Pinnel to facilitate my reduction firings, and although my results speak for themselves, I rarely talk about my process. When I give a workshop I only talk about reduction firing when asked, and even then I see blank or angry stares from the crowd. It is truly amazing the degree to which opinion becomes entrenched, and potters’ unwillingness to try a new way of firing is astonishing. I want to share this method with you because I know from experience that it works.
Reduction firing is the process of allowing more gas than air to be present inside a kiln, and the real workhorse of reduction is carbon monoxide, not smoke. When enough carbon molecules are agglomerated together to be visible as smoke, a very poor agent of reduction has been created. Carbon Monoxide is a very tiny molecule, and has no trouble getting into a glaze or clay and making the carbon dioxide exchange, creating the beautiful colors that are the hallmark of high-fire reduction firing; celadon, copper red, shino and tenmoku glaze colors to name only a few. Creating smoke inside a kiln at the time of reduction is also extemely inefficient and wasteful of natural gas or propane, something to think about in these times of rising gas prices. Pete Pinnell has said: “If you are creating smoke in your firing, you should see dollar signs disappearing from the top of you stack.”
The object is to create an abundance of carbon monoxide at the time of reduction within the atmosphere of the kiln, and the way to do it is to increase the efficiency of combustion between gas and air, NOT to decrease air to the burners, as has been taught for decades in the United States. It is also critical to start reduction early, before the glazes have any chance to begin to melt (sinter). By increasing the amount of gas and air at cone 012, a short, bushy flame is created, increasing the amount of carbon monoxide that is a byproduct of efficient combustion, creating an even and effective reducing atmosphere throughout the kiln, while at the same time causing the temperature rise that is needed and wanted to carry the firing through to completion. It is the damper that is used to help create reduction and ensure even distribution of heat, not decreasing air to the burners.
I fire a downdraft, insulating firebrick kiln, using natural draft venturi burners, and I fire in straight oxidation to cone 012, allowing about six hours between lighting the burners and the time cone 012 falls. I use natural gas, and I am using three water column inches of pressure at the time cone 012 falls, with primary and secondary air ports wide open by that time of the firing. All burners are turned up to eleven water column inches of pressure as I see the fast and bright blue flame appear and hear the roar of combustion. I always begin with the damper halfway in, so I can go either way, push it in or pull it out, whatever is needed to create reduction and keep the temperature rise even top to bottom. For my particular kiln, I rarely have to adjust the damper very much, but always remember this simple rule: push the damper in, heat up the top; pull the damper out,heat up the bottom.
I watch the oxy probe readings as the atmosphere climbs into medium reduction, where I keep it all the way to cone 9 down. If you don’t use an oxy probe, adjust the damper so you get licks of blue flame from the bottom peep. When cone 9 is down, I turn all the burners down to five water column inches of pressure, putting the kiln in oxidation and slowing the firing. I take a half hour to 45 minutes to allow cone 10 to fall, and this time of oxidation is critical to create the orange color from my kaki glaze and brighten all my glaze colors, as well as give any escaping glaze gasses (pinholes) time to heal over. I get stunning copper reds, shinos, celadons, tenmoku’s, wonderfully subtle white glazes, my special chun, etc., etc., all in the same firing. When cone 10’s are down top and bottom, I shut off the gas and close the damper to within two inches of being completely closed. I also shut the secondary air ports, which are designed to allow some air to continue to be pulled through the kiln, so a very quiet circulation of air is allowed to continue throughout the kiln. Cooling occurs neither too fast nor too slow, a period of time that I never push, and I allow a full 30 hours before opening the door.

Color of the Flame

Until I’m able to build a shed around my gas-fired reduction kiln, I must wait for evening to arrive, when the breeze dies down and I’m able to see the flame from the venturi burners which power my kiln. It is a very beautiful thing, this gas and air mixture that combine to produce flame, this fascinating and dancing phenomenon of light and heat which cannot be seen to its fullest extent during the day.
I start two burners at a time, kitty-corner from each other, on very low, and I adjust the gas and air mixture every hour. Slowly, as the kiln and pots are warmed, the air, which is pulled in through the primary air ports of the burners, is increased to meet the demands of the increasing volume of gas, producing a luscious and fat blue flame, tinged with yellow. During the early hours of the firing I give the flame as much air as it needs, but later, about six hours into the firing, there comes a moment when the gas and air mixture must be controlled if the beautiful effects of reduction firing are to be realized. Long ago in Mesopotamia, about 4500 BC, potters learned how to control the atmosphere of a kiln, producing a red veneer on their wares by giving the flame full oxigen, or a black verneer on their pots by starving the flame slightly for air. Although our technology is vastly improved, we are using the very same basic technique 6500 years later. There is a very distinct color change to the flame when more gas than air is present, and a recognizable smell tells the potter that a reducing atmosphere is being created within the kiln. By giving the flame more gas than air, carbon monoxide is produced, which steals oxigen from the glaze and clay and replaces it with carbon, producing the wonderful and characteristic celadons, copper reds, subtle whites and stunning tenmoku glaze colors that are unique to high-fire reduction pottery. More gas than air makes for yet another and extremely beautiful color change for the flame, but it is also at this point that much heat is also needed to allow the kiln to rise in temperature, a point when the roar of the flame must be heard. It is a challenging time, these moments late at night when my ability and communication with the flame either make or break months of work.

American Masters

Of all the American Masters series on PBS, the film I keep thinking about is Alice Miller, creator of the top notch Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley CA. There’s a time near the end of the film where the question is being answered “where to now?”, (thirty years on), when Alice enters a neighbors vegetable garden. She picks various vegetables and herbs and procceds to think aloud about what she might prepare, exactly the approach of her restaurant, whose chefs receive fresh food from the restaurant’s 75 supporting farms and then decide what the menu will be.

I find this a wonderful analogy to the work of creating porcelain pottery because of the invitation to constant challenge and change. For a potter, what we see is never what we get, which just might mean that a constant enticement exists for open risk, not unlike picking or receiving fresh fruits and vegetables and then deciding what the menu will be. I have this porcelain clay, an idea about form, these slips and stains to create color, an idea for decoration, a few glazes to use, and a particular type of kiln and atmosphere to fire the pots; what am I going to cook up today, this week, this year?
For me the circle is completed through a spirit of experimentation, just like the chefs at Chez Panisse. Naturally the talents and experience of the particular chef or the potter will make itself apparent, to be guided, influenced, and carried forward by the everyday engagement of the process of cooking, either in the kitchen or in the potter’s studio.
Carried forward to one possible consequence, a spirit of openness just might prevail, in my case or in the case of a chef, concerning the sharing of recipes. It’s always tempting to close down, to say, “I’ve worked for YEARS, and this recipe is MINE,” but in the end it’s the artist or the chef who suffers from keeping their favorites close to the chest, whether that be a glaze recipe for cone 10 reduction or a chef’s best glaze recipe for cake. The spirit of generousity is the portal to creating new space for new invention, creativity, and expressive content, a best side of the “devil may care” attitude that Dad used to talk about. After thirty years as a potter, I now realize that it has been such an attitude that has lead to a lifetime of ever-widening circles of the Call to expression.

Expanding the Circle

In the business and participation of the artist in porcelain pottery making, inspiration enters from many angles. Most often it appears as part of the endless circular process from preparation of clay to greeting customers on opening night. The pots are formed and slowly dried to a leather hard state, then trimmed, decorated, dryed, signed, bisque fired, waxed, glazed, glaze fired, sanded, priced, a show created, a deadline met, and once again a new beginning to the process.
Most often inspiration comes from working, but an artist learns to make room for light that enters fron any angle. A friend and collector from D.C. recently returned from a trip to Japan, including an exhibition of pottery from which she sent me a color postcard. I have explored vibrant glaze color on porcelain for a quarter century, but this image stopped me in my tracks and transported me to another world. The postcard was a picture of a classically formed bottle with a glaze described by the potter as “pink celadon,” which my friend described as “supremely beautiful.” To have some knowledge, gained experience, and recources to be able to pursue such a moment, no matter how dire the ever-present and latest deadline might be, is the great pleasure of my life. I had never considered such a glaze color possible, a pale and translucent pink glaze with hints of lilac, very thickly applied and beautifully crackled. At such times I have always gained the most help from the second edition of a book by Robin Hopper, “The Ceramic Spectrum, A Simplified Approach to Glaze and Color Development.” From extensive exploration of this book, I often wonder about “simplified,” but I love his intent and I understand his use of the word. I anticipate a year’s work to duplicate this astoundingly beautiful glaze, and once again, the great circle expands.