In the Studio


slip bowls profile

A row of bowls drying in the sun.

During my trip west, I gave a lot of star-gazing and wide-sky thought to what I want the shape of the rest of my life to look like. I’ve now passed the halfway point and I feel as if I’ve been trying too hard for too long to be The Author and not simply just ME. So I’m going to include some of my other interests on my website, because, you know, that’s who I AM, yo? I mean, I don’t have anything to prove and my last two novels have yet to get picked up, and I just can’t make my world all about the writing anymore. Not if I want to live a happy life. Don’t get me wrong, I will still write. I love to write. But I’m going to make it about the joy of the work and not try so hard to self-promote as someone I think the world wants to see. Instead, as I said, I’ll just be me.

Slip work, stamping, carving, and dot trailing.

Slip work, stamping, carving, and dot trailing.

And a big part of me, ever since I had my first good earthy whiff of clay in my twenties, enjoys pottery. Specifically functional pottery. There’s something about the communion between the hand of the potter and the hand of the user that really speaks to me. It’s similar to the communion I feel between writer and reader. I write to commune with the world of readers and I create usable clay art to commune with the world—one coffee drinker and soup eater at a time. And now that I’m an empty-nester, I’m getting back into this first love of mine and thoroughly enjoying it.

Simple slip lining plus a little bit of trailing.

Simple slip lining with trailing.

This week, I’ve been thinking about bowls and their many “attitudes.” I tend to anthropomorphize pots and bowls are no exception. A bowl can be wide open at the top, and all about showing you its inside. Or a bowl can curve inward, be more secretive and/or protective of its contents. A bowl can have my favorite kind of attitude: a little bit of both, with a lovely open rim, but also a curved belly that holds its secrets until you take the time look inside.

Image result for 18th century slip pottery sgraffito

18th-century pot with various slip work.

I’m working with earthenware now, and I’ve recently been wanting to experiment with more pre-glazing decorative options. I like slips, but only seriously painted with them in college when I worked as a potter at Historic Jamestown Island making reproduction white stoneware with a heavy Italian-style painting done wet, on freshly-thrown pots for the public’s enjoyment and for piece-work pay. I’ve always been intrigued by slip trailing, though. For those who don’t know, slip trailing is a little bit like cake decorating or henna painting: slip is a thick clay slurry that you squeeze or pipe onto a still-damp pot and it adheres to the pot and becomes a raised design, with or without color. With my last clay purchase, I bought two prepared slip bottles (white slip and black slip) and I’ve been looking forward to trying them out for a while.

White slip interior with a stylized flower design.

White slip interior with sgraffito flower design.

So last Saturday, I threw twelve dinner-sized bowls for my studio partners and me to experiment with using various slip trailing techniques. There are three of us, so we got four bowls each—in hindsight, probably a little ambitious for a three-hour work session—but we had a great time (their kids included, ranging in age from 10 to 18 months). I first tried out the slip before everyone arrived, just to understand the properties of it. The white slip was a little thin and ended up being difficult to work with so I added more and spread it over the whole interior then carved through it to expose the red clay beneath, a process called sgraffito that can be especially effective when the colors of slip and clay provide a wide contrast. It was done a lot in the 18th century because it was an easy way to get a design on a pot that then only required a simple clear glaze.

Sue's lovely blue bowl.

Sue’s lovely blue bowl.

One of the other things I love about making pots is sharing the process with others, watching them work, learning from their techniques, and getting ideas for my own work. With their permission, I’ll share my favorite of each of their bowls. Sue liked the wide-open rim and wanted to create a sort of retro theme. She’s also a big fan of the Mediterranean Blue slip that we’ve used in the past for painting and coloring glazes. So she inscribed the rim, then painted in the marks to accentuate them, and painted the interior the same matching blue. I think it’s really beautiful.

We all three talked (as we were working—and the kids were listening as they decorated they own bowls) about learning to let go of perfection—in life, in making pots, and especially in the slip-trailing process. Working with slip is a little bit like working in watercolor as a medium. You can’t always control where it goes, but you can learn to work with the vagaries of a liquid medium and appreciate the path it takes on its own, then either go with it and make the new design about something more, or accept its simple, random, organic beauty.

Brea's Beautiful bowl.

Brea’s Beautiful bowl.

Brea may be the most meticulous decorator of the three of us. She has the patience to sit with a complicated design and nurture it into the shape she wants. She chose one of the more closed bowls and decided to make her decoration more about the outside with an eye toward the textural qualities that it would have once fired and cupped in the hands. Her decoration was inspired by a stamp that she sometimes uses in wet clay and reminded me a lot of a henna design. She incorporated the black slip trails and Mediterranean Blue dots and it turned out just lovely.

If you’re following my website for another reason (books, teardrop travels) and not a big fan of pottery, never fear, I will only make the occasional post about pots. And maybe hermit crabs. Either way, I won’t be offended if you unsubscribe.