August 4, 2010

Carrot Flowers

"Who cares to notice carrot flowers, when the plum trees burst into bloom"
-Japanese Haiku

This was a hot summer made hotter still by all the outdoor work I passionately but foolishly took part in. After months of creating musical instruments out of difficult, unyielding volcanic ash clay, along with collecting manure to dry and sticks to burn, my friend and colleague Jeri Burdick and I were ready to do a reduction outdoor kiln firing. I had learned the technique a year ago from Wanpovi and Gilbert Sanchez and had been eager to see if we could reproduce the blackware here in Orangeburg County. Only being maverick Americans, we had to add a new twist even before our first firing by applying sage and white colored slips to our ware in addition to the traditional earthen-red-that-turns-black-when-the-oxygen-is-sucked-out. I also added some pieces made with a clay that I mined locally in Orangeburg that would, of course, yield untested results. In fact I made a large bass ocarina with the stuff even though it was untried. I guess that I like to pot dangerously.
The clay recipe we used was 50% volcanic ash, 45% ball clay and 5% yellow art. Working this clay was like working wet sand. It was not very plastic but did sculpt nicely in the greenware stage when it had a quality like stone. As someone who like to sculpt, however, I found the lack of plasticity so frustrating that I kept muttering to myself, I hate this clay, as I kept trying to coach a form out of its soggy resistance. I stuck with the recipe however, because Wanpovi had told us that the volcanic ash content needed to be that high in order for the clay to survive the rapid rise to a high temperature. Unlike other clays in pit-firing, this clay purportedly vitrifies to a very hard state.
After finishing up my portion of objects made with this clay, I called Jeri to see if she had finished her portion. "I hate this clay," were her first words. I advised her to be patient with it and give it a chance to yield its own unique qualities, while thinking It really is disgusting.
We made two firings of objects in our metal "pit" with cedar chips and other woods mixed in (the Sanchez’s use only cedar but we ran out, and being experimental from the start we absolutely needed to see what other woods would do). One hour into the firing we heard a loud blast followed by numerous smaller pops. It was not a good sign. We clicked off the number of pops in our heads, knowing that each one signified a lost object. We pretended not to be personally hurt by the losses. But it was hard from that point to keep feeding wood into the kiln and tending the fire thinking of so many still born pots that would likely emerge. The air was smokey and hot and we had to take many breaks to drink cold ice tea and douse ourselves with cold water. We were greasy smokey sweaty messes.
At the end of the day, I tried not to think of a month’s hard work literally going down in flames. Instead I went berry picking and told myself that it was all a learning experience and that life was good. We pretended that we could wait for two days before opening the kiln. The following morning I got a call from an ecstatic Jeri informing me that she had to take a look into the kiln and found to her surprise that only one piece had broken - my large bass ocarina made with Orangeburg clay. It served me right I suppose, but I was still a little dis appointed as I was unable to reproduce a bass player with an equally good sound. It appears that the errant bass player was the initially blast we heard and that the subsequent pops had emanated from the same piece continuing to explode into smaller and smaller fragments.
Not learning from my first experiment doing a pit firing outdoors in the hot summer air, I agreed to do another one with my second batch of goods. This time the temperature was in the triple digits yet we kept the fire vigorously stoked. The results were excellent. There was just one casualty in the fire - a clacking instrument with a nice curvilinear design.
I took my pit-fired instruments last month to the arts and crafts festival at Carroll County Farm
in Westminster Maryland. I put a price on them that I hoped reflected the physical sacrifice that went into making them. I found, however, that the audience favored my multi-colored gilded ocarinas over the pit-fired pieces. In fact I was unable to sell even one. I noticed that the intensely colored pieces tended to make the smokey black ware look a little dirty in comparison. Even my mentor, Wanpovi, who taught me the black pottery technique, purchased my brightest gold and yellow ocarina.
Back home again in Orangeburg, I mentioned to Jeri that my pit-fired pieces were not favored. She said that the same thing happened to her pit-fired pieces in previous years when she tried to market them alongside her color work. A Japanese haiku I had heard years ago suddenly popped back into my mind:
"Who cares to notice carrot flowers when plum trees burst into bloom?" It occurred to me that those subtle smokey works of art were like carrot flowers among pink plum blossoms. It would take a great effort to even notice them under the circumstance. Undaunted, however, I took a second look at my pit-fired ware and decided that they could use some refinement and that if I showed them more love than eventually others would as well.
The first dose of kindness to my new instruments was a good washing. Many of them had been packed so hastily that they had not even been dusted off or had the ash rinsed out of them. (I was afraid of scratching the still vulnerable surface) As a consequence black smoke emanated from them when they were played or struck - not exactly a good selling point. So my cleaned ocarinas and rattles looked a bit better - yet still dull. I had found through internet research that many ceramic artists who do pit firing finish their wares by polishing them with butcher’s wax. I did that as well (it was not as easy a product to find as I thought and I ended up having to purchase it online from the Butcher’s Wax company). After much experimentation I discovered that more than one shine and buffing was recommended and that a small shoe polish brush helped get the wax into small crevices to even out the texture of the surface.
Even with the polishing many of the vessels still looked plain. This was especially true of vessels that were significantly reduced (blackened by lack of oxygen) and turned almost entirely smokey grey. I recalled the subtle etching that Wanpovi had made on her vessels and how that helped to add shape and differentiation to otherwise plain surfaces. I made a makeshift etching tool with the tip of an exacto blade and used it to carefully outlined discrete areas of the vessels by carving into the surface. This not only helped create some interest and variation in the surface design but served to hide awkward edges where two different slip coatings retracted or overlapped..
The completed pieces now looked more professionally finished and the next step was to find a better context for their viewing. Using various background colors I found that the smokey greys blacks and earth pinks were best served by setting them against a warm white, almost almond color. This next stage - finding a proper display - is still in the works for I will now have to locate a display shelf to paint the appropriate color. But when I do it will hopefully bring attention to my small carrot flowers.

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