February 4, 2014

Ocarinas Like Burned Cookies

In the two weeks before hanging my present small works exhibition, I turned once again to making small pit fired ceramic art. I did this because I had earlier written a grant proposal to fund this exhibition in which I had alluded to my incorporating work that was made from locally mined clay. I had indeed included some small ceramic pieces but only one of these was made from the Edisto clay. I had mined more clay and processed it over the summer but had never used it. So, despite the fact that the grant monies will most likely not be forthcoming, I decided that it would still be best to be true to my written proposal and use the local clay. This required converting my creative space from a painter’s studio to a sculptor’s atelier. A change of medium always feels a tad like moving in to a new apartment and I therefore put it off as long as possible. But the time for hanging my exhibition was drawing near and I had to account for drying time, time to burnish and bisque the work, then smoke fire it in an outdoor kiln. Paints were packed away and the clay was rolled out.

The clay that I used for the pieces pictured above and at right was mined from different veins in the local clay pit resulting in variations from dark red to yellow ochre and buff white. I wanted these colors to remain visible so I did not put my usual terra sigillata colors over the clay but instead burnished the clay surface itself, Catawba style. Fortuitously, one evening during my creation of these pieces, there was a PBS program on television featuring a Catawba potter burnishing her pots with a stone. I picked up some good tips and used them.

Small sculptural figures, faces and forms became a set of whistles, ocarinas and idiophones. I had earlier written in my grant proposal that my art work would include musical instruments. Turning locally mined clay into musical instruments therefore covered two key points in my proposal.

Creating clay works so close to the time that they would have to be shown was living a bit dangerously. The clay batch was untested and therefore possibly not stable. It could have broken in the bisque firing. It could have cracked and exploded in the pit firing. Fortunately neither happened. But what did happen is that the ceramic work became more reduced in the pit firing than I would have liked. The red clay turned dark black and brown. The black iron oxide turned red. This was due to my having stoked the fire to burn very hot and then sealing the outdoor kiln very securely against an impending snow storm. On account of the cold in the atmosphere and the head cold in my body I had forgotten to make that critical visit outdoors at night to vent the upper part of the kiln in order to allow the fire to create flash points (lighter areas) on the ceramics. As a result I had a very dark body of work. Fortunately after cleaning and waxing, the browned clay took on a bronzed look that was not unappealing. But this left just one small problem - the exhibition walls were brown.

Today I packed up my sculpture studio and brought out my paints in order to paint light colored back drops for my brown clay musical instruments.

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