A Monument to Table Salt

Salt dish and scoop, 5 in. (13 cm) in length, handbuilt cone-3 red clay, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln, 2020. Photo: Tiffany Rhynard.

In an Italian restaurant where I once baked, the measurement for salt listed on all of the recipes was Q.B., short for quanto basta. The translation, “just enough,” is similar to the English idiom, salt to taste. Both convey the subjective reaction of an individual’s palate and imply the need to taste and adjust seasoning while we cook. The magic of salt in food is that it activates all the other flavors in the dish. The basil, garlic, and pine nuts in pesto are quiet and understated until the salt amplifies their flavor.

Our bodies contain 0.4% salt, a similar concentration to that of sea water. Salt is crucial for proper functioning of the body, and the body has the ability to regulate levels of sodium. While high levels of salt can cause health problems, the salt shaker is usually not to blame. The vast majority of salt in our diets comes from processed food rather than a home-cooked meal or adding salt at the table.

Salt dish and scoop 4¼ in. (11 cm) in length, handbuilt cone-3 red clay, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln, 2020.

Inspiration from Nourishment

I began thinking about elemental necessities as the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders were initiated last spring and grocery supplies were inconsistent. We use many pots to contain and deliver necessary nourishment every day—cups, plates, and bowls being the most prevalent. We may also feel an emotional or spiritual necessity for art, the handmade, and the human connection between maker, object, and user. Following this line of thinking, I landed on the idea of making a series of salt cellars.

The form for this salt dish draws from Brutalist architecture, a style defined by massive, angular features and beton brut or unfinished cast concrete. Exaggerated proportions can give a sense of monumentality to utilitarian-scale vessels. The double walls of this salt dish give the illusion of being thick and solid, although in reality they are hollow. I picture these pieces finding homes in Modernist kitchens amidst concrete countertops, stainless-steel fixtures, and a cook’s favorite knife. Mid-process, I realized that they also needed a scoop. I have no qualms about taking a pinch of salt with my bare fingers, but it seemed that adding a spoon would complete the pieces and make them even more of a celebration of the essential crystals.

The stout walls and hard edges of the dish are the extent of the Brutalist reference because the surface color is nothing like stony gray concrete. I am interested in harnessing the power of color to bring about emotional and visceral responses. The puzzle of deciding on a palette and seeing the interaction between the colors constantly intrigues me.

1 Alter the cylinders by lifting and pressing corners with finger pads.

2 Define each of the corners by running a metal rib or spatula from the bottom to the top of the form on all four sides.

3 Mark the outer and inner wall perimeters on the slab, then attach interior wall to the base slab.

4 Next, score, add slip, and attach the exterior wall to the base slab.

Forming the Salt Cellars

Building the salt dish starts with making one cylinder that is proportionally low and wide along with a second cylinder that is the same height, but narrower in diameter. This demonstration illustrates a trapezoidal slab-built version, but the same process can be followed with thrown cylinders. I like making several of these at the same time and varying the shape of each one. When making the cylinders from the slab strips, cut the vertical edges at 45° bevels that are parallel to each other. This makes for an overlap that gives strength to the joint. Decide where you want the corners to be and use the pads of your fingers to push together while slightly lifting to establish each corner (1). Run an offset spatula or rib up each side of the corners to sharpen and refine them (2). Repeat these steps when shaping the interior wall.

When the walls are firm enough to hold their shape while being handled, cut a slab that is slightly larger than the perimeter of the outer wall. Place the slab on a flat surface, then set the outer wall and inner wall on top of the slab. Mark their locations by outlining the interior edge of each cylinder onto the slab. Remove the cylinders, then score, slip, and attach the interior wall to the slab first, followed by the exterior wall (3, 4). This slab will be the bottom of the container space and the hollow wall. Reinforce the joints with a thin coil. Flip the piece upside down and compress the floor from underneath, then flip it right side up. Next, cut a second slab and follow the same sequence to close the top (5). I find that the top slab retains more structural integrity during assembly if I wait to cut the opening until after it is attached.

Once the top and bottom have become a medium leather hard, cut into the center to open the cellar (6). You won’t be able to see exactly where the interior wall is, so start near the center and work outward until the slab is flush against the inside wall. At this point, you can also trim the overhanging slab with a knife or rasp (7). Scrape and then smooth the rasp marks from the surface, pierce a small vent hole into the bottom of the hollow wall, and set the piece aside to apply underglaze to the surface later.

5 Compress the top slab onto the interior and exterior wall from above.

6 Use a sharp knife to cut into the center of the top slab, opening the containing space.

7 Trim any excess clay from the top and bottom slab with a rasp.

8 Use templates to cut the scoop components from a slab of clay.

Creating the Scoop

Similar to the dish, I use a spoon shape that can be varied for each scoop in the series. Forming the scoop starts with a paper template for the handle and the scoop. First, use the templates to cut out each part (8). Wrap the handle slab around a tapered modeling tool or brush handle for support and counter pressure. It is best to do this when the clay is soft because making the narrow cone demands plasticity. If desired, the handle could be left round, but I squared this one by pinching and ribbing the corners. The scoop template has a dart built in to assist in defining the curve of the spoon. Join the edges of the dart together and bend the scoop to the shape that you desire (9). Once the parts are a soft leather hard, close the opening at the top of the handle with a slab. I have approached the spoon head in several ways: leaving it open like a shovel, attaching slabs at the front or back, or attaching slabs to both the front and back (10). Attach the handle to the scoop, trim away any overhanging clay, smooth the edges, and punch a vent hole in the hollow handle.

9 Score, add slip, then join the dart to create the curve, and finish shaping the scoop.

10 Variations on the scoop, showing an open front, a slab added to the front, and a slab added to the front and back.

Applying the Surface Decoration

I apply underglaze in a painterly fashion with the idea that these architectural forms will appear as utilitarian, three-dimensional Color Field paintings. My preference is to paint the work while it is leather hard. I start by brushing on a layer of color that is contrasting to the dominant color I plan to use. In this case I’m painting medium orange underglaze on the red clay—complementary to the turquoise underglaze that I will use as the dominant color. Once the orange underglaze has dried to the point where it will no longer smear, add two layers of a light turquoise underglaze (11). I try to achieve soft edges on the panels of color by approaching the edges, but not covering them. This allows each color to be visible in these fuzzy transitions: red clay, then orange and turquoise underglaze. Because the clay is leather hard, the underglaze stays wet longer. This feels more like painting because I can blend the color on the piece in addition to mixing color on the palette. Next, I add strokes of yellow underglaze to add warmth to the turquoise (12). The interior of this dish is painted with a darker blue-green  underglaze to give a value contrast to the exterior.

11 Add a layer of turquoise underglaze to the leather-hard salt cellar. A contrasting layer of orange underglaze was applied first.

12 Layer over the turquoise underglaze with strokes of yellow underglaze to add warmth.

After bisque firing, I glaze the interior of the dish and the spoon head with a transparent glaze and brush borax wash on the exterior and the spoon handle. The borax gives a little extra sheen to the underglaze and causes some small spots of thicker glaze where the larger borax crystals melt. After the firing, I wet sand the unglazed areas to take off any coarseness and make them smooth to the touch.

There are many other applications of this technique, whether you are using slabs or thrown cylinders. The scale can be increased for larger dishes or bowls, or the hollow wall could become the rim of a platter. Going vertical gives the potential for a vase or jar. With hollow walls, there is the option of piercing the exterior and having visual access to the space between the walls. As a salt dish, there is a sense of permanence and grounding in its visual mass. It is storing, protecting, and paying homage to the salt that is both a necessity and a luxury.

Salt dish and scoop, 5 in. (13 cm) in length, handbuilt cone-3 red clay, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln, 2020.

When you are cooking next, remember to taste the dish before serving, and whether you’re using pink Himalayan or good old Morton’s, just remember—quanto basta.

the author Marty Fielding is a studio potter and educator living in Tallahassee, Florida, and teaching at Florida State University. Harnessing the expressive potential of color is a key theme in his work.

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