Humans have always had a compulsion to create, to improve, and to make something functional just a little prettier than necessary. Once in a while I come across a handmade object that acts like a time machine, bringing me to a specific moment and the mind of its maker, afloat in the careful act of creating beauty. I hope that viewers and users of my work feel the same way, if for just a moment.
Individualizing and Refining a Form
While glazing and firing are a means to an end for me, the interaction I have between hand and clay—freezing a moment in time—is the most exciting part of making. I enjoy the feeling of possibility the newest batch of work creates, filling up my shelves with freshly thrown pieces, and finding decorative solutions for those further along in the process.
We all bring our unique interests and aesthetics to the table when creating our variations on particular forms. I have a great love for the swelling forms of German salt-glazed pottery and of historical fashion, especially the Victorian era and Dior’s New Look from the late 1940s and 50s. The exaggerated waists and skirts that both define and conceal comprise a silhouette that, given pottery’s strong relationship with the human form, beg to be captured in clay. This is one of the reasons I enjoy making pitchers.
As I see it, the main challenge of making a pitcher is that it has to be large enough to contain, yet light enough to carry, and still durable enough to feel safe in use. It’s also nice if it pours well. My earlier pitchers tended to have handles that were attached quite close to the mouth of the pot with a high center of gravity. In using them, I realized that wasn’t particularly conducive to holding a pitcher full of liquid and have since moved my handles down toward the waist of the pot.
Creating the Pitcher
Using about 3½ pounds of clay, I begin by throwing a tall, narrow cylinder. I then carefully swell out the belly and neck until there is a curvaceous fullness to the form, especially on the lower half (1). I create the foot of my pitcher with a small notched rib (2). This leaves a coil shape behind, providing a logical place to end glazing and a small amount of shadow underneath the form, while eliminating the need to trim the piece. As much as I love making work, the fewer times I have to put it on the wheel, the better.
Once the clay enters the soft leather-hard state (moveable, but not creating fingerprints when touched), I get my hands wet and pinch about a quarter of the mouth’s circumference with my thumb and forefinger. Using my other hand, I run my index finger from side to side on the inside of the pinch, beveling the spreading clay outward (3). Once I feel the spout is thinned and shaped, I pinch my two anchor points a little closer together to plump it up. At this point I pull a long tapered handle with rounded edges and set it on a board to stiffen.
When it is at the point where I can touch it without leaving a mark, I make a diagonal cut on the fat end and I bend it into a loop, working the clay from the skinny end into the fat end, sealing them together (4). I outline and score the two attachment points for the handle on the pitcher (5), and then work the seams between handle and pitcher with a chamois until they are well integrated. I then wait for the entire piece to approach the slightly stiffer side of leather hard.
I try to keep my edges on all parts of the piece rounded and generous, especially handles, an example of how John Glick’s practical approach continues to influence me. After working with him in his studio for two years, it’s hard not to hear his voice in my head, saying “One knock on the kitchen counter and that’s done for!” There’s a time and a place for every possible kind of ceramic expression and sharp edge, but I want people to adopt my pots into their cupboards free of worry, so I make them round and hearty.
The other major challenge of a pitcher, especially a pitcher just a little prettier than necessary, is the large vertical surface—the terrifying abyss of a blank canvas.
In addition to costume, I find fellowship in a variety of folk crafts, Japanese woodblock prints, cartoons like The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and paper cutting, all of which use abstracted shapes to convey stories and show evidence of the human hand.
After years of working with cone 10 clay bodies and glazes, several life changes in the summer of 2014 catapulted me into a whole a new body of work at cone 6 and provided an opportunity to redefine my surface decorations and techniques. During a workshop at Penland School of Crafts taught by Kathy King, I gravitated toward underglaze, sgraffito swirls, and a stylized prickly pear cactus motif. I love the way sgraffito embeds decoration into the surface of the clay and the hand-carving allows for abstract, flowing gestures.
Laboriously carving the first few pieces at Penland was satisfying, but for regular studio use I wanted to find a way to achieve a similar surface without such a great time commitment. The method of sgraffito I now use requires painting only the areas I plan on carving, leaving the color of my creamy clay body in the negative space.
Conquering the Blank Canvas
Once the pitcher is at the right state, I’ll brush on underglaze in swirls underneath the handle, along the rim above the handle, and inside the mouth (6). For the scaled-up, pitcher-sized version of my swirls and cacti motif, I leave the handle out of the underglaze decoration so there is some breathing room in the scene.
I then go back and paint blobs for the cacti, trying my best not to paint too many (7). After three coats of underglaze, I use a plastic sculpting tool as a stylus to outline the cacti, and then draw the abstract swirls with a lot of movement (8).
Once the underglaze has dried slightly more, I create sgraffito marks in the underglazed areas, subtracting the cacti spikes using the knife side of a clean-up tool (9). Then I outline the bulbs with a stylus (10). After that, once it’s bone dry, I refine it and remove burrs from the surface decoration using a green kitchen scrubbing pad prior to bisque firing. I dip the bisqued piece in a clear glaze and fired to cone 6, then carefully apply gold luster to the bulbs (11) and pop it back into the kiln one last time and fire it to cone 018.
A Multi-functional Form
The life of a pitcher has a different rhythm than that of a cup or a bowl. In my home, pitchers come out when it’s time to host company or arrange fresh-cut flowers; gestures above and beyond the daily demands of eating and drinking. Pitchers mean something lovely and wonderful, usually with other people, is about to happen. Sure, it takes more effort to make a pitcher than a cup—especially if that pitcher is just a bit prettier than necessary—but if it weren’t above and beyond, what fun would it be?
the author Julia Walther is a studio potter and educator living in Washington, D.C. To learn more visit www.juliawalther.com.