Functional ceramics fill and enrich my daily life. Whether setting a table, greeting the morning with a favorite mug in hand, or prepping a special recipe to be served on a distinctive platter, I find that handmade objects evoke and create memories with use. My kitchen cupboards are filled with cherished ceramics—many made by friends and mentors. In addition, some of the pots I use are representations of the stages and phases of my ceramics career to date.
As a maker, I continue to evolve. Building on a foundation of forming standard dinnerware pieces, I also search for ways to incorporate variety in the studio. I seek inspiration in the commonplace—browsing Amazon.com and paging through kitchenware catalogs, brainstorming as I look at different types of functional pots. Once I design a piece to serve a function, I work through a process of trial and error in an effort to bring it to life. My bread basket is an example of one of these alternative forms.
Constructing the Basket
Using 2¼ pounds of clay, I create the body of the bread basket by throwing a bottomless ring, 8½ inches wide by 2½ inches tall. While opening the form, I apply downward pressure to minimize the chance of the clay detaching from the bat (1 and 2). Once I am satisfied with the shape of the ring, I add a little water to the surface of the bat, run a wire underneath the clay ring and immediately alter the shape. Water allows the form to glide on the bat as I gently push the clay, cupping my hands around the corners to square them off to roughly a 9×5-inch rectangle. I usually use my hands to estimate the 5 inches (3). Once the rectangle is shaped, I set it aside until it is leather hard.
As soon as the body is dry enough to gently lift off the bat without changing shape, I roll a slab to serve as the bottom of the basket. I then place it on a drywall board (because it will not be warped like a wooden board) and compress both sides of the slab with a stiff rib to remove canvas texture and strengthen the slab (4). Once the slab is ribbed, I leave it on the drywall board until the final basket form is constructed and dry to minimize warping. I score the points of attachment on the leather-hard slab and body (making the scored area on the body a little wider than necessary) (5), add slip to the scored areas, then attach the two sections. Once placed properly, I blend in a welding coil (a thinly rolled coil of clay) into the area I have scored and slipped on the inside of the form (6), then cut away the excess slab (7), and compress and blend the joints gently with a rib before leaving the form to dry to a stiff leather hard (8).
I refine the shape of the basket once it is a stiff leather hard. I reemphasize the foot shape and rim statements with a rasp and trimming tools (9). Sometimes I leave the tool marks visible for texture and visual interest; other times I sponge away the marks to achieve a smooth look.
Once I am satisfied with the surface of the basket, I pinch out two symmetrical handles, roughly the width of the basket’s shorter sides, and allow them to dry to leather hard (10). The handles are attached, then refined with a rasp, trimming tools, a sponge, and a stylus to redefine the transition (11 and 12).
I apply a layer of slip to the leather-hard basket (13 and 14) and allow the piece to dry slowly under plastic. The flashing slip I use consists of Hawthorne Bond clay and nepheline syenite (see recipe on page 68). The porcelain really glows underneath this rich brown slip.
Notes for Soda/Wood Kiln Firing
I typically fire porcelaneous clay bodies in either cone 10 soda or wood firings. Sound construction is crucial to avoid cracking or warping when firing this way. The rib compression and carving with the rasp and trimming tools described above are essential steps to strengthen the clay. For anyone working with porcelain at high-fire temperatures, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not lifting or flipping a form like this basket off of the drywall board too early. Note: The properties of clay give it a plastic memory—it can remember movements or changes in shape from any phase in the development of the piece, which can cause it to warp during firing.
Proper wadding techniques will also help minimize warping during firing. In a wood or soda kiln, wads should be placed every 2–3 inches to effectively support the form. The recipe I use is fireclay, silica sand, sawdust and EPK kaolin. For me, this recipe is ideal, as it will leave a nice color on the clay underneath, rather than a stark white spot, and it is much cheaper to mix than alumina wadding.
While I will occasionally fire a single basket independently, I most frequently load them in the kiln stacked rim-to-rim or foot-to-foot. This minimizes the chance of foreign objects falling into them and ruining the liner glaze and has the additional benefit of saving room in the kiln. To achieve a more dynamic aesthetic, I try to load the baskets so that one handle is facing the fire box, allowing accumulations of heavy wood ash or soda to deposit unevenly on the piece (15).
Ideal glazes are reactive and responsive to exposure to both soda and wood ash. I have created several different colors using Yellow Salt glaze as a base (see 16, 17, and recipes on page 68). When adding glaze to sections of a piece to create a pattern, my usual clay-to-glaze ratio is to leave one-third of the piece unglazed so the clay body and flashing slip are visible, and to cover two thirds with glaze.
Using wax resist, I create designs of bold circles or lines. This allows me to bring additional color and interest to the pieces, reflecting a bit more of my personal style. I draw inspiration for these designs from the basic geometric textiles I fell in love with during my travels to Guatemala and Tanzania.
Being mesmerized by the beauty of the varied surfaces created by soda and wood firing processes and being inspired by the ways functional ceramics contribute to people’s daily routines and share in their cherished memories keep me coming back to the studio every day.
the author Lisa York is a ceramic artist and educator. She currently serves as an adjunct instructor and gallery director at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. To learn more, visit www.lisayorkarts.com.