These pitcher forms began as a tribute to my wife and daughters. With the baby years in the rear view mirror for our family, I can better reflect on what transpired within our home during that season of life. I remember each of my wife Jill’s pregnancies with a sense of nostalgia. While pregnancy was a welcome thing for us, I realize that it is a loaded subject, which I strive to be sensitive toward.
Pregnancy evokes different thoughts and emotions for everyone. Some view it as the beginning of new life while others view it as the end of freedom and personal aspirations, or at least a change that will complicate if not rewrite those aspirations. I’ve held a tiny crystalline-glazed urn with the cremated remains of our dear friend’s miscarried son. I’ve stood graveside while a eulogy was spoken over a shockingly small pink casket being lowered into the earth. I’ve seen marriages disintegrate because of the frustrations from infertility and embraced dear friends who felt that abortion was the only course for them.
As a maker, and a man, I wrestle with making sure my thoughts on a decidedly feminine subject are well considered. From the Venus (Woman) of Wilendorf (28,000 BCE) to the movie Juno (2007), it seems humanity is fascinated with pregnancy. It’s not something I’m able to experience, and my curiosity leads me to the point of view of the amazed observer.
The 120 weeks of Jill’s combined pregnancies, coupled with the joys and tragedies of those we love have been the catalyst for the ideas surrounding these pitcher forms. They have evolved slowly over the years and, with work, will continue to develop and change in the future.
Combining Technique with Ideas
While sharing the steps and techniques used to create these forms, I feel the need to emphasize that technique is empty without ideas. As potters, our language is not one of only words, but rather form, line, texture, contour, surface, gesture, color, and feel. Within these elements, each maker builds a visual vocabulary unique to them.
Within the form of most pots, we find that the parts are named after and relate to parts of the body: lip, neck, shoulder, belly, and foot. Within each of those is the opportunity for gesture, line, pattern, texture, and color. How these elements are achieved means very little. Why these elements were discovered and applied means everything. As I travel to teach workshops, I encourage young makers to ask themselves difficult questions and dig deep for the answers to all the whys that a life in clay may offer up. Finished pots only mean something if they mean something to the maker.
I begin by throwing a narrow cylindrical form with a slight swell located approximately 1⁄3 of the way up (1). Scale is important, and I generally use between 5–9 pounds of clay for these forms. Coincidentally, it seems the average birth weight of a baby falls somewhere within this range and the finished piece has an infant-like scale, easily cradled.
When the clay has firmed up a bit, I cut the rim at an angle and delineate what I refer to as contrapposto lines (2). This asymmetrical but balanced posture revolutionized figurative sculpture by bringing static saints and pharaohs into dynamic stances when viewed from different perspectives.
In an effort to exaggerate the contrapposto lines, I make and remove several darts from the form (3, 4). I learned this technique at a workshop with Kristen Kieffer and it took me years to employ it. She demonstrated how soft tapered transitions create soft curves, and harsh V-shaped transitions create hips or angles. Using a combination of soft and angular darts, I remove sections (5)
and coax one side over the other. The lower layer is scored and slipped before joining. While removing darts, healing joints, and smoothing over the new form, I acknowledge the realities of
C sections, episiotomies, and the general trauma some women endure during childbirth.
After the form has been reestablished (6), I begin to think about texture and composing lines within the form. Using a variety of ribs and combs, I drag them across the surface of the clay to create shadow, depth, and direction (7). By developing high and low points, these marks can be further enhanced with colored slips later in the process. On glazed work, high points pick up light, which seems to be an underutilized design element.
While making marks, I’m thinking about the flow of a dress, patterned cloth over tight skin, and even the skin itself. Stretch marks are a beautiful record of the potential and limitations of the human body.
I’m sure that forms similar to these could be achieved in a number of different ways. This process developed slowly, and with each iteration the idea of growing became increasingly more important. The initial form is narrow, giving me ample room to gently push and swell from the inside out as the pitcher dries.
I remember sitting with Jill, watching TV, with my hand resting casually on her very pregnant belly. Our daughter shifted within the womb, as the bulge of a shoulder, knee, or foot clearly scrolled across my palm. This was a significant moment for me, which I choose to remind myself of on a regular basis.
That experience, and all the ones after it, changed the way I work. Humans don’t happen all at once and maybe pots don’t have to either. They can be formed and altered slowly over time.
I wait to pull the spout until all other alterations are finished. Maintaining moisture in the rim while depending on drier clay beneath (for support) is a balancing act. Using slurry coated fingers, I pull straight up with my thumb on the exterior and my index finger (curled) on the interior (8). The spout is continually hydrated and becomes more malleable as it thins out. The apex of the spout remains in place while either side is coaxed in, creating a throat to direct liquid as it pours. The tip of the spout should be sharp but not brittle to ensure that liquid breaks without dribbling after each pour.
Pitcher handles should be comfortable to hold and angled in such a way that assists in pouring rather than impeding the intended function. The width and thickness should be able to accommodate the weight of the pitcher itself as well as the weight of the liquid being served. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds (3.78 kilograms) and attachments should be crafted to support the weight. While my students are making handles, I encourage them to imagine that the vessel was full of sand before they begin.
I pull handles from the hip of the pitcher and make a generous attachment about an inch below the lip (see 9). The end of the handle becomes the beginning as I fold the edge down and lift from within the negative space to meet the fold (9, 10).
Handles are often viewed as an afterthought or a last minute chore. Good handles take years to master and signature handles, of course, take even longer (11).
After bisque firing, I wax a band inside the pitcher’s mouth (12). The pitcher is then dipped twice in crackle slip, which helps to diminish air pockets that occur because of the heavily textured surface (13). When the slip is dry, I mist the surface with water repeatedly to open up the network of crackles that developed and soften the edges (14). The piece is bisque fired a second time and then dipped in thin colored slip. While the piece is submerged in the slip, a steady stream of bubbles rise to the surface. Holding the piece under until the bubbles stop guarantees that every pocket and gap is filled with slip and the surface is unified. Once the colored slip is dry, the high points are wiped away to reveal the contrast of the crackle network (15). The pots are bisque fired again and finally glazed in one of several ash glazes I’ve developed. I welcome crazing on exterior glazes as it reads well over the crackle slips and lends itself to the “something’s gotta give” kind of tension I’m seeking to achieve over these swollen forms.
Critics dismiss sentiment and nostalgia, as if human experiences were a joke. Nearly every maker I know has correlations like this between forms, emotions, and experiences. It’s what tells us that we’re still alive, observing, digesting, and making with intention. It tells us that we are making our own work and our intuitions are tied to something sturdier than the wind. I wouldn’t describe these pots as narratives, but rather useful vessels that affirm the belief that my life and work are indivisible. The longer I work, the more I come to understand that observing and playing an active role in my own life leads to a personal and meaningful body of work.
the author A previous contributor to Ceramics Monthly, Eric Botbyl is a full-time studio potter, teacher, gallerist, and occasional author. Eric and Jill Botbyl own and operate Companion Gallery in Humboldt, Tennessee. To learn more, visit www.companiongallery.com and Instagram: @ericbotbyl, @companiongallery.
Author’s note: Aesthetically speaking, contemporary potters like Kris Nelson, Dick Lehman, Jennifer Allen, Matt Schiemann, Tony Clennell, and Tara Wilson have been influential sources. Their approaches to contour, gesture, and posture are well worth studying.