Second Career: From the FDA to Clay

1 Collection of soda-fired functional work, to 18 in. (46 cm) in height, custom blended clay, shino liner glaze, no glazes on exterior, soda fired to cone 11–12 in a propane gas kiln, 2014.

 

Two years before I retired from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I started thinking about what I was going to do with my time and energy when I no longer had a full-time job. I knew that I wanted to get involved in some artistic activity and to be connected with the natural world. I have a BA in Art from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and an MA in Environmental Biology from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, but aside from some volunteer work with environmental organizations, and dabbling in watercolor painting and black-and-white photography, I had put most of my environmental and artistic interests aside while I pursued my career in public health.

One evening, a friend invited me to help glaze some bisqueware at a local pottery school. While glazing the work was fun, I was really intrigued by the people throwing forms on the wheel. Before the night was over, I had enrolled in an evening class. My initial goal was simply to become good enough to make myself a set of serviceable, handmade dishes; however, I quickly found that working with clay provided me with a good creative outlet. The real hook came when I was introduced to wood firing. I loved the tactile earthiness of the whole process. It felt primeval; working with mud, wood, and fire. I felt connected to the natural world. And I loved how the pots from the kiln told the story of the firing; the ash-and-flash surfaces recording the flame’s path, the pots’ location in the kiln, and the varying atmospheric conditions. The pots were solid, tangible records of the firing process. Working with clay and wood firing was the total opposite of my job of almost 30 years; a job where both the process and product were almost entirely intellectual. When I finally retired, I jumped into clay head first, and didn’t look back. I never really decided to make clay a second career. It simply became what I wanted to do with my life.

2 The Merry Kiln, a hard-brick, sprung-arch, down-draft propane kiln with four Venturi burners, approximately 36 cubic feet, built in 2010.

3 Pair of teabowls, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12, 2013.

 

Transferrable Skills

I am naturally curious about what goes on around me, and I enjoy challenges. Being an investigator for the FDA was a good fit for that curiosity. My job required that I review and determine the reliability of clinical data submitted to the agency in support of new drug marketing applications. The job was complex and demanded dealing with specialized technical knowledge as well as creative problem-solving. I have found those same demands in developing glaze and clay body formulations, and I admit I have thoroughly enjoyed conducting extensive tests to figure out what surfaces and color palette I like best.

In addition to the scientific research and problem-solving skills mentioned above, I think two other important skills I developed during my career in the FDA are patience and persistence. The FDA is part of one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. One has to learn to persevere when faced with problems and also to be flexible and find alternative ways to obtain answers. I have certainly used those skills in developing my clays and testing different firing regimens. As far as my understanding of the materials in the ceramic studio, I have learned most of what I know about them in the last couple of years. There was very little overlap between the human-based science knowledge I needed for the FDA and that which I need for ceramics. However, when, mid-career, I decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in environmental biology, the courses required for that degree intensified both my love of science in general, and my love of the natural world.

4 Globe, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired on seashells to cone 11–12, 2014.

5 Plate, 9 in. (23 cm) in diameter, custom clay, no slip or glaze, shino liner glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12, 2014.

 

Exploring Soda Firing

In 2010, I was exclusively wood firing. I found that the variation in color and surface texture of wood firing really appealed to me. I responded to the variable, ash-covered natural surfaces that reflected the firing process. That summer I had the opportunity to visit the studio of Gail Nichols, an Australian soda firer. I was not familiar with her work and had little knowledge of soda firing in general. When I examined Gail’s work, I was surprised to see that her pots told a story, similar to that which I observed in wood firing, about what was happening in the kiln. One could tell the direction of the flame, how close each pot was to the source of heat and to other pots, the amount of soda that was added, and the atmosphere in which each pot was fired. But the soda-fired pots had (and I’ve never found quite the right word to accurately describe the difference) a softer look and feel. The look was not as violent as what I was getting from the wood firing. And she had one pot—a large open vase—where, on the inside, the flame had left swirling orange and gray flashing with delicate pitting. It looked like a cosmic galaxy! I was immediately and totally smitten. I went home and five months later I was trying to learn how to soda fire in my own kiln.

Studio Process

Most of my work is thrown on an electric wheel, although I do like to handbuild some forms. The pots are bisque fired, and the functional pieces are lined with a simple shino glaze. I fire to cone 11–12 in a hard-brick, sprung-arch, downdraft propane gas kiln, designed and built by Donovan Palmquist and Judah Birkeland of Master Kiln Builders. I named it The Merry Kiln, a homophonic remembrance of my mother, Mary Currier, who, when she died, left me enough money to build it. The kiln has four Venturi-type burners with a simple lever that controls the amount of gas. I adjust the atmosphere with the damper, and fire by sound, a pyrometer, and cones.

I fire the kiln and introduce soda similar to the method discovered by Gail Nichols and described in her book, Soda, Clay and Fire. A mixture of baking soda, soda ash, and whiting is combined with water, and introduced directly in the path of the flame where it is volatilized and carried through the kiln. Recently, I have been experimenting with reduction cooling, and with and without the introduction of water vapor during the soak and cooling stages, to see how that process affects the final surface.

6 Four yunomis and two whiskey cups, to 4 in. (10 cm) in height, custom clay, no slip or glaze, shino liner glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12, 2013–14.

 

I mix my own clays. I have spent several years exploring how different combinations of clays, fluxes, and fillers respond to heat and soda. This has involved a lot of trial-and-error testing. A glaze calculation software program helps me relate my test results to the variations in materials I use in each clay body recipe. Most of my current clay body recipes contain approximately 50% kaolins, 10% fireclays, 25% fluxes in the form of nepheline syenite and Cornwall stone, and 15% molochite or grog as a body filler. I add coarse silica sand to taste for surface texture. This combination of materials produces a clay that is very short—non-plastic—and I am continually testing recipes with additional ingredients such as ball clays and additives to make the clay more workable. While a short clay is somewhat limiting, I have discovered a few techniques that allow me to develop forms that will best present the unique colors and surface textures of this type of soda firing.

7 Mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, custom clay, no slip or glaze, shino liner glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12, 2014.

8 Bottle vase, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12, 2014.

 

Transitions

I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me because I transitioned so easily and quickly from my career in public health to a life in clay. But working with clay has turned out to be a wonderful mingling of art and science, allowing me to pursue my creative interests while using some of the skills I developed in my career at the FDA. Clay continues to enchant me and provide me with challenges. On the good days, I can meet the challenges and come out ahead.

the author Carolanne Currier runs Heart of Fire Pottery in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. See more of her work at Crimson Laurel Gallery www.crimsonlaurelgallery.com.


Subscriber Extras: Extra Images

 

Vessel, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Lidded jar, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Mug, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Teabowl, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Teabowl, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Vessel, ceramic, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Bowl, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

Vessel, custom clay, no slip or glaze, soda fired to cone 11–12.

 

 

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