“It Started Out of a Guilty Pleasure”

All of this started out of a guilty pleasure. I’m a sucker for pitchers. I love their aesthetic, mechanical, and conceptual parameters. Their unregulated sense of size and diverse functions as presentation objects allow them to be grand and lavish or grounded and direct. They have necessary defining parts, like pie crust, but the filling of a pitcher’s details can sweeten the foundation in many ways. A pitcher is a transient vessel that, given enough nudging, can be a vase with a handle or a jar with a spout. While teapots, gravy boats, ewers, and cruets share similar functions, the size and openness of pitchers make them unique and prominent landmarks, whose size and openness functionally signify sharing large quantities of liquid.

That’s the pleasure part. My guilty confession is that, for all my dreamy-eyed adoration, I feel like I have never made great pitchers. I have made some great sketches that have helped crystallize ideas and techniques, but they were largely too timid and awkward. I had not reached a place where the form and function furthered aesthetic and conceptual development. In order to explore more dynamic forms and do so more quickly, I pushed out of my comfort zone into mold making. This saves material and time and increases opportunities for expanded aesthetic and conceptual decision making. Working in this way invigorates my abilities to make critical decisions about where my work and ideas can go.

1 The four mold sections used to create a pitcher.

2 The mold sections fit together in a dry run.

Mold Making

I begin with a positive form thrown on the wheel and altered by adding oblong blocks of cut clay to the entire surface. When it came to making a mold of the model, I leaned heavily on my studio mates at the Red Lodge Clay Center for foundational mold-maker knowledge like plaster-to-water ratios and measurement strategies. Because this is a press mold and because I cut and carve each plane after the pitcher comes out of the mold, I am not concerned with minor blemishes in the positive or small bubbles in the plaster. I am also not overly worried about uniformity of the plaster mold’s thickness because I’m not casting the mold with slip. Simultaneously, I’m not as precisely concerned about uneven drying with press molding as I would be with slip casting. I made a four-part plaster mold (1, 2) by casting the bottom of the pitcher body in one part and blocked out the top portion into three mold sections.

3 Using rough-sized paper templates for cutting slabs to fit into the mold helps cut down on wasted clay.

4 The cut slabs ready to fit into the mold sections.

5 Pound the clay into the crevices with a sandbag to evenly distribute it.

6 Press the edges of the slab to create thin joints.

Casting and Altering

In order to make one pitcher, I begin with 15 pounds of clay. This provides enough clay for the body, handle, and spout. I roll out a slab about ½ inch thick and use rough templates to cut shapes of clay that directly fit the different mold parts (3, 4). I am concerned with plaster getting into my reclaim. Any clay cut off the mold is quarantined in its own bucket of reclaim. I can use this to make more positives for other molds, maquettes, or whatever non-pot forming my studio requires.

Once I lay the slab into the mold, I tamp it in using a homemade sandbag (5), which is a square piece of plastic sheeting with sand poured in the middle wrapped within a cloth and tied together at the top. This helps achieve even compression of the walls and ensures I get clay into all the deep facets. Once I have properly tamped the clay, I need to thin out the edges of the pressed parts where they will join each other. If the clay here is too thick, it will overly expand the top portion of the pitcher, making for an improper fit to the bottom section. Using my fingers, I work out this clay to be about 116 inch thick (6).

When all of the slabs have been pressed into their part of the mold, I prepare the sections for joining. First I score the seams with a fork dredged through goopy throwing water. I begin joining the upper portion of the pitcher upside down. This allows me to adjust the slabs and reinforce the seams when all three have been connected. After I made a few of these pitchers, I carved out notches in the mold to hold a ratchet strap in place. This allows me to get solid compression on the slabs and hold everything together (7). Next, I roll earthworm-sized coils of clay and weld them into the creases where slabs meet (8).

7 Securing the top portion of the mold with ratchet straps maximizes compression.

8 After fitting the top three mold sections together, press coils into each seam.

9 Once the top portion is assembled, lay a slab into the bottom section.

10 Dart the bottom section slab and fold over the tails to allow for a proper fit without excessive overlapped clay.

11 Liberally score and slip the top and bottom sections, then join them.

12 Assemble the mold parts upside down.

To make the bottom section, I lay a disc-shaped slab over the mold (9). I cut two darts at opposite sides of the slab and fold these separate layers of clay over each other (10). After smoothing out seams, tamping this slab in, and scoring and applying slip to the edges (11), I lift the bottom section of the mold and place it, upside down, on top of the three-sectioned piece (12). The keys in my mold will not snap seamlessly into place because of the thickness of clay at the edges, but I am still careful to line up the connections as close as possible.

With the mold assembled and upside down, I begin tamping the mold with a rubber mallet. Make sure to tap in the middle of the mold. Just like setting a kiln shelf, tapping too hard at the edges or corners could compress the joint unevenly. After tamping, I flip the mold over and add a coil inside the seam at the pitcher’s waist.

If I use clay that has a moisture temperament similar to typical throwing clay, I can press the body of the pitcher in the late evening, and by the following morning it is ready to pop out of the mold. When I press the pitcher body, I immediately press the handle (13). This can also be left in the mold until the morning. By the next day, the pitcher is pliable leather hard and has released from the plaster enough to be easily lifted out of the mold (14).

13 Pack clay into the handle mold and join the two halves.

14 After 8–12 hours, you should be able to pop the mold sections off of the pitcher body.

15 Once the body is leather hard, cut each plane of the pitcher.

16 Cut the rim to allow you to play with the attitude and balance of the piece.

While it’s easy to couch this method of making as monotonous and restraining, I have begun to value the decrease of preciousness inherent to using molds to stimulate more dynamic decision-making. At this point, I can alter the form in many ways that take advantage of exploring potential aesthetic choices rather than feeling like I’m executing a set of instructions. I can push the wall to manipulate the overall silhouette and proportions of the form, I can add clay to various columns to beef them up, and I can remove clay to sharpen edges or trim down a portion (15). Because I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time sculpting these from thrown forms, I can have fun cutting different mouth shapes (16) and play with new handles and spouts a bit more freely (17–19). While this may increase the number of pots that make for better sketches than table company, I’m always learning the value of knowledge harvested from unfired pots.

17 Either by sketching directly on clay or with paper templates, cut out a spout, then crease it by pushing it against the edge of a 2×4 board.

18 Shape the spout to fit the pitcher.

19 The nearly finished pitcher with the handle attached.

Columnar Pitcher, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, stoneware with grog, wood fired to cone 11, 2017. Photo: Joyce St. Clair Voltz.

Firing

While I don’t outright make any specifically sized pot to fit within parameters of loaded shelves in a wood kiln, I have found these pitchers to be great pieces to fill the tops of arches. Because I use ample amounts of clay to cast the walls and I beef them up with coils at the joints, I have not had issues with them slumping if fired on their sides, even at the front of a soft cone-12 anagama firing.

All photos: Joyce St. Clair Voltz.

the author Lars Voltz is an artist in residence at the Iowa Ceramics Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For more information about him and his work, visit www.larsvoltz.com.

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