Studio Visit: James Watkins, Lubbock, Texas

Just the Facts

Clay
stoneware

Primary forming method
wheel throwing and handbuilding

Primary firing temperature
cone 04 and cone 6

Favorite surface treatments
fuming with stannous chloride and ferric chloride, masking with automotive-detailing tape, sandblasting, etching with a glass-etching solution, and carving

Favorite tools
potter’s wheel

Playlist
My favorite album to listen to is A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, and I also listen to reggae music. In addition, I watch CNN and MSNBC.

Wishlist
a glaze spray booth

Studio

My studio is located behind my home in Lubbock, Texas. The rectangular building consists of three spaces divided by walls and overhead doors. The studio has a workroom, a combined kiln room/glaze room, and a gallery. The workroom and glaze/kiln room each have an overhead door to the outside as well as a shared overhead door connecting the two spaces. The size of the total space is 2500 square feet. The layout allows me to make, fire, glaze, and display the work in a sequential, linear order. I like that in my studio, the kiln/glaze room and gallery are physically separate spaces, which makes it easier to keep them clean and organized. My current studio has been influenced by every studio that I studied in as a student and every studio that I taught in as a professor.

I have three pottery wheels in the workroom area of my studio, allowing me to work on three pieces at the same time. While one piece is drying to leather hard, I work on a new piece. I work this way because the large double-walled caldrons and large bottle forms are made using the coil method, which requires that the piece dries enough that the walls can support extra weight before adding another coil to make the vessels taller. Building several forms simultaneously allows me to have pieces in multiple stages of drying and always have a piece ready to work on.

My workroom also has six worktables, three large movable ware racks, an air compressor, a shop vac, a glaze ball mill, a slab roller, a sand blaster used to create contrasting textures on fired work, and a lift table that allows me to lift and maneuver heavy pieces into the kiln. In one corner of the room, I have a photography station that consists of a large photo tent with lights and umbrellas to diffuse and direct the light. I store my wet clay in large, lidded plastic storage containers that stack on top of each other. To keep things clean and minimize dust, I vacuum the work area and wet mop the floor after each work session.

I move large, heavy, leather-hard pieces directly from the potter’s wheel to the cool kiln using a lift table and allow the pieces to dry slowly inside the kiln until they are ready to be fired. I do this because the larger pieces are stronger when they are leather hard and less likely to break or crack when lifting and loading them into the kiln.

The glaze/kiln room has three electric kilns of different sizes, one large downdraft gas kiln, one large raku gas kiln, and a clay mixer. I intend to install a spray booth in this room in the future, too.

Designing the studio with three separate spaces, two of which are connected by overhead doors, increased efficiency and lowered the heating and cooling costs. The doors allow me to close off the areas that are not in use. While each space has its own heating and cooling, when the weather is cooperative, I open the overhead doors to the outside as well as the door between the work room and kiln room to allow the breeze to flow through the studio. In the winter, when firing the kilns, I open the interior overhead door to the kiln room, which allows me to use the kiln heat instead of using the heater to warm up the room where I make and dry the work. The last room, the gallery, is separated from the kiln/glaze room by a wall and has its own HVAC system. This space becomes a clean room to contemplate the finished work and arrive at innovative ideas from studying previously made pieces.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I received my bachelor of fine arts degree from the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, and my master of fine arts degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

My goal is to do something in the studio every day. However, sometimes that means not producing work, but going into the studio to contemplate the work.

When I contemplate the work, I situate myself in front of finished pieces that I am particularly pleased with and create quick sketches of them. In each drawing, I alter the contour of the forms and change the movement and rhythm of the appendages on the rim of the pieces; After seeing what these alterations will do, then I proceed to make new vessels based on my drawings and thoughtful contemplation.

My energy level is high in the early mornings and at night. I take a nap in the afternoon. On average, I work in the studio 30 hours in a 7-day period.

I retired in 2018 after teaching in the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University for 35 years, where I taught architectural ceramics and architectural delineation. Now I work full time in my studio. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I gave workshops and lectures. I will resume these activities when it is safer.

Marketing

I sell my work through my studio/gallery: JCW Clayworks. I also sell my work through Charles Adams Gallery in Lubbock, Texas. At times, collectors and museums purchase my work. I do not personally sell my work online, though it can be purchased through Charles Adams Gallery’s website.

I market my work through my publications: A Meditation of Fire, the Art of James C. Watkins, by Kippra D. Hopper; Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques, co-authored with Paul Andrew Wandless; and Reflections Made of Memories, which is self published.

I thankfully have not run into any disadvantages marketing and selling my work this way. The advantage is that my work is exposed to a large audience through the images printed in my publications.

I grow my market by sending promotional materials to museums, art centers, galleries, universities, and colleges, and I sell my books online.

My greatest online success has been my website, which has exposed my work to an international audience. I use social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube) to show finished pieces of my work. Through my website, I receive the most responses from collectors and exhibitions venues who are interested in visiting my studio/gallery and collecting or showing my work. I have noticed that people gravitate more toward my large double-walled forms and my large, fumed iridescent bottles.

Mind

Currently, I am reading the book UnDo It by Dean Ornish, MD, and Anne Ornish. My go-to resources for inspiration are the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and To Sir, with Love. I recharge creatively outside the studio by traveling, camping, and hiking with my wife and our dog. On the weekends, to relax, my wife and I watch various programs on Netflix.

Techniques

I am exploring using metal and aluminum-foil saggars to trap carbon in terra-sigillata-covered pots to achieve deep black surfaces and flashes of graduating tones. I am also experimenting with using stannous chloride to fume gold luster, and platinum luster to create radiant surfaces that are archival. The colors will not fade over time.

The black caldrons are bisque fired to cone 04, then covered with a terra-sigillata slip that is formulated to use on bisque ware. The caldrons are buffed with a cloth until they shine, and saggar fired in a metal container. The pieces are wrapped in paper then fired to cone 012 with a tight-fitting lid to contain the smoke, which creates a gunmetal black surface. There is an architectural element to the double-walled caldrons and baskets because of the hidden interior space between the walls, which gives the vessels a feeling of mystery and voluptuousness. The handbuilt appendages on the rims of the double-walled vessels are meant to create a sense of movement, musicality, and visual interest. The black double-walled caldrons are influenced by memories of my mother and grandmother making soap and washing clothes in black cast-iron pots. My job as a young boy growing up in a farming family in rural Athens, Alabama, was to keep the fire burning hot around the cast-iron vessels.

My glazed bottle forms are fired to cone 04. After the glaze firing, I wrap the vessels in a web of baling wire, then I spray the pieces with either gold or platinum luster—sometimes both. Gold and platinum lusters are expensive, so to extend them, I mix 3 parts luster to 1 part lacquer thinner. After the pieces are sprayed with the luster, I fire them to cone 019 in a gas kiln. As the kiln cools down, I open the door at 850°F (454°C) for just long enough to put 2 tablespoons of stannous chloride on a hot brick inside the kiln to fume the surface of the pots. This creates radiant colors and mark making underneath the baling wire. After the firing, I often mask designs on the pots with automobile masking tape, then sandblast the surface, or chemically etch the surface with a glass etching solution to create contrast and visual depth.

The bottles I make that are fired in aluminum-foil saggars are bisque fired to cone 04. After the pots are bisque fired, I cover the pieces with terra sigillata and buff them with a soft cloth until they have a sheen. I then cover the pots with ferric chlorine. Next, I wrap the pots in a web of copper wire. Lastly, I spray an adhesive onto the pots to allow a sprinkling of salt, copper carbonate, copper sulfate, sawdust, and other dry organic materials to adhere to the surface of the pots. My motto is, “everything does something.” I then wrap the pots in a heavy aluminum-foil saggar and fire them to cone 012 in a gas kiln. The bottle forms are inspired by the anthropomorphic shapes of cotton-gin cyclone dust collectors.

Pieces in my tile series are made using porcelain substrates, which I buy premade. The drawings on the tiles are inspired by looking at my pots through the spy hole of the fiery kiln. I am incorporating new technology by using a laser cutter to inscribe drawings onto the surface of the post-fired porcelain tiles. I scan the drawings of my pots and send the files to the laser cutter. The laser cutter cuts the images into the porcelain tiles. Then, the porcelain substrates are sprayed with ferric chloride and fired to cone 04. After the firing, I spray them with gold and platinum luster and fire them to cone 019. They are fumed with stannous chloride when the gas kiln cools down to 850°F (454°C) to create iridescent red, blue, purple, and orange colors. These pieces are meant to look as if they are on fire.

Note: I wear an industrial-grade full-face-mask respirator and gloves when fuming with stannous chloride or working with ferric chloride, copper sulfate, gold luster, and platinum luster. I only fume in a well-ventilated area. Breathing the fumes can cause chemical pneumonia. I never fume in an electric kiln because stannous chloride and ferric chloride are forms of salt and will corrode the kiln elements.

Most Important Lesson

As a ceramic artist, the most important lesson that I have learned is that the fire has the potential to do things that are unexpected. The results can be beyond your own sensibilities. I have learned to be open to discovery and serendipity.

www.jcwclayworks.com
https://charlesadamsgallery.com
Facebook: @james.watkins.9256
Instagram: @jamescwatkinsini4

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