Validating Function

 

The work that I made as a student frequently leveraged the excitement of complexity. I wanted to be a potter and made semi-functional pots from altered wheel-thrown pieces assembled into compound forms, referencing things like teapots, mugs, and pitchers. Complex curves and dramatic proportions were everywhere: small, flared feet supported bulbous, curved bodies that resolved in narrow necks surrounded by layers of delicate handles. As I worked through ideas, I wanted the next pot to be more extreme than the one that preceded it. I was excited by the seemingly endless possibilities that clay had to offer, but paid little attention to the pot’s viability as a functioning tool.
The work that I made as a student frequently leveraged the excitement of complexity. I wanted to be a potter and made semi-functional pots from altered wheel-thrown pieces assembled into compound forms, referencing things like teapots, mugs, and pitchers. Complex curves and dramatic proportions were everywhere: small, flared feet supported bulbous, curved bodies that resolved in narrow necks surrounded by layers of delicate handles. As I worked through ideas, I wanted the next pot to be more extreme than the one that preceded it. I was excited by the seemingly endless possibilities that clay had to offer, but paid little attention to the pot’s viability as a functioning tool.

The Nuts and Bolts
My approach involves using altering techniques as a means to achieve movement within otherwise static forms by using the seams and marks made by the building process to create integrated decorative elements. I combine pattern with multiple thin layers of glaze to achieve subtle shifts in tonality and create an overall sense of movement through the surface of the piece. I embellish the surface of my work with neutral tones and decoration with the goal of emphasizing the object’s architecture and hopefully facilitating an unobtrusive relationship with the space around it.

Jar, 9½ in. (24 cm) in height, mid-range red stoneware, thrown and darted, tape-resist pattern with vitreous slip, glaze fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln.

The Making Process
My making process starts on the wheel. I like toothy clay that resists warping and use a mid-range red stoneware that fires to a medium dark red/brown. My clay is a mix of Cedar Heights Redart, fireclay (20-mesh), ball clay, and medium grog. I like to use light colored slips and glazes and find that a dark clay body adds more depth to the finished pot, not unlike the technique of under painting. When making a form to alter, open the clay to the bat to throw a bottomless form (1). If I plan to dart the form, I throw the bottom much wider in relation to the top so that after the alterations are done the piece has the intended final proportions (2 and 3). It is difficult to accurately predict what a form will look like when it is darted and it’s important to remember some loss of volume does occur. After the form is leather hard it is refined; sometimes this includes trimming the entire exterior of a piece in order to bring the grain of the clay to the surface (4).

1 After centering, open the clay down to the bat.

2 This form will have three, 1-inch wide strips removed, so it is thrown proportionally wider than I would like it to be when finished.

3 Refine the angles to clearly convey an intentional design.

I cut the pot off the bat with a palette knife and transfer it to a banding wheel, which is marked out in thirds. Recently, rather than darting, I have been simply cutting out 1-inch wide strips of clay from the foot through to the rim, reducing the width of the piece evenly from top to bottom. I mark out these cuts with a strip of heavy paper or a ruler (5) and make my cuts with an X-Acto knife parallel to each other and perpendicular to the surface of the pot (6). Next I slip and score the seams, allowing excess slip to ooze out as I reattach everything. I clean up the slip by passing a rib over the seam at an angle so as to smooth the slip into one section of the wall of the pot while leaving the seam visible. This way I end up with a straight seam and a crisp edge. I have found that If I let the slip dry to near leather hard before cleaning it up (7), I greatly reduce the risk of cracks developing as the pot dries and the process is cleaner.

4 When leather hard, lightly trim the pot to pull out the grain of the coarse fireclay and grog.

5 On a banding wheel, mark the alterations using a strip of paper.

6 On a banding wheel, carefully remove the excess sections.

7 After scoring, slipping, and reattaching, allow the slip to become almost leather hard before cleaning it up with a steel rib.

8 Score and slip the bottom edge of the pot, then firmly press it onto a leather-hard slab. Trim the slab, leaving ¼ inch of extra clay all around.

To make the floor of the piece, I slip and score the bottom edge and firmly press it down onto a leather-hard slab of clay (8), cutting off most of the excess, leaving about ¼-inch of clay all the way around the base. I then flip the pot upside down and use a stiff metal rib in a shearing motion to remove the remainder of the overhanging slab and help tie the floor into the wall of the pot (9). Finally I use my finger to compress the bottom outer edge and create another crisp edge that delineates the foot of the pot (10), referencing the seams that run up the side. After adding my stamp to the pot, I allow it to air dry (11).

9 Use a stiff steel rib to remove any excess clay from the bottom. This ensures a clean line and helps tie the slab into the wall of the pot.

10 Compress and round off the bottom edge of the pot.

11 Leave the completed pot out to dry before bisque firing.

 

Glazing
I decorate bisque ware with masking tape before dipping it into a very thin vitreous slip. When dry, the tape is removed and the piece is dipped into a lightly opacified clear glaze, which results in a variegated gray surface. If the vitreous slip is exposed, it will result in a brown to bright yellow color depending on thickness. Tape is left on portions of the pot that are unglazed and allowed to burn off in the firing resulting in a low-tech decal effect (12). The pots are fired to cone six in an electric kiln.

the author Adam Gruetzmacher lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He graduated in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a BFA, then received several fellowship opportunities from the Northern Clay Center and worked as the building maintenance technician until the spring of 2015. Adam now works as a full-time potter. To learn more, visit www.adamgruetzmacher.com.

12 The clay color can be seen at the foot of the pot, followed by a strip of exposed vitreous slip, and finally the gray portion results when glaze is applied over the slip. The yellow marks at the foot result from masking tape burning off in the firing.

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