When I begin each new piece, I have a few expectations for the final result. It must have structural integrity, balance, and aesthetic virtue. I want to express the awe I feel for the beauty in the world around us. They are my way of renewing an appreciation for humanity, tenderness, curiosity, and joy. I’m not interested in following trends or taking the beaten path. I like the challenge of creating something unique.
Before I begin new work, I thoroughly clean all of the tools, equipment, and surfaces in my studio to prevent contamination of the work from foreign clay bodies or glaze particles. I prefer a quiet, austere studio to help maintain focus on the work itself and prevent distraction. The work in progress is very fragile; one false move can destroy hours of effort.
Throwing the First Layer
I start each layered-rim bowl by throwing several bowls on the wheel using a white porcelain clay body. The simple, elegant bowl is like a blank canvas that holds a world of possibility. The goal is to make the bowls as thin as they can get to enhance the translucency of the porcelain while maintaining the necessary structural integrity for the alterations and firings. Once the bowl has reached the leather-hard stage, I trim a tall foot on each one (1). The foot is a flipped-over mini silhouette of each bowl, similar to a reflection on a pond (2). This creates a floating and ethereal quality. Then I choose the bowl that looks and feels to be the best foundation for a stack. I paddle the bowl (3) and pinch the rim to divide sections and add more interest to the form (4).
Alterations and Added Layers
For each new design, I experiment with interesting lines, curves, and points by cutting scraps of paper until I find a pleasing shape with dimensions that fit a particular bowl (5). I then use the cutout as my template and trace it onto the rim of the first bowl (6). I cut through the traced guide lines with a sharp blade (7), then smooth the edges and the form with a sponge (8). I repeat this process with the next bowl by cutting another template that complements the rim design on the first bowl. It may be either analogous or contrasting. Unlike with the first bowl, where only the top of the pattern is used, I use the template to cut out large sections from a second bowl. I then attach the cutouts from the second bowl onto the first, creating a layered rim (9, 10) and reinforce all attachments with coils (11). Sometimes I cut bowls and try to put pieces together but they don’t aesthetically fit quite right, so I like to have plenty of extra thrown and trimmed bowls on hand to substitute in (12). I make sure to spray the piece with water intermittently to ensure that it does not dry out too quickly and remains workable (13). After attaching each layer, I let the piece rest under plastic overnight. Then, once the moisture level has become homogenized throughout the piece, I return to it and add reinforcing coils as needed (14).
I repeat this process as I build more layers until I’m content with how it looks or when the clay has reached its tipping point and may crack or break when being handled. Before that has a chance to happen, I finish the rim and prop it upside down on a chuck to alter the foot. Since the foot is small, I skip the templates, cut the shapes freehand and add layers to the foot (15). The cutout foot reads as a reflection of the cutout upper rim.
Finishing and Firing
After a final smoothing, the piece gets bisque fired (16), then carefully glazed. I typically either fire to cone 10 in a reduction atmosphere with a celadon glaze for a cool-toned piece, or to cone 6 in an oxidation atmosphere with a clear glaze for a warm, creamy tone. I’ve been working on this series long enough that most of the work makes it through all the firings, but during the early experimentation phase, I had only a 20 percent success rate. Many pieces slumped or cracked through the firings, not to mention those that did not survive the handbuilding process.
The Final Layer
After the glaze firing, I inspect the piece to make sure it hasn’t warped or cracked and check if it meets all of my expectations. If needed, I sand the foot to make sure all points are level while standing. Then I smooth, buff, and polish the foot so that it won’t scratch any surface. Next, I apply a 22-karat gold luster with a very thin brush to the rim of each layer (17, 18). Gold luster compliments the warm-toned pieces and I think white gold looks best over celadon. The piece is then fired a third time. Sometimes I apply a coat of mother-of-pearl luster over the glaze for iridescence, and the piece will go through a fourth firing.
I never know what the piece will look like until it is complete. I let the form reveal itself to me as I work through the process. The structure of the work appears tight, yet the studio work feels like play to me, similar to assembling a puzzle. The ongoing series in this body of work is ever morphing and evolving.
the author Alyssa Black is a studio artist in Portland, Oregon. She leads ceramics workshops at Radius Community Art Studios. For more information, visit www.alyssablack.com. She will be participating in a group exhibition at Eutectic Gallery October through November, 2016.