Of Time and Place: Pots for Salad Days

Christina Bendo throwing Watershed clay on the wheel. Photo: Claire Brassil.

Ceramics Monthly: For The Salad Days summer residency at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, you made over 500 plates for sale and use at their annual fundraiser. How did you approach making that many of a single object in the four- to six-month timeframe of the residency? Did your thinking evolve throughout the summer?

Christina Bendo: Beginning the task of creating 500 plates, I made a lot of calendars and to-do lists! I gave myself a week to test the hand-dug materials I planned to use and create prototypes to be approved by Watershed’s director and studio manager before moving into full-scale production. I usually began a week with two days of throwing, followed by two days of trimming, and two to three days of slipping and decorating. On Sunday I would prepare for the cycle to begin again by wedging all my clay for the next week, loading bisque kilns, and trying to keep up with glazing. The weather, my body’s limitations, and the high-loss rate of fired plates due to the raw, unprocessed nature of the clay all played havoc with my original calendar and set me back.

About a month and a half into my time at Watershed, I realized I needed to increase the number of plates I was making each week in order to stay on schedule. I saved time in my process by applying both my slips and glaze via dipping rather than brushing, and simplifying some of my more complicated decoration. I also created two large damp boxes to have better control over the drying of my plates in the open-to-the-elements Watershed studio. Lots of audio books kept me distracted when the repetition became tedious; morning runs, yoga, and occasional outings with friends helped keep me balanced under my intense workload.

Plate heaped with fresh local produce prepared by Watershed’s chefs.

Filling up plates at the salad buffet.

CM: How did the setting impact your choices when making the work?

CB: When I arrived at Watershed in May, spring was exploding all around with a torrent of wildflowers and verdant foliage. I was particularly struck by the many species of ferns in the area, which I watched unfurl and develop during my morning runs before heading into the studio or while hiking at one of many nearby preserves. I wanted the local community to relate the imagery on my plates to the landscape they experienced daily, so I used both ferns and quaking aspens as the main motifs on my plates. I also made a small run of plates with imagery of Solomon’s seal, lupine, and other plants that I observed during my summer at Watershed.

CM: How much did you consider the Salad Days event itself and the meal that would be eaten when designing and creating the plates?

CB: When designing plates for the Salad Days event, I had several practical considerations as well as aesthetic choices to make. The plates needed to stack well and be sizeable enough to fill up with many types of salads prepared by Watershed’s chefs. I wanted to create a simple shape that wouldn’t distract from the food and would be easy to replicate on the wheel, so I settled on a rimless coupe plate. When decorating the plates, it was important to me to strike a balance between creating an interesting composition and allowing the food to take center stage. I achieved this by using a warm, neutral palette to make the bright greens of salad pop, the drawing revealed as the food is eaten. In addition, the decoration can provide a frame for plating foods; the curving fern fronds may frame a portion of food, while the negative space next to it serves as canvas for a sauce or a side dish.

Patrons with their chosen plates. All photos this page: Kelsey Grossmann.

CM: What are the parallels you find in making pots in the studio and food in the kitchen?

CB: For me, in both the studio and the kitchen, my creative process begins with a preconceived idea, and evolves with improvisation. I have a small notebook with recipe ideas written down, as well as my studio sketchbook, which I use to work out ideas for new pots. I find satisfaction in the way that a basic set of techniques and materials (or ingredients) can be combined in different ways to create results with a different character. Just as the surface of one slip might change dramatically when layered beneath another or fired in a different part of the kiln, in my blackened tempeh fajitas, cilantro, and lime impart a Mexican flavor profile, while in a coconut red curry, they taste quite different. The placement of a handle here versus there, the addition or omission of a certain spice: these are the variants that keep me engaged in the studio and in front of the stove.

Kitchen Pots: Wild Clay, Local Food

My interest in raw clays began on a trip I took to hunt for fossilized megalodon teeth while living in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This area contains not only fossils, but also a clay deposit formed during the Miocene epoch. I was bewitched by the qualities of this local material, as well as its potential to embody memories of a place. Since then, I have collected clay samples from locations that have held special significance to me, serving as physical reminders of the places I have made my home.

1 Collecting Miocene marine clay in the cliffs near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo: David Wold.

2 Low tide reveals a dark gray clay deposit in Zeb’s Cove in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

3 Virginia Miocene marine clay.

4 Zeb’s Cove Maine clay.

Salad Days is an event that celebrates a community and place, so it seemed fitting to incorporate the clays that represented these things for me. The clays I used in the Salad Days plates were the Miocene Virginia clay, an iron-rich North Carolina clay, and a gray, sandy clay from coastal Maine. I had used the Virginia and North Carolina clays as slips at high temperatures in atmospheric kilns, but knew I needed to translate them into slips for cone 04–01, the ideal range for the local Watershed earthenware. In order to create more contrast between the base slip color and botanical decoration, I decided to treat the local clays like colorants for the base slip. I processed the raw clays by drying them and breaking them down into small pieces that could be weighed out as a dry material. I experimented with four white slip base recipes to test, removing any opacifiers, and replacing part of the main clay used with my raw clays in varying percentages. After the first round of tests came through for color and fit, I made a second run of tiles to test what the raw clays looked like as decorating slips over top of the base slips. In the end, I settled on three base slips tinted with local clays, and four pure local clay slips to use on top for contrasting brushwork.

5 Test tiles of raw clay slips.

6 Painting a quaking aspen motif with Zeb’s Cove clay slip.

7 Accentuating a design with sgraffito lines.

8 Finished decorated plates prior to firing.

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