In my work, I try to balance clean, simple lines while allowing my hand as an artist and maker to show through. When coming up with new work, I like to create designs that are stripped down to their basic elements. I like to see how much I can simplify a design while keeping it warm and engaging, as well as obviously what it’s meant to be whether that’s a mug, vase, planter, or a little figure. I find myself gravitating toward work that honors the clay itself and allows you to see how it was made. When I throw on the wheel, I leave a swirl in the bottom, or when I handbuild, I will leave some of the rough texture. I think of these as clues to show that hands have shaped each piece and give a sense of how it was made. There is something captivating about handmade work that’s hard to put into words. I want to honor that.
When I make mugs, I work in batches that are divisible by 4, typically 16 or 20 at a time. I’ll make vases in batches divisible by 3. I think this is a good metaphor for working as a functional potter. We all have our own little arbitrary rules that guide how we make our work. Maybe we heard them somewhere, maybe we made them up to match our own studio rhythm or keep ourselves on task. I don’t believe there’s one right way to do it. If, in the end, you have a cup that is food safe that you can drink out of, you’ve succeeded in making a cup. This is simply how I currently make my mugs—in five years that might change, and I want to give myself room for that.
Beginning a Mug
When I am coming up with a new design, I can spend a lot of time simply daydreaming about it. This phase can last a day or years. When I’m ready to start designing, I’ll go to Google images first. As an example, I might search pictures and drawings of magnolias in bloom. I like to print out some of the images to have a hard copy. While I don’t make a lot of sketches before I work, the sketches I do make are typically silhouettes and rough ideas for designs (A). I prefer to make first-draft pieces when working on a new design. From there, I can tweak and fine tune it with further iterations to get the desired results.
I throw mugs on the wheel using between 1 to 1¼ pounds of Georgie’s Trail Mix Toast clay for each mug (B). I used a white porcelain/stoneware mix for eight years before switching to dark clay. After a lot of testing, I chose this clay body because I loved the rich brown color when fired in the electric kiln. It has some grog that helps with making bigger pieces but not so much that it’s a pain to throw with. After working for so many years with a more fine-grained clay, I was eager to get my hands into a rich stoneware that I could push a little more.
The next day, I pull the handles for that batch of mugs from a large lump of clay. I start by pulling the blank form. This is approximately how thick I want the handle to be at the top and bottom. Then I go in and pull the middle of the handle to the thinness I am looking for (C). After cutting it off of the hump, I place it on my ware board to dry.
Then, I trim my mugs on the wheel with a Giffin Grip and my Do All tool from Mudtools (D). When the handles are dry enough that I don’t leave a fingerprint on the surface, but they are still pliable enough to bend, they’re ready to be attached to the cups (E). I cut the extra material off, press the ends into the side of my table to fatten up the top and bottom, and then pinch out a little skirt around the parts that will be attached. After scoring the mug and handle with a little water, I push the handle into place. The skirt that was pinched out earlier provides enough clay to smooth the handle onto the cup. I’m looking to create a clean, seamless transition between cup and handle (F).
Adding Surface Designs
The decorating phase for any pieces that will have drawings on them begins after the bisque firing. Using a 2B pencil, I sketch out my design on the mug (G). The pencil lines act as a guide when adding underglaze colors. I work with AMACO Velvet Underglazes. I use paintbrushes that have a beveled edge on the end of the handle for large areas. These brushes give me the ability to scoop up more underglaze and use the beveled edge to spread it where I would like it (H). For some of the designs, I mix the colors on the pot to create a swirled effect. To do that, I paint the first color in a thick layer, then add the second color while the first color is still wet. Before it dries, I use the brush to swirl the two colors together (I).
After the underglaze is dry, I use the underglaze pen from Axner/Laguna with an extra-fine tip to apply black lines around the forms. Typically the underglaze will be a bit too thick when poured into the bottle on the underglaze pen, so I add a few drops of water at a time until it flows smoothly (J). I can carefully wipe away little mistakes if needed, but try to avoid that. I find those little bumps and wobbles to be evidence of the artist’s hand, and so I leave them.
After decorating the mugs, I go over my designs with Aftosa wax resist. I put the wax around the whole design, so that the underglaze is left raw and there is a halo effect around the design where the dark clay will show through (K). I apply it in a pretty thick layer and let it dry for at least 12 hours (preferably more). When the mugs are ready, I dip them into glazes that I mix myself (L). I use a damp sponge to clean up any stray glaze on the waxed areas (M). One of the main glazes I’m using is a white matte glaze from Jen Allen that I saw in a past issue of Ceramics Monthly. After testing it, I realized that on my clay body, when fired to cone 6 with a slow-cool program, this glaze turns out glossy and drippy, mostly off white with toasty brown coming through. This is why I call it my “Toast” glaze. It looks very different on Jen’s work! When I add 5% 6600 Mason stain to it, the glaze turns into a beautiful satin-matte black. Finally, after the cone-6 firing, I wet sand all of the unglazed areas. A mug is born!
Design and Inspiration
I first drew my magnolia motif on a special project I made for my dad two years ago. My dad was an eccentric person. Sometimes he was a lot of fun, other times he was scary. He often seemed to be living on a completely different planet from the rest of us. The Victorian house we lived in was a sort of obsession of his. Taking care of it was practically a full-time job for my mom, and when she divorced him after I left for college, it fell apart around him. Even so, he always saw it as his palace.
In 2018, my dad passed away. After his death, his hold on my mind loosened, and I found it was easier to look back at my childhood and remember the good times and things that brought me joy—like the big magnolia tree in front of our house. I designed vases and cups that incorporated decals of our house along with drawings of magnolia blossoms. I used my dad’s ashes as a wash under the glaze on all parts of the vases and on the bottoms of the cups, where it looks like a crater glaze.
Much of my inspiration comes from what brings me joy. I love drawing magnolias because they remind me of that joy I would feel every spring when our tree would burst into pink. Even if things felt impossible to get through at home, it was still magical when the magnolia tree bloomed. I like to draw houseplants because with them, my house feels more alive. And I love birds. My mom and grandma passed that love on to me. I have many fond memories watching the birds at the feeder with them or looking up new arrivals in the field guide. When I was in college, I became more interested in birds because this interest gave me a way to connect with these important women in my life. Over time, I’ve grown to love our feathered friends that are always around us, and incorporate them into my drawings on pots as well as sculptural forms.
I like to make work that brings me and my audience some sort of joy. I like my work to be approachable, comfortable, soothing, and a bit nostalgic. I also want it to be ever evolving. For people who have experienced my work, whether through using a piece in their home or watching one of my videos online, I hope it brings them a sense that, in some way, we are going to be okay.
the author Maya Rumsey is from Toledo, Ohio, and graduated with a BFA from Bowling Green State University in 2008. She now lives with her husband and two daughters in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she works in her basement studio. To learn more, visit melissa-maya-pottery.myshopify.com or follow her on Instagram @melissamayapottery.