The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
As a maker who relies heavily on their hands, when I use them to make objects for function, they are at the forefront of my mind. What shape does my hand need to make to hold this object? Can I hold this from multiple angles and still have intended use and function? This is a thought I am sure I share with many other functional potters. Today in my process, I enjoy taking objects out of the round, turning them into more organic shapes that fit into the user’s hands—integrating visual and physical aesthetics.
Most of my visual inspiration comes from rock formations in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania. The boulders in this area are smooth and weathered from the continuously wet climate and seem to grow out of the dense forest floor. They only show the tip of the iceberg, but the curves and undulations are in stark contrast with the surrounding environment. This inspired the making of round, bulbous forms that satiated me for a while, but I grew tired of the monotony in throwing an essentially finished piece right off the wheel. In my search for a cup that fits into the ergonomics of human hands, I’ve come to altering cups on and off the wheel.
Altering and Experimenting
Darting, a technique also used in sewing, entails cutting out a section of the clay wall of a form to reduce volume, for example, to cinch the waist of a pot. Cutting a diamond, oval, or other shape out of a pot’s wall and then rejoining the edges can help create a more dynamic form. The particular dart shape plays a large part in how the pot’s form will be impacted. When I first started altering, I threw all my pots bottomless and added a slab later, to allow for more dynamic movement from darting. After observing the way these cups related to my hand, I found that the ways to hold the cup were actually limited with the flat bottom; it forces your hand to curve to the pot instead of the other way around.
This discovery prompted me to experiment with the more bulbous forms mentioned earlier. I started throwing them thicker and pushed the cups further with my hands before and after altering. I tend to work right on the wheel after throwing, so that I don’t fight the clay memory when darting or with movements from my hands. When I alter a pot, my process is intentional, and I want to reflect that in use.
I aim to finish all my work in a wood kiln and I’m grateful for the community of like-minded people who share that value. I want the flame of the kiln to wrap itself around the pot, illuminating the soft curves. I love the way ash and flame alter surfaces, invoking a sense of movement that the forms themselves crave. Wood firing is another thoughtful and almost meditative process that feels akin to my throwing and altering. Each move and decision is methodical, from loading to firing.
Beginning the Form
I use a 1-pound ball of Standard’s 182 White Stoneware Clay without grog to start. I tend to work in sets of objects and end up making 10–20 of a form in one sitting at the wheel. I make three classic pulls, shaping the clay as I go, before ribbing the pot down in order to get close to the final shape.
In undergraduate school, I started rolling the rims of my pots for added visual weight—I like to call it “mouth aesthetics.” Visually, it gives a nice line and weight to the lip while also providing a plump surface to rest your lips upon when using the cup. I take three points on the lip and roll them up—this dictates the initial triangle shape and gives the lip an added sense of movement, like a wave. Once my form has taken on a rolled, voluminous lip and curved waist, I then clean the foot of the pot while it’s still on the wheel, creating space between it and the wheel head with a wooden rib.
Altering the Form
From here, I start to belly out the cup from the inside, using my fingers to further emphasize the triangle shape by pushing out. Then, the very front of my pot finally gets a bump out. The pots I make are very directional, a lot like the kilns I fire them in. When making, I think about the kiln and how these pots will fit inside. I want the flame to squeeze around and through them, much like water in a bed of river rocks.
While the cup is still wet and on the wheel, I take my potter’s knife and start to alter. I make an ovaled diamond shape on the back end of the pot (opposite from the bump out), and cut it out. I slip and score both sides of the cutout and press them together. I use a wire tool to release the cup from the wheel and let it stiffen up before general cleanup and further shaping.
With wet hands, I further refine the shape of the leather-hard pot off the wheel, clearly identifying the triangle shape from the inside so that the outside is more defined. I use a wet sponge to plump out the front so that the pot looks like it’s leaning back into the darted side. I tend to hand trim the foot of these pots so that each provides organic movement. With a wet palm, I clean the bottom of the foot and make a slight indent.
I wipe the cup to a smooth surface, exposing the sand and grit already in the clay. After drying, I bisque fire to cone 06, and leave the outside of the cup unglazed. I wad and fire the cup on its side, hoping for active and lively ash and flame deposits. Inside the pot, I use a blue/green celadon as a liner glaze.
the author Madeleine Boucher is a wood-fire potter born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a BFA in ceramics and a minor in art history. Today, she is an instructor and studio technician at the Community College of Allegheny County. She resides in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, with her partner, MK Noonan, and holds her studio practice at MadKat Studios, a studio/gallery they founded together. To learn more, visit www.madkatpgh.com/madeleineboucher.