I adopted the term splash bowl years ago to refer to a family of forms that interest me. The name comes from their resemblance to the iconic photograph, Milk Drop Coronet, by Doc Edgerton (http://edgerton-digital-collections.org). The similarity of form is rather obvious, but more important to me was the elegance with which the image arrests a moment in time. In this regard, the exposure of film to light is not unlike the exposure of clay to fire.
Touch and Utility
It was early in undergraduate school when I first started to throw with porcelain. I was seduced by porcelain’s whiteness and its responsiveness to my touch. These qualities made it impossible for me not to manipulate the clay just after it was thrown. Arguably, it was too early for me to be using this challenging material (porcelain) but as a result I came up with ways of working that allowed me to achieve interesting forms not through consummate throwing but by the cutting, folding, ripping, and stacking of my thrown pots. Years went by and my throwing skills improved but this love of wet manipulation remained integral to my work.
The forms I make reference utility, the familiarity of these forms creating an invitation to look further. The thrown pots themselves are built on basic geometries, cylinders or cones varying in proportion or perhaps a suggestion of volume. To these forms I add layers of texture and dimensional line that respond to and emphasize the actions to follow. The alteration is a push into the inside or outside of the wall, expanding the texture from behind, creating curves and swells in the form. This way of working naturally creates suggestions of terrain, body, and flora; parched earth, a body in motion, or the imminent decay of something overripe. I fire the pots under fluid, translucent glazes preserving these moments in fired clay. I want my pots to feel as though they have grown naturally and comfortably into their final state. Low, open forms are a challenge because as viewers we have access to both inside and out. With these kinds of forms, the act of pushing on the side wall is often too evident in the finished piece, the obviousness of the process complicating the viewer’s ability to find other references.
Developing and Refining the Form
About the time I was struggling with how to build these forms two things happened. The first was seeing a landscape very different than that of New England where I had lived much of my life. On a trip to Idaho, I was struck by the sense of space implied by mountains bordering vast open valleys. The suggestion of the bowl/platter forms I had been working on was clear. Then, following that trip, I saw Peter Voulkos make a series of platters during a workshop at Alfred University. Watching the physicality and sensitivity that went into making those huge pots energized and clarified for me what excited me about making. Working on a body-sized scale while throwing a pot allowed for big physical gestures and small intimate moments with the material. Seeing that happen so confidently for Voulkos charged and challenged me to explore scale and gesture in my own work more freely.
Larger-scale pots can obscure their association with use and help the viewer to access the other references that the pots carry. Most of these splash bowls range between 20–50 pounds, the larger ones are more platters than bowls. Without knowing it at the time, Idaho and Voulkos had crept into my work and I became interested in working in relationship to my body size, throwing vases that were as tall as my arm was long and platters as big as I could physically manage. I started to see form more clearly as the curves and shapes became proportionate to me.
Most recently, my focus has been on a somewhat smaller Splash Bowl form. Teaching, motherhood, and an awareness of the limits of my strength and energy have made making these Splash Bowls more practical than platters. Even at this smaller scale I protect my body by only wedging 12 pounds of soft clay at a time. I center 12 pounds, then I sequentially add 12-pound balls atop one another until I work up to the weight needed (1). Each time a ball is added I make sure the centered clay is low, wide, smooth, and dry so that it can accept the convex form of the next 12 pounds. As I add balls of clay, I push the centered mass lower and wider until all the clay is added and its shape is close to the width of the intended pot.
Depending on what form I am making, I throw a simple structure on the wheel, in this case a low, wide cylinder. The walls are fairly thick, about 3⁄8 inch, so my alterations can be more forceful without pushing through the wall of the pot (2). At this stage, I give careful consideration to how I form the rim (3). Though much of the rim will be cut away, thoughtful articulation and perhaps a double or split rim will provide a nice detail in the sections that remain after I have cut parts away.
I want to have different qualities of line throughout these pots. The surface textures created from a cut credit card highlights the moment of pushing; lines expand and at times crack and begin to reference earth and terrain (4). Thicker thrown ledges and scalloped-foot profiles become more prominent and create areas where glaze can begin to pool and spill (5).
Once texture and line are added to the interior I can begin to push the pot. At this stage I stop the wheel and advance it by hand. I turn the piece so that it can be pushed, squared, cut, folded or ripped. The pot must remain attached to the bat to resist being moved by the force of my alterations. The inside wall is first dusted with cornstarch so that my hand does not stick to the surface (6). Using a thick throwing sponge I begin to push in and up from the outside of the cylinder, the sponge obscures the evidence of my hand (7 and 8). I use my inside hand to support the interior wall. This is the most satisfying moment in the process of making these pots. How the surface responds to this push is always surprising and often beautiful. I do not know exactly what the finished piece will look like. Variations occur based on wall thickness, wetness of the clay, and the texture and lines I have built into the form and the focus of my hand’s pressure.
I address the rim through a process of cutting and folding. I use calipers to mark depth and spacing on the exterior side-wall and rim (9 and 10). Then, I cut out repeated shapes at regular spaces around its circumference (11). The remaining sections of rim are folded out and onto themselves again stretching the inside texture (12 and 13). By pulling the interior over the exterior wall, this folding of the rim begins to connect the inside and outside of the pot.
To finish these pots, I wait until they are leather hard and can be flipped onto a foam-covered chuck. I do not trim a recessed foot-ring, but smooth the bottom surface with a soft rib (14). The outer exterior edge is defined with a rib and cleaned up with a sponge.
Most good pots, whether functional or not, conjure associations beyond use. My pleasure in making these pieces is being lost in their landscape, imagining myself in a terrain. Connected to my delight in this journey is the phenomenon that occurs when I push against a thrown, textured form to reveal something of the properties of clay. It is for these reasons that I am compelled to continue working this way.
the author Aysha Peltz is a faculty member in the ceramics department at Bennington College. She lives in Vermont with her husband, Todd Wahlstrom, where they operate their pottery studios and a throwing-bat manufacturing business. For more information, visit her website www.ayshapeltz.com.
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