Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and Paul Donnelly’s tea trays are a prime example of this. These forms were inspired by the practical desire to keep his furniture ring free and a spoon or snack close at hand. By extending the length of the saucer, Paul not only made these sets more practical, but he also came up with some sharp-looking objects.
Today, Paul explains how he makes them using a combination of wheel throwing, press molding and slab building techniques. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
The inspiration for Paul Donnelly’s Tea Tray comes from his daily use of ceramic objects, “My partner and I collect a lot of ceramics, and we use them everyday.” “When I am drinking a cup of coffee, I usually set the cup in another bowl or other ceramic object so I don’t ruin our furniture. As a result, I wanted to make a piece with an expanded saucer that also had room for a spoon or a snack,” and so he developed the Tea Tray.
There’s always been a thread of geometry running through his work, although before grad school, it was expressed mainly through surface decoration. Graduate school forced him to explore his geometrical tendency more fully, integrating it from the design of each component to the building of a piece itself. He also notes the influence of Modernist architecture, landscape architecture, and the dialog between the two.
As Paul plans a piece, a process similar to architectural planning, he begins by mapping out his ideas of form and relationships by drawing directly onto his work surfaces, including tables, press-molds, and bats, and then marks them using rulers, compasses, Sharpies, and pencils. This later helps him gauge specific cuts by marking the location of elements he won’t be able to see (like the foot ring) and also sets up a grid system allowing him to create symmetrical shapes. Paul creates a topography in the clay, working in a unique layering method, and using the wheel in unexpected ways.
Creating the Saucer’s Footwell
Paul starts by making the cup designed for the Tea Tray. Referencing the cups scale and diameter, he uses calipers to define the size of the saucer’s footwell (the indented area where the cup rests). To create this element, he first throws a thick, solid slab using the wheel. He uses the wheel because it allows him to add dimension and detail with greater ease and precision. Depending on the design, the slab may be up to an inch or so wider than the cup’s diameter. After throwing, he leaves the slab disc on the wheel or bat to firm up, and then, with the wheel turning, cuts the middle out of it. The size of the circle he starts with is determined by the size of the cup. He then cuts the ring off the wheel or bat with a wire tool and sets it aside until it becomes leather hard. Throwing this piece on a bat, then leaving it on the bat after running a wire tool under it can help reduce warping.
With a Sharpie and a straight-edge, Paul draws perpendicular lines that intersect at 90° angles at the center of his clean wheel head. He centers the leather-hard ring of clay (figure 1) and uses the lines to cut the outside into a square (figure 2). He cuts additional circles out with a short piece of copper tubing that he has sharpened on one end (figure 3). He now has a square piece with a fancy hole in the middle that will become the footwell for the saucer portion of his Tea Tray.
Completing the Saucer
Paul rolls out a slab then sets the footwell onto it, traces both the inside and outside edges, and makes a key mark on the top of one side of the footwell and to the side of it on the slab. He scores inside the traced outline on the slab, and the bottom of the footwell, adds plenty of slip, and presses them together using the key marks for proper orientation. Paul uses ample slip so when the two elements are pressed together, slip squishes out past the edges (figure 4). He lets this slip set up until it is the consistency of caulk, then blends it into the seam with a damp, stiff brush. He sets the saucer portion of the piece aside, under plastic, letting the slip set up and the piece reach an equal moisture consistency throughout. Then he uses a Surform on the outside to remove any inconsistencies from the layering and create smooth sides.
Forming the Tray
Paul uses a large, smooth plaster slab with a narrow, recessed, rectangular outline, cut into its center as a press mold to create a foot on the bottom of the piece. He sets a straight-edge even with the outside lines of the recessed rectangle, and uses a Sharpie to extend the lines to the edge of the press mold so that the location of the foot is visible even when he places a slab on the mold (figure 5).
Paul throws a pug of clay on the tabletop to flatten it slightly then continues to use his palm to pound it into a slab. He makes this slab about twice as thick as it needs to be, and centers it on the plaster press mold using the marks he made earlier to locate the recessed line. Paul uses a rubber mallet to nudge the clay into the foot ring, then sets a pair of shims along the sides of the slab (figure 6). With a wire cutter sandwiched firmly between each thumb and a shim, Paul cuts through the thickness of the slab with one decisive gesture. He takes a long rib and smooths and compresses the freshly cut surface. Working in this way rather than thinning a slab with a rolling pin, reduces the likelihood that the piece will warp as it dries.
Paul grabs a small piece of plaster, cut from an old mold, with a subtle stratified texture on it. He uses this tool to impress a ‘landscape’ texture into his piece (figure 7), and then he lets the slab set up for a little bit. He sets a pair of 2×2 boards onto the press mold on either side of the clay slab, places a ware board on top of that, then flips the whole thing over (figure 8). The 2×2 boards hold the press mold up off of the ware board, allowing the slab of clay with the foot to drop off of the press mold. After removing the press mold and sticks, he flips his piece over, so that it is right-side up, and begins to plan the placement of the saucer.
Paul moves the saucer around, inching it here and there until he finds a nice spot for it visually. He places a fork on the piece beside the saucer, to get an idea of the interplay between the objects (figure 9). Once satisfied with the location of the saucer, he uses a fettling knife to trace the edges of the saucer onto the tray. After setting the saucer aside, he cuts right through the traced lines, then scores and slips the adjoining areas of the saucer and the tray (figure 10). As before, he uses lots of slip that squishes out when he joins the pieces. He uses a slip trailing bottle to add an additional bead of slip to all of the joined areas, lets it set up to the consistency of caulk, then blends it into the seams with a damp, stiff brush.
Paul positions a square piece of foam onto the tray, to equal the height difference between the tray and the saucer (figure 11), then flips the whole piece over in order to reinforce the new seams (figure 12). Paul deeply scores the seams and across the abutment where the foot ring meets the side wall of the saucer. He slips the score marks and, with his fingertip, adds a coil of soft clay. These measures reinforce potentially weak areas that may be likely to crack during the drying and/or the firing
To finish the piece, Paul cuts into the straight lines of the edge of his pieces with a loop-tool, removing clay in a way that relates to the texture he laid down earlier. This is purely to satisfy his own visual desires. He takes his texture tool and uses it to compress and texture these fresh edges, zipping up every last detail of this complex piece (figure 13).
After slowly drying the piece under plastic to even out the moisture between all the parts and to prevent warping, as it dries, the tea tray is ready to bisque fire. After the bisque, Paul glazes the pieces so the textures are accentuated. The piece shown here is glazed with a green transparent glaze, then fired.
Paul Donnelly received his MFA from the New York School of Ceramics at Alfred University, and currently teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. To see more of his work visit http://pauldonnellyceramics.com.
Annie Chrietzberg is a ceramist who, among other things, teaches workshops in the US and Canada. You can keep up with her at www.earthtoannie.com.