I aspire to make forms that quietly engage, inspire curiosity, and invite a sense of discovery. These are objects that ask one to slow down and notice the subtleties of form, surface, and function. My intention is for these vessels to be used mindfully. An assuredness of form is essential to my work. Curves, volume, and proportion are balanced with restraint. Consideration of balance continues with contrasts: pattern with unadorned surface, cool color with warm colors, and teapot with saucer.
I look to historical ceramics for ideas and inspiration, and integrate elements of these works into my own as a celebration of our rich ceramic lineage. I’m inspired by the work from many cultures: by work that embodies harmony, elegance, and a tranquil presence.
I use Grolleg porcelain as I’m enamored of its strength and translucence. As this porcelain is smooth and free of grog, it’s ideal for fine carving. I choose translucent celadon glazes as they beautifully enhance surface detail and the luminous quality of porcelain. I fire the pieces to cone 10 in either a reduction atmosphere to achieve cool blues and greens, or in an oxidation atmosphere for warm, creamy whites.
1 Define the gallery for the lid. Thin approximately ¼ inch of the rim and form a recessed 45° angle toward the center.
2 Turn the gallery in to sit horizontally, and continue to shape the body. Refine the form with a flexible metal rib.
3 Use the squared corner of a wooden rib to sharpen and refine the angle of the gallery for the lid.
4 Use calipers to take a measurement to ensure a tight fit for the lid. I prefer to measure while the wheel is spinning.
Forming the Body
All parts of the teapot, except the handle, are thrown in one sitting. This is to ensure that the pieces dry and shrink at the same rate.
Form the body by first throwing a cylinder, then gradually rounding out the belly of the pot. As the cylinder swells out toward its ultimate shape, define the gallery for the lid by throwing it vertically as an extension of the walls (1). Thin approximately ¼ inch of the rim—forming a 45° angle where the gallery recesses in from the wall—then, ever so gently, turn the gallery in to sit horizontally as you continue to shape the round body. Carefully refine the form as you define the edges with a flexible metal rib (2), and refine the angle of the gallery using a wooden rib (3). Before removing the pot from the wheel, use calipers to take a measurement (4).
Both lid and spout are thrown off the hump. I always make an extra of each so that I have choices if one doesn’t fit properly, or disaster strikes.
Creating a Lid
To make the lid, form a small bowl and divide its thick rim into two parts by impressing the side of your thumbnail into the middle of it. The inside segment of the lid is thrown vertically to form a flange, while the horizontal portion is carefully shaped and measured to ensure a precise fit with the gallery (5). Form a rough knob underneath, that will later be trimmed. To remove the knob from the hump, cradle the underside of the lid with two fingers of one hand, while slowly inserting a needle tool with the other as the wheel spins.
5 Throw the interior of the lid vertically into a flange, and size the diameter of the horizontal part to fit the gallery.
6 Support the inside of the thin-walled spout with an African porcupine quill while smoothing the outside with a rib.
7 Hold the thrown spout up to the pot to determine the proper attachment angle, then trim it with a fettling knife to fit.
8 Pinch the freshly cut base to form a shape that fits nicely against the pot, then trace the edge.
Throwing a Spout
The spout is a thin-walled cylinder that’s wide at the base and tapered at the top. In the finishing stages of throwing, support the inside of the narrow spout with an African porcupine quill while smoothing the outside with a rib (6). When the spout has dried to the touch but is still soft, gently bend it to add a subtle curve. Tip: The key to making a spout that doesn’t drip is to form a sharp edge so that the flow of liquid is quickly cut when the piece is turned upright.
Adding a Saucer
Throw the saucer with a slightly raised pedestal and a rim that gently lifts to present and compliment the teapot form. When forming, you can estimate of the diameter needed to support the trimmed foot of the teapot and refine it in the trimming stage.
When the body of the teapot is leather hard, trim a raised foot with tools of various shapes and sizes, beginning with a large pear-shaped tool and ending with a small-detail trimming tool. Next, trim the leather-hard lid while it’s sitting on the pot. In this way, you’re able to take in the form as a whole while refining the shape of the lid and knob. The pedestal of the saucer is trimmed so that the foot of the teapot will fit precisely, and all lines of the foot match up in profile.
9 Perforate inside the marked area, leaving a ¼-inch border just inside the drawn line where the spout will be attached.
10 Apply slip to the scored area, carefully position the spout, and compress the seam well.
11 Shape the freshly pulled handle into the desired curve, and attach when the handle holds its form yet is flexible.
12 Design elements are combined from a variety of sources to create a unique pattern on each piece.
Assembling the Parts
In assembling the teapot and saucer, I aim to combine all parts into one unified and balanced form. I want the form to invite someone to pick it up and use it. The saucer suggests an upward lift, presenting the pot. There is a satisfaction in lifting the piece and replacing it in its perfectly fitting resting place. The spout and handle actively spring from the pot. This gesture is reinforced by the surface decoration, as the scrolling waves of foliage begin at the base of the handle and tumble forward toward the spout, suggesting the liquid’s path when it’s poured from spout to cup.
Key to the utilitarian concerns of teapot construction are the shape and placement of the spout and the handle. A spout that’s wide at the base and tapered at the tip allows for the contents to flow with good pressure. The tip of the spout must reach to the height of the gallery of the pot to ensure that it can be filled to capacity.
Holding the spout up to the body, determine the angle to alter the thrown spout (7), and make the cut with a fettling knife. Pinch to shape the freshly cut base so that it fits nicely on the body (8). Viewing the spout from all angles, determine its placement and trace the edge to define this space. Score the clay just inside this line and perforate the inner area using a hole-cutting tool, creating a sieve for the tea to flow through (9). Apply slip to the scored area, carefully position the spout, then compress the seam well (10).
13 Incise the design into the clay with an African porcupine quill, or similar tool, when the piece is leather hard.
14 I use a handmade bamboo tool to carve into the negative space, creating depth and areas for the glaze to pool.
15 To apply raised dots of equal shape and size, stamp a circle into the clay that will hold a dot of slip.
16 Apply a dot of Grolleg porcelain slip (made from the same clay body) with a slip-trailing bottle.
Aim for the handle to visually spring from the pot and feel comfortable in the hand when the teapot is full and in use. Pull several handles from one piece of clay, so that you have spares if needed. Shape the freshly pulled handle into the desired curve (11). When the surface slip has dried to the touch and the handle holds its form but is still flexible, trim the ends with a knife to the desired angle, then score, slip, and compress the joints to attach the handle.
Wrap the teapot in plastic overnight to allow all pieces to set up a bit and regulate in water content. The next day, take a moment to compress and smooth all joints again. This extra step of compression helps to lessen the chance of cracking as the porcelain dries.
Designing Unique Surface Patterns
I gather inspiration for pattern from a variety of sources, including personal drawings of flowering plants and seaweed, and historic patterns of ornamentation. These combined elements create unique patterns. This teapot and saucer feature a scrolling foliage pattern crossed with a stylized tulip design that is accented with repeated circles—elements that I have borrowed from a bronze openwork platter that I saw in Fez, Morocco.
I incise and carve freehand onto each piece. When approaching a new design, I begin by familiarizing myself with the gesture and lines of a particular pattern by drawing it on paper. This process helps me to decode the pattern and is an opportunity for my mind and hand to assimilate the shapes and gestures into something that feels natural, and is my own.
17 Embellishment in unexpected areas can provide an element of surprise. Here, a design is pierced into the flange.
18 I drill into the clay by hand with drill bits of various sizes to create circles of consistent diameter.
Incising and Carving
When incising into the clay surface, I surround myself with drawings. I look to and loosely reference them, while being open to improvising or combining elements from different sources as the incised pattern develops (12).
The first step when approaching a piece is to consider what areas of the form will receive pattern and how you would like that pattern to direct the eye, such as a scroll pattern, which has a rolling motion that travels around the pot. Here I apply the pattern to the vertical planes of the teapot and the knob, allowing the horizontal planes, spout, and handle to be quiet resting areas where glaze will collect and pool at the defined corners and transition points.
Draw and carve into the porcelain when the clay is a firm leather hard. At this stage the tool cuts easily through the clay, but does not gouge it. I begin incising a drawing into the clay with an African porcupine quill, or a ball stylus tool. The quill is often my preference as it has a slight flexibility to it that is fitting for drawing flowing and lively lines.
Consider the first lines incised into the clay to be the skeleton of your design. Begin by laying down directional lines that define the motion and flow of the pattern, then flush out the drawing by working back from the tip of each spiral (13). I sometimes choose to allow this line drawing to stand on its own rather than continue with additional carving.
Tools and Mark Making
When the incised pattern covers the desired area and is complete, I begin to carve in the areas of negative space. Depending on which carving tool is used, and in what way, an endless variety of marks can be made.
Here, I use the corner of a handmade bamboo tool to carve channels into the clay where the glaze will pool (14). The motion of the tumbling scroll is accentuated by the striations that remain from the carving process. Other favorite tools that I use to create similar but distinctive marks are a wire and wood tool and a tapered metal tool.
To achieve an embossed relief effect, I carve to a chosen depth then smooth the carved negative space. This brings clarity to the positive and negative shapes of the image, emphasis to shadows, and increased translucency where the porcelain is thin. For smooth carving, I use the flat front edge of the bamboo tool, or choose from a variety of small metal carving tools.
I consider the hidden areas—the flange, the center medallion of the saucer, the bottom of the teapot and saucer—to hold great potential for engagement with the viewer, and embellish them to add a sense of discovery and element of surprise. I often integrate dots into the surface design—raised, recessed, or pierced—to add an additional layer of depth to the surface. The dots provide tactile and visual focal points of pearl-like raised embellishments, recessed areas for the celadon glaze to gather into jewel-like pools, or pierced windows to look through, hold shadows, or cast light.
To apply raised dots of equal shape and size, first stamp a circle into the clay (15), then apply a dot of porcelain slip, made from your clay body, with a slip-trailing bottle (16). Drill into the clay by hand with drill bits of various sizes (17, 18) to create circles that are recessed into or pierced through the clay wall.
Autumn Cipala is a ceramic artist living and working in Thomaston, Maine. She received her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To see more of her work, visit www.autumncipala.com or follow her on Facebook at Autumn Cipala Ceramics.
Subscriber Extras: Video and Images
Carving Surfaces for Wood-Fired Kilns by Donovan Palmquist.
1 Autumn Cipala’s carved teapot.
2 Autumn Cipala’s tagine.