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An Elevated Tradition

 

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I’ve had my hands in clay for twenty years and for the past ten years, I’ve been working almost exclusively in porcelain. I form my pots by pinching. Pinching pots is one of the most basic ways to make an object out of clay—it’s the technique we first learn in kindergarten and the pincer grip is one of the first ways in which a baby develops coordination.

I’ve had my hands in clay for twenty years and for the past ten years, I’ve been working almost exclusively in porcelain. I form my pots by pinching. Pinching pots is one of the most basic ways to make an object out of clay—it’s the technique we first learn in kindergarten and the pincer grip is one of the first ways in which a baby develops coordination.

My pots are intended to be used. They’re strong, but appear fragile. The delicate nature of the work requires a bit more attention when using the pots and my hope is to encourage thoughtful, aware, and conscientious interaction.


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A variety of pinch-formed vases.

 

The act of pinching clay into a desired form was the first way clay was worked almost 30,000 years ago. As I continue that tradition, I want the process of my fingers to be visible to the viewer and when I join two pieces of clay together, I leave a seam line for the same reason. Thoughtfulness is evident in the way I work with clay and necessary when viewing or handling my work. By making objects out of a fragile and precious material, I expect the delicate nature of the work to provoke a heightened awareness and sensitivity on the part of the viewer.

Paper Porcelain Clay Body

I began adding paper fiber to my clay after I took classes in paper making and ceramics simultaneously, so it felt natural to experiment mixing the two mediums. I added all kinds of paper and paper making fibers (newsprint, toilet paper, recycled paper, flax, abaca, kozo) to clay slip and built with slabs I formed and stiffened on a plaster bat. The forms I made really pushed the limits of what I thought was possible in ceramics.

After many years of experimentation and gaining a better understanding of the properties of paper fiber, I began exclusively using cotton linter (i.e. paper fiber) when I made my paper clay. The finicky nature of porcelain and my longing to make work that was translucent and fragile in appearance, necessitated the addition of paper fiber to my clay mix. The amount of paper I add to the clay depends on what form I’m making. If the piece is sculptural, I add more paper fiber than if it’s functional. The thicker the clay walls of a piece, the more fiber can be added without compromising the integrity of the piece.  The clay body I use when making my functional work has 89 grams of paper fiber with 50 pounds of dry materials. It’s just enough fiber to increase the green strength of the clay body, allow for more leniency in the drying stage, and simplify the process of joining two parts without compromising the strength of the piece in its finished form.


PMIMA_2016_IngridPorcelain

 

I use neodymium oxide to color my glaze. When I fire in reduction, it has either a blue or purple tone to it depending on whether it’s being viewed in daylight or under fluorescent light. I usually leave the exterior of my pieces unglazed and use the neodymium glaze to line the interiors. Since the clay is fired to such a high temperature (cone 10, 2340°F (1282°C)),  it’s vitrified, begins to flux, and fires translucent. The unglazed portions of the piece have a slight sheen and a soft feel to them. Firing in reduction finishes the porcelain clay as a cool white.

Prep Ahead

I build with clay that is soft—to preserve the health of my fingers and wrists—but not sticky. If the clay is too wet it won’t retain the texture of your fingers and palms.

I weigh out my clay body into large and small balls to keep my objects consistent in size and to have less scrap clay. I always make more than one of the same piece at a time: with larger pieces, such as cake stands,  decorative platters, or serving bowls, I make 3–5 pieces at the same time; with smaller objects, I make 6–15. I usually have several forms happening at once because every object needs time to rest and firm up after a bit of pinching.


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1. Pinch with your palms to flatten out the platter portion of the cake stand.


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2. Establish the rim of the platter. Note that the platter is upside down at this point.


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3. Pinch up and flare out the walls of the platter to create the rim.

Building the Platter

For the cake platter, most of the pinching happens between the palms of my hands. Flatten a ball out by pinching a disk between the palms of your hands (1). Pinch the edges with your fingers when the disk needs evening out. Once the disk becomes too large to handle between your hands, slap it out on a table to continue stretching it.

When it’s close to the size you want, about 12 inches in diameter, transfer the disk to a ware board. I use drywall boards because they absorb water from the piece, and so it dries evenly. On the ware board, create additional prints on the disk to finalize the subtle design left from your hands. This aesthetic follows in line with my intention of making the process apparent to the viewer.

Next, lay a piece of clean newsprint (the paper moves with the clay as it shrinks and makes the piece easier to transfer to a kiln shelf without marring the surface of the platter) and another ware board on top of the palm-printed disk and flip the piece over. Although the paper fiber does help with warping, one still needs to be very careful when handling porcelain in such a way so that it won’t warp later on with drying or firing.

Now, measure the underside of what will be the platter part of the cake stand to determine where you can pinch up the edges. My clay body shrinks 15%, so the platter will need to be 11 inches in diameter wet, to fit a 9-inch cake after it’s fired.

Make an 11-inch cardboard ring as a guide—the inside circle is where you will attach the base of the platter. Begin to pinch up the edges and thin out the rim of the platter around the outside edge of the ring (2). Instead of squeezing upward as you would when making the base of any elongated form, squeeze the clay to the side of your fingers so that the walls buckle to accommodate for the extra clay—this creates an undulating fabric-like wall along the rim of the platter (3 and 4). At this point, carefully lay a plastic sheet over the platter, so that the rim doesn’t dry out too quickly while you build the stand.


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4. Let the rim set up before finishing off the edge, but don’t let it dry out.


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5. Pinch out a thick cylinder of clay to form the base of the stand.


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6. Attach the base, then add a thin, decorative coil to finish the look.

Building the Stand

For the cake platter, most of the pinching happens between the palms of my hands. Flatten a ball out by pinching a disk between the palms of your hands (1). Pinch the edges with your fingers when the disk needs evening out. Once the disk becomes too large to handle between your hands, slap it out on a table to continue stretching it.

When it’s close to the size you want, about 12 inches in diameter, transfer the disk to a ware board. I use drywall boards because they absorb water from the piece, and so it dries evenly. On the ware board, create additional prints on the disk to finalize the subtle design left from your hands. This aesthetic follows in line with my intention of making the process apparent to the viewer.

Next, lay a piece of clean newsprint (the paper moves with the clay as it shrinks and makes the piece easier to transfer to a kiln shelf without marring the surface of the platter) and another ware board on top of the palm-printed disk and flip the piece over. Although the paper fiber does help with warping, one still needs to be very careful when handling porcelain in such a way so that it won’t warp later on with drying or firing.

Now, measure the underside of what will be the platter part of the cake stand to determine where you can pinch up the edges. My clay body shrinks 15%, so the platter will need to be 11 inches in diameter wet, to fit a 9-inch cake after it’s fired.

Make an 11-inch cardboard ring as a guide—the inside circle is where you will attach the base of the platter. Begin to pinch up the edges and thin out the rim of the platter around the outside edge of the ring (2). Instead of squeezing upward as you would when making the base of any elongated form, squeeze the clay to the side of your fingers so that the walls buckle to accommodate for the extra clay—this creates an undulating fabric-like wall along the rim of the platter (3 and 4). At this point, carefully lay a plastic sheet over the platter, so that the rim doesn’t dry out too quickly while you build the stand.

To build the stand, form a lump of clay into a solid cylinder, then poke a hole through the middle with a dowel. With your fingers in the hole and your thumbs on the exterior, pinch the form to create a short, vase-like cylinder that the platter will sit on. Pinch one end and allow it to firm up a bit before attaching it to the platter and pinching the other end (5).

Score and slip the underside of the platter and one end of the stand (be sure not to press too hard on the platter because you don’t want there to be an impression left on the top side), then attach the two. Roll out thin coils and add them to the exterior and interior to secure the attachment (6). The exterior coil isn’t blended in and is mostly a decorative element, but it does have the function of further securing the stand to the join. Now you can pinch out and shape the rest of the stand (7).


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7. Continue pinching the base of the stand to shape its final form.


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8. Cut the rim’s naturally wavy edge for an even thickness.


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9. Pinch the cut edge to soften and finish the look of the rim.

Finishing Touches

Once the rim of the platter has stiffened a bit, trim the pinched edge off, following the natural irregular line of the wall (8). Gently pinch the trimmed edge to give it a finished (but not cut) look (9). Be sure to cover the platter when not working on it, so that the rim doesn’t dry too fast.

After the stand has set up, trim the foot so it will sit flat and level on a table. The piece will be fired upside down so it’s important to make sure that the foot is flat now. After trimming,  gently pinch the edge so that it’s slightly rounded and has a finished look (10).


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A variety of pinch-formed vases.

 

After wrapping the whole piece in plastic for at least 24 hours to even out the moisture level throughout the piece, begin to loosen the plastic covering so the piece can dry slowly. As it dries, periodically put a flat ware board on top of what will be the bottom of the cake stand to make sure that it will sit flat once it has been fired (11). When the finished cake stand is fully dry, I once fire it to cone 10 in reduction (12).

Ingrid Bathe is a studio potter living and working in midcoast Maine. She received her MFA from Ohio University in Athens. She moved to Maine to work as the Assistant Director for Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts. In 2007 she established her own studio and began working as a full-time studio potter. To see more of her work, check out http://ingridbathe.com.

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