For the first several years of my career making pots I experienced a disconnect between making and glazing. Sitting and focusing on making different forms for hours on end was always an engaging and productive practice; however, once I was faced with a cart of plain bisqueware I was frozen. Bare work terrified me and, more often than not, the glaze color choices at my disposal were not ones that interested me. A brown glaze hangover seemed to be in every studio I worked in. The pots that I was interested in, and spent a lot of time looking at—those made by Linda Sikora, Mark Pharis, John Gill, Gail Kendall, and Betty Woodman (among many others)—were bright and their surfaces thoughtfully considered. I wanted that brightness, and that confidence in my decision making. It took me about seven years into making pots to realize the best way to move forward.
Fair warning: This next part gets more conceptual, but hang tight, it’s still interesting. In 2006 I spent two weeks in New York City looking at art. the Whitney Museum of American Art was hosting a retrospective of Richard Tuttle’s work. I wasn’t familiar with him, what he made, or his contribution to contemporary art. But seeing Tuttle’s work had an immediate and profound impact on me. What I connected to the most was that Tuttle’s work was drawing. Although many considered his work to be sculpture, it was to me a very evident practice of thinking through making, that drawing was the approximation of an idea. I understood this on an instinctive level; I thought of making pots as ideas, although I would sketch out forms on paper, they didn’t exist until I had the opportunity to think through them as I made them on the wheel. In this realization I saw my work in a different light. Essentially, by tricking myself into thinking that my pots were drawings, I found it easier to deal with their surfaces. Drawing had always been a fun and an almost inconsequential way to move through an idea.
Following this breakthrough, I found that different shapes within my drawings evoked certain colors. By adding the extra steps of applying slips and terra sigillata, and then drawing through those layers into the clay, I was keeping myself constantly involved in the making process. The separation between making the work and the glazing process shortened considerably. As long as I kept adding to the surface of the pot, I could keep that fear of glazing at arm’s length. Now, I count on the layers to feed my decisions.
The Lidded Pitcher
The lidded pitcher is a form that I became interested in exploring because it seemed my peers were overlooking it. I enjoy exploring forms that are often neglected in an effort to gain attention from the larger ceramic community.
Start with 4 pounds of clay for the pitcher body. Approach it as you would a cylinder, making about four pulls to get the clay up off the wheel. I find it helpful to keep reestablishing the inside corner so that I have a clean place to pull up from. Don’t pull the clay all the way up to the lip on the last few pulls. Keep about an inch of clay at the top in order to form the gallery for the lid (1). If anything, always have more clay at the top rather than not enough— you can always cut it away. Once the gallery has been established, go back into the form and shape the volume (2). Finally, measure the diameter of the gallery (3).
Lids, Handles, and Spouts
Throw the flange on the lid a little thicker (4). The thinking behind this is that you can trim it to fit later once both the lid and the pitcher have set up a bit.
I pull a fairly basic handle, which I let set up for some time (depending on humidity) before I shape it by what I can only describe as wiggling the top curve and then squeezing the bottom where it will meet the pot (5, 6).
Next, roll out a slab to cut the spout from. I’ve gone through multiple variations of spout patterns (7), and I’m starting to settle on one that’s been inspired by the spout on a plastic beer pitcher. It’s higher than the body, and seemingly too small, but always pours well and never drips.
I wait until the pot, handle, and spout are nearly leather hard before attaching everything. Once attached and given a bit of time to firm up, I dip the pot into a white slip (Pete’s Best Low-Fire Slip). This is when my glaze decisions happen, in what some would consider the middle of the making process. With the slip dried to leather hard, I use either sumi ink or india ink to draw out my decoration (8, 9). This ink brushes on smoothly and will burn off during the bisque firing. If I make a mistake or need to redraw a shape I simply change the color of the ink—I don’t go back and try to erase anything. It’d be too much trouble.
After the ink drawing is complete, I scratch through the lines and the slip right into the clay with a very sharp Mudtools needle tool. One thing that I’ve found very handy is to use a torch to dry out the burrs that occur from scratching into the pot (10). Once dried out, I brush them off with a stiff paint brush. This lets me keep the pots nice and clean (11), whereas in the past I would try to wipe the burrs off and sometimes make a bigger mess, or I would sand them off after bisque, but who needs more dust in their studio?
The shapes that I draw come from an inventory that I keep both in my head and in multiple sketchbooks. These are shapes that have come from a natural evolution in my work or that I’ve stolen from other artists (or my wife and/or kids, who really know their shapes). A few years ago, Emily Schroeder Willis told me that what she liked about my work is that my pots are strong forms and their decoration is funny or silly, and that is how she thinks about me: seemingly serious but with a strong sense of humor. I liked that and it made sense to me and that made it easier for me to explore my way of working. I like a bright palette and the challenge of finding a strong composition on a pot with a few shapes.
Finishing the Surface
After the pots have been bisque fired I dip them into a clear base glaze (SWO clear). I make sure that it’s thin enough so that I can see the marks that I made in the clay when it was leather hard. I wax around the shapes, and, since I already know what colors fit each shape, it’s just a matter of paint-by-number for me. To keep things even simpler, I use only one base glaze for my colors (Woody Hughes’ Base Glaze). I’ve used the same glazes for almost ten years, so I know them pretty well.
My trouble with glazing wasn’t really about the glazing at all, it was a matter of putting all the pieces together at the right time. For me, that meant making decisions seemingly out of order and being patient with the obstacle of finishing the pots; seeing that part not as a separate process but one in the same with throwing and handbuilding.
Brian R. Jones is a father, husband, and potter who has conducted workshops nationally. In 2013 Jones was an emerging artist at the NCECA conference in Houston, Texas. He was also a presenter at Utilitarian Clay VI: Celebrate the Object at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 2012. Jones earned his MFA from Southern Methodist University in 2007. He is a founding member of Objective Clay. Learn more at www.brianrjones.com.