I grew up in a family of artists. One of the greatest inspirations in life was visiting my grandparents’ house filled with pottery and sculpture. Each piece, made by hand, adorned the kitchen and the dining table with both art and function. One of the main goals in my own work is to create pieces that can be used on a day-to-day basis and also serve as works of art when not in use, bringing beauty to each room and each meal.
Combining wheel throwing and altering with handbuilding gives me the freedom and tools to create sets incorporating sculptural elements. This allows me to enhance the imagery on each piece by layering in narrative elements and creating dynamic forms that are functional and act as stand-alone sculpture. My modular sets work as canisters for condiments, spices, salt and pepper, herbs, and even cotton swabs and cotton balls. I often create them with a specific function in mind, but also like to leave them open to interpretation.
Begin by throwing two bottomless forms of the same height. When removing the thrown pieces off the wheel, immediately form them into ovals (1). This way you don’t have to put too much stress on them by bending and re-shaping them later as they begin to stiffen up.
Next, slice one of the oval cylinders vertically (2) and do any final shaping. In this piece, one section is cut smaller than the other. The larger section is going to be a lidded form, and the smaller one is going to be a shaker set. Then, use each U-shaped section as a template and cut vertical slabs from the second cylinder to enclose the open side of the U-shape. (Note: There isn’t usually clay left over from the original cylinder to create the slab on the back of each half.) To attach, score them with a serrated rib, brush on some water, score them with the rib again, then press the slabs on (3). Tap the joints with a wooden paddle to help adhere the slab, then smooth the seam from the inside using the back end of an X-Acto knife or paintbrush.
Next, roll out a slab for the bottom and tops of the forms. First, trace and cut the shape for the bottom of the lidded form (4), then attach it, smoothing out the seam. Shave down and clean up the outside with a serrated rib, followed by a smooth metal rib. Continuing, cut another slab to use as the lid. To create a slightly dome-shaped lid, cut this one a little larger than the opening, so you have room to re-shape it (5). Slump the lid into the top of the canister (6) and let it begin to stiffen up.
Forming the Flange
To make the flange on the lid, cut a thin strip from the slab, curve it into the U-shaped rim of the jar, cut the ends at a bevel, and cut and bevel another small strip for the flat back of the jar. These pieces will be a bit tacky, so you can stick them to the inside of the rim to make sure they fit (7). Next, take them out and attach them together.
Once the lid has stiffened up, flip it over onto the jar and tap the top of it, leaving the impression of the rim on the bottom of the lid (8). This shows me where to attach the flange. Score the attachment areas with a serrated rib, add water, and attach the flange to the bottom of the lid (9). To make sure it’s secure, flip the lid over and tap from the top with the wooden paddle, flip it over once more, then smooth the seam on the inside. Now, slice around the top of the lid, letting it be a little bigger than the rim of the jar and use a rasp tool to shave the edges down so they line up with the jar (10).
Assembling the Components
Next comes the shaker. After you attach the back slab to the second half of the oval, cut it in half horizontally (11) to make two closed forms that can stack. Attach the bottom slabs to both halves, and attach curved slabs on the top. After the forms are closed, gently push the bottom of each half into a dome shape. This allows the lower one to sit nicely on a table if you cut a hole and use a cork in the bottom, and the upper half can rest stacked on top.
For the tray, cut the shape you want from a slab, tracing around the canister and shakers to make sure the size is right (12). Make a ring from a long slab to go around the circumference of the tray. Attach this to the slab to create a shallow tray with walls (13). Now, wrap the assembled set in plastic for a few days to allow all the moisture to equalize. You want the forms to be a soft leather hard so you can cut out shapes and carve in imagery.
On this set, I drew free-hand imagery of forks around the jar and shakers. One of my favorite tools is a lead holder pencil with a dense 2h or 4h graphite stick. I like using these because they have a soft rounded tip that doesn’t need to be sharpened, and the dense graphite doesn’t smudge like a regular pencil would. After the forks are drawn, I use an X-Acto blade to slice in the lines of my drawing (14).
For the tray, I want the walls of the tray to contain multiple cut-out chickens each uniform in size, so I trace over a pre-drawn chicken, leaving a light impression on the clay wall (15). Then, I use an X-Acto blade to cut out around the birds. I smooth the cut edges with my finger or a sponge and use the X-Acto blade again to incise the lines of the drawing (16).
Allow the assembled set to fully dry, then brush on a wash of black Mason stain diluted with water into all of the carved lines. Wait for it to dry, then use a damp sponge to wipe away the excess stain (17).
After bisque firing, I use wax resist to mask off all the areas without an image and use ceramic watercolors to paint the images before dunking everything in a clear glaze (18).
Autumn Higgins is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches art at a K–8 school and works in ceramics and painting from her home studio. She received her master’s degree from Louisiana State University in 2014. Higgins’ work was recently featured in a solo exhibition at Schaller Gallery (www.schallergallery.com), and in the Four Jerome Artists exhibition at the Northern Clay Center (www.northernclaycenter.org). Learn more at https://autumn-higgins.com.