I’m known for my tall ceramic chalices and though I’ve explored many forms over the years, these forms are the nearest and dearest to me.
I’ve been inspired by the chalice form since I was a young child, where they first caught my eye in church. Though I thought of church as being incredibly boring, I would always wake up and pay attention during the offertory. I loved how the priest would raise the chalice up, pray, drink from it, and finally, lovingly dry and polish it.
My chalices have never been designed for functional use. They are meant to be contemplative vessels to enrich and inspire our day-to-day lives. I believe that having objects of beauty to reflect upon enhances our daily experiences. Upward movement, a feeling of energy flowing, and a strong anchoring to the earth are some of the feelings I wish to convey with these pieces.
I’ve been creating different versions of the chalice form since the mid 1980s but my favorites are the ones mounted in rock bases. I love going rock hunting on the local beaches and am always thrilled when I find the perfect rock for one of my chalices.
Better Prepared Clay
My favorite throwing weight is 8 pounds. I have the strength to work with up to 12 pounds, but if I am throwing a chalice in one piece, my preferred weight is 8–10 pounds; it’s just that little bit more manageable for me. I use a pug mill to prepare my clay so the clay is mixed and wedged to the perfect consistency. This is very important when throwing large pieces as there’s nothing worse than pulling up a tall piece and hitting some stiff clay mid throw. If you don’t have a pug mill, not to worry, just be sure to wedge the clay very well.
If I’m throwing a chalice in two sections, I’m striving for a larger piece and will start with up to 12 pounds for the chalice base and around 2 pounds for the stem.
Throwing a Chalice Base
When throwing chalices in one section, you need to have a fair bit of clay at the bottom to facilitate a reasonable stem length. I like as long a stem as possible, but I also don’t want to limit the diameter of the chalice form too much. I usually leave about two inches of clay at the bottom of the form for the stem to be trimmed out of.
When creating a chalice in two pieces, start with the bowl part of the chalice. Center your well-wedged clay, then alternate pulling up the walls and collaring in the form to gain height and create a gentle, inward curve (1). After several pulls, I start tearing the edges of the rim as I love the more natural look of the uneven edge (2).
From this point on, I throw with a metal rib to help refine the form and remove the throwing rings (3). It’s a good idea to step away from the wheel and take a look at the piece from a distance (4). If the form needs any final shaping, return to the wheel and make the necessary adjustments (5). Next, use a needle tool to take off some of the excess clay at the base (6). Do this slowly so as not to throw the piece off center or risk taking too much off and cutting into the form. This step not only removes clay, but it also serves to further shape the overall form. Insert the needle tool at an angle and remove small amounts of clay at a time. Keep doing this until you’ve taken as much off the bottom as you safely can without making it tippy. Additionally, this will make it easier to trim the finished form. Once you’ve removed all the clay you want, use calipers to measure the base (7).
Throwing the Chalice Stem
Center 2 pounds of clay. Even though this piece will eventually be joined to the chalice form, you don’t want to open it all the way to the wheel head. Keep the floor about ¼ inch thick. Throw a tall, hollow, narrow, cone-shaped stem (8).
Use a soft rubber rib to shape the stem, remove the surface water, and thin it further to get the curve just right (9). I put a quarter on the end of the stem as a size guide. This way all the stems are the same diameter and will fit in the 1-inch hole that has been drilled into the rock base (10). Use your set caliper measurements to check the diameter of the base’s bottom, and then do any final touch up (11). Allow both the base and the stem to stiffen up to a soft leather-hard state. The base of the stem should remain pliable enough to later curve it to the form of the chalice when you attach it.
Trimming and Combining Parts
Now all the parts are ready to join, but first you need to trim the chalice. Place the chalice upside down on a clean, dry bat on the wheel. Center and secure the form. This step is mostly to smooth and clean the base to prep it for the addition of the stem, rather than removing a bunch of material (12).
Next, score and add some water to the base of the stem (13). With the chalice still secured to the bat, score and slip the area of the attachment, then center the stem onto the chalice. Gently, but firmly attach the stem of the chalice with both hands (14). With the wheel spinning slowly, press down on the edge of the bottom of the stem so that it bends and curves to the shape of the chalice’s curve. Use a damp sponge to further bend the stem’s base until it joins to the curve and the gap between both pieces is eliminated (15). With a sharp trimming tool, refine the join and smooth the surface, making sure there’s no presence of the attachment (16). Finally, use a rubber rib to do any finishing, smoothing, and cleaning of the surface (17).
Mounting the Chalices
The chalices are mounted into found rock bases. I hire a stone worker to cut the bottom of the rock flat, and then drill a hole 1 inch wide and 1 inch deep (18). I make a well in the hole with Bray-Poxy (www.archiebrayclay.com/bray-poxy), put a dab of oil on the chalice stem, and sink it in. I level the chalice, and then carefully take the chalice out again. The well gets distorted doing this, so, as the putty is setting, I do it a few more times, before finally leaving it to set up. When set, if the fit is too tight, I use a Dremel tool and grind it until the fit is right. It’s a precise and time-consuming job but well worth the effort for the final look. Using this approach, the chalice can be taken out of the base for easier shipping.
Mary Fox’s creations have established her reputation as a talented and respected ceramic artist. She has exhibited her works nationally and internationally and has recently appeared in Ceramic Review and Ceramics Monthly. She currently maintains a studio/gallery in Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada.
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