Japan in Mind

My admiration for Oribe pottery, a love of Japanese rock gardens, a utility cover on a Tokyo street, and two surprises in the studio were the elements that converged to inspire my Tokyo bottles.

The first surprise came from the slab roller. Two years ago, while rolling out a big slab, a small, errant ball of clay found its way on to the canvas. After passing through the slab roller, the little ball turned into a lovely flat oval, reminding me of the rocks in the dry landscape gardens I had seen in Japan several years prior. Also called Zen gardens—karesansui in Japanese—they are usually composed of rocks, some plants, and gravel that is raked to represent ripples in water.

I decided to try creating my own mini Zen garden on a plate: I slathered a layer of thick slip on a slab base, pressed flat, oval-shaped clay rocks into place, and raked the slip around the clay rocks with a wooden fork, as I imagined a Japanese gardener would rake the gravel in a real garden. Common uses of slip are to fill incised lines, make raised lines when squeezed through a slip trailer, and adhere seams, appendages, or sprigs. The excess slip is usually wiped away. On my rock-garden plate, the slip became a major decorative element, providing a soft, wavy surface and a bed for the oval clay rocks to be gently laid onto (see page 20).

After having made several rock-garden plates, I remembered a photo of a utility cover on a Tokyo street, covered with a pattern of small, delicate flowers. In Japan I had taken countless photos of surfaces: pathways, retaining walls, tile work, siding, fencing. But the image of the little dark metal flowers stuck with me, and I decided to use this same thick slip technique with a floral motif.

1 Form the bottle by pressing a rolled slab against a foam cube block.

2 Score, moisten with magic water, and press the two sides into place.

Forming the Bottle

I made the bottle using an envelope-style soft-slab construction—putting together two simple forms, an enclosed box for the body, and a small cylinder for the neck. I used Standard Clay’s 211 Hazelnut clay body, which is a good clay for handbuilding that fires to cone 5–6.

Begin by rolling out a long slab of soft clay that’s a little less than ¼ inch thick. Cut out five pieces: one 10×21-inch piece for the front, bottom, and back section; and four 9×3-inch pieces for the two sides, top, and neck. The large slab is marked with fold lines at 9 inches for the front and back and 3 inches wide in the middle for the bottom.

Form the box by wrapping the large slab around a 9×10×3-inch-foam block (1). Score and wet the edges with magic water, press the two side pieces into place (2), reinforce the joints with coils (3), then remove the foam.

Trim the top edges so they are level (4), score them, and apply slip. Score and slip the edges of the top piece and press it into place (5). Once the box is sealed, pat it with a paddle to adjust the shape (6). Let it firm up to leather hard before attaching the neck. If crisp edges are desired, use a Surform tool to refine the piece.

The neck is formed from the last slab piece. Roll it up, and adjust the diameter and height until it seems right. Cut, score, slip, then join the cylinder’s seam. Center the neck on top of the box, and mark a hole for the neck opening (7). Cut out the hole  and attach the neck with scoring and slip (8). Wrap the bottle in plastic and let it set up overnight.

3 Use coils along the inside seams to secure the joins fully.

4 With the final wall in place, use a needle tool to trim the top to an even edge.

5 Score, slip, and attach the fourth slab on top of the box.

6 Use a wooden spoon to paddle and seal the top of the box. Allow it to firm up.

7 Measure the distance from the edges. Mark where the neck needs to be joined.

8 Cut out a hole for the neck, score and slip both edges, and attach.

Preparing the Flowers and Slips

To create the flowers, roll out a thin slab of white clay (I use Highwater’s Little Loafers) with the slab roller on the narrowest setting (about inch thick). Smooth it out and brush on a coat of Amaco Jet Black underglaze. When the underglaze has fully dried but the clay is still moist, incise small flower designs with a needle tool, bamboo stick, or an X-Acto blade point, and then cut out each shape with a knife (9). Make the cut wide enough around the incised line so that it is still visible as a drawn graphic.

Because the flowers cut from the slab are usually thicker than I want for pressing, and the edges too sharp, I like to gently flatten them by rolling them with a dowel (10), which also nicely softens and distorts the shapes (11), creating a lovely, subtle surface—this was my second surprise. Place the flowers on newsprint, and wrap them in plastic to stay pliable until needed.

The slip I use is thick, sometimes velvety and viscous like mayonnaise, and sometimes thick and groggy like mortar. It is a simple mixture of bone-dry clay bits soaked in water and forced through a 60-mesh sieve. For the dark slip on the bottle, I used Standard Clay’s 710. The white slip was made from Little Loafers.

9 Incise lines in a thin slab coated with black underglaze, and cut out the flower.

10 Flatten the edges of each flower by gently rolling them with a small dowel.

11 Once the flower shapes are thinned and at your desired diameter, soften the texture of each piece.

12 Brush on a thick dark slip using a painter’s brush to leave a nice texture.

Adding Slips and Attaching Flowers

Slather the dark slip onto the leather-hard bottle using an inexpensive painter’s brush to create a nice texture (12). After the dark slip is firm, slather the bottle’s front and back with white slip (13) and immediately press on the flowers (14). Be sure to press the flower edges as well. Because the flowers are so thin and moist, there is no need to score them.

Once the white slip has dried and the flowers are firmly set (15), wrap the bottle in plastic and leave it to set up overnight to be sure all the elements equalize in moisture content. Open up the plastic gradually over the next few days until the bottle becomes bone dry.

13 When the dark slip is firm, brush on a thick coat of white slip.

14 Immediately begin pressing on the clay flowers while the white slip is damp.

15 Cover the bottle in plastic and let it dry slowly. Bisque fire when bone dry.

16 Pour glaze in then out of the fired piece. Brush a thick glaze over the flowers.

Firing and Glazing

Bisque fire the bottle to cone 06–05. I used a dark rust-red glaze for the interior. For the exterior, I wanted to emulate the dark green glaze of Oribe pottery, so I added some copper carbonate to a clear glaze, let it dehydrate to a mayonnaise consistency, and painted it on with a thick brush (16). Caution: When working with copper carbonate, wear gloves and a professionally fitted respirator, and work in a well-ventilated space.

Remove the green glaze from the flowers with a rubber rib and wipe them with a damp sponge, then brush on a clear glaze to cover them (17). Once the glaze is thoroughly dry, fire the bottle in an electric kiln to cone 6.

17 Scrape glaze off the flowers with a rubber rib, then brush with clear glaze.

One Thing Leads to Another

While cleaning up the flower-cutting operation, I noticed that the negative spaces on the leftover slab had created interesting shapes. I began saving painted scraps, rolling them out very thin as I had done with the flowers, and applying them with thick slip to plates, vases, and bowls. I love finding surprises that lead me in new directions with my work. From Zen gardens to flowers, I progressed to rock walls, and then abstract shapes. Who knows what will come next!

Catherine Satterlee’s first Tokyo bottle was awarded Best in Show by ICAN (International Ceramic Artists Network) for the members’ “Spring Form” online exhibition (2020). To view the exhibition online, visit https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/ican/ican-online-juried-exhibition-gallery-spring-form.

Largely self taught, Catherine Satterlee worked with clay intermittently during a life in contemporary art. In 2014 ceramics became her full-time occupation. She currently works at the Alexandria Clay Co-op in Alexandria, Virginia. To see more, visit www.csatterleeceramics.com, on Instagram @catherinesatterlee, and purchase at Artful Home.

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