My work is an embodiment of the inseparable relationship among earth, body, and plant. I do not try to put this relationship into words or grasp this concept too tightly; so when I make vases and pots, I try to keep a balance between what I am doing consciously and unconsciously. There are guidelines I create to make sure I don’t get lost, but I keep things open enough to not feel restricted. My process uses simple techniques—coil building and glazing with brushes—so that a sense of my hand comes through in the work. I often feel naked when I finish building a piece. The latter part of my process has to do with distracting and covering the bare form. I cut the rim and cover the surface in patterns of leaves to hide my maker’s marks and to distract from the wonkiness. I am not interested in perfection, I am interested in what comes through in the urgency of making and what is trimmed and covered up.
Although my process is intuitive, there is a certain amount of preparation that gives me direction. I bombard myself with reference material, taking notes of what I am drawn to. Bold line work and sturdy forms always pull me in. I then sketch furiously, never lingering, like a stream of consciousness. Once I feel dry, I comb through the images, noting repeats and particularly strong forms.
Start by rolling out a ¼-inch-thick slab with a slab roller. Cut as many circular bases as you can from the slab, varying the size between 7 inches and 2 inches in diameter. I like to work on multiple pieces at a time so that nothing feels too precious. The size of the base circle gives me the first nudge into what the form might become. Place a circular piece of plastic from a clay bag under each base to prevent sticking and to help control the speed of drying at the bottom.
Next, extrude coils that are about ¼ inch thick. I extrude coils as I build, but you can extrude a batch and store them under plastic. It is important that I keep my coils on the wet side since I am not scoring and slipping each one. Place the base on a banding wheel (1), so that you can spin the form as you work, allowing you to build quickly (2). Layer each coil on top of the next, smoothing after five coils have been placed (3). Only apply slip and make score marks on the initial coil or if you have paused in building to take a break. Smooth the inside of the form before the outside. The speed of building up and smoothing the coils is important because the energy is captured in the clay. I like to push each form right to the verge of losing control before I switch to the next one.
The first five coils give a strong indication of what form the piece will take. Each set of five coils gives me a hint about where the piece is going, but I try not let my head get much further than that. Often I get restless in the steady rhythm of coil building; I lean into this feeling until I see the vessel’s silhouette (4).
I know when to stop when I lay five layers of coils on the piece and a sliver of personality is lost. I keep that extra set of coils attached to the piece because I know cutting the rim results in loss of height, but I don’t add any more coils on top of them (5).
Before cutting the rims, I make a brainstorm sketch of leaf shapes, so I have an idea of the silhouette I’m interested in creating. I know that the rim line and diameter will dictate the size and density of the leaves. It also sets the path for how I will clothe the vessel.
Trimming the Rim
When the form is in the leather-hard stage, cut the tips of the leaf shapes from the rim with a sharp blade. Because of the skin-like nature of the clay, I stop before cutting into the main body of the form (6). Since cutting into the form is a permanent act, I like to assess the entire piece. I need to pause and visualize what pattern and what style of rim will best compliment the form. I tell myself at this moment there is more than one right answer. I visualize one step ahead of each cut so I don’t get stuck with a tiny leaf or an extra large leaf as I work my way around the vessel. Then I smooth the surfaces with a damp sponge, let the piece dry (7) and bisque fire it to cone 08 in an electric kiln.
I have more guidelines when I glaze than when I build because I am trying to hide my marks. I use matte surfaces, the color black, and patterns to draw the viewer’s eye away from my hand. I am interested in a matte finish because it flattens the three-dimensional qualities of a piece, and the color black because it makes it harder for the eye to register a shadow. The silhouette of the form becomes an illusion. To achieve a matte finish, I use underglazes fired to cone 6, as they seem to sink into the clay at higher temperatures.
After the form is bisque fired, rinse it to get any debris off of the surface. When it is dry, you can start to glaze. Cover the interior with black underglaze by thinning the underglaze then pouring it in and out and thoroughly wiping off any drips on the outside (8). Use a brush to finish applying the underglaze around the top rim. For the vases, use a clear glaze over the top of the black glaze.
The palette for the exterior of each piece usually consists of two colors, one a shade lighter than the other. Brush 2–3 coats of the lighter shade over the entire form (9), then roughly sketch out the shapes of the leaves. First, visualize the shape of the leaf based on how the rim is cut, then start at the bottom of the form, but keep in mind how the shape is interacting with the cut rim at the top. This ensures a fluid pattern throughout the piece. Let the form influence the brush. Glaze on a banding wheel so the centrifugal force can also guide the brush. This is a good time not to think too hard. If you want bold lines you must be bold.
Once the outline is established (10), use a second color to help with the composition. I make sure areas don’t get too dark so the line work isn’t lost. I also use two to three coats of this second color (11).
For the black line work, I use underglaze applied using three different sized brushes so that the composition is more interesting. I start with the largest brush and work down to the smallest. I only use the smallest brush for short lines; this cuts down on the amount of wavering in the line quality. These small lines add a busy quality to the composition and loosen the eye (12). I use the biggest brush to be boldest, to demand a form, to direct the eye. I use the medium brush to do something in between. I make each line based on the previous line and quickly visualize how they will come together, but that is it. If I let myself linger too long, the surface looks stale or muddy.
Give every line except the tiny ones another coat. This solidifies the line and also its identity. For the first time in the process, I become aware of the final product. The cone-6 firing completely affirms the identity of the vessel.
Relinquishing control over the final product while setting up guidelines for the process is necessary for me to fully enjoy clay. I do not pretend to know what I am doing, just the next step. “The man that knows something, knows that he knows nothing at all”—Erykah Badu.
Ariana Heinzman earned a BFA in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design. She currently lives and works on Vashon Island with ties to Cincinnati, Ohio. She is represented by J. Rinehart Gallery in Seattle, Washington. Learn more about her work at www.arianaheinzman.com.