The plate is one of my favorite forms. It’s the stalwart workhorse of the kitchen and a key player on the daily tablescape. The plate, with its wide-open face, is the most direct framework for the food we eat.
My current work addresses the question: How can the thoughtful design of handmade vessels encourage a reconnection with the food we eat? In many ways, I use my vessels as canvases for bold decoration—coupling quiet forms with gestural, yet decidedly controlled, graphic patterning. Over the years I’ve been refining this patterning to purposefully separate the space of the vessel into places of tension and balance. These spaces are designed to be engaging when the vessel is empty and to work in harmony with the food when plating the meal.
I also address this question by choosing to use a blend of local and commercial clays. To me, digging some of my own materials and growing my own food are two processes that come from the same life philosophy. This philosophy is centered on giving value to what comes from our own region and encouraging thoughtful engagement with the world around us. There is richness to the color and texture of the local clay that has the ability to affect how food is perceived as much as the bolder design decisions I make.
Preparing the Clay
My process starts with wedging together locally dug clay with a commercial clay body at a (roughly) 30–70% ratio. If you don’t have access to local clay to experiment with, you can try your hand at blending any two clays. To do this, create a slab-stack that alternates between your two clay bodies (1). With a wire tool divide the stacks vertically into a manageable size (2), before wedging.
Throwing the Plate
After wedging, weigh out 5 pounds of clay and throw your dinner plate to 11 in. (28 cm) in diameter (3). When throwing, leave the bottoms about – inch thick and trim away the excess. This adds a little more labor in recycling the clay, but it helps to keep the plate flatter in drying and allows for a substantial foot that elevates the plate from the tabletop to present food nicely. Once formed, use a wire tool to cut and soften the rims (4).
Once off the wheel, leave your plate in the open air and carefully monitor the drying to avoid having the rim warp or rise up, as a result of a quick dry. If you can, cover them overnight with plastic to let the moisture content even out across the vessel. This process often makes the whole plate reach a perfect leather-hard stage by morning.
The leather-hard stage is the ideal time to add texture to a plate. To do this, try out a variety of different tools to see what you like (5). In my work, this blanket of texture turns the softness of the wet clay into surface decoration and, ultimately, provides a quiet background for the bold slip decoration to come.
However, having a deeply textured surface on a functional vessel can start to affect its usability. To address this, simply wipe off any clay burrs with your hand and smooth the texture with soft rib (6). This act compresses the clay and makes a nice even surface. If the clay is on the wetter side of leather hard, let the surface dry for a couple hours before softening the texture, to avoid accidentally wiping it away. If you catch it at the right stage, the burrs from the texture should fall off the pot with ease.
Decorating the Plate
After trimming, I put my plates through the first of two bisque firings to cone 04. Once out of the kiln, I use a white porcelain bisque slip as a point of contrast to the deep brown clay. Once my slip is mixed up to a thin, skim-milk consistency it’s time to make some custom stickers! The stickers act as a resist to the slip (much like wax or latex resist) but have the potential to leave crisp, stencil-like edges. To make your own custom stickers use a large sheet of parchment paper as your backing. Next, lay down overlapping rows of masking tape until you have a solid sheet of tape (7). At this point you can sketch on the tape or simply cut the sticker in to whatever shape you want.
Play around with the composition of the cut stickers and use them to separate the space of the plate. Once your composition is set, peel off the parchment paper backing and affix the sticker to the surface of the plate (8). Compress with a soft rib to get a good seal.
Applying the Slip
After the sticker is well adhered you’re ready to apply the slip. Pick up the plate by the foot and hold it upright over a wide bucket. Use a spouted vessel to pour slip across the surface of the plate, allowing the excess to fall into the bucket (9). To create a layered look, pour 3–4 coats of slip over the plate unevenly.
Once the slip is dry, remove the sticker to reveal the clay below (10). With a damp sponge, clean up any edges that need refining.
Once the slip is applied, I put it through a second, shorter bisque firing to cone 04. This seals the slip to the surface and prepares the plate for glazing. Once out of the kiln, dip or paint your plate with any translucent glaze that will show off your surface decoration.
Lindsay Rogers is a studio potter and an assistant professor of ceramics at East Tennessee State University.