Simply put, kurinuki is a Japanese term referring to the handbuilding technique of starting with a solid block of clay and hollowing it out to create an interior.
I’ve been kurinuki curious for a long time. Much as I admired the work of artists using this technique, and wondered what it might be like to try it out, I didn’t think of it as something I would do until very recently. What held me back? Force of habit, definitely. Hesitation at being a beginner at something clay related, possibly. In any case, I was comfortable with my way of working, and had a never-ending supply of ideas and projects to pursue. Things were fine as they were, so why venture into unknown territory? Then last year, when potter Carolanne Currier was leading a soda-firing workshop at Gaya Ceramic Arts Center in Bali, Indonesia, and she offered a demonstration of kurinuki, I tentatively gave it a go.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious that I’d enjoy working this way. Long before my first ceramics course, my introduction to three-dimensional art was stone carving, so working subtractively is part of my heritage. But I came to clay via a wheel-thrown pottery class, and that foundation has informed my approach to the material ever since. Over the years, had my building methods become so ingrained that I didn’t question them? Were they too close for me to see clearly? Mine was a process mostly unscrutinized, until I made that first little kurinuki cup with Carolanne.
What an eye-opener. Having until this time always made things by wheel throwing or the handbuilding trifecta of coil, pinch, and slab techniques, this entirely different approach was refreshing and educational. It caused me to appreciate and make use of clay’s material qualities in new (to me) ways. It offered unique sets of technical and aesthetic challenges with regard to formal design and surface composition. So here I am fascinated, enamored, learning provocative new things about an old familiar medium—like the piña colada song, but with clay.
To make a simple vase form, I use cutting and impressing as shaping and surface techniques. The general procedure is much the same for other forms, so by all means, adapt the techniques to make anything you like. Please keep in mind that this way is only one way. You may think of this as less a prescription and more an invitation—less “how to” and more “how about…”
Solid Block of Clay
First, begin with a solid block of clay. Since I cut the form to shape the exterior, the block must be larger than the intended final form. Next, drive a dowel or stick (1) into the block to get the interior space started (2, 3), leaving plenty of thickness at the bottom to allow for cutting and shaping of the foot.
Next, press various tools and objects onto the block to provide texture (4). The clay needs to be firm enough to hold its shape, but with enough give to take on impressions. I’m forever on the lookout for texture sources such as coral, sea fans, woodblocks, and plants. I also make my own bisque-fired clay stamps and rollers (5). Paddling is a good way to create surface interest, as well. And because I follow up with slicing clay away from the block, often only a remnant of the impressed texture remains when I’m finished. Afterward, the block should be left uncovered to firm up a little bit, enough so that the texture will resist being marred during handling.
Shape the Form
Slicing creates facets as well as developing the overall shape. I use a wire tool, a fettling knife, and a cheese cutter. I start by cutting clay away from the bottom of the pot (6–8) for a raised foot, as shown, and then turn the block over and work on the body of the pot. I keep in mind how the form’s edges and planes will catch soda, because I fire these pieces in a soda kiln. You may likewise be thinking ahead to a wood-kiln atmosphere, or to a particular glaze and how it will break or flow over the vessel’s topography. For me, it’s important to avoid overthinking or planning at this stage. I like to have the general form and visual weight of the shape in mind, but be ready to follow leads from the clay itself; the way a cut tears off may create a line or gesture that suggests the next cut (9). Presence of mind, enjoyment, adaptability, and trust in the process are key.
Once the exterior is cut and shaped, leave the vessel uncovered again until the exterior can be handled without leaving finger impressions. It’s important to me that the cuts retain their sharpness and freshness.
Hollow Out the Vessel
Next, hollow out the form more fully by scooping clay from the foot (10) and interior with a loop tool. The thickness of the walls depends on your aesthetic preference, but it’s important they be as even as you can manage. If your piece is especially tall and narrow, it can be challenging or near impossible to scoop the clay from the center to create more interior space. You may instead need to cut the form in half lengthwise with a wire tool, then hollow out each of the two halves using a loop tool (11). It will take some care to retain the integrity of the walls while hollowing and reattaching. Score both sides and add slip to join the form back together. I’ve found it’s best when I can camouflage the seam with some paddling or other texture after reassembling (12).
At this point, the vessel is complete. Next, I splash some thin porcelain slip over the finished piece (13), followed by colored slips (14, 15), and then I may draw through the slip layer to further complicate the underpainting of the piece (16).
I work with a high-iron stoneware that fires to a deep purplish brown in a soda kiln, so the porcelain slip offers contrast as a light, semi-translucent ground on which colored slips and, later, underglazes, underglaze pencils, and glazes can show up. My approach to surface design is both strategic and expressive (17, 18). Position and placement in the soda kiln must be kept in mind, but I always invite some risk as well as indulge some curiosity and temptation to experiment. But that’s another story.
I’ve found that kurinuki pots, whether thin or thick walled, benefit from conservative drying, so I usually drape cloth over my pieces and cover with plastic for a couple days, before removing the plastic but keeping the cloth, and then finally removing the cloth for the last bit of drying. When the work is dry, proceed with the glazing and firing process of your choice.
Since it’s simply a method of building, almost the entire spectrum of shaping and texturing options are viable with kurinuki, including cutting, paddling, tearing, impressing, squeezing, stretching, and carving. You may use any kind of clay, from porcelain to chunky, groggy stoneware to terra cotta. Your objects will reflect your own aesthetic, be it spare, elaborate, whimsical, organic, or architectural. You may work intuitively or deliberately. You may leave the clay unadorned or employ surface decoration with slips and underglazes, image transfer, sgraffito, decals, or luster. You may glaze or not glaze; fire in oxidation, reduction, or another atmosphere, such as wood or salt/soda.
If kurinuki seems outside the box for you, that’s all the more reason to try it out. If you have focused on wheel throwing and handbuilding, a fundamental change in your approach to forming objects will gift you with an alert, beginner’s mind. It will reinvigorate your practice by testing you to think of your familiar forms in different terms. What if you made your usual forms but in a subtractive method? How would that change both the experience of making and the resulting object? How might the experience of its eventual use be thus altered? How might your thinking about surface be affected? In what ways might your work evolve? You won’t know until you try.
Eva Champagne received her BA in studio art from Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and her MFA in ceramics from the University of Montana-Missoula. She lives in Bali, Indonesia, where she is the managing director of Gaya Ceramic Arts Center. To learn more, visit www.gayaceramic.com.