I grew up along the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains, where I spent as much time in the hills as I did in school, yet still managed to learn to throw pots on a kick wheel. The wheel has since become an indelible tool in my practice, even after meticulous handbuilding techniques crept into my process. It begins with centering, not only the clay but also my mind, and for that I turn to nature.
Every wild place I venture to presents a distinctive array of flora and fauna to draw from. My aesthetics gravitate toward the colors, contours and patterns of flowering plants. Naturally, I look to Art Nouveau for creative guidance. The use of geometric abstraction gives me a clean surface and draws attention to the innate qualities of ceramics that lend a mineralogical contrast to the flowing biological forms.
I tend to drift toward complexity, so to curb my neurosis, I set parameters that include a simple visual vocabulary from which to elaborate by manipulating three basic shapes, which I call “seeds,” “thorns,” and “leaves”—the fundamental visual components of many flowering plants, that adorn my forms. I feel the nuanced irregularities of hand forming give my vessels a more organic presence and allow for a wider range of manipulation. The whole process is peppered by an intuitive response at any given step. By creating in this way, each piece takes on an idiosyncratic persona while still retaining shared traits.
Making Custom Tools
As my visual vocabulary developed, so did a set of customized tools (1). I used right-angle ribs, like those found in beginner pottery tool kits, and traced a full scale of circles at both ends of each rib, then I cut them out with a bandsaw and put a beveled edge on each with a belt sander.
Ball tools are available on the market, but not in sizes my work requires. I was able to find wooden spheres online at caseyswood.com, then drilled and glued them to the ends of wooden dowels.
Throwing and Altering the Body
My process is grounded in functional ware, so I consider what type of object I’m making and its standardized proportions before beginning. For example, in cup terms, a mug is a cylinder with a handle, but a martini glass is an inverted cone atop a stem. This will inform every choice going forward.
After throwing the basic shape for a mug (2), use custom tools to alter the surface of the walls, or as I say “make the walls dance.” To do this, begin by creating horizontal ridges and curves using ribs, followed by undulations made with ball tools in a rhythmic pattern based on a numerical factor (3). To establish this factor, I use the visible support structure of Creative Industry’s plastic bats, which contains 36 sections that are easily divided into divisions of 3, 4, and 5. If you don’t use these bats, a decorating disk is recommended. Conveniently, most flowers have a petal pattern that fits these divisions. Select the scale and frequency of the undulations in relation to the horizontal contours.
Trim the vessels at the soft leather-hard state so the bottom can be sculpted with minimal cracking. Using the custom ball tools, follow the pattern of undulations created during throwing to sculpt the flat bottom in the round. With this mug I trimmed a foot ring that was pinch formed into a skirting (4).
Building the Mug Base
Assess the number of necessary parts to create an elevated base for the mug shape. For this mug form, use the following pieces: three large leaf forms as the feet and three smaller leaf forms to break up the negative space. Portion out each clay piece with a gram scale to ensure uniform size, and form them in accord with your mug shape and cut bottom. After sculpting the feet and decorative bits, carefully check them for fit on the body, make adjustments where needed using a small level, then mark the attachment areas with a needle tool for scoring and slipping (5).
Assembling the base is a crucial step that requires care to ensure a level, balanced, and secure fit since it must support the entire piece. Sometimes additional pieces are needed to add support or stability, so use your intuition.
Once the feet are secure and level, finish the décor of the bottom half and allow it to slowly dry to a firm leather-hard state before flipping over—too soft and the feet will buckle under the weight. For larger vessels, use pieces of brick and foam for support so construction can continue while the base dries.
Pulling a Handle Off the Pot
I typically pull handles off the pot on smaller vessels. Start by rolling a tapered coil or clay carrot of the desired size and facet three sides. After determining the correct angle of attachment, plan for the flat side of the faceted coil to face out, then cut the thick end on a bias that matches the curve at the base of the cup. Attach the clay carrot to the upside-down cup (6). This placement and the orientation of the faceted ridge on the inside curve will give the handle a more comfortable feel and better loft in the arch. Allow the connection to set up for a few minutes before pulling the handle to avoid tearing the carrot from the body.
After the pulling is complete, rest the vessel upside down to let the clay set up to a soft leather-hard state—just firm enough to support the bend without cracking (7). Tip: A heat gun can expedite the process, but be careful not to overdo it. Working on multiple pieces simultaneously allows for a natural drying time between each application.
Finishing the Upper Décor
Once the handle has firmed up enough that the mug can be turned upright, you can start applying décor on the upper half of the mug. Parts are portioned, formed, and attached. For this mug, I’ve chosen a simple arrangement of thorn shapes, nine in total, around the lip to give the mug a protective or threatening quality, depending on one’s perspective (8). Once completed, a very slow drying time is required to deter cracks or full separations of the individual parts.
To achieve a more complex colorway and surface, glaze select parts. The color palette for this mug is indicative of the orange lilies that grow in my yard and although they are benign flowers, the thorns are a metallic silver to enhance their menacing nature.
Once the glaze is dry, coat the green glazed parts in resist to mask them from the sprayed glaze in the next step (9). I use Mr. Mark’s Wax Off Resist. It’s a wax and latex combination that peels from glaze, making for an easier cleanup after spraying.
I use an HPLV spray gun for large surfaces and an air brush for smaller areas. Caution: Always wear a mask rated to at least N95 when spraying glazes, even outside in the open air or in vented areas.
The transitional phase of two overlapping glazes sprayed in a smooth umbra (the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object) reminds me of the horizon, lends a visual depth to the surface, and accentuates the undulations of my forms. To spray an umbra of color, angle the sprayer so the glaze only covers one side of the pronounced undulations (10). Spray the secondary color in the opposite direction, creating the fade effect.
Once the glaze is dry, remove the resist from individual decor pieces to clean up the form before the firing (11).
I currently fire to cone 6 in oxidation. No matter how you fire, making work that rests on multiple points of contact requires placing it on a clay-slab shrink plate for firing (12). This allows everything to move uniformly and prevents a point of contact from sticking to the shelf and becoming dislodged, potentially damaging other work if it topples. The same shrink plate should follow each piece throughout the bisque and glaze high-temperature firings. Subsequent lower temperature firings, such as a luster firing, don’t require the plate because the vitrified clay is done shrinking and won’t present this risk.
When the work calls for more decoration, luster glaze and metal leafing accentuate smaller elements and add a finishing touch to the piece. I use both. Each has its own qualities, but metal leaf is less toxic and doesn’t require another round in the kiln.
Skylor Swann was the Best-in-Show winner of the 2nd Annual ICAN Holiday Cup Show. To see more, visit ceramicartsnetwork.org/ican-membership.
Skylor Swann currently resides in North Carolina where he teaches at University of North Carolina’s Fayetteville State University and serves as vice chair of the Fayetteville City Public Arts Committee when he’s not coaxing clay in the studio or riding his mountain bike through the hills. He earned his MFA from the University of Miami-Florida. To see more of his work or add a piece to your collection, visit his websites skylorswann.com and www.mangeyclayart.com. You can also follow him on Instagram @mangeyclay.