What began as a way to remove excess weight from my beginner pots, has become a passion for carving away clay to reveal deeply furrowed designs that capture light and color in compelling ways. The carvings bring to mind perfectly imperfect patterns found in nature or the undulating lines of freshly plowed fields working their way across the land in my home state of Illinois.
My carving is a radial design or mandala wrapped around a piece, and the act of carving is a meditation of repetitive movement. Each set of marks adds to and changes the pattern—I respond to the changing pattern as if it’s a conversation between the clay and my tools, and use my vocabulary of carving techniques to finish each piece’s story.
Experimentation and openness to the process have always been a part of my creative practice. Each piece is an opportunity to learn something new about a tool, a form, or the gesture of my wrist as I make my way around a piece. For me, the true pleasure in making is trusting my process and diving in with that first cut, not knowing exactly where it will lead me.
Tools and Materials
I use Little Loafers from Highwater Clays to create a closed jar form; it’s a super fine and clean, white, mid-range clay body. Clay without grog keeps my carving tools from snagging, and ensures the integrity of the sharp lines and curves. It also allows the colorful airbrushed finish and chun celadon glaze to glow.
I have a large collection of carving tools, but find myself returning time and again to my favorite few. My go-tos are the Diamond Core P and X-series tools (1) and Dolan loop tools in a variety of shapes. Two or three carving tools of any kind is plenty to dig into this project.
Forming the Jar
Begin by throwing a 3- to 4-pound cylinder with walls thick enough to allow for the depth of carving you plan to do—I recommend ⅓–½ inch thick. Close the cylinder by collaring in and compressing the neck. Once air is encapsulated in your hollow form, use a rib to shape the piece and add the top angle of the lid (2). Your jar will need a knob, so throw several to give yourself options (3). Tip: For inspiration on various knob shapes, take a look at Pottery Illustrated.
Next, use a wooden tool with a squared-off end—a chopstick works well—to create an indent in the wall of the piece as it spins slowly on the wheel (4). This is where you will separate the lid from the body. Poke a small hole into the center top of the pot to allow air to escape as the piece dries, and put the pot and knob aside until they are nearly leather hard.
Tip: Don’t cut the piece off the bat yet, as it will be much easier to trim the gallery and lid for your jar while it remains perfectly centered.
Use a needle tool to carefully separate the lid from the jar along the bottom of the indentation. Set the lid aside and trim a gallery into the jar base (5). Then, use the base as a chuck for trimming the lip of your lid, so it fits nicely into the gallery. Put the jar together and attach and refine the knob (6). Finally, cut the piece from the bat, trim a beveled angle at the foot, and smooth the base.
Preparing to Carve
You will begin carving when your piece is leather hard. Carving should be clean and crisp and the clay should not stick to your tools. Rest the piece on a foam pad as you work, and have a container nearby to collect your carving scraps, so stray bits don’t get stuck to the piece.
You will need to decide how many sections you want to divide your piece into—3, 6, or 8 work nicely. MKM decorating disks make this part easy. Center the disk on the base and use the needle tool to mark the clay at each interval (7). Then, set your lid on top of the disk, and mark it at each interval as well (8). An even number of sections allows you to alternate your pattern in every other section—I use even numbers when doing vertical or structured patterns. Odd numbers are great for flowing repetitive patterns that swirl around a form.
Feel the thickness of your piece to gauge how deeply you can carve. This is a skill I have developed over many years and after carving through many pieces. Gain courage and confidence in your skills over time by practicing on a simple form or a slab. Where possible, support the inside of the wall you are carving with one hand, by doing this you can usually feel if you are carving too deeply before you actually cut through. This will help you get comfortable carving deeper and deeper.
Start by carving the beveled foot of your pot. A fluting tool is a good choice for the first cut, as they are easy to control and have limited depth. Turn the base of your jar upside down, line your tool up with a dot, and with a smooth motion pull the tool down and toward you through the clay (9). Repeat this process at every dot. Now, you can start to have a conversation with your piece.
Choose a new tool, carve a new mark in one section that relates in some way to the first mark (10), rotate the piece, and make the same mark in the next section. Repeating this process in each section. As you practice this, you will notice that each cut feels a certain way in your hand and wrist, and you will develop a rhythm as you move around the piece (11). Carve the entire base by repeating these steps (12, 13). Let the patterns from the base of the jar inform your choices for the lid—use the same tools, same number of sections, etc. (14).
Use a loop tool to create long, continuous carvings around the pot. This type of mark also helps to create a visual separation between the lid and base (15).
Additional Carving Tips
To create a dynamic carving pattern, use a variety of marks— straight, curved, short, long, deep, and shallow. Combine marks to make a motif, and try carving the same motif from different directions to change the way they catch the light.
For straight cuts, bring the tool into place carefully and start digging in slowly. When you have reached the full depth, you are going for, use a smooth motion to pull the tool toward you out of the clay. For curving marks, dig in precisely at the beginning and use a sweeping motion of the wrist, playing with depth, angle of entry, and angle of exit to create interesting shapes. For short, deep marks, dig in deeply right away and flick the tool out of the clay. Create tapered shapes by carving more delicately at the beginning and end of strokes.
Follow through is important for clean carving. Avoid the temptation to stop halfway or re-carve mistakes, it usually looks sloppier than the initial mess up. Challenge yourself to try carving with just one or two tools. You may be surprised by the huge variety of marks you can make.
Finally, use a barely damp sponge to lightly soften any sharp edges (16).
Spray the Rainbow
Airbrush your jar with underglaze when it is at a late leather-hard stage. If the clay is too wet, the underglaze will not dry quickly and may run as it collects on the piece. Use a spray booth if possible, or work outside. Always wear a respirator when spraying any glaze, slip, or underglaze.
I use a Paasche Model H airbrush, and have extra bottles on hand to make switching colors easy. Fill the airbrush bottles ¾ with underglazes and ¼ with water, shaking to combine. Try for a consistency between heavy cream and half and half. Connect your airbrush to the air compressor and set the tool pressure to 45 psi, adjusting as needed.
Slowly turn the jar on a banding wheel. You want to spray at an angle almost parallel to the wall of the piece, or at a tangent, so the spray catches only one face of the carving as your piece turns (17). As the color accumulates, move the airbrush steadily from the top of the piece to the bottom.
To switch colors, remove the bottle from the airbrush. Dunk the airbrush into clean water and spray, then spray into a clean sponge. Attach the next bottle of underglaze, and airbrush your jar in the opposite direction to catch the other facets of carving (18). Have fun experimenting with a few different colors and try gradients by overlapping your underglazes.
Dry your carved pieces slowly under a sheet of plastic to allow the thick and thin parts to dry evenly. I bisque fire the pieces to cone 05 and then glaze them with a chun celadon before firing them again to cone 6 in an electric kiln. I use a copper celadon to add color to areas the underglaze misses, and to add depth to the colors themselves.
All photos: Lee Barker.
Molly Walter lives and works in Weaverville, North Carolina, and is currently a resident artist at Mars Hill University. She has a BA in anthropology from Illinois Wesleyan University, and is a graduate of the Haywood Community College–Professional Crafts program. To see more of her work, visit www.mollywalterpottery.com or follow her on Instagram @Mogrizzles.