My mother was a child of the Great Depression. In our home, we had beautiful painted china cups and saucers, which were displayed, but never used. I think having something highly artistic and yet accessible appealed to her and many other women of her time. I like to honor that spirit in my clay-and-beaded pieces, which stem from a tradition of meticulous handcrafts. I find joy in making a clay form and then patterning the surface with glass beads. The process is meditative as well. Teapots have been a constant subject for me, as I love playing with the four basic components: vessel, handle, spout, and lid.
Creating the Initial Form
Making slab teapots without waiting for the clay to reach the leather-hard stage is easily accomplished using chipboard. This thin cardboard can be purchase in bulk at large paper-supply companies. Alternatively, an empty cereal box will do, just make sure you use the non-shiny side. My husband, Jerry Berta, taught me this building technique, and it remains a part of my studio practice.
Begin by designing a two-dimensional form, keeping in mind that the bottom of the form should not be too narrow, as this will impact the stability as it becomes three dimensional. Cut two identical shapes from the chipboard. Next, roll out a slab of clay approximately ¼ inch thick and long enough to accommodate both chipboard templates. Lay both templates on the slab and roll again with a slab roller or heavy rolling pin until the chipboard (matte side down) sticks to the clay slab (1). Cut around the shapes with a pin tool, leaving the chipboard stuck to the clay. This will support your form.
Creating the Three-Dimensional Form
Next, use a cheese cutter to make a 45° miter cut along the sides of your two slabs (2). Score and slip the sides and bottom of one slab. Carefully pick up your slab (with the cardboard still affixed to the piece on the outside) and gently curve the bottom into a wide U shape. After scoring and slipping the contact areas on the leftover slab from your initial rolling, set the U-shaped slab on top of this flat slab (3).
Score and slip the other template-cut slab, then curve the bottom of it into the same U shape as the first slab, and line it up with the first slab to create a vessel form. Gently squeeze the edges together from top to bottom (4). The cardboard should still be on the outside of both pieces. Use a pin tool to cut away the excess clay slab around the bottom. Transfer the form to a ware board and gently remove the cardboard templates. Allow your piece to dry to the softer side of leather hard.
Creating Seams and Appliques
Casually pinch small pieces of wet clay. Score and slip the teapot (not the small pieces of clay), then attach them to the edges of the teapot. Use stamps to texture the small pieces of clay (5).
Next, add small, thinly rolled coils that can be used as appliques. Shape and curve the coils before applying them to the surface of the form (see 7). These will be glazed and then luster will be applied to them later in the process. The shiny lustered pieces will peek out from the beaded surface, creating a nice contrast.
Making the Teapot Components
Roll out a fat coil approximately 5 inches long by 1 inch in diameter. Roll one end so that it tapers. If, like me, you plan for your teapot to be non-functional, there is no need to make a hole. If you wish to make a hollow spout, insert a dowel in one end of the coil and push it through to the other end. Then roll the coil on a table surface to create a hollow tube. Create the handle in the same way as the spout, only start with a longer coil.
Using stamps, like those used on the edge of the teapot, cover the spout and handle in texture (6). Bend the two pieces into your desired shapes, then allow them to become leather hard.
When ready, score the surface and apply slip, then attach the spout and handle to your teapot. Support them with clay if necessary (7). By adding a few more clay pieces at the attachment points, you can create a more elegant connection (see 9).
For the faux lid and knob, throw several forms. The flowers are thrown off the hump in 1–2 inch sizes. Center a small lump of clay on the wheel and throw mini bowls with a dime-sized circle of clay in the middle, then distort edges to create petals (8). Choose the most flattering for your piece, then apply slip, score the attachment points, and secure the lid and knob combination to your pot (9).
To create a removable lid, instead of attaching, create a slab flange on the knob that fits inside the body of the teapot. Check that all of the parts work together to create balance and rhythm.
Drying, Underglazing, and Firing
If you enclosed the form completely, air is trapped inside and needs to be released as the form shrinks and dries, and moist air needs to be able to escape during both drying and the initial stages of the bisque firing. Make a ⅛-inch-diameter hole somewhere discreet for the air to escape.
Leave the teapot to dry slowly under thin plastic. Bisque fire the form to cone 05. After cooling, check for rough spots and sand them smooth.
I use a variety of cone-5 and cone-6 glazes, but for this teapot I’ll use black underglaze. The finished black, white, and silver is quite dramatic. Brush the black underglaze onto the textured areas, allow it to dry a bit, then sponge clean until the black is only in the texture (10). Allow the form to dry for 24 hours, then coat the entire form with a clear, shiny, cone-6 glaze. After the glaze firing, accent desired areas, including the coiled appliques, with a bit of silver luster. Refire to cone 018 (11).
Beading the Surface Post Firing
Now you are ready to begin beading. Start with a photo of your glazed piece and print it several times in black and white. Design and sketch a pattern onto the printout. Making several of these sketches with variations on each helps you to be flexible as changes will occur in the implementation. It is important to me that the bead pattern enhances the form just as it would if I were glazing it. Lay your piece down flat, supported by foam so that it doesn’t rock as you work.
I use Aleene’s Quick Dry Tacky Glue as it dries clear and does not become brittle over time. Lay down a line of glue (12) followed by a line of beads on a temporary string. I buy only beads on hanks (temporary strings). Tap the line into place. The glue will grab the beads, then you can pull the string out (13). The glue dries fast, so quickly take a clean, wet brush and remove any extra globs of glue. You will find that the flatter the surface, the easier the beading. Work on only small areas (1×1 inch) at a time; the beads will not stick if you try for much more at once (14). This practice can be very meditative and rewarding.
After the front of your piece is completed and dry, gather your leftover beads with the same color scheme as the front. Turn your piece over, once again supporting it with foam. Start with the areas that appear the flattest. Brush on about 3 square inches of glue and then sprinkle your leftover, mixed beads over the glue and press into place (15). Allow the beads to set up and then work on another section until the entire piece is covered. Allow the glue to completely dry. I find the glue also works as a sealer, so the finished piece (16) does not need any additional finishing material.
Madeline Kaczmarczyk is a full-time studio potter living with her artist husband, Jerry Berta, in Rockford, Michigan. She recently retired from a rewarding 22 years of teaching ceramics at Aquinas College. To see more of her work, go to: www.madclaypots.com, Instagram: @madelineclaymade, and Etsy: www.etsy.com/shop/madelineclaymade.