Years ago, I spent a holiday with my family looking at old photographs and listening to stories about relatives, often people that we struggled to identify—great aunts and uncles, cousins twice removed. It made me wonder how long it would take for my story, and my parents’ and siblings’ stories, to be lost.
That sense of bittersweet nostalgia—the feeling that all our stories are impermanent and easily lost—found its way into my ceramic work. I have always been drawn to the tactility of clay, the way it responds to and records the maker’s touch. The application of heat transforms clay into an archival material—ceramic—that preserves the language of that touch. Cup-and-pitcher sets are some of my favorite things to make because they are designed to be shared. For me, they evoke confidences told over a shared beverage on a lazy afternoon.
I imprint the surface of my vessels with handwritten stories of my family, culled from letters, pictures, conversations over the dinner table, and my own imaginings. The texts are digitally scanned and then laser cut into plywood to create a stamp. I cut my stamps at the DCP Fabrication Lab at the University of Florida. Many colleges and universities now have digital fabrication facilities and most allow some type of public access. There are also a number of online laser-cutting services to which you can upload a file for cutting and receive your stamp through the mail. I layer additional texture from found household textiles as well as stencils cut from paper and vinyl on a Cricut (an electronic/smart cutting machine, see cricut.com). Imagery for the stencils comes from places and things important to my family stories, such as road maps of my current and childhood hometowns, the favorite flower of a relative, and even a rendering of the double-helix DNA molecule. The additional texture obliterates and obscures some of the handwritten text. Just like family stories pass on through generations, you never get the whole story.
Constructing the Pitcher
I handbuild my pitchers using custom paper templates that I design on www.templatemaker.nl/en. This Dutch website allows users to create custom papercraft and packaging templates for free. I first learned about templatemaker.nl at a workshop done by Chandra DeBuse (thanks, Chandra!). While the templates are ostensibly for paper, I have found many that translate well to clay. I print out the templates on regular paper, label them, and then laminate them to protect them from moisture.
There are four components to my handbuilt pitchers: the top half of the pitcher (which includes the spout), the bottom half of the pitcher, the foot, and the handle. I use a truncated cone template for the bottom half of the pitcher and a mitered cone template for the top half (the angle of the mitered cone creates a natural spout).
For the bottom half of the pitcher: Begin by rolling a slab of clay approximately ¼ inch thick and wide enough to fit the bottom template (1). Compress the slab on both sides with a rubber rib before adding any texture or cutting out the form. On my plywood stamp, I arrange the stencils until I am happy with the composition (2). Note: The text on the stamp must be mirrored in order to be readable once impressed on the clay. While the slab is still fairly soft, press it onto the plywood stamp using a pony roller (3), and then carefully pull it off the stamp (4). Let the slab stiffen slightly until it is no longer floppy and can hold its shape. Tip: Working on cement board helps to speed this process along, but don’t let your slab dry too long, or it will crack when you try to form it into the body of the pitcher.
For the foot: While the slab is drying, make the foot of the pitcher by texturing a ¼-inch-thick slab with a stencil cut out of craft foam using a Cricut machine and cutting out a circle slightly larger than the bottom circumference of your template (5). A round cookie cutter of the right size makes this process much easier. I like the deeper texture created by the craft foam for the foot, but I find it to be too deep for the body of the pitcher, so for those stencils I use paper or vinyl. Set the foot aside to stiffen up to leather hard.
Back to the bottom half of the pitcher: Once the slab has stiffened up, use the template to cut out the shape with a fettling knife (6). As you are cutting, make sure that your knife remains perpendicular to the slab so that you don’t inadvertently bevel any edges. I use a Mudtools Shape 2 Yellow Rib to bevel the two edges that must come together to form the body of the pitcher (7). I find that the 90° angle on this rib gives me the perfect bevel and also compresses the clay, making for a stronger seam. One great trick I’ve learned for making beveled edges that join properly is to bevel one edge and then flip the slab horizontally and bevel the other edge in exactly the same way.
Once the edges have been beveled, score and apply slip to each one using a serrated rib and water. Then, form the slab into the shape of the body of the pitcher, making sure to compress the seam where the beveled edges overlap. Use the pony roller to flatten the outside of the seam (8), and use a soft rib to smooth the inside seam until it is no longer visible. Tip: I use a small yogurt container or a foam ball to keep the top and bottom openings round.
At this point, attach the foot to the body of the pitcher after scoring and applying slip (9). Use a soft rib to smooth the outside edge of the seam and the rounded end of a paintbrush to compress and clean up the seam on the inside of the pitcher. With the form upside down and the foot facing up, use your fingers to press down on the center of the foot to make it slightly concave. That way, the pitcher sits on the outside edge of the foot, making it more stable and less likely to be wobbly.
For the top half of the pitcher, including the spout: Repeat the process of rolling a slab, pressing it into the stamp, and cutting out the template shape for the top part of the pitcher (10). Smooth and thin the top edge of the slab shape using your fingers (this is the part of the slab that will become the spout) and then bevel the side edges, score them, apply slip, and finally shape it into the top part of the pitcher (11). Once both parts are formed, score and apply slip to the edges where they will be joined and attach the top half to the bottom half, lining up the seams (12). Use a soft red Mudtools rib on the inside of the pitcher to smooth and compress the seam where the two pieces are joined. Once the pieces are joined, use your fingers to gently shape the spout of the pitcher (13).
For the handle: To create a puffy pitcher handle, use very soft clay to roll out a thin slab, approximately ⅛ inch thick. Compress both sides of the slab with a rubber rib and while the slab is still very soft, use a template to cut out the handle (14). Use your fingers to thin and compress the edges of the handle as well as to create volume and push the clay into a hollow tube shape (15). I add a little water along the seam edges to help them stick, but I have found that scoring and slipping is not needed.
Next, form the tube into a handle shape by bending it around your fingers (16). This is why it is important to keep your clay very soft for the handle; if it dries out even a little, it is likely to crack when you try to shape it. Attach the handle to the pitcher body, scoring and slipping both connection points (17). The handle is hollow, so you can poke a small hole in the underside to allow steam to escape during the bisque firing, but it’s not necessary if you dry the pitcher thoroughly and fire slowly.
Finishing Touches and Glazing
Now the pitcher body is stiff enough to hold its shape, but still fairly soft and malleable. In order to add a sense of softness and movement to the form, use your hands to squish and dent certain areas of the pitcher body. Along with the puffy handle, these squishes and dents tell the story of the clay’s transformation from a soft, wet, plastic material to a hard, permanent, archival material. Let the pitcher fully dry and then bisque fire it.
Glazing gives me another opportunity to highlight and/or obscure the texture and text on the surface of my pitcher. I keep my glaze colors monochromatic so that they don’t detract from the highly textured surface. I use Highwater Clay’s Earthen Red clay, which fires to a luscious dark red-brown at cone 6 and contrasts nicely with my cool, blue-green glazes.
First do a quick dip of the entire piece in to the Shark Fin glaze. Once that is dry, turn the pitcher over and dip it upside down into the Seafoam glaze (see recipes above). The air in the pitcher prevents the Seafoam from coating the inside of the pitcher, but leaves an attractive overlap along the rim. After the glaze is dry, run your finger along some of the raised text, rubbing off some of the glaze and allowing the text and raw clay to show more clearly. Fire the pitcher to cone 6 in an electric kiln.
Mariana Baquero was a corporate lawyer until she rediscovered the pleasures of working with clay. She graduated from the University of Florida with an MFA in ceramics in 2016. She is currently the arts specialist at the Reitz Union Arts & Crafts Center at the University of Florida. Visit www.marianabaquero.com to see more of Mariana’s work and connect with her on Instagram @mariana.baquero.