Living and working in South West Ireland with the North Atlantic carving the landscape on a daily basis, one cannot help being influenced by the oceanic dialog that is water on rock around our green and gorgeous island. After many years living in San Francisco working as a boat captain, a career change with the privilege of passing through art college, my affinity with the ocean continues. My work translates the vigors of geology—the dynamism of the elements of erosion through attrition, water, and wind that I observe on my explorations along the County Cork coastline (A).
As a trained production potter, I initially used the wheel to make thrown and altered forms. But as I use found objects to mark, make, and form, and because tectonic forces inspire me, the slower, more considered method of handbuilding has proven more effective in conveying my observations in clay.
Using commercial architectural clay, I have tested and mixed a palette of natural colors that are compatible from one clay body to another. The final clay bodies are marbled and grogged to create a variety of tones, textures, and colors. The use of primary colors references the plastic pollution that is now sadly prevalent in ocean environments worldwide.
To create a physical connection from the vessel to the place that inspired it, I incorporate found materials such as sand and clay into the sculpted rims. Experimentation through exploration is where life happens.
Clay Body Considerations
I use a heavily grogged, white architectural clay marbled with a commercial black clay body. Because I manipulate the clay through a number of steps, it behaves well under the various stresses. It also allows for material additions without cracking. Both clay bodies fire compatibly to cone 7. I began my experiment some years ago with stoneware bodies and slip. It is important to be able to tear, layer, stress, and pull the clay body to emulate the tortured seascapes of my inspiration. The cone 9 and 10 temperatures required to vitrify stoneware led to sagging difficulties as the work increased in scale. Experimentation suggested lowering the firing temperature and using grogged architectural clay bodies. Today I mix a range of four clay bodies to acquire the natural-toned color palette I desire, and fire to cone 4 or 5, depending on the scale of the work.
As organic pattern is important in depicting the stratified layers of the Devonian slate and mudstone evident at Mizen Head, Ireland’s most south-westerly point, wedging is unexpectedly pivotal to the overall aesthetic of the piece. Between 8 and 10 spiral wedges of the two clay bodies is sufficient to achieve a fluid marbling of the clay with some visual rhythm. Twelve or more turns of the clay produces a more dissipated, busy pattern that is also attractive.
Cut equal sizes and weights of compatible, contrasting colored clay (1). Stack the clay in alternating colors. Compress the clay to remove any air (2). Spiral wedge the clay firmly. Four spiral wedges will give you a different effect to 8 and 12 turns of the clay (3–5).
The marbled clay slabs’ thickness and their placement into the mold must be well considered. Sea caves and Atlantic canyons come to mind as spiral slabs begin to turn into a relatable vessel.
Cut 8-mm-thick slabs using a wire tool, then even them out with a rolling pin. Place the thin slabs into a plaster mold (6). Approximately 6 slabs fit into a 8¼-inch (21 cm)-diameter mold.
Compression by paddling (7) removes any possible air bubbles. The compression lends an organic outcome to the V shapes left by the slabs of spiral-wedged clay. The V-shaped valleys become sea cliff crevices and caves. As the vessel begins to take shape and the various clay bodies are added, the use of a plaster mold becomes more and more appropriate. Retaining the bowl form during the compression and subsequent scraping back of the clay with a metal rib is made possible by the support of the plaster mold. The advantage of using the 8-mm-thick slabs of clay is that the thicker slab allows for removal of the smeared clay surface with the confidence of not scraping through to the plaster mold.
I will not offer notes on drying times. The Irish hyper oceanic climate, which is a glamorous, polite way of describing 225 days a year of rain, means drying times are at the whims of the weather and one’s patience. As the clay is paddled and compressed into the mold with a good degree of pressure, suffice it to say that slow drying time is best to minimize cracking.
Calcifying Found Materials
The found materials I gather on my travels by kayak along the coast are obviously rich in salt and many other contaminants in terms of clay mixing and kiln firings. Found materials such as sand, tiny pebbles and clay are soaked and rinsed in fresh water and allowed to dry. The material is fired to cone 06 to calcine it. The material is then sieved to remove very fine sand and other particles and fired again to cone 4. The iron-rich materials vary in color at cone 4 from yellow ochre to iron red.
I wedge the calcined found materials and commercial stains into the grogged white clay (8) to imbue a sense of connection to the place of inspiration. Then, I add a layer of colored clay and found materials to the black-and-white marbled base (9). Some materials can flux to give a light, egg-shell sheen, others add texture, sandy vitality, and color contrast.
Sculpting the Rim
The last step in the marbled sculptural vessel is the addition of the top coil of black clay (10). I mix the commercial black clay with a rich, iron-red clay to create a blue-black clay body. The rim lends itself to recreating jagged cliffs or the water-carved littoral zones that inspire me.
At this point, the found materials are added on to surface of the clay, creating a further textured dimension to the rim. If some of the material should fall away during the drying and firing process, this adds to the textured appearance of the surface of the clay. I keep the rim even in at least 3 points to aid centering and attaching a foot to the base later. The rim can be altered at late leather-hard stage if needed.
Cleaning and Revealing
The scraping back of the drying pot reveals the marbled clay pattern beneath (11). When possible, scrape back the vessel at the leather-hard stage to minimize dust. Always wear a dust mask. This part of the process can be quite mesmerizing as the clay pattern will change with more scraping. Be careful not to scrape all the way through!
Adding a Foot
An initial superficial scraping back of the pot is done to aid in the placement of the foot. Next, using a foam bat, carefully center the vessel. Add a generous coil of marbled clay to the centered base of the vessel (12). Using as little water as possible, compress the clay coil to the vessel, gently pull the clay up (13), compress back down and remove the excess clay with a needle tool. Turn and clean the foot at leather hard (14).
Polishing the Fired Piece
Once the vessel has been bisque fired, it can be polished with a diamond pad under water to reveal a clean and crisp marbled pattern (15). As the clay is heavily grogged, it is good practice to polish the base so it doesn’t scratch surfaces.
The final firing to cone 4 reveals a pattern that is smooth to the touch. The final piece can be given a light coat of Lavender Wax to make future dust removal easy.
After many years working in California as a boat captain, Bernadette Tuite returned to Ireland and reinvented herself through an art education. Bernadette completed her pottery skills and design degree and her applied art degree studies, obtaining multiple awards. Today, she works from Backwater Artist Studios in Cork and exhibits her work nationally and internationally. To learn more, visit www.bernadettetuite.com, www.Instagram.com/bernadettetuite, and Facebook.com/Rock-Water-Ceramics-and-Glass.