As a potter devoted to researching historical ceramic forms, I overlooked what was around me. When children came into my life, I took stock, first unintentionally and later with purpose, of objects found in the landscape of my domestic space. Slowly those objects—wooden blocks, totes, baskets, kid’s purses, Legos, organizers, lovies/blankies, etc.—made their way into my studio. These previously overlooked objects became a muse, something to weave into my making and echo back into forms inspired by history.
I strive to meld color, sturdiness, earth tones, histories, and fun together in my work. The handled forms I make—bowls, buckets, trays, platters, and baskets—fulfill my desire to mash up these variables into forms that feel vaguely familiar.
Slab handles are functional and fun embellishments suitable for a variety of pieces. The bucket forms I make are close cousins to my slightly wider serving bowls. I work in a series, making five to nine of the same form at once. This allows me to play off of what I see and learn from one piece to the next.
At the wheel, throw a generous form that is slightly taller than it is wide. Focus on even distribution of weight and wall thickness (approximately ½ inch) rather than focusing on achieving very thin walls. Add a beveled lip to emphasize the rim and allow a wrapping decoration that flows from the outside to the upper interior edge. Cut the form off the wheel and allow it to firm up (1).
Once leather hard, clean up the bottom of the piece on the wheel. This is less about trimming excess clay and more about defining the form of the bottom edge (2). Create a bevel between the outside wall and the bottom of the pot that will echo the rim in the finished work while also providing a stopping point for the decorative work. Smooth out the piece and further refine the edges with a metal rib (3). Leave the form upside down to dry out a bit, about 12 to 24 hours, before flipping right side up and attaching the handles.
Prepare a small, thick slab of clay that is large enough to cut out the shapes of two to six handle forms that are approximately 3½ inches wide and 4 inches tall (see 6). Start with a wedged ball of clay, pound it flat, then throw the slab back and forth on a work table to stretch it. When throwing a slab, remember that when clay lands flat, it doesn’t stretch. Ideally you want the back edge of the slab to land first, so the horizontal toss’ momentum stretches the rest of the clay slab. Flip the slab front to back with each toss. Let the slab rest for 3 to 8 hours, uncovered, until it is a soft leather hard.
Paper is a great tool for sketching parts you wish to attach to your pots. Tip: I often use the junk mail that continually arrives in my mailbox for this purpose. It feels less precious than a fresh blank sheet of paper, and as such, I am less focused on a perceived mistake, allowing me to take risks and explore more freely.
For handles, start by folding pieces of paper in half, then sketching the shape (bisected vertically) onto the paper. This method ensures a symmetrically shaped handle. Using scissors, cut the outside of the handle form first. After opening and observing, re-fold and cut out the interior void. I make multiple paper forms at once, varying the sizes and shapes (4). This allows options for me to choose from. Working in paper makes it easy to change the handle to fit the piece before jumping into the clay.
Hold a variety of paper handle forms up to the pot to determine the preferred shape and size (5). Once you select a paper template, lay it on the slab you made earlier and trace it twice using a needle tool (6). Trace both the exterior and interior lines. Next, use a fettling knife and cut out the exterior of the form. Remove the excess clay surrounding the handle, then cut out the interior opening. Bevel the interior opening cuts to mimic the rim and foot. Place the handles back to back and refine them with a Surform tool (7). With a wet finger, carefully smooth the edges of the handle.
Next, trace the bottom edge of the handle with a needle tool where you want to attach it (8). Carefully cut a notch in the pot for the handle using the lines drawn as a guide (9). Widen the contact area between the pot and the handle by dragging a fettling knife back and forth on the top edge of the cut. Score the cut edge, add slip, and set the handle in the cut area (10). Gently press, while wiggling the handle into the body of the pot. If you have widened the attachment area on the pot’s body enough, a wet finger or damp sponge dragged along the connection area will suffice to fill the seam. If not, minimally backfill the seam areas and use a wood modeling tool to define the connection.
I enjoy the contrast between rich stoneware and a white slip. With slip, I segment my forms for visual intrigue as well as glazing and decorating decisions. Using strips of paper soaked in water for about 15–30 seconds, mask off the area to slip. After the slip is applied (11, 12), I immediately remove the paper.
Once the slip is dry to the touch, I cover the entire piece in wax suitable for greenware. When the wax no longer feels sticky to the touch and the piece reaches the firm leather-hard stage, I incise decorative lines on to the exterior walls (13). I use a number of tools, including a scalpel, an X-Acto knife, a fine needle tool, carving tools, cookie cutters, and leather punches. No matter the tool, I am after a crisp, fine line.
Next, inlay underglaze into the incised lines using a brush (14). Then with a damp sponge, carefully wipe away the excess underglaze, leaving defined lines. Using a clean towel, I wipe the pot to remove underglaze residue or water from the work. The piece is then dried, bisque fired, and ready for glaze.
Glazing and Firing
As a self-described firing-temperature monogamist who works in a variety of kiln atmospheres, any upcoming firing determines my glaze-application choices. When my work is fired in atmospheric kilns such as wood, salt, or soda, I leave parts of the pot raw so the atmosphere can play a role in the surface decoration. If I am firing in a gas kiln, either in oxidation or reduction, I glaze the majority of the piece. The lines made in the inlay process are also a guide for my glaze choices. Thinking back to my muses—Legos, blocks, and balls scattered on a hardwood floor—I apply bright accent glazes juxtaposed with earth tones to round out my color palette.
Kate Fisher is a Minneapolis-based artist, educator, mother, and story collector interested in how handmade objects create connections between humans. She holds deep passions for endurance sports and creative endeavors—viewing both as a craft capable of cultivating community and change while offering the opportunity to explore creative problem-solving and risk-taking skills. To Learn more, visit www.fisherclay.com or @fishclay on Instagram.