I began to develop my current body of work while doing a residency at the Penland School of Craft a few years ago. Being there allowed me to explore both old and new ideas. I tried combining things that I hadn’t before and thought about what I valued as a maker. For several years, I had been solely making to fulfill student requests for demonstrations of techniques and processes. While teaching is quite rewarding, I found my work without a clear purpose. Upon further reflection, I decided that one goal of my work was to pass on the feeling of the clay, the touch, the experiential properties of working in the studio. Another passion of mine is marine life, so including textures and colors that refer to the coral reef is a natural fit for my work.
Conveying the tactile quality of working with clay while also referring to the pace of studio work is important to my practice. I attempt to describe the qualities of the clay at all stages of making so that anybody can feel a connection to the process when holding and using the pottery. One way I do this is to leave throwing rings on the insides of my pots, while taking care to compress the exterior with a metal rib. I also carefully craft the foot rim while throwing, or keep the piece wet while trimming, which enables me to move the clay farther, showing the plasticity and adding some playful individuality to each piece. When the clay is leather hard, I use a variety of tools to plan out where I’ll put surface decorations. I further the personal narrative of my work by using one of my daughter’s sewing tools to draw lines on the surface.
Throwing the Pitcher Body
It is important to throw pitchers very evenly with a thin and compressed bottom. I don’t trim this form, so being deliberate with the thickness and compression is important. I do not want the pot to feel heavy while using it or crack during the drying or firing process.
I throw and build with a cone-6 porcelain. I like the smooth feel but particularly appreciate the light color background it provides for my glazes. For pitchers, I use about 4½ pounds of clay. When centering, I keep my elbows on my legs or against my body to provide as much support from the core of my body. I also brace my hands together to help them work with one another. Once the clay is centered, I slide my hands off of the clay carefully, with no abrupt movements as this can throw the clay off center. When doing the first pull (1), I rest my weight on my right leg for support, as I continue, my left elbow points straight toward the ceiling. For my pitcher forms, I want a tall form that is slightly bulbous to hold plenty of liquid. Many of my forms collar in at the middle to refer to the human form as if the pot is inhaling. The top of the form closes slightly to keep liquid from sloshing out and helps channel it to the spout for a clean pour.
Compressing the lip on the upper rim of the pitcher while maintaining some extra thickness in this area is also important so that there is enough clay available when pulling a spout (2).
Use a basic metal rib to compress and smooth the surface for decorating later in the process (3). Sometimes I choose to press a line in at the middle of my pots. This refers to some of my older stacked work where I combined many pieces together and exaggerated the attachments. The line provides a place for glazes to break or for glaze color to change. Sometimes it is simply a formal design element.
While throwing, I use my finger and sponge to define the foot rim. Once the piece is leather hard, roll the bottom on a clean surface to help round off, soften, and tidy up this edge (4). Later I manipulate this soft edge to imitate a clamshell or coral.
Pulling a Spout
Pulling the spout takes practice. Keep your hands wet and take your time. I pull my spouts immediately after throwing the pot. If the clay is excessively wet, you can wait a few minutes or blow dry the lower part of the piece. Pull about 1/5 the circumference of the lip rim up to start the spout (5). When pulling, I use both hands; my pointer fingers and middle fingers are inside the piece while my thumbs are on the outside of the piece (6). It takes at least 10 to 15 pulls from each hand while alternating the gentle pulling action. Make sure the result is a thin and clean edge; this ensures liquid breaks the flow after pouring.
After pulling the spout, use clean hands to gently push each side of the spout back towards the inside of the pot, this helps to develop a pathway for the liquid to pour nicely (7).
After pulling and defining the spout, exaggerate the throat of the spout to further help with pouring (8).
Refining the Foot
Working with the piece relatively wet allows me to press and manipulate the foot rim. The foot rim is the first thing completed after the pot dries under plastic for a day. I spend time refining the foot during the throwing process, but I like to further manipulate it by pressing my thumb or a seashell into the soft clay (9). From a design standpoint, this activates the foot rim and conceptually refers to sea creatures as well as shows the plasticity of porcelain.
Pulling a Handle
For pitchers, I like a handle I can get 4 fingers into so the pot can easily be picked up with one hand. After rolling an hourglass-shaped coil that is around 7 inches long, nearly ½ inch thick on the ends, and ¼ inch thick in the center, use the heel of your hand to gently flatten the coil and thin the edge, so the edge of the coil is a similar thickness to the lip rim of the pot (10).
Next, gently smooth the surface of the handle, taking extra care of the edges. I use my left hand to hold the handle and the webbing between my pointer finger and middle finger of my right hand (dipped in water) to compress the handle edges. This process slightly lengthens the handle but mostly shapes it (11).
Curve the handle into the shape you want to fit the pitcher form. Wait an hour or so to let the handle firm up to an early leather-hard stage, cut the top edge at an angle and leave the bottom edge rounded. Then press the bottom of the handle where it will attach to the pot (12). Score the pot and handle, add a small amount of water to the pot, and then press the handle onto the leather-hard surface. I do want to show the edges of the handle and the process of making the handle, so I do not smooth the handle’s connection points into the piece.
Finally, compress the edges of the handle and add any finishing touches. I like to add small pieces of clay inside and on top of the handle (13), which I flatten with the edge of a brush. This helps create a visually smooth transition from the handle to the pot as well as creating an oval negative space inside the handle. Rather than smoothing these attachments, I prefer to leave the edges, showing the process and creating another area for the glaze to gather and break.
The final step is the surface decoration. I like to use a slip trailer to trail the dots. I use this texturing to mimic the surface of a sea urchin shell by observing a real specimen that my daughter brought home from a family vacation. The tactile quality of the slip-trailed, urchin-like dots also helps a person who may be holding the pitcher to feel the process.
Before slip trailing the dots, I draw dotted lines on the surface as a guide to follow. I do this with a tracing wheel found at most sewing stores. (14). Making sure the flocculated slip used for trailing is a perfect consistency takes some time.
I make slip from scraps of my throwing clay body. I dry the scraps, then slake them down with water. In a blender, I mix the slaked clay to the consistency of plain yogurt and add Epsom solution (4 cups of hot water to 60 grams of Epsom salt) to thicken it—one tablespoon of the solution to 4 cups of slip works well.
Fill a slip trailer with liquid clay slip (I use a Xiem slip applicator). Before trailing any dots on the actual form, test the flow of the applicator on a table (15). Use this as a way to determine how much pressure you will need to create small dots and fat dots. Then, carefully apply the slip dots in various sizes to the surface of the piece following the lines you drew earlier (16, 17). When the piece is finished (18), I dry it slowly under a piece of light fabric for a day or two before allowing it to dry completely.
Once the piece is bone dry, I use a damp sponge to soften any sharp edges; this is particularly important, as the dots can become very sharp after firing if they are not smoothed a bit.
Color, like texture and surface, is an important component in my work. Over time, I have developed a palette of glazes that work well together. By layering stable and flowing glazes of contrasting colors together, I can compliment the texture and form of each pot. I’ve found that spraying glazes creates the glaze interaction I want. Experimenting with thickness, order of glazes, and firing schedules has provided a ton of interesting information. I have also found that a fast firing that slows down at the end to a ramp of around 100°F per hour and holds for around 10 minutes at peak temperature provides time for my glazes to move over the surface. I fire my pieces in both oxidation and reduction as well as atmospheres such as salt and soda.
Michael Lemke is an artist and educator in northern Colorado. He is a professor at the University of Northern Colorado and maintains a studio at the Clay Center of Northern Colorado where he also teaches adult classes. To learn more, find him on Instagram @michaellemkeceramics.