I’ve always been interested in the various ways that humans navigate the mysteries of our natural world. Specifically, folklore, ritual, and sympathetic magic based in nature have long inspired my work, and one of my favorite sources of information is A Dictionary of Superstitions, edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem. A fascinating and meticulously researched compendium of folk beliefs, it was a gift given to me as a teenager by my older sister and I still consult it often for inspiration.
When I decided to tackle making a mortar and pestle, I was enchanted by the idea of its antiquity and its use as the symbol for an apothecary as well as its continued use as a valuable kitchen tool. It conjures up thoughts of esoteric concoctions, including the medically valid as well as less conventionally effective ancient folk remedies. When brainstorming ideas for surface designs, I consulted the book for items associated with protection from harm and, being a big fan of alliteration, decided on imagery depicting a red ribbon and rowan leaves, both of which are considered to be particularly effective at providing protection.
In order to give my mortar and pestle a real sense of presence while keeping the interior a manageable size, I decided it should be constructed with thick double walls. This has the added bonus of giving me more surface area to embellish with my charms for protection. The pestle is also partly hollow to lighten the form, although the bulb itself is quite solid to allow better balance when crushing spices.
Forming the Mortar
I start the mortar with about 4 pounds (1.75 kg) of porcelain. I use Plainsman Clay P300 clay body, and open the mound fairly shallowly, leaving between 2 and 2½ inches of clay at its base. Next comes subdividing the remaining wall and pulling up the interior bowl shape, taking care not to make the wall too thin (1). This is repeated with the outside wall, bringing it up to about the same height, again leaving the wall fairly robust. In order to join the tops of both walls, use a rib to clean off the interior and exterior surfaces, removing any slurry. A fine serrated metal rib works well for this because the extra tooth created makes for an easier time getting the joint to grab hold (2). Once this is done and no water or slip remains in the recess in between the walls, slowly collar in the top of the outside wall to meet up with the interior and firmly press them together between your fingers (3).
Having connected the walls, spend extra time compressing the join with a sponge and firm pressure. The air inside the piece supports it throughout the modelling process, including flattening the top of the wall (4). Using the corner of a flexible rib, incise a shallow line between the wall and the top, as well as the top and the interior wall (5) to create definition between the different sections of the piece, which is used to separate elements of the surface design later. I use a wooden knife to remove any extra clay at the base of the mortar and then allow it to set up to leather hard for trimming.
Note: Following any trimming, it’s important to poke a hole in an unobtrusive area of the double wall to allow air and any trapped moisture to escape during drying and firing. I once had a batch burst open in the bisque firing and the only explanation I can think of is that I used too fine a pin and poked the holes too early on so that they closed during trimming and drying. It was catastrophic enough that now I’m careful to make sure to jiggle the pin tool a bit to widen the hole, and I poke it in after trimming, not any earlier.
Forming the Pestle
To form the pestle, center and open 1 pound of clay. Leave a good 2½ inches of solid clay at the base and then collar in the mound from the outside to form the bulb portion of the pestle. Raise the wall, pulling inward to create a narrow cylinder, but not thinning the wall too much. Collar in the cylinder to narrow and lengthen it (6) before squeezing the walls at the top to join them and create a hollow tube. Compress and flatten the top, making it a bit wider than the neck, and collar in the neck a bit more to create the desired profile. Then, use a small metal rib to smooth the surface and to create definition between the handle and the bulb (7).
Sometimes I segment the surface of the handle into subsections, using the corner of a rib to incise dividing lines. Using a wooden knife angled inward toward the base of the piece, I remove extra clay from the bulb and then wire it off the wheel.
After letting it set up to stiff leather hard, rasp the edges off the bulb, rounding it roughly into shape, (8) then rotate it on a wet piece of drywall screen to smooth it out completely. Make sure that the hollow portion has a hole in it, then allow it to dry fully before one last wet sanding with a small piece of drywall screen to remove any sharp edges (9).
Adding Surface Decoration
I like to do my surface-design work on bone-dry clay, which gives me more options when I apply underglaze or stains. It also has the added benefit of allowing me more flexibility in my studio routine, as I don’t have to catch my pieces at any particular stage of dryness. I never feel rushed by the clay to plan my designs.
When I’m ready to begin, I pencil in the basic shapes of the ribbon and the rowan leaves, making sure to extend the designs around corners and right up to the seams between sections. Next, to give the surface a feeling of depth, take a small paintbrush loaded with wax resist and brush some small leaf designs in between the pencil-drawn rowan leaves (10). I like the scale contrast between the large rowan leaves and the tiny sprigs. The wax-leaf design will be subtle in the finished piece. Using wax resist on bone-dry clay is my preferred method, since any mistakes are easily fixed by scraping the wax off of the surface. I really try to limit how much wax I use on bisqued pieces, since mistakes are so much more difficult to fix once the wax has penetrated the surface of the clay.
While the resist is drying, paint in the ribbon shapes with red underglaze (11) on the top section of the mortar. Because I want fairly saturated color, I apply three coats of the red, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next. To depict the rowan leaves, I mix blue and black underglazes in a squeeze bottle with a fine-tipped slip-trailing nib (12). While the trailed underglaze lines are still fairly fresh, I take a damp, fine-grained sponge and lightly wipe the surface. This drags a thin layer of the blue-black underglaze, fills in the background, and shows off the wax-resist designs (13). I really enjoy this step; it feels a bit like burnishing or polishing, and the revealing of the wax resist is very satisfying. Although it looks gray now, since it’s such a small concentration of color, the finished look of this thin, smudged layer will actually end up a soft, antique brown.
To finish the pieces, trail blue-black underglaze into all the recessed seams that were incised during the throwing (14), and outline all the red ribbons by trailing as well. After cleaning up any smudges with a wet sponge, the mortar and pestle are ready to bisque fire.
I spend most of my time working on surface design before my pieces are bisque fired, so that when they are ready to glaze, there’s very little left for me to do other than dip them in clear glaze and fire to cone 6.
I glaze the exterior and top of the mortar, and only the neck of the pestle. I usually leave the very top edge of the pestle unglazed as well, so I can fire it on its side in the kiln. The neck curves in from both the bulb and the top, so it can be safely glazed without sticking to the kiln shelf. In cases where I do glaze the top of the pestle, I use kiln posts to prop it upright, resting on the unglazed bulb during the firing. In the past I’ve made sets where I glazed the bulb of the pestle and the interior of the mortar, but now I prefer to leave those areas unglazed and wet sand them with diamond sanding pads. The finish is still beautifully smooth, and although I wouldn’t recommend vigorous pounding with these pieces, for light kitchen use like grinding and muddling, they work perfectly.
Dawn Candy is a visual artist living and working in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. She earned her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Lethbridge and achieved her diploma in visual art from Red Deer College. Her work has been exhibited internationally and she currently teaches several community art classes in addition to making her pottery. To learn more, visit www.littlesister.ca.