There is a rich history of sharing cultural values and beliefs both through the telling of stories as well as the use of hand-crafted objects. My illustrations are often graphic, simplified depictions of realism with emblematic patterning. On larger and more complex forms, anthropomorphic and autobiographical themes are integrated into layered compositions from the obscure to the obvious. Other themes include community, the individual, and resoluteness. The narratives are countered by playful patterning of floral motifs and simplified doodles on smaller forms. The charming surfaces interact with my unexpected interpretations of traditional tableware forms, making each piece a delight to view and use.
My work is a combination of handbuilt and thrown forms. For my mugs, I begin by throwing on the wheel and trimming the bottom. Once the mug form is thrown and trimmed, it is placed in a damp box so it stays in a soft-leather-hard state until I am ready to apply the transfer.
In connecting surface and form, I balance densely filled graphic areas with simple raw clay surfaces. Similar to a monoprint process, I draw on newsprint with underglaze and fill in the designs with colored slips. The slip-covered newsprint is then pressed and transferred to the clay surface. This method results in diverse representation of my drawings, creating a timely, aged, and weathered appearance on the red clay foundation. Note: After the first firing, the drawings are set so the pieces can be lightly sanded and glaze fired to be functional and food safe.
My transfers are made by drawing on newsprint. Newsprint is an inexpensive paper, often associated with newspaper or packing paper. It has a rougher feel than computer paper and is made primarily with wood pulp. These characteristics allow water to soak into the paper easily, which is key to this transfer process. You can also try this process with tissue paper or rice paper if you choose.
To make the transfers, begin with a template drawing. This allows you to make small-scale production work without the commitment of burning a screen to do silk-screen transfers. Trace the template drawing onto a new piece of newsprint (I use a light table to do this (1)), using a slip-trailing squeeze bottle filled with Amaco Electric Blue Velvet underglaze. I often draw with colors other than the obvious go-to outline color of black because it’s unexpected and removes the association to cartoons. Each time the template is traced, the result is a hand-drawn transfer with slight variations in line and composition (2). I often trace several transfers with underglaze at a time and store them for later use. I also trace my signature in reverse for the bottom of the mug (3). I leave a flat bottom on the mugs to create an additional place to put a transfer.
Once the underglaze has dried on the newsprint, begin filling in the design with colored slip (4). With this process, you need to train your brain to think backward and in reverse, so details are painted first and built up in layers, while the background is painted last. Several layers and colors can be added to the newsprint as long as the previous layer has dried to a satin sheen. If the slip is too wet, it will smear as layered and if it’s too dry, it will flake off the paper. I often work on a few transfer designs at a time to balance the drying time (5).
Once all the details are painted and the slip has dried to a skin, apply a layer of white slip over the entire sheet of newsprint to make the background (6).
Transferring the Design
Timing is crucial for the transfer to work properly. When the white slip is no longer shiny, it’s ready for the transfer. Hold the mug on the inside and apply the transfer paper from one end. Begin in the center and squeegee out the air bubbles with a soft rubber rib (7). Turn the mug in your hand until the entire transfer is stuck to the mug.
Next, pull off the paper to reveal your design (8). I’m interested in the diversity of the marks left by this process, including small wrinkles in the paper and areas where the red-clay base peeks through. To ensure the slip is stuck to the clay, take a wooden brayer and roll over the surface to press down any spots that may not be fully adhered (9). Do this same process for the bottom of your mug to include a design and/or a hand-drawn signature.
Adding a Handle
Following the lobed and loopy line quality of the drawings, I create a handle with a slab and double coil. First, roll out a thin slab and add a patterned slip transfer to it. Using a scalloped oval cookie cutter, I cut out a platform for the handle (10). On the flat side of the half oval, I use a round cookie cutter to cut away a section to match the curve of the mug (11).
Press two long coils together (12), and flatten them with a roller (13). Then using your thumbs, add a pinched detail to the outer coil and shape it into an arch (14). Score and attach the coil to the slab platform (15).
Once the handle is built, attach it to the mug. I score an upside down T on the mug. The majority of weight is held on the coil attachment, not the platform, so you want to make sure you’re securely attaching the coil arch to the mug in addition to the platform edge. Press the coil securely onto the wall of the mug, countering the pressure with a hand on the inside (16). Wiggle and secure the platform into place as well. Lastly, look at the profile of the handle with the mug and adjust the negative space as desired by reshaping the arch (17).
Firing and Glazing
To finish the piece, I bisque fire it to a higher temperature of cone 1 where most of the shrinkage happens. Once it comes out of the bisque kiln, give it a light wet sanding with 120- to 240-grit wet sanding blocks or pads, then a bath to remove the dust.
After the mug is dry from rinsing off the dust, brush on a liner glaze and a clear glaze to make the mug food safe. I like to leave parts of the red clay unglazed in order to showcase its rich color. The glaze is fired to cone 04 (18). I tested my clay body at many different temperatures until I began bisque firing to cone 1 and glaze firing to cone 04. Cone 1 darkens the color of my clay body and makes it more vitrified. However, I use a commercial clear glaze which needs to be fired to cone 04. After testing, cone 1 is the highest I can go for a bisque firing without causing any glaze application issues. I haven’t noticed a need to increase or decrease the thickness of the glaze.
Catie Miller is a studio potter living and working in Fargo, North Dakota. She continues to work within the art community, teach workshops throughout the Midwest, embrace motherhood, and relax with her husband and small dog. To see more of her work, visit www.catiemillerceramics.com and follow her on Instagram @catiemillerceramics.