Over the past five years, I have steadily explored using cutouts on the necks of my vases as a way to create more complex forms and expand their function. My early vases with cutouts have turned into what I now call a tulip vase, and the form has gradually grown taller and sleeker. The more I make these pots and live with them, the more I realize that my vases may not actually need flowers to be complete. My hope is that they will brighten any space in the home, regardless of whether or not they are displaying flowers.
Initially the cutouts were a design choice that provided little windows through the neck of the vase. After some research on Delft tulipieres and flower bricks, the cutouts quickly became functional elements of the vase as I made them larger to accommodate individual flower stems.
Making pots on a daily basis often has me considering the relationship they have to the food, drink, or flowers they are intended to contain and display.
Begin with two balls of cone-6 Grolleg porcelain. The first ball is usually 4–5 pounds, and the second is 1–2 pounds. The larger ball of clay becomes the base and belly of the vase and the smaller ball becomes the neck of the vase. The neck section is thrown a little thicker, with the lip beveled in the opposite direction of the lip on the base section to aid in joining them later. I throw them in a series, but keep the neck section covered loosely with plastic until the base has dried enough to not deform when the two pieces are joined together. When the base is ready, score both the lip of the base and the bottom of the neck and apply a small amount of water where the two pieces will be attached together (1). After joining the two pieces together, I continue throwing the neck and combine it with the base seamlessly. This creates a continuous curve on the final vase shape (2). Throwing the vases in two pieces also reduces almost all need to trim the finished form, minimizing clay waste and allowing me to create taller, lighter pieces. If I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to wait for the base to stiffen up, using a heat gun speeds up the drying process, allowing me to attach the neck to the base almost immediately.
After the combined vase form has reached an even dryness (roughly leather hard), it’s time to begin placing the cutouts around the neck. Each cutout is intended to display one tulip stem. The tallest vases typically have three rows of cutouts. Divide each vase into equal sections vertically and mark these lines lightly with a pencil (3). Any scalloping of the foot or lip is done next (4). Once the piece is divided into equal segments and the scalloping is complete, cut paper templates unique to each vase that fit within each segment (5). The templates act as a guide for the finished cutouts. I always begin the cutouts at the top and work my way down (6). After the cutouts have been made, roll tapered coils of clay and attach them to the exterior wall of the vase around the cutout to reinforce the opening (7). This addition of the coil not only adds to the visual depth of the piece, but also provides structural support for the neck of the vase. Caution: In the past I have taken the cutouts too far, and without any added support from coils, warping became an issue with some vase necks. The cleanup needed for the cutouts—smoothing the joins and rounding the cut edges—is the second most time-consuming part of this process (8), the first being the inlay and glaze work.
The next step is the inlay decoration. I typically work on the tulip vases in batches of three, each with a different surface pattern that matches other tableware I’m working on. Using a variety of patterns keeps me engaged in the process as each piece is a new canvas to explore. Despite the variations in pattern, I maintain cohesion through color across my entire body of work. The decoration begins on the belly of each vase, followed by a complementary pattern added at the top of the neck and on the foot. Next, I find a way to link the neck and the belly with some line work around the cutouts. Because the size and shape varies from vase to vase, I’m able to experiment with pattern sizes, spacing, and composition on each one. I carve the patterns into the leather-hard clay with a small scalpel blade (9), then brush on a black underglaze over all of the lines (10) and let it dry until it’s no longer tacky, (generally a little past leather hard). I use a yellow sponge to remove the excess underglaze (11). This process requires having a clean sponge at all times to avoid smearing the underglaze everywhere, so have a bucket of clean water nearby to constantly rinse the sponge. The next step is for the vases to dry slowly and then bisque fire them to cone 08 in an electric kiln.
I use plastic squeeze bottles with needle tips to apply colored glazes inside the carved underglaze lines. At this point, the process is similar to a paint-by-number image or a coloring book (12). I mix my trailing glaze thicker than my dipping glaze to avoid dripping and running glaze as I trail it on the rounded surface of the vases. I complete my glazing process with a full dip in a clear glaze. The colored glazes I use have the same base recipe as the clear glaze, but they are mixed with small quantities of oxides, carbonates, and Mason stains. I fire all of my pieces to cone 7 in an electric kiln. During the firing process, the glazes melt into each other and begin to flow down the sides of each vase.
For now, the tulip vase is my most technically challenging piece and the knowledge and skills I’ve gathered while making them over the past five years has allowed for new solutions and new problems to solve as I move forward. One of the great things about being a studio potter is the ability to make both large and small changes to forms, colors, and surface design pretty quickly. The ability to experiment and try something new each day is a privilege that I attempt to honor by keeping a close attention to detail and quality, and pushing myself to always create well-crafted pots for the home.
Andrea Denniston is a potter in Floyd, Virginia, where she shares a studio with her husband, Seth Guzovsky of Poor Farm Pottery. She completed her MFA in ceramics at Syracuse University. She worked for studio potter Silvie Granatelli prior to graduate school and she is now a member of the 16 Hands Studio Tour. To learn more, visit andreadenniston.com.