Make Play Not Work

Exploration through play is fundamental to a vibrant studio practice. We learn through doing, discovering new directions informed by action and reaction. Engaging with processes and materials without concern for a successful outcome promotes true creative development. 

In order to adapt my thinking from the repetition of daily studio work to exploration mode, I need a shift of experience. A change of place, season, or making cycle can initiate such a shift. Summer seems to be a particularly experimental time of year for me. The days are long and lazy, giving permission to slow down. Inspired by plants and flowers dotting the landscape in bright colors of the season, planters come to mind as a form to make in an effort to bring that outside beauty indoors.

Form First

To make a planter, first wedge 2 pounds of porcelain (I use Laguna #16 porcelain) and pat into a ball. Center the clay onto a bat secured on the wheel. Finding the center of the clay, open the ball with two fingers pressing down into the clay, leaving a ¼-inch-thick floor. Pull the wall toward you to define the beginnings of a cylinder that is wider than it is tall. Using a wooden rib, compress and flatten the floor by holding the rib’s short flat side against the clay with light pressure. Next, focus on pulling up the walls consistently until they are ¼ inch thick. No need to make precise measurements for height and width, simply let the clay flow. Smooth the interior and exterior with a soft, flexible plastic rib to remove throwing lines and excess slip. Compress and smooth the rim with a synthetic chamois cloth or piece of plastic. Use a cut-off wire to immediately release the form from the bat to ensure an even cut while wet. With the form resting on the bat, remove the bat from the wheel, and set it aside (1).

1 Throw a cylinder wider than it is tall. Leave resting on bat and set aside.

2 Measure 3 teaspoons of Mason stain and place in a 1 pound pinched bowl.

3 Throw a short dish with the pigmented clay to the same diameter as the cylinder.

Meanwhile, make pigmented porcelain.  Measure out 1 pound of clay. Holding the ball in one hand, impress the thumb from your other hand into the ball, forming a small pinch pot. Measure out 3 teaspoons of stain and place it in the pinched wet-clay bowl (2). Wearing gloves, wedge the ball until all the stain is incorporated and homogenized; this will take 5–6 minutes of wedging. Work the materials together until there are no speckles of stain and the ball is pigmented a solid color. Using the steps from above, throw the pigmented porcelain into a wide, short dish that measures the same diameter as the larger cylinder’s exterior base (3). 

Add and Subtract

Once the two cylinders are leather hard, roll out a slab ¼ inch thick to match the wall thickness of the thrown forms and allow it to set up on a piece of drywall until firm but still flexible. This may take 1–2 hours depending on studio conditions and weather. In the meantime, trim the bottom and sides of each cylinder to match the thrown wall thickness (¼ inch). Smooth with a sponge and a plastic rib. Cover the thrown pieces in plastic or place in a damp box until the slab is set up. 

Experiment with adding slab shapes to the rim of the large cylinder to enhance the form. Let play lead the way: freehand cut shapes and hold them up to the form to see different configurations. Here, two half-moon shapes are cut from the slab (4) mimicking handles. Slip and score the rim and bottom edge of the half-moon slabs (5) and affix each to the larger cylinder, firmly pressing the two edges together (6). Cover and let the moisture content homogenize overnight. 

The next day, refine the half-moon slabs and cut out an interior shape to make them functional handles if desired. Additionally, sketch and cut out drainage holes on the bottom of the larger cylinder (7). To relate the top form to the bottom form, sketch and cut a band of rectangles in the pigmented cylinder (8), leaving the bottom third solid to capture excess water. The holes allow the water to evaporate more quickly.

4 Cut identical half-moon-shaped handles from a ¼-inch-thick slab.

5 Slip and score the rim and bottom edge of the half-moon-shaped slabs.

6 Affix each half moon to the rim and press firmly, working the edges together.

7 Sketch and cut out drainage holes on the bottom of the larger cylinder.

Black and White

Once forming is complete, it’s time for surface decoration. In keeping with the theme of play and experimentation, sketch and cut out paper stencils. Free drawing these shapes gives the motif a sense of spontaneity. Tip: I make my paper stencils from tree-free sugar-cane paper. This material is less likely to tear when saturated with water and underglaze. Apply the paper stencils to the leather-hard form by dipping each piece in a clean bowl with fresh water then sticking it to the surface of the pot. Using a flexible plastic rib, lightly press each stencil to adhere it completely and remove any air bubbles (9). Once all the stencils are applied, let them dry until the paper is no longer reflective when exposed to a light source. This will take at least 10 minutes, but possibly longer. 

Next, coat the entire outside of the piece with two layers of Amaco Jet Black underglaze (10), allowing a few minutes of drying time in between coats. Let the whole piece dry until the surface is no longer reflective in the light. Carefully remove each stencil using the tip of an X-Acto knife or tweezers to lift an edge, then pull up the stencil. Leave both pieces uncovered and assembled until bone dry, then bisque fire to cone 06.

8 Sketch and cut out a band of evenly spaced rectangles on the pigmented cylinder.

9 Wet and apply the paper stencils to the leather-hard form. Use a flexible plastic rib to smooth any air bubbles.

10 Use a hake brush to apply two coats of Amaco Jet Black underglaze to the entire exterior of the piece.

11 After bisque firing, apply painter’s tape to the exterior of the drainage holes to block off, then glaze the interior of the piece.

12 Fill in the negative-space shapes with glaze using an 18-gauge slip trailer.

In Full Color

After the pieces are bisque fired, sand any imperfections with 220-grit fine sandpaper. Wipe the entire surface with a damp sponge to remove dirt, dust, and finger oils. Glazing the interior of a pot with drainage holes can be tricky. Apply painter’s tape on the exterior of the drainage holes to block them off (11). Firmly press the tape edges again to the bisque ware to ensure there are no air gaps. Pour a liner glaze into the interior, tilting and rotating the piece to pour the glaze out while coating the inside. Let it dry for a few hours to overnight.

Next, fill in the shapes with glaze. Use an 18-gauge slip-trailing bottle loaded with glaze to gain greater control of flow and articulation within the lines (12). This also builds up a thicker layer of glaze and eliminates the need for multiple layers. If you color outside the lines, remove the glaze and sharpen edges with a clean, damp paintbrush. Color in each shape, alternating colors to create a dynamic palette. Do not apply any glaze on the Jet Black Amaco underglaze or to the pigmented porcelain base. Firing the piece to cone 6–7 slightly fluxes the underglaze and vitrifies the surface. Caution: Underglaze that is not covered by a glaze is not a food-safe surface. 

Turning work into play isn’t hard. It’s simply having fun and being joyful and energized. A good start is to schedule play into your studio time, once a week, a month, or a season. Just like work, play takes practice to achieve a happy, flowing state of mind. Repeat a play practice regularly with pure abandon for a successful outcome. What will you do to play a little more in the studio?

Adrienne Eliades lives and maintains a studio practice in Vancouver, Washington. In addition, Adrienne is the HOT CLAY Program Coordinator for Idyllwild Arts Summer Program in Idyllwild, California, and has presented over 20 workshops nationwide. See more of her work at www.adrienneeliades.com.

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