Soft Transitions

I’m captivated by the processes and experiences that are associated with ceramics. The material can exhibit vitality, spontaneity, and tension, all the while being understated. I’m inspired by historic, highly adorned pottery, as well as the modern sense of simplicity and functionality. My work encourages visual and tactile investigation and enhances the experience of the user through subtlety in form and decoration. My pottery references the natural world in structure and detail. From foot to lip, the lines mimic the soft transitions one sees in flora and fauna, while embracing the clean lines and edges of architectural sensibilities.

Thrown Form

I use a porcelain-stoneware mix from Continental Clay and my throwing practice is relatively straightforward. I use a basic round sponge for pulling and a Kemper steel rib for smoothing the surface. While creating the initial pot, I account for the large amount of subtractive altering I do in later stages. To make a basket, use 5 pounds of clay to throw a large, curved form with a defined, narrow foot measuring 11 inches tall and 8 inches in diameter. The success of the initial form is crucial as there is little wiggle room during the finishing stages for changing the shape. Once the basket reaches a soft leather hard, it’s trimmed then ready for alterations (1).

Etching

While honing my altering techniques, I became critical of the free and loose nature of my approach, and considered using templates to streamline my practice. I came to realize that the intuitive response to the form was necessary to develop the overall presence of the pot. I employ measuring methods that relate to my background in painting and drawing, particularly those used in observational sketching. That said, larger forms do require more technical approaches.

1 Once the form is thrown and trimmed, allow it to dry to a soft leather hard.

2 Create four equally spaced marks designating areas that will be etched.

With the form on the soft side of leather hard, lay out four sections of the pot, marking where the etched grooves will be made. Marks are made on the lip of the pot using a needle tool, estimating the placement by glancing across the opening (2). Mark further measurements using a needle tool and finger to compare distances between hash marks—a nod to observational measuring techniques.

With initial marks mapped out, begin setting up for water etching, a technique that uses water and slight abrasion to erode the clay. I chose this technique because of its simplicity and ability to achieve clean, sharp lines. To start, I use the most high-tech tool in my bag of tricks: the laser level. The level ensures straight lines on taller forms where tape tends to waver. I line up the laser level just outside of the initial lip mark, and apply masking tape along the guide. Repeat this process on the other side of the mark (3). The masking tape acts as a resist for the water and sets up boundaries for the recessed area. There are other forms of resist, such as wax, latex, or shellac, but masking tape does the trick for simple line work and geometric shapes.

Once the tape is in place, use a damp, round sponge to remove small amounts of clay. Controlled sponge saturation is key during this step as excess water can pour from the sponge and muddy the surface. Run the damp sponge from the top to the bottom of the form with consistent compression to etch to an even depth (4). Be aware of the boundaries created as even a slight deviation on either side of the masking tape results in undesired erosion. To speed up the process, use clean water and rinse your sponge frequently. To gauge the depth, run the pad of your finger along both sides and etch in further where needed. Once the desired depth is met, peel the tape off to reveal the contoured line, with undulating shifts in width reacting to the form. Repeat this etching process three more times along the remaining hatch marks on the rim.

3 Use a laser level to place tape the same distance on both sides of each mark.

4 Use a sponge, clean water, and even pressure to etch the clay between the tape.

Tip: Water etching is quicker and easier on bone-dry clay. However, since I alter and attach after etching, I work with clay that’s on the softer side of leather hard. Altering after etching sets up even panels where alterations take place. This structure helps me visualize the form.

Altering

With the sections etched, begin laying out the alterations. First, analyze the form and determine the height of the basket’s opening. The initial opening height is eyeballed, generally just above or below the widest point on the belly, and lightly marked with a needle tool. This height is then measured from mark to table using a ruler for consistency and repeated on either side of the etchings around the vessel.

Next, outlines are made identifying the sections that will be removed (5, 6). I use a needle tool held at a sharp angle, almost laying on its side, to ensure shallow, clean, compressed marks. When drawing with the tip of the needle tool, lines tend to be deeper with rough, torn edges.

5 With your needle tool at an angle, mark the cut lines for the peaks of the basket.

6 Use soft pressure and your angled needle tool to mark the opening of the basket.

7 Cut small divots within the etched areas with a scalpel.

8 Taper the edges of the basket using a scalpel held at roughly a 45° angle.

With measurements and sketching completed, the dismantling begins. I use a plastic scalpel when cutting because the small blade easily maneuvers along the curves, and the flat handle is more ergonomic. When cutting, hold the scalpel parallel to the table for smooth cuts. After cutting along the outlines and removing main pieces of the walls, I cut shallow curves within the etched sections, creating a more fluid edge and sharp peaks at the transitions from high walls to the plunging neckline (7).

Clean Up

It’s important to realize that each edge or defined transition is a line, and line quality of any kind matters. For my pots, I strive for clean, crisp lines that don’t interrupt the eye’s path. After cutting the bulk away, I angle the scalpel at roughly 45° to bevel the cut edges, using my ring finger to guide and brace while cutting (8). I try to make each angled cut in one clean motion to retain an uninterrupted and consistent edge. To finish the edges, use a damp white Mudtools finishing sponge with slight pressure to refine the last imperfections (9). This white Mudtools sponge has a tight structure, making it extra smooth, which minimizes the textured surface marks made from wiping.

9 Soften the edges with a damp sponge. Pinch slightly with your finger and thumb.

10 Roll small, tapered lugs and apply them to the ends of the handles.

11 Smooth the lugs into the handle to hide the seams. Set aside to stiffen slightly.

12 Attach the handle to the inside of the basket peaks by scoring and slipping.

Handle

The basket handle starts out as a simple pulled handle. I create a tear-drop shaped profile with my pointer finger and thumb. When pulling a handle, use plenty of water, apply swift, even pressure, and rotate the handle 180° every 3 pulls or so. Once the handle is pulled, cut it to size and set it up with the desired curve, supported with a sponge if needed to firm up. To vary to the shape, add rolled pieces of clay to create width and thickness on both ends (10, 11). Attach by scoring and slipping, then blend the attached coils into the handle for a unified form. When adding the handle to the basket, I’m focused on creating tension and the feel that the basket walls are pinching the handle and creating the flexed curve (12). I finish the basket with glaze and fire it to cone 6 in an electric kiln.

Dane Hodges earned his BFA in ceramics from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2013. He currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he continues his ceramic work, teaches art, and balances his new role as a father. Follow him on Instagram @dane.hodges.ceramics.

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