My fascination with botanicals grew out of the hours spent playing in the woods as a child and watching my father tend to his vegetable and flower gardens. Pottery has given me an opportunity to revisit that time among the flowers and trees, now, responding to the beauty and challenges of the natural world beyond my backyard. My pots are a celebration of the beauty of forms, structures, and textures found in nature. Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, in which he explores the human desires of beauty, sweetness, control, and intoxication through plants, inspired me to broaden my approach to my subjects. I began to explore themes that plants and flowers suggest to me. My series Rooted includes the bulbs and roots of the plants, symbolizing how our family and cultural roots nurture our growth.
My pots are carved in bas-relief, with cone 6 Grolleg porcelain, and fired in an electric kiln. I’ve always loved the feeling of drawing and carving into clay and the way that the marks become an integral part of the form of a pot. Porcelain is the most responsive clay for my carving, but any clay without grog could be carved. The fine texture allows you to carve minute details in each stem, blossom, or leaf. The white of porcelain reflects the lights, darks, and shadows that describe the forms and textures of the plants. The highly vitrified and fine nature of porcelain allows for polishing the unglazed surface to a soft sheen. Other clays may not be able to be polished in this way.
When designing the form of a pot, I often look to historical references such as Chinese Song Dynasty pottery. The theme of a series may also inspire me. I studied Chinese tea storage jars when I designed Quenched, a pot about ancient beverages. At times, the shapes and movement of a plant determine the form of the pot. The curves of the pots of the Rooted series draw attention to the bulbs and roots.
Sketching the form of the pot, the flowers, or both begins each piece (1). Drawing the pot to size helps me to determine the amount of clay to use, if it will be thrown in one or more pieces, and the scale of the floral images. I throw a group of pots based on my sketch, each with a slight variation of the form (2). The pots are thrown with thick walls to allow for the depth of the carving. This varies by the size of the piece and the depth of the carving. Tip: If the walls of your pieces are usually 1/4 inch thick, then for a carved piece, start with 3/8–1/2 inch thick, depending on the size of the piece. Experience will help you to modify this to your own thrown pieces. When I teach this technique in a workshop I have the students begin with 3/8-inch-thick tiles, where they can constantly feel the thickness as they work. If you are working on a closed form like a bottle, work thicker because you can’t feel the thickness as you are working.
From this group, I choose one to be dried to leather hard, trimmed, and carved with my design. Because the carving of my pots can take up to 100 hours to complete, it’s important to maintain leather-hard hydration with constant misting and by keeping them wrapped in multiple layers of plastic. The pot is only fully unwrapped when I hydrate the whole piece with a fine mist at the beginning and end of each carving session. Only a small window is opened in the plastic around the area that I’m carving (3).
Working from live specimens, sketches, and photos, I use watercolors to lay out the design on the leather-hard pot (4). The fluid lines of painting enhance the curves of the pots. The paint allows me to use cosmetic sponges to make changes in my design without creating any texture, and it burns out during the firing. Be aware of how your design works over your whole pot. I work on a banding wheel while sketching, and I constantly view the piece from all sides to avoid a one-sided design.
When my sketch is complete, a narrow ball stylus tool is used to draw into my painting, creating a simple outline drawing with no details (5). A cosmetic sponge is used to erase the watercolors, revealing the incised drawing (6).
Next, using a small loop tool, I excise the background clay away from the images and points of overlapping leaves, petals, and stems, creating the middle ground and background space of the design (7). A small loop tool works well for removing clay near the image and larger loop tools, flat edged X-Acto knives, and metal ribs smooth the background. I don’t excise the entire background. The deepest carving is near the image, then gradually grading it back to the original surface to avoid drastic changes of wall thickness.
When the excising is done, clay is added to the tips of leaves or edges of petals that protrude the most, creating the foreground. Before adding clay to the pot, a small piece of damp paper towel is placed on that spot to help soften the leather-hard surface to better accept the soft clay. The paper towel is removed and a sharply pointed X-Acto knife is used to heavily score the spot (8). I brush the score marks with vinegar, creating a slip on the surface. I started using vinegar after learning that Martha Grover uses vinegar in her joining slip. I found that brushing vinegar over the scoring marks creates a deflocculated slip (more fluid with less moisture), which is stickier and results in less cracking than using just water. Using a small wooden tool, small amounts of soft clay are pressed onto the scored surface, compressing with every application (9). The pot is tightly wrapped with plastic overnight to allow the moisture of the added clay to equalize with the leather-hard pot.
With the foreground, middle ground, and background established and the high points created, I begin refining the forms of the stems, leaves, and petals. The modeling and carving of my pots is done with X-Acto knives, old dental tools, small loop tools, clay shapers, and miniature sculpture tools. I round the edges created by excising and carve away at the now leather-hard added clay, blending it into the pot, and further compressing it. Working under a strong directional lamp allows me to see how the highlights and shadows are describing the forms of the flower. As the modeling nears completion, a cosmetic sponge, clay shaper, and damp brush are used to smooth over sharp edges and surfaces and clean up crumbs and marks (10).
Adding Texture and Depth
Surface textures are created after the modeling is completed so that my tools can follow the curves of the form in a natural way. Having a scrap slab of leather-hard porcelain nearby is handy for practicing textures before carving them into the finished pot. I work to create a variety of lines, marks, and irregularities found in the textures of nature (11).
Undercutting is a technique used to create shadows to make an image appear to exist in a deeper space. Old dental tools and X-Acto knives work well to make an angled cut under the edge of a petal or leaf to deepen the shadow. I wait until the textures are finished before undercutting in order to have the support of the clay under the edge and avoid cracking while carving (12).
Drying to Firing
My pots require a very slow, controlled drying due to the slight irregularities in wall thickness. I brush the high points and edges with wax resist, which slows down the drying of these thin parts of the pot. When the carving is finished, the pot remains completely covered in plastic for a few days to equalize the hydration. Closely monitoring the piece, I begin to gradually remove the plastic wrap, keeping a loose plastic bag over the piece for a couple weeks before completely removing it. A large piece can take 3–4 weeks to dry.
My pieces are bisque fired to cone 06 and glaze fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln. The kiln’s computer controller allows me to program a very slow schedule of temperature increases for both firings. The program includes a drying cycle (4–8 hours for bisque and 2–4 hours for high fire), slow passage through quartz inversion (1063°F (573°C)) up and down, and a controlled cooling.
Polishing begins, under water, after the bisque firing, with 150–320 grit soft sanding pads. Avoiding the textures, I wet sand the roughness or irregularities in the surface. Because no dust is generated during wet sanding, it’s much safer than dry sanding greenware (13). Next, the interior is glazed using a clear glaze that blends well with my polished porcelain surface, Silky Matte G1214Z. Be sure that the pot is completely dry after the wet sanding before glazing the inside of the pot. The final polishing of the unglazed porcelain is done after glaze firing. I use a series of silicon-carbide sandpapers, which can be purchased at auto-body stores, to wet polish the porcelain. The polishing is done by hand using 800–2000 grit papers. When wet, the papers soften to allow better access to the small details and curves of the pot, and the water rinses away the residue from the sandpaper. This polishing process results in a smooth, marble-like surface of the carved unglazed porcelain.
I apply gold leaf to the bottom of my pots to distinguish my one-of-a-kind pots from my limited-edition slip-cast work. An adhesive is brushed on, and the gold leaf is applied and gently burnished. A final coat of gold leaf sealant completes the pot (14).
JoAnn Axford maintains a studio in her home in Albany, New York, with the help of her cats, Raku and Percy, and exhibits her work throughout the country. She would be happy to meet you on Facebook (JoAnn Axford), or Instagram @jfaxford, or visit www.joannaxford.com.