I gravitated toward handbuilding techniques during undergraduate school, discovering that they were the best choices for the forms I wanted to make. Inspiration for my pots comes from a variety of sources, from a European architectural frieze to a slip-cast Wedgwood teapot.
A pot’s inherent potency to enhance daily life—a simultaneous engagement of concept (utility), action, service, and aesthetic experience—is deeply compelling and challenging. Pots that nest in other pots, like my salt and pepper set, also appeal to my sensibility of thinking through and making pots that connect multiple forms and surfaces into one; like the walls of a home, that contain and embrace the internal multiple spaces.
Decoration is also integral to my research and pottery practice. I’m interested in its capacity to be performative, delightful to the eye, and be informative—as a carrier of cultural meaning. Decoration constitutes complex, diverse, and visually rich languages that reveal a society’s values, traditions, and cultural structures. In my current work, I mine our digital culture for ideas, embedding computer icons and symbols into decorative compositions on my ceramic works; synthesizing the digital imagery with a physical decorative intent. Computer icons are signs of the technological environment of our 21st-century society that permeates both the personal and public domains of our lives, as we navigate and communicate in this digital terrain of hash tags, handles, cursors, and clouds. The icons are repeated, layered, patterned, overlapped, and imbued with colored glazes on the surfaces of my pottery. This integration of decorated surfaces is achieved with the use of plaster tablets that I cast and then scribe with patterns and motifs.
I use a low-fire earthenware clay, with a layer of white slip that is applied after bisque firing. This slip-coated, bisque-fired piece is then sinter fired to cone 010 to set the slip. The complexity of forms with many joins, require they be bisque fired prior to applying the slip to reduce the possibility of the seams splitting open.
I use paper templates for the component parts and plaster tablets scribed with patterns and motifs to impart decoration to the surfaces prior to building (1).
Making the Holder for the Shakers
When making slabs, I first pound out the clay, flipping it several times in the process, using the rolling pin like a mallet, followed by rolling out the clay. I continue to flip, roll several times, and flip again. This ensures good compression in the wall of the clay slab, which reduces warping and cracking. Also, taking a damp rib—to reduce drag—I smooth and compress the surface of the slab on both sides. I roll my slabs on pieces of drywall (taped at the edges to keep gypsum flakes from getting in the clay).
To make the raised platform base, I roll out and layer two slabs, this way I can alter them both at the same time (so the thickness of the slabs must be considered). Ever so gently, I roll the two layers together on a board covered with one sheet of newsprint (2). The key is to have the slabs adhere without any air space between but not be mashed together. Using a template, I cut out the base with a slight angle to the knife (3, 4), then compress this edge with a rib. Place another board on top to sandwich the base, turn it upside down, then use a paper template to plot the cutout for the center. Now, cut that center piece out of the top, again holding the knife at a slight angle, impart a slightly bevelled cut for easy release (5). Push the knife blade slightly down into the second slab layer. This is important as it allows the cut slab to pull away with ease, creating a raised foot (6). (I learned this layered slab technique from George Mason who used it to make layered tiles). It’s important to keep the center cut-out piece as it will be used as a support for the base once it’s flipped right-side up again, and throughout the building and drying process. I use a fettling knife to compress the slight incision between the two slab layers—as additional insurance to prevent them from separating. Trim away approximately ¼ inch from the cut-away support slab, and reinsert it into the raised foot area with newspaper between it and the base. Sandwich the base between boards, and flip upright.
Walls and handle components are created next, using templates and the plaster tablet. When using the plaster tablets, keep some extra thickness to the slab to compensate for thinning caused by the pressure used to roll it out on the tablet to transfer the texture/patterns and maintain the desired thickness (7). When cutting the walls, or making any joins in the hand-building process, I bevel or miter my edges wherever possible. For the walls, I measure the length needed to create cylinders that line up with the edge of the base, then cut the ends with parallel bevels. Bevelling these edges/cuts increases the surface area of the join, giving strength to the attachment and ensuring that seams don’t split/crack through drying and firing. Next, I attach these cylinders to the base (8), then add handles (9). The remaining time spent on this piece is tidying up connections, cutting out a small decorative section (utilizing the double layer to allow this) and taking the sharp edge off the base.
Making the Shakers
Using a template, I cut out the body of the shaker, cut parallel bevels and score the edges, then create cylinders (10). The tops are cut using a small circular template that’s also used for the bases (11). The double-layered slab technique is used when making the bases as well, so a section can be cut out, creating a recess to accommodate the stopper. Again I miter the joins when possible. To give the shakers some soft volume, I keep my fingers slightly damp and gently push from the inside to coax out a belly from the straight-walled cylinder (see 13). When doing this, I again keep a little thickness to the clay slab to allow for this stretching out of the cylinder wall.
The double slab base is attached (12), as is the curved top slab (13), and the shaker is left to set up to leather hard. In my studio, under dry Calgary conditions, this set up time is about an hour. Alternatively, I wrap everything in plastic and revisit the next day.
I cut a circle from the first layer of the base (14), leaving the second layer intact, and pull away the cut portion to form a foot ring (see 15). The center is cut to create an even hole for a rubber stopper (15). I use a trimming tool to do this, and make the hole just slightly bigger than the stopper, ensuring it will fit snugly, the depth is below the width of the foot ring, and that there’s enough stopper exposed to allow for removal with firing shrinkage taken into consideration. Next, I use a hole cutter to create the shaker holes in the domed top (16), and test fit the pieces in the holder/caddy (17).
Final steps; when the pieces dry, I then take a soft damp pot scrubber to clean up sharp edges, surface marks, etc. I bisque fire to cone 08, then apply the bisque slip. I do a sinter firing to cone 010 to set the slip, followed by glazing. At times, colored decals or iron transfers round out the final decorative surfaces after the pots are glaze fired (18).
Katrina Chaytor is a Professor Emeritus-Ceramics, (retired June 2017), at Alberta College of Art + Design, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has relocated back to her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, with a future focus on a full-time studio practice. Learn more