The idea for my flower boats originated in a workshop given by Jacquelyn Rice who, at the time, was a professor of ceramics at Rhode Island School of Design. I was a potter, just starting out, working almost exclusively on the wheel. Rice gave the group a 20-minute handbuilding exercise and limited each person to using one basic tool, such as a wooden chopstick or metal rib. I started pinching bowl forms, rolling coils, and pounding out slabs with my fist, then tearing and pasting the pieces together with no clear idea of what I was making; I was just trying to create interesting sculptural forms. One of the objects I made looked like a boat with a deep hull and a pitched roof and reminded me of the illustrations of Noah’s ark that I’d seen in children’s storybooks. Some weeks later as I was designing a vase form for short-stemmed flowers, I decided to revisit the handbuilt boat form and the flower boats were launched.
Over the years, I’ve made flower boats in a variety of sizes, experimenting with different surface treatments and with firing at different temperatures. I’ve discovered that many types of flowers work well in the boats—colorful weeds picked by the roadside, branches of spring blossoms, or lush flowers from the florist. Though the flower boats have become more refined over the years, I’ve tried to keep the sense of play and the simplicity of construction that was there in the original iteration. I’ve always found it amusing that these are boats, but the water is on the inside.
Forming the Components
Start with balls of clay weighing 1–1¼ pounds to make a basic pinched bowl form. When pinching the bowl, try to maintain a thick rim and a small opening (1) until the end of the process (2)—this prevents the bowl from becoming too flat. Before the bowl becomes leather hard, cup it in your hands and shape it into an oval. Then cut the lip level with a knife. Use a knife or a rasp to bevel the long edges of the oval so that they slope out and down to create more surface area for attaching the roof (3).
To make the roof and spout ends of the boat, roll a slab about ¼ inch thick. Cut the spout shapes and rectangular roof pieces from this slab (4, 5). I use tarpaper templates made of varying shapes and sizes for this. To determine the size and shape of the templates, rough them out using paper and scissors, holding them up to the pinched bowls. Once you’ve determined the shape you want, it can be transferred to a more permanent material like tarpaper.
You can make a simple mold of folded cardboard and tape to help form the roof (see 6). Cardboard molds are cheap and quick to make, which is handy if you want to change the sizes or the angle of the roof pitch. The mold will support the roof when drying, prevent slumping, and will also provide support while adding any surface decoration or texture. Score and slip the rectangular slabs for the roof and join them (6).
The slabs that form the bow and stern are modeled on the idea of both flower-petal and pitcher-spout shapes. To make the petals/spouts appear more delicate, thin out the blunt, cut edge of the slab. To do this, press down with a damp sponge in a wiping motion along the curved edge. Flip the slab over and repeat the action (7). I usually finish the thinning of the spout edge by pinching, which gives it some organic movement. I like to have the parts of the construction clearly visible, so I leave the bottom edge of the spout as cut, showing the thickness of the original slab. This cut edge also relates to the roof edge.
To make the cylindrical tubes, or chimneys, roll out a coil approximately 5/8 of an inch thick. Cut it into smaller sections, one to three inches long depending on how tall you want the chimneys. Take a section of coil in your hands and insert a thin implement such as a bamboo food skewer or thin steel rod lengthwise through the middle of the coil. Hold the two ends of the rod parallel to the table and apply slight downward pressure while rolling the coil on the table, opening up the interior space and thinning the walls of the cylinder (8). Do this carefully and evenly, repeating the action a few times. Roll straight with equal pressure on both ends of the rod to create a cylinder, or apply slightly more pressure on one side to create a cone shape. These cylinders will be cut at an angle at one end to join to the sloped roof, so make them long enough to accommodate the cut on the short side. Once all the parts are made, allow them to become leather hard before building the boat.
Assembling the Boat
When the parts are all leather hard, position the roof onto the oval bowl and mark the attachment areas. Apply slip and score these areas on both the rim of the bowl and the underside of the roof, then join them together. After the roof is attached, trim the overhanging section if necessary. I usually trim the roof to follow the contour of the bowl (9). Next, score and slip the ends of the bowl, then join the petal/spout bow and the stern (10).
Cut one end of each rolled cylinder at an angle so that it stands vertically on the sloped roof. Position the cylinder on the roof and mark the spot for joining. Score and slip both the cylinder and the roof, then join the two (11). I attach the chimneys before making a hole. After the chimney is attached, use a hole-making tool to cut through the roof. Run a wooden dowel around the interior walls of the chimney to clean up the join, and widen the hole if needed.
Once you have assembled all the parts, clean up the edges with a light sponging. Scrape and smooth the bottom to make sure the boat sits level. The thatch roof texture is made by scratching lines into the roof while it is on the cardboard mold using a pin tool or bamboo skewer. After the chimneys are added, they are also textured to complete the look (12).
I bisque fire the finished boats to cone 06 in an electric kiln.
Glazing and Firing
I use a variety of glazes on my flower boats, sometimes applying one color, and sometimes including a few different colors on one boat. Recently I’ve been applying a single glaze—a Val Cushing glaze that reacts with the high-iron clay body I’m currently using. The glaze has an active surface that becomes darker at the edges and varies in color depending on its thickness. The glaze is a pale cream color on white clays, but pulls color out of dark slips and clay bodies to dramatic effect. When I use more than one color on a boat, I completely fill the boat up with a glaze and pour a little out of both ends to cover the inside of the spouts, then quickly flip the boat upside down to coat the inside of the chimneys. I use a sponge to remove any splashed glaze from the exterior and then paint the outside with glaze.
My boats are fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln in a 10-hour firing.
Marc Egan studied ceramics at Sheridan College, School of Craft and Design, Oakville, Ontario, Canada. He currently works in his Toronto studio producing pottery and ceramic sculpture. Egan teaches in the ceramics department at Sheridan College, and at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. His work is in numerous private collections as well as the collections of the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo, Ontario, as well as the Gardiner Museum and Royal Ontario Museum, which are both located in Toronto.