Working with multiple forms, either of the same shape or slight variations of the same shape, offers a playful improvisational conversation. Having many instead of few helps remove the preciousness that we are often prone to in the making process and instead provides room for experimentation.
While my initial delve into making connected vessel forms was purely as an objects-of-contemplation exploration, they’ve now expanded to become serving dishes or even offering bowls for individuals’ meditation spaces.
To begin, wedge and prepare a rectangular-shaped mound of clay, approximately 15 pounds. Tip: Prepare the clay in a shape and size that is slightly larger than your drape mold (a half-dome-shaped bisque mold). Next, use a set of slab sticks and a wire tool to cut the mound into slabs approximately ⅜ inch thick (1). This thickness allows for enough clay to stretch the slabs out prior to using them. Stretch and compress the slabs, then allow them to set up before cutting them into an oval shape that is a bit larger than the mold.
Place the mold on a block on top of a low banding wheel so you can swivel the form as you fit the slab. Gently lay the slab over the mold and press the slab down from the top until it begins to fit the mold (2), being careful to not overlap the slab and cause a wrinkle in the clay, which can lead to a crack when drying. Use a fettling knife to remove any excess clay (3), then follow with a serrated metal rib and a soft polymer rib to finish fitting the slab to the bisque mold. Repeat this process until all your molds are covered, then allow the clay to stiffen to leather hard.
Gently lift the bottom edge of the slab and pull the slab away from the form (4). Place the forms in plastic to prevent them from drying. Next, use a sharp knife to remove a thin layer of clay from the top edge (5), then pinch the rim into a desired edge line.
Making Pulled Connectors
The tubular connectors between these forms are inspired by the stirrup vessels of Peru. While the clay slabs are setting up, use the leftover slabs to cut rectangles of clay to wrap and pinch around a ¼-inch or ⅛-inch-diameter round wooden dowel. Using a serrated metal rib, even out the surface. Then using the handle pulling method, add water to your hand and the clay and begin pulling the clay around the wooden dowel (6). The clay often stretches 2–3 times its original length. The surface tension texture created by the pulling process is something I appreciate in these tubular pieces for the connecting points. After the connectors have been pulled, set them on a piece of foam uncovered until they become soft leather hard.
When the clay tubes are ready, hold on to the ends of the dowel and roll the clay on a work surface with a slight downward pressure near the ends of the clay tubes. To remove the dowel, slowly twist it with one hand while the other hand softly holds the clay tube. This twisting motion allows the clay to separate from the wooden dowel without damaging the clay tube. If you find a spot that is sticking to the dowel, use one hand to hold over that area and begin twisting the dowel again. Your hand acts as a stability point for the clay, which keeps it from moving with the twist of the dowel. After the tubes are separated from the dowels, wrap them in plastic or place them in a damp box until you’re ready to begin connecting forms.
The connectors also provide strength in between the vessels due to tensile strength. If they were solid pieces of clay rather than tubes, they would be more prone to cracking due to compression issues and stress on the connection piece.
Connecting and Drying
Place a layer of foam on a ware board and arrange the forms for connecting on the foam. Start with the rims facing upward so you can consider the linear edges and their respective shapes when making groupings. Once determined, flip the forms over on their rims and adjust their spacing as needed. Using one of the connector tubes, cut lengths with 45° angles to make strong connections. Slip and score both connection points, firmly and gently press the connector into place, and spread the clay to strengthen the connection (7). Then, score around the connection point, add slip, and spread a small amount of soft clay in this area. Sculpt the clay to look like the connectors are a natural part of the form.
Once connected, rest another layer of foam and a ware board over the connected forms and flip them over. From this vantage point, my favorite sculpting tool is a pointed wooden tool—it has the perfect taper to reach and shape small areas. After the top of the connection points are sculpted (8), revisit the rims and adjust them as needed to create a flowing line between forms.
Dry the connected forms under a layer of thin plastic until they are bone dry. A slow drying process ensures that cracks do not develop and the pieces do not warp.
For this piece, once bone dry, I brushed on one layer of Rhonda’s Winter Ice Blue terra sigillata to the entire piece, then to the exterior I brushed on one layer of Rhonda’s Summer Day Blue terra sigillata. To the interior I brushed a layer of Rhonda’s Blue/Black terra sigillata. Using a manicurists dotter tool, I rubbed through the layer of Rhonda’s Blue/Black terra sigillata in repetitive circles (9). The rubbing, rather than carving, allows the Rhonda’s Winter Ice Blue terra sigillata to peek through without removing both layers of terra sigillata or revealing the earthenware clay below.
Poke a small hole in each connection tube, which provides an escape route for any steam in the firing process. Allow the piece to fully dry and slowly bisque fire it to cone 03 so that any air/moisture trapped in the tube area can escape. After the bisque firing, a soda ash/water wash (1 part soda ash to 3 parts water) is brushed on and the piece is fired again to cone 03. Finally, sand the vessel with 800-grit wet/dry sandpaper in water and hand wash it with dish soap prior to use.
Rhonda Willers is a studio artist in Wisconsin. To learn more, visit www.rhondawillers.com and on Instagram @r_willers. She is the author of the book Terra Sigillata: Contemporary Techniques, which is available at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/shop/terra-sigillata.