As a child I was encouraged to be a creative maker. There was always a sewing project in process, a sketch pad being filled, or a necklace to be strung. Before my introduction to ceramic art in the tenth grade, clay was the sticky orange residue on my boots, or the fun and malleable material my sister and I would play with in the creek on our farm. Since then I’ve been dedicated to molding its idiosyncrasy and mastering its secrets.
After experimenting with what felt like every method of handbuilding for almost four years as an undergraduate student, I arrived at pinching as a favorite method. I revel in the slow time that pinching demands and its forgiving nature.
In addition to my own hands, some the best tools in my tool chest are homemade and include a piece of string with strategically placed knots, a cutting guide made from a found piece of plastic, a paddle I sanded from a piece of scrap wood, along with dental picks and an architect’s flexible ruler. When I talk to other makers, I’m most interested in learning about the tools they have repurposed or handmade. It reminds me to ask the question Chris Staley once asked me, “Does the tool shape the hand or the hand shape the tool?”
My planning consists of three exercises: brainstorming by creating one-minute sketches with clay, line drawings, and modeling those drawings. At this stage I’m most interested in how lines meet curves and the visual and emotional weight that the forms communicate. I find drawing to be an insufficiently descriptive exercise, so it’s only my brief preliminary step. When I begin a body of work, I first wedge about 30 one-pound balls of clay. Setting a timer, I give myself one minute to pinch them. This is like three-dimensional sketching. The forms are rough and there is no time to critique or focus on the preciousness of a piece before moving onto the next.
After all the balls have been pinched, I edit out the poor forms. This exercise usually yields a handful of new ideas. Once I have the basic layout of lines, curves, shapes, and visual weight of the forms as they play off of each other, I begin modeling them using 2 to 5 pound chunks of clay. These models are still rough, but I spend more time refining the idea by editing and examining the form in three dimensions.
Prepping Clay for Pinching
It’s important that my clay is soft and very plastic. I mix my clay to a slurry consistency and allow it to sit for at least a week and at most a month before using it. This ensures all the particles are fully saturated and also ages the clay bit, helping to increase its plasticity. I blunge it regularly and then dry it on plaster to a soft, tacky consistency.
Building on an Idea
My favorite stage is when I’m actually pinching a form. I can make lots of decisions quickly, and this is when I’m most engaged and challenged. I enjoy the give and take of this process; sometimes, I impose my ideas on the form, and other times I really watch what’s happening in front of me and respond accordingly. This takes me to unexpected moments, proving to me that work makes work and that by consciously and unconsciously participating in it, the process teaches me.
Throw out a slab approximately 1½ inches thick. Place the slab on a piece of foam, over a bat and a banding wheel and shape it to the basic footprint of the form (figure 1).
Map out the floor of the piece by pressing down with your fingertips, defining the outer walls and the interior wall that will bisect the form (figure 2).
Once the floor is defined, begin lifting and pinching up the walls to create the transition from floor to the wall (figures 3 and 4). Pinch the clay slowly and evenly, working equally in both clockwise then counterclockwise directions. Continue lifting and pinching the walls evenly and straight up. If any cracks develop, compress them away with a soft rib and wipe the edges with a wet, soft sponge (figure 5).
Further refine the shape of the form by stretching and pinching the walls on the ends into a 45° angle (figure 6). The places where lines meet curves is very compelling to me, so I like to shape the curves into corners on the ends (figure 7). Finish the form by smoothing out any cracks or rough edges in the walls (figure 8).
Once the basic form and edges are defined, I let the piece dry to leather hard. Next, I line the tray with thin plastic and fill its voids with pieces of stiff foam so that the floor is supported when I flip the piece over to refine the bottom. I use trimming tools and the Mudtools yellow and red ribs to scrape the bottom. When the bottom is smooth and even, I finish it with a custom-engraved rubber stamp of my signature. I then let the piece dry upside down until the bottom is leather hard. Finally, I flip it over onto a ware board for glazing.
Glazing and Firing
I lightly spray my pieces with AMACO Clear glaze that I water down with distilled water to a skim milk consistency. I spray each piece two to three times allowing the glaze to dry between coats. My ideal glazed surface has a light sheen like sweaty skin, but not shiny. The glaze darkens the clay body slightly, giving it a toasty and supple appearance. I then once fire the piece to cone 03 in electric kiln using a very slow drying cycle.
Lilly Zuckerman received her BFA from The Pennsylvania State University, and is currently attending graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. To see more of her work, visit www.lillyzuckerman.com.