Passion for Pagodas

Like yoga and meditation, clay has always been a part of my spiritual practice. Creating ceramic vessels allows me to explore my personal striving for emotional and spiritual equilibrium. I explore the balance of freedom and fluidity with symmetry and structure.

My passion for pagodas started with a school assignment for lidded pots. The moment I laid eyes on them, I was drawn to their structure. Upon deeper study, I learned they were spiritual temples where monks go for prayer and meditation. Thus began my 20-year love affair with pagodas. On a 2019 trip to Borobudur, Indonesia, I was able to sit and meditate with the beloved pagodas for 3 days. It felt like coming home to a place I once lived centuries ago. Everything felt familiar and intimate.

The Zen tea masters of feudal Japan were charged with decorating and furnishing the tearooms in the homes of their powerful patrons. Each object and element was carefully chosen and arranged to create a sense of calm and serenity, which worked to transform a small, confined space within a high-pressure urban environment into an oasis of peace. This, then, is one of my primary goals: for my work to function in a similar way, to serve as a serene resting place for the eyes and mind in its own small corner of the universe.

Choice of Clay

My current white stoneware of preference is Laguna #510 cone 8–10 White Stoneware. It combines smoothness and porcelaneous qualities along with grog. This allows the clay to hold its shape under exaggerated manipulation, while giving it fluidity.

Throwing—Day 1

The thrown pagoda form is made up of five parts: the feet, the body, the collar, the lid, and the finial. Start by making the feet, which are thrown upside down. Weigh out 6 pounds of clay for a bottomless cylinder. To avoid giving yourself a manicure, hold two sponges at the top of a wooden rib. Keep the rib flat and pull the clay toward you to form a ring. The left hand should be well lubricated and pressing hard on the ring to prevent it from coming up from the bat (1). The outside diameter at the bottom is 12½ inches (32.5 cm); the height is 1 inch (3 cm); and the thickness is 1 inch (3 cm). Pull the wall up and inward to a height of 3 inches (7.5 cm). The inside top diameter should be 7 inches (18 cm) and the wall thickness ½ inch (1.5 cm). Push in the top to form a lip, using a chamois cloth to smooth the rim. Use a flexible stainless-steel rib to scrape the surface until there is very little slurry left on it (2). This strengthens the wall to prevent collapsing during the indenting process. Make sure the surface is perfectly smooth before starting to indent.

As the wheel rotates, place a hard stainless-steel rib on the clay to create indents and ridges (3). Place your other hand on the inside, parallel to the rib for support. With a needle tool, pick off any large clay fragments that remain on the ridges. You can experiment with a variety of ribs in different shapes and sizes to vary the indents. I prefer a hard stainless-steel rib as it gives the lines a strong definition. Go over each individual ridge with a small, thin sponge to smooth and round the ridges between the indents. Note: Place the fingers on the sponge so they wrap around each raised line (4).

1 Keeping the rib flat on the bat and the left hand lubricated, pull the clay toward you to form a ring.

2 Using a flexible stainless-steel rib, scrape the surface until there is very little slurry left on the rib. This strengthens the wall.

3 As the wheel rotates, place a hard stainless-steel rib on the clay. Place your other hand inside, opposite the rib, for support.

4 Go over each individual ridge with a sponge to smooth and round the ridges between the indents.

To determine the placement of the feet, divide the circumference of the rim into thirds. At the top of the cylinder, lightly mark each placement of the foot with a pin tool. Place your index finger on one of the marks on the inside of the rim. Without using any pressure, gently slide this finger down in a straight line until it touches the base of the cylinder. With your index finger, apply outward pressure to the wall of the cylinder in a continuous fluid motion while moving on a diagonal upward to the top of the wall, ending at the next spot where a foot position was marked (5). Stretching the cylinder in this manner will create a soft, undulating effect. Complete this process another two times to define all three feet.

Remove the bat from the wheel and allow the form to firm up just enough (a soft leather hard) to support the manipulation of a controlled collapse. If you let the clay get too dry, the controlled collapse will not work. Return the foot section to the wheel. Place sponges inside the cylinder to provide structural support at the location of each foot. Next, take a wet sponge and apply a downward pressure between the feet, causing the space between them to gently collapse (6). With a wire, cut the piece off the bat and set it aside.

Repeat the same process for the body that was done for the foot in steps 1–5 with a few exceptions, starting with measurements. Make the height of the form 3½ inches (9 cm), the outside diameter at the bottom 12½ inches (33 cm), and the outside diameter at the top rim 9 inches (23 cm). You can also experiment as to the number of outward stretches to the wall. Note: A good example of variation of the number of outward stretches and variety of the indents is the finished pagoda vessel on page 22. The stretching should end at ½ inch (1.25 cm) from the top to ensure the rim remains level (7).

5 For the feet, use an index finger to stretch the clay on a diagonal from the bottom to the top of the next marker.

6 After the piece firms up enough to support a controlled collapse, apply a downward pressure between the feet.

7 Throw the body as you did the foot. Stop the stretching about ½ inch (1.5 cm) from the top, so you can create a flat rim.

8 After the collar is thrown, set a gallery for the lid. When measuring for the lid, leave just a bit of wiggle room.

The rim should be ½ inch (1.25 cm) thick. The bottom of the section made for the feet and the bottom of the collar (which will be made next), should also be this same thickness. This is where the main attachment points will be when assembling the form. If you look at images 7, 14, 15, and 16, you see where the feet, body, and collar are put together. The idea is to leave extra thickness where they join so they can be smoothed together without using a coil. If this whole process seems a bit daunting, you can finish off the body with a nice rim for a bowl (see Dancing Series #2 ).

The next step is making the collar that will attach to the top of the body. Using 2 pounds of clay, make a bottomless cylinder, with the outside bottom diameter at 9 inches (23 cm). Pull the wall up and inward to a height of 2 inches (5 cm). Set the gallery before you finish pulling up so there is enough clay to support the force of pressing down. The diameter of the rim above the gallery should measure approximately 6¾ inches (17 cm) (8). When measuring for the lid, leave just a bit of wiggle room.

To make the lid, use 2½ pounds of clay to throw a shallow bowl. Keep the walls on the thick side so you have enough extra clay to trim it into shape. The base, which will be the top of the lid once it is flipped over and trimmed, should be no smaller than 3 inches (8 cm) in diameter, to ensure the finial will fit on top. To increase the bowl’s diameter, lay down the lid by pressing down with the flat side of a fettling knife, while the other hand supports the clay as it goes down (9). When measuring the lid diameter, hold your finger to the edge of the laid-out bowl and make sure your finger is flush with the calipers.

9 Throw an upside-down bowl for a lid. Lay it down with the flat side of a fettling knife, while the other hand supports the clay.

10 The finial begins as a solid cone shape. Start at the bottom and indent with a variety of ribs. Smooth after each indent.

For the finial, use 1 pound of clay and throw an elongated solid cone. Make the base diameter 3 inches (7.5 cm) so it fits well on top of the untrimmed lid. Make several indents on the cone, reminiscent of the eaves on a pagoda. The first indent should begin at ½ inch (1 cm) above the base, leaving enough material to provide a secure attachment to the top of the lid. Indent with a variety of ribs, smoothing after each one. Continue shaping the profile of the finial, leaving the last bit for a smooth point (10).

Cover all parts in plastic and leave overnight to equalize in moisture content.

Assembly—Day 2

Uncover the pieces thrown the day before. The ones that are too wet, leave uncovered to dry further. The ones that are leather hard and ready for assembly can be covered back up with plastic. You’ll be checking these all day. It is imperative that the pieces are at the same degree of wetness to avoid cracking at the joins.

Before starting with the assembly, the base that fits inside of the thrown feet needs to be made. Weigh 2 pounds of clay and roll out a slab about ¼ inch thick. The size will be determined by the circumference measurement taken above the feet later. Include extra length and width on the slab to account for the bevel that will be cut into it. Place the slab between two drywall boards so it dries evenly. Check after 2 hours. The slab should be a very soft leather hard. Remove from the drywall and wrap the whole slab in plastic until it’s time to assemble the sections.

Loosen the feet from the bat. When the feet are dry enough to avoid collapsing, sandwich the feet by placing another bat on top, then flip it over so the feet are now supporting the base. Adjust the feet until they are level.

11 Use a compass to draw a circle below the rim of the foot section; repeat on paper to make a template for cutting a slab to fit.

12 Use the template to cut a slab circle with a beveled edge. Place the slab inside the foot section and smooth the join.

13 View of the upside-down foot section after attaching the drop-in floor slab and smoothing the interior join using a rib.

14 Score and slip the top of the foot section and the bottom of the body. Place the body on the feet and secure the join.

Center a compass between the three feet. Adjust the compass arm so it sits below the rim. Draw a continuous circle above the points of the feet. Next, using the compass, draw a circle with the same diameter on a piece of paper and cut it out. Lay the paper template over the smoothed slab and cut around the paper using a fettling knife held at a 45° angle. Score and apply slip to the beveled edge of both the slab and the circle scribed below the rim of the foot section. Gently drop in the slab, creating the floor of the pot (11). Smooth the join using the outside hand for support as you compress the drop-in floor slab against the wall of the foot section using your fingers (12), followed by a small flexible rubber rib. When finished, the drop-in floor will look like this if you flip the foot section over (13).

Score and slip the top of the foot section and the bottom of the body section (14). Place the body on the feet (15). Place the bat supporting the form onto a banding wheel to finish the join. Slowly turn the banding wheel while using a sponge to smooth the join and remove any excess clay. Start with the join on the inside first, then go over the outside join with a rib, being sure to press hard. The compression will keep the joins from cracking as they dry. Score and add slip to the bottom of the collar and the top of the body. Place the collar on the body (16) and join. Refine the joined areas for the feet, body, and collar until it is hard to tell where the sections meet (17).

15 Smooth the join with a sponge, then use a rib and press hard to compress the seam to prevent cracking as the form dries.

16 Score, slip, and place the collar on the body. Secure and smooth the join with a sponge, then compress with a rib.

17 A profile view of the attached feet, body, and collar. The form is finished when it is hard to tell where the joins are.

18 Hollow out the finial, then score, slip, and attach it to the lid. Trim the join until it looks like one piece. Refine the lid curve.

When the finial is a soft leather hard, place it on a foam support. Use a fettling knife to hollow out the inside. The finial should be as soft as possible, but firm enough as to not distort the shape of the eaves. Spray a piece of plastic with water and wrap the finial well. Flip the lid over and center it on the wheel. Center the finial on top of the lid, trace a line around the bottom of it (18), then score and add slip to the bottom of the finial and the attachment area on the top of the lid. Recenter the finial back on the lid, and firmly attach. Using a round loop trimming tool, make the join of the finial and lid look integrated with the rest of the form. Turn the finished lid over when the piece is leather hard. Using a pin tool, poke a hole in the center at the inside of the top to allow air to circulate into the hollow finial. Put the lid on the gallery to dry.

Bowl, Dancing Series #2, 9 in. (23 cm) in diameter, thrown, altered, and assembled porcelain, satin antique green glaze, satin antique pink glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 6.

Drying, Glazing, and Firing

Because this piece has many seams, I recommend slow drying. Loosely drape a large piece of thin plastic over the entire piece. After about 4 days, remove the plastic. When the piece is bone dry, it is ready to go into the kiln. Fire a very slow bisque to cone 06.

After the bisque firing, wax the rim of the lid and the gallery with a tapered foam brush. Glaze the interior and let it dry overnight. Place a thin rolled coil of wadding on the gallery. Use glue to ensure the wadding will stick. Place the lid back on the gallery. Spray flashing slip (see recipe options  on the right) on the exterior and bottom of the pot. I fire in a salt/soda or wood kiln. The indents on the piece act as shelves for the salt/soda or ash to land, creating interesting variations in surface and color.

All process photos: Kay Lee. All photos of finished pieces: David Nobel.

Arlynn Nobel received a diploma from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, her BFA from NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and her MFA from the University of Massachusetts—Dartmouth. She spends the winter months in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where she teaches at Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. The rest of the year she works in her studio on the shores of Lake Superior, near Thunder Bay, Ontario. Arlynn sits on the board of trustees at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine. To see more, visit: https://anobel.ca.

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