Handmade Modernism

About 10 years ago, in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), I developed a keen interest in handmade Modernism. To me, this is a concept where decoration or ornamentation can be replaced by subtleties of the making process itself. While delving into this area of research, and exploring as much Modernist design as I could consume, it became clear that I was chasing after inspiration for strong forms with raw, earthy surfaces. Modernist potters like Paul Philp and Hans Coper have helped me see the potential of textured surfaces on simple, but powerful forms. When I invited Ani Kasten to SIUE in 2013 for a few days of demonstrations, I found her technique of smearing white slip onto her surfaces really inspiring and expressive. She talked about how using her hands to apply slip to the surface allowed the imperfections to show through. With her technique in mind, and an interest in texture and simplicity, I have created a studio practice where I build the surface, layer upon layer.

A richly textured, lidded canister is one of a few ideas that I return to time and time again. With a form as direct as a cylinder, and with the potential to contain just about anything, it is a format that, with changes to the proportions, scale, and features like the knob and feet, can become new again and again.

Throwing the Form

For a medium-sized canister, consider starting with 2–3 pounds of grogged clay, depending on how thick or thin you plan to throw. I sprinkle coarse fireclay grog onto my clay and wedge it in, which helps create surface texture later on. For lidded canisters, I choose to throw thin, as I enjoy the interaction between the rough, naturalistic slip texture and the delicate feel of the thin edges.

1 Starting with 2–3 pounds of clay, throw a wide cylinder and establish the lid seat.

2 Thin the cylinder, refine the wall with a rib, and lightly pinch the lid seat to thin it.

Begin by throwing a basic cylinder, with a flat bottom and a tight 90° transition to the wall. Focus on consistency, as inconsistent wall thickness and a wobbly rim will lead to issues later on with the lid seat and fit. Pull the wall up a couple inches. At this point, make sure you have a healthy thickness in the wall and a rounded rim. Establish the lid seat by supporting the outside of the wall with your pointer finger and by applying downward pressure with your thumb on the inside (1). I usually split the wall in half. The idea here is to create the lid seat while you still have the strength of a thick wall. I look for the lid seat to have a rounded profile that my thumb creates naturally without special tools. If there are any sharp edges created in this process, soften them with a fine sponge.

Now that the lid seat is roughed in, continue to raise the height of the canister by throwing beneath it, stopping your pulls just below the bottom of the lid seat. This may take a few pulls until you’re pleased with the height and wall thickness. Before the wall gets too thin, pull the clay above the lid seat up as well. The rim height created here gives the canister its characteristic, deep-set lid. If you feel as if you have too much height above the lid seat, don’t hesitate to cut some off with a needle tool.

Now, tighten up the form with a metal rib. Usually there is some extra thickness hiding around the lid seat area, and this is a good time to address that. Lightly pinch the lid seat with your thumb and pointer finger and apply some outward pressure into the metal rib to displace the extra thickness (2). Run your finger up and down the form, applying pressure into the metal rib until you have a straight form. Of course, this cylindrical shape can be altered into any form you desire, as long as the wall above the lid seat does not taper inward, which would prohibit the function of the lid.

Before making the lid, measure the opening with calipers. By holding the calipers as steady as possible, measure at the mid point of the lid seat’s curvature. Finally, remove it from the wheel.

3 Throw the lid off the hump from a small ball, pressing down on the center to open.

4 Expand the lid to a concave disk, and use a metal rib to refine and compress it.

5 Score a guide line, cut the lid free with a wire tool, then lift it from the bottom.

6 Use a rasp to trim, expose grog, and add texture to the centered canister.

Throwing the Lid

The lid for this design is most efficiently thrown off a hump of clay. I usually make at least two lids for each canister to ensure one of them fits nicely. Think of the lid as a small, low-profile bowl shape. Center 4 or 5 pounds of clay, then isolate a small ball shape on top of the hump. How much clay you isolate is an educated guess, and you will improve with practice. Open up this ball of clay into a small bowl (3), and gradually expand it so it resembles a concave disc. Periodically measure its diameter with the calipers so you know if you’re close. Fine tune and get the diameter as close as possible to the caliper’s measurement. I often stop just short of my measurement, and apply downward pressure with a metal kidney rib (4). This cleans up the lid and forces the diameter a millimeter or two larger. When you’re on measurement, score a line under the lid with your wooden knife, use that line as a reference for your wire tool, and cut it free. Use both pairs of your pointer and middle fingers to lift the lid as close the bottom of it as possible (5), and set aside. Repeat the process for a second lid.

Finishing the Canister with Texture

When your pieces are evenly leather hard, it’s time to trim and apply slip texture. Begin by adhering the canister to the wheel head. Lightly dampen the bottom of the canister and seal it to the wheel head using a sharp wooden knife. The majority of the time the canister stays in place with this technique. I shape the exterior of the jar using a Surform rasp to expose the coarse grog I had previously wedged into the clay (6). I finish up using my metal rib. The sharp edge of the metal rib, set at a perpendicular angle to the wall, acts as a scraper, and drags the coarse grog around the surface of the canister (7). With some practice, the dragged grog lines can become a fluid, effortless byproduct of trimming. Bevel the bottom edge of the canister and pop it off of the wheel.

7 Use a metal rib held against the surface to drag coarse grog, creating lines.

8 Trim the lid into a rounded dome and add texture using a rasp.

In similar fashion, trim the lid. This time, secure it using small wads of clay, as the rounded edge of the lid needs to be preserved in order to ensure a good fit with the rounded lid seat. Again, I use a Surform rasp to remove the inevitable irregularities of the wire-cut face (8). I use this tool to trim it all the way down to the finished shape, and finish up with a metal rib. If the rib doesn’t yield enough or as strong of the dragged grog lines as desired, you can sprinkle a little more grog onto the surface, and continue with the rib (9).

Applying Slip

When you’re pleased with the degree of surface markings, it’s time to apply slip to accentuate them. I use two slip techniques to do this; patting it on with my hands and semi-dry brushing. The white slip I use is the consistency of yogurt. If your slip is thicker, it builds texture more rapidly, and if your slip is thinner, it tends to fill in your markings on the clay. Experiment with different consistencies and recipes, as different slips have different effects both in terms of how they create texture, and what they look like after they are fired.

9 Add texture by sprinkling grog on the lid and using a rib to pull it over the surface.

10 Apply thin slip to the surface by patting it on using your hands.

The patting technique is a lot of fun. Scoop up a couple tablespoons of white slip, and smear it onto both of your hands. For the first coat, I like it to be rather thin on my hands. Pick up your pot and juggle it around, using your palms to apply the slip (10). If you’re covering all of the details of your clay surface, dial back the amount of slip on your hands. After a few rotations of the pot, set it down and reload more slip onto your hands, and repeat the process until the whole surface is covered. For a smoother pot, stop here. If you want to build more extreme texture, continue with several more coats, allowing the slip to dry between coats.

Brushing slip onto the surface can also yield textured results. I often apply brushed slip onto a base coat of patted-on slip. With this technique, experiment with different consistencies. The amount of slip you have on your brush makes a big difference. Generally, I use a slip about the consistency of whipping cream, and after dipping my brush in it, wipe much of it off the brush on the edge of the container, yielding a semi-dry brush. Brushing lightly on top of patted-on slip builds upon the high spots only, elevating the texture (11). Tip: If at any point you dislike the texture and would like to make it smoother, go over the surface with a soft rubber rib.

11 Create texture by semi-dry brushing another layer of slip onto the surface.

12 Add a knob to the lid after the slip has been added to the surface.

Finishing Touches

For an otherwise simple shape, the knob can be an opportunity for expression. I tend to continue with the theme of simplicity, and usually pinch a knob shape or roll a coil for an upright, cylindrical knob. Score and slip any flourish you desire to act as a knob (12).

Additionally, consider adding feet. Elevating the canister on small feet can give it a lighter feel. To add feet, score and slip ¼-inch-thick slabs onto the base. Most importantly, I find it is easier to manage these details after the slip texture has been applied and has dried to leather hard.

Glazing

Glazing pieces that have texture is quite a bit different than glazing smooth work. For me, I find it an opportunity to apply a base coat of oxide, underglaze, or wash of watered-down glaze first, let it dry, and then sponge away the high spots, leaving a base coat in the low-lying areas of the texture. From here, you can fire as-is, or you can apply another layer of a different glaze on top of it all.

Phillip Finder is a ceramic artist working in St. Louis, Missouri. He teaches ceramics at Maryville University and Krueger Pottery Supply in St. Louis. You can see more of his work on Instagram @phillip_finder and online at www.phillipfinder.com.

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