I was published in the current edition of Studio Potter Magazine. As a long time reader and collaborator with Studio Potter, the best publication in the field, I'm honored to have an article included in the Women In Ceramics issue, emphasizing the importance of women in the field. I encourage fellow potters, friends, and those interested in the arts, to support this NH born publication. My involvement in this magazine over decades has nurtured my development as a potter, artist, and activist. Read it and be inspired!
Featured in the July 2016 "Best of Louisville" issue of Louisville Magazine.
Nancy Hill Celebration 2014
In joining the Creation Circle initiative, my intention was to explore the connection between my chosen craft, pottery, and poetry. At the gatherings I listened to, read, savored and handled words, then returned to my clay studio. There I reflected on what words might express my work, and in what form I might craft them. (Poetry and pottery are one letter, and their arrangement, removed.)
On the potter’s wheel I threw fine porcelain clay, shaping it into generous bowls with thick rims and sturdy feet, the ideal form for meeting the human need for sustenance. I made a series of these pieces, responding to Kimberly’s call for exploration of the inner. Words and gestures were painted in hot wax between layers of Shino glaze.
The piece honoring Nancy Hill had words on the interior. I intended that the flame would work its magic, completing the decoration as it chose its path in relation to the pot. When lifting the cooled piece from the kiln shelf days later, I believed what I could not see: the written words had vanished. They are within.Interiority. This is my poem. Poem for Nancy Hill, by Kit Cornell, 2014
Artist Jeff Koons has a show at the Whitney in NYC. One piece shown is a huge (I mean HUGE) lump of what is meant to look like PlayDoh, which we all know and love. Sculpey and Fimo, as other artificial clay materials have been popular, but like processed foods, they are not as satisfying or healthy as the real thing.
I have recently had numerous queries about where to find clay. Here are some suggestions:
Accessing Materials for the Arts
Schools generally order art supplies from catalogs provided by large suppliers. This is convenient. However, using local materials and suppliers has advantages we are increasingly aware of. In ceramics, knowing where your clay is coming from and obtaining and using it while in its plastic state, is crucial. Too-dry clay will discourage not only the student trying to use it, but the teacher required to make it useable. For this reason, it is preferable to order clay from a supplier who serves potters, such as Portland Pottery Supply, Vermont Ceramic Supply, Bailey Ceramics and Sheffield Pottery Supply. These providers will offer personal advice and may do sales, repair or installation of equipment.
Before purchasing new equipment, you may want to explore what is available locally, either new or used. Good way to meet new people and save $$. Old wheels, like the turn-of-the century decorating wheel at Pittsfield Middle/High School pictured here, will last for generations, and are often looking for a home. Check in at art centers and museums, and with local artists, Looking online--of course!
Besides digging local clay, geological research or contact with local historical societies may yield places you can gather granite dust, iron ore or filings. You can burn your own wood and gather its ash (pictured here) for glazes, (details in archives on my website) or find a woodworker who would like to contribute wood shavings or dust for use in outdoor firings.
For tools, yard sales will often render potato mashers, rolling pins, baby scales, shells, textured fabric, cheese slicers. Bats for drying/moving pots can be cut from masonite (12x12” or 12x18”) at lumber providers. Woodworker friends or school wood shops may be interested in making textured paddles, 6” squared or round dowels, or other tools that personalize your project.
Farms may provide access to digging clay (Oyster River took its students on several digging tours, and at least one of its students now has a master’s in ceramics). Farm produce such as sunflower heads, corn cobs and nuts can be used for clay impressions. And don’t forget school kitchens, janitor’s closets, and notes sent home looking for buckets, jars, plastic wrap that providers may be delighted to recycle. Local environmental groups may be helpful too. The more we re-use the better off our planet and its people are.
Marry the imagined and the real.
Hollows rise up, great walls fall away,
The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.
All we dream of, all we touch and feel
Spill topsy-turvy in the potter’s play
To find the form that formless mists conceal.
You can strip the orange of its peel;
Skin the meaning from the words I say.
The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.
Scatter the deck, gather the cards, and deal.
What is the game? Bets on the table. Pray
To find the form that formless mists conceal.
The clay is thrown. Now let the clay reveal
How to tell the darkness from the day,
To find the form that formless mists conceal.
The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.
by Charles Pratt
Wear rubber gloves and use a dust mask. Have a few buckets, hose, coarse and fine kitchen sieves, ladle. And time.
Gather ash. Try not to stir dry ash any more than necessary. Take note, if possible, as to where, what kind of tree or bush, and what part of same (trunk, branches, leaves etc.) the ash is from. If the wood, grass, etc. has been burned outdoors, be careful not to dig up soil with the ash. If it is from fireplace, be sure that it’s not been contaminated by plastic, paint, etc. (A few rusty nails can add character, but remove them before sieving.)
Place ash in bucket, not more than half full. Fill with water and stir. Remove charcoal that may float to the top. Let settle, then pour off extra water, being careful not to pour off ash. Stir, then add more water, let settle, pour off excess, repeat process whenever you think of it, for several days, until when you dip your finger in the water and touch it to your tongue, it lacks the sensation of burning.
Sieve ash. If coarse texture, use coarse, then fine kitchen sieve, adding water as needed to allow it to move through without too much stirring. Be generous with water, as you can pour off as it settles. Do not pour off water when ash has not settled.
Pour off excess water, and ladle ash into shallow, biscuited bowl. (You may have to do this in stages to accomodate a large quantity of ash.
Let ash dry, breaking it apart to aid drying. Be patient. Crush between fingers, be sure it is dry, then place in container labelled with vintage details. It is now ready to be weighed and used as an ingredient in glazes. Note that until you have made numerous tests, you should be circumspect in the glaze’s use. Try test tiles, then the inside of small bowls, before risking kiln shelf damage with larger pieces.
Ash glazes can be wonderful, and are very personal to the person who put time into the processing and glaze formulation and testing.
From the time of the glaciers clay deposits have been formed in various areas around the country. The clay in Exeter is remarkably pure and fine in texture.
The clay that forms the crust of our planet is what I use in my work as a potter and educator. Clay is the result of weathering of rock over thousands, even millions of years. I either harvest it myself or have delivered to my studio a blend of natural clays mixed by a clay supplier. In my career as a potter I have used earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, more varieties of each than I can count. I love clay. It’s a natural material, easy to form and smelling sweetly of the earth. Dug oneself, it’s a free gift of nature, and even if you buy it, it ought not cost more than pennies a pound. Iron-rich earthenware clays are abundant. Most clays dug in New Hampshire are grey or green in their raw state, and fire to a rich, deep red, sometimes with a flecking of mica or other minerals. Commercial earthenwares are available which may be white, beige, brown or red.
If handled with care, clay is an excellent material for artistic expression, appropriate for school use at every level. It is remarkably easy to get students’ attention if you hand them a lump of clay...their fingers begin to explore, their imaginations click in, and they are off on a creative journey. In terms of art materials safety, clay contains silica and other toxic substances which are hazardous primarily by inhalation of the dust. Use already-mixed moist clay, keep it damp while in use, wipe tables with a wet sponge, and keep floors clean by wet-mopping regularly. Avoid sanding of pieces.
Glazes are mixtures of minerals that melt at a certain temperature. They may be used to coat clay pieces. Remember that using glaze is optional. All earthenware clays can be glazed, and bright underglazes and glazes are available, as well as clear glazes that seal the pieces for functional use. Only no-lead glazes should be used, and safety information requested and read carefully. As with clay, one should avoid creating dust from dried glaze.
The hurdle of hardening (called “firing”) clay pieces is far from insurmountable: many New Hampshire schools have kilns, and if you don’t, there may be a school, art center, or local potter you can work with in a mutually productive way. If you have access to a kiln, remember that it must be vented to the outside. Firing releases toxic fumes that must not be inhaled.
Increasingly I have become aware of plastic substitutes for clay, neatly packaged brownie-sized or larger rectangles of an easily moldable clay-like material in the most brilliant colors one can imagine. The label may state “Better than Clay” and indicate that a home oven is all that is needed to immortalize the resulting creation. The cost for a two-ounce package is about $1 an ounce ($16/lb.) When compared with clay, the cost of these plastic clay substitutes is high, but the selling points are its ease of hardening (no kiln equipment required, a toaster oven will do) and the brilliant colors that require no glaze materials. It is not as responsive to touch as clay, but does not dry out as much in use.
Because I’m always interested in learning more, I’ve recently done research and talked with some knowledgeable people about these plastic polymer clay substitutes. Here’s some of what I‘ve learned.
Polymer “clay” is, in fact, not clay, but vinyl chloride plastic. it’s a polymer product of the petroleum industry; made from oil. If you have a concern with the amount of oil we import and the problems created thereby, then using clay may be preferable to using plastic.
In order to make vinyl chloride plastic malleable, additives are included in the formulation. These additives may be inhaled or absorbed through the skin when you handle the stuff, and the effects are uncertain. Among the additives are phthalates, increasingly suspected by many of causing developmental and reproductive problems. I refer you to the excellent book by Colborn/Myers/Dumanoski, Our Stolen Future (see resources at end). The phthalate DEHP has been removed from several polymer products because it was listed as an animal carcinogen. It has been replaced by other phthalates which have not been fully tested for cancer or for developmental or reproductive effects.
Some clay substitutes contain warnings relating to use on their wrappers, and it is wise to read the fine print. Cautions relating to the hardening of these materials in toaster oven or regular oven bear special consideration, as toxic fumes are a real hazard. Most polymer clay substitutes prominently display the “non-toxic” label from the Art and Craft Materials Institute. The ACMI, as I understand it, is comprised of manufacturers of arts and craft products. This association hires toxicologists to evaluate products, and if passed, they may be sold and stamped with ACMI’s 'non-toxic' label. It indicates that users will not be exposed to significant amounts of known chronically toxic ingredients.All art materials have a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each product you buy, which is available from the manufacturer. It is valuable to request these reports from manufacturers and to read them carefully in order to learn about ingredients and hazards.
Monona Rossol, of the Arts, Crafts and Theatre Safety (ACTS) organization that monitors the field and works to make citizens aware of problems, cautions: “Don’t believe everything you read: educate and protect yourself.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
If you’re looking for techniques to try as you work in clay, the recently published Surface Design for Ceramics may be just your cup of tea.
No how-to book showing how to execute someone else’s ideas, New Hampshire Institute of Art Ceramics chair Maureen Mills’ book exposes the reader, with helpful detail, to a wide range of decorative processes. Close-up photographs show her hands at work demonstrating at every stage of making, from freshly-thrown clay, through biscuit to post-firing. Her finished pieces are fine illustrations of process. The layout of pages is balance and attractive. While the tools employed are simple, possibilities for their use are many, as are the examples of pots and details of pots showing how the effects are achieved. I found myself drawn in, wanting to know which tools and techniques were used, and in what sequence. There is plenty of explanation.
Mills’ own pieces are augmented by photos of other artists’ work, both contemporary and from historic periods. Inclusion of pieces by potters in New England, both well and lesser-known, is refreshing, as it reveals her interest in and personal connection to other people’s work and style. It’s a delight to see so many New Hampshire potters represented!
After the (too short!) chapter on design, dividing the book into clay stages is useful, as it avoids the confusion of figuring out at what stage which technique is appropriate. You can jump right in, and imagination is stimulated, not to copy, but to move through and past, to one’s own expression. Options for firing and post-firing finishing are thought-provoking, as one sees the results and can identify the methods of firing. Truly, we are being taught to make our own choices, and the possibilities are endless.
Maureen Mills’ considerable experience as a teacher informs the book. She and her husband, Steve Zoldak, are remarkable as educators. Helpful hints abound, clear and concise, never with the pedantic verbosity that has often made me turn the page to escape an author’s self-centered intrusion on process.
There is something in this book for most potters, and discreet but crucial suggestions are what intrigue me the most, such as: “It’s best to take time to visualize the finished piece before you get started.”
Reviewed by Kit Cornell, studio potter in Exeter, NH USA on 5/4/2006
In the introduction to his book, Edmund de Waal states: “I have tried to reveal the contexts in which these ceramics were made, and why they were made”. This is an ambitious goal, and, it seems to me, exactly what he achieves. He situates artists and work in their historical, political, and social settings. We see artists act and interact, influenced by events, ideas, their environments and each other. The work that results seems to flow understandably from their hands--whether the electric-fired pieces of Lucie Rie, who he says was “unbothered by anxieties about a “truth to materials”; the seen as radical Ernest Chaplet’s rich stoneware, which he interested the Limoges manufacturers in using in production, or Taxile Doat’s and Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s amazing turn-of-the century art pots.
This is the book I would have liked to have had when I got my start as a potter in the ‘70s. Instead, as were others, I was exposed to the classic how-to tomes by Rhodes and Nelson, A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach (which at once confused and inspired me) and Pioneer Pottery by Michael Cardew, in which I found a palpable love of basic ceramic materials which sustains me to this day. I longed for written material to give me an understanding of the context of the field I was entering and the pots and potters I was surrounded by. I wanted the tools to comprehend what came before and to imagine what was to come and how I would be part of it.
Edmund deWaal has given me what I sought. He goes deep, with sensitivity to each period, understanding of the trends, ideas and forces at work, and an ability to write with clarity and simplicity. Images have been chosen wisely and are accompanied by illuminating comments. Quotations from a wide range of sources, including Herbert Read, Ranier Maria Rilke and Kimpei Nakamura enrich the text. There is a useful bibliography provided, allowing the reader to go further.
20th Century Ceramics gives us a new way to approach both art history and criticism. De Waal is a breath of fresh air and an inspiration.
In this excellent book, Vincentelli examines ceramics as practiced by women worldwide, including approaches to clay, gender roles, the effects of technology, social pressures and ways of collaborating. She states that “women’s traditions are characterized by simple technology and a way of working the clay that keeps the maximum closeness between the hand and the material.” Although women gained access to the wheel in the last century, she feels they are also in the forefront of the reaction against using it.
I thought of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party when I read Vincentelli’s statement that”the hierarchy of the western division between art and craft serves to devalue what women do and associate men with art and women with craft”. Perhaps a new perspective on the art versus craft controversy?
A fine study of traditional pottery that documents with great photographs potters handbuilding and firing in many countries. There is much here to interest not only potters, but anthropologists, art historians, archeologists, and those in clay and art education. Maps of ceramic activity in major areas of the world by women and men, both handbuilding and wheelwork, are fascinating. In the introduction, Vincentelli states: “It was intriguing to find that women still represented a huge percentage of the world’s potters: in four out of five traditional societies, pottery is a female task. But why did I not know this?” If you read her book, you’ll begin to understand.
Methods of digging clay, forming, decorating, sealing and firing are described in detail, (I want to try sealing a pot with milk before pit firing to see if it will actually work. There are lots of other ideas!)
Problems are looked at squarely. Vincentelli documents the impressive pots and process of“Munchie” Roden” in Jamaica, while noting the difficulty of selling her work given her location in Spanish Town. Photographs show the abandonment of equipment unable to be maintained in certain locations, and researcher Margaret Tuckson is quoted on the disadvantages in some situations of introducing new technologies. Both recommend supporting the continuity and viability of existing methods.
Vincentelli has an optimistic attitude about the future, believing that ceramics will continue to thrive even as it changes, and that women will continue to make beautiful pots. Her book is, likewise, beautiful.
Moira Vincentelli, senior lecturer in Art History and curator of ceramics at the University of Wales, Aberstwyth, has a keen interest in understanding art in the global context of culture, social forces, archeology and social anthropology. In writing these books I believe she provides a great service. She has chosen to focus on ceramics, exploring and clarifying the forces that shape potters and the pots they make.
The Pot Book by Edmund de Waal
20th Century Ceramics by Edmund de Waal (paper $20 Thames and Hudson) thought-provoking, with great photos.
Out of the Earth, Into the Fire by Mimi Obstler
The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Soetsu Yanagi (paper $25) lovely philosophical classic for those interested in art/craft.
Japanese Pottery Handbook, Penny Simpson and Kanji Sodeoka (paper, $20) nicely illustrated and informative for those interested i n clay.
Surface Design for Ceramics by Maureen Mills, (paper, 29.95) not yet released, but Maureen is a Portsmouth potter, and this seems as if it will be a popular book.
The Penland Book of Ceramics: Master Classes in Ceramic Techniques Lark Books, (paper, $19.95) good for more advanced students.
Ten Thousand Years of Pottery, by Emmanuel Cooper (paper, $40), a definitive history by a British ceramics expert.
Craftsmanship, by Richard Sennett
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