Many non-design professionals may feel that architects have picked a super-cool creative profession that fulfills all of our creative needs. That is not always the case. Buildings take a long time to design and even longer to build. Sometimes, we need another creative outlet that offers a more immediate sense of completion and gratification. Some architects pursue drawing, painting, music, or photography as a secondary creative outlet. I throw pots.
I don’t mean that I throw pots at the wall, the floor or co-workers. Throwing is the term used to describe the process of making pottery on a potter’s wheel. The process and craft of making pottery satiates my desire for a creative outlet that comes to fruition on a short-term timeframe as I wait for buildings to be completed. It’s a huge stress reliever to boot! What could be more fun than playing with mud and fire? Pottery parallels architecture in many ways. Both use raw materials to create three-dimensional forms that people use and experience daily.
My interest in pottery precedes my interest in architecture. The pottery bug bit me in high school. My Aunt Judy had always wanted to take a class, so I joined her for weekly classes from Titus Riley, a folk potter at Peppertown Pottery in Peppertown, Mississippi. I’ve had my hands in clay off and on ever since. Throughout my three years at Ole Miss I received more formal/academic instruction from Ron Dale, the head of the ceramics department at that time. I then decided to enroll in architecture school at Mississippi State and continued to study ceramics under Robert Long in the little spare time I had outside of the architecture studio. Upon graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. and began my architecture career. I left pottery by the wayside for 4 or 5 years, until I was gifted a class at Glen Echo Pottery, a former amusement park turned national park for the arts. Once my hands were back at the wheel, I was back under the spell of the clay and remained engaged in the community at Glen Echo until the summer of 2013 (you can still find some photos of me on their website!).
At that point, I realized that I had been working in architecture for eight years, and focusing my attention on pottery and not on pursuing my architecture licensing. To encourage myself to buckle down and take my tests, I made a deal with myself that I would step away from pottery until I was licensed. It worked! But not as quickly as I had hoped. Fast forward four years, getting married, and making two cross-country moves, I finally became licensed in 2017. What did I do next? I found a way to get my hands back in the mud. At the end of 2017, I became a member of The Shed at The Clay Lady’s Campus. When spring finally emerges, I look forward to spending more time in The Shed making pots and getting involved with Clay Lady’s amazing community of artists.
Before you get your hands in mud, I’ll explain the quick and dirty (pun intended!) process of making pottery.
Step One: Find some clay. These days I buy commercially-prepared clays that are made for pottery. In school, we would mix our own various recipes from raw materials, minerals and water. If you are lucky enough to have a nice piece of land with a natural vein of clay running through it, you can dig up your own.
Step Two: Prepare the clay. The clay needs to be wedged, or kneaded to force out any air bubbles, and make sure it all has the same consistency. Air bubbles can explode when the pot is fired causing the destruction of your pot and others in the kiln.
Step Three: Make something. Pottery or clay sculptures can be built by hand using slabs and coils or can be thrown on a potter’s wheel. Many artists use a combination of both in their pieces. I work primarily on the wheel.
Step Four: Wait. Immediately after pot is thrown, it will be too wet to do much with it yet. It needs to dry and stiffen up to the leather-hard stage, in which the piece has stiffen and is no longer tacky. Depending on weather conditions, I usually loosely wrap a freshly thrown piece in plastic (plastic dry cleaning bags work great) for a few days. Once leather-hard, you can trim, alter, and attach other clay elements to your piece. Then you must wait longer for the piece to dry completely to the bone-dry stage. You will want to let you piece dry slowly under plastic, as drying too quickly can cause your pots to crack.
Step Five: Bisque Firing. Ceramic work is usually fired twice. The first firing is called bisque firing. This firing will take the pot up to around 1800°F which makes the piece less fragile so it can easily be glazed without breaking it. This is usually done in an electric kiln and takes a couple of days to warm up and then cool back down.
Step Six: Glaze your pot. Ceramic work is often glazed to decorate and finish the pot. Glazes are a suspension of silica and other minerals/ingredients that you dip or brush onto a bisqued pot. In the final firing, the glaze is heated to a temperature hot enough to melt the silica and turn it into glass that becomes fused to the pot. In the case of earthenware (certain clays fired to lower temperatures) pieces, the glaze is necessary to keep a ceramic vessel from absorbing water. With stoneware (certain clays fired to higher temperatures) the glaze is more decorative as the clay itself becomes vitrified during the final firing and will no longer absorb water.
Step Seven: Glaze Firing. The final firing takes your pot up to temperatures around 2300°F or more for stoneware and usually takes place in a large gas kiln. The glaze is then permanently bonded to the clay. Once the firing is complete and the kiln has cooled back down, which takes a few days, you finally have a finished piece. I enjoy participating in atmospheric firings such as wood, salt or soda firing. Wood kilns are fueled by wood and the deposit of the wood ash combined with the path of the flames creates added interest (and unpredictability) to the pieces within. Salt/soda firings take place in a special gas kiln where soda (baking soda or sodium carbonate) and/or salt is added to the kiln at a certain temperature. The soda and salt vaporize and travel with the flames around the pots creating a glaze on their exterior.