Saturday, September 17, 2005

Warm Beer and Bread, They Say, Can Raise the Dead

Julie asked me to throw her a vase this afternoon, a tall one. "Sort of like that, but taller." She pointed to a nine inch piece that I had thrown and carved ten years ago, back in Phoenix, then rakued here in New Jersey. Its a metallic blue in color, with a matte black rim.

"Raku clay?" I was hoping that she would want raku clay; with where my throwing skills are, I need the tooth to get the height and shape.

"No......what else do we have?"

I rattled off the cone 6 clays to her. She chose Standard Clay 112, which goes a toasty tan with speckles when it is vitrified.

Julie can throw, but excels at hand building. My favorite pieces are her woven baskets, with thin strips of clay, and little cloven feet. She taught hand building at a day camp for three summers. Her recent passion has been making dragons out of polymer clay. She made one to give to Vicki, when we were in Atlanta.

Once I throw and trim the vase, I will turn it over to her when it is leather hard. She will then decorate it with clay dragons.

I broke open a new box of clay, pulled out a bag, and cut off a couple of blocks of clay. Each piece weighed about six pounds, which is a quarter of a bag. Taking one, I bounced the corners on the wheel head to round it off a bit, then started to center.

Or tried to. Again, I had difficulty in centering. These were the biggest chunks of clay that I had thrown in two years, and I was having trouble remembering how. As I tried to center, I would either get a side wobble, meaning that the clay wasn't centered, or an uneven top.

To center a piece of clay, you brace your left elbow against your hip or ribs, with your forearm leaning on the edge of the splash pan. I throw counter clockwise, so the palm of my left hand is against the side of the clay, trying to make the clay round and centered on the wheel head. The base of the palm, right above the wrist, is doing the shaping of the side, while the right edge of the palm and pinkie slide on the wheel head, and work to create a perpendicular base for the clay (rather than a tapering 'continental shelf', as Jean Taylor would say). The right elbow is locked against the ribcage, and the right hand rides on the top of the clay. The right hand is supposed to even out the top so it is not wavy. You use the base of the palm on your right hand. It helps to lock the hands together for stability, and some lock their thumbs. My right foot controls the throttle pedal of the wheel, and my left is supposed to be flat on the ground, but typically is wrapped around a chair leg or on tiptoes, bouncing.

The idea is to get your hands in just the right position so that the clay is forced through a more-or-less rectangular template, and becomes perfectly centered with an even top. When I threw in Georgia, and my classmates had trouble centering, I could lay my hands on their clay, judge the wobble, and center it in a second or two.

It was like magic; I didn't really think about it, it just happened.

I fussed and fought, playing with my hand positions and wheel speed, until I finally had the clay close to center. There was a bit of wobble in the top, but I could fix the bad affects as I threw the piece.

I opened, and started raising the walls. The uneven top turns into uneven heights in the walls. I pulled out my needle tool, and trimmed the walls even. I didn't seem to have much difficulty in raising the walls at all today.

The shape of the piece is basically a tall cylindar. It flares out from the base, and then curves back in to create a shoulder with a raised rim on it. I had problems collaring the clay back in to create the shoulders, and had to cut about an inch of height to remove a buckle I put in one side of the rim. I used my ribs to give the piece a nice curve on the inside and outside, then used a notch in one rib to create the raised rim.

The piece was okay, but not what I had envisioned. The mouth of the vase was wider than I liked; there wasn't enough shoulder, and the piece was a little to short for how wide it was. I cut it off the wheel, moved it to the damp box, and started with the next chunk of clay.

Centering went easier, the walls also came up taller. The amazing thing was my hands remembered how to collar the clay correctly, so the shoulder came out nice. When I first learned to throw, I had been taught to collar by placing two fingers from each hand equidistant near the top of the piece, and gently push in while moving up the piece with your fingers. This starts to reduce the diameter of the pot, and the walls start to thicken where you collar. The thickness of the walls can either be raised into taller walls, or raised until it can be trimmed off.

The way my hands collared the piece were that placed my hands on either side of the pot near the rim, and cupped my hands up and inward over the walls. The shoulder formed nicely, and I then finished shaping the piece, and adding the rim. I cut the piece off of the wheel head, and moved it to the damp box next to the first.

I fetched Julie to show her my work, and she was pleased with both pieces. I agreed to try to trim them tomorrow, then wrap them in plastic until she gets a chance to decorate them.

I took a dinner break, made a sandwich, and returned to the studio. Since I was having luck throwing the tall vase, I got out my raku clay to throw the same shape. The tooth of the raku clay, and the fact that this was the third vase that evening, allowed me to throw a taller piece. My intent is to carve this one.

I decided to push my luck, and go for a covered jar. The raku clay, again, threw wonderfully, and was very forgiving. I still trimmed the rim as I raised the walls too many times, but that was the biggest problem that I had in shaping the piece. Back in the day, I could throw a twenty-five pound bag of clay into a single bowl, and trim just a fraction of an inch at most.

The final step of one of my lidded jars is to create a step in the rim that the lid rests on. I used to split the rim with a needle tool, then I thought that I forced the split into a step using a rib with a right angle in it. I tried for about ten minutes to get it right, but fussed with it too much, so the step collapsed into the bowl. I have to ponder finger positions, because I almost remembered how to do it, but seemed to need two more hands at one point to smooth out too many edges simultaneously. I'll dig thought my tool box, and see whether I can use one of my oddly pointed sticks instead of a rib to make the step.

I smoothed out the damaged step in the rim, so it is now a wide vase. I'll see about carving it for raku. I'll try for a covered jar another day.


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