Some years ago my ceramics teacher at the time encouraged me to begin learning to photograph my work. This was the early 2000s, and although it doesn’t feel all that long ago, digital cameras had not yet replaced 35mm, at least in the realm of art documentation. So I drove into Portland to find the film and other sundries I’d need, and I spent three very tedious hours fidgeting with lighting and camera angles only to come up with a handful of VERY mediocre photos. They were not suitable for anything other than nostalgia. Although, come to think of it, I think I trashed them long ago.
Fast-forward to 2011…Kodak stopped making slide projectors long ago and everyone and their grandmother has at least one digital camera (in their phone!). Technology now exists to give every potter the tools to take decent to professional-grade photos worthy to submit to any show. I now have a Canon Powershot with more features than I know what to do with (I really wish I could find that infernal owner’s manual), in addition to a pair of lights, a graded background, and a light cube.
I purchased the cube and lights as a kit from EZCube for around $200, about a year ago. The EZ Cube is a pop-up, table-top light tent, which diffuses light and reduces glare on the object being photographed. The lights that came with my kit are pretty decent, not professional grade, but I feel like I got my money’s worth. The cube comes with three pieces of background drapery, which are useless to me. They are wrinkled most of the time, but even with ironing they do not drape cleanly for a seamless look. When I moved into the private studio that came with my tech job, I discovered that my predecessor had bequeathed to me and the other tech a Varitone graded background. It’s much to large for my EZ Cube, so lately I’ve been using the Varitone with the lights, which came with diffusing covers.
Here’s what I set up today:
I don’t have a table large enough to accommodate the drape I need to create with the Varitone background, so I found a piece of chipboard in the kiln barn to create an extension to one of my work tables. I nabbed the heaviest thing I could find, a bag of clay, to keep it in place.
Next, I hung the Varitone from the ceiling with very long pieces of twine. The background is painted with a gradient from white to black (a marvelous tool for those of us who want to take our own photos, but don’t want to invest the time into learning how to do proper lighting) . I want to be able to change the curve of the background to increase or decrease the amount of black/white in the frame, depending upon the piece. I learned today that I need even longer pieces of twine to anchor behind the lighting…there’s just no room in there to climb up to the ceiling to adjust the backdrop!
I took photos today which I plan to submit to “Atmospheric Fired 2011,” at the Carbondale Clay Center. Once I got home to view them on my computer, I realized I still have more shots to take. I’ll go back in tomorrow to photograph a teapot to add to the mix. Many of the pieces I shot today just don’t look very good in my photos. I think that’s just the limits of my skills at this point, because those pieces look absolutely marvelous in person.
Today is Marketing Monday, episode two. I’ve decided to stay home on Mondays, instead of commuting in to my studio, so that I can spend some QT marketing myself and my wares. This will save me about $20-25 per month in gas, however, the idea is that the big dividends come from the fruits of my networking labor. I shall tweet, I shall update, I shall blog, I shall submit applications galore. Sounds pretty straight forward, but getting organized and coming up with strategy like this is something I’ve never done before. Where to begin?
I spent my first Monday researching shows and galleries and thinking about photographing work for submissions. Today I researched shopping cart options (I’m thinking I might ditch etsy in favor of selling from my blog). I suppose I’ve been productive, but it feels haphazard, like I’m flailing about. I need some good goals.
My three general goals:
1) Maintain an active web presence via my blog and social media. My blog will also serve as a retail outlet.
2) Put my actual pots in front of actual people. We’re talking sales, shows, and galleries.
3) Be an active member of my local arts community and craft guild.
This simple framework makes these Marketing Mondays look a lot less daunting. I’ve worked so long at refining my pottery-making process that it feels a little odd to know I’m rather unorganized and inefficient in this aspect of my career. I’ll probably end up flailing about a bit more before I get the kinks worked out. I think I’m going to back-track a few steps, break down those goals into smaller tasks, and give myself a more structured plan for the coming weeks.
Many thanks, by the way, to Alyson B. Stanfield, the Art Biz Coach, and her Art Biz Blog. Her articles and pod-casts have lots of great info and advice that help get the juices flowing.
I’d like to invite you all to visit my first studio, located in the woods at the foot of Mt. Hood, outside Hood River, Oregon. It’s time for my annual Blossom Festival Sale, in conjunction with the Hood River County Blossom Festival. I typically use this sale to “clean out the closet,” and make room for my fresh work. Seconds and one-off pieces will be priced very reasonably.
My first studio was a carport at my parents’ home, with a little wall heater and no plumbing. I had a ball out there, even in winter, when it took a few hours for that little heater to bring the space up to 55 degrees. The dogs would come and go, and on warm days, I’d leave the door open to watch the hummingbirds.
In the beginning, I didn’t have a kiln, so my dad and I built one from a 55-gallon drum and ceramic fiber insulation. Basically, it was a raku kiln, only good for short, low-fire firings, but I tried bisque and even cone 6 glaze firings in that thing. Everything I knew about firing came from readings, but I truly learn from experience; needless to say those bisque and cone 6 firings didn’t go that well. But they laid the foundation upon which I’ve been building my firing knowledge. It will a lifetime of learning.
After a few months throwing in solitude, I began to crave community. I also felt as though I was floundering a bit; my pots showed no direction, other than perhaps an attempt at mastery of throwing techniques. While I could throw a nice lid or make a very light mug, I didn’t yet know why. As a beginner, most potters are compelled to make because of the tactile quality of clay and the visceral experience. It was in that little carport studio that I realized the visceral experience was no longer enough.
And so I ventured out of my studio into the big world of wood- and soda-firing, discovered Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach and the generation of potters they inspired. One became my mentor, and years later I finally found my voice. I can almost name the day…it was fall of 2009, in my home studio on a farm outside Portland. The journey to that spot was difficult, preceded by the most difficult period of creative depression I’d ever experienced. And yet the epiphany was so simple: make the pots that make you happy. Pure and simple, with no buts or exemptions. That honesty and truth is what led me to the pieces you see in the gallery here today. And those pieces have unlocked an energy that can’t be held back. Now I get frustrated when I don’t have time to put my ideas into clay. But I know the pots will get made. And one will lead to another, although not all will be good ideas. As long as I remain true to the promise I made to myself, to always and only make pots that make me happy, the good ideas will get through.
I have one of the best gigs out there for a potter like me…edging my way into the professional sphere, having just found my true voice in pottery, and feeling confident (even on top of the world at times) about my future. That gig is Ceramics Technician at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon.
On the surface, it’s a part-time job as assistant manager of a ceramics studio serving 100-125 students per quarter. I keep the kilns running and clay recycling, remind students to clean up after themselves (i.e. clean up after students; I’m starting to dream of getting a Mother’s Day gift this year), repair anything that needs repairing and come up with clever solutions to those little problems like, “How can we better store our bisque kiln shelves?” But, in my 6th month of employment as ceramics tech, I see this job as a gold mine in disguise…this is really a resident artist position. In exchange for working 20 hours per week, I get the freedom and resources to immerse myself in exactly what moves me so that I can develop a truly unique, meaningful body of work and establish myself as a professional potter.
I have a private studio, 24/7 access to the entire department, and use of all the recycled clay, slips, glazes, etc that the department keeps in stock. I can pretty much fire to my heart’s content, but student work comes first, of course. And when I say “..to my heart’s content…” I really mean it. I have access to 2 gas reduction kilns, a soda kiln, a small anagama-style wood-fired kiln, a smaller/fast-fire catenary arch wood-fired kiln and 4 electric kilns. Oh, and a raku kiln, but I’m not into that much anymore (explored raku for a few years; built a top-hat style raku kiln with my dad some years ago, even tried bisque and cone 6 in it!). Did I mention I get to fire all of these, as often as I can/want, FREE OF CHARGE??
Like I said, GOLD MINE.
My position also allows me the freedom to explore new techniques and materials. For students, the MHCC studio is strictly high-fire/cone 10, and everything is fired in either wood or gas fueled kilns. I’ve been firing my porcelain pieces with the black and red brushwork in the school’s Alpine updraft kiln; however, getting true black and white is difficult in a reduction kiln. “Clear” glaze is finicky at cone 10, and my underglazes can change color with too much reduction. I realized last month that it’s time to convert to cone 6 and save myself some headaches (not to mention it’ll save time and energy firing mid-range). A friend fired a few test pieces for me last weekend, and I’m just a step or two away from whipping out my first kiln load of cone 6 pots! With 4 wood-fires on my schedule this season, I am SO ready for some black, white, and red!!
Aside from the perks of unlimited studio space and materials, I will surely reap even greater benefits from the education this job offers. Since I have never owned my own reduction, wood-fired or soda kiln I am suddenly faced with the challenge of solving firing and kiln construction issues on a nearly weekly basis. Although I’d been a student in this studio since 2005, I hadn’t been thoroughly trained on firing the two gas reduction kilns, in which we fire the majority of student work. All of a sudden, though, lessons learned in 14 years of piecemeal education have coalesced to lead me with confidence through any firing. Ok, maybe not 100% confidence, but the foundation is there. I am now honing my skills and expanding my knowledge of not just firing theory but glaze formulation, clay bodies, forming techniques and aesthetics.
It’s only been a little over a year since I discovered what I can only call my true voice in clay. The excitement of that discovery is still very fresh. My heart really does race with anticipation when I look at a particular piece, this box, the “Red Kite,” which I know is leading me somewhere as yet undefined. As a technician at MHCC I have the space and materials to develop this body of work, but recent experiences at the studio have led me to an unexpected discovery about myself: I want to be a teacher. I had always thought that teaching would play a role in my life, since scraping together a living as a potter often involves a myriad of sources of income. I would also like to pay it forward, in honor of all the formal and informal teachers I have had; this is how the art lives on. However, last week I had the chance to formally critique the first two projects for some beginning and intermediate students at MHCC, and I felt a familiar rush. Although I was a bit nervous at first (I do informal critiques with students every five minutes it seems, but this was a midterm evaluation for grades), I quickly discovered that I can do this! I was connecting with students, and I could see the promise in each of them. I was critical but encouraging and enthusiastic about their work. I had a blast, and I feel invested in their success in a way I hadn’t previously.
I am especially grateful for that experience. It is my hope that the connections I made with those students and the excitement I felt will translate into motivation and inspiration to get the tough, annoying, and dirty jobs done and done well.
At the end of the day, however, I am there for myself and my career. Right now I am trying to sell my pots in galleries and shows. I have also begun leading workshops. My future is uncertain, after my tenure is up at MHCC. I would love to get an MFA and teach in a setting like Mt Hood Community College, but getting a K12 teaching degree and teaching high school art is not out of the question. My husband, presently in a master’s program, may pursue a doctoral degree in transportation engineering (he has an incredibly bright future as an engineer and/or teacher). Until the time when we have to make a big decision, I shall make the most of everyday I get in the ceramics studio at Mt. Hood Community College.
Our first firing of the newly remodeled Little Woody was a resounding success. The bottom did get a little too hot a little too fast, requiring some adjustments of the secondary dampers during the firing, but hopefully all we need to do is tweak the bagwall (a little taller with smaller gaps between the bricks).
Everyone involved in this firing, the same crew that helped rebuild the arch, walked away happy this afternoon. Here are some highlights from the unload.
We’re scheduled to unload the Little Woody, after our inaugural firing Tuesday, at noon today. Carol and Jeannette are coming in early to unbrick the door, but I just couldn’t help myself! I took down the first few courses of brick, so I could get a good look at the top shelf. And it is NICE! Classic Little Woody peppery ash glaze and soft colors which, as you can see, really enhance a detailed surface decoration. These jars and vases are the work of Carol Opie, who has also worked as a zoo keeper . The basket is mine.
My other half flew out yesterday for a 6 day conference in DC, so I found myself with an open weekend. With 4 wood-fires in the next 3 months (holy cow, what have I gotten myself into…4 wood fires?!), not to mention all of the work I’d like to do developing a cone 6 line of my black/white/red work, I figured the best way to spend the weekend is making pots. To be honest, it did sound kind of luxurious, two days of making pots without any other obligations. 48 hours of focusing on exactly what I want…nice.
So, I dropped my hubby off at the airport at 7 a.m. and went straight to the studio. Earlier this week I had thrown the bodies for about 10 or 12 goblets, and they needed bottoms/feet. I’m really excited about them, since it’s pretty much a new form. I also made them specifically for the Installation display at Ceramic Showcase 2011 (www.oregonpotters.org/ceramicshowcase). They’re turning out great, with lots of character and a bit of whimsy.
I also threw the bodies for some containers. They’re all-purpose pots, but I see them as utensil containers or vases. Since yesterday was my 6th day in a row at the studio/work (i.e. commuting to Gresham and back), I took my leather-hard thrown pieces parts home to complete them. My husband and I live in a small apartment, but I have a little space for hand-building and decorating pots.
Below, you will find the fruits of today’s labor. I am quite fond of them, I must say. I’m especially drawn to the two on the right, with their low-slung bellies and stubbier legs.
This fall was crazy busy but fantastic. In September I started working as a ceramics technician at Mt. Hood Community College. I’ve been involved with this program for years (started out as a student in 2005), and I am so excited to have this opportunity, which is a lot like that of a resident artist. I have a private studio space, which I share with the other technician, Brenda Scott, who happens to be a great friend. I have access to wood, soda and gas reduction kilns, not to mention the opportunity to mentor young potters and help shape programs and workshops.
Our big project for fall quarter was to demo and rebuild the catenary arch of our boury box style wood-fired kiln, Little Woody. LW is a well-loved kiln. It can be easily filled by a handful of students, and takes only about 16 hours to fire. It can be candled with either gas or wood, depending upon students’ energy and sense of adventure.
You can see the general design in this photo. You can also see the signs of wear in the outer layer, on the right in the photo. This kiln was built about 10 years ago, and has likely seen over 100 firings. Back in the day, students also introduced salt into the kiln, which eats away at brick pretty quickly. They stopped using salt by the time I came to MHCC in ’05, but since then I’ve seen the floor rebuilt, in addition to spot repairs in the interior arch, firebox and flue.
The door is from an incinerator, and was installed upside down. This caused a bit of a headache during firing, because the door needed to be propped shut.
The first step in the demolition was to tear off the insulating layer covering the hard brick catenary arch. Turned out, this layer was composed of about 3″ of clay, covered in kaowool, chicken wire and, finally on top, a thin layer of refractory cement.
As you can see, it was a solid sheet of clay. Get out the sledge! Giant chunks of clay, some weighing 50 pounds +, slid off the arch as we wailed away. A local brick company donated a pallet of hard brick, so we weren’t concerned about salvaging every brick in the old arch. We beat that thing to smithereens. 🙂 Demo is fun!
Below is Jeannette working on the other side of the arch, where is connects with the chimney. I could not see it with my naked eyes, but the camera picked up the debris in the air.
Obviously, LW needed a new arch. This one could have come crashing down on the next firing. After we removed all the clay, wool and wire, Jeannette tore out the back wall before tackling the arch itself.
Wait, just how stable is this baby? The integrity of the once gracefully strong catenary arch seemed compromised. Once we start pulling brick, how long before the whole thing comes tumbling down (quite a while, as it turned out)? The floor is in really good condition, so we had to protect it from falling hard brick. Luckily, this is a pottery studio, and potters are notorious pack rats.
We happened to have a bunch of bags of scrap foam cushioning lying around the kiln barn. With some plywood covering the floor, and an empty, upside-down trash can to fill some space, we stuffed the rest of the void with these bags of foam and got down to business.
Everything came apart quite easily. Jeannette had torn down about 80% of the arch before the remainder came crashing down. Looking back, I would have been a little more organized and methodical about the tear down. We received a pallet of hard-brick as a donation from a local company, so I thought we would only keep the really nice brick out of the old arch. While we didn’t throw anything away until after the new arch was in place, I wish we had organized the old brick in terms of length.
With the arch cleared away, we had to cut the kiln’s metal frame in order to remove the cast iron stoke door. Before putting the arch form in place we had to build up the first few rows on the chimney side and reset some sketchy looking bricks around the flue.
“Hey, did you guys notice how the chimney brick is kind of separating? And how about how the firebox seems to have twisted?” We could have easily torn the whole thing down if we really wanted to make things perfect. Although these quirks of the kiln did make reconstruction a little frustrating, they didn’t compromise the integrity of future firings, and trying to fix them would have compromised our sanity.
I’ll end this post here, as it seems to be getting long, and it did take me many many days to put this together (yes, I can procrastinate). Look out for chapter two: the rebuild.
Ah, wood fire! How I love thee! I am presently recovering from a 3+ day firing at Soulgama, Stephen Mickey’s anagama-style wood-fired kiln near Brush Prairie, Washington. Wood firing is a unique and cherished experience for many potters. It’s an opportunity for friends and colleagues to gather together and create a tiny community as we give our wares over to the unpredictable fire. We prepare meals for each other and share stories around the kiln. For some of us, this is a rare time to catch up with friends we rarely see.
The first two days are spent loading our pottery and sculpture. It’s a giant 3D puzzle, and we don’t know what all the pieces are going to look like until the 10 participants show up on day one and unpack; however, everyone generally makes a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate the dimensions of the kiln and it’s predicted firing patterns.
For Soulgama #24, we began loading Thursday, October 14 and finished with a sake toast at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Stephen created a small fire outside the kiln, which was slowly pushed in through a primary air port. After about 30 hours of stoking we reached 2350 degrees in the front.
I’m struggling to come up with a way to effectively describe the feeling, the
As the hours ticked by we donned additional layers of protective gear to safely stoke. Still, by Sunday evening (if not sooner) aluminized kevlar welding gloves start to smolder as the stoker tosses wood into the fire box….it’s so freakin’ cool! At its peak, a good stoke will create a pulsing wave of flame, like a panting dragon, and when the door closes, 8 feet of flame shoots out the chimney. Sometime early Monday morning cone 11 started to go down in the back, so we shut ‘er down around 11 a.m.
And when I say “we shut ‘er down,” I really mean Steve Sanchez tried not to burst into flame as he bricked up the stoke hole, with the raging inferno in his face.
After we cleaned up we shared one last meal together. It was myself, Steve, Natalie Warrens, Brenda Scott and her husband (kiln builder extraordinaire) Eric “The Prophet” Moffitt. That Monday afternoon was cool, but the sun was strong as we ate and tossed back a couple of beers on the deck outside Stephen Mickey’s studio. It was the perfect ending to an inspirational and invigorating weekend.
Now, if I can just figure out how to make the next two weeks fly by until we get to open the kiln….oh, yes of course, there’s that kiln I’m building (more on that soon). Oh, and that soda fire scheduled for the first week in November. And the Shigaraki firing. And the Holiday Sale. Ok, I should be sufficiently distracted.