Friday, December 02, 2011

I know it's not even Chanukah yet -- but I believe in starting early, so I've been working on Passover these past few weeks.

Mostly, I've been intrigued by the new tradition of including a Miriam's Cup in the Seder ritual. The following is taken from a website dedicated to this new addition: "New rituals include the addition of "Miriam's cup," filled with water to symbolize Miriam's miraculous well (learn more about the origin of Miriam's cup and the Legend of Miriam's Well). The well was given by G-d in honor of Miriam, the prophetess, and nurtured the Israelites throughout their journey in the desert."

When creating Jewish ritual art I always look at the representational derivation of objects and try to incorporate the functionality of the item with its significance. Designing a matched yet unmatched set of cups for Elijah and Miriam presented a new challenge which required some research.
Miriam was the eldest sister to Moses and Aaron. She is reputed to have prophesied, before Moses's birth, her parents would give birth to the person who would bring about the Jewish people's redemption. She was also the one who watched over Moses in the bulrushes, seeing him rescued by Pharoah's daughter. During the Exodus, Miriam led the women of Israel with timbrels (tambourines) to sing and dance in celebration after Pharaoh's men were drowned in the sea. 

My final design, incorporated the concept of Miriam's well, the idea of women wearing jewelry, and a reference to timbrels in this ritual cup.

Miriam's Cup

I purchased some delicate chain and was lucky enough to find charms which looked like stylized timbrels. When the pottery part was finished, I threaded the chain through the holes, adding the charms along the way. Unfortunately, the chain I purchased, although beautiful and delicate, was too delicate for the jump rings I had. So, I improvised and used cotton thread to tie the ends together. Since the cup shouldn't receive hard use, I think this will suffice.

Then I had to consider how to make a complementary Elijah's Cup. Rather than simply making a traditional wine cup, I wanted a cup embodying the Prophet himself, so I did some research. What caught me was how Elijah was "taken" up to the heavens by a fiery chariot, drawn by fiery horses. I decided the rim of my Elijah's cup should represent the joining of this fire opening up to the heavens.

Elijah's Cup
To emphasize the form, I glazed the pieces with a clear glaze to show off the simplicity of the white stoneware underneath. Altogether, I think the sum of the parts has a wonderful impact and should stand out on any Passover table:

Elijah's and Miriam's Cups Set

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The standing lamp for our "new" living room is finished. We took all the pieces and, this afternoon, put them together. I made sure to document the process (beginning with an earlier post chronicling the part where I made the different pottery components). So, here it goes.

First, our list of supplies:
A standing lamp (which we disassembled by removing the electric cord)
Pottery pieces (enough to go to the height of the decorative piece below the actual fixture), including a "cap" piece).
2" PVC pipe
Foam spray (to "set" the PVC pipe against the metal pole of the lamp).
Silicone (to attach and anchor the separate pottery pieces to each other).
A replacement plug (since we had to remove the old one to remove the wire so we could put the whole thing together -- a long story).

We took the PVC pipe and loaded the pottery pieces onto it. I'd already checked the height of the pieces against the lamp and, being really, REALLY lucky, they were the perfect height.

At this stage, everything was just sitting one on the other, so we could make adjustments and figure things out. We decided to switch the order of the pottery a little, switching around the bottom piece with the blue piece (fourth from the bottom).

Then we marked the PVC pipe where it needed to be cut and took everything apart again.

Then Avie, my favorite husband and incredible handyman, took the PVC pipe outside to cut. He cut it 1/4" below our marked line.

Then we brought it back in and put it on the lamp. At the top, we sprayed in some insulating foam sealant so the PVC pipe would be fixed in place. We only needed to do this at the top, since the bottom sat squarely around a "hump" from the lamp base, holding that part quite nicely. Then we allowed the foam to set for a few minutes.

The wire you see sticking up through the center is the guide wire we were going to use to pull the original electric cord back down through the lamp. We had to do this because you can't drop pottery pieces down with everything attached. We didn't think about this until we started looking at everything after we purchased this lamp at the Salvation Army.

When the foam had set up a little, we began loading on the pottery, putting a line of silicone where they joined the PVC and each other, to keep them secure and to prevent them from shifting.

Finally, we had all the pieces loaded.

When the insulating foam dries, it also expands. Avie trimmed the foam so it wouldn't block the threads where we would be screwing the lamp back together.

Then it was time to pull the electrical cord back through. He threaded the guide wire through the cord and gently used it to guide everything back through the bottom two holes of the lamp. It worked like a charm except, in the excitement, we'd forgotten to put the pottery finishing cap on. So, the first time was for practice. We put everything back the way it was, put on the cap, and rewired the lamp a second time.

Then it was just a matter of attaching the cap piece, attaching the new plug, screwing in the top, and making sure everything worked.

It did!
All in all, it was a fabulous experience resulting in a tremendous sense of pride AND a fabulous piece for the formal living room.

Let me know what YOU think!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My husband Avi and I are big coffee snobs. Morning coffee during the week involves the use of a Chemex coffee maker, a special filter, recently roasted beans which we grind ourselves, and water heated to exactly 195 degrees on an induction cooktop. All in all, the process takes about 20 minutes and yields an incredibly complex and smooth cup o' Joe.

The other day, our favorite high end coffee shop, Local, offered a workshop in a new brewing system called the Clever. After the workshop, we got into a discussion with the other attendees about what, in their opinion, constitutes a perfect coffee cup.

First, and most importantly, we agreed many coffee cups are too large to savor well-brewed coffee. We want our coffee to be hot, accessible, and in a mug which allows us to savor rather than gulp. The general consensus was anything over 12 ounces was just too big.

As coffee cools, its flavor changes. One morning, when you have some extra time to really taste your coffee, play with this. Brew it, pour it into your cup, and taste it at different temperatures as it cools. You should note a change, even with cheap coffee. Coffee connoisseurs want a cup that allows them to enjoy their coffee, while keeping it above 134 degrees for the time it takes to sip and savor.

It's also important to consider the ergonomics of your cup -- how does it feel in the hand and against the lips?

For me, this means a hand-pulled handle. After all, what feels better in the hand than something shaped in the hand? Also take into account the particular size of the hand holding the cup. How many fingers will fit in that handle? Will it feel too large for a small hand? Will it be too tight for a large hand? In the art of cups or mugs one size does not fit all, so vary your designs to take this into account.

Don't make handles too thin, since that makes everything else about your cup feel flimsy and unbalanced. Don't put any fancy textures on them, braid three skinny coils, or do anything to detract from simply holding a cup to sip a beverage. A cup is a functional object; function should be integral to design.

As for the rim, too thick and it feels like you're going to lose your liquid, too thin and it will be too sharp against the lips or be liable to chipping with hard use (and coffee cups get hard use). I use the web area between my first and middle fingers over my rim as the just-thrown piece turns on the wheel to "finish" my rims. I've found that technique creates a rim which feels right against my lips.

Shape? I put a "waist" on my mugs. Personally, I like sticking my hand through the handle and holding the mug itself. This particular shape gives me something to hold that feels good in my hand. I also like this shape because it helps keep the coffee warm for a longer period of time. (I also leave the bottom part of my mug a bit thicker, to add some insulation.)

Granted, the mug below is a bit larger than I would like -- but not everything I make is for the coffee snob. The coffee snob is simply the focus of this particular post.

Let's conclude by turning to Daniel Rhodes and his wonderful book Pottery Form:

"The cup is such a simple form . . . . Its functional aspects are few. The cup works best if the height and width are about the same. The emphasis may be either toward the upright or the horizontal, but if the cup is too high it will be unstable. On the other hand, if it is too broad and low, the contained liquid will slosh and splash. In broad cups, hot liquid will cool too fast. If there is no handle, a foot will make the cup easier to pick up and to hold. The rim touching the lips is smooth and may turn outward slightly, but not inward. This edge or rim, if too thick, will feel awkward at the lips. Inside, the cup is smooth, without ridges or sharp corners. The scale is determined by the amount that is comfortable to drink at one time."

Keep on throwing!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Time for an update on the standing lamp.

All the pieces have been through both the bisque firing, been glazed with "Hi Fire Clear" and fired up to cone 5. I brought them home, all excited about putting the lamp together this evening. Here are the pieces lined up on our coffee table:

Then we hit our first glitch. I knew we would be able to unscrew the lamp pole from the base; but I completely forgot about the cord! And, this being a very commercial lamp (purchased used, but made in China), detaching the cord from anything proved to be more difficult than I thought.

When Avi (my husband) came home, we unscrewed the bulb housing, only to see the wires were permanently embedded in it. No unscrewing wires here.

For a bit, I pondered creating this as a non-functional piece of art. But Avi loves a good puzzle. In the end, we decided to cut off the plug, pull the wire out from the top, with a lead wire attached to help guide it back through when we're done putting everything together. The wire is out, with the lead wire still in place in the tube. It will be reattached to the power wire and pulled back down through when we're done with everything else. Then we'll just attach a new plug. I'm sure this is all clear as mud. At least Avi and I understand what we're doing.

Then we had fun trying to decide where each section would look best on the lamp. This was what we've come up with:
I've decided I need to make a "cap" to top off the stack and make it fit the top piece of the lamp more snugly. I wouldn't want to just leave a gaping hole at the top. I'll work on that tomorrow. I'm planning on making one concave and one convex, then deciding which I like best when they're done.
So, there'll be another lapse in time from now until the next post. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

You've seen the home side of the new living room project. Now I'll show you what's happening in the studio.

As I said in the previous post, I'm working on making a standing lamp from ceramics. The idea is to throw the lamp in sections. My forms are made so the bottom opening will sit just over the rim of the top opening, locking the pieces in place. They're thrown to fit around a two inch pvc (plastic plumbing) pipe, which will sit over the base lamp, pictured in the previous post. They won't sit right up against the pvc pipe. But there will be about a quarter to a half inch clearance between. Hopefully this will all be enough to keep the lamp stable. I'm assuming it won't be moved much and this will all work well.

So, the following photo is of some of the pieces thrown on the first day. I worked with 3-4 pounds of clay per piece, leaving a fairly thick wall for stability and strength.

I wanted the lamp to be colorful, but not enough to dominate the room. So, I decided to use underglazes and have one color family per piece. The base coat would be a light shade of the chosen color, after which I would sponge paint a darker shade over it to create some sort of pattern. Each piece would have a different pattern. There will probably be two pieces for each color family: red, purple, green, brown, blue. A few of the finished underglazed pieces are below:

I have about one more day's work before the pieces have all been underglazed and touched up. Stay tuned......

Monday, September 26, 2011

The "Cascade Effect" has hit my house. We decided to redo the formal living room, which has now spread to the family room AND the kitchen. Upholstered furniture has been purchased, but I HAVE to leave my mark on things. So, I have several projects in the mix -- one of them even involving clay!

The non-pottery designs are a coffee table and end tables featuring wonderful Chinese silk embroidery with birds as the unifying factor. I purchased an old coffee table, two square stools, and a couple of frames at the Salvation Army. The stools, with the seat removed, will be the bases for the end tables, with the framed embroidered pieces as the table tops. The coffee table will have a longer embroidered piece (purchased on e-bay) under cut glass.

 I'm going to remove the woven seats from the two stools, prime them and paint the bases black to go with the charcoal grey sofas we've ordered. The coffee table (sorry, didn't get a photo of it) will be painted the same way. Finally, a couple of coats of polyurethane will be painted on for a durable finish.

Here are the two smaller silk embroideries. One is already framed, although I might opt to replace it with a frame more like the one sitting in the chair as pictured in the third photo down.

And here's the lamp which will act as the foundation for my standing lamp:

A 2 inch pvc pipe will go over the rod part of the lamp to better anchor the 6 or 7 ceramic cylinders that will be my contribution to its beautification. I'm debating whether to run the ceramic parts of the lamp over the open ironwork and up below the lampshade (so no dark metal shows except for the base), or to use the openwork as an accent. I might make pieces that work both ways and decide when I'm putting the pieces together.

I'll try and remember my camera when I go to the studio tomorrow to show you the individual pieces of pottery, which will be stacked on each other to create my standing lamp.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Last night I did a workshop in our studio on layered underglaze/colored slip surface decoration. It's a technique I learned when I attended The Surface Decoration workshop through the Potter's Guild in Temple, TX a couple of months ago.

I've been playing with the technique all week and have become incredibly inspired by the process. I'll walk you through the workshop so you might become inspired as well.

Here's the initial setup for the workshop. From the left side: slab prepared for platter demo, tile prepped for technique demo, sample stencils/sample patterns/heat wire, plaster molds, samples of finished pieces using technique. Please ignore the soft drink in the photo. It's not mine.

This is the stencil I used for the platter. It's adapted from a Judaica papercut. Papercuts are, for all intents and purposes, stencils. After sizing it correctly, using Picasa software, I traced it onto my .010 Lexan and cut it using a stencil heat wire. I'd say the stencil took me about two hours total, from printing to finished piece.

First I did a demo on a tile I had prepped earlier. (Everyone had two tiles to play with -- everyone only had time enough to complete one.) The prep involved painting black underglaze on the surface of the tile and allowing it to dry to matte consistency, while keeping the tile itself moist and pliable.
 I began by carving a series of angled lines as a backdrop. The lines will fire the color of the clay which, in this case, is low fire white.

You could just as easily make swirls, geometric patterns, or not carve at all. But the technique is about layers, so I carved.

 Being a little bit OCD in the studio, I used a ruler for my lines.

Then I took a stencil (a commercial one in this case) and used a rolling pin to embed it into the clay. 

The idea is you want the clay to come up so its surface is level with the top of the stencil. This will prevent your underglaze or slip from bleeding, giving you a crisp, clear image.

Because I used a black foundation color, which muddies overlying colors, I put a base coat of white underglaze. This acts the same way a primer does, helping your lighter colors pop. If you're going from light base to dark, this step is probably not necessary.

Then we had to "hurry up and wait" for this base layer to dry to matte. When the tiles are done, and dry enough, they'll be placed on a plaster slab and rolled over, to flatten the design side. It's important to compress the layers, leaving a smooth surface. This decreases your chances of cracking along stress lines created by carving and raising clay through the stencil/s.

At this point I had everyone base coat their tiles with the color of their choice.

While all the tiles dried I moved onto the platter demo .

Remember the stencil in an earlier photo? I used it for this platter. Since the stencil would block the pattern, I used Fossil Gray Amaco Velvet underglaze, which would give me a stonelike effect. It's fires gray with tiny black spots. 

When that dried to matte, I rolled on my stencil and used Medium Blue over it. This was the result when I peeled off the stencil.

I placed my "Shabbat" (in Hebrew, since I do Judaica) stencil over the centerpiece of the slab, trying to center it correctly.

Then, just as on the tile, I used a roller to fix it into place, again making sure the clay came up level with the top of the stencil.

Using black underglaze, I painted on a couple of coats and waited for it to set.

It doesn't need to dry completely before removing the stencil. It just needs to set enough so it won't smear.

Here it is, with the stencil removed.

Throughout the process, it's important to make sure your slab remains pliable. I do this by spraying plastic and laying the slab over that. Then, periodically, I pick up the slab and spray some more. Since the slab is about 1/2" thick, this keeps the clay pliable, while still allowing the surface colors to dry.

Once my underglazes have dried so they're no longer tacky to the touch, I cut out my platter.


Now let's backtrack a couple of steps. While I was waiting for my underglazes to dry, I took a plaster hump mold and centered it on a foam bat. I'll be using this to shape my platter.

Here I've begun shaping the slab against the mold using a rubber rib. You could just as easily use a wooden one. The idea is initially to use lighter pressure, molding the clay to the shape of the mold.

I slowly increased pressure on the clay, both compressing the piece and trying to flatten out the textured layers from the carvings and the raised stencil parts. This is to prevent cracking from multiple sources: not enough compression of the slab (especially on a larger piece), stress from the carvings and raised lines from the stencil. This also gives a nice, smooth surface to the inside of the functional piece.

Compress, compress, compress.........

When I feel I've finished compressing, I take a serrated rib and score the bottom where I want to place my foot. I do this while the wheel is moving, making it simple to be sure the foot will be centered. The step missing here is that I trimmed the rim of the platter with the pointed tip of a sculpting stick. Then I used a damp sponge to smooth off the sharp edge. Then I just trimmed up a little along the inside. I smooth that off when the platter is removed from the mold.


Then I put slip over the scoring. I'm using slip made from my clay body with water and a little vinegar to act as a flocculant.

I've made a coil using a handle cutter. You could just as easily roll one or use an extruder. I've scored the coil, slipped it, and joined it to the bottom of my platter.

I laid the ends of the coil one over the other and make an angular cut through both, to create a joining edge. I set the wheel to spin and work with the foot, centering it and bringing clay down to join it seamlessly to the body of the platter. I work on this a bit, making sure the foot is compressed, centered, and well joined.

Here's a photo of the finished platter (note the cleaned up edge), and a bit of the tile with Amethyst having been painted over the white base.

 The technique has all sorts of possibilities. I encouraged my students to play with it, telling them I'd love to see where they take it and how they make it their own.