Monday, December 31, 2012

Fabulous for 2013

I've always wanted to be fabulous.

Who doesn't? We all know a person, or more than one, who seems to be fabulous at everything they do; everything little thing they do is magic. Those hyper-competent people who plumb and wire their own homes and then build brick pizza ovens on their hand-cast mosaic patios; the ones who never seems to fail at anything. But, weirdly, since we all know one, nobody actually thinks they are one. Hmm. Maybe there are some reasons for that.
  1. Fabulous takes time. As I observed regarding my soap making efforts, there is a learning curve to virtually everything. Even in clay, new techniques take time to learn, and familiar ones take time to maintain and improve.
  2. Fabulous takes sweat and commitment. Now and then I make a pot, or a few, that strike me as fabulous. They are always borne of making several pretty-good versions and maybe a stinker or two, and of making the extra effort to get the details right. I can't think of a time when it all just fell together, although often it's some kiln or soft-clay randomness that pushes it over the edge to fabulous. But it has to be at that edge.
  3. Fabulous results require the right tools. You aren't going the throw a sleek, ring-free pots (if that's what you like) without a rib, or make delicate slip-trail with a ketchup bottle. Tools I need: among other things, some new kiln shelves and furniture. Tools matter.
  4. And, finally, it's okay not to be fabulous at everything.Waking up, taking care of yourself and your loved ones, doing the best you can with what you've got...some days, that's fabulous enough.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Slip Embroidery - I Tried It!

...and it works! It's not quite as easy as it appeared on the video - a combination, I suppose, of practice and the nature of the material: frosting is much stickier than slip, so (maybe) requires less delicate handling. Also, not unimportantly, it was tons of fun! Can't wait to try another design.

In other news, the cats broke my triple beam, but I'm the dummy for bringing it inside (for soap-making, of course) and then leaving it where they could knock it off the table, knowing full well that knocking things over is a cat's hobby.

But! I had been wanting a higher capacity digital scale anyway. This one could only handle up to 2000 grams, which often meant having to weigh things out in several parcels - nothing could possibly go wrong with that, right? It was only a matter of time before I screwed up a batch of glaze. And, the 7000-gm capacity digital scale was only around $50 with the shipping - well worth it.
As a bonus, I was able to half-assed repair the triple beam with Gorilla Glue, so it has been demoted to full-time soaping equipment. I should give the cats some tuna, or something, for giving me an excuse for what I wanted to do anyway.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Brush Embroidery: Can't Wait to Try This with Slip!

The video, of course, is cookie decorating with frosting, but I think it would work just as well with slip, don't you? Maybe on the lid of a jar.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Soap and Sympathy

I may have mentioned my new hobby? I am learning to make soap. Though any fool, including me, can make lye and fat do the Wild Thing and get something you can wash with, my soaps so far have been..fine. Well: one batch was too soft to use; one unexpectedly turned black (which was kind of cool and spa-y) and one made tiny bars because the ad hoc mold was too big. They suffer from paper crinkles in the sides, insufficient color or general from my lack of experience. When I am dying to make soaps like this:

From The Soap Seduction
and this:

From SVSoaps
and this:
From a now defunct Etsy shop

and this:
From Soapy
My soap looks like this:
See what I mean? It's fine, it smells good, it has some nice qualities...but it's not fabulous.

My head is full of fabulousness, and the wait for my skill to catch up - which might be a long one - is maddening. And then it occurred to me: this is what my students feel like. Their heads are full of fabulous ideas for amazing pottery, and for the nonce they have to be satisfied if it just doesn't collapse. Any fabulousness is almost accidental. They want to know, "What am I doing wrong?" and sometimes I can tell them a specific thing - "Hold your hands like this" - but more often the answer is: Nothing. It just takes practice.

Though I think I am patient enough, there's nothing like standing in someone's shoes to really foster understanding. I think it's good for my outlook, as a teacher.

Of course, it doesn't change anything. For them, and for me, fabulous takes time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Drive-by Post: Slip Tip

I've really been satisfying my slip trailing fetish lately, which means filling up the slip bottle more often. Since a batch is way more than my slip-trailing pen can handle, I've just been storing the leftover in the blender, which works okay until I need the blender for something else. (No, not margueritas. I have another blender for that.) Also, the spout of the blender is so wide and the neck of the slip bottle so narrow that it's a big sloppy mess every time.

I just happened to have used up the last of a bottle of conditioner this morning, so when it came time to mix up a new batch of slip (more about that here)I dug the old conditioner bottle out of the wastebasket and rinsed it thoroughly and  - voilĂ  - a slip storage container that makes it easy to fill up those little bottles. The cap of the conditioner bottle comes off, revealing an opening that is much larger, although it's still a bit of a mess; but, importantly, I only have to fill the conditioner bottle once per batch. After that i can just easily squeeze into the slip trailer. It looks a lot messier in the photo than it actually is, because I needed one hand for the camera, but trust me: it's sooo much easier. And the blender is freed up.

Well, miles to trail before I sleep....

Here Begins The Week of Reflection

Longtime readers know that the week between Christmas and New Year's Day is my favorite: all the holiday busy-ness is over, but it's not quite business as usual yet. It feels like a little island of calm, when nothing is urgent and there is time to think. I use it for this purpose: the Week of Reflection.

Here at this blog I tend to use it for artistic and business reflections, but I do it on a personal level, also.

I got a jump on this year's Week of Reflection a few weeks ago when I went through a depressive spell - why waste the only thing depression is good for: ruminating? - and in that time I made an important decision: prices are going up. I won't rehash it here, but it was a tough corner to turn, and a very valuable one. Ever since, I have been spending whatever time it took to make each piece as good as it could be, and feeling free to recycle the stinkers - because of course there will be stinkers, there have to be. I feel as good about the work I have made in the past few weeks as any I've ever done.

It will mean, initially, fewer sales. I can live with this; I can squeak by on teaching classes if I am ridiculously frugal. (And I do mean ridiculously. We suspended our $7.99 Netflix subscription, for example.) It will pass, and it will pay off. The Week of Reflection, this year, will be focused on a sales and marketing plan, and a few steps I can take to make production less expensive. More efficient burners? Convert my glazes to Cone 6? Those are two possible steps.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thursday Inspiration: Maureen Mills

Maureen is also on the faculty of the New Hampshire Institute of Arts, and author of the great book Surface Design for Ceramics, which I use often in coming up with demonstrations for class.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Baskets and Butterdishes

I love this time of year, because I think this is when I do my best work: for firing purposes, Christmas is over. Nobody is waiting for these pots: no hurry, none at all. I can spend whatever time it takes to make them exactly how I want them. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

It Worked: Peppermint Mocha Soap

Well, that was fun. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Already in progress! I am making bigger things today, baskets and pitchers and maybe a cake stand or two.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different

My favorite expression - maybe even my motto - is "How hard can it be?" The sound of that phrase usually means I am about to find out. This is sometimes a good thing (see: The Kiln Project) and other times less so.

I've always had a thing for handmade soap. It twangs the same string on my magic twanger that cupcakes and pretty stationery and highly decorated mugs twangs. (Everybody has a magic twanger, right? You're all with me on that?) I never considered making it, as I had the impression that it was seriously complicated and maybe even dangerous; and then I saw - thanks, Pinterest - a recipe for making soap in the crockpot. Somehow anything you can do in a crockpot doesn't sound intimidating anymore. How hard can it be?

So, down in the crockpot, fats are melting. I read a whole bunch of recipes, and then made some adjustments to one which had no absurdly inaccessible ingredients.(Ostrich oil? Really, people?) Because I wasn't using the recipe exactly as I found it (because I can never, never, never, ever just do things the easy way) I had to run all the fat and oil measurement through a lye calculator, because if you get the lye wrong, well, you won't like the soap very much, as it will burn your skin.

Yeah, I remember now why I thought this was dangerous. Anyway, too late now. The fats are a-meltin'.

Okay, fast forward an hour...the lye is ever-so-carefully weighed and added to the water (outside!) then that solution is added to the fats...and then I stirred for almost an hour before it thickened enough up to show a trail if you dragged a spoon through it. The recipe said 10 minutes; lucky thing I am a tenacious bastard. But, look:

Um, is it supposed to be black?!?
It looks perfectly awful, a stinky vat of death soap to go with my deathstar ornaments. Hmmm. Well, I did substitute strong coffee for the water - this will be Peppermint Mocha Soap, if it is soap at all. But damn, it didn't seem like it was that strong.

Anyway. Nothing to do now but let it cook another hour, and stir it every so often, then pour. I'll show you the results in the morning.

Pots from the Firing

I wasn't up to drag out the whole photo set up, but I snapped a few pics out on the deck before packing these pots up to their destinations; most of these will be going to either the Portland Pottery Cafe, Kennebec River Artisans, or the Holiday Pottery Shop.

I also had some simple ornaments in the kiln; some came out as intended, sort of vanilla-nutmeg, like sugar cookies; while others came out so gray and ugly and unfestive it was comical:  ♪ Deathstar of Wonder, Star of blight...♫ A funny thing about those gray stars, though: tactilely, they are wonderful - they almost feel like suede. 

Otherwise, I seem to have photographed all shino pots. Other glazes did well, also, but the shinos were especially fine. The photos don't quite do justice to the small vegetable steamer, that veritably sparkles IRL.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Unloaded the kiln...

...but really, after the unspeakably awful events yesterday, I am having a hard time caring.
I suppose we all are. We have to work, so we keep working; but in our hearts it all feels futile, in a world where a guy can just randomly shoot a bunch of children in school, and their teachers. It's too awful to take in. And worse, it seems like it's just the massacre of the week: shopping centers, movie theatres, temples...innocent people, just going about their business, thinking about ordinary things, and then an evil person with a gun comes and steals their lives from them. I can't get my mind around it.

It was a pretty good firing. I'll take some photos later.

Take care of yourselves, and each other.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Whole Lot of Making Going On

In the yard, the kiln is firing, finally, after I loaded it last week and then discovered I didn't have enough propane to fire it. It's been long enough that I can't quite remember everything that's in there, so was pleasantly surprised when I looked in the spy t o recognize a platter - I can actually see the glaze trailed design. I tried to take a photo but all my attempts are orange blurs. But it was cool, take my word for it.

In the studio, I'm working on perfume bottles. It's been years since I made perfume bottles; I'd forgotten how much I love them. I think I stepped away from them, not entirely consciously, because I couldn't sell them for what I need to get to make the work worthwhile. It's very discouraging to make what you know are good pots, that you then have to sell for a song, or not at all. So my recent decision to seek higher end venues has had an immediate and beneficial creative result. I also have coffee jars and vegetable steamers drying, and more cake stands on deck.

In the kitchen, I am making candy! Tomorrow is the opening night of Portland Pottery's annual Holiday Show and Sale, and I've volunteered to bring chocolate-dipped pretzels. (Also to be the bartender, but that is because I am so awkward at parties, and having a job makes it easier.)I was thinking I would make extra batches to give as gifts, but...nah. I really enjoyed making the first batch, but now I'm done with them. Unlike pottery, once a year is plenty of candy-making for me.

And in my head? I can't stop making soap. I suspect it will be a candy-like experience, and once it's done and the urge is satisfied, I won't want to do more; but who knows? What I know is I want to now. In classic fashion I have no interest in an easy melt-and-pour version, oh hell no. It's palm oil and lye and waiting for trace and all that other rigamarole, or bust. It's probably too late to make Christmas gifts, but I am right on time for Valentine's Day!

Thursday Inspiration: Cheyenne Chapman Rudolph

See more of Cheyenne's work here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

So That's What a Day Looks Like...

...when I get everything I need to do, done.

I am trying to be more disciplined, but also kinder to myself. A favorite pasttime of mine (well, not "favorite;" "frequent," perhaps.) is beating myself up for failing to complete my objectives for the day. I'm lazy; I'm disorganized; I'm easily distracted. That's how the self-talk goes. I may be all of those things, but I also have a shit-ton of work to do, and some days it just doesn't all get done. Yesterday it did, and it looked like this:
  • After coffee and a blog post, I spent the morning in my studio, throwing perfume bottles and coffee jars, and putting handles on mugs.
  • From noon to three, errands: books back to the library (walking, because sunshine and activity are important to combat SAD); checks to the bank; Goodwill and Michael's for some Christmas shopping; and finally Planet Fitness. 
  • Back home, I mailed out the bills that the aforementioned checks were able to cover, and sorted the rest. 
  • The grocery store was next; crowded because it was a weekend, but it needed to be done. Then I made dinner.
  • I spent a bit more time in the studio, smoothing things and straightening, but nothing was dry enough to work on yet, so I just got things ready for today. 
  • Finally I went to bed - with my laptop. I watched a bunch of Kickstarter videos to get a sense of them, and read all the guidelines. I even wrote the first few lines of my own Kickstarter project, and a rough budget for it. A friend and fellow potter once told me that begun is half done.
From 6:30 am to 10:30 pm, I worked. Some home-work, some work-work, but all work. News flash, from me to me: that's not what lazy looks like.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

First Night & More

We had a great turn out for the Holiday Pottery Shop's opening night, and did quite well in the bargain! I was surprised that almost sale was a mug, or at least included a mug.

The next day I combed through my bins, looking for good mugs, because that's what Gardiner wants! In other news, I started the new year early: all the pots I am making now will not be fired until January. I feel like I make some of my best work this time of year, when the pressure is off and I can make anything I feel like, and take however long it takes. Here was yesterday's production:

I see vertical stripes in the future.

I used to make a point to choose something new to learn every year; cheesecake one year, skiing another, until juggling defeated me (no, I can't even juggle scarves.) But this year I am pursuing a skill that has been tempting me for a long time: soap-making. I always thought it was messy and expensive, but I have been finding easy recipes, even some you can do it the crockpot. Soap seems to twang on the same string of the magic twanger that candy and confections do: beauty and sweetness and self-love. But much better for you, and you can sell your extras! Maybe. If they don't suck.

Planning to try this, perhaps before Christmas. I learned a lot in 2012, but there's always room for one more thing.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Holiday Shop is Filling Up!

Our Grand Opening is happening tomorrow night: Friday, December 7th, from 5 - 9, at 226 Water St in Gardiner, Maine. Hope to see you there!

Thursday Inspiration: Virginia Graham

See more of VIrginia's work here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tension, Compression, and Thermal Expansion

A variety of ills can be laid at the feet of glaze fit, or rather lack thereof. Glazes crawl or craze or shiver, or, if you're me, sometimes they split pots into shards. Desirable effects such as crackle or beading are also manipulated via glaze fit, which determines the amount of tension or compression that the glaze is under.It behooves a potter to understand what makes glazes fit or not, and if they don't, what to do about it.

First off, there's surface tension, and then there's viscosity, and they aren't the same things, though both apply to the liquid qualities of molten glaze. You can observe surface tension if you fill a glass of water just a skosh over the rim. Similarly, if you pour out water on a smooth surface, it wouldn't distribute itself evenly in a flat layer; it will roll up into small beads. Glaze also has surface tension, and if it is too great, it will cause the glaze to roll up into beads, also, resulting in the defect known as  crawling. Happily I do not have a good example of crawled glaze around here.Viscosity is the tendency of a liquid to flow. It is not entirely synonymous with thickness, there being some blah-blah about internal friction that distinguishes the two, but for your purposes they are pretty much interchangeable. Glaze which is too viscous in the molten state can also crawl.

This great chart from The Potter's Dictionary of Materials and Techniques (remind me to put that on my Christmas list!) via Clay Planet lists what material will increase or decrease viscosity, and which will increase or decrease surface tension.

Ever so helpful! Now, my shattering dessert dishes were caused by a different sort of glaze tension: the tension caused by mismatched thermal expansion. In this case, the glaze has too great a coefficient of thermal expansion during heating, which causes it to shrink more than the clay during cooling. The difference can be enough to pull the piece apart, unless there is corresponding pressure on the outside, which is to say, the piece is glazed both inside and out. These are the five solutions put forth at Clay Planet.
  1. Increase silica (most common solution)
  2.  Decrease feldspar 
  3.  Decrease other materials containing soda or potash 
  4.  Increase boron 
  5.  Increase alumina 
The opposite situation - where the clay expands more than the glaze, and then shrinks more, will result in shivering - little (or not so little!) flakes of glaze will chip and break off the piece, because the coat of glaze is too large for the pot and is being compressed to fit ti so much that it buckles. You don't see shivering nearly so much as crazing, but when you do, the go-to fix is to increase the feldspar. 

Packing Plates

I really hate packing peanuts, don't you? They are messy and they get all over everything, and unless you want to buy those five-foot-high bags, they are really kind of expensive. And then you have to store them somewhere. Not to mention, they are not particularly environmentally friendly. When I did a lot more shipping than I do now, I used to get the wheat-starch biodegradable packing peanuts, which smell like popcorn but turn truly disgusting if they get wet, and absorb moisture easily from damp environments - no storing those in the cellar.

Lately that isn't a problem - I don't do enough shipping to need a lot of packing materials, but I was still looking for a way to bring down the costs. Double boxing is usually considered the way to go for things to arrive safely, but you can end up with a gargantuan box that costs a mint to ship. Yes, the buyer pays for shipping, but I still hate to send someone an invoice that includes an unpleasant surprise.

Last night I packed up a set of four plates, to go to Colorado. Hating to shop is the mother of ingenuity! I didn't want to brave the crowds even at Staples for packing peanuts.

I happen to have at home, left over from the former occupant, a whole bunch of foam insulating board. I used this to create secure, compact packaging.The four plates measure 11 inches in diameter; I got them securely packed into a 14 x 14 x 12 box.

Two bubble-wrapped plates with cardboard between fit into the ring; then another solid square of foam board, and the second pair of plates the same way. A solid layer tops it off, and then I cut the corners of the box to fold down, saving two inches off the dimensions.

The plates can't move, and they can't touch anything that could break them. the wall of the box is supported all around so if it is dropped from height - which it will be - or things dropped upon it - which they will be - it will hold firm. Best of all the foam is light, so whole thing was only 13 pounds.