Back to work in the pottery

Since half way through February, I have been back at work in the pottery. I started back by making terracotta slip from dark shale that I have collected and had stored in the barn. The half of the barn that didn’t burn. So that was lucky. I carried water in buckets for several hours to keep the fire under control as it slowly spread. 2 of my 4 pumps failed, so I was left with the only option being to carry buckets from the railway station and throw them onto the burning frame. The fire wasn’t finally extinguished until late in the evening, around dusk, when the first fire truck arrived, seven hours after the fire had passed through. I have no idea what they had been doing for all that time, but they never managed to get to my end of the village until dusk.

So now I am making clay slip to mix with some powdered kaolin so as to make a dark stoneware body. Some of the materials that I collect have a lot of iron in them. So much so, to the point that they melt at stoneware temperatures in reduction. I had to be so careful not to over-fire them, or reduce too heavily in the past. This time round I’m adding kaolin to the mix to strengthen the body so that it will be a lot easier to fire without losses, but every new clay body is a bit of an experiment.

I collected some dark shale from the local brickworks shale pit. I was taken there by a local geologist when we were having a day out together exploring the clay/shale resources of the local shire. He was keen to point out that there is a significant amount of coal embedded in layers within the shale beds at this location. I imagine that it starts to fire itself once it reaches ignition temperature of the coal fraction. They must need to hold temperature and allow plenty of excess air into the kiln to counter ‘black heart’ or bloating?

He pointed out that the carbon content was so high, that if it were just a touch higher, they would have to pay a coal mining royalty to the State Government, instead of just a shale royalty. When milled up it can turn out to be almost black, very dark grey to charcoal colour.

I could just buy black clay from a pottery supply shop like everyone else. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s not in my psyche. I love to make everything my self. Even if it is not as good as a bought one. At least it is mine and it is low carbon miles and made entirely with my own hands and on my solar electricity. However, sometimes my own home made stuff actually turns out to be better, certainly more individual and sustainable. So it is much better in my mind.

I only bother to rough crush the shale to allow it to go into the blunger. Then I add plenty of water and blunge it through a first pass of 60 mesh. I take out the harder non-plastic shale particles and they can be ball milled to a finer size. They are the concentrated lumps of coal and iron intimately mixed.  The slip is then passed through the sieve again at 80 mesh to get a fine slip. This is left to flocculate over a few days and then decanted to give a thick slurry. It’s a slow process, so time has to be created to allow for the natural process of flocculation to occur. This is slow clay, not fast convenience clay making, not so much ‘pret-a-porter’ clay, as L’argile-à-porter. 

I also make a coarse textured stoneware from another shale that fires buff to brown, and a finer off-white clay for wood firing that flashes quite nicely given the right firing. All this clay making has been going on since January, interspersed with gardening and fencing work. Important jobs that just had to be done at a certain time and couldn’t be put off.

Finally, three weeks ago I managed to get back on the wheel again. Hurrah!

After the previous pottery burnt down in 1983. I spent a year jack hammering out stone foundations to get a more level site and making mud bricks, then hammering 4 inch nails into hard wood beams to create the new studio. The outcome was a beautiful ‘organic’ pottery workshop made of local natural materials at virtually no cost, but the true cost was the severe damage to my wrists, that still persists to this day if I over do it. I had wanted to make some bigger size pots for some time, but couldn’t throw any large lumps of clay due to my wrist damage, so I taught myself how to hand build on the wheel by the ‘coil-and-throw’ technique. I wasn’t taught by anyone. I had only ever seen it done in pictures, so I had to invent my own way. A few years later, when I was doing a demonstration of my technique to an art school class. One of the students called out. “You’re not doing it right. That’s not how Andrew Halford does it”!  Andrew was a local Sydney potter who had studied in Japan with a big pot throwing master potter. “You’re supposed to drape the coil of clay over your shoulder!”

One of the differences in my invented technique is that I don’t like to use a gas burner to dry my pots in-between the addition of coils. I can see that it is necessary if you want to complete a large pot with multiple coil additions in just one day or even less to fit into a school schedule. I have been forced to do this myself at times. But I don’t like to if I don’t have to. I prefer to let the pot sit over night, often wrapped in plastic, and for the clay to go ’thixotropic’ and ’set’ instead of drying out and shrinking due to applied heat. I think that I get a better, and more continuous form if I do it this way. Of course, I’m no expert, and as I haven’t made any big pots for quite some years before the fire. I do still get some undulations in my forms. That is where the ‘hammer and anvil’ paddling technique comes in handy. It corrects the form, but disturbs the thixotropic set of the clay particles and therefore delays the addition of the next coil for half a day or even over night.

So here I am back on the wheel in a new pottery. I have built and test fired the new wood kiln a few times, albeit with some difficult learning going on due to the nature of my wood. And I’m now ready to make a few big pots again. My wrists are still a bit delicate, so I’m going with coil and throw again. I have to start small, as I have to remember what I had learnt the last time that I did it. I’ve forgotten so much due to the trauma. It seems that my mind has dumped any superfluous information and wiped its hard drive clean, to eliminate traumatic memories and make way for the ongoing cleanup and rebuilding learning and knowledge. Recovering old files takes time it seems, but it is mostly coming back to me. Bit by Bit.

I started with smaller pieces, then worked up to taller narrow forms, as these are easier, and my 2nd hand wheels don’t do so well going really, really slowly, as the drive is a bit worn.

I’ll start to work on a couple of wider forms next week.

So far so good. That’s the easy bit, it’s the firing that will be the big test.