Back Home and Busy

I’m back home again from my month of researching in Korea now and I’m suddenly very busy.

Not just catching up on the past emails and book orders, but immediate things like the fact that the big gum tree on the corner of our street that was hit by lighting just before I went away, has needed to be lopped and made safe. The fire brigade came and put out the fire, but didn’t fix the mess, as it’s not their job. The tree was badly damaged, burnt, split and shattered. It’s not our tree either.

While I was away, Janine had been ‘at’ the council to make the tree safe, as it is out on the foot path and is not on our property. We can’t legally touch their trees. There are rules! We could get fined.
So now the tree loppers are here and have pruned the tree back to a stubby trunk. They leave all the loppings at the base of the tree, so that we can collect it for fire wood. If we hadn’t asked, they would have shredded it all down to wood chips in their huge shredder. So the current, pressing job, is to collect the wood. I have a load of other things on my list, but priorities change day to day as we respond to each situation.
As soon as the tree loppers go we are out there. I know from bitter experience that some particular neighbours will take it from under our noises if we don’t act quickly.
A few years ago,property I helped our direct next-door neighbour to chop up a tree that had fallen on his property down by the back lane. I couldn’t take it all away at the time, but cut it all up into small slabs, so that I could handle it and clear access to his drive way. Before I could get back to it, a distant neighbour stole it all. I’ve learnt my lesson. Act quickly!
This time I get it all up onto my truck with the assistance of my very good friend Len, who just happens to call in to visit. No such thing as a free lunch Len.
I also go to the barn and install my hydraulic crane onto the truck. I use this to lift the largest blocks up onto the truck. They must weight more than hundred kilos each, when they are freshly cut and full of water-based kinos and sap. The longest pieces will be used to fire the wood kiln, the shorter pieces will be used in the hose in the kitchen stove.
Over the hotter months, we collect all our garden prunings and pile them up, saving them up for a time like this that is cool, and damp after a good fall of rain. We had just over 25mm of rain the other day. The weather is just right for us to do a hazard reduction burn. We wait until the evening, for the temperature to fall and the humidity to rise. It only takes 20 mins for it all to reduce to ashes and a few embers. However the core of the ember pile keeps on glowing through the evening and into night. We make regular trip to the pile to check on it. Hosing water all around the site to make the ground very damp.
We have two piles to burn. One pile at each end of our 7 acre block of land. One each night, After the fire dies down and all the hard work is done we share a beer!
I get to drink my home-made, home-brew beer from a porcelain cup that was given to me by my Korean friend Hae Jin.
We are still able to pick ripe tomatoes now in June. Only just a bowl full each week now, but they are still lingering on. I’m so amazed. This is the latest that we have been able to continuously pick tomatoes. We haven’t had a frost yet. Such a strange time. We have lived here on this piece of land for over 40 years. In the 1970s we had severe frosts in May that burnt off every plant that was tender. Now we are now in June and it’s still warmish. 5 oC over-night at this time. No-where near a frost. Global warming. What global warming? Or as the Guardian Newspaper has started stating it. Climate crisis! What Climate Crisis?
Wake up everyone! Choose to only buy green power. Put solar panels on your roof if you can. Insulate your ceiling instead of turning on the air con. Wear a jumper in cooler weather. Choose energy efficient appliances when they need replacing. Many small things make a difference.
The lead article in today’s Guardian Newspaper; 12/6/19
“Australia is missing an opportunity to easily meet its emissions targets through energy efficiency measures, new research has found.Australia could cut greenhouse gas emissions halfway to its Paris agreement target, and save $7.7bna year in bills, by adopting existing global standards on household and business appliances such as hot-water heaters. The report, from the Energy Efficiency Council, found that adopting the measures used in Germany would save the average Australian household $790 a year on power bills and create 70,000 extra full-time equivalent jobs.”
One of the jobs on my very long list of jobs now that I’m back, is to make a batch of porcelain clay from my Australian materials. I have all the materials ready to go and I use the ancient one arm dough mixer that I bought 2nd hand 40 years ago. This dry-mix method is only appropriate if you have all the materials prepared in a pre-powdered state. I blend them all thoroughly for some time and then add in some suitable acidic water from the old galvanised water tank, that collects its water off the pottery roof. This water is enhanced by the addition of rotted gum tree leaves from the gutters. This composted, highly acidic material lowers the pH of the water quite a lot. This flora and fauna creates a thriving micro biome. It all helps the clay that I’m making become a little bit more plastic and slightly better to work with. And it’s free and totally natural.
When I use a blend of wet-mixed slip added to dry-mixed clay like this, I get the advantage of speed, without sacrificing too much in the way of plasticity. I am due to lay this ‘quick and dirty’ sericite blended porcelain body down to ‘age’ for a while, to get it to ‘sour’. All clays, no-matter how they are made and from what, will benefit from a relaxed period of ageing in a damp, dark, cool place for what ever time you can spare. I have a few packs of very old, hand made, single stone, porcelain that I have been mollycoddling for over a decade. What started out as wet sand, is now a quite plastic throwing body. If only you could buy time! Or make it.
I have built a new pug mill table out of my spare off-cuts of gal RHS and stainless steel sheeting from the kiln factory. I have designed it so that the pug can be extruded out over the end of the table onto the extended table, I can then fold it away again after the pugging. I set it up with a diagonal retractable brass brace that hooks into place to hold the extension horizontal when needed.
It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s hard working, reliable, rough, but acceptable. A bit like me!
Another thing that I have done since my return, is to take my crippled lap top to bits and install a new 1Tb solid state drive into the old hard drive space. It starts to work again like a new one. It’s 6 years old and by any ordinary reckoning should be pretty much dead by now. This new digital ‘heart transplant’ should give it new lease of life. It certainly seems to have.
It’s not too technically difficult, even I can manage it! But it does take me about 4 hours. Most of this time was spent in duplicating all the old hard drive data onto the new drive.
Everything that is worth doing takes time, or so it seems.
It’s not just ageing clay that takes time!
I started pickling olives before I went away. Soaking them in water, changing it every day, rinsing and changing once or twice a day for two weeks. I also cut a couple of slits into each olive, to speed up the de-bittering, by allowing the water to penetrate into the flesh easier.
Olives have a very bitter taste when harvested. This bitterness needs to be rinsed out over a couple of weeks. I taste them every few days to check how they are going. It reduces slowly, but they never seem to get past a certain level of bitterness. The next step is to start adding salt to the water to make a brine. I add 1 cup of salt to 10 cups of water. This is just enough to cover the olives, with a dinner plate on top to press them down. I change the brine everyday as well, just as with the first two weeks of water. They get salty now and still a bit bitter.
As I was going to be away for a month. I added a couple of cups of vinegar to the brine on the last change before leaving. I don’t want them to ‘go off’ while I’m away.
When I returned, one of the first things I did was to go back to rinsing the olives each night in plain water. This change of concentration draws out more of the remaining bitterness due to osmosis, from acidic/salty to clear water. It works nicely. I change the water each day for a few more days and when they taste about right, I pickle them in a brine of;
 1/2 cup salt
 1/2 cup sugar
 2 cups vinegar
 6 cups water
I heat the glass jars in the oven and simmer the lids. I make up the brine and add slices of lemon, garlic, fresh herbs from the garden, bay leaves, chillies and pepper corns and let it cool down to just warm, then pack everything into the jars and pour over the warm spiced brine. They taste all right sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, and fresh and slightly lemony, with a chewy texture.
      
Best wishes
Steve

Sericite Journal 4. Out of the fire and into the flying man (’s baggage) 

While my kiln is cooling down. I go for walk along the river, the runs behind the Museum.
Today I see a white crane stalking the shingly shallows, although he doesn’t look to be doing much business this morning. Maybe he is so full already that he is having a rest?
I also spot a black cormorant, ducking and diving. Popping up again here and there, working the deeper river pools.
Slowly a fisherman comes into view, he is strolling quite slowly up stream with his net in hand. He is working the river between the road bridge and the foot bridge. He stops to cast his net out occasionally, apparently with little or no success. I’ll put my money on the cormorant any day.
The sun is well up and I can’t see the sun. The air is just as dirty today as it was yesterday and will  be tomorrow. I imagined when I arrived here this time that it was just some intermittent phase in the air currents. I don’t remember it being this bad before, one, two, three or even 4 years ago. This is my 5th visit to work here. Miles away from the industrialised region of Seoul and it’s the worst that I’ve seen it. The air should be cleaner here. It used to be. I remember being appalled on my first visit here when I returned to Seoul to fly out. I couldn’t see the sky scrapers through the coach’s windows until I was right next to them. This is awful, I was appalled before, simply because of the contrast of country and city. I feel my chest tightening each day. Now the smog is every where. There is nowhere where it isn’t thick and grey.

I get to make another visit to the clay processing building, as there is a problem with the rock crusher that they have just acquired, 2nd hand. Apparently the electric motor starts to smoke after 20 mins of use, i have a close look at it , just from the outside. I can see that the motor is recently reconditioned, the over-spray is still evident on the motor housing and wiring. I’d say that it has burnt out the motto previously in its past life, That may be why it was for sale 2nd Hand?

I suggest t hat they do some research on other new models of this kind of machine and check out what sort of horsepower in really needs. I typed this last sentence in 10 seconds just now, but last week it took me about ten minutes to say all this is several goes at it using the translation app! Waiting for them to formulate a reply or ask another question, then I type my one fingered reply on my tiny, phone virtual key board. It takes a long time.

That’s just the way it is here with me and complex ides and a language that I can’t speak. I feel like I’m a child sometimes. I ave some complex questions that I would like to ask, but when I start to formulate the sentences. The moment has passed and I can see that i will al lot more contextual material for this all to makes one sort of sense. So i give up and wait for another occasion. They must think that I’m stupid sometimes.

It’s a fantastic resource to have available to them to efficiently process their own sericite porcelain from the excellent, but slow, ‘wet-method’ from ball milled slip, filter press and vacuum pugmill.

Colour me ‘Venco-Green’ with clay processing envy!
I the afternoon Mr Jung takes me for a ride, up to the South/North Korean border. There is a lookout post where you can see over the no-mans-land. The road takes us to the east of here through a volcanic crater that is called the ‘Punch bowl’. It is intensively farmed due to the rich volcanic soil within the extinct volcanic crater. It reminds me of the Rutherglen region of Northern Victoria. Great wines are grown in that rich soil and concentrated micro climate.
The lookout post is on a high ridge that is part of the caldera’s edge. I was not allowed to take any photographs of the Northern side of the border, facing the other way, as it is forbidden, and the solder/sentries on duty at their posts make sure of it.
I can report that there is absolutely nothing to be seen. Is this because there is so little development in the North? Perhaps. But I am skeptical. I think it more likely that The North, knowing that there is a clear view into their territory from this high place, have made sure that there is absolutely nothing to be seen.
Imagine the image below with no roads, no farms, no power lines, no clearing, no development of any kind. Just the green rolling hills, going on into the distance. That’s what you can see of the North from here.

 

 Last year when I was here for the Moon Jar conference, the streets in the village were being dug up, deep trenches dug and piping installed. The workers were so very efficient. We were amazed at the time how quickly the work was completed. 3 days for each street, excavated, piping installed, road rebuilt to as-new standard. Fantastic. So little inconvenience to everyone.
I wondered at the time what was being installed.
Now on my return, I can see that every home now has a reticulated LP Gas line and meter next to their house. The homes that are also restaurants, also have a small storage tank as well. I’m assuming that this is to allow peak load at the lunch time and dinner time rush hour, so that they don’t drain the pressure from the street.
This little village is miles from anywhere and a very long way away from Seoul, but the government is committed to reducing the air pollution. One way is the stop the use of coal briquettes being burnt in the countryside where this old anachronism is still in common use.
Coal is a very dirty fuel at the best of times, and the use of crude briquettes in an up draught stove is a real 3rd world solution to cooking and many thousands of women die of respiratory disease each year. Korea is a very technically advanced nation. They built my electric car for me for example. However, way out here in the countryside. Miles from anywhere. Some of the households are still using coal, as they have for 100 years. It’s a credit to the current government that they have funded this development in such a remote place.
I can’t imagine that the gas is pumped all the way from Seoul. It’s just too far to imagine. I assume that the liquid, compressed gas is trucked here from the refinery, to some local depot, where it is stored, evaporated and reticulated in the local network. I’m impressed, as I am with much that is happening here. They still need to stop building and selling diesel engined vehicles though.

As I walk down the street today I can see that one house is still using the dirty coal briquettes, as the spent bisque fired, low quality, circular coal briquettes are stacked up out side the dwelling. I know that some of these spent fuel blocks are crushed and used as a fertiliser. I’ve seen the remnants of them scattered through some of the vegetable patches.
I remember reading an old book back in the 70’s, called ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’. It was a really interesting book that described the life of farmers of Asia, in China, Japan and Korea, their lives and techniques. I say that it was an old book, because it is! It was published in 1911. There was a chapter about digging silty clay out of the irrigation channels and making mud bricks from it. The bricks were made into a ‘Kang’, a wood fired stove that has an extended horizontal flue area that doubles as a warmed bed base at night after dinner.
After several years, the ‘Kang’ is demolished and recycled. The mud bricks, wood ash and whatever other minerals have been absorbed by the bricks are all crushed to powder and spread through the vegetable garden as a fertiliser! 110 years later, the old technique is still practised by some of the older residents of this village.
The other thing that I see that is different in the village is the new solar powered telephone. This is very new and quite impressive. I’m mostly impressed by the fact that the phones here aren’t  vandalised and still work. I must say that I’ve never seem anyone in there using it, as every young person in the village seems to own a mobile and the signal is very good here. There is also a new electric car charger in the car park!
The other thing that is a huge difference here is the construction of the new Museum extension. It is HUGE!
It looks to be about 3 or 4 times bigger than the old single room, exhibition area and offices building. The existing space was very cleverly divided into a lot of smaller ‘rooms’ using divisions to visually break up the big single volume, into more intimate spaces, each with a small specialised minor subject, display or video, used to explain some particular part of the amazing local history of the discovery and development of the single stone sericite porcelain story, that is endemic to this place.
The new building will occupy the entire length of the grounds from the road frontage, right down the side of the old Museum building and all the way down the side of the site, to the river-frontage walkway at the rear.

The new Museum extension will apparently consist of three new exhibition areas. Each with a particular theme. One of them will be a flexible space for a changing series of contemporary themed shows. One will have a small space for a glass case with my contributions to the continuing story of the Yanggu/Bangsan unique sericite porcelain history.
I look forward to getting to see it all finished on my next visit here.
Friday comes around soon enough and I have an appointment with the governor of the local government area or Province in his offices in the city.  Mr Jung has it all arranged. He has made the appointment a couple of weeks ago, when I first arrived and presented him with my 3 porcelain bowls made from the ‘borrowed’ sericite stones of my last visit, now all glazed with my local kangaroo blue opalescent glaze and returned to their birthplace in an enhanced form. The Premier seems to have been suitably impressed by the gift of my cultural amalgam of Australian/Korean porcelain culture.  As a way of promoting the Museum and gaining some exposure for his project, both with the political ‘machine’ of local government, who are funding the new Museum expansion, but also in the papers for local residential exposure/consumption. Mr Jung is always working to promote his life’s work and interest in sericite porcelain. Mr Jung and I are possibly the only two men in the world just now who are practising this ancient art form.
We meet in the Premiers Office. Myself, Mr Jung, Myeongki my translator and several local government minders. We are ushered into the Premiers private office, with its loverly, large round table and very plush leather lounge chairs. The official photographers are there and capture the moment for the press release. Everyone benefits from this meeting.
The Premier will be in the press showing that he is supporting the arts. Mr Jung can show that there is international recognition of the importance of his Museum. And I get to realise that I am under-dressed for a top level political meeting! After a bit of small talk, the Premier reaches out and holds my hand for the second photo-shoot.
I present him with the pots and a copy of my ‘5 Stones’ book, recently translated into Korean. He is polite and is well briefed. He says thank you for the important cultural gift, that now links our two countries. He tells me that he is impressed. They are beautiful. He also understands that I have developed a kiln design that is smaller, cleaner, more fuel efficient and less polluting than the traditional Korea wood fired kiln. I reply that I think that this is true. I have been working on this technology for a several decades now and the design is becoming quite sophisticated.
He replies that he thinks that Korea must have this technology, and goes on to express the opinion that they are intent on cleaning up their environment and doing what they can to become more environmentally friendly. Mr Jung has already made a proposal to build such a kiln at the Beakto Porcelain Village in Bangsan. The Premier says that he thinks that they should fund a project like this and also have the new wood firing book translated into Korean as well. I’m a bit shocked, is it that easy? Apparently it is.  I wasn’t expecting that!
We have tea and the locals discuss something, all in detail in Korean, that my translator describes to me in small whispered chunks, as it really doesn’t actually involve me at all. It’s secret-mens-political-business that involves the realities of the local government political/economic system. The meeting ends with much hand shaking, smiles and bowing. We leave and everyone seems happy with the result.
It appears that this was just the event to push the new kiln site and kiln building proposal over the political line. Apparently the combined project will be fully funded now, as well as the book. Is it really that easy? I think that there may have been a lot of lobbying going on for a long time behind the scenes? This may just be a ‘way-marker’ point. I mention this to my translator out in the street, adding that in Australia, politicians are renown for saying one thing in public, while doing another, totally different thing behind the scenes. She nods and agrees, politics is probably the same all over the world? Inferring that we will have to wait and see.
My Jung has managed to get the 6 million dollars to build the new Museum extension. He’s an impressive man. Maybe this much smaller, micro-project will happen too?
I cast my mind back 4 or 5 years to my first meeting with Mr Jung in 2015? with Ms Kang as my interpreter at that time. There were two architects invited in to see my presentation to Mr Jung about my research. I can only guess now, that they were there working on the new Museum plans at that time? That would make sense, as these large projects take a long time frame to evolve, develop, mature and eventuate.
The next day, the kiln is cool and my work comes out. I get to see not only my pots, but also the clay and glaze tests that I made from Mr Jung’s new glaze stone deposit from the hill behind his house.
My pots are mostly good. A few have minor faults, but most are good. A few are great, beautiful clear, rich, translucent examples of sericite at its best. I could have applied the glaze a little thicker to get a richer colour. I did give some of my pieces a second dip in the glaze to hopefully get a better result, but second dipping can lead to problems and  I didn’t want to loose all my work from a preventable problem, so just did half. These turned out the best, and now I wish that I had been brave enough to have done them all. My intuition was correct, but my caution was justified, it’s a good outcome. In the worst case scenario I could have lost all my work. So it’s all good.
It’s very interesting to me how the different sericite bodies influence the same glaze in the same firing to come out looking so different. All local sericite porcelains, each showing their own individual character.
 The glaze test results are very good. The new stone produces a beautiful satin blue celadon style glaze at 1270oC in reduction. It’s really good. I could use a glaze like this with pride on my work.
Most of the staff are there to see the unpacking, but Mr Jung has to go out to a meeting somewhere, so doesn’t stick around.
I start to explain to some of the resident researchers and a few of the staff just what I was doing with the glaze grid tile. No-one seems to have seen a grid tile before. It seems that they don’t learn much glaze chemistry in the art schools any more. Just like in Australia and the UK.
Janine and I were invited to do some work for the new ‘Clay College’ in Stoke on Trent last year. Clay College is a fantastic initiative. It’s an attempt to re-start a new hands-on ceramics course for potters in the UK, as it seems that all the universities that once taught ceramics have all been converted to ‘design’ schools, where students ‘design’ objects that get made somewhere else, by someone else, like China, or pumped out from a 3D printer?
I explain that the function of this test is to analyse the stone to find out its chemical analysis in % oxide composition. This sort of thing has usually to be done at great expense in a university chemistry lab using electron microscopes or similar.
I explain that I have developed a simple technique for achieving this using just a simple set of scales and a few ingredients.
They had all watched me make the test a few days ago. Now they see the outcome. I look at the colour and melt activity of the test tile and compare it to my data base of known results. I can quickly ascertain the oxide analysis. From there I can use ‘Segar Formula’ to adjust the glaze stone to make it do a number of different things.
I see that every one is very quiet. Eventually someone asks “what is that formula?”. No one has even heard of chemical formula for glaze calculation.  It seems that the only glazing that’s taught here is how to buy a glaze from the pottery supply shop catalogue. We are at that point here in Australia now. Nothing difficult or technical is being taught.
I give a quick class in glaze calculation. One of the older students tells me that he was taught something like that 20 years ago, but wasn’t paying attention and couldn’t see any reason to learn it at the time. Could I go through that all again slowly please.
I do and they slowly get the drift of the exercise. Not the Segar Formula part, but the compound line-blend test tile exercise. They really like the glaze quality of the result and the ease of ascertaining that result with just one test using a totally unknown stone.
They ask me how I learnt how to do this? Who told me that this was possible. I tell them that it is my own invention. I developed this testing technique during my PhD studies, as I was focussed on using local stones to make local porcelain. More or less trying to achieve in a few years what you have been doing here for 700 years!
I fettle and grind my pots ready to go. I pack them in 3 equal lots and wrap them very well in bubble wrap. One batch goes into my suitcase wrapped again in my clothing. A second lot is slid into my back pack. It just fits and the last group are packed into a cardboard box and taped up. I assume that I will have to pay excess baggage fees to get them onto the plane.
On the last day before I leave Bangsan, Mr Jung takes me up to the Baekto Porcelain village to say good bye to the resident researchers, Mr Jung wants to show me something. The money has come through as promised and work has begun on the new kiln shed. It looks like the project will be going to happen a lot faster than I could have imagined. The Premier is a man of his word.
The site has been a excavated and men are at work setting up formwork ready to cast the concrete footings for the new kiln shed. They have to dig down 1.8 metres to get down below the frost line where the ground freezes during winter. Here that is very deep as the temperature drops to below minus -30oC in winter. The frozen soil will expand and cause the ground and everything on it to crack unless the site is well prepared like this.
Mr Jung explains where my kiln will go in this huge shed. Over on the left hand side, there will be at least one other kiln in here and possibly two, in years to come. One of them is going to be a 5 chamber, traditional climbing kiln. A juxtaposition of the old and new in wood firing techniques.
Mr Jung missed my glaze lesson and asks Daewoong to ask me if I can send him my PhD thesis? I reply that of course I will be pleased to do so, but it is 120,000 words in English and academic English at that. Maybe I should just send him the glaze calculation part about rock glazes? As it happens I just happen to have a book called ‘Rock Glazes and Geology for potters’. I’ll post him a copy. I can see yet another translation project coming along in the future?
This may be my last attempt at a travelers’ tale from Korea.
I considder myself just so lucky to have met such incredibly nice, creative and supportive poeple here.
Best wishes
Steve

Bruised Butt Cheek Bones

Over summer we don’t go far. We stick around the house, just in case of bush fires. We concentrate on cleaning the gutters, servicing the fire pumps and working around the house and in the garden. It’s a very productive time of year in the vegetable garden with so much produce to harvest, preserve, cook, dry, bottle, vacuum seal. In March the fire danger is mostly over and we can relax and catch up on some music concerts and the Writers Festival.

We returned from Writes Week and WOMAD to find the garden gone mad and a lot of work needed to be done to get it all sorted out, cleaned up, weeded, mown, whipper snipped and mulched. I have it back in good shape now and most of the winter seeds and seedlings are planted for the approaching cold weather. Over summer, we don’t get into the pottery very much. Instead, it’s a time to use the heat for making clay, crushing rocks and ball milling porcelain stone, then drying that porcelain slip.

Now in April, we can start to think about firing the wood fired kiln again. The summer fire bans will soon be over and we can fire the wood kiln without restriction. We have been doing some firings. I have been firing our solar-powered electric kiln and reducing it with a few hundred grams of LP gas to get the reduced colours.

We have been back in the pottery for the past few weeks and started throwing again. I must say that the first couple of full days on the hard wooden seat of the “Leach” style wooden kick wheel leaves me with a couple of sore butt-cheek bones. I don’t think that they are bruised, but they sure get very tender after that first full day. It seems to take a week or so for them to toughen-up. Then I don’t notice it again till this time next year.

IMG_4719

I bought some sericite stones back with me from my trips to the UK and Korea last year. These stones are now processed and aged sufficiently to be able to consider throwing them. I always think that this time it will be different. This time I will be able to throw something better out of this wet gravel. I can’t! Every time it’s the same, I start off so optimistic. I’m sure I will be better at it. I’m Not! The stuff is just wet rock dust, I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am!

I struggle with it as it is and refrain from adding any bentonite into the mix. I should just get over it and give in, but I really want to make something authentic. Something that has some meaning in this post-truth, bare-faced lying, compromised, new world order of shallow poseurs, where everything is The Image and The Selfie. I know that what I’m living here has no value to anyone else but me, I persist. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It’s a challenge to make a nice pot from these original porcelain stones. Picked from the ground, in-situ by my very own hands, carted off in my back-pack and then brought home here and processed in my own equipment. Maybe if I aged these bodies for a decade, then it would be easier? I’m certain that it would. I have already done those tests a lot earlier in my career. I know it works. However, I’m not too sure that I still have a decade left in me. I strike a compromise and decide to make some very small beakers and some coffee cups. Now, I can almost manage these OK.

IMG_4693 IMG_4718

Last year, my friend Len and I imported a tonne of Chinese sericite. I have been going to China each year and renting studio space, making work, getting it fired on site – with mixed results, and carrying the best pots back in my hand luggage, to show at Watters Gallery and elsewhere.

Last year I felt so guilty about my carbon miles, making work in this way that I decided to buy the milled sericite in bulk and ship it here, This way I can stay at home and the clay can log up the carbon miles. I feel that it ought to be less damaging environmentally to ship a tonne of milled sericite stone by sea, than fly my meagre 80 kgs to and from China in a plane. Any way, I buy my $400 worth of carbon credits, just the same each year, to appease my conscience for my carbon crimes.

Buying the material in bulk sounded like a good idea at the time, but like all the best laid plans…. The stuff that arrived was totally different from what we had thought that we had bought, or ordered at least. Back in the beginning, we purchased a sample of the sericite and tested it. It was difficult to work with, but OK. White, semi-plastic, just. It fired white and translucent. We ordered a tonne of that thank you very much!

What arrived was grey, short, very soft and soggy, difficult to throw with and split and cracked in drying. Totally different material. I couldn’t see us shipping it back. We had already paid in advance. I had to make it work somehow. I tried throwing it in the usual way that I have learnt to work, but I lost over 90% of my pieces. I took a while, but I thought it over and came up with what I thought was a cunning plan. I thought about the ancient Chinese and how they coped with the short-comings of their early sericite porcelains. This was just the same, only re-located over 600 years in time and 12,000 kilometres in distance. The old tried and true answers are usually the best.

I tried a small batch in a blend with something that I thought had exactly the right characteristics. Hey presto. I now have a way of making a unique white, translucent, Chinese sericite based, porcelain of my own making. It’s one answer. It works for me.

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What I still find perplexing and inexplicable, is that Len has no trouble in making perfectly fine pots out of his batch of this stuff with no problems, while I struggle. Obviously this sericite stuff responds to the hands of a true master craftsman but dumbfounds and perplexes a blowhard wannabe like me.

Our New Intern from Korea

We have a new intern working with us this January. Our visitor is Ms. Kang from Korea. She has come here to experience our sustainable approach to life and our ceramic work.

We have been working together crushing and grinding porcelain clay body and glazes from local rocks, throwing pots, working in the vegetable garden growing our food, cooking the food that we harvest and doing a little bit of sightseeing as well. The three of us have been doing some tourist activities together, like a trip to Sydney with a ferry ride on the harbour, and a trip to the local National Park and the south coast beaches.

Ms. Kang has been learning to use our foot-powered ‘Leach-style’ kick wheels.  We have just finished making sufficient clay work today to fill the solar powered electric kiln for a bisque firing. Last week we calcined some local white granite rocks, to make our local blue celadon/guan glaze.

Pretty-much life as usual, but with a hard-working and dedicated student-guest.

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Korean Sericite

A couple of months ago, Janine and I were lucky enough to be invited to Korea to speak at a Porcelain  conference. We made the most of our opportunity and spent time in Seoul on our way to the conference to visit friends. I also made the most of this once-off, free travel opportunity, to re-visit one of the remote Sericite Porcelain Stone mining sites in Korea. This site dates back into the 1300’s. Sericite Porcelain has been mined there for over 700 years. I have visited this site before during my research trips, so I don’t need to put on my Indiana Jones hat and consult the ancient parchment map to get there. I know the way, at least I think that I do. I do have trouble convincing Janine of this though when we come to unexpected junctions in the track. We are tramping with our back-packs and although I have found my way here before, we just take the time to walk up a few dead ends into the hills, and retrace our steps a bit, before regaining the correct path. I managed to find my way here after the last conference and re-discover the site. I know that I can do it.

I must say that even though I’ve been here before, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget all the details of the way when you are out in the bush. I remember all the twists and turns in the various tracks that I need to follow to get there, but over time, things have change and the bush has grown over some landmarks, however, there are enough clues that come to mind at each change of direction, so that from time to time I recognise specific points along the way and I am convinced that I am still on the right path.

Eventually we find our way there. This ancient site is pretty damaged now, as the stone hasn’t been obtained from here for some time. I don’t know how long, but perhaps a couple of hundred years. However, there is still a small amount of the sericite embedded in the ground. There had been some heavy rain since I was last here and quite a few good large chunky samples have been exposed, so that I had no trouble filling my small pack with a couple of kilos of good clean samples. I hand pick the best and whitest bits from the dross that it is mixed with.

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IMG_3095Now that I’m home and have caught up with all my other more pressing life events. I have time to deal with this most recent research. I set about crushing and grinding these new samples. Prior to this, I have only collected a few hundred grams of stone, purely for analysis and academic research. This time I have enough to be able to throw a few pots.

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Seiveing the fines from the crusher, before going to the mill.

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I put the stones through the jaw crusher and then the disc mill, then finally through the ball mill. If I had more to deal with I would put the slurry out on the drying bed. But as I only have a couple of kilos of material, I put in into the plaster drying tubs to stiffen up.

This turns out to be a really fantastically plastic sericite. I can wedge it up using spiral kneading straight from the drying tub with no ageing. Amazing for 100% milled stone. It seems that Sericite can be as plastic as any other ‘clay’ – even though it isn’t! (clay, that is).

I was very impressed with the plastic sericite from Cheongsong in south Korea. That was the best single stone porcelain that I had ever experienced up to that time. However, I wasn’t allowed to see the mine site or any of the processing that was carried out, so I couldn’t draw any conclusion, other than to say that the experience of throwing it was excellent.

This time I’m absolutely sure of what I have in my hands and on the wheel in front of me as I have collected it direct from the soil with my own hands and done all the processing myself. It is very slightly floppy on the wheel, but this is to be expected for a very pure primary ‘clay’ – ground stone actually, with no ageing. It certainly works infinitely better than an ‘Eckalite’ china clay body prepared under the same conditions. I’ve been there and done that.

I might just add here that I have a batch of ‘Eckalite’ kaolin based porcelain body that I made 25 years ago. It was un-usable straight from the pug at that time. Floppy and useless. However, it has been ageing in the cool dark clay store now for all this time and it is quite plastic to throw with now. As good as anything else on the market these days. I only wish that I had made 10 tonnes of the stuff back then. It would have been totally worth it. I don’t have 25 years left in me now, so it’s pointless speculating as to what might have been.

Any young potters out there interested in materials and porcelain. I’ve done the research for you. Make use of it.

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I have no trouble throwing it on the wheel, it is smooth, fine and creamy and stands up well for small items, keeping its shape and not slumping. If only I had discovered this stuff  20 years ago too! It would be amazing by now.

As far as I can ascertain, from what I have been told through translation. Nobody has used this stone for a few hundred years. It has almost archaeological significance, embedded in its remote, hidden hillside home. No-one in Korea has taken an interest in it as far as I can tell. There is only myself and the local Porcelain Museum Director who seem to have any fascination for ancient sericite porcelain. You’d have to be mad to go about doing research like this strictly for the sake of academic interest. It appears that I am that person who is mad enough. So I am going to donate the best of any successful pots from the firing to the Porcelain Museum for their collection. It will be the only pot made from this stuff for the past few hundred years. Here’s hoping that the firing is a good one.

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For an extensive discussion of Sericite porcelain, I refer the reader to my book ‘5 Stones’ which details my 16 year research into sericite porcelain around the world.

Thinking Differently, Solar Power and Clay Making

I usually spend a bit of time making clay over the summer when the humidity is low and the air temperature is high. It’s a good time for drying out the clay slip after it has been ball milled.

All my so-called ‘clay’, is actually ground up igneous stones. I crush the very hard ‘granitic’ rocks in the big jaw crusher first to reduce them down to 12mm. gravel size, then through the small jaw crusher to get it down to sand size and finally it goes into the big ball mill for a few hours to reduce it to a very fine slip with water and 3% of Australian white bentonite. It is the only ingredient that I buy in for this home-made, locally sourced, native porcelain body.

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After ball milling, I test the pH and adjust it if necessary, it usually needs to be reduced a little, as the ball milling breaks down the structure of some of the felspars and micas in the stone. This releases tiny amounts of alkali into solution in the slip. The effect of this is to constrain the plasticity of the porcelain and inhibit the ageing plasticisation. Once adjusted to the correct level, the slip is stirred and then put through a fine sieve to remove any oversized particles and any foreign matter that has crept in during unloading. Thick slip is very slow to pass through a very fine mesh, so I resort to using a sieve vibrating machine to shake the sieve while the slip pours through. It’s quite amazing just how fast this process becomes with a little vibrational energy to keep the larger particles moving and not sitting and blocking up the fine mesh. ‘Vibro energy’ a really great focussed use for very small amount of electrical power.

Without the rock crushers and ball mills, I couldn’t make this local ‘native’ porcelain. In the past I always used to feel a bit guilty about using electrically powered machinery, as I was brought up in a family where ‘green issues’ were openly discussed, long before the ‘greens’ were invented as a political movement and ‘green’ came into the environmental lexicon. I’m not too sure what my parents actually called their lifestyle back then. Possibly ‘environmentally conscious’? Anyway, I’m happy to be called a ‘Greeny’ now and all that early environmental awareness has stuck with me. Give me the boy till he is 7! Now I am getting used to thinking differently about electricity as we are slowly becoming a fully electrified solar-powered household.

Electricity was always made with coal here in Australia and most of it still is. You have to specifically request to be put on a green power contract, and then pay a premium tariff for the pleasure of not using coal. 25 years ago, you couldn’t buy green power. Everything was coal, coal, coal, so I decided to make an effort to use the absolute minimal amount of electricity and we were very successful. We learnt to run a very lean electrical household. We have a very modest ‘LED’ screen television. A very efficient fridge that runs on 1 kW per day and a front loader washing machine, also very efficient. All in all we average an electricity usage of around 3.5 kWh per day. Very modest. We have chosen not to buy home theatre,  a dish washer or air con.  We have had solar hot water for the past 30 years, Solar electricity for the past decade and a Tesla battery since the start of the year. To the best of my knowledge, we have completely removed ourselves from the coal economy now.

When we did buy power from the utility, up until last year, it was always a battle to buy ‘clean’ green energy. They just hadn’t thought about it and weren’t prepared for the transition. It was a dinosaur industry. People like us wanted to buy clean energy, but they hadn’t put any plans in place to create any. It was all about business as usual. As the requests grew louder, some clean energy was slowly introduced, such that you could buy just 10% of your electricity as so-called ‘green power’, but it turned out that it was only hydro power from the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This was electricity that was always being generated since the 50’s and sold into the grid as part of the usual mix. But then the bean counters and ‘The Men in Suits’ got involved and thought why don’t we sell Steve Harrison the electricity that he is already buying, but sell it to him at twice the price. If he is silly enough to pay for it!  I wasn’t, so I didn’t.

We waited a long time, until the first wind farm was built just South of here. Then there was an offer that you could buy 20% of your power bill as wind energy, so we did, and continued to increase the percentage every year or so as more clean energy was built and made available. I remember that we were early adopters and had to go on a waiting list to get a higher percentage of clean energy. However, the energy company kept sending us supposedly attractive offers to change back to a cheaper dirty black power contract. This just reinforced to me that the market for green power was stronger than that for coal power. Apparently they had too much coal power and couldn’t get rid of it all.

Then there was government intervention to support the coal industry and then privatisation that was supposed to make every thing more efficient and cheaper. And what happened? The price went up about 200% here. A complete failure of market forces and competition.

Today I check in on our power usage on my phone app. I see that we are making about 5kW of solar power, not too bad, seeing that we are just a month off the winter solstice. We are only using a few hundred watts intermittently, that’s the fridge compressor switching on and off. There is a spike at 8am. That’s the toaster and electric jug for breakfast. It’s probably hard to live any kind of normal life and use significantly less power then this on a regular basis.

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Back to my clay tests and I pour them out onto the drying bed to stiffen up. Again I’m using solar and wind energy in this very passive way now to remove the excess water from the slip and reduce it to a plastic state. The sun shines for free every day. The wind blows most days, slowly the water is evaporated from the slip and it becomes stiffer and plastic. It’s gentle, it’s energy neutral and it’s free!

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Nice.

I’m very lucky to be able to live this rewarding, creative life in carbon constrained times. We are preparing ourselves for a creative, energy passive future, but it’s funny that trying to live a simple life gets quite complicated at times.

My New Book – 5 Stones

IMG_7383205 pages, 125,000 words, full colour, soft cover. Written, collated, printed and bound on the kitchen table. A very limited edition hand made book.

I have spent the last few weeks and months editing and formatting my new book. This will be my 6th book and 7th if I include my contribution to Handbook for Australian Potters.

This new Book is titled 5 Stones, and details my recent research into single stone porcelain. The book will be launched by Grace Cochrane at the opening of my show at Watters Gallery on Wednesday 16th of August from 6 to 8 pm. I have a selection of single stone porcelain from all 11 sites on show in the exhibition.

15 years ago, I discovered a white porcelain stone near where I live. It made me think about where else porcelain has been discovered and when. Over the past 15 years, I have travelled to each of the places in the world where porcelain was originally discovered/invented independently from first principles and found that they all had something in common, and that thing was a stone called ‘sericite’. It turns out that originally, porcelain wasn’t made from the white clay at all. Kaolin wasn’t involved. All the original porcelains were made from a special type of stone called mica.
My travels led me to China, Korea, Japan, Cornwall, France and Germany. I even developed communications with academics in California, Alaska and London. Then finally back to Mittagong in Australia. Near to where I started.  I have made my porcelain pieces out of these weird and interesting materials in remote villages, artist studios, back rooms, workshops, even factories. Where-ever I could track down and find amenable people using this ancient technique who were open to collaboration. 
At each site that I visited I made works out of the local porcelain stone, but I also used the opportunity to collect samples of their stone and posted these rocks back to Australia where I could process them myself and make local, contemporary versions of these ancient porcelains. I collected native porcelain stone material from 11 sites around the world and have made what I think are beautiful pots from them, both on-site, where that was still possible and back at home in my own workshop. 
This exhibition shows results of my firings and 15 years of research into these single-stone native porcelains. To coincide with this show I have written a travel journal documenting my travels. My book, titled ‘5 Stones’ will be launched at the opening by Grace Cochrane. The book stands alone in its own right as a travellers tale, as it has its own characters and arc of narrative, but also helps to illuminate the story behind the actual works on display in the show.
I have works in the show that were fired on-site in clean conditions to give very white and translucent pieces and I also have the same materials fired at home in my wood fired kiln with very different results.
4 of the 11 examples are made from porcelain that is no longer available, as 2 of the sites are lost forever and another two have complications.
I consider my self very lucky to have been able to get my hands on all of these ancient and very special porcelain materials. This will be the first and only time that all these porcelain ‘clays’ have ever been shown together in the one place.
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Unglazed and flashed wood fired Arita porcelain
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Wood fired and celadon glazed Japanese porcelain, fired in my kiln in Balamoral.
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Korean porcelain made onsite in Korea
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Woodfired Japanese porcelain
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My woodfired local Joadja porcelain, showing some carbon inclusion on rim and base.
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Korean porcelain stone body, woodfired in my studio.
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Amakusa porcelain from Japan, made in Arita.
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My local Joadja Aplite porcelain, wood fired with a lot of ember and ash contact. The intense carbon inclusion reduces the translucency.
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My local Joadja Aplite porcelain, wood fired with ember and ash contact.