Autumn Draws to a Close and the Cooler Weather Arrives

As autumn draws to a close we have been in and out, travelling to the National Folk Festival, listening to some very good music. Then, recently I was speaking at the National Ceramics Triennial Conference, where I delivered a paper on sustainability. In between, as always, we were in the pottery making and firing our pots, both before, in between and after these events. Making pots and growing food are the two constants in our life.

 

We were also in the garden planting more veggies for the cool weather. The tomatoes are still hanging on with just a few tiny fruits ripening every few days, so that we can have salad sandwiches for lunch with our lettuce from the garden. The garlic that I planted in March is up and doing well. I planted 5 small beds of about 50 cloves each. A smaller crop this year. I was busy and didn’t find the time to get more in. I have planted another 100 cloves today. Maybe a bit too late to do well, but this is real life.

  

Tonight we will have baked vegetables, yesterday it was minestrone, with everything from the garden. Our gardening efforts feed us well.

I planted a couple of new avocados a few days ago. One more type A and another type B for our collection. We now have 6 different varieties. When these trees mature in a few years time, we will have a much longer cropping season and bigger harvests. The chickens love to get involved in any event that involves fresh dirt. They hop in and excavate the hole a little more, but then hop out and start to fill it in again. The don’t get it! but they have fun doing it and their eggs have super, deep, rich, yellow yokes.

 

The latest young avocado tree freshly planted with its with mesh guard to keep the kangaroos from eating the top out. As they most surely will, with any new tree that we plant in the orchard. They can’t resist having a taste of what ever is new. You can see the original 40 year old avocado tree behind the this new one. and the bare branches of the leafless cherry tree to the right.

The peaches are loosing their leaves, the cherries have finished and are barren, the apples and pears are turning yellow in preparation for the fall.

 

In the evenings it is cold enough now to start to light the fire every night. We sit by the fire and shell our dried beans. We shell them and then dry them out fully in the oven after we have finished cooking dinner. This extra heat ensures that they are fully dry and won’t go mouldy in the jars in the pantry. It also kills any little bugs and critters that may have bored their way in to the shells hoping to hatch out and consume the lot over winter. They are ideal for minestrone.  We will make many lovely wholesome meals out of them over the winter.

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.

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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.

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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.

From Garden to Glass jars, Preserving our Excess

Our international guest and pottery/environmental living intern, Ms Kang from Korea, is about to leave us. We spend our time in the pottery, garden and kitchen. We put in a big day from early morning through till late night, a 14 hour day. There is a lot to get done at this time of year.

We have glazed our pots and packed the kiln previously, so while we wait for the sun to get up in the sky so that we can start the firing. I get up on the roof and wash the solar panels. We live on a dirt road which is quite dusty in dry weather. We recently had a good rain storm and collected 75mm. (3″) of rain, but then we had 150mm. (6″) of wind and dust, This means that I need to wash the PV panels so that we achieve maximum efficiency. At this time of year, the shadow from the trees doesn’t pass off the last of the panels until 10.00am.

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By 10.00am the sun is up in the sky and we are generating good energy, it’s a good time to switch on the electric kiln. I wait until the PV panels are generating enough power before I start the firing. I like to start about 10-ish and finish by 5-ish, thus making the most of the sun. The kiln is very powerful and can easily fire straight through to Stoneware 1300oC in 5 hours if needed. Once the kiln gets to 1000oC, I start reduction with 2 small pilot burners running at 5 kpa. I can’t set the pressure any lower than this and expect it to be reliable. This takes the kiln through to 1300 in reduction using just 300 grams of gas. I’m still experimenting with this kiln.

If we want to fire longer, or on cloudy days when there isn’t enough direct sunlight, we have the Tesla battery to fill the gap. We can, if needed, fire the kiln and charge the car as well on the same day. On a good sunny day, we can charge both car and Kiln, fill the battery and still sell a little to the grid. On the off days when we don’t fire or drive the car, we sell everything to the grid. We sell our excess at 20 cents per kW/hr. occasionally when it is cloudy for a few days we buy back power from the grid. We chose a 100% green power contract and pay the premium price of 35 cents per kW/hr for the privilege. However, we are connected to the grid by a net meter, so we only have to pay for power if our imports exceeds our exports in any given month. It never does.

Once the kiln is on, It fires itself in semi-automatic mode. I only need to check it occasionally. Then its back into the garden to continue the harvest of more tomatoes, chilis, capsicums and aubergines. We are at peak tomatoes now, as we dealt with the last of the late-season plums last week. They are all safely vacuumed sealed in their jars, in the pantry, waiting for later in the year.

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While I harvest the tomatoes et al, in the vegetable garden, the ladies, Ms’s King & Kang collect hazel nuts and quinces from the orchard. We are all soon very busy in the kitchen, by the time the heat of the day sets in. All the tomatoes need to be washed and sorted. Even though we have set fruit fly traps all around our garden and orchards, we still get some fruit fly stings in the very ripe tomatoes in this late summer season of hot and damp weather. All the tomatoes are cut open, checked for fly strike and then sorted into two separate pans. A big boiler for the good fruit and a small sauce pan for the fly struck fruit. The spoilt tomatoes are all boiled to kill the grubs and then fed to the chickens, with the remaining skins and detritus composted or fed to the worms.

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While I’m cooking, Ms Kang is shelling the days pick of hazelnuts. This batch of tomato passata will be cooked with pepper corns, bay leaves and a bottle of good red wine. It looks great and tastes delightfully sweet and sharp, sort of tangy, with just a little bite and lingering heat from a few chilli peppers in the mix.

The quinces are washed, peeled sliced and then boiled with a little sugar, 300g in the big boiler + a couple of litres of water to cover them. I add a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves and two star anise. After they have softened. I transfer them to baking trays, pouring the sweet boiling liqueur over them and add a little bit of Canadian maple syrup into the mix I give them 45 mins at 180 and this reduces the liquer to a sticky gel and turns the fruit to a lovely red colour. I choose to cook them with a minimum of sugar. If I added more sugar, they would turn a deeper/richer shade of claret red. I love that colour, but don’t like the saturated sweetness.

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We preserve everything in our antique ‘Fowlers’ Preserving jars. We bought this old boiler and a few boxes of glass jars, 2nd hand at a garage sale over 40 years ago and they are still giving good service. We have only had to replace the rubber rings.

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It still surprises me that a basket full of quince fruit can fill the sink when being washed, then fill 2 baking dishes in the cooking and finally be reduced to just 3 jars of concentrated sunlight, colour and flavour after a days work. Two baskets of tomatoes fills two boilers, then makes only 4 jars of passata once it has been reduced on the stove for an few hour.

Such is the business of summer.

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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Kangaroo Blue

Last week we found a dead kangaroo skeleton in one of the dams. It was very dead and had been picked clean over the last few days, Just the bones were left. It must have been there for some time to be so totally gleaned of every skerrick of meaty substance.

This was a tragedy for the kangaroo, obviously, but I can’t change the past. I need to get it out of the dried-up dam bed ASAP, just in case it ever rains, which it hasn’t. But I had to deal with it just the same.

I decided to take it to the pottery and put it in the solar-powered electric kiln and calcine it to 800oC. I know from past experience that calcined animal bones are very useful as a glaze ingredient in stoneware glazes. Bones contain the minerals calcium and phosphorous, both of which are very appropriate additions to opalescent blue ‘Jun’ glazes. I have used my pet cow bones in the past to make a lovely opalescent blue glaze. That was part of a project to use only local ingredients in my glazes. Using my own home-grown kangaroo bone ash might make a good glaze additive. It couldn’t be more local, being found just 100 metres from the pottery.

However, I haven’t made the glazes yet.

Watch this space

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The white, calcined bones fresh from the firing, and ready for milling down to a soft white powder capable of being added to the next batch of ‘Kangaroo Blue’ opal glaze.

Some of my friends have observed that I must be mad to work like this.
Maybe I’m hopping mad?

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.