Monday, December 8, 2014

Handbuilding in the Kitchen

With only two or so weeks until Christmas, I wanted to get in one more batch of pottery for the year. Since the pottery wheel is currently covered in Speckled Brownstone clay, and all I have left to use is Little Loafers, which is a white clay, I've moved back to handbuilding inside. I know I could just clean the studio, but baby, it's cold outside! After glazing 75 ornaments in the last batch, I wanted quick, less tedious work for my hands. Nothing will crowd the kiln shelves quicker than making a batch of serving trays and casserole dishes! I've really been enjoying working at the kitchen table on these pieces, but I have no idea how they will turn out. I don't have a slab roller, and I tend to pull pieces off the mold before they are firm so I can better smooth out the edges. They could end up all warped. That's okay. Warped trays can be used under a cluster of potted plants! There is always a shot they will be amazing. 

I played with having the imprint on the outside and the inside and messed around with handle designs. 

I used up just about every good piece of dill in the garden. 

One thing I learned earlier this week is to not take the dill stems all the way to the edge for the imprint. Due to the thickness  of the slab, this led to cracking of the edge. I needed to either stop short of the edge or use a thicker slab. I went ahead and broke apart the tray to see how the rest of the stems looked. 

And of course, I did a few more North Carolina ornaments - non city-specific this time. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Making Ceramic Ornaments with Cookie Cutters

For several years now, we have made Christmas ornaments from clay. Last weekend I brought my supplies into the kitchen to finish up a couple requests from friends, and my kids descended on the makeshift workspace and demanded clay and all my tools. After a morning of wresting on the living room floor and failed attempts at controlling the noise level in the house, the silence that their focus on the clay brought was amusing, even if it took me five times longer than if should have to roll out a couple Texas ornaments.
Basically anyone who has access to clay and a kiln could make charming ornaments with relatively little experience.

Several things that I've invested in to spice up my work are:
lace doilies
nesting cookie cutters
vintage letterpress
miniature cookie cutters in various shapes
hole punch cutters

One of my favorite doilies, a round cookie cutter, rolling pin, and hole punch cutter

Simple Ceramic Ornaments

1. Roll out wedged clay to desired thickness. Typically I shoot for 1/4". I also use absorbent bats to work on. I know this is terrible for the bats in the long run, but I'd rather protect the kitchen table, and I don't currently have any flat boards laying around to work on.

2. Lay the textured material such as lace or a rubber texture mat on the clay and use the rolling pin to press it into the surface of the clay. Be sure not to press it too deeply or the clay may overlap the lace threads and cause the edges to booger up when you lift the lace. Always do this base texture step before using the cutter or else you may lose the shape your cutter makes.

3. Use a cookie cutter to press out your shape. If the clay is super sticky, letting it firm up a little before using the cutter can help keep the ornament flat as you lift up the cutter. Any time you lift up corners and bend the ornament, the clay will curl in those spots during firing. (I'm about to unload a batch of curly states). I ordered my cutters from the "Cookie Cutter Guy" on Etsy.

4. Complete any other surface decorations such as letter stamps or carved designs once the surface is no longer sticky or too soft.

5. Use a mini cutter or a hole cutter punch for the ornament hole where you will attach string or ribbon. Remember that the hole will shrink in the kiln, so be a little generous with your hole.

These were a last minute addition to the ornaments this year.

6. Once leather hard, clean up the edges.

7. After the bisque firing, you can paint on these with underglaze, brush on overglaze, or leave the clay as is. When using a lace imprint, I like using a combination of blue underglaze and clear overglaze. If you have a bead tree, you can even glaze both sides.

This year I purchased five states: NC, VA, FL, TX, and OH based on where my siblings live and a couple special requests from a good friend. I will say that state ornaments were not the most unique idea I've had, just do a quick search on Etsy if you want proof, but they were a fun way to personalize gifts for my family and friends. If I ever get back into art/craft shows or reopen my Etsy store, they'd probably sell easily enough, but I have to make sure I at least unload this round in the next few weeks as I stamped most with "2014". I'll be sure to update this post with pictures once they are complete!

Joe thinks these look more like foam finger pointers than NC... I agree.
I found mini cutters at a craft store. I still wish I had an acorn for Raleigh!

A few finished products from previous years:

The kids made these.
I made my own globe stamps for this line or ornaments.

Other projects:
Bead Tree (I)
Spoon molds:
Cake Stands:
Bead Tree (II):
Hand Building Projects:

Frosty Garden

It was a frosty morning in the garden! I guess it is time to start popping the D3 supplements because it is way too chilly to sit outside with my sleeves rolled up. Pictured below are oregano, some type of choi (bok? pak? I dont' know), and triple curled kale. Last week, the basil, beans, peppers and cherry tomatoes (the last bit of summer still holding on) permanently bit the dust, so now there's a good bit of open space on the ground. It only took a month, but some spinach sprouts finally took to the soil, and I'm hoping they overwinter.

In other news, I'm three weeks into a pottery class at Pullen Arts Center and am enjoying the time at the wheel. The kids and I cranked out some Christmas ornaments for family and teachers over the weekend, so we will have some work to do glazing this coming weekend. Several weeks ago I bought five state cookie cutters to make ceramic ornaments with, and thought I was incredibly clever until I browsed the shelves at Pullen and saw that state ornaments are all the rage this season. Oops. But come on, it doesn't get more cookie-cutter than using a cookie-cutter. It is still a fun project (for the kids too) and makes a nice little gift. I will have to write an ornament "how to" blog post soon with the finished product.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Big Wheels Peace Accord

This morning I'm sitting on the couch, drinking coffee, and listening to the boys upstairs playing with some new action figures. The tension between the two of them has been through the roof the past couple weeks, so hearing them playing together does my heart good. Sometimes the struggle of parenthood is managing to equip children with conflict resolution tools while the bullets are flying... at each other and at you as the parent. Sometimes I succumb to the chaos and become the snarliest version of myself, and sometimes I rise above. I take a deep breath, say a little prayer, and try again to initiate a peace accord.

Last week there was a teacher work day, and the boys and I made good use of it playing with clay, frolicking outdoors, eating junk and watching cartoons. Parents can get a bad reputation for ruining the fun, but what kids don't realize is that there are some parents who have great intentions of grand adventures, but the kids themselves sabotage it by fighting or whining or talking back.

Those parents are so desperate to have preparations go smoothly and the kids to fall in line for just a few minutes as they grab up the snacks and big wheels and blanket, and they throw out lines like, "If I hear one more scream or fight or whine, I'm canceling the whole plan!" I have to fight for fun. I extend just a little more grace and help with the socks shoes. Running them all out of energy at the park means I have to challenge them to the quiet mouse game with "winners get ice cream" and then try to make them laugh by lip-syncing songs from the 90s.

I'd share the pictures and video from our afternoon adventure, but after reading the "park rules" online, I'm fairly sure those pictures would get us in trouble even if we weren't aware of those rules ahead of time. Technically, big wheels aren't bicycles, but next time we will stick to the spirit of the law.

It was a relatively peaceful afternoon, and while there was heightened drama in the day around it, for two hours we soaked up the sun and wind and enjoyed each other. I often wonder how much of these moments my boys will remember, as I can barely remember the last six years of my life thanks to parent brain and insomnia, but I hope that they remember we fought for peace and adventure, and that occasionally we had to leave our own walls to find it.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Royalty visited our garden this afternoon. After our caterpillar died, I figured our butterfly season was over, until this lovely monarch lighted down on the zinnias.

And we waited near the red carpet to get a picture.

The youngest confessed to having ill intent towards it (as he does with most bugs), so we sent him to the deck after he'd had a good look.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pumping Soap and Counting Mississippis

She walked into the locker room holding her bags and mumbling to herself. People mumble to themselves, especially when they've just walked across a rainy parking lot to the gym, but as she started unloading her bags to open the corner locker, she kept on speaking under her breath, not making eye contact with any of the other women changing around her, seeming to be conversing as her voice quietly undulated with indecipherable words. I'd seen her in the gym before, and thought of smiling to say "hi", but she was deep somewhere inside her own mind and didn't seem to be aware that anyone else was in the room.

Five laps into my swim, the lifeguard's whistle came screaming over the pool surface as I came up for each breath. He was shouting something I couldn't understand as my ears were full of water. "There is a lot of thunder. We have to close the pool. There's a really big storm." The pool would be closed for at least 30 minutes, so I went to shower off.

As I stood under the shower head, it sounded as if two women had just walked in and were having a quiet sing-songy conversation. But I heard the curtain in the next stall pull back and close again, and the talking continued. Then I knew it was the same mumbling I had heard while changing into my swimsuit. I heard her aggressively pump the soap.

pump pump pump pump

Then as she continued in her one-sided conversation, I heard more and more pumping.

pump pump pump pump

I started keeping count in my head.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five...

pump pump pump pump

"One Mississippi, two Mississippi, ...

And on it went averaging between four and five Mississippis. I reached over to pump some soap, but mine was empty. I wonder if she had used up all the soap in my shower stall earlier in the week.

There was a new sign in the locker room directing patrons to report suspicious people, and I wondered why that had been put up. What are suspicious people? I imagined her flinging open my shower curtain and throwing a punch at me. I pulled back the inner curtain to peek out at my bag. I wondered who was looking out for her. Who knew she was there?

Yesterday I put an old cd from college into the Jeep and played it on the way to the gym. The tunes were repetitive, the vocals a little bit whiny, the themes a little college-coffee-shop-meaning-of-it-all-esque, but the words "And the least of these look like criminals to me, so I leave Christ on the street" ground down into my soul, and as I stood in the gym shower listening to this woman endlessly mumble and pump soap, I knew she was the least of these. I somewhat feared her. She grabbed my curiosity. I didn't want to poke my finger into her bubble, because I didn't know how she would respond.

I finished up my shower after fiddling with the shell inserts in my tankini top, which had gotten folded and turned during their last spin in the washer. Another woman and I made small talk about the weather and dropping off kids at school, and by the time I walked out the door, it was drizzling, and the thunder had passed.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Pottery and Pinguecula

About two months ago I tried my hand at the pottery wheel after not working with clay for nearly eight months. The next week my eye flared up. After a busy summer and fall at the wheel in 2013, my eye had given me trouble but had cleared up when I quit working with clay. Steroid eye drops helped during that season, but the flare-ups only went away after extended time away from the wheel. After having it flare up again at the end of this summer, I'm convinced the clay dust was causing the irritation. Not only that, I had a recurring sore throat, my left wrist lost all strength, and neck and shoulder pain frequently woke me up at night. I was happy to take a break.

This summer I only played for a few days, but it was enough to set off the pinguecula. The bump in the picture wasn't as bad as it got. Six weeks later, I went to the eye doctor because the whole inside half the eye was red, and my vision was blurred. My doctor had actually just been reading up on dust, silicosis and pinguecula. Due to her pregnancy, she decided to stepped back from some home renovation work with bricks and mortar. The pinguecula is in both eyes and isn't ever going away (and I've had it for years now), but avoiding irritants can help make it barely visible. We both agreed I'd have to only do clay as an occasional hobby or go full-on face hazmat protection.

So what is pinguecula? I'm happy to answer that for you.

"A pinguecula is a common, non-cancerous growth of the clear, thin tissue (conjunctiva). The growth is raised slightly from the surface of the white part of the eye (sclera). The exact cause is unknown. Long-term sunlight exposure and eye irritation may be factors."

Considering how much time I spend gardening, how much dirt I've flipped up in my face accidentally, how much time I've spent around clay dust, and that I spent a couple years doing graduate work outdoors in sun and winter wind, it's no surprise my eyes have experienced their share of sun and irritants.

In November I'm headed back to Pullen Art Center to take a Continuing Wheel class, and am a little nervous. It runs one night a week for six weeks, and I'll go armed with eye drops and probably some safety glasses. As much as I want to wear a mask to protect my lungs and throat, I may only wear one while glazing and working with greenware. Pullen does a good job of keeping the floors clean, much better than I do in my own garage studio. For those who have wondered what happened to my pottery endeavors - there you have it!


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