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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mud Slinging Pyromania and Other Creative Endeavors

So, some of you may be wondering where the name of this blog comes from... I'm surprised myself I haven't written about it yet. Among other creative endeavors, I throw pots. I have to say that traditional drawing and pottery are really my first loves. I've tried to give up one and then the other to "get more focused" but I can't really live without either.

I'm sure I have some kind of disorder this way.... a pathological need to make stuff. I can't help it. And when I'm not able to do so, I honestly go a little crazy. I'm not kidding about the crazy, here.  I feel heavy and depressed, slightly useless and very emotional. I can relieve this by the simple act of doodling which I tend to do at inappropriate times. I'm not sure it's a good idea to draw a "love sucks" tattoo in the middle of a business meeting, but I honestly can't help it. It's biological for me. But it's better if I can spend some real time creating. And that's what you need to make pots, time...

Throwing pots, or "mud-slinging" is a very visceral art form. That makes it very therapeutic as well. In my book, it should count as exercise. There is a LOT of lifting and pushing and shoving and basically muscling the clay around until it forms something recognizable. My boxes of clay run 50 pounds each and I haul them around the studio, most of the time with ease. I'm proud of that because I'm freakishly strong after all. Maybe that's why I want a Viking to call my own... I don't want to feel like I might break my partner.

In college, I had a clay class with a woman named Edith Freeman. She is a well-known artist in this region and her primary medium was woodcut printing. Beautiful, intricate work. She was in her 80's when I knew her and has since passed away. She was truly wonderful. I do miss her. I remember one day, she brought in homemade brownies and she offered me one. I said I really shouldn't because I was on another terminal diet (that's another blog topic), but she put her arm around me and said... "Honey, you'll be so glad you were sturdy when you get older, you don't want to be a frail little thing who can't work." Of course at the time, I didn't fully appreciate being called "sturdy", but now, like she said, I'm very grateful for it.

Well, let's get back on topic... There are a lot of things that happen between carrying the clay and firing, but I will save those for later posts... Firing is really where the "pyromaniac" part of the BLOG comes in. There are a lot of ways to fire pots, but the most interactive is really Raku. If you're not familiar with Raku, it's an amazing process and as a potter, you have to be prepared to lose some work in the firing. It's like natural selection for clay. Raku is very hard on a pot. Basically after firing the pot in the bisque stage (the first firing, which is not a full firing), you glaze and then fire the pot again. This is true for most firing techniques, but in Raku, there is a critical difference.

Basically, you second fire the pot to somewhere around 2200 degrees Fahrenheit (okay, that was hard to spell!). Then you fling open the door of the kiln and while the pot is red hot AND taking care not to light yourself on fire in the process, you grab the pot with special and very nifty tongs and basically throw it in some combustible material like straw or sawdust. Upon doing this, said combustible material, immediately COMBUSTS, hence the name combustible... I actually just like saying combustible. It sounds kind of scientific and smart. I use a steel garbage can with a lid to hold the straw or sawdust and said pot. The garbage can doesn't melt and straw or sawdust burn nicely and they're cheap and easy to find.

Once again, you must avoid lighting yourself on fire at this point... It's very exciting isn't it? Instead, you throw more combustible items into the garbage can, over the pot, then quickly put the lid on and let the the whole thing 'reduce'. I'll explain reduce at some point too, but I don't want this post to be too technical. Suffice it to say, it's a bit like 'simmering' in cooking terms. When you feel as if the combustible material has burned down enough, this is mostly by instinct, you then remove it from the container. The straw or sawdust should, at this point, be mostly ash. While the pot is still relatively hot, you plunge it into a bucket of water. This sets the reduction (don't worry about understanding what that means) and is called quenching. What's really important is that if the pot hasn't broken yet, it probably will when you quench it. But if it survives, the results are usually very dramatic, like the process itself.

Typically, Raku glazes are metallic or oil-slicked in nature and feel very ancient and mystical to me... like something you'd find in ta wizard's chamber or Atlantis. I don't have a good example to show you yet, but I plan on trying to light myself and a few friends on fire at some point this summer. I'll post pics when we get around to it. You cannot Raku fire by yourself. It's just not smart. Although, I have to say I've been tempted... see the definition of the term "pyromaniac". I actually have so much fun firing that I experiment with it all the time. It really is surprising that I haven't, at the very least, burned off my eyebrows yet. But knock on wood, they're still intact.

Now, I have to admit that trying to light myself on fire by doing Raku, may be a subconscious attempt to get rescued by a beefy fireman. In fact, where is a big fireman when you need one? Well, there you go. That's why the blog is called "Mud-Slinging Pyromaniac" and yep, that's me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go sling some mud. Lighting myself on fire... well, that'll wait a day or two.

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