Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bark: An odyssey in ceramics

It crept up on me slowly, at first. I've always kind of liked art, or Art, if you are pretentious enough to insist on the capital 'A'. It wasn't my best subject at school, but I've always been a bit of a jack of all trades, a little bit creative, a little bit analytical, a little bit mathematical, a little bit practical, a little bit artistic. In recent years though, particularly since I've become a science teacher, actually, and I spend the vast majority of my days being Mister Science or Professor Physics in the classroom, I've felt much more of a need to develop the creative side of my personality, if only to find some sort of balance.

A good few years ago (I forget exactly when, but it's over 5 but less than 10), my dear friend Mark Nicoll introduced me to Art In Action, and the seeds of a potentially life-engulfing obsession were sown. Even as far back as Year 7 and Year 8 Art lessons, I'd always liked ceramics and working with clay, mainly because you got to get your hands dirty, and you physically got to create something. About four years ago, at Art In Action, I got acquainted with an Australian ceramicist called John Stroomer, firstly through watching a few of his demonstrations, and later buying a few pieces of his work at the show, when he told me that every summer he runs a throwing course up at the Solway Ceramics Centre in Cumbria, at a ridiculously reasonable price, for a 5 day course. Suitably tempted to try my hand again, I went along the following year, and much like John himself (who is an epically great bloke) I pretty much instantly knew that making ceramics was something that I really, REALLY, wanted to do quite seriously.

It's taken a while, but finally, after nearly a year's delay, thanks to my old car costing my £2500 in repair bills after 3 breakdowns in 9 months, last month I acquired the last piece of equipment I needed to get my ceramics studio properly up and running, a Shimpo Whisper-T throwing wheel.

With a 25kg of stonewear clay, a throwing wheel and my electric kiln all in situ in my back garden studio, I was able to use the Easter holiday to get back into the groove of throwing a few shapes and pots. And, as it turns out, I'm pretty pleased with the stuff I've been making.

Now that I'm throwing decent enough forms, and following my first successful bisque firing (getting 'raw' leather-hard clay ready to be glazed) in the kiln that didn't result in my pieces turning from pottery into explosive shrapnel, I'm only just beginning on the odyssey of glazing, which, thanks to the rather intricate chemistry involved, is rather exciting, both from the perspective as an artist, and a science teacher. For the time being I'm starting with off the shelf, paint-on glazes, but over the course of the next few months, I'll be buying the raw glaze materials and making them for myself, as not only does it work out cheaper, but you can also experiment (like any good scientist would) to find your own particular recipes that will suit your work. Of course, experimenting with glazes requires testing pieces, and I don't want to be testing glazes using pots that use a few quids' worth of clay, as that's not terribly cost effective. So I have found another, rather cheaper way of testing glazes.

Last Christmas, my friend Alex bought me a Star Wars X-Wing ice cube tray, not realising that I don't actually have a freezer. So the ice cube tray had been sitting uselessly underneath the sink in a drawer, waiting to find some purpose and utility. During the Easter holiday, I got into a conversation with my other dear friend Paul (yes, THE Paul, of Shut Up And Sit Down fame/infamy) and hit upon the idea of using it as a clay mould. And lo! It works! So I fired a whole squadron of them.

They keep the detail from the mould surprisingly well, and I can't wait to see what they look like after a glaze firing. (Note to Disney and George Lucas: Put the pet attack lawyers away - I'm not going to be selling them... k? thx...)

Expect more dispatch journals from the pottery odyssey later in the year.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bark: Tabletop tales

As the final evening of my Easter holiday winds down, I'm glad to have had a very relaxing and restful holiday (yes, internets, I'm still not dead, just forsaking your shiny charms for other pursuits), but one of the highlights of the holiday was hosting some friends for the Easter weekend, and finally getting to break in one of my burgeoning collection of tabletop board games with a group of close friends, in a way that might hopefully persuade my partner that playing board games other than Scrabble isn't actually grounds for excommunication from general society.

I, of course, entirely blame Wil Wheaton for this. Well, that's not quite true. I also blame my best friend Paul for this, as he also co-created and runs a tabletop gaming show, the quirky and delightful (and very British) Shut Up And Sit Down, for causing me to spent hundreds of pounds on board games over the last year or so. But mainly I blame Wheaton, for making board gaming something approaching socially acceptable. (This is "blame" in a good way, incidentally, because I don't regret spending a single penny.)

Anyway, so after dinner (tacos and my special secret recipe chilli con carne - and no, you still can't have the recipe... what part of "secret" don't you understand?), I dig under the sofa to find an easily playable game for six people, that shouldn't be too hard to pick up, even if five of us have never seen a board game more complicated that Trivial Pursuit before. I opt for Munchkin Deluxe, because it's a simple enough card game, with ample opportunity for us to be jerks to one another, a game mechanic that I feel will especially appeal to Flo and Alex's kids, Phil and Julian.

We opt mainly to learn the rules by playing, and I (admittedly unintentionally) slim down the rules, to make the game a bit easier to play ("house rules, people... house rules"), and set out to explain things as I go, taking on the Wil Wheaton role from Tabletop (i.e. the host that's destined to lose). Munchkin is a game that normally should take 60-90 minutes, even with 6 players, but because we're all pretty much learning as we go, it turns into a three hour epic. But, most importantly, we all had fun and a lot of laughs, even when I (as the Thief) started backstabbing to demonstrate the essence of being a Munchkin (I am competitive, after all). It did help that Flo, Phil, Julian and myself had a basic grounding in the tropes of D&D thanks to either having played D&D as a kid (i.e. me) or having sunk hours and hours into Baldur's Gate (all four of us), as Munchkin has a real sense of humour, grounded in D&D parody.

What was best about the game was that as the night wore on, and everybody got more used to how the game played, all six of us stayed in contention for the win, right until the final turn, where, almost out of nowhere, Phil, after having been totally hosed by the deck for the whole of the game, and being two levels behind everyone, right up until his final play, managed with his keen gamer brain to take advantage of the game mechanics to jump up three levels to level 9 through a canny use of a level up card and his halfling ability to sell his first item for double gold. His final door card was a reasonably compliant monster, and even though everyone tried to backstab or nerf him with potions and modifier cards, Phil (thanks to some generous acts of charity earlier in the game to boost his combat level with gifted cards useless some of the other players), managed to still get over the finishing line. And all before midnight.

Next time, though, we'll play a bit of The Resistance... because it has even more awesome potential.