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.

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