In about 3 days a playful and exciting ceramic teapot exhibit opens in the Gallery Space.
Why teapots? For one thing, the exhibit is running in conjunction with the 46th annual NCECA — the Conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts — which for the first time is being held this year in the Puget Sound area. The theme for this year’s NCECA is “On the Edge”. Tea as a beverage, crop, commodity and currency is richly woven into culture, binding us to Asian, European, and Middle Eastern societies. And teapots are some of the most difficult forms to create successfully in ceramics, as well as some of the most beautiful, balanced and emotive.
Why create in clay? How sexy are dirt particles held together with water molecules? We have become so enthralled with the artistry of glass blowing that we forget how seductive is the process of clay. If glass blowers are the Aries or Leos in astrology, ceramic artists must be the Virgo — as they knead the earth’s dirt surface and then fuse the particles in an inferno reminiscent of the planet’s core. In a gas kiln (firing at about 2380 degrees farenheit), pieces are transformed chemically, as well as in size, shape, and color. Rolling open the kiln several days after it is loaded is a process leaden with anticipation — of both expected and unexpected consequences.
Working with clay is the wealthy aunt to making sand castles. Wet clay gives the best pliability and adhesion, but unlike sand it has limited structural integrity. But like sand, as a clay piece dries, it becomes increasingly fragile; an accident waiting to happen — like the dry sandcastles that become fodder to exuberant kids and dogs running along the beach.
Building in clay is not as simple as forming a lump of material into the shape desired. Like I said, clay dries, and in doing so the size of the material is reduced. This can cause problems when attaching pieces together — for example, when attaching a spout or handle to the body of a teapot. The two pieces want to separate as moisture leaves the two facing surfaces. Potters plan their approach to building a piece as the amount of moisture in the clay at any given point will decide what kind of procedure can be done next.
Scale is a limiting factor. A thrower working with very wet clay cannot throw a very tall piece. Pull the walls beyond a certain height and they just fall back to a point that can be supported by the clay beneath. On the other hand, dry clay is fragile and neither transports well nor accepts attachments (with the exception of porcelains which can sometimes be healed with a dollop of vinegar on a brush.) An artist will determine what best tool or technique gets them to their goal — be it hair dryer, heat gun, sand-blast gun, pressure sprayer, squirt bottle, time under a plastic tent, the addition of synthetic fibers or paper, paddling with a tool, rubbing with a stone, using clay in a water state (called “slip”), flipping clay like a pastry, the use of spatulas, knives, brushes, needles, credit cards, molds, supports, gravity (for example, hanging a piece upside down), or even the sun.
Firing a piece is not like baking cookies. The fusion occurring in the kiln can also cause a catastrophic event. If pockets of air are left in the clay the air molecules will expand and, finding resistance, cause an explosion. If that happens, all the potters whose work is in the kiln are likely to be unhappy. Artists will use multiple firings, primarily at different temperatures, to effect changes in material (either clay body or clay, glass and metal surface adornment) working from the core of the piece outwards through the surface. So many opportunities to screw up.
Pottery has an ancient and rich history. We need pots. Pots have improved our lives since early humans figured out how to bake clay in fire pits.
Ceramic artists might not appear as exciting as the choreographed glass artists in high-top boots, threadbare jeans, tie-dyed T shirts, and Ray-Bans. Potters tend to eschew sunglasses, and they get a lot dirtier. The medium is also fairly heterogeneous — some processes requiring quiet, intense precision and very careful chemical hygiene so as not to contaminate work with other materials, and pieces can take days, months or years to complete. Watch a ceramic artist building a piece — on the wheel, with coils, casting, as sectioned pieces, creating life-sized or miniature slab constructions, or via a process of their own — and you marvel at the ability these artists have of looking into raw, amorphous clay and envisioning a work of entirely different color, form, and expression. The vocabulary of these artists is very rich.
Have I spoiled the mystery of clay for you? I don’t think so! I’ve found people on the whole tend only to look at a work of art for a few seconds, but if there’s an explanation of some of the challenges in creating the work, that opens up a willingness to be engaged. And the whole point of the artwork is to engage the viewer.
Here’s to Tea!
Bellevue College Gallery Space