The urge to make things wells up in me regularly. It’s real and tangible and may even be called a need. Sometimes I’m able to fill that need by cooking a meal, scribbling a drawing in my sketchbook, through photography, or by writing. Other times I’m consumed by a desire to make objects. Useful, functional, quality, beautiful objects. But No Trash practice can be extremely difficult when it comes to studio work.
Lately, while washing my cheaply made, chipped and cracked bowls in the kitchen sink, I’ve been wondering about ceramic production processes on a large and small scale. And as the official start of winter draws near and my seasonal inclination to maximize the amount of green life in my apartment grows, I find myself scrounging for more vessels to accommodate cuttings, separated plant pups, and newly acquired greenhouse perennials. I have been daydreaming of lean windowsill-sized, handmade pots to display them in. The itch to make some ceramics lead me on a trip to the North Shore of Massachusetts this past weekend.
My best friend heads a high school art department in a beautiful seaside town not far from where I was born. I drove up to see her with the intent to make some bowls and pots and to donate four brimming boxes of books (a pile my parents decided to get rid of during their recent move) to her classroom. Books have always stuck to my family and together we’ve amassed quite a collection over the years… and over the years, many of them have sat unopened on shelves. My friend and I sifted through the boxes with one of her students and they happily accepted most of the contents. I like to imagine young art students breathing new life into the books, smearing them with charcoal as they rummage for inspiration.
On Sunday we spent all day and a good part of the night in the classroom studio making ceramic gifts for friends and family. I hadn’t worked with clay since my own high school art class and I had so much fun relearning the basics. A company originally based in Laguna Beach, California called Laguna Clay manufactures the high fire white stoneware clay in Ohio. It comes in a large wedged (kneaded) brick inside a stretch plastic bag. The bricks are shipped to the high school in cardboard boxes from Portland Pottery of Portland, Maine.
Curious about the ingredients and manufacturing processes of clay, I called up the Laguna Clay national headquarters in Los Angeles County and was able to connect with Clay Manager Jon Pacini. He graciously and patiently answered my questions. He told me that the company uses about 8 common minerals mixed in different compositions to create clays with varying properties and characteristics. All of the minerals are obtained from mining companies in the states who distribute them to clay manufacturers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and livestock feed manufactures. Clay minerals are used as binders to pelletize feed. Yep, as Jon put it, “clay is used in a whole myriad of things we don’t think about.” He was able to break down the white stoneware clay I worked with on Sunday, which is meant to be durable enough to be used for tableware. It’s comprised of fire clay from Missouri, ball clay from Kentucky and Tennessee, silica from Illinois, and feldspar from South Carolina. These minerals are combined with water, mixed in a “pugmill” and compressed into bricks. Pretty simple. The base ingredient in ceramic glazes is silica sand, which is the same sand used to make window glass. Other glaze ingredients include feldspar, zinc, barium, limestone, and calcium carbonate. The pigments come from metal oxides, like iron, nickel, and cobalt oxide. Jon explained that glazes used today are not so dissimilar from glazes that Japanese potters were experimenting with 2,000 years ago.
Under my friend’s instruction, I tried my hand at throwing some small bowls on the wheel. She told me not to worry about messing up because the scrapped clay is rewedged and completely recycled. And it’s a good thing because my first few attempts collapsed. But after sticking with it for a couple hours, I produced a set of small bowls. Through all the fails and few successes, I had a blast! I also made some small slab pots by rolling pounded clay through a press and then wrapping and seaming it around a plaster mould. Once the vessels are dry, they will be fired in the electric kiln for 8-12 hours at 2,000 degrees! The high heat permanently alters the soft porous material, causing the particles to melt and flow together, strengthening the clay. After the bisque firing (the first firing) glaze is applied to seal the still somewhat porous pieces and they are fired again for another 8+ hours.
I love this kind of meditative, careful work, during which time seems to melt off the clock. I was lucky to be able to experience this every day at woodworking school this past summer. While we busied our hands shaping and forming the clay, we played the Ken Burns National Parks documentary series on the classroom computer, rarely glancing up at the monitor, but listening intently to narrated stories of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and their work to establish protected “reservoirs” of the natural world. It was a wonderful Sunday.
Since beginning my No Trash Project, I’ve become deeply interested in the life cycle of objects, from the creation or harvesting of source materials used to make each thing I encounter, to the recyclability and biodegradability of those materials once they are disposed of. Taking on different “make my own” projects has led me to a greater understanding of the resources and processes required to produce the quotidian items I possess. My appreciation for the belongings I choose to keep, and my relationships with the objects I use daily continues to grow. So much energy and so many resources are required to bring ceramic making materials (and the packaging surrounding them) to me. So much time, labor, water, and electricity goes into creating each piece of pottery. The things I learned this weekend have changed the way I will look at every ceramic object I meet from this point forward.