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Thursday, 19 February 2009

Can you sue yourself for poor working conditions?

Kiln is firing right now and I can't get into the pottery (read on, you'll understand why!) I thought I'd write on the blog!

I often find myself saying that I produce my pots in "my pottery at the end of the garden".
Perhaps I am romaticising it a bit, trying to perhaps make it sound better than what it really is!

Don't get me wrong, I love my pottery. It just sometimes staggers me just how I manage to work in such a tight space.

Here is where the magic happens!

To the left side of the shed is my workspace:

This is to the right of my work space:

Smack in the middle of the pottery is the kiln!
And to the right of the kiln on the back wall are more shelves, followed by more shelves and my wheel on the right side of the pottery:

However, when the time came for me to set-up my own place, I had some very specific limitations in deciding where I could have a pottery. Namely funding of course. Ideally, I wanted to be free of monthly rent; keep the set-up costs to a minimum; and have a space I could retreat to any time of day, any day of the week. I also had to recognise my building and diy prowess didn't go far beyond patch plastering and making interior spaces look pretty. This coupled with the fact I had no family (okay, dad) around to help construct a space from stratch.

A flat pack shed was the answer to all my prayers...instant erected space right in my back garden accessable any time I wanted. The major constraints to this choice besides price was the specific space I had between my fence line and the edge of existing pavement in which to squeeze the shed into.

In the end, I settled on a 10 x 5 foot shed which just fit into the spare garden space.
In the beginning, pre-kiln, it seemed very spacious. I knew all along that this wasn't going to be permanent. That once I proved to myself that I could make a "go" of this whole pottery business and actually bring in some dosh, I could "graduate" into a bigger premises at a later date, ideally on the dream property Joe and I would move to outside London with our 2.1 kids...I digress...

What I didn't appreciate was how quickly the kiln swallowed up the space ( I knew it would be a sizeable chunk, but nothing like putting it in situ to make that a big reality!). AND, trying to store experimental pieces, work in progress, clay, raw materials, reclaim batts, glaze making equipment, files and the essential mini radio (to name a few) really packed this baby up tight!

More surprising to me is just how much this lack of space really impacts of what I am able to make and how much of it I can realistically produce. I don't think it is such a big deal at the moment considering I am starting out and not selling much at all, but I already have ruled out production ware as an option simply because I wouldn't be able to manage it in the space I have.

Another notable impact of my "intimate" space is the sense of isolation it can bring to the whole potting experience. On any given day, I am actually very content out there working on my own listening to the radio and doodling along. I think the idea of isolation comes to the fore when I am actually at events suddenly realising that opening up to and meeting others is harder for me than it ever was before. I can predominantly attribute this to this solitary existance for a bulk of my day; a life experience that is very different to the bustling social schedule I used to manage easily in younger years.

I try to counter-balance this alone time with nights out with other potters/friends, being really good about keeping in touch with others and attending training events and shows. It is only now that I have had plenty of time to reflect on my set-up that my once fervent belief that it is okay to be one with your art is now being challenged. In fact, I now consider that shared spaces, whether rented or owned can be very inspirational and helpful to the creative process, networking and building relationships.

Ironically, I began my journey in clay believing that becoming a successful potter was born primarily from one's ability to master the wheel, develop own glazes, and be the best at making what you make - essentially, a skill based scale. Now, (and yeah, it is so obvious to most!) I am realising that being a successful potter is just as much about who you surround yourself and involve yourself with - assisting and sharing information and ideas - than just your own personal development with clay.

Every day my challenge is making the best out of my current situation. Lemons out of lemonaid as it were. Going with the flow and working within my constraints, all the while pushing boundaires and making plans for how to proceed when I have the chance to expand and include others in my set-up. Staying involved and keeping in touch, sharing my (albiet very limited) knowledge with others and learning something in return.
Ahhh, nothing like a night forced away from the pottery to gain some perspective!!!

Can I declare myself to be a potter?

When people ask me what I do for a living, I am aways in a quandry for how to reply.
Immediately in my mind, I think "yeah, I'm a potter", but I always hesitate saying it. In thinking about why I do this, several answers come to mind:
  • I haven't sold anything of serious value or made any real income from it yet
  • I'm not full time potting
  • I feel that declaring I am a potter makes me vulnurable because I don't have the answers to the very basic and expected questions people then ask me in response: "Where do you sell?", "Do you have a website?", "What do you make?" (answers being in order, "No where", "Not yet, but I have a blog" and "still testing and working out whether functional or nonfunctional is the direction to go")
  • Without answers to these questions which could establish to the person asking that I am "succeeding" (in the monetary sense of the meaning) an an artistic entrepenuer, I am left feeling very inadequate knowing I have worked so hard for 7 years of training only to have very little to show for it by way of sales or recognition amongst peers.

So, what do I do instead? I proceed something like this...."Well, I want to be a potter, but currently I work 3 days a week for by bread and butter and then focus my energies in my free time to pursue my passion with clay"... I go on rambling like a doofus coming up with what can only be described as a painful descent into making up reasons and excuses for my inability to make this "pottery dream" of mine a reality after 7 long years.

As soon as I recognise I am plummeting into BAD conversation zone (which is sadly often much later than I should have seen it coming), I end up making both myself and my poor innocent conversation buddy feeling awkward.

Lovely, eh?

So, next time someone asks me what I do, maybe I should just say:

"I'm a potter"

Do you think I'll have the guts to say it?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

What is your specific gravity?

All day yesterday, I embarked on a journey of better understanding of my glazes. For so long now, three of my long-time glazes have managed to confuse me with their "random" outcomes from many a gloss firing.
As many potters know, variations in fired glaze outcome could be one of numerous factors:

  • firing schedule - speed of climb, soak time, temp range, cooling ramp time
  • consistancy of glazes
  • raw materials in glaze - variations in where certain materials were mined, etc...
  • clay you are using
  • the pack of the kiln
  • how lucky you are feeling on the day, and many more....
I'm working off the assumption (for the moment and living dangerously here!) that my raw materials are pretty consistant; my clay has been constant for 3 years; I have been aware of the kiln pack issue so have been and continue to try and pack in a very similar fashion (density and arrangement of pots/shelves) every time I fire; and I'm feeling lucky.

So, that leaves firing schedule and glaze consistancy for me to work with and sort out.

This week, I'm tackling glaze consistancy.

After reading hundreds of posts on my favorite potter's resource website regarding hydrometers and the overwhelming lack of confidence in being able to obtain accurate figures to determine the specific gravity of a glaze, I went with what many a potter seem to feel is a good, tried and tested easy method of getting that figure in a more accurate way.

I took each glaze I wanted specific gravities for and did the following steps:
  1. took a standard measuring cup and placed it on a digital scale, tared it to zero.
  2. I filled it with water until the scale read 100g. I marked on the cup where this point was. t
  3. I then took my glaze batch and syphoned off all the excess water and measured in oz/ml
  4. took half the total excess water, added it back into the glaze batch and mixed well. once well mixed, I poured it into my standard cup to the marked level and weighed it. the total, divided by 100 gave me my specific gravity of my glaze. By adding only 1/2 the water into my glaze batch, I labelled this test as my THICK version of the glaze.
  5. I then proceeded to brush the glaze on in three progressive layers onto one bowl; then dipped in 3 progressive layers on another bowl
  6. To obtain a MEDIUM thickness test, I then added the remaining half of the excess water to the glaze batch, mixed well and measured it again. This became my specific gravity for the MEDIUM version of the glaze. I proceeded with the same application tests as the THICK glaze.
  7. Finally, to obtain a THIN version of the glaze, I added additional water to the batch, equal to half the original excess water amount (ie, if total excess water in the beginning was 56oz, I added 28oz for THICK test, additional 28 oz for MEDIUM and another 28oz for THIN). I mixed well, weighed it again to the marked line in the standard measuring cup and got my specific gravity for THIN. I proceeded with same application tests as other consistancies.
So, for each glaze, I got 6 different tests : THICK, MEDIUM and THIN consistancies all applied with brush or dip.

I'm hoping my increments with the water were of significant difference to the specific gravities of the glaze to see a real difference between the three consistancies. If not, I'm gonna have to do it all over with a different approach to the water amounts! Seeing that I'm making this up as I go along, based on various bits I have been reading, I won't be suprised if all this testing won't bring all the results I am hoping for. But, it is a learning curve, right?

At the end of the day, I tested 7 glazes this way and was able to view the fruits of my labour, even though they don't look that impressive!!!

I'm loading the kiln as soon as I am done posting this! Boy, I hope this produces something worthwhile to see!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

They make it look so easy!

HA! I just found this Sesame Street clip showing kids how to throw....

Man, I didn't know it could be that easy? You start with a lump and as if by magic, a finished pot whirls around on the wheel! I knew I didn't have this whole throwing thing mastered yet!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Will next fiscal year be the ONE year I make more than I spend?

Man alive, I just tallied up my spending since April 08 and although the outgoings were significantly reduced from the year before (the year I bought my kiln, wheel and shed), I still managed to spend so much!!!

When I think back to all the experimentation and testing I worked through these past 12 months, I can see that a whole load of the cost went into raw materials. However, with these being relatively cheap, I can only think that clay for testing along with their extortionate delivery charges contributed to the cost. Add a few tools, a pottery materials shopping spree back home, a few magazine subs and organisation membership fees, I can see the value getting significantly higher.

The thing is, I haven't even been including the "rates" for firing the kiln and keeping that little shed of mine running with lights, electrical sockets and little heater. God knows how much that will add to!

Luckily, I have done all the research on how to calculate kilowatt per hour charges, I just need to do it. And seeing that it is very important to work out all my overheads, I'm gonna be doing that this month!

Without my teaching income from the past four years, earning a profit (hell, even breaking even) is a must this coming year. I feel confident that these past 12 months of exploration and development of ideas, glazes, decor, etc...has gotten me to a place where I can now start to bring these puppies "to the market", as it were.

So, off I go to begin taking over the world!!!!

I'm left confused by a GIMP!

I was playing with a GIMP last week, as one does, to find a way to create a banner for my etsy account. Two hours later and several failed attempts at producing anything looking remotely like a banner, I gave in to GIMP!
For those of you who don't know, GIMP is an open source FREE alternative to Photoshop. And seeing how that program costs a load a moola, I decided to give GIMP a try.

I don't blame GIMP for my failings, I blame my ignorance of all things remotely photoshop-like.

I'm not sure why I find it so confusing, but that and Illustrator bring me right out of my comfort zone.
So, here is the banner I created....

NOT a good start. I worked with a photo I had of my nestled casserole dishes.

It is fuzzy, lacking in interest or excitement. I tried to transform a portrait photo into a long narrow banner and it just didn't work. I think I'm gonna have to wait until I take some more photos to get a better source for the artwork. Back to the drawing board!
The good and lucky thing is that I know two fab people at Oscar and Dehn (you know who you are!!) how I can ask instructions and tips from regarding web graphics!

So, two weeks after my start with Etsy, I still have a dodgy banner and only one item on to sell!

I'm working on my shop policies and the whole shipping internationally thing at the moment. Once I have sorted out those, I will retype my profile and add more pots...until then, I'm afraid dodgy is all I got!

The great news is that one item got 15 views!!! So, that is a start.

Finally, I just found a groovy icon for my blog to link back to Etsy!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Prepping clay can knacker you out!

Saturday morning, I managed to spend 3 hours reclaiming the only bag of my existing clay I had left (a great little surprise when I found it under some stuff in the garden!) and getting this new clay to a workable consistancy. I cannot express how draining that was. It made we want to just go back into the house and forget about going any further for the day!

I don't know what it is about this new semi-porcelain clay that makes it so unattractive and uninviting when taken out of the bag. At first glance, the wet sheen on the surface of the clay lump makes it look adequately soft. However, the minute you start to try and knead it, the whole of the lump (bar the skin) is quite firm and doesn't kindly "give". So unworkable is it that I go through the "pancake" process (slabbing slip between layers of clay to increase moisture content of clay) with the whole lot of it.

Even then, when it has been kneaded into a solidified cohesive mass again, it's as if the movement of the clay caused layers of it to seperate away from the rest, causing loads of air bubbles. I would question my method of kneading, but I have never had this problem with the other clays I have used and I have been kneading for up to 7 years now. I'm blaming the clay, damnit.

I persist and end up bringing it to the wheel as prepared as I can get it, yet not fully satisfied with it's workability. I guess it does have a hard act to follow, insomuch that my existing clay and I have had 5 years together of hard work and understanding always making it an extreme joy to throw with! Too bad I can't get the darn clay to turn white and lose it's speckle.

It isn't that easy, is it?

Anyone know why this clay misbehaves so much? Is this what people who work with porcelain mean when they say porcelain clay is "difficult" to work with?

Well, onto bigger and better things! I was commissioned!!

Okay, in all fairness, it was a request from a nice guy at work who asked me to make him a potpourri holder. He wanted to be able to shake the potpourri to release the smell and asked for a container that had holes in I came up with this shape....

I threw some lids too and managed to turn both pots:

Now, all I need to do is pierce each of these with holes all over and see how it looks in the end!

Bisque Fire Success!

Round One of bisque fire returned some promising results! I had thrown some tall bottles about 4 months ago, but due to their height, I never had enough to make it worthwhile to fire them without losing valuable space in the kiln.

On each of them, I used the slips I had developed, with additions of stains and the bisque outcome looks good! In fact, I am really liking the chalky effect of the unglazed bisqueware so much that it may just influence me not glazing the finished product in the gloss firing!

Decisions Decisions!

Friday, 6 February 2009

My clay finally arrived!

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday on the laptop, figuring out blogging and creating a profile for myself in etsy!
Not sure about other UK artists who have gotton on etsy to sell, but I think that ceramics and international shipping rates won't be doing me any favours in getting sales. I noticed some potters in the UK send insured and others don't. Man, I checked out Royal Mail costs for various weights to get insured post to the states, and we are talking big money. The sad thing is that the postage will cost more than some of the pots! I wonder if other UK potters are finding this an issue?
Another issue I am debating is using etsy for products I have already produced so once an order comes through, I can despatch immediately OR use etsy to show standard products that can only be made to order, which pushes the delivery of finished product back by possibly 1 month. This would limit potential problems with built up stock, but what customer would want to wait up to 4 weeks for a pot?
I noticed different strokes for different folks on this one and am not yet sure how I should proceed. Need to figure out soon though, as I loaded ONE item on etsy and want to get my policies straight before I do any more posting. It is exciting, but I am wondering if the sale of heavy items to another country is really cost effective or profitable? But, seeing that my new year's resolution is "to try things I have been meaning to do for a long while, but couldn't be bothered", I'm going with it. What is the worst that can happen - losing the 20 or so pence it cost to post the item?

On Wednesday, I had a surprise delivery - my new clay!!! Ordered only 50 kg, as I still have lots of testing to do on the clay body itself, and application of slips and glazes at different application methods, thicknesses, and colour concetrations. I worked out I need 3 different bisques to have adequate testing for the following:
glaze application/thickness testing
colour concentration in slips
cooling ramp experiments

In each bisque, I want a good decent size pack. To spare boring you with the minute details, I worked out I need 60 test bowls of my new clay alongside 50 of my existing clay. The existing clay and glazes are the ones I know best, and will be used to judge deviation in results from the norm I usually get. The new clay is being used to see how best to proceed when glazing, making up coloured slips, and firing.

With that said, I quickly threw 60 test bowls Wednesday night. What was interesting is that the clay isn't the most plastic to work with and it is very tempermental - I only really felt I got a groove going with optimal approach to throwing each bowl after bowl number 50 or so! It is funny how it can take so long to get into that zone when throwing and know just the right way to work that stuff into exactly what you want it to do!

Here is a photo of all of them turned. The turning process with this clay is much nicer than the throwing. I was only going to use the molochite for larger wares, but I may need to incorporate it into all the pots I make with this clay.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snow stopped everything!

Well almost everything......
A crazy blizzard hit London and we got dumped on. Buses, trains, work, tubes (well everything really) shut down and everyone stayed home yesterday!

It was a London I have never seen before, kids en masse outside having fun with snowball fights, families out laughing and playing in the snow, and Joe snowboarding! Brought back great memories from growing up in the Midwest.
Seeing that I have years of snow experience under my belt - I lit loads of candles and cuddled on the couch with the laptop and my Life in UK notes for my big test next week!
What a fab day!
What the snow did probably effect was my clay shipment - ugh. Will keep busy with other work though. Need to get together an outline for my website, prep my plaster moulds, load the kiln and work on an idea I have for a wall hanging..should keep me busy!
Hopefully clay will be here tomorrow.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Beginning of a new era

Okay, I realised my last post was April 08. I'm writing off 2008, mainly because my three ventful visits to the emergency room made the year pretty bad. I'm all mended now and ready to make that resolution to get back on the blogger wagon, and stay on it.

As a summary of some of the major moments in 2008:

I finally managed to polish off the 250 kilos of specked stoneware that I bought back in 2006!

Back in August, I embarked on a mission to find a white firing clay which fired around 1220-1260 and could not only handle big thrown items but various handbuilding and attaching.
I ordered 17 different clays from various suppliers and made small thrown bowls to assess firing colour. Once the colours were narrowed down (and I tell you, lots of suppliers selling bodies as "white" are not really marketing their clays as the right colour!!!), I managed to get 3 bodies that seemed possible.
Next were the throwing tests: small and large plates, large cylinders, small and large bowls, bellied vessel with small neck. Handbuilding test included thrown and assembled cylinders.
Fortunately, I found a clay that I prefered! Unfortunately, it was thirsty as hell and didn't want to go very high on the wheel.
So, off I went to the pottery supplier for some molochite and further tests adding varying percentages to the clay body.

Another huge set of tests I embarked on were the development of glazes and slips for the 1220C range, as I had always fired to 1260/80. And, frankly, because I hadn't really bothered to get a real grasp of my kiln firings, I couldn't verfiy that temperature.

Another achievement for me was conquering the concept and use of pyrometric cones. Still working on the analysis part though, especially trying to get the damn kiln to fire evenly. I am just now starting a series of firings which will include cooling ramps - a concept that many of the fab potters on recommend!

I started using stains for my slips and continue to test the percetages required for the effect I am going for.

Finally, I managed to explore other ways of making that incorporates throwing and handbuilding; a process that has produced lots of bad pots and fired ideas - but all of which incrimentally assisted in the development of the ideas.

So, what about 2009?

Figure out what percentage of molochite I need to add to my new clay body. As I have only tested out on medium tall pieces, I'm awaiting more clay to be shipped to go bigger and see the results.

Once these additions are tried, its off to firing to see what (if any) negative implications this will have on glaze/slip addition and firing strength.

Finalise tests and confirm my staple slip and glaze bodies

Get a website sorted

Um, actually sell some pots this year.

Wish me luck!