Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Blog moved!

Hi all,
I've converted my whole site to wordpress, so the blog has a new RSS feed.

The second is actually old, but I forgot to publish it for some reason.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Shop Class

My grandfather died almost a year ago. It’s been a hard one, good and bad, but I’ve been busy and it’s gone by quickly. It’s been a year since I started this post -- I promised to post some thoughts regarding my grandfather and other connected things, pottery-related and not, that I’ve been thinking about for a really long time.

My Grandpa Fred worked for an aerospace company. He could build anything in his garage (and he did). He taught me how to weld and how to use a metal-lathe. He built a stern-wheeler out of blocks of balsa wood and metal. If he needed a certain tool to do a job, but didn't have quite the right thing, he would build it himself.

I wish I had been older when he was younger, or that I had been more interested in hanging out with him in the garage. But I'm grateful for the things my grandfather gave me -- good spacial-visualization, confidence in my ability to make things with my hands, the ability to figure out how to do things without being shown. Of course with those things came stubbornness and the belief that I'm probably right even if I have no idea what I'm talking about.

My grandfather made and fixed things, constantly. He got satisfaction from solving problems and working with his hands. I get that same satisfaction, but my life is dramatically different from his -- I have fewer opportunities to make and fix. Pottery fills some of that need, but not all. For the past year or so I’ve been aching to spend more time building, cooking, sewing and growing and less time typing and clicking. Problem is, between the day job and the studio, there just isn't enough time in the day.

Brandon Phillips quoted Matthew Crawford about this time last year, and I’m glad he did because Crawford’s book, Shopclass as Soulcraft, played right into some ideas I’d been turning over in my head for years. Crawford quit a cubical job to be a motorcycle mechanic because he decided he'd rather spend his days actually doing something, rather than typing and clicking.
"The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on."

Industrialization has changed our relationship with the daily grind. Back in the day, people spent their days working to directly produce the things that we now buy at the store. So for most of us, our work days consist of re-arranging bytes with the end goal of making money for a big company, or moving along the bureaucratic process of the government, or something otherwise unrelated to our actual lives. We spend all day in front of a computer, collect our paychecks, go to the gym, buy stuff from the store, live in condos, eat at restaurants. I'm not judging--I do these things myself. I’m not a full-time potter growing my own food. While that sounds lovely, I have no other means of financial support, and I choose the stability of a day-job over an idyllic pastoral existence. We do all these things because that's how we achieve some sort of middle-class American life, and for the most part it's fine.

But we’re not happy! I suppose some people are, but I'm not, and I'm not alone. I think there's something in our biology or psychology that needs to be more directly involved in the creation of the actual physical things in our lives. Building furniture, growing food, baking bread, making pottery. Baking bread in pottery we’ve made! Which brings me around to the question of process vs. product, which is another topic I've given a lot of thought. But this entry is getting really long already, so I’m going to stop here. Just this post -- I’ll keep writing right now so you’ll have the next one very soon. (You probably know better than to believe that, but I’ll try! Like I said, less time typing and clicking!)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

My First Woodfire

If you’ve read more than one entry in this blog, or know me at all, you know that I didn’t just do my first woodfire. But in a way I did. I called the shots for the first time instead of just doing what I was told. Carol and I (finally!) rented MHCC’s Little Woody kiln, and fired it for about 15 hours.

Little Woody is a small, downdraft wood kiln. It held about...40 cubic feet (?) of work, and regularly fires easily in 12 hours. We took a few extra hours because we had the time and the wood, and didn’t really know what we were doing.

So...the firing actually went pretty well, but I didn’t realize it at the time. We got cone 11 down and 12 soft all around. Our cone packs were almost identical front to back, and pretty close top to bottom. We candled with gas overnight (felt a bit like cheating, but that’s how they do it there), and started with wood at 5:30 am. Once we started stoking, we let the kiln take off and gained 300-400 degrees F per hour until we got cone 010 down, did some body reduction, and kept cranking.

Around noon we had our first mishap. Four bricks from the bag wall and into the fire box (the bag wall is a brick screen separating the fire box from the pots, which helps direct the flame up and over instead of letting it short-cut through to the chimney). We were lucky that they fell away from the pots. We didn’t know whether we had inadvertently caused damage to the kiln, and weren’t sure how the large hole in the bag wall would affect our firing, so the fall really put a damper on our moods.

All was well for the next hour or two, and we still felt like we were gaining temperature well. We had pyrometers at the top and bottom of the ware chamber, and for the first several hours the temperature at the top and bottom was within 50 or so degrees. After the bag wall fell, the gap widened, and the variation in the bottom temperature with each stoke became more pronounced. Suspecting that this had to do with the gaping hole, I suggested that we stop looking at the bottom pyrometer, and judge the temperature variation by the comes, which were falling within about a half-hour of each other, indicating that the kiln was fairly even. We continued to increase in temperature, though less steadily and with more effort until we reached about 2200 degrees F.

We had planned to stop firing at about 6:30. We were supposed to be off campus by 7pm, and had left ourselves plenty of time. But around 5pm, the kiln stalled out. We were stuck at 2200 and unable to get any hotter. We opened this and closed that, increased the size of our stokes, decreased the size... tried everything we could to get the temperature to raise. Cone 10 was down and 11 was slightly soft, so we knew we had gotten up to temperature for a while at least. My main concern was whether we could end at a hot enough temperature to avoid crusty unmelted ash on the pots. Cone 11 had been slightly soft for hours, and the fact that it wasn’t moving any farther made me think we’d cooled off too much. I was determined not to stop firing until I got it to move even a hair more.

We hit 2300 (according to the pyro), but I couldn’t hold it for more than a stoke. Around 8pm I decided the next stoke would be the last, no matter what, but I over did it and the temperature plunged. Finally, at 9pm, after holding around 2250-2290 for about two hours, we called it a night and closed up the kiln even though cone 11 on the top never moved beyond slightly soft.

Two days later we opened the kiln. I had nightmares the night before about crusty, ashy pots and unusable bowls. Much to my surprise, the pots were perfectly smooth. That stubborn top cone 11 had melted into a perfect arch and 12 even softened slightly. The ash was amazing--some lovely green drips.

We learned three major lessons from the firing:
1) More body reduction! We both knew we needed to do a body reduction at cone 010, but didn’t know how long it should last. Funny the things you pick up from firings, and the things that slip through the cracks. Our shino glazed pots were white, and the iron-rich clays that should have been dark brown and burgundy were toasty. We got some beautiful colors, but not the richness that we would have had if we’d reduced for longer.

2) Don’t rely on pyrometers. We knew this--everyone says to use them to get an idea of whether your temperature is rising or falling, but not as an absolute number. Everyone says it, but no one does it.

3) Two people can fire a kiln for 15 hours, but it’s a lot of work! We probably could have planned better. One of us could have started the firing at 5:30am, traded off in the late morning, and worked together in the afternoon, once the stoking got more intense. This time we both wanted to be involved all the way through, but next time we could probably arrange shifts for the first half of the day. Or add a third person and take even longer breaks. I think we would have been more successful at the end (had more energy left to experiment) if we hadn’t been so tired.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fall and Winter 2011

Yes, I’m a terrible blogger. Haven’t posed anything in a year. I’ve actually had some posts in mind, and even half-written, just haven’t managed to get them finished and posted.

But first, let me catch you up on the past year. Since last I wrote, I’ve failed to finish the quilt but succeeded in becoming somewhat happy with my electric kiln. I found a dark brown clay that looks great in oxidation, and made a couple of sculptural, wall-hung pieces that I’m very happy with. Still experimenting with the transfers--I’ve got the process down (glaze, apply transfer, fire to cone 04. 06 is not hot enough. 02 is really ideal, but then I can’t throw them in with a load of bisque, and it takes me long enough to fill a kiln that I really need to be able to multi-task).

This fall and winter were tough for a variety of reasons. My grandfather died in October. He seemed to be ready (as ready as anyone can ever be, I suppose) and it happened quickly enough that he didn't seem to suffer much but with time for everyone to say goodbye. So it wasn’t a bad thing. I've been thinking about his life and our relationship. I’ll post about that soon, as it relates to some other things I’ve had on my mind lately.

Anyway, his death and the accompanying travel (which occurred during and after Portland Open Studios) made October a rough month. November brought other trials that I won't go into, but the end result was to throw me off my game a bit this winter. I didn’t want to be in the studio, so filled my weekends with hiking, skiing, and spending time with friends and family. Which was really a very good thing in some ways, but not very productive.

But it’s spring now! You wouldn’t know it from the weather (cold and rainy, just like winter), but the trees and flowers are blooming and we have the occasional warm day. In February I fired with Ken Pincus, who has a lovely down-draft kiln 10 minutes from my home. He has a great firing crew, and runs his kiln in a way that I really appreciate. He has a specific idea of how he wants to fire, and gives clear yet polite instruction to the crew. The one drawback is that it’s smaller than an anagama, so there’s not much room for larger sculptural pieces. Looks like I’ll be able to fire some new work there later this month--teapots, cups, bowls.

Carol Opie and I are also trying to rent the Little Woody at MHCC. It’s an even smaller downdraft kiln, but with just the two of us firing we'll have plenty of room for work. We’ve been trying to rent it for a year now (!), but it needed to be rebuilt over the winter. The rebuild is now complete, and it seems to be firing really well. We have wood and pots ready to go, and finally set a date--early May!

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more... hopefully before next Spring!