Pottery 101

A few weeks ago I started taking pottery lessons with Tim Bullard out at the Cultural Center of Ponte Vedra. I had thought about taking pottery a number of times at the John C. Campbell Folkschool, but since was so close and reasonably priced, I couldn’t resist.

Pottery and woodturning have a lot in common. Certainly the forms and function of the pieces made from either material are nearly identical and even the wheel throwing process in pottery shares some elements with the lathe. However, the similarity really breaks down going from the raw material to the finished object. This too, is what I wanted to learn.

Tim is one of those kinds of teachers that is willing to expose you to the breadth of the art rather than narrowing your learning to specific projects or techniques.

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Tim always explains the basic process we’re going to attempt and then does a demo. I always think about wood as being an organic material, with different properties based on species, moisture content, the orientation of the grain, etc., but I kind of thought of clay as clay. It turns out that there is a lot more to clay than I thought. We’re using low fired clay at the beginning and Tim started by wedging up the material for uniformity and removal of air bubbles. After the first couple of weeks, that’s now our responsibility.

The first project we started on was crating a pinch pot. For this you take some wedged clay and press it tightly into a small bowl kind of form. The idea is to get the clay to form to the inside of the form and have the walls all of the same thickness.

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However, it doesn’t end there. You can make a second one and then join the two together with an opening at top to make a vessel, You can build more on the rim, you can stamp in decorative elements. It was really surprising where you could take it.

The class has three other ladies in it. One has had some previous experience, but the rest of us are all starting from scratch.

As soon as we make some progress on our pinch pots, Tim does a demo on the wheel.

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He makes it look so easy. He shows us how to center the clay, where he applies pressure with his hands, how to cone and flatten several times to remove any air and then how to make the bottom and draw up the sides – easy as pie.

Everyone taking a pottery course has hurt the frustration of learning how to throw on the wheel, but you hope this was an over-exaggeration. Turns out – not so much. The process is all tactile. you need to feel the clay, how soft it is, how wet the surface is, how well centered it is and most importantly, as you begin to form a shape, how uniform the wall thickness is. While many of these things are also important in woodturning, the process is the opposite. In woodturning you start with your blank and remove the wood n a controlled fashion until you arrive at the desired form. In pottery, at least wheel thrown pottery, you start with a lump of clay and must draw it into the shape you desire. There are no tools but your hands and finesse is the watchword, not force.

That first wheel experience yielded nothing but frustration. Since you have to add water for lubrication, as soon as you mess up, the wet clay can’t be used any more without additional processing. Back to pinch pots and let someone else work on the wheel.

I figured between the first and second week I’d check out YouTube to get up close and personal with the wheel throwing process. I watched about 50 videos, seeing production turners, hobbyists and small batch potters, figuring I pretty much had it down.

The next class Tim started with us working on building from slabs.

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I had watched a few YouTubes on this as well and felt I could do this OK, but it turns out that the overall process is pretty straight forward, but once again there are lots of details. Uniform thickness, dryness of the clay when joining pieces together, properly scoring and adding slip so that the parts stay together after drying and how easy it is to dent or misshape the design you worked so hard on. I had a little better experience with this process though. The third week I decided to make a bit better slab box with lid. To add some decoration, I turned some wooden stamps and added spirals and texture and was happy at the results. The pieces are basic, but I’m hoping we’ll get some good results after glazing.

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Again back on the wheel. Once again Tim makes it look easy.

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Once again I struggle. About all I can manage are a couple of small pieces. They’ll need trimming, but at least I got a shape I’m familiar with.

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I can build on this experience, right? Week 4 I was pretty excited that I could take this to the next level. Not quite. I was back to Week 2 problems, that is having the lower wall just too thin and having the piece collapse and I pull up the wall. It was back to cleaning up the slab boxes. I did trim the bottom of the small bowl OK and it will be bisque fired this week.

Some of the others are beginning to get the hang of it. Kathy was pulling a pretty nice bowl.

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I think this coming week we’ll be starting on glazes, so a whole new aspect to pursue.

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