Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Breathing Life into the Studio!

Detail of Porcelain Bowl with zinc silicate crystalline glaze.
Studios have their own personality. They grow like a shell around the artist that works in them and become a mirror of the life that is lived in it. 

Years ago, not all that long after I had been an an art student, we spent what would have been the equivalent of two week’s grocery money on a lovely book, “The Artist In His Studio”, by Alexander Liberman. The author had made a pilgrimage to the studios of artists in France that were still alive in the early part of the 20th Century, or had died only recently, and photographed them, and also interviewed the artist themselves if they were still living. 

It is a magnificent book, and some of the photographs really touch me deeply. The photo of Kupka in his 80s standing with arms wide spread in front of an enormous abstract painting that he was working on is one of my favourites. He wears his white painter’s smock and a little close fitting cloth cap, a cigarette is held between the first and second fingers of his left hand. His face is tanned and lined, and there is a lively twinkle in his eyes and a look about him, that is like a bird that has ascended into heavenly places. 

Detail of Fire Works #1. Crystals in sunshine!
My own studio had been getting rather neglected, 3 months had passed with very little going on in it, and it had a sad look. Piles of this and that had collected in areas that would usually be better organised for work, and, there was even an old chair that needed mending that was occupying most of my space where I glaze pots. One day, I dutifully mopped the floor, and tried to find places to file away some of the “stuff” that had found its way there. It made me a angry to see the place like that and to have difficulty making room for things. 

About that time, I got a phone call from someone at our Potter’s Co-op to see if I would like to put 3 pots into the Otago Art Society and Ceramics Association of New Zealand (Otago and Southland Chapter) Joint Exhibition to represent the Co-op. There was also a suggestion that my crystalline glazed work might be the way to go.

In spite of making a resolution to pull back from projects with deadlines, it was very nice to be asked, and I said yes… then started to worry over the next day or two, because I had no new crystalline glazed pots, and the exhibition was very soon. What I did have were a number of porcelain vases that I had made a few months earlier, but had not yet glaze fired.

After a few more days of indecision about what to put in, I began work and as I did, the studio started to look happier! Amazing how much more cheerful a place it can be with the mess of fresh activity, rather than the clutter of neglect!

Detail of "pond" in stemmed bowl, Fire Works #2.

Crystalline glazing is not for the faint hearted, it is technical, and requires a lot of testing of glazes and firings of the kiln to get things right. The glazes tend to work best if kiln elements are new, and the kiln is able to heat up rapidly. As the kiln elements age, the performance of the kiln degrades quite noticeably. This can sometimes be an advantage for ordinary stoneware firings, as they often benefit from a good “soak” time at high temperature, but crystalline glazes definitely suffer. 

So…, before I could fire anything, I had to pull out my old and tired kiln elements and replace the set with new ones. 

Unfortunately, with very little time remaining to actually fire pots, I had to make an educated guess as to what the firing schedule would look like and commit some good pots to the first firing in the hopes that one or two pots might turn out. A number of test firings with pieces that didn’t matter would have been the preferable way to go. 

Taken from the perspective of “the cup half full”, the first firing was almost a success, but I could use nothing from it other than knowledge gained! I had been over cautious about the peak temperature that I fired to, and, as a result, the pots were covered in rafts of crystals with very little contrasting glaze surrounding them, and they were not attractive. Also I had been too heavy handed with cobalt oxide on one example, and it was a most dreary looking thing!

It would have been easy to have given the crystalline stuff up at that point, as there was only just enough time remaining for two more glaze firing attempts at most. I was also struggling with fatigue and definitely not feeling my best! One dreary evening I did find myself browsing a French real estate website, and plotting my escape to somewhere remote in the French countryside, where I could lick my wounds and think of something other than crystalline glaze firing!

Whilst the first glaze firing had been cooling I fired a bisque firing of some other pots that were possible candidates for crystalline glaze, so I was able to replenish my dwindling stock.

For some reason I think of this porcelain vase as "Star of India". It is Fire Works #1. Zinc Silicate crystalline glaze with 1 percent red iron oxide.

I made up more glaze, glazed more pots, and fired again, this time about 10 degrees higher. This firing was very successful, and provided two out of the three pots that I needed for the exhibition. 

Porcelain vase, Fire Works #3, with zinc silicate glaze containing 1 percent red iron oxide.

I made more glaze. I glazed more pots, loaded the kiln, and fired again, with slight modifications to the times and temperatures through the crystal growing phase of the firing to change the shape and character of the crystals. This firing was also successful, and provided pot number three. I unpacked it on the morning of the day that I had to take the work in for the exhibition, so could not have cut things much finer!

Unpacking firing number 3.

As is the case with exhibitions, the organisers like titles and prices to be sent in a couple of weeks before the show so that they can put together a catalogue and do the necessary planning. Because I had no idea what would turn out, or even if I would have to resort to rustling together some wood fired pots that I already had, I had to make up titles and prices that were vague enough to cover all eventualities. 

Stemmed bowl (Fire Works #2). Crystalline glaze inside and semi matte black glaze outside.
November the 5th, Guy Fawkes day was fast approaching, so I named the pots “Fire Works” (3, 2, and 1)! 

Fire Works, 3,2 and 1

Very good to have got the pots done. Quite a battle, both technical, and physical, but I’m very pleased to have arrived at something that I am actually really proud of! The exhibition will be held at the Otago Art Society at the Dunedin Railway Station. The opening is 6pm this Friday 16 November and the exhibition runs until 2nd December.

Here are a couple more crystalline pots that worked out well in the last series of firings. I have them here at our own gallery.

Porcelain Bowl with zinc silicate crystalline glaze and attractive pool in base. Approximately 6.75 x 10.5 inches (170 x 270mm) 

Porcelain vase. Zinc silicate crystalline glaze with copper and iron. Approximately 8.5 inches High by 8 inches wide (215 x 205mm)