Friday, December 26, 2014

Electrons, Cheese Dishes, Soup bowls, Roosters, and Happy Christmas!


I made this pot several years ago, and have kept it. I am thankful for this pot, because I noticed something happening with this glaze that started me on a most enjoyable journey of thought and questioning that occupies me still.


This pot has a special sort of a glaze in which crystals are encouraged to grow when everything is at high temperature in the kiln. When I looked at the crystal structures that had formed in the glaze, and the way they appeared to start bar shaped then form fan shapes at each end of the bar, I remembered doing experiments with magnets and iron filings when I was a child at school. It was the sort of thing that would be demonstrated in a physics class to show magnetic fields. I liked the pattern that the iron filings made, and the way they clustered together at both ends of the magnet, and I can still feel the sensation of the iron filings pricking my fingers if I brushed them carelessly over the desktop with my hand.

Image of a magnet with iron filings. BBC Bitesize Science.

I did not think that the way that the crystals formed was necessarily due to magnetism, but there did seem to be some kindred process at work that made rod shaped crystals stick together and fan out like that, and I began to want to know what was really happening in a crystalline glaze, or any glaze, when it was at high temperature in the kiln.

The desire to know and to understand more about the inner workings of a glaze gave rise to a stream of "Why" and "How" questions that still bubbles and burbles away in my head to this day, and just like a fresh spring of water, such questions are refreshing, because of the unexpected insights that they bring.

One of my favourite books is the "Illustrated Dictionary of Practical Pottery" by Robert Fournier. It is something that I like to dip into at bed time. As it is a dictionary that relates to pottery, every double page spread has an enjoyably odd set of topics, that are brought together because of their place in the alphabet, rather than their meaning.

If I open the book at random somewhere near the middle we have, Manganese, Marbling, Marl, Massive Form Of Rock, Master Mold, Matrix, Matt, Maturing of Glazes, Measuring Spoon, Melted Glass Decoration, Melting Point, and each entry has an intelligent and helpful explanation.

There is one page that I return to rather obsessively, page 75...

Illustrated Dictionary of Practical Pottery. Robert Fournier. P75

On it are a paragraph or two about electrons, and there is a drawing of an aluminium atom, with electrons orbiting around the nucleus rather like planets orbiting the sun.


When I see a diagram like that, part of my mind lurches off on a short and colourful journey through our galaxy, whilst other brain cells generate more abstract ideas about how we, and everything around us, are made of tiny atoms, each complete with a nucleus and orbiting electrons. And how everything, from elephants, to mice, to rocks, trees, and planets, even "dead" planets, are all alive when seen at the level of the tiny atoms.

The thing that I like best on this page is something that might look boring at first glance, it is a table of elements that are commonly used in pottery. The table shows the number of electrons that surround the nucleus of each element, and how the electrons are arranged in layers. I have probably spent hours looking at this and springing off from it on great adventures of thought and imagination!


According to what I have read thus far.. electrons orbit the nucleus of their atom in layers, or "shells". Really light elements that have only a few electrons, might only have one or two shells. Enormously heavy elements, like Lead or Uranium, have 6 and 7 shells respectively. Their shells are like multi-story car parks, somewhere for their vast collection of electrons to be housed!

Atoms are most stable when the outer shell contains either 2 or 8 electrons. Atoms that have something other than 2 or 8 electrons in their outer shell try to achieve this happy state by sharing and transferring electrons from other atoms, and molecules occur where atoms of different elements form bonds.


The table of elements shows that Oxygen has 6 electrons in its outer shell. For Oxygen to be truly happy and fulfilled, it really needs to find 2 more electrons from somewhere. A quick glance at many of the other elements in the table will show that a surprising number have 2 electrons in their outer shell. Ha, Ha.... my basic maths tells me that 6 +2 = 8! Thus, in "real life", many of these elements become oxides.


Here is a nice little diagram of what appears to be a rather savage bag snatching encounter between an Oxygen atom and a Magnesium atom, in which poor Magnesium has the two electrons in its outer shell stolen by the thuggish Oxygen! Maybe the encounter is not so ugly as it looks, because the solitary Mg and O, seem to be united now as MgO!

The table of elements show things in their theoretically pure form. It is a lovely starting point for thought about how everything that we see around us is put together. I think of it as the DNA of Everything! I also suspect that these columns of 2s, 8s, 18s, 32s, and so on, may also give a hint as to what happened moments after the "big bang", when Everything began!

A humble potter's world is not so pure. Potters deal with oxides and carbonates, molecules rather than atoms! Our world is dirty, sweaty, achy, and real! However, it is in the kiln, at high temperature, when the glaze is fluid, that the molecules really dance. Old bonds weaken, electrons are transferred, and new alliances made!

I am thankful for a particular pot, and the questions it made me ask. I do not have a science background (as is probably obvious to any scientist who might read this), but here I am at the tender age of 56 happily feeding from an exotic smorgasbord of chemistry and physics, with a dash of astronomy and philosophy thrown in!

What I have been Making in December...



In the run up to Christmas I made a set of 6 earthenware soup bowls, each with a handle, for someone who commissioned them. These soup bowls hold about 2 cups of soup, and I hope they will be just the thing for nice warm soup on a cold day!

Udder Success!


Shirley Loats commissioned me to make her some earthenware cheese dishes. Shirley has recently established a cheese making business in Oamaru, called Udder Success! Shirley makes fabulous cheese and the commission was a fascinating one, as Shirley was keen to see if I could give a Steam Punk look to some of the dishes (Oamaru is positioning itself as Steam Punk Capital of New Zealand).

I made 4 dishes that were more traditional, like this....



And another 4 that went with the Steam Punk theme, like this...



I made little cogwheels and other mechanical looking elements out of clay for the Steam Punk ones, and used a black satin matt glaze on the outside, and wiped most of it away where it went over the mechanical bits so that they looked like rusty iron.



Inside the butter dishes, I used a clear glaze for anything that would be in contact with cheese.


It was quite a challenge making them, but was good fun and I would love to do more and develop the Steam Punk idea further!

For pure pleasure one morning, I made a clay portrait of our neighbour's rooster! The rooster calls in here every day for breakfast before visiting his girlfriends at another neighbour's hen house! Late in the evening, the rooster visits for supper, before going to his real home for bed!




I made 2 very fast portraits of him from clay as he fed, and a third larger portrait of him a few minutes later when he was on his way next door.


It was great fun working rapidly with clay like that. There was no time to think, it was important just to trust the hands to tear and squeeze the clay, and record the gesture of what was seen.

It has been ages since I last posted, and the November - December part of the year had its share of challenges. Both Laura and myself had health related struggles and frustrations, and I had to give what energy I had to the studio first, and there was little left over for writing the blog. I did play a lot of solitaire on the computer in December!

I would like to thank all of you that have supported and encouraged us through the blog, and in person through the year. I have enjoyed attempting to answer enquiries about glazes and kilns, especially through my high fire glaze page. It is nice to have that contact with the wider world, and to feel useful sometimes!

I hope to re-organise the high fired glaze page, and see if I can put up some other helpful glaze information and more glaze recipes, where it all can be easily found. I may try to gather up some of the questions and answers that have arisen through the years and put them in a FAQ page.

Happy Christmas and New Year to you All!


Peter, Laura, and Nigella Stopit the Post Office Cat

16 comments:

Anna said...

Love your steam punk cheese dishes - good luck for 2015

Peter said...

Hi Anna,
Good to hear from you, and thank you for the encouragement. I hope 2015 goes well for you too.

smartcat said...

The steam punk cheese keepers are excellent. Steam punk crystals?!
A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Laura and Nigella Stopit!

gz said...

All the best for 2015 xx

Peter said...

Hi Smartcat,
Steam Punk crystals... Ha, that is quite a thought :)! Happy Christmas and New Year to you too.

Hi Gwynneth,
Happy New year to you. I hope 2015 is a good one for us all!

Linda Starr said...

You really had me going with all the chemistry, that book sounds like a real gem. It amazes me that we as humans can build on knowledge we got so long ago and it helps us with problem solving so much later in life, it definitely keeps life interesting.

I love the bright yellow in your soup bowls and both style of cheese dishes but I must confess I like the steam punk ones the best purely because they are so unique.

Chickens and roosters are definitely inspiring and yours are sweet. I know just how you feel making something just because it is fun.

I find myself making plans for this new year and ways to improve my sales and I am laughing at the solitaire playing on the computer as we both are probably playing solitaire on our computers at the same time but on opposite ends of the earth.

Happy Holidays to you and Laura, hope the new year is a super one for you both

Michèle Hastings said...

The steampunk cheese dishes are great!!! You really nailed it. Your friend must be ecstatic.
Your rooster sculptures are beautiful, very gestural. How large (or small) are they?

Peter said...

Hi Linda,
Lovely to hear from you, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Ha, I wonder if it is possible to network solitaire!! (I guess it would need a different name then with more than one player!). The chemistry stuff is amazing really, I know that it may sound "boring" to some, but when you think of how we, and everything around us, is made up of these tiny atoms and each of them is like a little galaxy with the electrons whirling around like planets, it is a marvellous and inspiring picture!

I am interested, and delighted, with how many of you are saying you like the steam punk cheese dishes. It was a "step into the unknown" for me when I did them, and I definitely want to do more and develop the ideas further.

All the Very Best for 2015 from us at the Old Post Office!

Hi Michèle,
Good to hear from you. Thanks for the encouragement. Regarding the roosters, the largest is probably a bit over 5 inches high, and the smaller ones about 4. I gave the larger one to a friend for Christmas, so am not sure of the exact size. I hope to do more from life, and also to make some rooster decorated casseroles and jars!

Happy New Year to you!

Armelle Léon said...

Belated Happy Christmas Peter, what a nice post !!! I am so far from the clay since a long time and I enjoy so much how your brain works well speaking about atom and what happen in the glaze at hight temperature.
I was mostly a grand ma this past month and miss a lot my little Yuna.

Best wishes from Yves and I

Peter said...

Bonjour Armelle,

Good to hear from you. I am delighted that you enjoy seeing how my brain works!! :) I usually keep its inner workings hidden from public view, but I thought I would share a glimpse into the world of atoms and electrons that has captured my imagination!

It is lovely that you were able to spend some treasured moments with your little Yuna, and be there at the moment that she started to walk!

Kind Thoughts to you and Yves from all of us! P, L, & NS xx

cookingwithgas said...

Streamlining pottery, should I add that to the list for 2015??? I did just put butter dishes on the list. I love that creamy white glaze. It would go fabulous with cheese.
Happy holidays.

Peter said...

Hi Meredith,

Good to hear from you. Streamlining life would be great!! I'm fond of the creamy white too, it seems a really happy marriage with the red earthenware clay.

Anonymous said...

What can be quite scary about us all being made up of atoms, is the thought that atoms consist mainly of empty space:- relatively the electrons are farther from the nucleus than the planets are from the Sun!

Peter said...

Hello Anonymous,
Good to hear from you, thank you for your comment. All that empty space may well go some way to explaining my absent mindedness! I remember when we learnt at school that we were 90 something percent water, and that was also a rather mind boggling thought at the time!

Sue said...

Love the roosters!! Wow how clever is that?
I'm sure there's a market for roosters, and other creatures too.

Peter said...

Hi Sue,
Thank you for your encouragement! I would like to do more roosters, and intend to... but I have a problem currently in that the rooster who visits us has fallen in love with several hens that live at another neighbour's house down the road from us.... The rooster still turns up for breakfast and supper, but we see almost nothing of him for the rest of the day! I may have to follow him around with a lump of clay when he is off on his amorous adventures!!!
Oh, the fun of living in the country!