Thursday, April 18, 2013

Octo Recharge!

Day Octopus
 (no, I don't have an underwater camera so this is someone else's memory
...but I can relate
 Spent the last week under water in Maui getting re-inspired for before my first show of the year!  Fondled octopuses, ogled turtles, swam with unicornfish, fell in love with the blue boxfish, sharks and even a barracuda!  I've got all kinds of new designs competing for attention now!
The Turtles are coming too!

Unicornfish of course!
Spotted Blue Boxfish
Surprisingly, there was an Empty Bowls event taking place at Star Noodle in Lahaina.  I donated one year to an Empty Bowls event in Sacramento so I was curious what actually happened.  Potters provide handmade bowls which patrons buy and fill with the sponsoring
Rockmover or Dragon Wrasse
restaurant's food (which luckily, in my case, was Star Noodle where I was already recomended to go! sooooo tasty).  All proceeds go to local food banks.   I found kindred spirit again in the spectacular scraffito octopus platter on silent auction.  I bid it up 3 times, but I didn't win.
Octo Platter on Silent Auction at Empty Bowls
 by Bob Hoenig in Maui
There's another Empty Bowls event taking place in Hawaii April 26.  Lots more around the world..Check out the calendar & website here:  Now back to the mud....

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mata Ortiz Pottery Class

Jerardo & Me with my fired pot
   I spent this last week in a class with Mata Ortiz master potter, Jerardo Tena Sandoval.  The tarry lump of black clay I received, directly from the Mata Ortiz hills, was fundamentally different from the product I pull from bags at home. It was sticky and thick with a stubborn tenacity that enables it to be formed into incredibly thin walls in any direction.  The available clays there range in colors from blue to yellow, white, red and beige, most of which fire to a brown color in oxidation but all can be turned black in reduction.  One of my favorite effects from Mata Ortiz is their black on black, especially those with the metallic mirror quality.  Apparently, however, that effect requires a lot of powdered graphite combined with diesel fuel, so we did not experiment with it in Healdsburg.  We did have some dark blue-black clay whose blueness only ghostly remained in the reduction firing.
Jerardo Tena Sandoval
     We began by flattening the ball into a tortilla and pressing it into the curved plaster form for the bottom.  Using a rib made from credit cards cut into circles, or Jerardo’s favorite tool, a plastic toy tea saucer, we pressed the clay into the base and began pinching up the sides.  We added a “chorizo” of clay to the lip to make it taller, continuing to pinch and push.  The most effective tool for me was the hacksaw blade that we used tooth-side first to unify the wall by pulling clay into depressions and eliminating high points.  Unlike normal throwing techniques of plenty of water, we had to keep our hands clean and dry to prevent marring the surface with dried clay. Then, lightly dampened, we ran the back/smooth side of the blade across the surface to further smooth it.  This clay, while strong enough to reach maturity in a brief but hot 30-minute firing, is extremely sensitive to moisture.  It dries slowly and is quick to crack if the moisture is uneven.  Sadly Jerardo recalled how, after three months of painting, a humid wind caused a crack in the wall of a large pot with jaguars on the lip.
Painting in Joann's studio. Hating it ans
convincing myself to stay
     For two days, we left the pots to dry then returned to sand them.  “This is what it sounds like in the village,” Joann commented as we all settled in with our 100-grit paper.  Dried, the clay is like cement, requiring vigorous, lengthy, arm-straining work to smooth the surface.  The more you sand, the more you can see the tiny divots as they filled with contrasting clay dust and demanded more sanding.  Once finished with that, you move on to 200-grit paper and finally, 300-grit, until you have “baby-butt” smooth pots.  Being of an impatient nature, I quickly tired of this and again increased my respect for the perfect surfaces of the Mata Ortiz pots.
     To burnish, we rubbed baby oil all over the pot and waited for it to dry.  Then we rubbed a small section with a damp cloth and rubbed it with a tumbled stone.  This turned the surface bright and reflective.  Finally we were ready for the decorative step and made paintbrushes from Jerardo’s daughter’s hair.  The paintbrush for the fine line work consists of only 8 hairs and is almost 2 inches from the tip of the brush to the tip of the wood.  Jerardo loads the brush with paint, lays it on the surface of the pot and slowly drags it.  In demonstration, he painted a grid where the gaps between the lines were only the thickness of the paintbrush.  It made me cross-eyed just watching him.
     I attempted painting in the Mata Ortiz style, naturally choosing to depict an octopus as goes my fixation.  Unfortunately, the precision paintbrushes are more inclined toward straight lines than curly ones.  “What do you do if you mess up?” asked one of my fellow students.  “Change the design!” smirked Jerardo. I became so frustrated I had to talk myself out of leaving.  I made a mess of my pot.  Finally I asked Joann if she had a needle tool so I could revert to my accustomed technique.  She handed me an inscriber, designed for etching into metal, and I was in heaven.  I was able to make curved lines, correct the edges of my paint job and, feeling joyous once again, dared to erase my stilted lines with the dampened rag and re-burnish.  My pot was cracked already anyway.
Oxidation firing completed
Reduction Firing completed
     The next day we brought our pots to be fired to another potter’s home in Forestville.  Since it had rained, we had to construct an additional fire to dry the area and heat the ground.   Meanwhile we preheated the pots in the oven.  Apparently this is done in Mata Ortiz by holding the pots over a fire, but since we had an oven, we used it, bringing the pots slowly up to 450 degrees.  When the first fire died down, we pulled the coals away and placed three bricks under a metal drum cut to 1/3 height.  Inside the drum, a BBQ grill, held from the bottom with a few kiln bricks, supported the heated pots retrieved from the oven wrapped in towels and quickly transferred.  A loose metal lid kept oxygen flowing through the drum but prevented the smoke from turning the pots black (oxidation firing).  We piled kindling around the drum and on top, doused it with lighter fluid and let it burn for ½ hour.  For the subsequent reduction firing, the drum was inverted and sealed over the pots and a bed of sawdust both to burn out the oxygen and provide more smoke.  In this firing, the painted areas, originally white for greatest contrast, turned matt black and the unpainted, burnished areas turned a deep glossy black.
     I was honored when Jerardo, the master potter, complimented my pot, and I was proud to be in the company of fellow artisans.  In Mata Ortiz, a town made famous by the revival of ancient pottery techniques using the most locally available resources, a potter is only granted the name of “Master” if he or she can perform every step of the process from harvesting the clay and paint ingredients from the surrounding hills, processing them, forming pots, making paintbrushes, burnishing, painting, and firing them.  In Peace Corps, I had notions of creating such an industry in my own site where clay was plentiful. In studying Mata Ortiz and the years of experimentation it has taken them to arrive where they are today, I realize finally that it was not my lack of ambition that prevented it from occurring, but a sense of scale.  It took Juan Quezada and fellow potters around 20 years to develop what they are still perfecting today.  They just celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the first perfectly fired pot of this revival movement.  I have found my respectful place in this historical context.  I can stand proud next to this master potter, as a skilled potter myself, and part of a global community of mud-slingers. After all, this incredible art form that has developed simultaneously in most parts of the world in limitless variability is evidence of human ingenuity and our innate drive toward creativity.
Panther-lipped pot Jerardo worked on in class

Jerardo's effigy

Jerardo's ram

Mata Ortiz Contact info: or Mata Ortiz Calendar on FB.
     If you’re interested in buying any of Jerardo’s pottery you can contact him at Jerardo Tena Sandoval via FB.
     If you are interested in having classes with Jerardo in the Bay Area, call Joann Cassady at 707 431-8319, email: or Joann Cassady via FB.