Tuning In

The whole story of a piece isn’t always apparent in the final object. Here Julie Ayton reflects on how preparing the raw material is the overture to the performance of making.

 

Many years ago I learned a little about Chinese brush painting. Before even picking up a brush, the first task was to grind the solid ink stick with water on the ink stone to achieve the deepest possible black, opaque and syrupy, to be progressively diluted for all the lighter tones when painting.  Watching the ink gradually thicken as I circled a hundred times clockwise and another hundred anticlockwise was quite hypnotic.

The meditative action of grinding the stick on the stone was helpful, we were told, not just to prepare the materials properly, but to ready our muscles and minds for the painting ahead. It was important to ease away tension and encourage an alert, but relaxed state of mind and body that would be reflected in unforced, confident brushstrokes.

I think about this often when I wedge clay ready for throwing. Today the sense of heightened awareness could be called mindfulness. Noticing the gradually improving texture with each cut of the wire is calming. It doesn’t feel like a chore, but a rewarding process of conditioning the material, improving its plasticity and tuning in to its consistency while limbering up my arms. It gives me time to focus on the pots I’m about to make and anticipate the flow of clay through my fingers.

I also think about Paul Barron, the tutor at Farnham who taught us the efficient rhythm of wedging. I’d seen pictures of Mick Casson wedging in the book of the 70’s TV series, The Craft of the Potter, but it was Paul I learned it from: Cut in half; lift; drop; rock; turn over; rock again; give the clay a quarter turn and drop the far end on the batt; repeat. His showpiece was to ask a student to push a small coin into a whole bag of clay (20 kg then, making our 10 or 12 kg bags today look puny). He would, he said, find it within 10 cuts of the wire. As far as I know, he always did, but it was really the fluent, energy-efficient way he placed and handled the heavy mass of clay in a series of concise moves that was impressive.

He used his whole body, with the clay extending towards him over the front edge of the bench. When he cut through the front half would drop onto his knee, which he’d use to help bounce the clay back up, reducing the effort needed to lift it above his head.

As he wedged the clay he explained the process, and how it interleaves the irregular soft and firmer parts so quickly and thoroughly. The original mass, after the first cut and drop, becomes two layers, and the number of layers continues to double with each cut of the wire, to four, eight and so on.  Ten cuts produces over 1,000 layers in the clay; 20 over a million. During each sequence the clay is rocked back down to its original thickness, compressing the interspersed layers so that they are completely amalgamated.  The clay’s consistency can be fine-tuned this way, by adding a piece of firmer clay if it seems too slack, or smearing on some throwing slops if it feels too stiff.  The differences are quickly worked in, and over time the conscious judgment of whether the clay is ready becomes an instinct. The pocks and ripples disappear and the smooth, cellulite-free surface seems almost elastic.

Paul also described how individual clay particles are flat, and that the plasticity of clay is credited to the ability of these platelets to slide over each other’s surface film of water.  The compression of wedging forces the particles into parallel layers, like coins finding their most efficient arrangement, improving their readiness to move. Wedged clay has a grain, a definite advantage for slab building, adding strength in the flat plane. Accurate wedging also ensures that the clay surfaces are always convex, so that the impact of the top half thrown down onto the bottom half can’t trap, and instead expels air.

For throwing small pots I weigh the wedged clay and then knead each piece in my hands quickly to establish a concentric pattern to the particles, so the clay has a head start on the wheel, the platelets ready to slide over each other as they move around and upward. For bigger pieces I spiral knead on the batt, another distinct and efficient way of mixing clay that is less uneven in texture, and of stiffening overly soft clay.

Throwing is a practice that demands more of clay than any other, apart perhaps from pulling handles. Good preparation not only makes the job easier, it sometimes makes it possible. Throwing with poorly prepped raw material is a miserable experience, especially when learning. While a pugmill will mix anything thrown into it, it does nothing for plasticity, or for the sense of understanding intimately the nature of the clay to be had through handling it directly.

These preparatory processes and the time and skill they take is invisible in the final pots, but have contributed enormously to my own pleasure in making. They are time-honoured methods still unbettered by any machine for priming my raw material, and me, for the task in hand.

IN SEARCH OF COLOUR

In today’s post, Alison Ellen talks about where she finds inspiration for her subtle colour combinations, drawing on her visual environment to create the palettes which make her garments so distinctive.

I’m always looking around me at colours in landscape and garden for ideas; for combinations and textures that can be translated into knitted garments. Dyeing my own yarn is like painting, as I can mix and achieve the colours I want, building up a range of closely related variations, for example a palette of greens as represented by all the different shades of green in plants from grey-green through bright fresh grass to softer olive greens.

I’m also looking at local building materials as a source of colour ideas, with my eyes opened by family members involved in geology, building conservation and vernacular architecture.

In the area of Bury Court and Farnham, the local bricks are a soft warm orangey terracotta, often mixed with Chalk stone (clunch) in chalky whites and greys; a lovely combination. I used to work with printed textiles and natural dyes, and am aware that iron can make beautiful dyes on cloth, or in clay and brick, amazing stains in rust or dark metallic blacks.

rustdyes

With all this in mind, I’m patterning yarn by dyeing in a range of clay, chalk and mud colours with strong rusts, and tie-dyed flecks and patches, with colours bleeding into each other. These will be lovely to knit into textured patterns.

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Orange & Grey , detail

Please follow us on Twitter @craftpraktis and call back if you’d like to see how we progress towards our exhibition, and share with your friends.

 

Towards an Idea

In this first of a series of posts, Julie Ayton relates her own introduction to making,  a step that led eventually to her career as a potter. 

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This year’s ‘praktis/ exhibition at Bury Court near Farnham in Surrey presents a group of makers who have spent years developing their creative voices to produce distinctive work that is both highly skilled and deeply personal.

Behind every artist and maker, whatever their discipline, is a story of discovery.  Like many others, my own interest in clay was born when, as a child, I was bundled along to an art activity session for children on Saturday mornings. My first creation was a wonderful galloping horse, its main and tail flying, sinewy legs outstretched. I was in another world.

I don’t know what happened to it, but that really doesn’t matter. The making of it was the thing.

With the clarity of hindsight, I can see that the reality was a rather stodgy sausage-like creature, with an unruly clutch of straw stuck up its bottom. But what also remains true is that the act of creating something takes us, in our heads, to a different place. My mother, like every parent, saw the first part of the reality, and understood the second.

We humans have evolved to create things with our hands, and our brains are hardwired to spark and respond to that instinct – to be curious about what materials can do, to experiment, to interpret the world, to express ourselves. And, over time, to learn to use our hands as readily as our imaginations.

Those of us who have made a life of making things are following that impulse to create with our hands the vision in our heads, and to do it better and better. It is challenging, sometimes frustrating, but deeply satisfying when things go well. As a maker, to see someone ‘get’ your work is a wonderful confirmation of a shared recognition, of having hit the right note.

The getting of knowledge is a lifelong process. And gradually, as we exhibit more widely and connect with those who appreciate what we do, our enquiry and thinking becomes still more sharply focused. Feedback from our audiences informs our ideas, sometimes confirming our impulses, sometimes challenging them.

So we never stop learning, and as makers we never stop responding to the fascination of what can be done with materials and processes, whether to meet a practical need – a favoured cup to drink from – or to create a work that defies practical purpose but simply delights us with its human ingenuity, mastery of process, and its beauty – and often both.

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The exhibitors showing at ‘praktis/  at Bury Court Barn this October are makers who have established themselves through years of refining their practice, and are still looking for ways to move forward creatively. At this year’s exhibition, in a wonderfully sympathetic setting, we will be showing fresh and inspirational work across disciplines prompted by a strong sense of enquiry, with illustrated talks and demonstrations and an invitation to talk to pre-eminent makers about their craft.

Between now and October, through this blog, you are invited to share some of their insights, find out what inspires them and see examples of polished skills, the trial and error that leads to successes and occasional failures, and above all the thinking that goes into the work of 21st century makers.

Please follow us on Twitter @craftpraktis and call back if you’d like to see how we progress towards our exhibition, and share with your friends.