My process begins with throwing a piece on the wheel at my studio in Atlanta, using porcelain clay. After trimming, I texture and alter each piece with lush patterns and designs, using my signature decorating technique of pushing the surface of the clay. I use a process of striking and pushing the soft leather hard clay with personally designed wooden tools. To more uniquely enhance the patterns on my work, I finish the pieces with a “vapor-glazing” process - soda firing. Soda firing has exciting and unexpected results. It enables me to put one final unique touch on the textures of my pieces. Each firing has allowed me to gather a little more information and experience about clay, about glazes, about kilns and firing in general, about soda as a firing method, and mostly, about myself and finding beauty in the unexpected.
Tools and Texture
My process is fairly unique in that I do not add, remove or carve the clay to create the marks. The tools “push” the clay to the side, actually moving a portion of the clay to get the various recesses and buildup on the surface. Holding my left hand inside the piece to support the clay, I hold my tool with the right hand at an angle to the exterior surface of the clay and push the tool, gently moving a portion of the clay to the side. I make most of my own tools, which are about ¼” thick and varying length and width. The right angle edge of the tool cuts and moves the clay.
Working within a grid drawn on the pot with watercolors, I allow the tools to create the pattern. I work from the base up for structural reasons to avoid cracking the rim while manipulating the piece. The patterns are carried from the base up into the body to add movement to the designs on the form. Throughout the process I sponge the texture marks to get a very lush surface, another benefit of using porcelain (a cone 6 Laguna Clay called WC616).
Through the years I have developed a repertoire of patterns that become unique versions on each piece. Bony, Floral, Dragon Flower, Pompom Tree, Angel Wing, Classic Peacock, Classic Nouveau.
Glazing and firing my work provides me an opportunity to bring my textures to life. After years of electric firing, I began experimenting with the “vapor-glazing” soda firing process at Callanwolde. In 2016 I realized a dream to build a soda kiln so that I could gain ownership of my entire process. The sodium vapors glaze the exterior of each vessel, interacting and highlighting the form and surface in exciting and unexpected ways. With each opening of the kiln, there is always a surprise. Each piece has accepted the soda in a different way than perhaps I anticipated.
The soda glaze occurs when a solution of soda ash (sodium carbonate) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) dissolved in hot water is sprayed into the kiln when the kiln reaches temperature (about 2200°F, cone 6-7). The sodium vapor combines with silica in the clay to form a uniquely glazed surface on the exterior of each vessel, creating variations in color on the surface of the pot called flashing. A glaze is used on the interior of the pot for functionality. The cross-draft kiln design adds another dimension to the soda process. The flow of the soda, which follows the flame, will create “juicy” or shiny surfaces where the soda contacts the pot. An equally beautiful but quieter “dry” effect can occur on the same pot on a different face. This variety in the surface is another unique aspect to highlight the textured surface.
Frances the Soda Kiln
My soda kiln is a 21 cubic foot cross-draft kiln, built by potter and kiln designer, William Baker. It is tall enough for me to load comfortably and holds approximately 120 – 150 pots. After making, bisquing and glazing the pots in my studio in Atlanta, I carefully transport the pieces about 6 times a year to the kiln, located about 90 miles north of Atlanta near Blue Ridge where we have some property. I am thankful to have this magical tool available to create my work. I lovingly refer to the kiln as “Frances” in memory of my mother, who taught me so much about discovering my creativity. #francesthesodakiln
Several health challenges in my relatively short clay career have made me aware that as potters there are many activities that can be hazardous to our health...a reminder to keep our workspace clean and bodies strong. Sinus issues sidelined me early in my clay career. Although a congenital condition, there is no doubt that my job was a contributor to recurring and constant sinus infections. After a successful sinus surgery in 2012, my whole studio process related to cleanliness changed. In 2014 I began, and ignored, the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. The repetitive motion of my process and many of my studio activities was threatening my ability to make. Successful CTS surgery on my right wrist got me back into the studio. But that experience coupled with my aging female body created a new awareness of the need to incorporate a healthier diet, exercise routine and studio practice. During that healing process, there were lots of tears, angry pots, and discovery about my limits. More than one health care professional suggested I simply stop being a potter.
Learning quickly to be my own advocate, I sorted through the information, recommendations, and admonitions to come up with a recipe of health and success as a full time studio potter. This included some initial physical and occupational therapy, then strength training and yoga. Daily meditation has also helped in processing all these challenges. Identifying improvements and accommodations to my process was essential in allowing me to continue my work. One such accommodation was an adaptor to my tools (a tennis ball on the end of a paint scraper), which keeps my hand in a better position while texturing. Constantly remaining vigilant about my studio health, posture, core strength, stretching will allow me to meet my goal to become not just an old lady potter, but a very, very old lady potter.