Monthly Archives: November 2012

Christmas in November- burning the beast….

Today I get to open my kiln.  I fired it Monday – an anxious firing – and now the pyrometer reads about 450 F on the top and 650  F on the bottom.  I opened the damper and the top port so it will have a little more air in, but will still cool slowly.  About 3:00 I will knock loose the restraining bars that hold the door in place and crack open the top of the kiln so heat will flow upwards out of the top.  AT 8:00 PM  I will open the door and see what I’ve got.  For potters, opening a kiln like this is better than Christmas.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to keep the stuff  – it’s an exoneration of the whole irrational process and the completion of two months of work.

I don’t make a lot of work compared to some functional potters, and fire my 24 cubic foot kiln only 6 times a year.  There’s a huge amount of work invested in each load – many small pieces – and there are firing variables that  make each load distinctive.  There are pots that have color or flash that I simply can never duplicate.  If I fired the kiln once a week I might be better able to produce specific effect.   I do keep careful records, and try to use them to make adjustments and conserve fuel.

I said it was an anxious firing – that’s because I forgot to order propane and wasn’t sure that I would have enough.  No space here to go into the physics of propane firing, but when vapor is being drawn into the burners too rapidly it can supercool the whole liquid puddle of propane in the tank and cause “freeze up.”  I’ve experienced this once, and it’s terrible.  Your kiln is almost at temperature and it stalls, nothing works….  that time, the tank was covered with more than an inch of dense, hoary frost.  I had to get a delivery the next day, and start over- gas and time squandered……

The first shelf goes in carefully.  The hardbricks beneath must be cleaned and fresh wadding applied so the shelves can be leveled.  Space between the pots lets the flame and vapor bless every pot equally, nothing nastier than a dry side on a good pot.

Even the kiln posts must be wadded to make precise leveling possible. After many recipes for kiln wadding, I have settled on 1 part alumina hydrate and 1 part Helmar kaolin by volume.  I make a batch during each firing so I will have nice, plastic wads to use a few months later.  It gets better to handle each week that it ages.  I have added wheat flour – nice for workability but it must be frozen if there is excess because it spoils.  I have also added sawdust, which has good properties of you are using larger wads.  Because I make really small wads, I prefer to just use the Helmar-Alum.Hydrate wadding.  It takes 2 hours to shape all the wadding for a firing….  many friends have helped with this over the years.  FYI, Helmar kaolin is a high-alumina kaolin mined in Idaho.  Great stuff for salt-firers, I also use it in my flashing slip, Helmar and EPK, equal parts by volume, skim milk thin.  My wads pop off clean with almost no sanding  – one less thing to do before pricing and packing the pots.

Tallest pieces go into the top of the kiln. I have some solid silicon carbide soaps that make a stable base for high shelves. Every load is different – I was a little concerned about having a shelf up this high but this firing would prove to have good top-bottom heat distribution in spite of it.

I have great Buzzer burners and Buzzer nozzles at this point in my salt-firing career.  No safety equipment for us purists – I just live in the kiln shed for 16 hours.  I love the quiet early part of the firing, calm blue flame…..  I am usually cleaning my tools, my studio, having a rare cup of coffee.  Later, when the kiln roars, its’ power can be frightening.  Once, during a terrible storm, I had 24″ flames shooting out of the burner ports during wind gusts.  I blew up the first kiln I ever built – the memory of that explosion lives in every cell of my body.

But how else can make my pots?


Still thinking about stamp-making….

Popular Science magazine, which used to be an airport-only treat for me, now comes to my house every month by post. I love to read about new materials, engineering innovations, and all the other stuff that they cover. For me,  it’s a workable antidote to the The Great Ennui, the creeping doomview that seems to be my brain default all too often these days.

I’ve been especially interested in 3-dimensional printing, even had a little fun with the idea a few years ago when I made the so-called “Little Men” – the 6 tiny sculptures  that I called The Ratmasters.  I took them down to Ceramic Showcase and put a fairly preposterous price on them because I really didn’t want to sell them until I could think about them a bit.  My forays into non-functional work are so infrequent that when I make something that isn’t strictly practical it sort of astonishes me.  Here are the first two that I made, they still live in my studio….

Here’s a teeny story I wrote to propose origins for them – you hardcore sci-fi fans out there may like this….

What is known about the six small objects, SUO 315 01-06, now known as the Ratmaster Commemoratives?   Although much uncertainty remains about their origin, it can be confirmed that they were created from data recorded within an object found in an agglomeration of orbital debris near the center of Space Unit 315/396W.  Sent for routine recycling, the object now known as the Unit 315 Cone did not correspond to the spectroscopic profile of any terraginous material, and was sent to the International Laboratory for analysis.

The Cone is a deep blue conic form 10.73 centimeters wide at the base, tapering to a point.  It is 22.58 centimeters long, and weighs 188 kilograms.  It has several unique properties.  Not only is it uniquely heavy, it is geotropic and will rebalance itself in a vertical position on its base when not restrained in a horizontal position. 

Sector 315 Cone was registered as a Special Security Property, and was extensively studied.  Attempts to remove samples from the object by cutting or drilling were eventually abandoned, and all available scanning modalities failed to reveal any internal structure.  A translucent box was built for the Cone, and it was placed on display in the foyer of the International Laboratory Visitor Center.

Four years after the Cone was placed on display, an unknown event triggered the release of a data stream from the object.  A security guard on routine night patrol observed a luminous beam emanating from the Cone.  The beam described a circular pattern around the Cone; moving in a slow, sweeping motion.  Scientific staff was summoned, and the Cone was returned to a secure area so that the beam could be studied. 

The beam emission was found to consist of pulses of light, which were converted to a binary graphic stream.  Data release from the Cone continued for fourteen months, at which time it stopped.  At that point, a pronounced change in color of the Cone’s surface was noted.

The data was sent to a secured location, and an extensive server farm was constructed and dedicated to deciphering the data stream.

 An international team of decryption experts monitored reports from the computers.

Once the downloading of the Cone data was complete, linguistic analysis and decryption of the contents began.  It became apparent that two semantic systems were present in textual portions of the information.   Much of the data was in the form of numeric tables, which were in due course recognized to be climatological and hydrologic reports.  There were also records of equipment acquisition and maintenance, purchase orders, salary payments, and other transactions.   In each instance, there were paired reports, in each of the unfolding languages, describing the same occurrence.

It began to be clear that the information contained in the Cone was a periodic dispatch from the colony of a still-unknown nation or planetary state, identified only as Origin, and was concerned with the most details of elemental every-day governance.  The colony was referred to as Srad 3/50 in the correspondence.  

On e of the languages began to emerge as that of a diplomatic class, and was called Cone SS-A.  The other was determined to be a language different from Cone SS-A, and was recognized to be unlike any ever studied.   It was called Cone SS-B.  Cone SS-A was found to have properties common to many extant world languages, but was closest in structure to an archaic form of Arabic.

Data from which the Ratmaster commemoratives were derived was one of the last information units to be deciphered.  The code was acknowledged to be unique machine language, and was ultimately determined to be of two types – textual and algorithymic. 

Many tests were run on the algorithmic data, and at last a pattern appeared. A researcher with avocational CGI experience recognized the code as instructions for three dimensional printing, a modeling modality developed in the first decade of the century.  Further decryption confirmed this analysis, although the process for printing and the material specifications from the Cone itself are still under study.

Developers of the original three dimensional printing process were brought into the research project, and work began at once to learn if the code could be used to create image-objects with existing three dimensional printers. Other scientists continued the study of textual materials.

It became apparent that there were six blocks of information of each type, as well as one that was thematically related to the six smaller blocks, yet more extensive.   The text blocks were language Cone SS-B.

The large textual block was deciphered first.  It consists of prologue, argument, and conclusion.  The prologue is an address to a yet-undetermined governing body, with a recapitulation of a temporal period of events.  It is formal, yet obsequious.   The argument states that the Council of Citizens is making a request on the behalf of six Agency Administrators, asking that they be allowed to remain on Srad 3/50, rather than returning to Origin for decommissioning. 

The text notes that retirement documents for six Administrators had been received, and that commemorative portraiture busts were commissioned, but that the Srad 3/50 Citizens Committee had granted these individuals special service recognition by designating them as Citizens on their commemoratives.  According to the text, upon learning of this honor, the six Administrators – the term Ratmasters first appears here – requested that the Srad 3/50 citizens committee advocate for their retirement on the planet.  Data for creating the image-objects was embedded in the text this point, and was adapted by a team of analysts and these commemoratives were created.

Anyway….    it’s possible to have objects formed by 3-printing without purchasing a 3-printer.  Joe, my technology mentor, suggests that I learn to use the software, and send my designs off for fabrication for a while.  He gave me the name of an online company to contact.  Makes the head spin a bit to think about 3-drawings to send it to them.  I think much finer stamps might be possible this way than by whittling on green clay.  I am keen to get some of the actual “plastiscus” and see how it stands up to groggy clay.

In high school, a llfetime ago, I learned to make working sheet metal drawings – INK! – in mechanical drawing 2.  Gotta get the head back there. If you are interested in this stuff, here’s a link to a recent Popular Science article about 3-d printing.

How to get from what you see to what you make….

In October, I went to Manhattan to help my friend Pam at the New York Bead Show.  Pam has a great online bead business,, and does shows around the US.  We had a fine time together, and of course I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  There were many wonderful exhibitions there, but the show of Turkmen silver jewelry was the best part for me.  I purchased the exhibition book, Turkmen Jewelry by Layla S. Diba – the photo above is from the book.  If you paste the link above in your browser you can see more glorious objects from the exhibition.

I hadn’t been looking at these incredible pieces for long before I started thinking about how I might be able to adapt some of the motifs to my stamps and texture mats.  Needless to say, I also wanted to see the rich reds of the carnelians on the pots too – more of that later.

It generally takes about three incarnations of a single stamp before I get one that is really strong.  Consequently, there are boxes of the dang things around the studio…  I just roll out a 1.25″ thick slab of low fire clay, cure it until it can be cut into fairly regular shapes, and then cure further until I can just carve into it.  After a bisque firing, they are ready to use. My favorite  use for the stamps is as “tiles” repeated in a grid pattern to create a ground that  can then be extended and individualized with decorative borders…  usually made from other stamps and rollers that I have thrown at the wheel, carved, and bisqued.

The beautiful central motif of the opening photo is described as a “cordiform” motif.  Most of the cordiform ornaments are described as “dorsal” – women actually wore them on their backs, perhaps  to counteract the weight of the mass of silver jewelry that was worn on the front of the body.  I have not yet experimented with cordiform designs, but that’s next. Here are some early tesselations built up by combining my original stamps.  I’ll be refining the stamps, and creating some texture mats from the patterns I that I like best.

Oval stamped forms with a diamond border.

Oval forms over Greek key image.

Four-part square with Gothic dot border.

This one is a bit funky, and wasn’t neatly stamped. This image will have several iterations in the next generation of stamps.

Is making stamps more fun that making pottery with them?  Probably…  Today I need to get into the studio, make a fire and warm it up, and start applying slips to pots that will be fired next week.  It’s probably my least favorite part of my process but it has to be done so I can open that kiln and have those pots.

I’ll be thinking all the while about my next bunch of stamps, and maybe I’ll spend just a little time rolling out some low fire slab – just in case I get a really good idea for a new stamp.

Veterans’ Day

Driving home from Portland this evening, I was listening to OPB.  There were two excellent radio essays about Veteran’s Day.  One described a new literary magazine for writing by veterans and their families; it’s to be called O’Dark Thirty.  That’s a phrase I learned from my pal Tom who was career Air Force pilot.  The speaker; founder of the magazine, spoke about how writing about a traumatic experience could help a person “control the memories.”

The other radio essay was a piece about hearing stories of veterans, and about the power of the experience of military service.  At the end, the speaker suggested that the best way to honor our veterans is to ask them to tell their stories.

When I was growing up in the 50’s in a small eastern Oregon town, memories of World War 2 were fresh for many.  There were still polarities in Milton-Freewater between the men who had served and those who had not, and there were stories of deprivation and loss in every family.  My father and my uncle George both belonged to the VFW – Veterans of Foreign Wars, which seemed to me to be mostly a place to dine with neighbors on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Georgie went to meetings, my Dad did not.

I don’t remember Georgie talking about his experience in the army.  He would say, “I was in Patton’s Army”,  as if that was enough..  Many years later I learned about what it meant for soldiers to have fought in North Africa and up through Italy in that famous campaign.

My father served in the army, but in Iran.  He was a welder, and worked on the railroad that was under construction through Iran to supply the Russians from the south.  He had a small box of mementos, one of which was the insignia from his uniform, which showed a Arab cutlass over an shield – the Persian Gulf Command, 4711 Railroad Battalion.  The town, Awaz,  where he served is now in Iraq – part of a territorial transfer after their war in the 80’s – near Basra.

There were many stories from my dad about his service…  he told me “I was a big man…  they would kill a goat when I came into a village.” I know that he would bring a portable welding kit, and spend hours making useful household items from gas cans or other salvage,  and drinking glasses from bottles for people in the villages.  “You just tie a wire around a bottle, and tap it with your torch, then smooth the edges down nice….”

Whenever a television show came about World War 2, my dad would get up, and walk over to the TV, and turn it off.  He would look and my brother and me and say “It’s the only damned war they’ve got and they will keep fighting it until the can find a way to make another one.”

Here’s a picture of Georgie, taken about the time the war began.  He was a cowboy in Montana when the war started, and met my dad’s youngest sister Mae at a dance at the veteran’s hospital in Walla Walla sometime near the end of  the war.  When I could,  I never thought to ask him how he got from Italy to a hospital in Walla Walla…..

White pottery….

It’s Sunday…   last evening was my birthday dinner.  What a nice little party, great Indian food,  waiters to fetch and then tidy up after,  Many thanks to all my friends who came, and even to those who wouldn’t come because they couldn’t see the dang Ducks-Cal game.  You know who you are! There were lovely and thoughtful presents…  what a great bunch of friends I have, not to mention my sweet daughters.

Today I have to carve the last pots for my next firing, which hopefully will be Sunday the 18th of November.  I need pots!  While I work, I’m thinking of my show I’ll be having at Valley Art in the spring, ‘White on White.”  I will be making pure white porcelain work in the salt kiln, glazed within but without colorants on the outside.  I have a few pieces of this stuff around from other loads, and I like it a lot. It has occurred to me that part of the reason I want to make it is just because people say, “I love your work but it doesn’t match anything I have.”  Aw, so sorry….  how long did your Mother dress you?  I cannot accommodate those people! Most of them can’t bear to have anything in their home that isn’t part of a “Set”, one of my four-letter words, along with “Wedding”.

I really like white ceramic objects.  About the only white ceramic object I own is a teapot that is the last surviving piece of a dinnerware service I received as a child bride back in 1967, when I still knew everything.  It probably survived because it was seldom used – it was called “American Ironstone” and my first pottery mentor, Renee Goldin, was horrified by it.  She was a Cranbrook ceramic grad student that I  met while working at Crate and Barrel in Chicago, when there was still just one store over on Wells Street.  She taught me about mingei,  and I watched her throw pots in the basement of her parents’ suburban home.  She didn’t have a kiln, just a wheel, but it didn’t matter to her.  Her parents owned a pair of big dobermans who occupied the basement, and it would be just the four of us down there.

I never looked at pottery in the same way after getting to know Renee, and there would be no pots for me now without her and those afternoons in the basement.  I have just one her pots, a small brown salt-fired ricebowl.

I wrote a little squib for the show at Valley Art, kind of a “why I am doing this” kinda piece, which is more pertinent.  I mentioned that many potters love their pieces best when they are green – just before they go into the kiln.  There is a beauty about them that is somehow altered when they are fired. My own crazy slip decorating and salt firing sends unfinished pottery into one of the outer circles of hell,  where it goes through insane heat and caustic vapor assault.  Not all of it comes back in a state that allows it to perform domestic duty, but most of it does.  And once in a while there is a piece that is so exceptionally beautiful that it melts my heart and makes the whole grimy, arduous process worthwhile.

Those pieces are hoarded and put out for adoption carefully.  I don’t have to keep them, but I do save them up for preferred customers, family, dear friends.  I am hoping to get some great stuff from the white show process.  Here’s the image I sent them for the show notice.  It’s a silly pot, the kind a potter has to use for jury slides….  and this one won’t end up white, it will be coloured like my regular inventory and given an auspicious spot in the coming firing. It probably will never be quite as appealing to me as it is in this photo.

How many landscapes?

I was all ready to paint on Thursday night.  I had my neat little box of new green pastels, and four nice photographs from the farm that I could use as a starting point for my next pastel painting.Image


I thought this one was really serene, nice color contrasts.  How could I  depict the texture of the lovely roadway paved with leaves?  Maybe I should expand the tiny glimpse of the field beyond?


But there were others…..  Lot of Marla’s pastel paintings have beautifully depicted water bodies – reflective and exquisitely colored.  This image of Dairy Creek, on my farm, was alluring too.Image

But as it turned out, I wouldn’t get to paint either one…..  I started to experience terrible vertigo and nausea, about the time Marla was starting her underpainting demonstration.  Bah!  Hours later, I learned that I had some sort of middle ear virus and was treated  for it.  Thanks to my kids for coming out to the farm and driving me to the ER in Hillsboro, not exactly how you want to get together….  

But…… No sniveling on the blog!  I feel fine today, just a little bit fuzzy from the meds, most likely. I’m ready for a small birthday feast with my family at our favorite Indian joint, and maybe a real party at my house between Christmas and New Years.  I built a fire in the studio wood stove first thing this morning, and it’s probably starting to get warm in there. There are some last pots to trim before my firing next weekend, and one last special order chip and dip set to throw.  Sigh!  

I have found myself wondering how many more landscape paintings the world needs.  When I make pottery, I never have such thoughts.  I always figure that if people don’t think what I make is beautiful, they may at least love to use it and find it to be correctly balanced, formed, and imagined for its’ purpose.

Landscape subject matter is accessible, simple.  Marla says we must paint only what captivates us.  Here’s the most captivating painting – more likely a print – that I have seen in the last decade. 


Yes, Picasso, born like me on November 10.  There are heaps and piles of his work that I can’t stand, but there is so much of it that I love better than anything else.  I believe that the images that will captivate me the most as my skills improve will include the human face and form, and always have the possibility for me of telling a story that a landscape cannot.  And they will probably be imaginary……

Where is that beautiful city in the header?

In 2002, I travelled to Greece with my friend Barbara.  While we were there, we spent a week on Crete.  Chania, in the header photo, is a small town with an incredible harbor on the northern coast of Crete.  There are many structures there dating from Venetian times, and the small mosque in the right of the photo dates from days of Ottoman Empire dominance.