A Tale of Two Nicaraguan Piggy Banks

kiln of piggy banks

Clay piggy banks are a tradition in Nicaragua and it is not unusual to see an entire kiln load of them. I was told that Nica children receive clay piggy banks (without holes in the bottom) on their birthdays and at the end of the year they break them, spend the money, and are given a new one. Sounds like a potter’s dream, doesn’t it?

two piggy banks

I bought my first Nicaraguan piggy bank (the one of the left above) from a woman named Maria who lives on the side of a hill, on the way to the pottery at Loma Ponda (a regular stop for the annual Potters for Peace brigade). Maria has three jobs: farming, making clay piggy banks (the only clay work she does), and praying for the dead. About five years ago we visited Maria in the tiny house that her father built and that she shares with her sister, Marta. Maria had just unloaded the barrel kiln that Potters for Peace had recently built for her and there were about a dozen piggy banks set out on a table. Each of Maria’s rough and ready pigs had their own charm and I chose this one because of the enigmatic expression on its face. Before she got a barrel kiln, Maria had fired her banks, one at a time, in the wood-burning cook stove in her kitchen but now that she had a kiln, she could fire several banks at a time and do it outside which is much healthier. This spring I got an update on Maria and Marta from Robert Pillers, the Nicaragua Director for Potters for Peace:

“Maria and Marta’s house fell in and a government program built them a new one. When we went there late last year I noticed that they were back to firing their pottery in the kitchen stove. In the past I had noticed an asthma inhaler hanging from a string from the ceiling so I said to myself, this can’t continue. So on the January brigade we built them a new barrel kiln, and when we went back in February, they had fired it and said they were happy with it.”

I bought the larger piggy bank (on the right above) from Ducuale Grande, a communal workshop where a group of women work together on throwing, handbuilding, burnishing and decorating, so that no one pot is made by a single person. For decoration they  use a slip-resist technique that I described in a previous post. On my last visit there, a voluptuous, polka-dotted piggy bank kept watching me as I walked around the little showroom. The look on its face reminded me of my sister’s Labradoodle dog, Cedar, but I still tried hard not to buy it because it seemed too large and fragile to make it home in one piece. In the end I succumbed and that piggy bank travelled from Nicaragua to Toronto (Ontario), then on to Moncton (New Brunswick) and finally to Vancouver (BC) without even getting scratched.

Now the two piggies, one humble and unassuming and one more sophisticated but still a bit needy, sit together on the windowsill in my kitchen and watch me live life as I know it. I look at them often but I still can’t figure out what they’re thinking.

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Down the rabbit hole

A few months ago, I went down the internet rabbit hole while I was searching for information on wood firing and I found these unrelated but cool videos:

Dance on the Circle
In this video, Russian artist Mikhail Sadovnikov works with a thin layer of wet clay on a rotating pottery wheel. He uses different sponges and turns the table at different speeds to create different designs. As he works, a camera records him from above to show his dramatic and beautiful transformations. It’s pretty hypnotic so it’s a great way to chill out after a hard day.

Pendulum Glazing
I had never heard of pendulum glazing until  I happened upon this video. It’s a great example of how potters think up weird and wonderful ways to make things happen. I wish we could see the finished bowls.

Special Bowl for Lox and Bagels
This video is my favourite because it’s just plain wacky, plus it has the element of surprise. It’s well worth the 4-second wait before you can skip the annoying ad that precedes it.

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Elizabeth Harris Nichols: from anteater to salmon eater

sculpture in progressbear eating salmon sculpture

The sculpture on the left is the first thing I saw at the studio yesterday and I kidded Elizabeth, its maker, about sculpting anteaters now (anteaters are funny, right?). Over the course of the afternoon, Elizabeth turned the anteater into a bear eating a salmon and, at the same time, she threw a series of water jugs. Between jugs, or whenever she needed a break, Elizabeth spent a few minutes working on the sculpture and then she went back to her water jugs. No big deal. Elizabeth makes lots of bears (you can see more of them here) in different poses but this is the first one I’ve seen interacting with another creature. She told me that while she was working on the anteater-like version, she turned to talk to someone for a few minutes and the sculpture flopped over and partially collapsed and when it was pushed back into place it had acquired the movement that brought it alive. Elizabeth’s loose and fearless way of working is an inspiration to myself and others in the studio and her influence was probably one reason that I was able to wing it during the demo that I talk about in my previous blog post.

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The Way to Wacky Bottles

handbuilt bottle

5 inches high

This bottle design came into being while I was giving a handbuilding demo in my Wednesday afternoon class. I had visualized a bottle made of two shallow, textured, circular bowl shapes put together to form the body of the bottle, but I neglected to visualize how the bottle stand up. When I rested it on the table the bottom half sagged out and the two sections came apart at the top. I pressed the two sections back together at the shoulders and pushed the side of a pencil into the joins to further secure them, after which I added two little feet to keep the form upright. Now I was flying by the seat of my pants so I quickly added a crudely-formed neck that tore as I was handling it and by then I was laughing out loud, as were several class members.  I went around all the joins again to make sure they were tight and then I blew some air into the neck to re-inflate the sagging shape and voila, I had created a new bottle design.

two wacky bottles

8 and 10 inches high

This afternoon, in my own studio, I was determined to use up clay that I was liking less and less so I threw some cilanders and bottle shapes that I will use as experiments in an upcoming raku firing and I altered two of the cilanders along the same lines as my little bottle. The cilanders were wider at the top than at the bottom and when they were a very soft leatherhard I supported the walls on the inside while I rolled texture onto the outsides. Then I pinched the shoulders together, added the necks, and pushed in a few buttons. I added feet to give them a bit of a lift and the final touches were a few more texture lines and a coil around the neck. Because of my throw-away, experimental  attitude , I was able to stay loose and avoid trying to control my final outcome, an outcome that pleased me very much.

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Sandi Piernatozzi wants us to try something different

what if dvd coverIn the DVD set What If? Explorations with Texture and Soft Slabs, Sandi Piernatozzi’s demonstrates how working with soft slabs can open up infinite possibilities in both shape and texture. As beginners we were taught to make a cylinder by forming  a slab around a vertical form (and don’t forget to cover the form with paper first!) and then somehow smooth the wall join and add a bottom. But what if you don’t use a form at all, you just join the wall, add a bottom slab, and make the open top round by gently pushing a funnel into it? It’s easier to join the wall when there’s no bottom in the cylinder and you’re then free to break away from round and try any shape that takes your fancy. Then you could try stretching out the wall of the cylinder from the inside to form a belly and perhaps you could cut a couple of gussets in the sides to bring the shape back in.

And what if, before you shape the slab, you apply some lovely texture from netting, stamps or a car floor mat? Would you worry about the texture being marred when you shape the form? Don’t be—that texture is tougher than you think and variations in it will make a more interesting surface.

Along with sound technical information about how to texture, join, gusset and shape soft slabs, Piernatozzi encourages us to ask the question “what if?” (What if I turn this shape upside down? What if I add a shape on top of this shape? What if I put a lid on it?) and it is this repeated invitation to experimentation that makes these DVDs much more than just technical demonstrations. They can be a starting point from which you make your own forays into (or back into) the wonderful world of creating with slabs.

You can watch excerpts from this DVD series here.

Ceramic Arts Daily Video Library
The American Ceramic Society
3 hours  / 2 DVD set / $69.95

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Screen Printing on Clay

Screen Printing on Clay coverIn Screen Printing on Clay, Paul Andrew Wandless starts at the beginning by showing us, step-by-step, how to make a small silkscreen out of a picture frame. He then goes on to show how to using drawing fluid and screen block (similar to wax resist technique) to apply images to the screen. He also creates images using stencil material and using a product called PhotoEZ to transfer photographs to the screen.

The presentation is a little dry but that’s partly because screen printing on clay seems to be 90% preparation and 10% screen printing, so having detailed demos will help those who are keen to try out these techniques. For the most part Wandless’s instructions are clear and easy to follow, although he does bring into play something called a “halftone screen,” the origin of which he does not divulge, but according to Google you can buy this stuff at an art supply outlet.

The interest level picks up once Wandless uses his screens (plus a squeegee, a stiff rib and a sponge) to apply thickened underglazes to clay slabs and thickened glazes to bisqueware, and when he layers two or three images we begin to see, at last, the possibilities that these techniques could offer. It would have been nice if some of Wandless’s original ceramic work could have been shown at the end of the presentation (as has been done on other Ceramic Arts Daily DVDs) to further inspire us, but these can be seen at www.studio3artcompany.com. An excerpt from this DVD is available at ceramicartsdaily.org/bookstore/screen-printing-on-clay.

Ceramic Arts Daily Video Library
DVD / 1 hr 37 min / $49.95 US

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Mitch Lyons on Cylinders and Coloured Clay

Mitch Lyons coverMitch Lyons’ DVD, Handbuilding with Mitch Lyons, can be enjoyed on many levels, from his “broomstick” technique for making weird and wonderful cylinders and his use of textures and coloured slips and clays for decoration, to his efficient methods and workspace and even the way that the video was produced.

To make his cylinders, Lyons starts by pushing a ¼-inch dowel into a thick, even coil and then he enlarges the opening in the coil by rolling the dowel and the coil on the table. He then inserts larger and larger dowels and cardboard tubes into the coil and continues rolling so that the opening enlarges and the walls of the cylinder thin out, and Lyons adds texture and/or coloured clay or slip along the way.

Lyons introduces us to his unique work by using the shape of a small pumpkin to explain his fascination with the interface between shape, line and texture as a form grows and throughout the DVD, this interface can be seen in the relaxed but concentrated way he follows the form and texture of a piece, rather than forcing the piece to follow a pre-conceived plan.

His commentary, which was added after the video was filmed, adds to this spirit of exploration as it describes what is happening in a manner reminiscent (in a good way) of the play-by-play of a golf tournament:  no extra words or music, just one voice describing what’s going on.

In the first part of the DVD, Lyons makes cylinder after cylinder, each one with a different texture or shape, using a minimum of fuss and a maximum of creativity. In the second part of the DVD he makes coloured clays for inlays, coloured clay pastels, and coloured slips that are first applied to newsprint and then transferred to his cylinders.

Lyons works with his tools close at hand—a roll of newsprint hanging from the ceiling, a fettling knife in his back pocket, a small pasta roller (for making ultra-thin coloured slaps for decoration) on the end of his table, an ancient ping pong paddle (for gently securing and shaping the floors of the cylinders) close at hand, and a 5-inch roller hanging from a hook on his belt—and this organization gives the viewer further insight into the mind of this experienced potter.

This DVD is a pleasure to watch and is filled with ideas and techniques that could send the viewer off in creative directions all their own. Excerpts are available at ceramicartsdaily.org but it’s worth it to buy the whole thing.

Published by mitchlyons.com, 2006
DVD / 1 hour / $39.95 US

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Wheel Throwing with Nan Rothwell, worth the price?

Wheel Throwing coverWheel Throwing with Nan Rothwell consists of a series of project-based instructional sessions that starts with cylinders and bowls and moves on to more specialized work such as a berry bowl, a sushi set, a two-piece pitcher, an oval utensil holder and a lamp base. Rothwell also shows some creative ways to use a wiggle wire.

She is an experienced teacher and her instructions and demonstrations are easy to follow and very specific—so much so that it feels like you would want to have the DVD running while you sit at your wheel and attempt to follow along, although this might not be practical (think of what those wet clay fingerprints would do to the remote).  In one section Nan uses a power drill to make holes in a leather hard berry bowl, a technique that may seem like overkill.

I loaned the DVDs to one of my beginner throwing students and she felt that the absolute basics of throwing, which is what she needs, were passed over too quickly; for an experienced thrower like myself, the focus was too narrow to provide me with more than the odd tip.

That leaves intermediate throwers, who will certainly learn to make the projects that are demonstrated, but it will cost them a hefty $69.95—money that might be better spent paying for hands-0n instruction from a teacher like Nan. You can watch excerpts from this DVD series at ceramicartsdaily.org.

Ceramic Arts Daily Video Library
Published by The American Ceramic Society
2 hours 32 minutes
2 DVD set / $69.95

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Studio Ceramics, Advanced Techniques

Studio Ceramics coverThis volume from the Ceramic Arts Handbook Series (edited by Anderson Turner) feels like a collection of everything that couldn’t be included in any of the other handbooks, and thus the articles are not united by any one theme. However, intermediate potters should be able to find, among the 29 articles inside Studio Ceramics, at least a few that could be used as jumping-off points for their own work.

The most useful topics include making teapot handles out of wisteria wood, making stamps from plaster or from polymer clay, making agateware, decorating with marbled slip, and using image transfer for surface design. Also included is an article on throwing to-scale miniature pots or one on throwing a 26-inch high bottle in three pieces.

Seven of the articles cover more one-of-a-kind art pieces that are beautiful, interesting, and/or downright wacky, and in these cases the instructions for how to create these pieces sometimes take away from the impact of the pieces themselves. Rather than being a must-have resource, this book might be handy to keep around the studio or classroom to flip through when one is in search of inspiration.

Published by The American Ceramics Society
ISBN 978-1-57498-308-1
136 pages / $29.95 US

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Templates, textures, teacups

template, bowls and teacupsStill working with very thin slabs, this time making bowls and teacups. I started by cutting out a template from newspaper and once I had a working template, I cut a more permanent one out of cardboard (in this case, bright blue).  To make a low bowl like the one on the right, I started with a full circle with a hole cut out of the middle. Then I cut a section of the circle away to make a bowl and the leftover piece was a perfect size for a teacup. You can see the large piece for the bowl, already cut in the clay, and the blue cardboard template for the teacup on the right.

To start with, both the bowls and teacups have straight sides but after I have attached the sidewall slab to the bottom slab, I curve the wall by pushing the wall out with my thumb from the inside. Then I add handles to the teacups and, because the walls of the cups are so thin, I add a couple of  “buttons” just below the handle to protect the drinker’s knuckle from the heat. The buttons are cute, too.

The fishnet texture was added before I constructed the teacup: I rolled a piece of fishnet into the clay slap. The straight line texture was carved into the walls after the bowl/cup was constructed, but before the handles were added.

I got these ideas from the DVD set  called What If? Explorations with Texture and Soft Slabs by  Sandi Pierantozzi.

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