Rattling on

Inner Spirit Rattle by Jim Davis.

Last spring I bought this pillow-shaped rattle from a great little gallery shop, Artisans Custom Framing and Fine Art Gallery, which is in the tiny California town of Hanford. The rattle was made by John Davis who has a studio in the remote town of Alpine, Texas. Davis’s rattles are small enough to hold in one hand and have what sounds like tiny clay balls rattling around inside. Davis makes both oxidation-fired versions and raku-fired versions, square or heart-shaped, and he calls them “inner spirit rattles.” Each rattle is wrapped with a piece of raffia and a few beads and the label encourages you to “rattle your worries away.” I liked the textures and the suggestion of a postage stamp on the one I bought.

My first attempt.

At first I thought this might be a good project for my intermediate pottery students but making a rattle is more difficult than it looks. For my first attempt I cut little square slabs and joined them together (with clay balls inside them) but the resulting “pillows” did not have the inflated quality that Davis’s do. I tried blowing into them but the fact that all four edges were joined kept the whole pillow very flat. Then I tried extruding a cylinder and sealing the ends but my extruder would not make a cylinder that was thin enough to make a lightweight pillow like Davis’s.

I ended up making cylinders out of very thin porcelain slabs, and then closing the ends off while keeping the center area inflated and I’m pretty happy with the result. Before I make the cylinder I add textures and buttons and I press my initials into them with tiny letter stamps.My favourite rattles are the ones that barely hold together and have weird and wonderful shapes. Once they’re bisqued, I colour them with oxides and stains and then fire them without glazing.

My final versions.

My friends' rattle.

A few weeks ago when I gave one of these rattles to some friends of mine, they showed me a Jim Davis rattle that they had recently bought from West Coast Seeds in Ladner, BC, Canada (which is not a gallery or gift shop—they actually sell seeds and gardening supplies). My friends’ rattle is raku-fired and has an imprint of a big fly on it. Jim Davis has not only come up with an inviting design but he is obviously a great marketer too, since he has succeeded in spreading his work from Texas to California and on to Ladner, in Canada. On his website he encourages people to “Share your story of how your rattle has helped ease your mind,” thus creating a community of people who help spread the word about his work. Jim and his wife (who is also his business partner) have established a successful business by creating beautiful things.

This entry was posted in Encounters, Technique and tagged , Post a comment


  1. Wendy Poole
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Your rattles are magical Patty!

  2. Jane
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Love this Patty. Could have used a rattle or two on race days! Rattle on…….

  3. Posted January 31, 2013 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    I love the pillow effect. it contradicts the association of clay being a hard precious substance while introducing the idea of play. (rhyme not intended) Misss you P.O.

  4. Posted August 6, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I love these, there is something quite dark about them, which sort of contrasts with the pillow effect”!

  5. Deb Green
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Hi Patty! To keep them ‘inflated’, I put wads of newspaper inside the wet clay along with little balls of clay and cat litter and then seal the edges. After firing, the newspaper is ash and does not affect the quality of the rattle – hope it helps!

  6. Kathy Pugh
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    I have my students make these after we make pinch pots, for yet more practice. They make two small half sphere pinch pots, wrap each ball of clay with just enough paper towel to cover it before placing inside, score and slip the two halves together, join seams, roll ball around in hands like a snowball, there is enough air inside to keep them from collapsing (which I find fascinating). Use a needle tool to poke a hole into the air pocket when leather hard.

  7. pattyo
    Posted February 4, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this idea, Kathy. I’m going to try it with my students.

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