Day 5: Nicaraguan Journal

Spent the day at Ducuale Grande (an hour out­side Esteli), par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Potters for Peace equiv­a­lent of a ceramic paint­ing party where you pay to paint designs on pre­fab­ri­cated ceramic pieces and then take them home. In this case, our fear­less leader had arranged to buy an assort­ment of hand­made pieces from the pot­ters at Ducuale Grande in order that we could learn their unique dec­o­rat­ing technique.

Ducuale Grande is a well-established all-woman stu­dio with rel­a­tively sophis­ti­cated designs and tech­niques, although their leader passed away a cou­ple of years ago so, along with mourn­ing their loss, they are hav­ing to reor­ga­nize their group. They make both thrown and hand­built pots, func­tional and decorative.

All their work is bur­nished and then fired once in a tra­di­tional wood kiln, which leaves the clay dark orange. Then they  paint dec­o­ra­tions on the pots using a slip of liq­uid clay mixed with sieved wood ash and a brush made out of a chicken feather.

The pots are fired again, this time in a smokey atmos­phere so that the clay that has not been cov­ered with slip turns a dark brown, while the clay that has been pro­tected by the slip remains a browny-orange colour. When the pots are cool, the slip is washed off so that the unsmoked dec­o­ra­tion is revealed, and then scraf­fito lines are added.

We spent the day try­ing to mas­ter the art of paint­ing thick slip with a chicken feather and then scratch­ing out­lines around the dec­o­ra­tions using a spoke from a bicy­cle wheel. Meanwhile, the Ducuale pot­ters put up with us get­ting under­foot while they car­ried on bur­nish­ing their own pots, smok­ing our pots, sell­ing pots to a bus­load of grin­gos, and even cook­ing us a deli­cious chicken stew for lunch.

Here are some of the pots we came up with:

Dinner and lodg­ings were at La Granja in Condega (girls in one room, all boys in the other) and most of us shiv­ered all night: Condega is up in the mountains and it was cold.

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Days 3 & 4: Nicaraguan Journal

Started day 3 at Los Hervides de San Jacinto, bub­bling lava pits near the town of San Jacinto, where a small band of chil­dren acted as our “guides” while we wan­dered between steam jets and small pools of lava. After that we had a 20-minute drive to La Sabaneta, where Maritza, one of our brigadis­tas, lives. We stopped briefly at Martiza’s house so she could see her fam­ily but our des­ti­na­tion was the home and stu­dio of Olga Reyes, which is just down the road. Last year, one of Olga’s horses kicked over her kiln and we were going to help her rebuild.

Here’s how to build a tra­di­tional Nicaraguan kiln:

building kiln 1

1) Build a dome-shaped frame out of twigs.

2) While the mor­tar is being mixed, beat a pile of horse manure with a stick until all the big lumps are bro­ken down.

3) Using a shovel, mix a mor­tar out of dry clay and water. Add the beaten-down horse manure to the mor­tar and mix with your hands.
kiln building 2

4) Use bricks from the old kiln to build a wall out­side the twig  frame. Puts lots of sloppy mor­tar between the bricks and smear more mor­tar over the out­side of the bricks. When the wall is about 3/4 of the way up, decide that you had bet­ter build the sub­floor before the kiln is closed in and the inside is too dark to see.

5) Find a strong, agile per­son who is able to fit inside the kiln and still man­han­dle bricks and mor­tar and build the sub­floor, which is sev­eral bricks off the ground (the sub­floor will form the roof of the fire­box). Thank Alvaro for being that person.

6) Decide that even though it was smart to build the sub­floor before the kiln was closed in, it would have been even smarter to build the sub­floor before the twig frame was put up.

kiln building 3

7) When the sub­floor is com­plete, pull the strong, agile per­son out of the kiln and unbend him as best you can. Then con­tinue brick­ing the wall and after a few more courses, use large sec­tions of bro­ken pots to cover the top of the dome. Decide that next time you build a kiln you’ll do it before the roof is built over it so that you can reach the top of the kiln with­out dis­lo­cat­ing your shoul­der or squish­ing your head.

8) Take a group photo out­side the kiln and accept your host’s assur­ances that she will burn out the twig frame once the mor­tar is dry. Try not to think that per­haps, once we drive off, she and her fam­ily and friends will tear down our ver­sion of a kiln and build a proper one.

When we weren’t build­ing the kiln or hang­ing out at Olga’s place, we man­aged to eat Eskimo ice cream sand­wiches from a nearby pot­pour­ria and lunch at Loma Verde, a comi­dor a short drive away (it took for­ever for our food to be cooked but it was worth wait­ing for) and we spent another night at Charlie’s.

We also walked over to see Maritza’s home/studio and yard. Martiza and her fam­ily were relo­cated to La Sabaneta after her home was destroyed by Hurricane Mitch.

On our way out of town we stopped at a stu­dio to con­sult about a mal­func­tion­ing kiln. This stu­dio and kiln had been built on the edge of town by an NGO but up until now it had not been used because most of the pot­ters in the area need to work at or near home to they can watch over their chil­dren and do other domes­tic work. The kiln was seems to have been mod­eled after a brick kiln rather than a pot­tery kiln so fir­ings were uneven.

From there we drove north to Esteli and after much dri­ving around in the dark and ask­ing passersby for direc­tions, plus one phone call back to Managua, we man­aged to find our hotel — “El Despertar” (“wake up” in English) — which we were soon call­ing “El Desperado”: dorm rooms, thin mat­tresses and, between the rooms, walls that didn’t reach the ceil­ing. Toilets and show­ers across the park­ing lot meant that we could look up a the stars on our way to pee dur­ing the night (okay, I was the only one who thought this was neat).

Allison, the youngest brigadista and a self-professed city girl, got me to take a photo of her in her bunk to prove to her par­ents that she had actu­ally slept in such a rus­tic place. In the light of the next morn­ing we admired the mural on the out­side wall.

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Day 2: Nicaraguan Journal

Up early, lug­gage onto the top of the van (thanks to the tall peo­ple), then on to the AquaFiltro Filter Factory, a family-run busi­ness that makes clay fil­ters. The fil­ters are made from clay mixed with saw­dust that is then pressed into a mould that looks like a large flower pot. The fil­ters are dried and then fired in a wood kiln, and dur­ing the fir­ing the saw­dust burns out so the fil­ter is com­posed of tiny cap­il­lar­ies that purify the water as it flows through. After the fil­ters are tested for cor­rect flowage rates, they are painted with col­loidal sil­ver for extra pro­tec­tion against bac­te­ria and microbes. The clay fil­ter is placed inside a plas­tic bucket that is taller than the fil­ter and water is poured in from the top and flows through the fil­ter into the bucket below. The plas­tic bucket has a spigot and a plas­tic lid. These sim­ple, inex­pen­sive fil­ters remove 99.98% of tur­bid­ity, par­a­sites and bac­te­ria and in a coun­try as rich in clay as Nicaragua is, they are a good way to pro­vide safe drink­ing water.

The press used at AquaFiltro is dri­ven by a man­ual car jack that is pumped up to push the bot­tom sec­tion of the press mould (that has been filled with the clay and saw­dust mix­ture) up onto the top sec­tion of the mould, press­ing the clay into place. This is exhaust­ing work (I know because I made a fil­ter last year) but on the day that we were there the work­ers tried out a new press that was designed  for Potters for Peace by a fel­low in the U.S. On the new press, pump­ing a lever up and down brings the top sec­tion of the mould down into the bot­tom sec­tion — work­ing with grav­ity, not against it — which is much eas­ier to do. This was a beta ver­sion of the new press and there was quite a bit of talk­ing and head scratch­ing to fig­ure out how to cen­tre the mould in the press and avoid dam­ag­ing the bot­tom plate. After a cou­ple of hours we left the work­ers to exper­i­ment with the new press and report back to Robert.

Our next stop was the town of La Paz Centro, about an hour north­west of Managua, where we vis­ited Mercedes Vega and the Potters for Peace Training Centre (a sin­gle build­ing that has been built on Mercedes’ prop­erty). When work­shops are not being held, Mercedes uses the Training Centre as her stu­dio. Much of Mercedes’ work cen­ters around geese and chick­ens and she fires her work in a wood-fired kiln that was built by Potters for Peace. Her hus­band, Elano, is a brick­maker and he fires his bricks in a much larger wood-fired kiln.

In the after­noon we vis­ited the fam­ily of Amanda Guzman, a well-established pot­ter who passed away a few years ago. Her sis­ter, Letitias, and her son, Elias, carry on with Amanda’s tra­di­tional designs , which include fig­urines of all sizes as well as plant and water pots. The clay is black when it is wet but dries to a light beige colour and is some­times dec­o­rated with coloured slips. All the work is burnished.

Amanda Guzman’s other son, Ramiro, runs a more com­mer­cial oper­a­tion and hires young men to throw and dec­o­rate large pots for the tourist mar­ket. These pots are carved and painted.

Our final stop of the day was Benito Romero’s home and stu­dio. Benito makes tra­di­tional coma­les which are flat­tish, round-bottomed plates that resem­ble a shal­low wok with­out han­dles. Comales are used for cook­ing tor­tillas. After Benito demon­strated how she works with clay, she showed us how she makes tor­tillas by push­ing a small ball of corn­flour dough out into a flat cir­cle and then cook­ing it in a comal over her clay wood­stove. Each of us had a go and thanks to the guid­ance of Benito’s teenaged daugh­ter, we were mostly suc­cess­ful. Our tor­tillas tasted deli­cious when they were wrapped around a chunk of queso (cheese). I took a small comal back to L.A. and was pleased that it worked just fine on her gas stove element.

Slept that night at the hotel attached to Charlie’s Bar BBQ (Texas style) in Leon, an hour from La Paz Centro. Rumour had it that one could get hot water out of the shower spigot by flip­ping a red switch but even my tall room­mate couldn’t make that hap­pen in our room.

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DAY 1: Nicaraguan Journal

Potters for Peace is an NGO that works with sub­sis­tence pot­ters in Nicaragua and once a year they orga­nize a “brigade” of peo­ple, usu­ally pot­ters, from other coun­tries (mostly North America) who travel through the Nicaraguan coun­try­side to visit small pot­ter­ies there. I have travelled on the brigade twice, and both journeys were unfor­get­table. This journal is from my second trip.

Potters for Peace has two main activ­i­ties: sup­port­ing Nicaraguan pot­ters and facil­i­tat­ing the build­ing of fac­to­ries that make an effec­tive but inex­pen­sive clay water fil­ter.

DAY 1:
Members of the brigade included Robert Pillers, an American liv­ing in Managua and the leader of the expe­di­tion; Alvaro Aburto, Robert’s son-in-law and our leader-in-training; Beatriz Fiallos, our Nicaraguan inter­preter and her hus­band Fred Hamann, an American pot­ter; Ivan Hernandez, our dri­ver; and the brigadis­tas: Allison (California) Chris (Kentucky), Daisy (New Mexico) George (Iowa), other George (Florida), Maritza (La Sabaneta, Nicaragua), Merilee (Maryland), Mike (Oregon), and me (Vancouver, Canada). We got to know each other over a home-cooked break­fast on the patio of Kairos Centre, our hos­tel in Managua and then we piled into the van and drove to the nearby sub­urb of Ticuantepe to have a chat with Judy Butler, an American jour­nal­ist and co-founder of Envio mag­a­zine, who has lived in Nicaragua since 1983. Judy filled us in on Nicaragua’s trou­bled his­tory of nat­ural dis­as­ters (vol­ca­noes, hur­ri­canes and earth­quakes), inva­sions (over 100 by the U.S. alone), wars and rev­o­lu­tions, and talked at length about her feel­ings for this tiny coun­try and the rev­o­lu­tion that seems to have gone wrong.

Next stop, the colo­nial city of Granada (about 45 min­utes away) where we vis­ited Mi Museo, a museum that houses the pri­vate pre-Columbian pot­tery and arti­fact  col­lec­tion of Danish-born Peder Kolind. Fertility icons, jew­el­ery, volup­tuous funeral urns and pots cov­ered with faded paint­ing. Peder Kolind also runs Carita Feliz, a non-profit group that works with under­priv­i­leged chil­dren in Nicaragua.

After a walk around the town square we climbed to the top of La Merced Church where we had a 360-degree view of colour­ful and multi-textured rooftops. Then it was back to the Kairos Centre for more good food, cold show­ers and an early night.

view of granada

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33 ways to play with the surface of clay

book coverSurface Decoration: Finishing Techniques, another in the Ceramic Arts Handbook Series, could be subtitled “thirty-three ways to play with the surface of clay” because it consists of thirty-three essays that describe a wide range of techniques, from simply impressing and incising texure into leatherhard clay using just about anything you can think of, to more complex techniques like  transferring images to clay using photosensitive plates or even transferring images to paper from a large slab of clay. A couple of the essays describe techniques that are so specialized that I can’t see them working for more than a few people, but the rest could be applied to many different styles of work. The essays are well-written and well-illustrated and I could see how much fun it would be to use it in a class setting where different students would get excited by different techniques, although this would also be a good reference book for beginner potters who don’t have their own techniques worked out yet or for intermediate potters who are looking for a jumping-off place.

Surface Decoration: Finishing Techniques
Ceramic Arts Handbook Series
Edited by Anderson Turner
Published by The American Ceramic Society

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Hot & Smokey

book coverRaku, Pit & Barrel: Firing Techniques is a collection of twenty-eight articles from Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Today that will both inform and inspire anyone who is interested in alternative firing methods. Most of the articles cover raku, from its earliest use in the West to modern innovations such as using underglazes and stains and even high fire glazes under raku glazes, spraying compressed air on hot pots to increase crackle,and quirky firing practices such as using a cardboard box instead of a metal barrel for reduction in what the author describes as “a pyromaniac’s dream.” Other articles cover saggar firing, pit firing and barrel firing, plus information on different forming methods. Many of the articles on raku start by describing the history of the process and this gets repetitive if you gobble up the book in a few sittings like I did, but the book contains such a wealth of other information, from step-by-step directions, complete with photos, to more philosophical discussions about ceramic practice, that you’ll want to have it near at hand to refer to whenever you’re planning to submit your pots to a hot and smokey firing. The Ceramic Arts Handbook Series also includes Electric Firing: Creative Techniques, Glazes & Glazing: Finishing Techniques, Throwing & Handbuilding: Forming Techniques, Surface Decoration: Finishing Techniques and Extruder, Mold & Tile: Forming Techniques.

Raku, Pit & Barrel: Firing Techniques
Ceramic Arts Handbook Series
Edited by Anderson Turner
Published by The American Ceramics Society
ISBN 978-157498288-6

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Found pot

pot found on the beach

Yesterday a fellow potter Elizabeth Harris Nichols found this small bowl (shown here beside a wine bottle cork) on the beach at Cates Park and brought it into our communal studio. The bowl was cold and damp and, when Elizabeth found it, was full of worms and beach debris. The red-brown clay it was made from is rough and groggy and the bowl looks like it was wheel-thrown, although there’s a fragment of shell embedded in the outside edge. The surface is free of fingerprints but evidence of the maker’s touch is there in brushstrokes of reddish-brown slip both inside and out and the circle of white slip or glaze that was painted on the inside.

It’s difficult to put into words the feeling I got when I held the bowl and turned it over and back, looking at and feeling the shape and the surface, and speculating as to how and where it was made. I could see and feel the movement of the maker’s hand as he or she brushed on the slip, and it felt as if the maker was somehow communicating with me through this humble vessel.

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Clary Illian embraces change

The focus of the DVD Clary Illian: A Year in the Life (Atom Burke Productions) are the changes that Illian went through when she fell and broke her wrist. While her bones mended, Illian took a hiatus from pottery production (for the first time in the over 40 years that have passed since she apprenticed with Bernard Leach) and spent time reflecting on where she’s been and where she’s going. In interview excerpts Illian reveals that her large gas kilns kept her on a rigourous two-month production cycle and that sometimes she felt like she was pushing an enormous pile of pots up a hill to the top. Illian could see a day coming when she would no longer be able to keep up this schedule so after her wrist healed she switched to electric firing and what looks like earthenware clay (the video mentions “lower temperature” but does not specify how much lower). Illian’s work has always been unrestrained but with the bright glaze colours available at the lower temperature, she has let whimsy take hold and now decorates her work with loosely painted flowers, cats, birds, faces or just squiggly lines. Also included on the DVD is the video A Life In Clay in which Illian talks about her time at summer camp (“they made us all good girls”), her art school beginnings and her new, more-calculated way of looking at production. There’s also a slide show of both her gas- and electric-fired work, and a couple of short interviews with other potters who admire her work. The DVD seems to be directed at a general audience and the potter in me wanted more details about Illian’s process (and a faster slide show) but this small glimpse of Illian’s life and work was both interesting and inspiring.

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Gordon Hutchens on DVD

hutchens dvdBeginning Raku with Gordon Hutchens is a well-produced instructional video that takes us through each step in the raku process (including building a raku kiln) in just 60 minutes, without appearing to hurry. First Hutchens makes three pots, two slab-built and one thrown, then he discusses the bisque firing, then he glazes and decorates the pots and then he takes us outside where he shows us how to make a raku kiln out of a 45-gallon metal drum, and then, after a brief discussion about safety (no synthetic clothes and make sure you don’t catch your beard on fire), he fires his pots. This DVD is labelled “for beginners” and beginners will certainly find everything here that they need (including inspiration), to start raku firing, but I’ve participated in many raku firings and I still found it both instructional and enjoyable—it’s always fun to watch a great artist work and Hutchens, even when making three simple pots, encourages a looseness and openness that we should all aspire to. The DVD also contains a printable file of the recipes for four raku glazes and the plans for the kiln that he builds. What a deal!

Gordon Hutchens is a well-established and much-admired Canadian potter who lives and works on Denman Island where he has built an anagama kiln.

You can order the DVD from, an outfit on Gabriola Island, along with it’s sequel, Variations on Raku.

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Nooks and crannies can be evil

my burnished jugI tried out a couple of these little jugs with the idea that this might be a design that some of my potter friends in Nicaragua could use. The potters there have few tools and they wood-fire at a low temperature because they cannot afford to use a lot of wood or any electricity. Burnishing is the finish of choice, so designs have to take that into consideration. For instance, I usually pull a strap handle directly from the pot but the shape of a strap handle and the flat join where the tail end of the handle gets stuck to the pot would be very difficult to burnish. As it was, the tiny depression in the middle of the handle  of this jug and even the relatively smooth handle joins still took a long time to burnish. When you are a subsistence potter, you don’t want to be wasting time burnishing nooks and crannies that should not have been there in the first place.

Likewise the inside: I left tiny throwing lines on the inside which were almost impossible to burnish out, especially since once you get your hand inside there you can’t see what you’re doing.

On the other hand the one-piece design, where you throw a small vase and then cut away the clay on one side leaving just enough of the neck to form the spout,  means there’s no join that might crack when drying and it’s easy to burnishing the smoothly-flowing spout area.

It’ll be interesting to see if this design makes it to market. Stay tuned.

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