Just a few of the women potters of Northfield were able to gather at Kip O’Krongly’s studio this past week to watch her demonstrate how she makes her wonderful handbuilt terra cotta plates.
My first caveat in this tutorial is that Kip works with Terra Cotta and additionally, it is a custom recipe of hers. That said, I do believe most any Terra Cotta will work and possibly stoneware. What I’m really not sure about is if you could do this with porcelain! Those higher fired clays tend to get a little slumpy at cone 10. I plan to try this in the spring and will post results (eventually!)
What you will need:
A file folder or other heavyish card stock for templates
Cutting tool like this or a needle tool
Rolling pin and 2 ¼ “ thick sticks or a rolling pin like Kip has with rubber washers that set the depth or maybe a slab roller
And an extruder that looks like a calking gun. I’m sure you could try the whole thing out with just a coil but if you were going into production, you’d probably like to have the extruder.
A beveling tool with a rubber tip
Here we go:
Kip took about a pound of clay and began to roll it out with her special rolling pin- I think she said she got this from a kitchen supply store- it comes with various sized removable rings- what a great clay tool, right? (*If you Google “Fondant rolling pin” you can find them for sale in many places)
She had a tip for rolling it out- just roll up to near the edge – not over the edge and then work that lump outwards until it rolls under and becomes the edge.
Lay your plate template down- she made hers from a file folder and laminated them. Her template for dessert plate fit right inside her dinner plate template!They will eventually wear out.
Cut around the outside edge, lightly trace the inside circle.
Because Kip makes about 10- or 20 of these at a time there are points at which she makes a bunch and lets them sit. This would be one of those points- she would cut out quite a few of these and let them sit until she was ready for the next step… which is
Extruding the foot. This is her extruder and templates.
Kip has used old credit cards or 2 thicknesses of yogurt container tops to make her templates but she finally had these made. This is the one for the foot.
They are beveled to enhance the compression. She has marks on her table for the lengths she needs for the various sized plates she makes. So smart!
If she is doing a lot of these, she will immediately wrap each one in plastic. It’s a lot of surface exposed and it can dry up fast plus it needs to be flexible!
She curves her extrusion a bit while she is scoring the plate bottom along that line she traced earlier all the while, dipping her scoring tool in water. She then scores the extrusion and begins attaching it. When she reaches the end, she does not leave an overlap.
She scores the ends and butts them together, compressing and smoothing with her finger. She presses the foot on very gently with her finger while turning the banding wheel.
Now she will pay attention to finishing the attachment area. First she brushes it with a damp paintbrush and
then uses this tool
to go in on the outside to clean it up and compress it
and on the inside and make a bevel that will aid later in curving the plate.
This is another stopping point. These flat plates will be set on top of plastic and let dry to leather hard. If Kip is making a dinner sized plate, she would have set it on a bat instead of directly onto the banding wheel but the dessert plates are small enough to lift fairly easily.
Once the plate has set up, Kip works again on the banding wheel and in front of a mirror.
The mirror is invaluable in helping her see the rim and plate and keeping it even as she gently curves it,
she goes around the rim pinching and thinning it out toward the rim.
She also pushes down the center gently with a yellow rib. If you want a more dramatic dip and differentiation between rim and plate, you can really go in there and push down.
She cleans up the rim with a sureform type file and angles it slightly in. She also scores it with her pronged scoring tool.
Then it is time to extrude the rim.
She immediately coils this up to make sure it doesn’t crack later. She sets this piece on a smaller banding wheel next to the banding wheel with a plate on it.
The rim of the plate is wet-scored and then the rim is wet scored with a ridged rib all at once.
Kip then attaches the rim.
This time she does leave a slight overlap but she abuts the pieces and then compressing, and working it along, she moves that part of the rim in and attaches it. This is to keep the rim from cracking- it has to do with attatching a slightly wetter piece to the leather hard- at this point the rim will shrink more than the plate body.
She goes around the rim now; first with a damp brush, then a wooden tool and then the beveling tool which she uses to make a line. This makes the application of her latex easier and she fills it in later with slip- the latex keeping the rim clean and bare.
On the underside, the rim must also be smoothed and beveled and then a crack that inevitably forms when the curving is done must be addressed. A wooden tool and then finger do the job. and the beveling tool is used again.
Another natural stopping point, the plates could be wrapped for days until kip is ready to latex them. I will do a second post talking about Kip’s decorating process.
For now, you are left with a super lightweight plate that looks thrown!
I have been a huge fan of the Mata Ortiz pottery ever since I learned of it through a children’s book quite a few years ago. It’s mentioned in my earlier post about Mata Ortiz where I write a bit more about the story of this small town in Mexico; I received some pots for my birthday one year I enthusiastically wrote a post about it.
So, when an opportunity to attend a workshop taught by Eli Navarette was offered at the Northern Clay Center, I was thrilled to attend.
Eli was a really nice guy, open, knowledgeable and helpful. He taught the class in Spanish with a translator. My Spanish was good enough to understand him, ask questions and help translate occasionally.
He started out with a plaster “puki” which is a bowl-like mold that really helps hold the pot’s bottom shape. He made a large, fat “tortilla” out of his own clay, which he brought from the Mata Ortiz area.
While he did that, he passed around the clay which was very different in feeling from the clays I am used to working with here. It was very plastic and yet, somehow drier and also very strong. He said he mixed 3 types of clay together- his own recipe- one for weight, one for strength and one for plasticity. It was a very effective clay for the kind of handbuilding he was doing. He explained how he and other potters get all the clay from that area and how they prepare it. Basically , they dig it up, mix it with water in a 5 gallon bucket and let the heavy particles and stones and other things fall to the bottom. The excess water rises to the top which they pour off and take out the middle part to use.
They also get all their colorants from that area. More on that later.
After he had pinched the fat pancake up into quite a large part of the pot – and it was not thick! -he added a coil.
I was amazed because I though he would have to let that bottom part set up for a quite a while until it could support the weight and the action of adding another coil.
But I was wrong, the clay, under the skilled hands of Eli, had no problem supporting the next coil. After adding that coil he smoothed the inside with a blue rubber rib and scraped the exterior with a piece of hacksaw.
thencut the rim off to be even again for the next coil.
Then another coil
and voila! a really sizeable pot all in a very short time.
While he was working he chatted about how he came to be a potter.
His grandparents were living and working in Mata Ortiz but he was living in Chihuahua (the city) he can remember since he was about 7 years old seeing them working with clay but it wasn’t until a visit there when he was 22 and had already trained as an electrician that he decided he could and wanted to make pottery. It took him about 3 years to learn how to do it and now he lives with his wife (also a potter) and 2 children in Casas Grandes about 15 minutes from Mata Ortiz- if you take the new road. Both his brothers are potters, the youngest having started doing it first. He said there are now 3 generations of potters, 600 in all! They’ve been making the pottery there for 50 years. And there are young kids already learning about and working in pottery -that would be the 4th generation.
Next up was decorating the pots. He told us he sands the bone-dry pots with 3 grades of sandpaper, ending with the finest grade. I asked him about what precautions he takes to avoid breathing in the dust, a health hazard, and he said he works outside and/or wears a mask.
He then takes manganese mixed with clay- so, technically a slip, not an oxide- and applies it to the entire surface using a scrap of velvet. He said if you don’t mix the manganese with clay it doesn’t “stick” to the surface. Then after that had dried- a matter of a minute or so, he applied a solution to help with the burnishing.
His recipe for this burnishing solution was very interesting. He puts 5% finely ground Graphite and 5% baby oil into kerosene (90%) and applies that with his hand over the black manganese slip. There was some discussion about using just baby oil or baby oil and graphite and also soap- both of those work but leave considerably more streaks.
Then he takes an agate, highly polished –sometimes they sand them- but this looked like it was out of a rock tumbler and he said they used that too and begain to burnish.
Immediately the surface was a brilliantly shiny black.He said he puts 3 layers on burnishing each layer and by the 3rd coat is wearing cotton gloves so as not to put any oils from his hands onto the surface. You can see how reflective it is in the photos. You can also see that there are some streaks- that is why he does 3 layers.
Next he revealed (from under a cloth) a piece he was working on. He apologized that the black surface was only 2 coats and began to paint some lines with a brush that looked like just a few hairs but quite long. he painted on very fine lines. Here are his brushes!
He brought small amounts of his colors with him; white, orange and red in addition to the black. These are also slips because they are colored clays.
Despite being so shiny, the surface is still absorbent. After he has put on the lines he goes back in with a much shorter brush and fills in We all gathered around him to watch him paint, it was mesmerizing.
He told us it takes 3 days to make, dry and sand a pot, 3 days of polishing and at least 3 days to decorate the surface. I think the polishing days are not 8 hours of continuous polishing (though I could be wrong) but that each coat is applied, polished and left to dry. He was very clear about the surface decoration, 1 full day to paint on the lines- with just a few breaks for eating, stretching, etc. another day to fill in all the spaces and a 3rd day for corrections- that is where he takes a rounded tipped stick and gently rubs off lines that are mistakes.
So each pot is a considerable investment of time.
Then we made our own brushes! He had just a little hair for us to use but we were very lucky in that one of our participants was willing and generously allowed some of her beautiful straight hair to be snipped off and distributed.
Here is how you can make your own brush (and I’m sorry I didn’t take more photos- I was making brushes!) take a stick, like a small dowel or a fat skewer and sharpen it to a point. Cut a straight groove running out to the point to lay the hair in. The hair –which should be about 2” long at least can be dipped in water as often as you need to make it stick together! Lay it in the groove, overlapping the stick about an inch and wrap sewing thread tightly around it, binding the hair to the stick. Leave out a bit of thread sticking out to tie a knot when you are done. When you get to the tip, do one loop just around the hair to keep it together and then wind back down around the stick, now laying the thread right next to itself, covering the stick end completely. When you get back to where you started and left that thread sticking out, tie a knot. You can use nail polish or epoxy to seal the thread and hold it in place. We used roughly about a yard of thread.
We all made at least one brush and used them on tiles to practice some of the techniques he showed us. I will add a photo of my tile when I get it back.
Lastly we talked about firing and how he fires and how the Mata Ortiz potters used to fire.
In the early days, they would be out in the street and set their pot on an already fired cylinder then cover the pot with something like a large ceramic flower pot or a metal garbage can or something that just fit over the pot to protect it from the fuel. Then they would stack wood all around it, completely surrounding the makeshift saggar and on top of it and light it up. They managed to generate enough heat this way to get the pot hot enough to undergo what is called Crystal Inversion which is when the clay permanently changes and is unaffected by immersion in water any longer. Before crystal inversion, a pot can be recycled and turned back into a lump of clay just by getting it wet.
I confess it was not clear to me whether Eli currently uses gas to fire his pots or an electric kiln. What was abundantly clear was how amazing his clay was in that it could be heated up quite rapidly and cooled incredibly fast. He had a pot (which I now own!) made by his wife (who was ill that day and could not teach with him) that we popped into an already warm kiln. The kiln was taken up to 750 degrees centigrade (that’s Cone 012- 1382 Farenheit), left at that temp for about 15 minutes and then cooled within an hour and a half to where we could handle it!We took it out of the kiln when it was at about 450 and stuck it in front of a fan! The pot was fired in about 3 hours! Nothing exploded or cracked or showed any signs of stress at all! Interestingly, the colors were dull when we pulled out the hot potbut they brightened as the pot cooled.
I think what I love about the Mata Ortiz potters – besides their spectacularly beautiful pottery is that they are working much as their ancestors did. They use simple methods that they discovered themselves. They are always trying new things and sharing knowledge. They work completely locally, using the materials at hand and in doing this, they have dramatically raised the standard of living in their area!